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5 October 2021

From the NS archive: The empty grate

3 November 1951: Certain merchants are stockpiling logs in the hope that prices will rise to even more fantastic heights.

By Helen Gosse

Despite the war ending six years earlier, in 1951 the UK’s trade was still reeling from the consequences of the Second World War. Rationing had stabilised the reliance on imported goods in wartime, but as most household items became unrestricted by 1950 the sharp rise in demand on imported goods provided the perfect opportunity for profiteering. In this article for the “New Statesman”, Helen Gosse described the log shortage of 1951 and how scheming merchants manipulated the market. Yet Gosse explains that “such gentry are not the first to see in a fuel-hungry England their opportunity”, as she outlines key historic examples of problems with log and fuel supply. From fuel rationing in the Elizabethan period to black market trading in the 17th century, the cost of fuelling the country has always been “a matter of continuous public anxiety”. 

For a fortunate few the streets of London are still paved with gold. Always popular, “Council” wood-blocks, those tarred brick-shaped pieces of wood which form the surface of so many West End and City streets, are yielding unusually high profits to street traders. Bought from road-building contractors for about 8s. 6d. per hundred, they are sold as firewood to the housewife at 16s. per hundred – a fat profit, when overheads are little more than a pony’s winter fodder and stabling. The price of logs has also skyrocketed, and the less scrupulous dealers are offering them at exorbitant prices. Although wholesale prices are controlled, and vary from about 45s. to 90s. per ton, according to quality and to freight charges, dealers are retailing logs by number at prices almost identical to those of the tarred blocks. As about 1,000 logs make up a ton, it is not surprising that some log merchants are making huge profits; this year, green logs are fetching higher prices than good logs did last year. It is known that certain merchants are stockpiling logs in the hope that prices will rise to even more fantastic heights when the coal shortage reaches its late winter peak.

Such gentry are not the first to see in a fuel-hungry England their opportunity. In Elizabethan England, not only was timber rationed but attempts were made to control its price. In 1594, Lord Burghley reflects the mood of his Government in a letter to the Countess of Rutland. The shortage of timber at the time was so acute that tree-felling had been forbidden in the Royal forests without special warrant. The Countess had written pretending that she had not received her ration and complaining that, in any case, her allocation was inadequate. Lord Burghley, in a devastatingly frank reply, points out that she had already been given no fewer than 450 trees from Sherwood Forest for the repair of her castle and mills in Newark. Worse, she had sold her ration in the black market:

“It hath bene informed unto me and complained of, that the greatest number of the said trees have not been employed to the use they were allowed for, but sold by such as your Ladyship put in trust for money … which is a verie foule deseit and abuse towards mee and wrong to her Majestie, which shall make mee more careful both in granting my warrants herafter and in seeing them employed to the use they are granted for.”

During the seventeenth century, when coal replaced timber as a domestic fuel, many devices were employed to raise the prices of coal in London. Its cost was a matter of continuous public anxiety throughout the reign of the Stuarts, and at one time the Government proposed that the Crown should take over the coal trade. Pirates, the blockade of the Newcastle collier fleets during the Dutch Wars, and the Fire of London each provided ideal conditions for profiteering. London prices at the beginning of the century had been around 10s. per ton. In 1667, coal which had sold at the pithead for about 3s. was fetching from £4 to £5 10s. per ton in London – a fact which makes our present-day approximate ratio of one to two as between cost at pit and hearth considerably easier to tolerate, and is no mean tribute to the efficiency of the present Coal Board and the coal merchants.

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The worst fuel crisis of all was caused by the Great Fire, in which large stocks of coal were destroyed. Notorious cases of profiteering were then disclosed. Sir Edmund Godfrey, a magistrate and Westminster woodmonger, was one of the worst offenders; his behaviour being particularly flagrant, as he was knighted as a reward for his relief work during the Plague. A committee of the House of Commons revealed that Godfrey and his fellow spivs had sold coal to the poor at 72s. per chaldron, for which he had paid only about 41s. His reputation did not improve when it was discovered that his stocks, unlike those of the majority of dealers, had suffered no loss through the Fire. In April of the same year, Pepys, if not positively guilty of buying on the black market, certainly was not slow to avail himself of the chance of laying in winter fuel at less than summer prices; he already possessed experience of the trade, as he had previously speculated in Newcastle coal. He records with quiet satisfaction: “Got in some coals at 23s. per chaldron; a good hearing, I thank God.”

Even the subjects of fuel economy and smoke abatement are not peculiar to modern industrial England. Among recent officially recommended methods of saving coal are recipes for homemade briquettes to be moulded in an old tin or flower-pot from cement and coal dust. In 1603, Sir Hugh Platt wrote a book which deals with the smoke nuisance and goes on to say: “A new cheap and delicate fire of cole Balles, wherein seacoal is by mixture of other combustible bodies both sweetened and multipled.” Borrowing from the practice popular in Germany at that time, he advocated mixing loam with powdered seacole and making balls “which are neither so oppressive in smell or yet in soile as the ordinary seacole fires are.” He adds:

“The smoke which in our usuall fires doeth immediately ascend from the seacoles unprepared must needs according to the foule and grosse matter of the cote, be also foule and smooty itself. But when the smoke doth pass and become scarsed through the lome (the mixture) it is then so refined and sibtilated that it either consumeth and swalloweth up, or else leaveth behindeth the gross residence of its own nature, whereby that black kind of peppering or seacole dust is either wholy or for the most part avoideth.”

Here was an early fore-runner of the modern heating experts, who rightly contend that the solution to the shortage of coal for domestic use is not the acquisition of expensive logs or woodblocks but the adoption of grates capable of making efficient use of all solid fuels – including the fine dust which, till recently, was discarded at the pit-head.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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