People vs Progress: The Transition from Coal to Oil in Britain

At the dawn of the 20th century, Britain was the world’s leading industrial power. The first nation to industrialise, dominating a global empire and world trade.  Whilst noblemen had founded these colonies and spread Britain’s influence, the true source of the nations’ power was its’ coal mines, which at their height were producing 257 million tons of coal a year. Coal propelled her trading vessels around the world, gave life to the beating hearts of machines in the factories and powered the hulking warships of her navy.

However, a new fuel was beginning to emerge, one that would completely change Britain and the world forever; oil, the new black gold. It would make the British navy more powerful than ever, yet also more vulnerable, leading it to rely on foreign countries for its fuel due to a lack of oil reserves within British controlled territory. A speech made by Captain Bernard Acworth at the Cardiff Business Club warned against the country’s ‘dependence on oil fuel’ and led to a flurry of opinion pieces in the Western Mail concerning the use of oil over coal for naval ships.

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The extensive collection at Glamorgan Archives offers a window to this pivotal time in Welsh industrial history. Through volumes of newspaper cuttings we can discover the varied contemporary thoughts and opinions on the issue. One such volume shows, amongst many other topics, the discussions surrounding the replacement of coal with oil and hydrogenation.

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Other documents, such as a minute book of the Coal Research Committee, discuss schemes for the production of oil from coal in South Wales, primarily focusing on the feasibility and practicalities of opening plants using the hydrogenation and carbonisation methods to produce light oil (e.g petrol) and heavy oil (crude oil).

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However, this turned out to be fruitless, due to the complexities and high costs of the processes.

The biggest change though, would be to the lives of the hundreds of thousands of miners who would be rendered unemployed for the sake of progress, threatening to wipe out hundreds of small but deep rooted communities that had been providing the nation with coal for generations. Perhaps with this in mind contributors to the popular coalfield publication, Ocean and National Magazine, also spoke about this topic numerous times, with articles that kept track of the debate, never failing to promote the coal industry.

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After 1914, the production of coal began to fall, gradually at first, but decreasing almost every year. Whilst the power stations were still hungry for coal, following the First World War one of the mines’ biggest customers, the navy, began to slip away and more followed as vessels around the world underwent the change. Through documents in the Archives, we are able to chart these changes and see how people reacted then adapted to this new threat.

Adam Latchford, Trainee

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One thought on “People vs Progress: The Transition from Coal to Oil in Britain

  1. People vs Progress: The Transition from Coal to Oil in Britain - Glamorgan Archives

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