The History of Coal

It’s easy to take coal for granted, but this valuable resource has helped shape the development of our region, and led to many of the great innovations of the industrial age. It was at this time that our own city, Sheffield, came to be known as the ‘Steel City’ – and the steel that was produced here couldn’t have been made without a plentiful supply of coal to fuel the furnaces.

What is Coal?

There are several types of coal, and each is actually a form of sedimentary or metamorphic rock, which has formed over the space of millions of years…

The cycle began with the flooding of ancient wetland forests, which were slowly buried beneath the water and deposits of sediment. This led to great reserves of carbon-rich organic matter collecting underground. If the conditions were perfect, and more sediment continued to build over these organic layers, then instead of oxidising or rotting, great peat bogs would be formed.

In time, many of these peat bogs became buried beneath yet more sediment. The weight of this sediment caused intense pressure, transforming the peat into varying grades (or ranks) of coal. These range from brown coal (lignite), right through to anthracite – which burns slowly and generates a very high heat output.

Chemically, coal consists mainly of carbon, along with other elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and hydrogen.

What Role has Coal Played in History

Coal has been mined for thousands of years, and there’s evidence that the Romans were mining coal in Britain as early as the second century AD. But, it was during the industrial revolution (from 1750 to 1900) that coal began to be used to its full potential. At this time, 3 great developments were driving up demand for coal:

1) The first was the boom in the iron industry. Coal was converted into coke for use in the extraction of iron from iron ore.

2) The second development was the invention of the steam engine – used to power trains, steam ships, and many of the great machines used in factories in that period. Steam engines used coal furnaces to convert water to steam, which drives the engine.

3) The third development was the switch from wood to coal as the fuel of choice for heating homes throughout much of Britain.

This surge in demand led to the boom in the British coal mining industry, which changed the face of our nation for generations, and, more than any other area, it was the North of England that was changed the most. From the counties of Derbyshire and Staffordshire in the North Midlands, through to the border counties of Northumberland and Cumbria, the North became the focus of coal production – and our own county of Yorkshire was right at the heart of that area.

Between the eighteenth century and the 1980s, coal mining and coal-dependent heavy industry supported the economy of our region, and enabled the growth of the great cities of the North – including Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, and many others.


How is Coal Used Today?

Coal’s main use throughout the modern world is in electricity production, but the dependence on coal varies widely between nations. China and India use coal extensively, while in Britain, alternatives such as gas and nuclear have replaced coal as the primary fuel source for power plants. Today, coal is mainly used in Britain as an affordable and reliable source of heat for peoples’ homes.

The period appeal of open fires, and the surge in the popularity of multi-fuel stoves, means that coal has a bright future as the fuel of choice for homeowners throughout our region, and beyond. Why not explore the types of coal available for delivery or collection from our Sheffield coal yard?