The switch to coal changed everything in Britain

From The Wall Street Journal:

The grimy furnaces and coal-stained cheeks of Dickensian Britain seem like an indelible birthright, but it wasn’t always so. As Ruth Goodman writes in “The Domestic Revolution,” Britons had for ages burned wood as well as peat and other plant fuels to heat their homes and cook their food. Then, in the late 16th century, London switched to coal.

This revolutionary change was carried out by ordinary families, the “ ‘hidden people’ of history,” as Ms. Goodman calls them. They switched to coal for the most prosaic of reasons—personal comfort, convenience, a small savings.

Yet the “big switch” set in motion a series of large transformations. Thousands of Britons found new work as miners and as merchant seafarers. The island’s fabled heathland, site of all those chest-throbbing novels, faded and disappeared as woodland, no longer needed for fuel, was given over to agriculture. To vacate sulfurous coal fumes, chimneys sprouted all over London, prompting homeowners to build more spacious layouts and second and third stories.

Since coal fires required a different sort of cookware, investment poured into brass and iron, hastening the development of pig iron—hastening, that is, the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Wall tapestries came down (in a coal-fired home, they quickly stained) and were replaced by smoother, washable surfaces and paint. There was a bull market in soap.

Not least, British cooking, which Ms. Goodman stoutly defends, was forced to adapt. Stirring a pot precariously dangled over a row of coals was difficult. Thick, starchy fare gave way to boiled puddings and kidney pies, which the author forgivingly describes as “democratic.” Thanks to the pleasing effects of roasting on an open grate, Ms. Goodman maintains, coal even led to the “modern British love affair” with toast. The new energy source touched every corner of life.

. . . .

Whatever the causes, the changeover to coal happened quickly. When Elizabeth ascended the throne, in 1558, London homes burned wood. A generation later, the increasingly crowded city was importing 27,000 metric tons of coal per year. By roughly the time of Elizabeth’s death, in 1603, imports had soared to 144,000 tons.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)