ONE NO WOOD, NO KINGDOM
A cold, gray day, and heavy snow billowing. Saturday, 28 December 1598, the forty-first year of the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England and Ireland. On the edge of London Town, in the precinct of Holywell, workmen gather in the yard before the old Theatre, snow on their beards, stamping their boots and clapping their gloved hands to keep warm. Hailing each other with ale-warmed breath: work to do, and that quickly, shillings to earn even in holiday time. Wood was scarce in London, the forests that ringed the city stripped bare. The workmen had been hired to tear down the Theatre, the first of its kind, and move the salvaged framing to master carpenter Peter Street’s Thames-side warehouse, hard by Bridewell Stairs. Steal a whole building, someone winked, right out from under the absent landlord’s nose, though who rightly owned the Theatre would need years of litigation to decide.1
The Burbage brothers, William Shakespeare’s partners in the theater business, believed they did. They’d built it, in 1576. Let the landlord keep his land. They would dismantle their playhouse and raise it elsewhere.
Giles Allen, the landlord, away at his country house in Essex, would tell the court that men with weapons bullied aside the servants he sent with a power of attorney to stop them. With all the shouting, a crowd gathered. The Burbage
brothers were there that day. So was Shakespeare. Moving the playhouse was urgent if their acting company would have a stage to perform on. Allen was threatening to pull it down himself and salvage the timbers to build tenements, as apartments were called in Shakespeare’s day.
The Burbages’ workmen dismantled the wooden building and carted the framing away. Two days earlier, the company had played before the Queen at Whitehall Palace. It was scheduled to play there again on New Year’s night. The Theatre came down between the two performances.
It went up again in Spring 1599 across the Thames in bawdy Southwark, enlarged and renamed the Globe, a twenty-sided polygon three stories high and a hundred feet across, with a thatched ring of roof open to the sky above a wide yard. Peter Street probably cut the new timber for the enlargement in a forest near Windsor, west of London, lopped and topped and barked and shaped it there to avoid the cost of barging whole trees down the Thames. A Swiss tourist, Thomas Platter, attended a production of Julius Caesar in the new Globe on the afternoon of 21 September 1599, so it was up and running by then. He thought the play “quite aptly performed.”2
Elizabethan England was a country built of wood. “The greatest part of our building in the cities and good towns of England,” the Elizabethan observer William Harrison reported in 1577, “consisteth only of timber.”3
Even the country’s implements, its plows and hoes, were wooden, if iron edged. London was a wooden city, peak-roofed and half-timbered, heating itself with firewood burned on stone hearths called reredos raised in the middle of rooms, the sweet wood smoke drifting through the house and out the windows.
A reredos, with hook above for hanging a kettle.
But wood was growing dear, its price increasing as London’s population increased and woodcutters carted firewood into the city from
farther and farther afield. Parliament provided a limited remedy in 1581: a law prohibiting the production of charcoal for iron smelting within fourteen miles of London, to reserve the nearby trees for domestic fuel. Even so, the cost of firewood delivered to the city more than doubled between 1500 and 1592, consistent with the burgeoning population, which quadrupled between 1500 and 1600, from 50,000 to 200,000.4
(England’s entire population increased across that century from 3.25 million to 4.07 million.5
Some economists today question if England was running out of wood. The Burbages and their company moved the Theatre’s framing not only to save wood but also to save time and money putting up their new, enlarged Globe bankside. And wood, after all, is a renewable resource. Yet many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century government officials, parliamentarians, and private observers feared a wood shortage, especially of large oak trees suitable for ships’ masts.
Warships were as valuable to national security in those days as aircraft carriers are today. About 2,500 large oak trees went into an average English ship of the line.6
It was a beautiful wooden fighting machine, massive and solid, fifty feet wide and two hundred feet long. Two rows of cannon mounted on wooden trucks pierced its bulging yellow sides. Its decks were painted dull red to veil the blood that flowed in battle.7
It carried its sails on no fewer than twenty-three masts, yards, and spars, from the forty-yard-long, eighteen-ton mainmast to the little fore topgallant-yard, a light seven-yard stick.8
Patriots said the Royal Navy was England’s “wooden walls,” protecting it from invasion. The Admiralty built and maintained about one hundred ships of the line as well as several hundred smaller ships and boats. Battle and shipworms ravaged them; they needed replacing every decade or two.
But the great mast trees took 80 to 120 years to grow to sufficient diameter. A landowner who planted an acorn could hope his grandchildren or great-grandchildren might harvest it for profit—if the intervening generations could wait so long. Many could not; many did not. Selling timber was an easy means to raise cash; landowners from the king on down took advantage of the opportunity whenever their purses emptied. Wood, the dilettante second Earl of Carnarvon told a friend of the diarist Samuel Pepys, was “an excrescence of the earth provided by God for the payment of debts.”9
Crooked hedgerow timbers—“compass timbers,” the Admiralty called them—were as important to ship construction as the straight forest timbers needed for the masts. These great bent oaks supplied curved and branched single pieces for the keel, the stern-post, and the ribs of the ship’s hull. They were always scarce and priced accordingly, but with the enclosure movement of late-medieval England—the privatization and consolidation of communal fields into sheep pasture to benefit the manorial lords—most of the compass trees were cut down. Finding the right piece for a ship could take years.
The Ark Royal, built for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587, carried fifty-five guns on two gun decks. In 1588 she chased the Spanish Armada into the North Sea.
The Royal Navy was not the only enterprise consuming the forests of England. By the 1630s, the country supported some three hundred iron-smelting operations, which burned three hundred thousand loads of wood annually to make charcoal, each load counting as a large tree.10
Building and maintaining the more numerous ships of British commerce required three times as much oak as did navy shipping.
Timber, oak in particular, competed with grain for arable land. Great trees
needed deep, rich soil, but it was more profitable to farm such land for feed. A Suffolk County official named Thomas Preston associated mighty forests with primitive conditions, “the past age” when the kingdom possessed “a great plenty of oak.” The diminution of oak measured the kingdom’s improvement, he argued, “a thousand times more valuable than any timber can ever be.” Preston hoped the diminution would continue: “While we are forced to feed our people with foreign wheat, and our horses with foreign oats, can raising oak be an object? . . . The scarcity of timber ought never to be regretted, for it is a certain proof of national improvement; and for Royal navies, countries yet barbarous are the right and only proper nurseries.”11
Those barbarous countries included North America, especially New England, where the colonists had just begun to harvest the primeval forest. There, from 1650 onward, the Admiralty sought the strong “single stick” masts its warships required, forty yards long and three to four feet in diameter. The colonists competed for the wood, however. The first American sawmill began operations in 1663 on the Salmon Falls River in New Hampshire, long before the English advanced from sawing board by hand to using water power. By 1747, there were 90 such water-powered mills along the Salmon Falls and the Piscataqua, with 130 teams of oxen working hauling logs. Among them, they cut about six million board feet of timber annually for sale in Boston, the West Indies, and beyond. England got her share. The eighteenth-century historian Daniel Neal, in his The History of New-England, noted that the Piscataqua was “the principal place of trade for masts of any of the king’s dominions.”12
Unfortunately for the Royal Navy, America’s successful revolution three decades later cut off its supply of American white pine. It had to return to its earlier expedient of using “made masts”: weaker composite masts of multiple trees strapped together around a central spindle.
Besides making charcoal to smelt iron, the English cut down timber to build houses, barns, and fences; to produce glass and refine lead; to build bridges, docks, locks, canal boats, and forts; and to make beer and cider barrels. More than one of these uses consumed as much wood as the navy. Even royalty was guilty of misusing the royal forests, while Parliament stood by. “The final failure of the woodlands,” a historian concludes, “was the result of constant neglect and abuse.”13
The Jacobean agriculturalist Arthur Standish was concerned less with the needs of the Royal Navy and more with what he called “the general destruction and waste of wood” when he published The Commons Complaint under King James I’s endorsement in 1611, but he included “timber . . . for navigation” among the shortages that he foresaw. Paraphrasing one of the king’s speeches before Parliament in his stark summary of the consequences, Standish concluded: “And so it may be conceived, no wood, no kingdom.”14
A cheaper alternative was burning coal—sea coal or pit coal, the Elizabethans called it to distinguish it from charcoal. (A coal was originally any burning ember, thus char-coal for charred wood, and sea coal or pit coal for the fossil fuel, depending on whether it outcropped on the headlands above the beaches or was dug from the ground.) Harrison, in his 1577 contribution to the Elizabethan anthology Holinshed’s Chronicles, had found the English Midlands already in transition to the fossil fuel: “Of coal-mines, we have such plenty in the north and western parts of our island as may suffice for all the realm of England.”15
Coal had served blacksmiths for hundreds of years. Soap boilers used it; so did lime burners, who roasted limestone in kilns to make quicklime for plaster; so did salt boilers, who boiled down seawater in open iron pans, a tedious process prodigal of fuel, to make salt for food preservation in the centuries before refrigeration.
But the acrid smoke and sulfurous stench of the Midlands’s coal had not encouraged its domestic use in houses devoid of chimneys where meat was roasted over open fires. “The nice dames of London,” as a chronicler called them, were unwilling even to enter such houses. In 1578 Elizabeth I herself objected to the stink of coal smoke blowing into Westminster Palace from a nearby brewery and sent at least one brewer to prison that year for his effrontery.16
A chastened Company of Brewers offered to burn only wood near the palace.
Like nuclear power in the twentieth century, but justifiably, coal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was feared to be toxic, tainted by its origins, diabolic: “poisonous when burnt in dwellings,” a historian summarizes Elizabethan prejudices, “and . . . especially injurious to the human complexion. All sorts of diseases were attributed to its use.”17
The black stone found layered underground that burned like the stinking fires of hell—the Devil’s very excrement, preachers ranted—suffered as well from its association with mining, an
industry that poets and clergy had long condemned. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his short poem “The Former Age,” written about 1380, set the tone:
But cursed was the time, I dare well say,
That men first did their sweaty business
To grub up metal, lurking in darkness,
And in the rivers first gems sought.
Alas! Then sprung up all the cursedness
Of greed, that first our sorrow brought!18
The German humanist Georgius Agricola, a physician in the mining town of Joachimstal, paraphrased the arguments of mining’s detractors in his 1556 work De re Metallica and quoted Ovid condemning mining in similar terms. The Roman poet, he wrote, had portrayed men as ever descending “?‘into the entrails of the earth, [where] they dug up riches, those incentives to vice, which the earth had hidden and had removed to the Stygian shades. Then destructive iron came forth, and gold, more destructive than iron; then war came forth.’?”19
A century after Agricola, John Milton was still condemning mining, associating it with the fallen angel Mammon in the first book of Paradise Lost:
There stood a Hill not far whose grisly top
Belched fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire
Shone with a glossy scurf, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic ore,
The work of sulfur. Thither winged with speed
A numerous brigade hastened . . . .
Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell
From Heaven, for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransacked the center, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their mother Earth
For treasures better hid.20
Impious hands or not, the Elizabethans were short of wood, so they began to dig coal and burn it. To do that without asphyxiating themselves, they needed chimneys to exhaust the smoke. Harrison, the chronicler, says old men in his village noticed the increase in chimneys, “whereas in their young days there was not above two or three.” For Harrison, the development was doubtful, even hell-in-a-handcart:
Now we have many chimneys, and yet our tenderlings complain of rheums, catarrhs, and poses [head colds]; then had we none but reredoses, and our heads did never ache. For as the smoke in those days was supposed to be a sufficient hardening for the timber of the houses, so it was reputed a far better medicine to keep the good man and his family from the quack [hoarseness] and the pose, wherewith as then very few were acquainted.21
Shipments of coal from Newcastle upon Tyne, an expanding coal port on the Tyne River in the northeast of England, increased accordingly from about thirty-five thousand tons in the midsixteenth century to about four hundred thousand tons by 1625. In two generations, the historian J. U. Nef concludes, “the coal trade from the Tyne had multiplied twelvefold.”22
When Queen Elizabeth I died at sixty-nine in 1603, the king of Scotland, James VI, united the Scottish and English crowns as James I, moving in slow procession to London. The Scots had deforested their lands a century before the English. They were used to burning coal, and luckily for them, hard Scottish coal burned cleaner and brighter than soft Newcastle bituminous. Scottish anthracite’s sulfur content was only 0.1 percent, compared with 1 percent to 1.4 percent for English bituminous.23
Unfortunately, Scottish anthracite burned faster as well, which made it more expensive. Expense was no problem for the king; he had good Scottish coal shipped to Westminster to warm his palaces. Emulating the king, wealthy Londoners took up the custom. The middle classes began burning coal as well. Coal allowed Londoners to keep warm
and feed themselves as the city’s population increased rapidly, from roughly 200,000 in 1600 to 350,000 by 1650.24
Chimneys needed sweeping to prevent fires, a new and ultimately deadly trade for children apprenticed as young as five or six years old, who walked the streets crying “Sweep! Sweep!” to solicit work and crawled large-hatted and naked through the narrow chimneys like human brooms. In a 1618 “Petition of the Poor Chimney Sweepers of the City of London to the King,” two hundred sweeps complained that the city was at risk of fire, and they “were ready to be starved for want of work” because people neglected to clean their chimneys. They asked that an overseer be appointed to enter houses and compel the owners to have their chimneys cleaned. The overseer and his deputies, the petition proposed, could be paid “by the delivery to them of the soot gathered,” which they could sell for fertilizer. The king was sympathetic, but the Lord Mayor of London wasn’t: there were already officers who oversaw the condition of London’s chimneys, he claimed—and the poor chimney sweepers’ petition was denied.25
Constant exposure to soot and creosote led to an epidemic of soot wart among chimney sweeps—squamous cell carcinoma of the scrotum—characterized by the English surgeon Percivall Pott in 1775, the first time a cancer was associated with an industrial occupation. The scrotum was the point of entry of the cancer into the body because that was where the sweeps’ sooty sweat collected as they broomed their way up London’s chimneys.
An engineer, Richard Gesling, invented a method of combining smoky Newcastle coal with common materials: chopped straw, sawdust, even cow manure. These coal balls, as he called them, were something like the charcoal briquettes of American backyard barbecues and burned more cleanly than coal alone. Gesling died before he could make his method public, but someone published an anonymous report of it, Artificiall Fire, or, Coale for Rich and Poore, in 1644.26
Whoever it was, he did so for a reason: it was cold in London that winter, indoors as well as out. The Royalists were waging civil war against the Puritan Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians, who had Scottish support. In 1644 the Scottish army besieged Newcastle, blocking coal shipments to the English capital. The author of Artificiall Fire writes contemptuously of “some fine Nosed City Dames [who] used to tell their Husbands; O Husband! We
shall never be well, we nor our Children, whilst we live in the smell of this City’s Seacoal smoke.” But with Newcastle under siege and coal scarce in London, he continues, “how many of these fine Nosed Dames now cry, Would to God we had Seacoal, O the want of Fire undoes us! O the sweet Seacoal fire we used to have!”
As coal replaced wood, its denser and more toxic smoke became a pestilence. Between 1591 and 1667, coal shipments into London increased from 35,000 tons to 264,000 tons; by 1700, that tonnage had almost doubled to 467,000 tons.27
An adequate supply of fossil fuel kept people warm and sustained the growth of English industry, but it also fouled the London air. John Evelyn, a wealthy diarist and horticulturalist who was one of the founders of the scientific Royal Society of London, condemned the city in his diatribe The Character of England, published in 1659.
London, Evelyn wrote, though large, was “a very ugly town, pestered with hackney coaches and insolent car men, shops and taverns, noise, and such a cloud of sea-coal [smoke], as if there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano [on] a foggy day: this pestilent smoke . . . corrodes the very iron, and spoils all the movables, leaving a soot upon all things that it lights; and so fatally seizes on the lungs of the inhabitants, that the cough, and the consumption spare no man. I have been in a spacious church where I could not discern the minister for the smoke, nor hear him for the people’s barking.”28
A long-faced and solemn man, ambitious for laurels, Evelyn did more than complain. He also looked for ways to clear the air. He accepted appointment as one of London’s commissioners of sewers. And since he was interested in gardening and in trees, his inventive mind turned to moving industry out of London and perfuming the city’s precincts with flowering plants—reversing, as it were, at least locally, the transition from wood to coal. King Charles II had been restored to the throne on his thirtieth birthday, 29 May 1660, and the traitor Oliver Cromwell’s head pickled and mounted on a pike on London Bridge after a seventeen-year interregnum bloodied with regicide and civil war; Evelyn’s vision of a refreshed and healthier London drew as well on his renewed sense of public order.
Evelyn was walking in Whitehall one day, he told the king in the dedication that introduced his proposal, when “a presumptuous smoke . . . did so
invade the court that all the rooms, galleries, and places about it were filled and infested with it; and that to such a degree [that] men could hardly discern one another for the cloud, and none could support [endure] without manifest inconveniency.”29
He had been thinking about the problem for some time, he added, but it was “this pernicious accident,” and “the trouble that it must needs procure to Your Sacred Majesty, as well as hazard to your health,” that inspired him to write his proposal. He titled it, grandly, Fumifugium: or, the Inconvenience of the Aer, and Smoake of London Dissipated. (“Fumi-,” from Latin fumus, smoke, and “fuge,” from Latin fuge, to drive away: approximately, Fumigation.) To pique the king’s interest, Evelyn claimed that the project would render the palace and the whole city “one of the sweetest and most delicious habitations in the world, and this with little or no expense.”30
Evelyn defined “pure air” expressively as “that which is clear, open, sweetly ventilated, and put into motion with gentle gales and breezes; not too sharp, but of a temperate constitution.”31
London should enjoy such air, he observed: it was built on high ground, its gravel soil “plentifully and richly irrigated . . . with waters which crystallize her fountains in every street.” The city sloped down to “a goodly and well-conditioned river” which carried off industrial wastes to be dissipated by the sun.32
He blamed home coal burning less for London’s air pollution than coal burning in trade. The problem wasn’t “culinary fires,” he argued shrewdly. No, the truly destructive smoke came from the works of the “brewers, dyers, lime-burners, salt and soap-boilers, and some other private trades”—the same nuisances Londoners had decried all the way back to the Middle Ages. When they were belching coal smoke, “the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Etna, the court of Vulcan, Stromboli, or the suburbs of Hell.” Their pernicious smoke induced “a sooty crust or fur upon all that it lights, spoiling the movables, tarnishing the Plate, Gildings, and Furniture, and corroding the very Iron bars and hardest Stones with those piercing and acrimonious Spirits which accompany its Sulfur.”33
Coal-smoke pollution not only damaged London’s built environment, Evelyn insisted, but it also sickened and killed her citizens, “executing more in one year than exposed to the pure Air of the Country it could effect in some hundreds.” People who moved to London found “a universal alteration in their Bodies, which are either dried up or inflamed, the humours being exasperated and
made apt to putrefy, their sensories and perspiration . . . exceedingly stopp’d, with the loss of Appetite, and a kind of general stupefaction.” Yet these same visitors were quickly restored to health when they returned home, evidence that it was London’s pollution that sickened them. Evelyn added for good measure, “How frequently do we hear men say (speaking of some deceased neighbor or friend), ‘He went up to London, and took a great cold . . . which he could never afterwards claw off again.’?”34
How could an enlarging, increasingly industrial city—a city on the cusp of the industrial revolution—be purified? The first step, Evelyn argued, was to clear London of the polluters: Parliament should require them to remove five or six miles down the Thames below the Isle of Dogs, a square mile of reclaimed marshland around which the river made a winding, pear-shaped meander that might block their smoke.35
Evelyn knew of it because in 1629 the several commissioners of sewers in London, he among them, had been assigned responsibility for its upkeep.
Siting coal-burning industry there, like siting factories in suburban industrial parks today, would help clear London’s smoke-fouled air. It would also, Evelyn added, give employment to “thousands of able Watermen” delivering the products of industry upriver into the city, would free up “Places and Houses” within the city for conversion into “Tenements, and some of them into Noble Houses for use and pleasure” with attractive river views. (Urban renewal and gentrification have ancient antecedents.) Moving industry to the suburbs would help prevent fires as well, Evelyn concluded. He thought accidental fires originated in “places where such great and exorbitant Fires are perpetually kept going.”36
London in the year of Fumifugium’s first publication, 1661, was indeed only five years away from her Great Fire of 1666, which burned out all the city within the old medieval walls. That fire, however, started in a bakery.
Moving coal-burning industry out of London was only the first part of Evelyn’s remedy for smoke pollution. The second reflected his experience designing gardens. He proposed that all the low grounds surrounding the city should be converted into fields planted with fragrant flowers and shrubs, including sweetbriar, honeysuckle, jasmine, roses, Spanish broom, bay, juniper, and lavender, “but above all, Rosemary,” which was reputed to cast its scent a hundred miles out to sea.37
He would fill the spaces between the fields around the city with flowers as well, and with “Plots of Beans, Pease” but “not Cabbages, whose rotten and perishing stalks have a very noisome and unhealthy smell.” Blossom-bearing grains would “send forth their virtue” and be marketable in London; “amputations and prunings” might be burned at appropriate times in the winter “to visit the City with a more benign smoke.”38
But Evelyn’s vision was not to be fulfilled. Charles II discussed it with its author on the royal yacht, the Catherine, during a yacht race on the Thames, telling Evelyn he was “resolved to have something done on it” and asking him to prepare a bill for Parliament. Evelyn did, but no action followed. The king was too busy selling monopolies to restore his fortunes to invest in rearranging his smoky capital.
The Royal Society of London had been founded in November 1660—Evelyn was a charter member—and honored the horticulturalist’s work in 1662 by inviting him to write a report on the state of the kingdom’s timber. The Royal Navy had requested it, anxious about the increasing scarcity of large trees for building and maintaining its ships. Published in February 1664, the report was to be Evelyn’s best-known work: Sylva: Or, a Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty’s Dominions. It was the Royal Society’s first published book.
For decades to come, the English would burn coal primarily for home heating. The new fuel had still to be adapted to perform useful work. Burning it at home was straightforward; adapting it to industrial production, challenging and complex. Homes needed only a hearth with a chimney. Industry needed changes in coal’s very chemistry. In the meantime, increasing demand soon exhausted the superficial outcroppings of sea coal. Coal had been dug in pits open directly to the sky. Now it began to be excavated through tunnels from deepening mines. Digging deeper underground soon penetrated the water table. Some mines could be cleared with drains, but mines too deep for drainage filled up and had to be abandoned. Simple technologies had served to ease the transition from wood to coal as the English forests depleted. Coal made new demands. It would reward those who worked out how to meet them.