“The Fireside” (from Parley’s Magazine, March 1839; pp. 95-99)
Cold weather was fairly set in. Without, it was the season of muffs, and tippets, and great coats:—Within,—a good fire was never more pleasing or attractive, and around theirs Mr. Elwood and his family had gathered, when he proceeded to compare the circumstances of those in ‘olden time’ with the superior advantages of their posterity.
For instance, he continued, the very earliest buildings of which we have any ruins or descriptions exhibit no traces of chimneys, and it has been therefore supposed that the occupants must have lighted a fire in the middle of the room, the roof of which was formed with an opening for the escape of the smoke, as, indeed, is the case in some countries at this day. The first remove from this unpleasant arrangement seems to have been the adoption of the portable brazier, or fire-pan, which became very general in most of the cities of southern Europe, where it still continues common. The fuel, of course, is chiefly charcoal, or at least wood. Before the fourteenth century, except for culinary and smithery purposes, our forefathers appear to have cared but little about artificial heat in their dwellings, and to have been unconcerned about it during the warmer months of our variable climate. Even so late as the reign of Henry VIII., no fire was allowed in the University of Oxford, if we may believe the writers who assert that the students, after supping at eight o’clock, went to their books till nine in winter, and then took a run for half an hour to warm themselves before going to bed. What say you to that, Frederick?
Frederick. I should like a good fire a great deal better, father, though you know, if it is necessary, I can bear the cold.
Mr. E. In the year 1200, chimneys were scarcely known in England: one only was allowed in a religious house, one in a manor house, and one in the great hall of a castle, or a lord’s house; but in other houses they had only a sort of raised hearth, where the inmates dressed their food and dined, and from which the smoke found its way out as it best could. “The Vision of Pierce Plowman,” however, written in “tyme of kynge Edwarde the Thyrde,” makes particular mention of “a chamber with a chimney.” How different are our present circumstances!
Mrs. E. What an abundant supply have we, for instance, of coal. If father feels disposed, we will now allude to some of its advantages. To employ the language of a poet and a friend:—
“Who hath not sat beside a glowing fire
Some cheerless night, and watched the pageant there
Of cities bristled o’er with dome and spire,
Red, as if glowing in the sunset glare;
Or marshal’d troops that rank by rank expire;
Or steal-clad [sic] knight, or lady gay and fair?
The huge world mimick’d! for its fair and great
Moulder to dust as surely, though more late!”
F. I should think, mother, that multitudes of people are not so well off as ourselves.
Mrs. E. They are not. Through the general use of wood instead of coal, a fire for domestic use in France is a great deal dearer than a fire in England; because, though the coal-pits are not to be found at every one’s door, machinery at the pits, and also in the form of ships and barges, enable most men to enjoy the blessings of a coal fire at a cheaper rate than a fire of wood, which is not limited in its growth to any particular part. The sufferings produced by a want of fuel cannot be judged of by those who have abundance. In Normandy, at the present day, such is the scarcity of wood, that persons engaged in various works of hand, as lace-making, according to her mode, of whom Cowper says—
absolutely sit up through the winter nights in the barns of the farmers, where cattle are littered down, that they may be kept warm by their animal heat.
Emma. How I wish they had all good fires! Can you tell us, father, how long we have had coal?
Mr. E. Coal was certainly not discovered in the middle of the twelfth century, and it was as certainly known in the beginning of the thirteenth. In certain laws enacted about A. D. 1146, a particular privilege is granted to those who bring fuel into boroughs. Wood, turf, and peat are particularly mentioned, but nothing is said in reference to coal. But in the year 1234, Henry III. renewed a charter which his father had given to the inhabitants of Newcastle; and in this act he grants, on their supplication, to the persons in whose favor the charter was made, a license to dig coal on payment of 100l. a year, which is the earliest mention of coal in England. It was not brought into common use in this part of the British empire until the reign of Charles I. Even in Scotland, almost proverbially poor in vegetable, and rich in fossil fuel, it was at a very late period that coal was commonly used; for about the middle of the fifteenth century, when Æneas Sylvius visited this island, he saw in Scotland poor people in rags, begging at the churches, and receiving for alms pieces of stone, with which they went away contented. “This species of stone,” he says, “whether impregnated with sulphur, or whatever inflammable substance it may be, they burn in place of wood, of which their country is destitute.” Boetius, in his description of Scotland, his native country, says, in the beginning of the sixteenth century, “There are black stones also digged out of the ground, which are very good for firing; and such is their intolerable heat, that they resolve and melt iron, and are therefore very profitable for smiths and such artificers as deal with other metals.”
Mrs. E. Ladies, I presume, do not visit coal-mines; but if they did I should not wish to do so. Yet wonderful indeed must be the scene when, after a dark and dreary descent through so
many fathoms of dripping strata, you enter a cavern never visited by the solar beams; where the roof, the floor, and the walls, present every where to the eye the same jetty black, except where the oozing drop or brilliant spar reflects the flame of the lamps, which, disposed in various parts, give light to the miners. These may be seen separating with their ponderous instruments, into fragments of a convenient size, parts of the immense mass of coal, which long-continued years of toil appear to have left inexhaustible. Of coal there are many kinds. Those of Whitehaven and Wigan are, I believe, esteemed the purest, and the cannel and peacock coals of Lancashire are so beautiful, that they are suspected by some to have constituted the jet ascribed by the ancients to Great Britain. The Mendip coal-mines of Somersetshire are distinguished by their productiveness, and Bovey coal comes from the foot of Dartmoor.
Mr. E. The most remarkable vein in the strata of Bovey coal is that which they call the wood-coal, or board-coal, from the resemblance which the pieces have to the grain of deal-boards. It is sometimes of a chocolate color, and at others of a shining black. The former seems to have less bitumen than the latter, nor is it so solid and heavy, and it has more the appearance of wood. It lies in straight and even veins, and is frequently dug in pieces of three or four feet long, and with proper care might be taken out of a much greater length. Other pieces of the same kind are found lying upon them, in all directions; but without the least intermixture of earth, and with only some small crevices, by which the pieces are divided from each other, in all directions. When it is first dug and moist, the thin pieces of it will bend like horn; but when dry it loses all its elasticity, and becomes short and crisp. At all times it is easily separated into very thin laminæ, or splinters, especially if it be exposed to the heat of the sun, which like the fire, makes it crackle, separate, and fall to pieces.
Mrs E. Sir Joseph Banks had, I have heard, a large specimen of fossil-coal found in Iceland, in strata of considerable thickness, and at great depths, which seemed fully to prove that coal originally was wood. Several trunks of it were preserved, each of which was flattened, possibly by the weight of the strata above; so that instead of being cylindrical, as the body of a tree commonly is, it was flat. Some of them are more or less woody; one is a fair plank of wood. The specimen described appears to have been the root of a small tree, with the bark still remaining on the greater part of it. In the lower part, however, the transformation had proceeded further than at the top, so that it was real coal, while the top was actually wood.
E. How new, mother, all these things are to us both! I hope it will be a long time yet before you and father say you must stop. We could sit, and look, and listen, I am sure, for hours.
Mr. E. Your attention, my dears, encourages and rewards us, and I have no doubt we can still interest you. On examining a piece of coal, particularly that from Newcastle, we find it a compact, shining, stony body; but there are few fragments in which we may not discover some parts very like charcoal, and frequently with the distinct structure of wood or other vegetable matter. Mr. Witham, by an ingenious application of the microscope, has exhibited a delicate cellular structure, in fossil woods, which, without such aid, presents only the appearance of compact stone, and he has also detected the same in coal. It is stated, too, that in all the varieties found in the Newcastle coal-field, more or less of the fine, distinct, net-like structure of the original vegetable texture can always be discovered. The vegetable origin of coal is further shown by the vast quantities of fossil plants found in the sandstones and shales which are interstratified with the beds of coal. These are often in an extraordinary degree of preservation, for the most delicate leaves are spread out on the stone like dried plants on the paper in the herbarium of a botanist.
E. How, interesting that is, father! Are there any other proofs?
Mr. E. In the greater proportion of the fossil plants of the coal measures, as they are called, or the associated beds, or strata, of coal, sandstones, clays, shales, and limestones, there is little appearance of woody matter; stems of a foot and a half in diameter have been found with the external form perfectly preserved, but having only a coating of coaly matter, of inconsiderable thickness, the inner part consisting of sandstone or clay, with now and then some more coal matter in the centre, indicating, as it were, the pith. But trunks of trees, in which the woody texture was preserved nearly throughout the whole stem, have often been met with.
F. Are they found in many parts, father, of great size?
Mr. E. In the coal-mines of Westphalia they have been seen sixty feet in length, and two remarkable instances of fossil trees in the coal measures have occurred in Great Britain. In a bed of sandstone, a few miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyrne, a stem was found which measured seventy-two feet in length, four feet in width at its lower end, from which it tapered gradually, and was eighteen inches wide at the top. It was in a compressed state, as if flattened by great pressure from above, so that these dimensions of the width are not the true diameter of the stem. The woody structure was, in this instance, only in part preserved, but in those places it was converted into a siliceous or flinty petrifaction, containing cavities lined with rock crystal; and this petrified portion was, in one place, nearly two feet in diameter. No roots nor branches were attached to it, but there were large knots and other places where branches appear to have been broken off.
The other instance occurred in the great freestone quarries of Craigleith, near Edinburgh. It was a stem forty-seven feet long,—a large branchless trunk, in some parts very much flattened, the greatest diameter being five feet, the smallest nineteen inches. It was embedded in the solid stone, with above a hundred feet of layers of rock above it, and lay across the strata, thus passing through several beds. The bark was converted into coal, but in the interior the woody texture was in many places perfectly preserved.
E. How do you think it is, mother, that there are such quantities of coal?
Mrs. E. At the time of the deluge, my dear, the whole forest scenery of the globe, with the roots, branches, and foliage entire, must have been floated off upon the waters, matted together in groups, and forming immense islands, which must have been overwhelmed in confused masses, by the force of the waves, embedded at various depths, and covered up by strata of various earthy and sandy composition; all which strata, having been subsequently placed above the level of the pre[s]ent seas, either by the depression of former continents, or by the elevation of the bed of the former sea,—or by a combination of both these effects,—have been since drained of their former moisture, and have assumed the solid mineral substance we now find so valuable.