Coal is just rock, after all. But a most interesting sedimentary rock, which is not only highly flamable, but it can be fairly easily carved and takes a high polish. However, by the Regency, coal was much more likely to be burned than worn. A concise chronicle of coal culminating in the Regency …
There were vast deposits of coal in the British Isles, but for centuries the native inhabitants seldom used the dusty, black, odoriferous rock for fuel, beyond its use in funeral pyres. There were also vast forests covering the land, and the ancient tribes of Britain chose to burn the much more aromatic wood for heat and light. It was not until the Romans invaded and explored the islands that coal was first put to wide use. Coal had been used by the Romans for centuries and they immediately recognized it when they found deposits of it in Britain. The Romans particularly liked the hot-burning British coal, much of which was a deep velvety black color. In fact, many of them, particularly the soldiers stationed in outlying areas, liked it so much that they carved pieces of it into beads and cameo-like plaques which they used to make jewelry for their wives and sweethearts. Once these carved pieces of coal had been polished, they looked very much like jet or obsidian. Some of that jewelry survives, even today, and is frequently mistaken for black Bakelite or obsidian. Though the majority of those carved coal jewelry items were sent back to Italy, a great many of them remained in Britain, probably given as gifts to local women being wooed by lonely Roman soldiers. Some of those gifts might have remained in that woman’s family, handed down from one generation to the next. It would have been possible for such pieces to have still been in the possession of some of those families during the Regency, or in the collections of an antiquarian or a dealer in antique jewelry. During the reign of Queen Victoria, coal jewelry, in the form of jet, experienced a resurgence in popularity, when mourning, especially for women, driven by the widowed queen, acquired an excruciatingly complex and rigid set of rules and regulations.
Despite the example set them by the Romans, the Britons continued to burn primarily wood for fuel. That may have been due as much to their dislike of the Roman invaders as to their dislike of the unpleasant smell of coal. But by the late Middle Ages, the vast forests of England were disappearing, consumed for construction materials in both buildings and ships, to make charcoal for iron-smelting, and as fuel for heat and cooking. This had the effect of significantly increasing the cost of wood for all uses. By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, coal was employed for industrial fuel, such as lime-burning, iron-smelting and casting, but most people still preferred to heat their homes and cook with wood, regardless of the cost. More than likely, this was due to the fact that wood was more effective in the wide, square, open-hearth fireplaces which were common at the time. Coal performed very badly in such fireplaces, as they lacked sufficient draft to pull the heavier smoke up the chimney, thus introducing a foul smell and an oily black sooty residue into the room where coal was burned. Coal was also slow to ignite, so it took a substantial amount of dry kindling to start a fire, where a wood fire could be ignited with a minimum of time and kindling.
By the early eighteenth century, a number of technological advances in the construction of fireplaces and chimneys, added to the continuing rise in the cost of wood, finally brought coal into the homes of England. Fireplaces were made narrower, more shallow, with inner walls which slanted or curved as they rose to the chimney opening, increasing the draft. Thus, nearly all the smoke was pulled directly up into the chimney, rather than billowing out into the room. The addition of a metal smoke canopy inside many fireplaces also facilitated the chimney’s draw, almost completely eliminating the escape of smoke. The transition from fire dogs or andirons to a coal grate significantly increased the safety and convenience of burning coal rather than wood. The coal grate was essentially an iron basket which held the burning chunks of coal. In most cases, the coal grate consisted of an iron plate which was firmly fixed to the back wall of the fireplace, directly below the chimney opening. To this heavy iron plate was attached a set of half-hoops or rectangles made of heavy iron rods. These shaped iron bars were each spaced a few inches apart and attached to the grate-back in ascending order, by increasing size. The lowest shaped bar was the smallest, with the next highest shaped bar being a couple inches larger, and so on. Thus, the coal grate had the appearance of a funnel-shaped basket which held the burning coal. The grate allowed plenty of air to circulate around the burning coal, which had the dual effect of increasing heat and reducing smoke. The heat was radiated into the room from the iron of the grate and the smoke was swiftly drawn up the chimney. The grate also increased the safety of a coal fire by containing any clinkers, that is, the impurities in the coal that do not burn, but often fuse together and remain red-hot for long periods. If these hot clinkers were to fall out of the fireplace onto the floor or a nearby rug, they could easily start a fire. Safely contained within the grate, they could be properly removed and disposed of, along with the ash, when the fireplace was cleaned and prepared for the new day’s fire. Despite the better chimney draw, some coal dust and soot would still escape into a room. Many servants were employed in endless rounds of cleaning to keep these rooms free of the black, oily residue of coal burning.
Chunks of coal were very heavy, dense and compact, unlike the lighter, larger, longer logs or split logs which would have been burned in a wood-burning fireplace. Thus the coal grate was the perfect means by which to burn the much less expensive, chunky, but compact coal. It should be noted, however, that it would be very difficult to burn wood logs or split logs in a fireplace once it had been equipped with a coal grate. Logs or split logs would not get enough oxygen to burn well in a coal grate, and andirons would have been useless when burning coal. Once a fireplace had been converted to coal burning by the installation of a coal grate, that whole process would have had to have been reversed in order to be able to efficiently burn wood in the fireplace once more. Each type of fuel had its own optimal fireplace configuration and though the "other" fuel could be burned in either fireplace type in a pinch, there would have been problems maintaining the fire and controlling the smoke. So, in most cases, coal was burned in a grate and wood was set on andirons to burn.
Though coal had finally made its way into the English home, it had a much longer battle ahead in its attempt to invade the English kitchen. Most people had come to tolerate coal for heating their rooms, but many still resisted its use in cooking their food. Coal tended to burn much hotter than wood and would eventually burn through the bottoms of cooking pots and pans which were used in close proximity to the fire. This higher heat was also not conducive to the slow roasting of meats, popular dishes on many English dining tables. Coal made much higher ember piles than wood, which could not accommodate a horizontal spit. Eventually, a vertical spit type was developed, which was suspended higher above the fire, but meats roasting on these spits had to be tended closely. Meats roasted or grilled over a coal fire certainly did not have the same flavor as those which had been roasted or grilled over a hickory or apple wood fire. There were few who wanted to eat meat which had been cooked over a coal fire, as there was always a hint of coal smoke in the flavor. Coal did have one advantage over wood, it always burned at about the same temperature, while wood of the same species, or even from the same tree, might burn at different temperatures, depending on various environmental conditions, such as humidity. But coal burned much faster than wood, so more was needed and it left behind significant amounts of much heavier ash than did wood, not to mention those annoying clinkers, which were not only fire hazards, but could cause uneven burning and thus spoil the meal. In addition, coal was not at all suitable for heating brick ovens, due to its higher heat and the large volumes of ash it left behind. As with the use of coal in any room, there was also the ongoing need for endless cleaning to remove the oily soot and black coal dust which would inevitably settle on everything in the room.
Near the very end of the Regency, the kitchens of the more affluent, particularly in the larger cities, might have had a modern cast-iron, coal-burning stove installed. Such stoves would have provided much more efficient means of cooking, with controlled heat, and easier disposal of clinkers and ash. But they were not well-designed for the preparation of some of the more old-fashioned dishes such as smoked and roasted meats, which were therefore less frequently seen on dinner menus in town, unless the homeowner also kept a wood-burning kitchen fireplace for the purpose. By this time, in the larger cities and towns, breads and pastries were typically purchased from the local baker, so the lack of a brick oven was not particularly missed in urban areas. But regardless of whether cooking was done with coal in a stove or in a fireplace, there was still a lot of smoke and soot given off. This not only left oily, dirty floors, walls and ceilings, it was a health hazard to cooks and others who spent a great deal of time in the kitchen. The great French master-chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, arguably the most famous chef of the Regency era, was well aware of the danger. He is reported to have exclaimed to one of his English employers, "The coal is killing us!" There are some who believe his early death, at the age of only forty-eight, can be ascribed to those very coal fumes, which he was forced to inhale as he labored to produce his many dazzling culinary creations.
In London, most fireplaces in upscale residential, governmental and commercial buildings would have been converted to coal-burning by the advent of the Regency. The cost of wood in the metropolis would have been prohibitively expensive, even to the most wealthy, due to the added cost of transport from the distant, shrinking forests where it was still cut. And yet, even in urban areas, in the early nineteenth century, there were certainly many fireplaces, such as those found in old, cheap rooms and boarding houses, which were probably used to burn the less-expensive coal, even though the fireplaces themselves had not been converted with the installation of a coal grate. Coal burned in a fireplace intended for wood would give off less heat and more smoke, resulting in very unpleasant and unhealthy living and working conditions for those who inhabited such places. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some who lived or worked in those places might have nicked a bit of wood from time to time, providing them with "free" fuel, which, in those unmodified fireplaces, would have given them more heat and less smoke. For someone with a bit of money, a free-standing iron basket could be purchased which could be placed in the fireplace, directly beneath the chimney. Coal could then be burned in this basket, and much like coal burned in a coal grate, would send most of the smoke up the chimney, and more of the heat out into the room. However, these coal baskets, or brasiers, were not cheap, and would have been well beyond the means of the very poor.
During the Regency, there were many affluent people who would have heated their homes with coal, but would still have insisted on using wood, regardless of the cost, for cooking. Those with forested country estates might have had wood cut, cured and sent to their London townhomes to be used for cooking. Those same people might very well have burned coal in the majority of rooms in their manor houses, but continued to use wood in their kitchens and smokehouses, at least for food preparation. Precious wood would not have been used for heating water for bathing, laundry and washing up. The much cheaper coal would suffice for those purposes. Wealthy merchants and lesser gentry, or those without access to their own forests, would have contracted to have wood delivered to their houses for cooking, even though they also had coal delivered for heating the rest of the rooms in their homes.
Most people living in the English countryside, particularly if they lived near forested areas, usually continued to burn wood for both heating and cooking even into the Regency. The majority of coal was shipped to and sold in urban areas, and was therefore more costly to ship to remote rural areas. There were often problems with theft of wood from private lands if there were not enough public forests in an area to supply the needs of the population. Punishments for the theft of wood could be very severe, though there are some records of judges and magistrates showing occasional leniency if weather conditions were very harsh and the thief particularly needy, but having no other criminal record. In America and Canada, the use of coal was vigorously and strenuously resisted by those of English extraction until the years after the death of George IV, as there were still vast forests available on the North American continent. German and Scandinavian settlers in North America were less prejudiced against coal, and many of them were already using coal at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The coal cook-stove was not invented until 1819, so it had essentially no impact on the cooking techniques of the decade when Prinny was Regent. Most gourmands and epicures of the age would have insisted on having their meals cooked over a wood fire in preference to one of coal. There is a hint of evidence in a few contemporary diaries and letters that the use of wood fires for cooking was considered a mark of a fashionable household, though that has not yet been substantiated by multiple sources. It is certain that most chefs preferred cooking with either wood or charcoal, and it is likely many would have refused to cook with coal. So, if a host or hostess wanted to acquire the services of a top-notch chef, they would have been well-advised to have a wood-burning kitchen fireplace available for this culinary artist. Most other rooms in a house would have been heated with coal, and many dining room fireplaces might have been equipped with a hob, usually a flat area of the grate, where a tea kettle could be placed to heat water. Some drawing rooms, sitting rooms, and even some bedchambers, might also have a hob, to provide convenient access to hot water for the occupants. All those housemaids in large households would have been kept busy cleaning rooms daily to wipe away the coal dust and soot which was produced by burning coal. Housewives in less affluent households, with fewer maids, might have found it a challenge to keep up with the dust and soot. Coal was the bane of most large cities, especially in the winter, as the widespread burning of it filled the air with oily black soot, the slightly sulfuric odor of the smoke and volumes of carbon dioxide. The frequent rains of England probably best helped to protect the health of the urban populations, by regularly cleaning the air of the residue of coal fires.
Country folk, particularly those in remote areas, might not have encountered coal during their life, if wood was the only fuel used to heat their homes and cook their meals. Some of them would not have been above a bit of wood poaching here and there, to supplement their fuel supply. And, should they visit the metropolis at any point, they would certainly have been horrified by the dingy, hazy skies and the slightly sulfuric scent of the city on a particularly smoggy day. Some may very well have thought they had arrived in Hell. No doubt many of them would have been eager to return to the clean air of their country homes and may have sympathized with the plight of their city-dwelling brethren. The air quality of London, particularly as temperatures dropped, was one of the reasons most aristocratic families chose to winter in their country homes rather than remain in the metropolis. They might come to the city for the few brief weeks of the Little Season, usually if they had daughters to launch into Society. Otherwise, they tended to avoid the city in winter, when coal smoke was heaviest in the air. By the start of the main Season, in the spring, fewer fires were burning, and the London air was noticeably cleaner. All those many housemaids were probably happy to see winter depart, and with it the need to burn coal in most rooms of the house, as they would be relieved of the constant effort to remove all the resulting soot and dust.
The next time a character in a Regency novel casually tosses a chunk or two of coal on a fire, now you will have a better idea of how it came to be in use, and some idea of the ramifications of using that particular fuel. You will also have a better idea of the technology which had been developed to support its use, and you will quickly be able to determine if a fireplace was intended to burn coal or wood by whether or not it is equipped with a coal grate or a pair of andirons. And you will be able to tell whether a family truly enjoys their meals by whether they are cooked over wood or coal.
Coal, in the form of jet, was used to make jewelry during the Regency, though it was much less common than it would become in the Victorian era, when mourning was elevated to an art-form. There was also the chance that some of those Roman-made coal jewelry items might be found in a Regency-era archaeological dig or a private collection. Mayhap a young lady has a necklace or bracelet of carved black stones which had been handed down from mother to daughter in her family for generations. She wears it to a dance at the local assembly rooms, where it is seen by a visiting nobleman who is a classical scholar. He immediately recognizes it as a Roman piece and would like to have a better look at it. He is terribly shy of women, but the need to see the piece more closely drives him to seek an invitation to the young lady, and after many twists and turns, romance, of course, blossoms. Perhaps the piece is seen by a obsessed collector of Roman antiquities, who sets in train a dastardly plot to steal the young lady’s prized possession. But, of course, a hero comes on the scene who foils the villainous plot and wins fair lady in the process. Or, what if such a jewelry item has been cursed and causes harm to all those who possess it? Since it is made of coal, it can burn, and the resolution of the story may be to consign it to a hot fire, perhaps one of coal.