The Coal Question
IT is essential to our inquiry to view the several coal-producing countries comparatively. Thus only can we gain a true notion of our singular position.
The following statement gives the amounts of coal raised about the years 1858-1860, in the chief coal-producing countries:—
Of the chief material agent of modern civilization, three parts out of five, or 60 per cent. are in the use of Great Britain; and nearly three parts out of four, or 75 per cent. are in the use of Anglo-Saxon nations.
The reader must form for himself, if he can, an adequate notion of the stimulus which the possession of such a mighty power gives to our race.
Let us compare the amounts with the comparative stores of coal existing in the several countries which have been explored. The actual quantities of coal, indeed, are almost wholly unknown; we can only compare the supposed areas of the coal-fields. This has been done by Professor Rogers, in the following statements:*29—
Such estimates indeed can pretend to no accuracy, and the area of a coal-field is but slight measure of its value. We can only learn from the statement that our English coal-fields are many times as important as those of any European country, but that the North American coal-fields almost indefinitely surpass ours in extent, and, it may be added, in contents.
Coal may also be said to exist more or less in most other parts of the world—in India, China, Japan, Labuan, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Chili, and Central Africa. Many details concerning the frequent occurrence of coal may be found in R. C. Taylor's "Statistics of Coal,"*30 but they have in reality little bearing upon our inquiry. With the exception of the great North American fields, none are at all capable of competing in quality or extent with our coal-fields. They will prove very useful in furnishing a supply for local industry and steam navigation. Upon and around each coal-field will grow up, we hope, a prosperous community, enjoying those uses of coal which older nations are discovering; but the only way in which those coal-fields could interfere with, and reduce the consumption of our coal would be, either by—
1. Supplying sea-board coal markets which we now supply, or
Now, if the comparatively cumbersome and heavy nature of coal be considered, it will be seen that the cost of conveyance is a main element. A small extent of mountainous country, a considerable distance from a port, or a position far from the general current of trade, removes a coal-field from competition. Thus the French Official Report regards the difficulty and cost of conveyance as the great obstacle in the way of the French coal-mines. Otherwise, without being comparable with English fields, they are rich enough for home consumption.*31 "In France the deposits of combustible mineral are numerous, but there is only a small number which are susceptible, either from their extension or the quality of their products, of development upon a great scale. Most of these basins, too, are situated in mountainous countries, difficult of access, where lines of communication have penetrated but slowly and at great cost. This circumstance explains why at present the price of coal at market exceeds, in a very high proportion, the wholesale price at the pit mouth."
An English report expresses a similar opinion.
"At St. Etienne, the heart of the French mining district, coal can be extracted as low as in Wales, and the expense of it throughout France is imputed to the absence of easy lines of carriage and communication, which enable English coal to be sold on the French coast at a profit."*32
On the other hand, the favourable natural conditions of our mines are thus described by the writers of the French report:*33—
"England is the most favoured country of Europe in the extent and richness of its coal-fields. Its superiority is confirmed by the varied and generally excellent quality of its coal, and by a regularity of the strata very favourable to the working of coal-mines.
"Lastly, as if nature had striven to unite in these coal-fields all the circumstances most conducive to mining and trading in coal, the two richest basins, those of Wales and Newcastle, are intersected by the sea. The coal-owners can load and ship their products in the most economical manner, and thus consign them to any point of the home or continental coasts.
"Over-sea conveyance, too, is the more cheap, because in English commerce the outward voyage may be considered as a voyage in ballast, and the return freight covers the chief part of the expenses.
"A like union of favourable conditions does not present itself at any other point of the globe, and constitutes a natural privilege with which no other country can entertain the notion of contending as regards industry founded upon the working and trading in coal. Any attempt at competition of the kind would necessarily be followed by defeat."
Foreign coal-fields then are almost wholly excluded from competition with ours as regards sea-borne coal, because even if there were any coal-fields comparable with ours, in intrinsic natural advantages, there would still be wanting the extrinsic advantages of the vast trading system and the mercantile marine of England capable of conveying and distributing the coal. In a great many parts of the world, at Sydney, Cape Breton, at Newcastle in Australia, Labuan, Chili, Asturias in Spain, and on the coast of the Black Sea, there are seams of coal almost abutting on the sea, but the set of trade and navigation in the wrong direction enables, or rather obliges, us to carry our coals out to these local Newcastles. And if coal situated actually on the sea-board cannot drive our coal away, the high cost of land conveyance completely removes all inland coal-fields from direct competition with our mines in the general sea-board coal markets of the world.
That French and continental mines generally cannot possibly compete with our coal mines is further shown in the remarks of Mr. R. C. Taylor:*34—
"It is due to the unrivalled accessibility by sea to the best coal basins of England, Scotland, and Wales—where coals of many varieties and admirable qualities can be shipped at the very sites where they are mined—that Great Britain has hitherto been able to furnish such enormous and cheap supplies, not only to the home consumers, but nearly to every maritime country in Europe. In this respect she is far more favourably circumstanced than her rival continental producers, France, Belgium, Prussia, and Austria, whose coal-fields lie remote from the sea-shore.
"From Dunkirk to Bayonne, an extent of 300 leagues of coast, there are but two coal-fields, and those are at some distance from the sea. In regard also to the quality of the coal, France is less fortunate than England; for with the exception of the basins of Anzin, St. Etienne, and a few others, the collieries of the interior yield but an inferior species of fuel. Both these circumstances combine to render France, to a certain extent, dependent upon Great Britain for the better sorts of coal; and hence the French Government annually make large and increasing contracts for the delivery of English coal at their depôts, for the use of their steam marine on service. The incapability of Belgium, with her increasing domestic consumption, and in view of her diminished powers of production, and the remoteness of her coal-fields from the seaports, to supply the steam navy of France with any material portion of its regular fuel, is perfectly well understood....
"The manner in which the coal-tracts of Great Britain are distributed, is fortunately such that every coal-field in England and Wales can meet the next adjoining coal-field nearly on a radius of thirty miles, thus forming such a range of deposits, from Scotland to South Wales and Somersetshire, that the whole interior of the country can be supplied with coals, through the railroad system, from several central points."
So long then as the currents of trade and navigation continue in their present general course, there are no coal-fields capable of competing with and reducing the demand for our coal in regard to the over-sea coal-trade. The only other way in which a foreign coal-field could affect the prosperity of our coal-consuming industry would be by nourishing abroad great systems of manufacturing industry capable of withdrawing from us a part of the custom of the world which we now enjoy as regards coal-made articles almost to the extent of a monopoly.
It there were plenty of good coal in France, such a system of iron and coal industry might rise upon it as at any rate to deprive us of the custom of French consumers. Strange to say, this result has taken place to some extent. The good order and enlightened commercial policy of the Imperial Government has had such an extraordinary effect upon French industry, that the produce of coal from the interior French mines has advanced at the rate of 6.7 per cent. per annum—at nearly double the rate of increase of our consumption of coal. The French iron manufacture has advanced in a manner equally surprising, so that instances are not uncommon now of English orders for iron goods being executed in France! And it is no doubt owing to this advance of French industry in a manner parallel to our own, that the French treaty of commerce has had much less remarkable results than was expected. Even the imports of coal into France have remained stationary, as seen in the following accounts:—
The natural riches and skill of the French are, however, so comparatively higher in many other branches of industry, that it cannot be supposed the competition of their coal industry can proceed far, or prove permanent and formidable.
The extraction of coal in Belgium, again, has been increasing at the rate of 2.7 per cent. per annum, as seen in the following accounts of the extraction:—
But the Belgian coal-proprietors are afraid that the produce of their mines has nearly reached its maximum. The fact is that the Belgian mines have been worked longer than our Newcastle mines, and have reached still greater depths. They are further advanced towards exhaustion than our own; and as their produce is not one-eighth part of our coal-produce, it would be absurd to suppose that they can support any industry capable of seriously competing with ours.
Prussia, by its somewhat inland position, as well as for other reasons, is also incapable of taking any considerable share of the trade of the world, and no other European country has coal mines worth consideration here.
It is only when we turn to North America that we meet a country capable of comparing in coal resources with our own, and the future of England greatly depends therefore upon the future of America. The areas of American and British coal-fields have already been compared, and the current statement is sufficiently true, that the American fields exceed ours as 37 to 1.
Canada, indeed, is devoid of any trace of the coal-measures, and presents a remarkable contrast to the regions by which it is surrounded. The British American Provinces of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia contain the North-easterly extensions of the great American fields. But so far as yet known the coal-measures are here more interesting to the geologist than to the economist. Their area is very considerable, and the seams are numerous, but are spread through masses of strata many thousand feet in thickness. Thus the Cumberland coal-field in Nova Scotia, according to Prof. Rogers, has an area of 6,889 square miles, exceeding the whole area of British coal-fields. But the greater portion consists of the lower and upper carboniferous strata, destitute of valuable coal-seams. The thickness of the whole series of rocks is not less than 14,570 feet.*37 The Sydney coal-field with an area of 250 square miles, and a thickness of about 10,000 feet of strata, is of more present importance, since four seams of workable coal crop out at Sydney Harbour, and are easily available for an export trade so far as shipping can be had.
It is, however, the basin of the Mississippi which contains the main mass of productive coal-measures. There is reason to suppose that the carboniferous formation was originally spread in one continuous sheet over the whole of Central America, from the flanks of the Rocky Mountains to the shores of the North Atlantic, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Newfoundland. Large portions must have been removed by denudation, but enough remains in five distinct fields of which the areas are thus stated by Prof. Rogers:
The Appalachian field is of the highest economic importance. On the eastward it has been crumpled up into the series of ranges forming the Alleghany Mountains. At the same time the bituminous portion of the coal has been more or less distilled off, producing the anthracite coal of Mauch Chunk and the other Eastern Pennsylvanian mines. The seams of coal, however, retain their bituminous character and their horizontal position on the west of the Alleghany Mountains. "In that less elevated country, the coal-measures are intersected by three great navigable rivers, and are capable of supplying for ages, to the inhabitants of a densely-peopled region, an inexhaustible supply of fuel. These rivers are the Monongahela, the Alleghany, and the Ohio, all of which lay open on their banks the level seams of coal. Looking down the first of these at Brownsville, we have a fine view of the main seam of bituminous coal ten feet thick, commonly called the Pittsburg seam, breaking out in the steep cliff at the water's edge.... Horizontal galleries may be driven everywhere at very slight expense, and so worked as to drain themselves; while the cars, laden with coal and attached to each other, glide down on a railway, so as to deliver their burden into barges moored to the river's bank. The same seam is seen at a distance, on the right bank, and may be followed the whole way to Pittsburg, fifty miles distant. As it is nearly horizontal while the river descends, it crops out at a continually increasing, but never at an inconvenient, height above the Monongahela. Below the great bed of coal at Brownsville is a fire-clay eighteen inches thick; and below this, several beds of limestone, below which again are other coal seams. I have also shown in my sketch another layer of workable coal, which breaks out on the slope of the hills at a greater height. Here almost every proprietor can open a coal-pit on his own land, and the stratification being very regular, he may calculate with precision the depth at which coal may be won."*38
The Appalachian coal-field, of which these strata form a part, is remarkable for its vast area. According to Professor H. D. Rogers, it stretches continuously from N.E. to S.W. for a distance of 720 miles, its greatest width being about 180 miles. On a moderate estimate its superficial area amounts to 63,000 square miles.
We have no extensive seams of coal now which can compare in ease of working with those above described. The "thick coal" of Staffordshire almost within the memory of those now living might be comparable, and four or five centuries ago it is supposed there were seams on the bank of the Tyne, and at Whitehaven, which could be worked by natural drainage, and with the greatest ease. But shallow coal has necessarily almost disappeared in England. The consequence is that we cannot now produce coal, even with the aid of the best engineering skill, and of abundant trained labour, nearly so cheap as it can be had on the banks of the Ohio. At Pittsburg the best bituminous coal may be had at one-half, or one-third the general price at European mines, as shown in the following comparative table of prices at the pit:*39—
In short, on the Western coal-fields coal can be obtained at the expense of digging it; that is, at a cost of a cent or a cent and a quarter per bushel.*40
Beyond the reach of doubt there is no portion of the earth's surface so naturally fitted for becoming the seat of great industries "What is the value, it may be asked," in the words of an American writer,*41 "of 63,000 square miles of country, which yields coal, iron, oil, and salt, beneath its fertile soil? Here are the elements of strength, heat, light, food, and the giant steam, opened at once to the science, skill, and untiring energy of an enterprising people."
It can excite no surprise that a people of British extraction, endowed with the absolute possession of lands so rich, so extensive, and so easily accessible as those of the United States, should spread and multiply. It is nature in its kindest and most liberal mood that has chiefly contributed to the growth of the United States. And a certain remarkable talent for the application and invention of all practical devices for saving labour and overcoming obstacles is the next chief attribute of the American nation that concerns us here. The moral and political characteristics of that people, and the influence they may exert for good or for evil upon the world, are not here in question.
But why does not such wonderful wealth in coal affect our prosperity already, if so much depends upon the price of coal? It is because America has not and cannot for a long period reach that state of industrial development in which a great system of manufactures naturally grows up. Great as is the wealth of coal, the wealth of land is comparatively to European countries, greater still; and agriculture has, and should have the natural preference over manufactures. Nor has America long emerged from that earlier stage of the iron manufacture in which timber is the best fuel. Coal-smelting furnaces in the United States have not existed more than thirty years. And the future relation of American coal to English industry cannot be better expressed than in the words of the very able Report of the South Shields Committee on Coal Mines, in the year 1843.
"It is not the want of coal, but of capital and of labour that allows the more cheaply wrought British mineral to seal up the American mines. It is within the range of possibility to reverse it.
"When the expense of working British coal mines leaves no remuneration to the capital and labour employed, when brought into competition with the mines of other countries, then will they be as effectually lost to Britain for purposes of ascendancy, and their produce as exports, as if no longer in physical existence; and her superiority in the mechanical arts and manufactures, cæteris paribus, it may well be feared, will be superseded."
Notes for this chapter
Reports respecting Coal, 1866, p. 147.
Hull, Coal Fields of Great Britain, 2d ed. p. 29; and Situation de l'Ind. &c. p. 111, quoting a report of M. Gonot, Ingénieur en chef des Mines du Hainaut, 1858.
Edinburgh Review, vol. cxi. p. 88
1st ed. 1848; 2d ed. revised by S. O. Haldeman
Situation de l'Industrie Houillère en 1859, p. 9.
Report of the South Shields Committee, 1843.
Situation de l'Industrie Houillère en 1859, p. 15.
Statistics of Coal, 1st ed. p. 275, quoted by the Edinburgh Review, vol. xc. p. 534.
Situation de l'Industrie Houillère, p. 7.
Journal of Science, No. 2, pp. 337, 338.
Coal-Fields of Great Britain, 2d ed. p. 208.
Lyell, Manual of Elementary Geology, 1852, p. 333.
Overman, On the Manufacture of Iron. p. 102.
Overman, On the Manufacture of Iron, p. 462.
Gesner, Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum, &c. New York 1861, p. 30.
End of Notes
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