Sea-Coale Char-Coale and Small-Coale

April 28, 2009

In the seventeenth century, the use of coal as a fuel was linked to the use of wood as a fuel, and as stocks of trees diminished, coal usage increased. Coal was substituted for charcoal in the household, and also in industry, as manufacturers of metals worked out how to smelt them with this alternative fuel.

There were also different types of coal. A publication called Sea-coale, char-coale, and small-coale: or A discourse betweene a New-Castle collier, a small-coale-man, and a collier of Croyden (London, 1643) features a debate of the recent fortunes of various coals, by the coals personified. Sea-coale is what we might now call mineral coal; Char-coale is the carbon residue of vegetable or animal matter (usually wood); and Small-coale is also charcoal.

In January 1643, parliament had passed a bill forbidding coals and salt to be fetched from Newcastle, Sunderland and Blyth. They had found that the ‘Town of Newcastle, being possessed by Forces raised against the King and Parliament, hath been and is the principal Inlet of Foreign Aid, Forces, and Ammunition, for the strengthening of that Force that intends Distractions to the Parliament, and thereby to the Religion, Laws and Liberties of this Kingdom.’ They decided that ‘sufficient Coals be supplied from other Parts’ and forced the embargo.

The pamphlet, written in the form of a dialogue, reflects this coal block.

Croydon, aka Char-coale, opens by explaining these current events to which the pamphlet is responding:

I came up to town to learne the truth of a flying report which I heard at my house in Croydon, namely, that my old enemy, that Sulphurous Pitchie-fac’d Raskall, Good-man Sea-Coale of Newcastle, was restrained to his own town in the North, & that because he was rebellious and refractory to the decrees of the High Court of Parliament, that all manner of traffique was forbidden betwixt him and the Merchants of the City of London, if it is true it is the best news for me that I have heard these twenty years.

Small-Coale replies:

Truly brother Char-Coale, you have heard nothing but what was too sad a truth, as all the poore in the City can testifie, who are fearefull they must sit and blow their nailes the rest of this Winter for cold, unlesse some new project (and they you know are all cashier’d by the Parliament) be found out, to make the Bricks and balls of Clay burne, as you know they did not many yeeres since.

Sea-Coale passes by the pair but will not hang about with his old friend Char-Coale of Croydon, explaining why he cannot be in London:

The Parliament, whose wisdome I dare neither contradict nor question, have decreed it; my towne of Newcastle is possesed by Malignants, and tis not fit that any reliefe should by traffique thither be given to those disturbers of the Kingdomes peace and tranquilitie.

In the world of the pamphlet, Sea-Coale explains that although it seems that is he unlucky to be banished, the scarce trickle of coal coming to London from Newcastle will actually appreciate in value and so fetch the same overall profit. He says: ‘Although I send fewer of my Coales then formerly, yet shall they be at double the usuall rate’. Small-Coale’s response shows the impact of the embargo on the city:

First and formost, your Brewers cry out, they cannot make their Ale and Beere so strong as it was wont to be, by reason of the dearnesse and scarcity of fewell, and then all the good fellowes, such as myself, as used to tost our noses over a good Sea-coale fire of my kindling, at an Ale-house, with a pot of nappy Ale, or invincible stale Beere, cry out upon the smallnesse both of the fire and liquor, and curse your avarice, Sea-coale, that occasions these diasters; for your Bricke-layers and Builders, with open throats, exclaime at your scarcity; the Brickes which were but badly burned before, are now scarce burned at all, no more than if they were onely baked in the Sunne, and are so brittle, they will not hold the laying: Cookes, that noble fraternity of Fleet-Lane, and in generall, throughout the City, raise their meat at least two-pence in a joynt; and in stead of rosting it twice or thrice, according to their ancient custome, sell it now blood-raw, to the great detriment of the buyer. Finally, Ale-houses rail at your dearnesse abominably, and all the poore people of the populous City, and it’s large Suburbs, whose slender fortunes could not lay out so much money together as would lay their provision in for the whole Winter…

As Sea-Coale prepares to move off and the pamphlet draws to a close, Small-Coale issues words of action:

I doe intent, neighbour Sea-Coal … and soe does all the poore of the City, to petition that a constant rate may be set upon you…


One Response to “Sea-Coale Char-Coale and Small-Coale”

  1. […] Waters, Places on the politics and poetics of coal in early modern […]

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