england destroys its forests -- 4/17/17

Today's selection -- from Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. Beginning in the 16th century, the success of England's wool industry brought an end to most of England's forests:

"In [the late 1500s], ... there [began] a serious threat to [England's] economic growth­ -- the trees on this small island nation were once again disappear­ing. England's wool industry had become so lucrative that more and more landowners were cutting down the native woodlands to make the lovely green pastures that today seem so natural to the English landscape. Also, the iron industry was gulping down huge amounts of charcoal, using up the forests wherever the ironworks were located.

"During Elizabeth's reign, dozens of commissions were sent out by the central government to investigate the wood shortage around the nation, and each one confirmed the serious decline of the forests. Contemporary writers were alarmed about this loss of England's woods, and they wrote of huge forests that had been 'greatly decayed and spoiled.' This destruction meant not only a fuel shortage, which in itself threatened everyone's domestic comfort and the functioning of nearly every industry; it also meant a shortage of the most important building material of the time. Wood was used to construct just about everything, including homes, furniture, carts, tools, containers, and, of course, ships. The navy considered the wood shortage a national security threat. So laws were passed limiting the taking of wood, and penalties for stealing wood became more severe. In rural Essex, those caught 'hedgestealing' were to 'be whipped till they bleed well.'

Charcoal production in the 18th century.

"The fuel shortage was felt most keenly in the cities, particu­larly in London. The population of England as a whole was growing, but London's was growing even faster. Of course, as the city grew and as the nearby counties were deforested, wood had to be hauled in from increasingly distant locations. The wood fuel was mainly used for home heating and cooking, but most industrial processes still depended on wood, too. The London breweries alone, according to one calculation, burned 20,000 wagon loads of wood each year. As the shortage became more severe, the price of wood rose far faster than inflation, and the poor, for whom fuel was already a major expense, were under increasing strain.

"This was a particularly hard time for London residents to be unable to heat their homes. Europe had by this time entered into its so-called Little Ice Age, a period that would last through the 1700s. On average, this was the coldest period since the last ice sheets had left the Northern Hemisphere; the region's cli­mate was characterized by longer, harsher winters and the occa­sional freezing over of the River Thames. During the winter of 1564-1565, Queen Elizabeth is said to have taken a daily stroll on the frozen river. In the winter of 1607-1608, Londoners set up the first ice fair on the Thames. Booths sold food and drink, and people enjoyed entertainments such as dancing and bowling. There were a few more such fairs over the next two hundred years, and they grew increasingly elaborate.

"If the fuel shortage of the 1500s had continued to deepen, it would eventually have slowed not just the economic growth but also the population growth of London. Like that of most cities of the time, London's birth rate couldn't keep up with its death rate; this was due in part to the periodic outbreaks of the plague, smallpox, and typhus, to which the crowded urban poor were most vulnerable. The city's growth depended on attracting fresh new residents from the countryside at a pace faster than they were burying the dead in the urban churchyards. It is hard to imagine that flow of eager immigrants continuing despite a sus­tained fuel shortage that would have choked the economy and made urban life even more difficult than it usually was. Eventu­ally, life in London would have become unbearable, and people would have chosen to stay in the countryside, closer to the forests, where at least they could have afforded to heat their homes and bake their bread. Later, as the forests continued to shrink, the fuel shortage might have slowed the population growth of the entire nation. Demographic studies show that in preindustrial England, tough economic times caused people to marry later, lowering birthrates.

"But the energy crisis never got that severe for one reason: coal. Domestic coal use surged in the 1570s, and before the end of Elizabeth's reign, in 1603, coal had become the main source of fuel for the nation, though not without complaint. The rich in London tried to avoid using coal, still despised for its smoke, as long as they could. It was said in 1630 that thirty years earlier 'the nice dames of London would not come into any house or room when sea coals were burned, nor willingly eat of the meat that was either sod or roasted with sea coal fire.' Within a few years, though, the nice dames and the nice gents had suc­cumbed. By the second decade of the 1600s, coal was widely used in the homes of the rich as well as of the poor."

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Barbara Freese


Coal: A Human History


Basic Books


Copyright 2003 by Barbara Freese


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