The Coal Question

William Stanley Jevons
Jevons, William Stanley
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First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
2nd edition.
15 of 22

Chapter XI


OUR rapid but one-sided progress may be shown not only in its effects upon the numbers of the population, but also in the kind and extent of our industry.


In the second half of last century our population, previously stationary, began to grow at a growing rate. When we consider that at this period the engine was coming into use, that Arkwright's cotton machinery was invented, that the smelting of iron with coal was immensely increasing the abundance of the valuable metal, we cannot hesitate to connect these events as cause and effect. It was a period of commercial revolution. It was then we began that development of our inventions and our coal resources which is still going on. It was from 1770 to 1780, as Briavoinne thinks, that the commercial revolution took a determined character.*62


The history of British industry and trade may be divided into two periods, the first reaching backward from about the middle of last century to the earliest times, and the latter reaching forward to the present and the future. These two periods are contrary in character. In the earlier period Britain was a rude, half-cultivated country, abounding in corn, and wool, and meat, and timber, and exporting the rough but valuable materials of manufacture. Our people, though with no small share of poetic and philosophic genius, were unskilful and unhandy; better in the arts of war than those of peace; on the whole learners, rather than teachers.


But as the second period grew upon us many things changed. Instead of learners we became teachers; instead of exporters of raw materials we became importers; instead of importers of manufactured articles we became exporters. What we had exported we began by degrees to import; and what we had imported we began to export.


It is interesting to observe the reversal which then occurred in several of our ancient trades. Wool had been for a long time esteemed the staple produce of the country. We raised the raw material in plenty, but were so unskilful in its manufacture, that all the Acts of Parliament that could be devised, all the arts and watchfulness of the revenue officer, could not prevent it being "run" for the manufacturers of France and Holland. No efforts of the legislature could enable us to compete with foreigners, and mistaken restrictions only contributed to keep the whole country stationary. But when once our manufacturing ingenuity took its natural rise, no more was heard of the "running of wool," and we have since become by far the first and largest woollen manufacturers, consuming not only our own raw wool, but as much as we can buy in Australia, Germany, Spain, and America.


Again, we had during the early part of the last century imported quantities of fine cotton goods from India, and great was the indignation of Gee and other commercial writers at this "finger labour" being allowed to interfere with our home industry. No exclusion of such Indian cottons could have promoted the invention of cotton-spinning machinery, which is rather due to the general advance of our skill in mechanical construction. But it is curious to reflect upon the different state of things now, and the enormous quantities of cotton we not only draw from India, but return in a manufactured state.


Corn had been next to wool the most esteemed produce of the kingdom. When our population was not one-third of its present amount we were able to raise enough for our own use, with a margin over in plentiful years. This margin the Dutch and French merchants readily purchased from us and stored up, often selling it back to us again in periods of dearth. But as corn is not a material of manufacture, its export was regarded very favourably as bringing treasure into the country, and the whole kingdom looked upon the system of bounties and protective duties, established in 1670, as a piece of skilful political economy. But no sooner had our population about 1761 or 1771 begun to increase than our imports of wheat exceeded our exports, and the inward movement of corn was accelerated by the reduction of the protective duties to a nominal amount. Our dependence on foreign corn, however, increased so rapidly, and was so odious to the general feelings of the country, that a restrictive Act was readily passed in 1791. This was the first of the series of Corn Laws which twenty years ago led to so severe a struggle. The effect of restriction is seen in the stationary amount of imports between 1791 and 1830, the increased demands of the population being met by the enclosure of land, and the improvement of tillage. But the necessary result of pushing a very limited country like England to its greatest capabilities is a comparative rise of the price of food, compared with other articles, and compared with the food of other countries. Thus naturally arose the great Corn Law Question. These facts are apparent in the following table of the average exports and imports of wheat and wheat-meal, during periods of ten years, in the last and present centuries.

 Average Annual
Exports of Wheat.
Average Annual
Imports of Wheat
1701-10... 107,116 217
1711-20... 112,020 4
1721-30... 115,779 11,513
1731-40... 290,512 1,307
1741-50... 378,452 110
1751-60... 272,883 16,229
1761-70... 203,365 96,728
1771-80... 101,739 130,423
1781-90... 110,197 174,728
1791-1800... 82,178 568,896
1801-10... 37,738 596,087
1811-20... 40,087 540,111
1821-30... 79,510 560,314
1831-40... 157,852 1,077,370
1841-50... 71,989*63 2,892,094
1851-60... - 5,031,266
1861... - 8,670,797


The exports, it is seen, attained their highest amount about the middle of last century, but were never large. Our imports are now increasing beyond all bounds, and even prices below 40s. per quarter do not stop the influx. With the above we may contrast the average annual quantities of wheat sold in the several market towns of England and Wales, in the undermentioned periods:—

 Quarters of Wheat
1815-20... 1,119,959
1821-30... 2,271,858
1831-40... 3,675,134
1841-50... 4,012,652
1842-51... 5,114,176
1852-61... 4,849,130

The returns for the last two periods are given separately because they refer to a larger number of market towns than the previous returns. As the quantities sold do not include by any means the whole of what is grown or used, we cannot draw any accurate conclusions as to the amount of our subsistence; but it clearly appears that our production of wheat has passed its highest point and is declining.


Such an extraordinary change in the source of subsistence of the country cannot but be accompanied by many secondary changes. Human requirements are various, and arranged in a scale of subordination. A plentiful supply of corn, creating population, creates also a demand for animal food, for dairy produce, for vegetables and fruit, the home production of which is naturally protected by the cost of carriage. Few or no farmers or landowners, then, who would promptly submit to the necessary changes of culture, could suffer any loss from the influx of foreign corn. This view was urged, in 1845, previous to the repeal of the Corn Laws, in Mr. T. C. Banfield's very excellent Lectures on the Organization of Labour: "The farmer and the landlord," he said,*64 "are the parties most interested in the rejection of our present Corn Laws, which make wheat a profitable crop at the expense of every other. They ought to be clamorous for their repeal; for no one can deny that cheapness of corn will increase the demand for every other article of agricultural produce." Similar views had been previously stated in a pamphlet by my father on the subject of the Corn Laws.*65 And no anticipations could have been more thoroughly fulfilled.


In spite of the vast importations, and the very low price to which corn has fallen both in 1850-1 and 1862-5, we have few complaints of the farmers' or the landlords' ruin. Agriculturists are either prosperous, or patient to an extent not to be looked for in human nature. But the fact is, that the substitution of new crops and kinds of culture has been going on very extensively, rendering the price of corn no longer the measure of the farmer's profit. An excellent example of the changes which are more or less going on throughout the rural parts of Great Britain, is furnished by certain statistics of the parish of Bellingham, in Northumberland, communicated by the Rev. W. H. Charlton to the British Association, at Newcastle, in 1863. Comparing the condition of the parish in 1838 and in 1863, it is shown that the acres of land under the plough had been nearly halved, being reduced

from 1,582 acres to 800 acres.

The area of wheat, indeed, had been reduced to one-fifth,

from 200 acres to 40 acres;

while that of oats was less decreased,

from 400 acres to 300 acres.

The number of grazing-cattle had, on the other hand, been multiplied thirteenfold,

from 50 head to 660 head;

and the sheep had increased very greatly,

from 5,102 head to 9,910 head.

The milch cows, however, had decreased

from 460 cows to 220 cows;

and the quantity of cheese produced,

from 1,120 cheeses to 60 cheeses.

The horses employed in farm-work had decreased nearly to one-half,

from 119 horses to 66 horses;

but the increase in horses otherwise employed nearly made up the difference, being

from 17 horses to 56 horses.

Of course such changes must be expected to continue with the growth of our population and consumption, until only the richest of our valley lands bear wheat, while the rest of the kingdom is given up to grazing, or to sheep-walks, dairy-farms, and market-gardens. Under our present system of free-trade, the farmer will find his best advantage, not in clinging to old traditions and customs, but in trying to apprehend the tendencies of the time, and select those new kinds of culture which will give the best money return.


One extraordinary result of the current changes in our old industry was disclosed by the census of 1861. It is a positive decrease of our agricultural population.*66

1851. 1861.
2,011,447. 1,924,110.

The decrease is chiefly in the number of indoor farm-servants, which was 287,272 in 1851, and only 204,962 in 1861. On the other hand, agricultural implement proprietors increased fully fourfold in numbers, from 55 in 1851 to 236 in 1861; while agricultural engine and machine workers were for the first time stated in the census of 1861 as 1,205 in number. The decrease of agricultural population is partly due to the less labour required in grazing than in tillage. But the employment of horse, water, or steam power in many field operations, as well as in thrashing, chopping, churning, &c. has greatly contributed to the same result. The economy of labour in agriculture affords in this country little or no compensation to the labourer in the extension of employment, because the area of land is limited and already fully occupied. Labour saved is rendered superfluous. It is this that keeps agricultural wages so low; and as steam-power is more and more used upon a farm, the number of labourers will continue to decrease. The only relief for the consequent poverty of the labourer, beyond a poor-house allowance, is migration into a manufacturing town or a prosperous colony. In either case the emigrant contributes directly or indirectly to develop our new system of industry, and to render more complete the overbalancing of our ancient agricultural system. Such facts, having been disclosed by the census, are patent to all; but we cannot too often have brought to our notice the profound changes they indicate in our social and industrial condition.


When we turn from agriculture to our mechanical and newer arts, the contrast is indeed strong, both as regards the numbers employed and the amounts of their products. But the subject is a trite one; every newspaper, book, and parliamentary return is full of it: factories and works, crowded docks and laden waggons are the material proofs of our progress.


I shall, therefore, give my attention to the rate of our progress, and show that our trade and manufactures are being developed without apparent bounds in a geometric, not an arithmetic series-by multiplication, not by mere addition-and by multiplication always in a high and often a continuously rising ratio.


Next after coal, the production of which we shall consider in the next chapter, iron is the material basis of our power. It is the bone and sinews of our labouring system. Political writers have correctly treated the invention of the coal blast-furnace as that which has most contributed to our material wealth. Without it the engine, the spinning-jenny, the power-loom, the gas and water-pipe, the iron vessel, the bridge, the railway-in fact, each one of our most important works-would be impracticable from the want and cost of material. The production of iron, the material of all our machinery, is the best measure of our wealth and power; and the following statement shows that, from the time when the charcoal bloomary and forge gave place to the coke blast-furnace, the production of iron in England has advanced at a rate alike extraordinary in rapidity and constancy:—

 Pig iron produced.
Average increase
in ten years.
Average annual
rate of increase
per cent.
Rate as for ten
1740 17,350      
1788 68,300 10,620 3 33
1796 125,079 70,980 8 113
1806 258,206 133,130 7 107
1825 581,000 169,890 4 54
1839 1,248,781 477,000 6 73
1847 1,999,608 938,530 6 80
1854 3,069,838*67 1,528,900 6 85
1864 4,767,951*67 1,698,113 5 55


It is evident that an arithmetical law of increase is totally inapplicable to the above numbers, since the yearly addition increases continuously from little more than 1,000 tons to 170,000 tons, the recent yearly addition. The ratio of increase, on the contrary, has only varied from 3 to 8 per cent. per annum. In the last period, indeed, 1854-64, we observe a fall in the rate, probably temporary, and due to the partial loss of the American trade, in consequence of the enactment of the Morrill tariff.


The same temporary check to the iron trade is more apparent in the following account:—

Year.Tons of pig iron
Increase.Rate per cent of
increase as for
ten years.
1801 1,583    
1812 4,066 2,483 136
1821 4,484 418 12
1831 12,444 7,960 177
1841 85,866 73,422 590
1851 201,264 115,398 134
1861 387,546 186,282 93


Our export iron trade commenced but little previous to the beginning of this century, so that a generation hardly yet passed away saw its rise. Within a period of sixty years the trade, as regards crude iron only, has been multiplied 245-fold. It is in vain to prophesy how much it may yet in future years be further multiplied. Prodigious resources are now being applied to the extension of the iron manufacture, and the present activity of the trade leads us to suppose that any recent dulness will be amply compensated. A single company, that of the Ebbw Vale Iron Works, managed by Mr. Abraham Darby, a descendant of the founder of our iron manufacture, holds 16,306 acres of land, employs more than 15,000 labourers, representing a population of 50,000 persons, produces 130,000 tons of pig iron annually, with a capability of producing 180,000 tons, or ten times as much as the whole produce of the country 120 years ago. But we must almost tremble when we hear that this single company raises 850,000 tons of coal annually, and with a comparatively small outlay are prepared to increase the yield to a million and a half of tons! Expanding as it does, the iron manufacture must soon burn out the vitals of the country, and it is possible that there are those now living who will see the end of the export of crude iron; so rapid is the development of the trade that its rise and decline may perhaps be compassed by two lifetimes.


The consumption of timber, as Mr. Porter remarked,*68 exhibits forcibly the comparative progress of industry. The following table exhibits the quantities of timber, "eight inches square and upwards," of colonial and foreign growth, consumed in the United Kingdom in the years 1801 to 1841, and the total cubic contents of all timber imported in the years 1843, 1851, and 1861:—

Year.Quantity of Timber.
Rate of increase per
cent. in ten years.
1801... 161,869  
1811... 279,048 72
1821... 416,765 49
1821... 546,078 31
1831... 745,158 36

Year.Total Imports.
Rate of Increase per cent.
as for ten years.
1843... 1,317,645  
1851... 2,111,777 80
1861... 3,061,138 45


The extraordinary increase between 1843 and 1851 is due to the partial repeal of the timber duties in 1847 and 1848. The more recent rate of forty-five per cent. is but little below the average rate (fifty per cent.) obtaining since the beginning of the century.


The amount of cotton consumed is a measure of one of the largest branches of our manufacturing system. Excluding from view the recent extraordinary disturbance in that trade, the following numbers exhibit its rate of progress:—

Year.Quantity of Cotton
Increase in ten
Rate of increase
per cent. as for
ten years.
1785 17,992,882    
1790 31,447,605 26,909,446 206
1801 54,203,433 20,687,116 64
1811 90,309,668 36,106,235 67
1821 137,401,549 47,091,881 52
1831 273,249,653 135,848,104 99
1841 437,093,631 163,843,978 60
1851 757,379,749 320,276,118 73
1860 1,390,938,752 633,559,003 96


No single branch of production can give an adequate measure of the general growth, because our manufactures not only expand in the case of each article, but also branch out into new kinds of work ever becoming more diverse and elaborate. Let us consider the attempts that have been made to estimate the general aggregate of our exchanges.


For a century and a half the amounts of our imports and exports were expressed according to a tariff of invariable prices fixed in 1694. The official values thus obtained have no claim whatever to be considered the real values of the commodities imported or exported, and only furnish a convenient criterion of the increase and decrease of the aggregate quantity of goods. The official account of the value of imports from the beginning of last century, is as follows:*69 [See diagram fronting the title page.—Econlib Ed.]:—

Year.Average official value
of imports.
Increase.Rate of increase
per cent in ten
1701-10 4,267,464    
1711-20 5,318,450 1,050,986 25
1721-30 6,621,725 1,303,275 25
1731-40 6,992,010 370,285 6
1741-50 6,784,409 -207,601*70 -39
1751-60 7,826,441 1,042,032 15
1761-70 10,025,235 2,198,794 28
1771-80 10,684,426 659,191 7
1781-90 13,543,418 2,858,992 27
1791-1800 20,660,760 7,117,342 53
1801-10 28,809,778*71 8,149,018 39
1811-20 30,864,670 2,054,892 7
1821-30 39,661,123 8,796,453 29
1831-40 53,487,465 13,826,342 35
1841-50 79,192,806 25,705,341 48
1851-55 116,931,262 37,738,458 63*72


Low rates of progress varied by retrogression prevailed throughout the greater part of last century. Before its termination occurred a great burst of trade, only brought temporarily to a stand by the great Continental wars. Starting from the Peace we observe a continuous acceleration in the rate of multiplication of our aggregate imports, the most recent rate being the highest known.


The accounts of the official values extend only to the year 1855, the system of official values being then abandoned in favour of real values. These values are computed in the Statistical Department of the Board of Trade from the actual prices of the commodities as given in mercantile price lists, or furnished by the principal mercantile firms. But the increase of our imports from 1854 to 1863, as measured by their real ascertained values, is even more surprising.

Year.Real value of imports.
Rate per cent. of
increase as for
ten years.
1854... 152,389,853    
1863... 248,980,942 96,591,089 73


We have accounts of the declared real value of exports from about the commencement of this century.

Year.Average annual declared
values of
Increase in ten years.Rate of increase
per cent. in ten
1801-10 40,737,970    
1811-20 41,484,461 746,491 2
1821-30 36,600,536 -4,883,925*73 -1212
1831-40 45,144,407 8,543,871 23
1841-50 57,381,293 12,236,886 27
1851-60 106,513,673 49,132,380 86


Since 1860 the amount of our exports has been greatly influenced by the revolution in the Cotton trade, but there has been a great recent expansion as seen below:—

Year.Total Exports.
Millions Sterling.
1860... £135,800,000
1861...   125,100,000
1862...   123,900,000
1863...   146,600,000
1864...   160,400,000
1865...   165,800,000


The stationary or retrograde condition of our exports as expressed by the real value, in the earlier part of this century, has been attributed to the restrictive influence of the Corn Laws. But the official values and other statements of quantities of commodities examined in previous pages negative this notion. It was due rather to the great fall of prices which was proceeding from about the year 1810 until about 1851. Allowing for the change of prices it may be said, I believe, that the progress of our trade was slow during the great wars, rapid and constant from the Peace to the accomplishment of Free Trade, and greatly accelerated since that event.


The rise of our commerce is strikingly seen in the continuous growth of the port of Liverpool, which soon will be the greatest of all emporiums of trade. The dock accounts extend over a century, giving the number and since 1800 the tonnage of vessels charged with dock-dues.

Year.Number of
Tonnage of
Rate of increase
per cent. in
ten years.
1761 1,319    
1771 2,087 ... 58 of ships.
1781 2,512 ... 20 of ships.
1791 4,045 ... 61 of ships.
1801 5,060 459,719 25 of ships.
1811 5,616 611,190     33 of tonnage.
1821 7,810 839,848     37 of tonnage.
1831 12,537 1,592,436     89 of tonnage.
1841 16,108 2,425,461     52 of tonnage.
1851 21,071 3,737,666     54 of tonnage.
1861 21,095 4,977,272     33 of tonnage.


The above numbers are not so regular as those we might get by taking decennial averages, and yet the rate of multiplication of Liverpool as a port has only varied in a century from twenty to eighty-nine per cent.


Accounts of the shipping of the whole kingdom are available from the beginning of the century. From them we get the following extraordinary results:—

Year.Average annual tonnage
of ships entering
and clearing.
Increase.Rate per cent. of
increase in ten
1801-10 3,467,157    
1811-20 4,203,613 736,446 21
1821-30 5,059,522 855,919 20
1831-40 7,175,081 2,115,559 42
1841-50 11,704,796 4,529,715 63
1851-60 20,233,049 8,528,253 73


Multiplication at a growing rate! So far is our shipping industry from increasing in an arithmetical series only, that even a geometrical series does not adequately express its rapid expansion. The very rate of multiplication progresses.


But it is the expansion of our ocean steam marine which most fitly represents our mechanical resources, our commercial requirements, and our maritime supremacy. The following are the amounts of tonnage of steam vessels belonging to the United Kingdom, beginning with the decennial period following the introduction of steamboats in 1814:—

Year.Tonnage.Increase of tonnage.Rate of increase
per cent. in ten
1821 10,534    
1831 37,445 26,911 256
1841 95,687 58,242 156
1851 186,687 91,000 95
1861 506,308 319,621 171


If we pass over the early period when steam-vessels were quite a novelty, we find that their increase, always extraordinary, has been more rapid even proportionally speaking in the last ten years than in twenty previous years. And the extreme success and prosperity of the iron ship-building trade at the present time is the sure indication of the future extension of steam navigation.


When we consider that the system of ocean steam communication is almost wholly in our hands and supported upon our coal, our pride at its possession must be mingled with anxiety at the enormous drain it directly and indirectly creates upon our coal-mines.

Notes for this chapter

M. N. Briavoinne, De l'Industrie en Belgique. Bruxelles, 1839, p. 197.
Average of 1841-9.
Page 53.
The Prosperity of the Landholders not dependent on the Corn Laws. By Thomas Jevons, 1840, pp. 7-11.
See the able investigation by Frederick Purdy, Esq. of the Statistical Department of the Poor Law Board, On the Decrease of the Agricultural Population, 1851-61; British Association, 1863, p. 157. Journal of the Statistical Society, September, 1864, p. 388
Mineral Statistics. The amounts for previous years are estimates collected from several well-known works.
Progress of the Nation, 1847, p. 587.
First Report of the Commissioners of Customs, 1857, p. 108. See the diagram fronting the title-page, in which the divergent character of our progress is shown to the eye by curves representing the numbers of the population, the official value of our imports, and the vend of coal from Newcastle.
M'Culloch's Account of the British Empire; Darton's Tables, p. 30.
Rate as for ten years.

Chapter XII

End of Notes

15 of 22

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