The Coal Question: Preface

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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


I AM desirous of prefixing to the second edition of the following work a few explanations which may tend to prevent misapprehension of its purpose and conclusions.

The expression "exhaustion of our coal mines," states the subject in the briefest form, but is sure to convey erroneous notions to those who do not reflect upon the long series of changes in our industrial condition which must result from the gradual deepening of our coal mines and the increased price of fuel. Many persons perhaps entertain a vague notion that some day our coal seams will be found emptied to the bottom, and swept clean like a coal-cellar. Our fires and furnaces, they think, will then be suddenly extinguished, and cold and darkness will be left to reign over a depopulated country. It is almost needless to say, however, that our mines are literally inexhaustible. We cannot get to the bottom of them; and though we may some day have to pay dear for fuel, it will never be positively wanting.

I have occasionally spoken in the following pages of "the end," of the "instability of our position," and so forth. When considered in connexion with the context, or with expressions and qualifications in other parts of the volume, it will be obvious that I mean not the end or overturn of the nation, but the end of the present progressive condition of the kingdom. If there be a few expressions which go beyond this, I should regard them as speculative only, and should not maintain them as an essential part of the conclusions.

Renewed reflection has convinced me that my main position is only too strong and true. It is simply that we cannot long progress as we are now doing. I give the usual scientific reasons for supposing that coal must confer mighty influence and advantages upon its rich possessor, and I show that we now use much more of this invaluable aid than all other countries put together. But it is impossible we should long maintain so singular a position; not only must we meet some limit within our own country, but we must witness the coal produce of other countries approximating to our own, and ultimately passing it.

At a future time, then, we shall have influences acting against us which are now acting strongly with us. We may even then retain no inconsiderable share of the world's trade, but it is impossible that we should go on expanding as we are now doing. Our motion must be reduced to rest, and it is to this change my attention is directed. How long we may exist in a stationary condition I, for one, should never attempt to conjecture. The question here treated regards the length of time that we may go on rising, and the height of prosperity and wealth to which we may attain. Few will doubt, I think, after examining the subject, that we cannot long rise as we are now doing.

Even when the question is thus narrowed I know there will be no want of opponents. Some rather hasty thinkers will at once cut the ground from under me, and say that they never supposed we should long progress as we are doing, nor do they desire it. I would make two remarks in answer.

Firstly, have they taken time to think what is involved in bringing a great and growing nation to a stand? It is easy to set a boulder rolling on the mountain-side; it is perilous to try to stop it. It is just such an adverse change in the rate of progress of a nation which is galling and perilous. Since we began to develop the general use of coal, about a century ago, we have become accustomed to an almost yearly expansion of trade and employment. Within the last twenty years everything has tended to intensify our prosperity, and the results are seen in the extraordinary facts concerning the prevalence of marriage, which I have explained in pp. 197-200, and to which I should wish to draw special attention. It is not difficult to see, then, that we must either maintain the expansion of our trade and employment, or else witness a sore pressure of population and a great exodus of our people.

The fact is, that many of my opponents simply concede the point I am endeavouring to prove without foreseeing the results, and without, again, giving any reasons in support of their position.

Secondly, I do not know why this nation should not go on rising to a pitch of greatness as inconceivable now as our present position would have been inconceivable a century ago. I believe that our industrial and political genius and energy, used with honesty, are equal to anything. It is only our gross material resources which are limited. Here is a definite cause why we cannot always advance.

Other opponents bring a more subtle objection. They say that the coal we use affords no measure of our industry. At a future time, instead of exporting coal, or crude iron, we may produce elaborate and artistic commodities depending less on the use of coal than the skill and taste of the workman. This change is one which I anticipated (see p. 347). It would constitute a radical change in our industry. We have no peculiar monopoly in art, and skill, and science as we now have in coal. That by art and handicraft manufactures we might maintain a moderate trade is not to be denied, but all notions of manufacturing and maritime supremacy must then be relinquished. Those persons very much mistake the power of coal, and steam, and iron, who think that it is now fully felt and exhibited; it will be almost indefinitely greater in future years than it now is. Science points to this conclusion, and common observation confirms it. These opponents, then, likewise concede what I am trying to show, without feeling how much they concede. They do not seem to know which is the sharp edge of the argument.

A further class of opponents feel the growing power of coal, but repose upon the notion that economy in its use will rescue us. If coal become twice as dear as it is, but our engines are made to produce twice as much result with the same coal, the cost of steam-power will remain as before. These opponents, however, overlook two prime points of the subject. They forget that economy of fuel leads to a great increase of consumption, as shown in the chapter on the subject; and, secondly, they forget that other nations can use improved engines as well as ourselves, so that our comparative position will not be much improved.

It is true that where fuel is cheap it is wasted, and where it is dear it is economised. The finest engines are those in Cornwall, or in steam-vessels plying in distant parts of the ocean. It is credibly stated, too, that a manufacturer often spends no more in fuel where it is dear than where it is cheap. But persons will commit a great oversight here if they overlook the cost of an improved and complicated engine, which both in its first cost, and its maintenance, is higher than that of a simple one. The question is one of capital against current expenditure. It is well known that nothing so presses upon trade as the necessity for a large capital expenditure; it is so much more risked, so much more to pay interest on, and so much more abstracted from the trading capital. The fact is, that a wasteful engine pays better where coals are cheap than a more perfect but costly engine. Bourne, in his "Treatise on the Steam Engine," expressly recommends a simple and wasteful engine where coals are cheap.

The state of the matter is as follows:—Where coal is dear, but there are other reasons for requiring motive power, elaborate engines may be profitably used, and may partly reduce the cost of the power.

But if coal be dear in one place and cheap in another, motive power will necessarily be cheaper where coal is cheap, because there the option of using either simple or perfect engines is enjoyed. It is needless to say that any improvement of the engine which does not make it more costly will readily be adopted, especially by an enterprising and ingenious people like the Americans.

I take it, therefore, that if there be any strong cause exclusive of the possession of coal which will tend to keep manufactures here, economy of fuel and a large employment of capital may neutralise in some degree the increased cost of motive power. But so far as cheap fuel and power is the exciting cause of manufactures, these must pass to where fuel is cheapest, especially when it is in the hands of persons as energetic and ingenious as ourselves.

Finally, I may mention the argument of Mr. Vivian, that the art of coal mining will advance so that coal may be drawn from great depths without any material increase of cost. The very moderate rise of price as yet experienced, apparently supports this view, and for my own part I entertain no doubt that a mine might, if necessary, be driven to the depth of 5,000 feet. The cost at which it must be done, however, is quite another matter. The expenditure on the shaft increases in a far higher ratio than its depth; the influence of this expenditure is more than can be readily estimated, because it is risked in the first instance, and in not a few cases is wholly lost; and not only must the capital itself be repaid, but considerable amounts of compound and simple interest must be met, in order that the undertaking shall be profitable. Were the depth of mines so slight an inconvenience as Mr. Vivian would make it appear, I think we should have more deep mines. It is now forty years since the Monkwearmouth Pit was commenced, and I believe that only one deeper pit has since been undertaken, that at Dukinfield, seventeen years ago. We cannot wonder that there are so few deep pits, when we consider that it required twenty years' labour to complete the Monkwearmouth pit, in consequence of the serious obstacles encountered (see p. 83). The Dukinfield Deep Pit, begun in June, 1849, was more fortunate, and reached the expected coal at a depth of 2,150 feet in March, 1859.

Having now candidly mentioned and discussed the strongest objections brought against the views stated in the following work, I may fairly ask the reader that he will treat these views with candour, not separating any statement from its qualifications and conditions. I have some reason to complain that this has not been done hitherto. A correspondent of the Times and Mining Journal has represented it as a consequence of my suppositions that there would, in 1961, be a population of 576 millions of people in this country, a statement wholly without foundation in the following pages.

One journal, the (London) Examiner,[1] has so far misrepresented me, that the editorial writer, after expressly stating that he has read the book with care, says:—"Professor Jevons shrinks from endorsing the 4,000 feet theory, and stops short at 2,500; but why there precisely, rather than anywhere else, he does not tell us. All we can gather from him on the subject is, that when we get to that depth a complete supply of foreign coals will come in from Pennsylvania and elsewhere." If the above be compared with what I have really said on the subjects on p. 57, and in chapter xiii., it will be seen that my statements are represented as the direct opposite of what they are. The whole article is full of almost equal misrepresentations.

I have been surprised to find how far the views expressed in some of the following chapters are merely an explicit statement of those long entertained by men of great eminence. The manner in which Mr. Mill mentioned this work in his remarkable speech on the National Debt,[2] was in the highest degree gratifying. I have found indeed, that most of what I said concerning the National Debt was unconsciously derived from Mr. Mill's own works. I have repeated it unchanged in this edition, with the exception of adding references. The fact is that no writer can approach the subject of Political Economy without falling into the deepest obligations to Mr. Mill, and it is as impossible as it is needless always to specify what we owe to a writer of such great eminence, and such wide-spread influence.

Sir John Herschel has most kindly expressed a general concurrence in my views, and has even said that this work contained "a mass of considerations, that as I read them seemed an echo of what I have long thought and felt about our present commercial progress."

As regards the supremacy of coal as a source of heat and power, and the impossibility of finding a substitute, I have again only interpreted the opinions of Professor Tyndall. He has kindly allowed me to extract the following from a recent letter with which he favoured me:—

"I see no prospect of any substitute being found for coal, as a source of motive power. We have, it is true, our winds and streams and tides; and we have the beams of the sun. But these are common to all the world. We cannot make head against a nation which, in addition to those sources of power, possesses the power of coal. We may enjoy a multiple of their physical and intellectual energy, and still be unable to hold our own against a people which possesses abundance of coal; and we should have, in my opinion, no chance whatever in a race with a nation which, in addition to abundant coal, has energy and intelligence approximately equal to our own.

"It is no new thing for me to affirm in my public lectures that the destiny of this nation is not in the hands of its statesmen but in those of its coal-owners; and that while the orators of St. Stephen's are unconscious of the fact, the very lifeblood of this country is flowing away."

And in the following passage Professor Tyndall has lately summed up the sources of power:—

"Wherever two atoms capable of uniting together by their mutual attractions exist separately, they form a store of potential energy. Thus our woods, forests, and coal-fields on the one hand, and our atmospheric oxygen on the other, constitute a vast store of energy of this kind—vast, but far from infinite. We have, besides our coal-fields, bodies in the metallic condition more or less sparsely distributed in the earth's crust. These bodies can be oxydised, and hence are, so far as they go, stores of potential energy. But the attractions of the great mass of the earth's crust are already satisfied, and from them no further energy can possibly be obtained. Ages ago the elementary constituents of our rocks clashed together and produced the motion of heat, which was taken up by the ether and carried away through stellar space. It is lost for ever as far as we are concerned. In those ages the hot conflict of carbon, oxygen, and calcium produced the chalk and limestone hills which are now cold; and from this carbon, oxygen, and calcium no further energy can be derived. And so it is with almost all the other constituents of the earth's crust. They took their present form in obedience to molecular force; they turned their potential energy into dynamic, and gave it to the universe ages before man appeared upon this planet. For him a residue of power is left, vast truly in relation to the life and wants of an individual, but exceedingly minute in comparison with the earth's primitive store."[3]

I learn from Mr. Hunt that his forthcoming report will show the production of coal in the United Kingdom in 1865 to be about ninety-five millions of tons, giving a considerable increase over the great total of 1864.

I would direct the attention of those who think the failure of coal so absurd a notion, and who, perhaps, would add that petroleum can take the place of coal when necessary, to the results of an inquiry lately undertaken by Mr. Hunt concerning an increase of supply of cannel coal. He finds, after a minute personal and local inquiry, that the present yearly production of 1,418,176 tons might be raised to 3,172,000 tons should the gas companies demand it and offer a sufficient price. But it appears to be clear that such a supply could not be maintained for many years. The Wigan cannel is estimated to last twenty years at the longest. Ten years of the assumed production would exhaust the North Wales cannel, and two authorities, Mr. Binney and Mr. J. J. Landale, agree that the Boghead oil-making coal will not last many years.

It is evident, in short, that the sudden demand for the manufacture of petroleum, added to the steady and rising demand of the gas works, will use up the peculiar and finest beds of oil and gas-making coals in a very brief period.

I have to thank Mr. Robert Hunt not only for his kindness in supplying me with a copy of the unpublished report containing these facts, but also for his readiness in furnishing the latest available information from the Mining Record Office. The operations of this most useful institution are still crippled, in spite of Mr. Hunt's constant exertions, by the want of proper power. It was established at the suggestion of the British Association, moved by Mr. Thomas Sopwith, to preserve the plans of abandoned mines in order that the future recovery of coal or minerals now left unworked might be facilitated, and the danger from irruptions of water and foul air from forgotten workings be averted. Colliery owners are, indeed, obliged to possess plans of their workings, and to exhibit them to the Government Inspectors of Mines, but they are not obliged to deposit copies in the Mining Record Office, on the ground of noninterference with vested interests. The deposit of plans then being voluntary, very few are received, and almost all are lost or destroyed soon after the closing of the colliery. Such plans, however, are of national importance, like registers of births, deaths, and marriages, or wills and other records. It is obvious that their destruction should be rendered illegal and penal, and that after the closing of a colliery, when the interference with private interests becomes imaginary, they should be compulsorily deposited in the Mining Record Office. It is more than twenty years since Mr. Sopwith urged these views in his remarkable pamphlet on "The National Importance of preserving Mining Records."[4] Yet our legislation remains as it was in truly English fashion. This subject, I hope, will now receive proper attention from the Royal Commission which is about to be appointed to inquire into the subject of our coal supply.

My great obligations to Mr. Hull will be clearly seen in several parts of the work.

I am inclined to think that a careful consideration of my arguments will show them to be less speculative and more practical than appears at first sight. I have carefully avoided anything like mere romance and speculation. It would be romance to picture the New Zealander moralizing over the ruins of London Bridge, or to imagine the time when England will be a mere name in history. Some day Britain may be known as a second Crete, a sea-born island crowned by ninety cities. Like the Cretans, we are ruled by laws more divine than human; we teach the use of metals, and clear the seas of robbers, and exert a mild governance over the coasts and islands. We too like Crete may form in remote history but a brief and half-forgotten link in the transmission of the arts from the East towards the West—transmission not without improvement.

But the subject of the following chapters, rightly regarded, seems to me to have an immediate and practical importance. It brings us face to face with duties of the most difficult and weighty character—duties which we have too long deferred and ignored. So long as future generations seemed likely for an indefinite period to be more numerous and comparatively richer than ourselves, there was some excuse for trusting to time for the amelioration of our people. But the moment we begin to see a limit to the increase of our wealth and numbers, we must feel a new responsibility. We must begin to allow that we can do to-day what we cannot so well do to-morrow. It is surely in the moment when prosperity is greatest; when the revenue is expanding most rapidly and spontaneously; when employment is abundant for all, and wages rising, and wealth accumulating so that individuals hardly know how to expend it—then it is that an effort can best be made, and perhaps only be made, to raise the character of the people appreciably.

It is a melancholy fact which no Englishman dare deny or attempt to palliate, that the whole structure of our wealth and refined civilization is built upon a basis of ignorance and pauperism and vice, into the particulars of which we hardly care to inquire. We are not entirely responsible for this. It is the consequence of tendencies which have operated for centuries past. But we are now under a fearful responsibility that, in the full fruition of the wealth and power which free trade and the lavish use of our resources are conferring upon us, we should not omit any practicable remedy. If we allow this period to pass without far more extensive and systematic exertions than we are now making, we shall suffer just retribution.

It is not hard to point out what kind of measures are here referred to. The ignorance, improvidence, and brutish drunkenness of our lower working classes must be dispelled by a general system of education, which may effect for a future generation what is hopeless for the present generation. One preparatory and indispensable measure, however, is a far more general restriction on the employment of children in manufacture. At present it may almost be said to be profitable to breed little slaves and put them to labour early, so as to get earnings out of them before they have a will of their own. A worse premium upon improvidence and future wretchedness could not be imagined.

Mr. Baker, the Inspector of Factories in South Staffordshire, has given a deplorable account of the way in which women and children are employed in the brick-yards; and in the South Wales ironworks I have myself seen similar scenes, which would be incredible if described. Dr. Morgan holds that our manufacturing population is becoming degenerate; and it must be so unless, as our manufacturing system grows, corresponding restrictions are placed upon the employment of infant labour.

It will be said that we cannot deprive parents of their children's earnings. If we cannot do it now, we can never do it; and wretched, indeed, must be a kingdom which depends for subsistence upon infant labour. But we can do it to the ultimate advantage of all, and we are bound to do it from regard to the children themselves: and anything which we may lose or spend now in education and loss of labour will be repaid many times over by the increased efficiency of labour in the next generation.

Reflection will show that we ought not to think of interfering with the free use of the material wealth which Providence has placed at our disposal, but that our duties wholly consist in the earnest and wise application of it. We may spend it on the one hand in increased luxury and ostentation and corruption, and we shall be blamed. We may spend it on the other hand in raising the social and moral condition of the people, and in reducing the burdens of future generations. Even if our successors be less happily placed than ourselves they will not then blame us.

To some it might seem that no good can come from contemplating the weakness of our national position. Discouragement and loss of prestige could alone apparently result. But this is a very superficial view, and the truth, I trust, is far otherwise. Even the habitual contemplation of death injures no man of any strength of mind. It rather nerves him to think and act justly while it is yet day. As a nation we have too much put off for the hour what we ought to have done at once. We are now in the full morning of our national prosperity, and are approaching noon. Yet we have hardly begun to pay the moral and the social debts to millions of our countrymen which we must pay before the evening.


  1. ^ Examiner, May 19th, 1866.
  2. ^ House of Commons, April 17th, 1866.
  3. ^ Fortnightly Review, Dec. 31, 1865, p. 143.
  4. ^ See p. 20 infra.

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