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The Political Importance of Coal as portrayed in Punch (1898-1900)

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Seo, Bong Sun
Term Paper, AP European History Class, May 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. The Significance of Coal During the Late 19th and Early 20th Century
II.1 Britain
II.2 The United States
III. Britain, the King of Coal
IV. Development of Electricity
V. Conclusion

I. Samoa's Location
            Coal can be called the heart of European economy. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, substitute fuels were meager; there was very little oil and practically no natural gas in Europe (1). Coal was thus the energy behind production. During 1898-1900, "Punch, or the London Charivari," an English illustrated periodical, published a couple of cartoons on the issue of coal.

II. The Significance of Coal During the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

II.1 Britain
            By 1850, Britain had become the first industrialized country in the world, and coal played a big role. Britain controlled two-thirds of the world's coal production (2). "In a speech made in Parliament in 1867 by Mr. Gladstone, he dwelt at length upon the importance of coal as the motive power of factories and commerce. He stated that the commercial and manufacturing superiority of Great Britain was based on coal; that with the exhaustion of coal in Great Britain, the commerce and manufactures of Great Britain must decline; and that as the United States contained the largest deposits of coal in the world, this country in course of time must surpass all others in commerce and in manufacturers." (3)

II.2 The United States
            Historically, coal production played an important role in the development of the United States as well as in the nationí»s growth and westward expansion. "The increasing use of mechanical methods of mining bituminous coal has materially reduced the cost of mining, and while the anthracite producers are faced with a continually increasing cost of their own product, they are also obliged to meet a competitor whose cost of production has been steadily decreasing." (4) Large amounts of coal were consumed for domestic heating, railroad fuel and for stationary steam engines. Coal was a very important source of heat for smelting iron ore for the iron and steel industry. By the early 1900s, coal was supplying more than 100,000 coke ovens, mostly in western Pennsylvania and northwestern West Virginia. (5)

III. Britain, the King of Coal
            The coal and steel industry developed greatly in Britain. The results of the advances in coal and steel production upon the pattern of exports became clear. Between 1880 and 1990 British exports of iron, steel, machinery, and coal doubled, to reach 95 million Pound Sterling despite tariffs and increasing competition in the world economy. (6) The International Historical Statistics: Europe 1750-1988 show that in 1898, U.K. had the highest amount of coal output in Europe with 205 millions of metric tons, while France produced 32.4 millions of metric tons, and Italy 0.3. Britain's export of coal provided some of the fuel and power to run the capital equipment being exported. The export of British goods let developments within the British economy actively encourage the progress of industrialization in some other countries abroad where appropriate conditions of profitability existed. (7)

Fig. 1 : Punch Vol.114 p.208 May 7 1898

            The above picture shows an old man wearing a crown rowing a boat drawn as a coal bucket with a coal shovel. The words below the drawing read, "The King of the Seas. King Coal: Aha ! Peace or war, they can't get on without me !" This is obviously a picture depicting the contemporary situation in which many countries had to depend on Britain for coal. Peace or war, coal was a crucial resource that many countries needed to have.
            Britain was the world's top coal producing countries. On the other hand, there were many countries that were not that abundant in the production of coal. Countries with large coal deficits, such as France and Italy, were in the position of being dependent upon other nations such as Britain for their coal imports. Italy had no coal to speak of and only some scattered deposits of lignite, a fact of crucial importance to the country's modern economic development, for it meant that the peninsula was largely excluded from the first industrial revolution of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. (9) The French coal industry also never produced as much coal as France consumed: despite a 60 percent rise in domestic production between 1873 and 1895, imported coal continued to account for some 30 percent of aggregate domestic consumption. (10)

Fig.2 : UK Coal Exports 1800-1950

            The above graph shows England's coal exports as a percentage of coal production during 1800-1978. We can see that exports reached a peak of over 25.0% during 1900-1905. The industry of coal exports in England flourished during this period. This is why "Punch" portrayed England as the king of coal.

Punch Vol.114 p.31 January 22nd 1898

            This picture is also a cartoon from "Punch" published on January 22nd, 1898. In this cartoon, John Bull, a typical Englishman appearing in "Punch," is saying to other men, "What, Maties ! Want some o' my coal to get to China ! Right you are! (to himself) I can always stop the supplies !" This depicts England as a coal supplier to other countries.
            Coal was so essential to the prosecution of war that it is impossible to avoid classing it as conditional contraband, so long as such contraband is recognized. During the Franco-Chinese campaign of 1885, Great Britain did not object to French war vessels coaling and repairing at British ports. On China protesting against this indulgence to France, Great Britain treated coal as contraband. The closing of British coaling stations to French warships was a serious inconvenience to France. An article from The New York Times in 1898 said, "The recent decision of the English Government is considered by naval officials as favorable to this country (US) . . . Its purpose is strict neutrality, but in its effect it will favor the vessels of this country as compared with those of Spain. The best thing that could happen to us would be the closing of every coaling station in the waters of the West Indies. Our coaling stations are near enough to keep our vessels in abundant supply, but Spain would be powerless in these waters if she could not supply her vessels of war with coal from near-by stations."
            In 1902, Replying to a motion in the House of Commons today providing for the abolition of the export tax on coal, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said he could not possibly entertain it, since the coal exports for the first five months of the present year had been the highest on record. (13)

IV. Development of Electricity
            With the development of electric power towards the end of the 19th century, coal's future became closely tied to electricity generation. The first practical coal-fired electric generating station, developed by Thomas Edison, went into operation in New York City in 1882, supplying electricity for household lights. (14)

Punch Vol.116 p.62 February 8th 1899

            The above picture shows something like a goddess, and a submarine and a land telegraph look surprised by her appearance. The goddess here indicates the wireless telegraphy invented in 1897 by Guglielmo Marconi. The words underneath the picture read "Giving Them Warning: Electricity (to Submarine Cable and Land Telegraph). I don't like to get rid of old and valuable servants, but I'm afraid I shall not be able to keep either of you much longer." This indicates that with the invention of wireless telegraphy, land telegraphy and submarine were no longer needed to send messages to other places. Marconi said in an interview in 1898, "With the new system of telegraphy there will not be any difficulty in establishing communication between the ships in distress and an island, and also between the latter and the mainland. What will be necessary will be for each to have a transmitter and a receiver, and then the means of communication will be thoroughly established." (16)
            Marconi was also enthusiastic about his invention being used in case of wars. "Let us imagine a small detachment of Europeans, say, during one of these frontier wars, stationed in a rather lonely spot. They of course set up telegraphic communication with wires. The enemy is not likely to allow this state of things to continue, and one night the little band is surrounded and the wires are cut down... Now, with the new system, there would be nothing to give notice to the enemy that these small outlaying parties were in communication with the main body . . ." (17)
            Marconi's invention of the wireless telegraphy has a lot to do with coal, since the telegraphy used electricity, and coal was a major source of electricity. Coal had an advantage to other fossil fuels in that it is a versatile fuel. It could be used as a solid fuel or it could be converted to gas to replace expensive imported fuels. As electricity became a necessity in people's lives, coal became more and more important for countries.

V. Conclusion
            Peace or war, coal was an important resource for European countries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Coal was crucial for a country to industrialize. Vessels used during wars needed coal also. As electricity began to become an important part of life, its major source coal began to increase in importance too. Cartoons from "Punch" showed these aspects of coal. It showed relatively no bias, since it focused on describing the situation as it is. Britain was actually the biggest producer of coal at the time, and she did have the power to use coal as contraband in wars. Electricity did leave the old inventions useless, as portrayed in the cartoons.


(1)      Potter
(2)      Butler
(3)      "The Coal Supply - Present and Future - Great Britain - United States."
(4)      "Coal Production in 1898."
(5)      "Coal as Contraband."
(6)      Mathias
(7)      ibid.
(8)      Punch May 7 1898
(9)      Duggan
(10)      Lamb
(11)      "Coal Industry Case Study: Part 1"
(12)      Punch. January 22, 1898
(13)      "England's Coal Exports Highest on Record."
(14)      World Coal Institute
(15)      Punch. February 8th, 1899
(16)      "Marconi's Telegraphy"
(17)      ibid.


Primary Sources
Punch Cartoon Library, in an email dated June 2nd 2008, was so generous to permit the usage of Punch cartoons in students' papers as this one. Punch Cartoon Library does offer full-size decorative prints of individual cartoons for sale.
1.      Punch, or the London Charivari, Vol.114 p.31 January 22nd 1898 (figure 3)
2.      Punch, or the London Charivari, Vol.114 p.208 May 7th 1898 (figure 1)
3.      Punch, or the London Charivari, Vol.116 p.62 February 8th 1899 (figure 4)
4.      "The Coal Supply - Present and Future - Great Britain - United States." Article from "The New York Times." Published: January 5th, 1868.
5.      "Coal Production in 1898." Article from "The New York Times." Published: May 29th, 1899.
6.      "Englandí»s Coal Exports Highest on Record." Article from "The New York Times." Published: June 12th, 1902.
7.      "Marconií»s Telegraphy." The New York Times. January 23, 1898

Secondary Sources
Note : websites quoted below were visited in May 2008.
8.      Colby, Frank Moore. The International Year Book 1898. Dodd, Mead & Company Publishers. New York.
9.      Mitchell, B.R. International Historical Statistics: Europe 1750-1988. M Stockton Press
10.      Mathias, Peter. The First Industrial Nation: The Economic History of Britain 1700-1914. Second Edition. Published: 1983. London and New York.
11.      Duggan, Christopher. A Concise History of Italy. Reprinted in 2005 in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge
12.      Potter, Charles J. Europe's Coal Problem. Published b y: The Academy of Political Science.
13.      Lamb, George J. Coal Mining in France, 1873 to 1895. Published by: Cambridge University Press.
14.      Butler, Chris. "The Spread of Industrialization Beyond Britain (c.1850-1900)." The Flow of History: A Dynamic and Graphic Approach to Teaching History. 2007.
15.      "Coal as Contraband." Last Modified: 28-05-2006 22:27:58 ZULU
16.      "Secure & Reliable Energy Supplies - History of U.S. Coal Use." National Energy Technology Laboratory.
17.      World Coal Institute.
18.      "Coal Industry Case Study: Part 1" Making the Modern World.

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