DAVID ARNOLD - Coal famine that fuelled discontent

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The French King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in Paris on 21 January 1793, an event that caused outrage in this country.

The French King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in Paris on 21 January 1793, an event that caused outrage in this country. Hostility between Revolutionary France and Britain rapidly grew to the point that war seemed inevitable.

Coal merchants, aware that a declaration of war would see the price of their commodity greatly rise, held back distribution in anticipation of big profits in the future. The Sussex Weekly Advertiser of 4 February 1793 reported: “We never knew in Lewes so great a scarcity of coal as at the present time. A chaldron is not to be had at any price. Nothing we think, could have occasioned such a scarcity but the expectation of War.”

Luckily the winter was a mild one so the hardship caused, though great, was not as disastrous as it might have been. Upon the arrival of a collier at Newhaven on 8 February with a consignment for a Lewes merchant hopes rose but soon faded when the vessel departed for Littlehampton where the ship’s Master thought he would find a better market.

By 18 March it was reported sea-coal had risen to the “exorbitant and alarming price of 55 shillings per chaldron. At the same time the holders of wood availed themselves of this scarcity by making prey of the public, the shameful price of 29 shillings per 100 having on Saturday been asked for rotten hop pole faggots.”

A large fleet of Colliers eventually turned up in the late spring when the Lewes area at last received its quota. A “chaldron” was a term for a quantity of coal. The word had been in common parlance since the 13th century but was abolished in 1963 under that year’s Weights and Measures Act.