Heritage: Havering’s 500-year affair with coal

The Great Smog of December 1952 led to Clean Air Acts and the general phasing-out of coal fires. Pic

The Great Smog of December 1952 led to Clean Air Acts and the general phasing-out of coal fires. Picturre: PA Archive/PA Images . - Credit: PA

In June 2020, Britain marked two whole months without any electricity generated from coal. Professor Ged Martin looks back at Havering’s long affair with smoky fossil fuel

Medieval people heated their homes by burning wood.

Northern Havering was forest country. Firewood was sold to London: in 1451 a consignment was stolen from a wharf by the Thames.

Charcoal burners, called “colliers”, worked at Collier Row.

By the 15th century, firewood was being replaced by coal, shipped down the east coast from Newcastle.

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But before you could burn coal, you needed a chimney. In medieval houses, the fireplace was at the centre of the room. Pleasant- smelling wood smoke filtered out through thatched roofs.

Dirty, sparky coal needed a fireplace. In 1469, a Romford man asked a friend to find him a skilled bricklayer (they were Dutch) to build him a chimney. It’s one of our first documents in English.

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Maldon had a “Towne Coleheape” by 1598. At Colchester in 1627, coal from Newcastle was taxed to pay for protection against pirates based in Dunkirk.

Use of coal spread inland. In 1724, the garden behind a blacksmith’s premises in Romford town was piled high with it. Maybe the smith doubled as a coal dealer.

In 1714, the lease of Lee Gardens, a mansion in Wingletye Lane, Hornchurch, included provision of “sea coales” to be supplied from Barking.

In the 1720s, entrepreneur John Harle built a wharf on the Ingrebourne at Rainham, where he unloaded “Newcastle, Sunderland, & Scotch coal”.

In 1766, obstacles were cleared from the River Roding so that coal unloaded at Barking could be brought upstream to a “convenient Wharf” at “Illford Bridge”. The aim was to supply Newcastle coal to a wide area “as cheap as at Raynham, Barking, or Stratford”.

By 1810, the Wedlake brothers operated a foundry at Hornchurch. Upminster windmill, built around 1803, is a local symbol of renewable energy, but, by 1818, it had an auxiliary steam engine, for days when the wind did not blow. Romford’s first gasworks opened in 1825.

Each of these enterprises depended on bulky loads of coal supplied by wagon. Local highways were better than we sometimes believe.

In 1805, agricultural expert Arthur Young commented that while gentry and tradesmen had long used coal, Essex farmers had chiefly burned timber – no doubt from their hedgerows – “but coal is everywhere gaining ground upon wood”.

By the nineteenth century, even the poor depended upon coal. In Romford, inhabitants of Roger Reede’s almshouses were allocated coal by 1837.

Special supplies were arranged for poor people in Hornchurch during the cold winter of 1860.

The arrival of the railway in Romford in 1839 probably made little difference to supplies at first. There was no through rail network to the coalfields, so trains could only deliver coal brought by boat to Stratford and Ilford. Anyway, early Puffing Billy engines weren’t powerful enough to haul huge goods trains.

In 1848, Romford had three coal dealers. Two were in the traditional business hub of the High Street, and were almost certainly supplied by wagon.

The third, in Waterloo Road, probably relied on the railway.

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By 1886, Romford had three coal suppliers in South Street, near the station. One of them was the Silkstone Colliery Company, a Yorkshire coalmine supplying customers direct.

A fourth coal business operated in Carlisle Road, serving the growing population south of Victoria Road.

Delivering coal was a grimy, beefy activity. Mrs Catherine Earps, coal and coke merchant at Rainham, was probably a widow carrying on her husband’s business.

Breaking into the local trade was J.A. Abraham of Upminster Windmill, who had arranged supplies from “the leading English and Welsh Collieries”. Upminster’s railway station had opened the previous year.

By the 1950s, most Havering homes had a coal bunker in the back garden.

But the Great Smog of December 1952, when London was blanketed in filthy, choking fog, led to Clean Air Acts and the general phasing-out of fires.

Havering’s 500-year affair with coal came to an end.