Aleksandr Bierig


Nourse revealed how coal’s smoke ate away at the things it had helped produce. Coal had enacted a dense, intensive feedback: its energy had allowed for the fabrication of more solid things than ever before, rendering London stable in brick, mortar, glass, and, later, iron. An “unlimited source of energy,” to repeat Derek Keene, that underpinned the city’s physical growth. But the solid things afforded by coal could not stand its own corrosive air. What coal gave, smoke took away. Seen within the narrow frame of the city, these cycles of creation and destruction could appear reciprocal, elegantly illustrating a fundamental trade-off in aesthetic, commensurate terms.

The history of fossil fuel, however, became Evelyn’s, not Nourse’s. It was cast in spatial and not material terms, leading to the continuing externalization of environmental costs, with much of the benefit accumulating within a few, privileged interiors. The political economist John Ramsay McCulloch seemed to grasp this pattern when he wrote, in 1832: “It is the possession of her coal mines which has rendered Britain, in relation to the whole world, what a city is to the rural district that surrounds it.” London, and then the planet.

It was at this same moment, around 1830, that the boundaries of the coal-fired city became durably scrambled, its edge condition pushed and broken by the energy of fossil fuel. One aspect of this was expressed in George Cruickshank’s well-known 1828 cartoon of the “March of Bricks and Mortar,” which showed the advancing charge of suburbanization (a topic studied in detail by urban historian Elizabeth McKellar). In the image, Cruickshank personified the coal-fired brick kilns as military figures, the leading agents of urban sprawl.

“London going out of town-or the March of bricks & mortar!” c. 1829 by George Cruickshank. Source: British Museum, 1978,U.1616.

As a counterpoint to this well-known image, we might look to the coal tax boundary of the metropolitan London. The Corporation of the City of London—the ancient commercial center of the city—maintained an immemorial right to measure and tax all commodities entering its jurisdiction, including coal. In 1666, following the Great Fire of London, Charles II increased the coal tax in order to fund the reconstruction of the city churches after their destruction by fire and, in particular, the resurrection of St. Paul’s Cathedral. While this tax changed its form and official justification many times, it was repeatedly renewed, and its revenue eventually helped fund a variety of buildings, public works, and urban “improvements” through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ranging from the construction of Blackfriars Bridge and Newgate Prison, the renovation of numerous streets and thoroughfares, and even the construction of the 1849 Coal Exchange. With the London coal tax, part of the city’s reliance on coal was captured and siphoned off into more durable forms. While there appeared almost constant objections to its continuation from the late eighteenth century onwards—McCulloch saw the tax as a check against both manufacturing and free trade, calling it “grossly unequal and oppressive” and “a disgrace to the country”—the London coal duty persisted until 1889. Its final purpose was to fund the construction of an embankment of the Thames, solidifying the riverbanks along which coals had once arrived.

That water-bound route, seen earlier in Fruchard’s trade card, provided a natural bottleneck, a narrow area where all fuel imports could be monitored and also taxed, as coal merchants were charged with settling the duties on every cargo they imported into the city. But, beginning in the early nineteenth century, this customary channel was disrupted, first by canals and then, much more durably, by railways.

Beginning in the 1830s, the Corporation of the City of London began to erect small markers along the boundary of its jurisdiction, defined as within a 20-mile radius of the General Post Office. The architect who designed the Coal Exchange in the 1840s, James Bunstone Bunning, was also charged with erecting some of the first coal tax posts that marked where individual railways entered the tax boundary of the City. Beginning with a few granite markers placed where the routes entered London’s jurisdiction, the posts were later fabricated in mass-produced iron, redesigned in 1851 and then again 1861 as different commissions drew and redrew its border. In the end, according to the local historian Martin Nail, there were some 280 posts and other markers dotted around the city, small monuments to the City’s attempt to capture the expansion of the coal-fired metropolis with their ancient tax.

Map of Area of Coal Duties (Newcastle, 1885). From An Account of the Duties on Coal, and the London Coal and Wine Duties. Source: London Metropolitan Archives, LCC/PUB/09/081.

Large Stone Coal Post (Plinth and Base Submerged), 1/2 Mile South of Theydon Bois Railway Station, east side of track, 1981. Source: Guildhall Library, London, Fo.pam. 7120.Beyond smoke and soot, these boundary images offer other views of the expansions and retrenchments of the coal-fired city, whose motivating power seemed to trouble any attempt to find a stable limit, a place where the interior could be cleanly separated from an exterior. The coal tax, like Nourse’s managed forest, was an attempt to ring-fence the coal consumption of the metropolis.

But these boundaries were oriented very differently. Nourse’s imagined forest circumscribed the metropolis within a wooden utopia that aimed to restrain coal’s accelerating force. His proposal, presented at perhaps the last moment it was possible to imagine London without coal, was almost unique in its considered resistance of coal-fired progress. In the substance of his essay, Nourse tried to fill in the gaps that his scheme seemed to leave open, to prove that a well-designed wood supply could provide all the power that coal yielded, without its costs. But what his attempts to justify his plan revealed was that wood’s power could barely maintain the existing structures in place. Coal not only maintained these activities, but it expanded them constantly by moving everything faster and faster in the heat and material and smoke that spiraled out from its dense power. Nourse’s conservative vision attempted to rein in a future that threatened to run out of control. By contrast, the boundary of the London coal tax was a backward-looking and reactive measure, an archaic administration chasing a context that was expanding faster than its modest capacity for regulation.


« City Distance »