Historical E-Book: The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines
Author: William Stanley Jevons
Edition Used: London: Macmillan and Co., 1866. (Second edition, revised)
First Published: 1865
ONE of the earliest writers who conceived it was possible to exhaust our coal mines was John Williams, a mineral surveyor. In his "Natural History of the Mineral Kingdom," first published in 1789, he gave a chapter to the consideration of "The Limited Quantity of Coal of Britain." His remarks are highly intelligent, and prove him to be one of the first to appreciate the value of coal, and to foresee the consequences which must some time result from its failure. This event he rather prematurely apprehended; but in those days, when no statistics had been collected, and a geological map was unthought of, accurate notions were not to be expected. Still, his views on this subject may be read with profit, even at the present day.
Sir John Sinclair, in his great Statistical Account of Scotland, took a most enlightened view of the importance of coal; and, in noticing the Fifeshire coal-field, expressed considerable fears as to a future exhaustion of our mines. He correctly contrasted the fixed extent of a coalfield with the ever-growing nature of the consumption of coal.
In 1812 Robert Bald, another Scotch writer, in his very intelligent "General View of the Coal Trade of Scotland," showed most clearly how surely and rapidly a consumption, growing in a "quick, increasing series," must overcome a fixed store, however large. Even if the Grampian mountains, he said, were composed of coal, we would ultimately bring down their summits, and make them level with the vales.
In later years, the esteemed geologist, Dr. Buckland, most prominently and earnestly brought this subject before the public, both in his evidence before the Parliamentary Committees of 1830 and 1835, and in his celebrated "Bridgewater Treatise." On every suitable occasion he implored the country to allow no waste of an article so invaluable as coal.
Many geologists, and other writers, without fully comprehending the subject, have made socalled estimates of the duration of the Newcastle coal-field. Half a century ago, this field was so much the most important and well known, that it took the whole attention of English writers. The great fields of South Wales and Scotland, in fact, were scarcely opened. But those who did not dream of the whole coal-fields of Great Britain being capable of exhaustion, were early struck by the progressive failure of the celebrated Newcastle seams. Those concerned in the coal trade know for how many years each colliery is considered good; and perhaps, like George Stephenson in early youth, have had their homes more than once moved and broken up by the working out of a colliery. It is not possible for such men to shut their eyes altogether to the facts.
I give, on the following page, a tabular summary of the chief estimates of the duration of the Newcastle field.
|Estimates of the Duration of the Northumberland and Durham Coal-Field.|
|Author of Estimate.|| Date of|
| Supposed Area|
of Coal Measures
Millions of Tons.
| Assumed Annual|
|T. Y. Hall...||1854||750||5,122||14,000,000||365|
Suffice it to remark, concerning these estimates, that the amounts of coal supposed to exist in the Newcastle field are much more accordant than the conclusions as to the probable duration of the supply. The reason of course is that the annual consumption is a rapidly-growing quantity, and it is a most shortsighted proceeding to argue as if it were constant. These so-called estimates of duration are no such thing, but only compendious statements how many times the coal existing in the earth exceeds the quantity then annually drawn.
The apparent accordance of these writers often arises, too, from the compensation of errors. Some of them assumed, most wrongly, that the known seams extended continuously over the whole area of the field; they did not allow for the less extension of the higher seams, a point we shall have to consider; and then again, even Dr. Buckland, in accordance with the prevalent opinion of those times, did not suppose that any coal existed under the magnesian limestone strata at the southern angle of the Newcastle field. In Mr. Hull's estimate, however, allowance is made for hidden coal likely to exist. He takes 460 square miles as the area of the open coal measures, and 225 square miles as the available area covered by newer geological formations.
Some writers, without going into numerical detail, have explained very clearly the bearings of this question. John Holland, for instance, the author of an excellent anonymous work on coal, has made very sound remarks upon the probable duration of our coal. "While," he says, "it is manifestly inconclusive to estimate according to present demand the consumption of coals for centuries to come; and still more so to assign any specific condition of society to such a remote period; we are warranted, in the first place, in assuming that the demand for this species of fuel will not diminish, but increase, with every imaginable condition of the progress of society; and, secondly, we have before us the undoubted fact, that our mines are not inexhaustible. In addition to this, there is the most direct evidence to show how far some of the most valuable beds in the northern coalfields have been worked out already; at the same time, that tolerably satisfactory calculations have been made as to the quantity remaining unwrought."
Mr. T. Sopwith, in 1844, in an essay on "The National Importance of Preserving Mining Records" (p. 50), made the following very excellent remarks:—"The opinion that our stores of coal are all but inexhaustible rests wholly on assumed data, and not upon any accurate and detailed statistical accounts such as alone could warrant a confident opinion. This question will, ere long, become a subject of serious concern, unless some measures are taken to found our calculations on a solid basis. It is an easy matter to assume that a considerable thickness of available coal extends over hundreds of square miles; but the different opinions formed by men of the highest respectability and talent, strongly prove how meagre and unsatisfactory are the only data on which these estimates are founded. It is not, however, the mere quantity of coal that is to be considered. Especial regard must be had to its quality, depth, thickness, extent, and position. Many of the inferior seams can only be worked in conjunction with those which, by their superior quality, repay the expense of working them at depths varying from 300 to 600 yards; and it may readily be conceived, that inferior coal only could not be profitably raised from pits equal in depth to three or four times the height of St. Paul's Cathedral, unless the price of such inferior coal was raised to more than the present price of the best coal. It is the additional expense and consequent additional difficulty of competing with other countries, that is the vital question to be considered. It is not the exhaustion of mines, but the period at which they can be profitably worked, that merits earnest and immediate attention."
Among statistical writers the late Mr. M'Culloch characterised the notions of the exhaustibility of our coal mines as utterly futile, both in the article on Coal, in his "Dictionary of Commerce," and in his "Account of the British Empire." For his views, however, the reader may be referred to works so well known and accessible.
The progress of the Geological Survey, and the establishment of a Mining Record Office, have placed this question upon a new footing: and when, in 1860, public attention was drawn to the subject by the warm debates on the French Treaty, Mr. Edward Hull, of the Geological Survey, was induced to prepare a concise description of our coal-fields with an estimate of their total contents. The latest views of the same geologist have been given in an excellent paper on the coal-fields, forming the first article of the Journal of Science for January 1864.
Referring the reader for all geological details to Mr. Hull's very useful works, and leaving over for discussion some points of his calculations, I will now state his general results. The following table gives Mr. Hull's estimate of the probable contents of each of our chief coal-fields:—
|Coal-field.|| Area of open|
| Area covered|
| Total Coal|
to depth of
Millions of Tons.
|Bristol & Somerset...||45||105||2,488|
|Derby and York...||760||400||16,800|
|Forest of Dean...||34||—||561|
|Forest of Wyre...||—||—|||
In his later publication, Mr. Hull gives his estimate in the following form:—
|General Statement of the Condition of our Coal-Fields.|
|Coal Group.|| Area in|
| Coal Contents.|
Millions of Tons
| Produce in 1861.|
| Number of|
|Lancashire, Staffordshire, &c...||535||7,594||25,643,000||1,158|
It will be seen that his estimate, in 1864, of the total contents of our coal-fields, exceeds by only an inconsiderable quantity his estimates in 1860 and 1861. I shall accept this quantity of 83,544,000,000 tons of available coal as a convenient basis for discussion, subject to whatever may be said later on, as to some of Mr. Hull's assumptions. As Mr. Hull possesses the most intimate practical acquaintance with the Lancashire and some of the Midland coal-fields, acquired in carrying out the Geological Survey, and has at his command all the published results of the survey, the experience of his coadjutors, and the writings of previous geologists, his estimate must certainly be accepted for the present.
But whether this estimate be accurate or not, it will appear that the exact quantity of coal existing is a less important point in this question than the rate at which our consumption increases, and the natural laws which govern that consumption. The question is mainly one of statistical science, and it is only as such that I venture to have anything to do with it.
Mr. Hull, indeed, has not confined himself to the geological side of the question, and his remarks upon the statistical bearings of his estimate must not be passed over, though they are far from having the same weight as his geological statements. Throughout his work, he compares the contents of each coal-field with the present annual quantity of coal drawn from it, and his remarks on the condition of the several fields are interesting and significant. The present generation, he thinks, may see the end of the Flintshire coalfield, which was largely worked in the days of shallow pits, and contains little more than twenty millions of tons for future supply. The Coalbrookdale coal-field, where the present mode of iron manufacture was first established, is even further advanced towards exhaustion, and can hardly last more than twenty years. The South Staffordshire field has passed the meridian of its career, and is on the verge of old age. "Its extraordinary richness has been the principal cause of its early decline, and the treasures easily acquired have been often recklessly squandered."
It is true that the great South Wales and Scotch coal basins contain some thousands of times their present annual yield of coal. But it is obvious they will have, in future years, to compensate the falling off in all the smaller and older fields, as well as to bear their own increased local demand. Coal will be got where it can most cheaply and easily be got, and the exhaustion of one field will only throw a new demand upon fresher fields. This is a process already extensively going on.
"The supply of coal in the South Staffordshire district," says Mr. William Mathews, "has seriously fallen off of late years, and has become quite inadequate to meet the demand occasioned by the development of its other manufacturing resources. We are, therefore, obliged to lean somewhat on the aids which the produce of the northern coal-fields opens up to us; and if, by any chance, the resources we now enjoy, from that and other districts in England, should be withheld, we should feel the inconvenience of being deprived of such resources very sensibly indeed."
The same process is taking place, by aid of railways, in many shallow coal districts, and it may proceed until the whole country is mainly dependent on one or two of the greatest coal basins. We ought, therefore, to compare the total supply within the kingdom with the total probable demand, paying little or no regard to local circumstances.
Mr. Hull has made such a comparison. He compared the 79,843 millions of tons of his first estimate with the 72 million tons of coal consumed in 1859, and deduced that, at the same rate of consumption, the supply would last 1100 years.
"Yet we have no right," he very truly remarked, "to assume that such will be the actual duration; for the history of coal mining during the last half century has been one of rapid advance." Our consumption, in short, had about doubled itself since 1840; and, supposing it to continue doubling every twenty years, our "total available supply would be exhausted before the lapse of the year 2034."
"If we had reason," he continues, "to expect that the increase of future years was to progress in the same ratio, we might well tremble for the result; for that would be nothing less than the utter exhaustion of our coal-fields, with its concomitant influence upon our population, our commerce, and national prosperity, in the short period of 172 years!"
No sooner has Mr. Hull reached this truly alarming result than he recoils from it. "But are we," he says, "really to expect so rapid a drain in future years? I think not." Economy will reduce our consumption; the burning waste-heaps of coal will be stopped; America will relieve us from the world-wide demand for our coal, and will eventually furnish even this country with as much as we want. Such are some of the fallacious notions with which Mr. Hull, in common with many others, seeks to avoid an unwelcome conclusion. More lately, he has said: "Notwithstanding these facts, however, it would be rash to assume that the experience of the past is to be a criterion of the future. We neither wish for, nor expect, an increase during the remainder of the second half of this century, at all proportionate to that of the earlier half; and this view is borne out by some of the later returns. Some of our coal-fields, as has been shown, have passed their meridian, and, having expended their strength, are verging to decay. Others have attained their maximum, or nearly so; this, indeed, is the case with the majority. The younger coal-fields will have much of their strength absorbed in compensating for the falling off of the older; so that, in a few years, the whole of our coal-producing districts will reach a stage of activity beyond which they cannot advance, but around which they may oscillate. Entertaining these views, I am inclined to place the possible maximum of production at 100 millions of tons a year; and yet it has been shown that, even with this enormous 'output,' there is enough coal to last for eight centuries."
The reader will easily see, in the course of our inquiry, how mistaken is Mr. Hull, in supposing our production of coal to be limited to 100 millions. It has already exceeded 92 millions without counting the waste of slack coal, and is yet advancing by great strides. And the public seems unaware that a sudden check to the expansion of our supply would be the very manifestation of exhaustion we dread. It would at once bring on us the rising price, the transference of industry, and the general reverse of prosperity, which we may hope not to witness in our days. And the eight centuries of stationary existence he promises us would be little set off against a nearer prospect so critical and alarming.
Facts, however, prove the hastiness of these views. The number of collieries is rapidly increasing up to the very last accounts (1864); and new collieries being mostly larger works than the old ones laid in, we may conclude that coal owners are confident of pushing the production for many years to come.
The remarks of Sir W. Armstrong on this subject, in his Address to the British Association at Newcastle, in 1863, are so excellent that I quote them at length:—"The phase of the earth's existence, suitable for the extensive formation of coal, appears to have passed away for ever; but the quantity of that invaluable mineral which has been stored up throughout the globe for our benefit is sufficient (if used discreetly) to serve the purposes of the human race for many thousands of years. In fact, the entire quantity of coal may be considered as practically inexhaustible.
"Turning, however, to our own particular country, and contemplating the rate at which we are expending those seams of coal which yield the best quality of fuel and can be worked at the least expense, we shall find much cause for anxiety. The greatness of England much depends upon the superiority of her coal, in cheapness and quality, over that of other nations; but we have already drawn, from our choicest mines, a far larger quantity of coal than has been raised in all other parts of the world put together; and the time is not remote when we shall have to encounter the disadvantages of increased cost of working and diminished value of produce.
"Estimates have been made at various periods of the time which would be required to produce complete exhaustion of all the accessible coal in the British Islands. The estimates are certainly discordant; but the discrepancies arise, not from any important disagreement as to the available quantity of coal, but from the enormous difference in the rate of consumption at the various dates when the estimates were made, and also from the different views which have been entertained as to the probable increase of consumption in future years. The quantity of coal yearly worked from British mines has been almost trebled during the last twenty years, and has probably increased tenfold since the commencement of the present century; but as this increase has taken place pending the introduction of steam navigation and railway transit, and under exceptional conditions of manufacturing development, it would be too much to assume that it will continue to advance with equal rapidity.
"The statistics collected by Mr. Hunt, of the Mining Record Office, show that, at the end of 1861, the quantity of coal raised in the United Kingdom had reached the enormous total of 86 millions of tons, and that the average annual increase in the eight preceding years amounted to 2¾ millions of tons.
"Let us inquire, then, what will be the duration of our coal-fields if this more moderate rate of increase be maintained. By combining the known thickness of the various workable seams of coal, and computing the area of the surface under which they lie, it is easy to arrive at an estimate of the total quantity comprised in our coal-bearing strata. Assuming 4,000 feet as the greatest depth at which it will ever be possible to carry on mining operations, and rejecting all seams of less than two feet in thickness, the entire quantity of available coal existing in these islands has been calculated to amount to about 80,000 millions of tons, which, at the present rate of consumption, would be exhausted in 930 years; but with a continued yearly increase of 2¾ millions of tons would only last 212 years.
"It is clear that, long before complete exhaustion takes place, England will have ceased to be a coal-producing country on an extensive scale. Other nations, and especially the United States of America, which possess coal-fields thirty-seven times more extensive than ours, will then be working more accessible beds at a smaller cost, and will be able to displace the English coal from every market. The question is, not how long our coal will endure before absolute exhaustion is effected, but how long will those particular coal-seams last which yield coal of a quality and at a price to enable this country to maintain her present supremacy in manufacturing industry. So far as this particular district is concerned, it is generally admitted that 200 years will be sufficient to exhaust the principal seams, even at the present rate of working. If the production should continue to increase as it is now doing, the duration of those seams will not reach half that period. How the case may stand in other coal mining districts, I have not the means of ascertaining; but, as the best and most accessible coal will always be worked in preference to any other, I fear the same rapid exhaustion of our most valuable seams is everywhere taking place."
With almost every part of this statement I can concur, except the calculation by a fixed annual increase of consumption, which I shall show to be contrary to the principles of the subject, and not to reach the whole truth.
Dr. Percy, the eminent metallurgist of the School of Mines, is one whose opinions will bear great weight on this subject; and in several passages of his new treatises on Metallurgy, he has expressed his misgivings. Our coal, he says, "is not only being consumed at a prodigious rate at home, but is being largely exported; and the question as to the probable duration of our coal-fields has, of late, been discussed with reasonable anxiety. In 1862 we raised 84,000,000 tons of coal, and the demand continually increases. Hitherto, owing to the abundance of our mineral fuel, we have been, and we still are, comparatively regardless of economy in its consumption. The time has now arrived when necessity will compel us to act differently, both in our manufactories and in our households."
I conclude this chapter with the following passage from the work of two eminent geologists, who wrote, however, when the question was not so urgent as at present:—
"The manufacturing industry of this island, colossal as is the fabric which it has raised, rests principally on no other base than our fortunate position with regard to the rocks of this series. Should our coal-mines ever be exhausted it would melt away at once, and it need not be said that the effect produced on private and domestic comfort would be equally fatal with the diminution of public wealth; we should lose many of the advantages of our high civilization, and much of our cultivated grounds must be again shaded with forests to afford fuel to a remnant of our present population. That there is a progressive tendency to approach this limit is certain; but ages may yet pass before it is felt very sensibly, and, when it does approach, the increasing difficulty and expense of working the mines of coal will operate, by successive and gradual checks against its consumption, through a long period, so that the transition may not be very violent: our manufacturers would first feel the shock; the excess of population supported by them would cease to be called into existence, as the demand for their labour ceased; the cultivation of poor lands would become less profitable, and their conversion into forests more so."
- ^Vol. xii. p. 547.
- ^P. 94.
- ^P. 97.
- ^See also his Address to the Geological Society, Feb. 19th, 1841, p. 41.
- ^Smiles' Engineers, vol. iii. pp. 18, 22.
- ^Treatise on the Coal Trade, quoted in Appendix to J. Williams' History of the Mineral Kingdom: Edinburgh, 1810, vol. ii. p. 267.
- ^Edinburgh Review, vol. cxi. p. 84, note. This estimate, however, seems to refer to Durham only, and to a later year than 1801. See John Bailey, "General View of the Agriculture of the County of Durham," 1810, p. 28.
- ^Annals of Philosophy, December, 1814.
- ^Introduction to Geology, p. 192.
- ^Report on Coal Trade, 1830, p. 77. Edinburgh Review, vol. li. p. 190. M'Culloch's Dictionary, art. Coal.
- ^Report on Coal Trade, 1830.
- ^T. Y. Hall. Transactions of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers, 1854. Fordyce, History of Coal, Coke, and Coal-Fields: Newcastle, 1860, p. 32.
- ^T. Y. Hall. Transactions of the North of England Institute of Mining. Engineers, 1854. Fordyce, History of Coal, Coke, and Coal-Fields: Newcastle, 1860, p. 32.
- ^The Coal-Fields of Great Britain, by Edward Hull, B.A. 2d Ed. p. 161. (Stanford.)
- ^A History and Description of Fossil Fuel: 1835, chap. xxiv, p. 454.
- ^Fourth Edition, vol. i. p. 600.
- ^1846, p. 163.
- ^As suggested by Mr. Sopwith at the British Association in 1838.
- ^Coal-Fields of Great Britain, 2d Ed. p. 187.
- ^Inconsiderable amounts.
- ^Inconsiderable amounts.
- ^Inconsiderable amounts.
- ^Journal of Science, No. I. p. 33.
- ^Journal of Science, No. I. p. 29.
- ^Journal of Science, No. I. p. 30.
- ^Trans. of the North of England Institute of Mining Engineers, vol. x. p. 74. (1862.)
- ^Coal-Fields of Great Britain, 2d Ed. p. 236.
- ^The calculation is not strictly correct.
- ^P. 237.
- ^Journal of Science, No. I. p. 35.
- ^Conybeare and Phillips, Outlines of Geology, pp. 324, 325.
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