The Coal King

Coal is not only a raw material: it is also a symbol and a commodity, of which Ch.-F. Mathis traces history over two centuries.

Coal is the main source of energy in England and Wales from XIXe century until the aftermath of the Second World War (77% of the country's energy needs in 1877, 95% in 1900 and another 90% at the end of the 1930s). Charles-Franois Mathis studies in his work the history of coal in English society, not only as a raw material, but also as a symbol and commodity: he offers a long-term history (from XIXe century until the 1930s), intimate and cultural closer to the consumer, their habits, their ways of thinking (p. 495).

This approach is part of the recent renewal of the history of energy which no longer considers only techniques and resources, but energy systems: energy is analyzed as a combination of technical, political, economic, social and cultural factors in constant interaction. Thus, it is the advent and springs of a true civilization of coal that this work proposes to analyze, by studying the way in which society is shaped by the materiality of coal (infrastructure, organization of the domestic home, concrete uses of coal), but also by its symbolism. English society is entirely coal-minded (p. 16), turns to coal.

The main issue of the work consists make energy visible again (F. Trentmann) in its daily uses. For the author, it is not a question of repeating the already very numerous works on work (mines and miners) or on the coal industry and its role in the industrialization process, but of focusing on consumers, the domestic, the modest and the invisible. Through this attention to daily life, Charles-Franois Mathis claims the heritage of previous reflections on material civilization designed by Fernand Braudel. How do you get coal?? How do we use it? Who takes care of what (men, women, children, role of the state or producers, consumer associations)?

These questions resonate beyond the historical and academic environment: the work allows us to take a step back from the place of energies in our societies, where they are much more hidden than coal in English society. XIXe century. Coal can be seen (smoke), smelled (stings the nose), tasted (irritates the throat), is found in songs, in the press, in literature, the arts, architecture, cinema, and even in books. children's stories, advertising or cookbooks.

These numerous sources, some unpublished such as those of charitable organizations created to supply coal to the poorest, make it possible to study consumers, those who address them (advertising, domestic economics manuals, industrialists, reformers) and who speak in their name (the world policy).

Materiality and imagination of coal

Coal is omnipresent in the English area of XIXe century until the eve of the Second World War. Mined mainly in the mining areas around Birmingham (West Midlands), in Wales and Yorkshire (Durham region in the north-east), it is a commodity which marks the English territory (through distribution flows, from the mine to private homes), passing through depots, delivery men , sales and purchasing companies. It also modified the organization of the English household. Each household consumes several tonnes per year, it must be stored in dedicated rooms and furniture, use the appropriate tools, all artifacts of a civilization that permeates every everyday gesture.

The author underlines a first paradox: coal is omnipresent and yet it does not really exist: we distinguish numerous categories of coal according to quality and use (anthracite for example), but no scientific or legal consensus allows us to define what it really covers.

For the author, coal is first of all a material which allows read the british world (p. 77) of this period, through a second paradox. Coal is both an object of fascination and disquiet. It leaves its mark in the vocabulary, in the art, in the imagination, in the relationship to comfort (a room without a fireplace is unthinkable for an Englishman, and this in various social classes): the King Coal (le Roi Charbon, an expression popularized from the 1850s which underlines the ambivalence of the relationship with coal, both benefactor and tyrant) feeds the domestic fire as well as the power of the nation. It is a beneficial gift, but also a source of anguish: from the XIXe century, the fear of shortage agitates economists, politicians, but also consumers. The book places current energy saving issues in the long term.

Dependence and energy insecurity: we don't joke with this fuel

There Great famine coal mining of 1873 is analyzed as a turning point in the British relationship with coal. The price per tonne for domestic use rose from 18 shillings in 1871 to 44 shillings in 1873, provoking demonstrations, meetings of indignation, and petitions to demand state intervention via the taxation of exports or the supervision of production. A sign of the depth and modernity of the debates, a form of carbon tax supposed to moderate the use of coal was even mentioned in 1871, but quickly abandoned.

The author studies these movements in several cities, between local popular movement and broader political protest against liberalism and Victorianism. (p. 153). According to him, this is a first breach in the civilization of coal: English society is heavily dependent on it, and the poorest are the most vulnerable. If coal represents on average 5% of a household budget, the volatility of prices (seasonal or due to an unexpected event) weighs on expenses which, for the most humble, are limited to the subsistence minimum.

To deal with this energy insecurity, particularly the fear of the cold in winter when prices are at their highest, coal clubs organize collective purchases during the summer in small towns. Drawing on their unpublished archives, Charles-Franois Mathis studies these intermediaries who collect contributions and distribute coal to members. In 1911, Winchester (23,000 inhabitants), a coal club brings together for example 330 members; in 1861 the coal club of Market Harborough distributes 303 tonnes of coal to its 198 members. Consumer cooperatives enter into agreements with mines to transport coal directly to cities, grouping together in societies such as the Co-Operative Wholesale Society (CWS) in 1863 Manchester.

The author is also interested in consumption which is certainly residual at the national level, but which can at the individual level know the difference between surviving and freezing to death (p. 206): collection of coal that fell into the river during transport, recipes for making pellets from coal dust.

The gender and age of coal

A whole body of knowledge is developing on coal and its domestic uses, which the author grasps in particular through domestic economics manuals and school textbooks. This bottom-up approach shows the concern for energy savings, the acquisition of know-how primarily intended for women for managing coal fires. Charcoal reflects the gender distribution of tasks (women receive charcoal at home, then use it when they cook), but also family intimacy, (..) its organization and (the) power relationships that can be expressed there (p. 265) Very early, children learn a real moral coal, its geological origins, the risks of fire, the reverie of nursery rhymes in front of the hearth.

The gender-energy relationship is an important axis of this study: little girls are introduced very early, by their mother or their teachers, to lighting the fire and maintaining it (pg. 309); women are at the forefront of the Great Famine protests; they are often responsible for collecting coal club dues; They are also the preferred marketing target of energy companies, which highlight the supposed empowerment of women in the home, thanks to the control of coal.

What state intervention in the face of the cracks in carbon civilization?

The question of the role of the state in the coal market has been a sea serpent since the XIXe century. The absence of regulation was called into question from the First World War, with the establishment of export restrictions in 1915. The author analyzes the mechanics of the creation of different committees, in particular the Fuel Research Board in 1917, responsible for creating and collecting data on existing deposits. It demonstrates that a real national energy policy is gradually emerging, accompanied by better scientific knowledge of coal.

The competition from new sources of energy is at this time as much material as it is symbolic: it is now oil and electricity which symbolize modernity and shape the imagination. Faced with this loss of aura, coal promoters defended in the 1930s a fire that was healthier than its rivals, cleaner if properly used, and even a patriotic material: coal was indeed a commodity before being a resource.

This work is for historians an exemplary study of energy crops which accompany the mobilization of an energy source. By analyzing daily uses and the flow of contradictory emotions that coal arouses, it allows us to give back their place to ordinary people, consumers and users who are often forgotten in historical studies on energy.

John Gordon Thomson (artist), Old King Coal, The Dalziel Brothers (engravers), Fun, 1erMarch 1873.
Credit: the University of Florida library.

More broadly, Charles-Franois Mathis invites us to reflect on the lessons learned from this historical study for our current societies where abundance and energy insecurity coexist. Energy is not just a resource, but a social and economic construction that is difficult to define, an increasingly invisible commodity, which nevertheless shapes national and domestic spaces. Note that coal, although considered an energy of the past, still represents 10.5% of the total energy consumed on a global scale in 2017 and 25% of the energy needs of England and Wales at the start of the XXIe century. time for technical debates on the different scenarios of energy mixit is useful to remember that energy is inseparable from the uses and representations it implies, and therefore that the transition plays out, among other things, on an imaginary (p. 273).