Coal Tax Posts

You may have passed them in the car, by train or on foot and you probably won't have given them a second glance.

But if you had travelled the same way 130 years earlier you might have found queues of people, many with cart loads of coal, wine, clothing and food, haggling with the taxman.

They are the coal tax posts, many of which were erected following the Coal Duties Act of 1851, and thanks to them, many of the bridges across the Thames were paid for.

Some are at busy road junctions, others are buried away in woodland and hidden in hedgerows.

There are estimated to be 250 coal posts in the countryside surrounding London and more than 40 of those are in south Hertfordshire, although the exact number is not known.

Records vary, but a survey, carried out in 1961 and filed at Hertfordshire County Council, puts the number at 43.

Many mark the old boundaries for the collection of duties at points, roughly 20 miles from the General Post Office in the City of London.

(The area was later reduced by the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act of 1861 to include only those places lying within the Metropolitan Police District and that explains why, when you plot the positions of the coal posts on a map, it does not form a neat circle round the capital but is more a scattering of markers.)

Some coals posts were moved when the new Act became law, others were left where they were originally placed ten years earlier. Most of the coal posts existing today are at the spot where a public road or path, railway or canal entered the Metropolitan District.

The posts of Potters Bar followed the former boundary between Hertfordshire and Middlesex, and they still follow the boundary between the present day Hertsmere and Welwyn Hatfield districts.

The majority are iron pillars about four foot high, others, particularly those by canals or railways, are either small plaques set in the wall or large obelisks made of cast iron or granit such as the Duty Stone located along the railway line just north of Potters Bar Railway Station.

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The Ordnance Survey map of 1898 shows 'Hawkshead Siding' to the north of the Duty Stone. There is no such thing as Hawkshead Sidings today. Could it be that it was worthwhile building railway sidings there in order to offload goods just before duty became payable?

Most posts are brightly painted, some white, some black and all have ornate designs containing historic information, although some of the writing has been worn away by the elements over time.

Until the 19th Century, the transport of coal and other goods into London had been by sea. But the growth of the canal and railway systems meant that collecting points for taxes had to be set up beyond the boundary of the City.

Originally an official was stationed by the posts, at the side of a road or on the bank of the canal, to record the tonnage and collect the duty. 

But as canal trade dwindled with the arrival of the railways, it became uneconomic to employ collectors and it eventually became the responsibility of the operating company to collect and pay the taxes to the Clerk of the Coal Market.

Many coal posts are in areas where it is easy to imagine horse-drawn carts full of coal and wine being driven to the City.

Others, like the coal post in Wormley Wood (OS ref: TL 316 057), are at points where small footpaths cross deep in woodland and far from the beaten track.

Some industrial archaeologists say the reason why a few coal posts are found in unusual locations such as by streams, footpaths and cart tracks is because there was no clear ruling in the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act as to where they should be placed.

However, regarding the Wormley Wood coal post, on closer inspection of the Ordnance Survey sheet 166 Luton Hertford map it is easy to see how those small footpaths in Wormley Wood could have provided a route for a trader, who wanted to avoid paying tax, to dodge the collectors.

Either side of Wormley Wood, at Wormley End and at Newgate Street there are coal posts situated at the side of country lanes where it is much easier to image trade routes existing more than 100 years ago.

Could the coal post in Wormley Wood have been set up by the taxman after he got wise to people trying to avoid payment by taking a short cut through the footpaths?

Although the posts date back only 130 years, the history surrounding them goes back much further. The City of London has collected dues on coal and other goods entering London since medieval times.

The Plague and Great Fire of London

The Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London a year later used up many of the City's funds for rebuilding works.

An Act of Parliament was passed which increased the duty payable on coal entering the Port of London.

Money was needed for rebuilding and renovation work and in 1667 the First Rebuilding Act was passed, authorising an increase in the duty payable on coal entering the Port of London, partly for this purpose.

The funds collected from these taxes, together with the "Orphans Fund", were used for the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral and numerous other City churches, Guildhall, the City's markets and Newgate Prison.

But the City remained in debt and in 1694 an Act "for the Relief of the Orphans and Other Creditors of the City of London" was passed.

This Act gave the City the power to impose a duty on each tun (a large cask) of wine entering the Port of London and increase the duty payable on coal.

This is thought to be the forerunner of the Act of 1861 that led to the setting up of the Coal and Wine Tax Posts.

Once all debts had been repaid, surplus funds were used to finance the building of a number of bridges over the Thames, street paving and new roads into London.

Several further Acts for raising building funds were passed during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The money raised was used for improvement schemes including the building of the Thames Embankment and the erection of the Holborn Viaduct. It was also used for the purchase of the River Thames bridges, including Kingston upon Thames, Hampton Court and Walton on Thames, to free them from tolls.

The tax was finally ended by an Act of Parliament passed in July 1889.  But although the law had gone, the tax posts remained and many have survived. 

Many of these symbols of our commercial past have been made Grade II structures listed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, with their maintenance falling to the local authorities.  If you see any in need of attention please contact the relevant local council.

According to locals of Brookmans Park, there was a post at the side of Warrengate Road, where it meets Hawkshead Lane (OS ref: TL 230 031), until the mid 1980s.   It had lain knocked down for many months before it was removed. Mystery surrounds where it went.  

The inspiration for this feature, and some of the information in it, came from an article written by Brian Powell, called, 'These most useful relics', published in the December 1999 issue of the North Mymms Local History Society Newsletter.

In that work, Brian Powell lists, as his references, an article entitled, 'The City of London Coal Duties', by M Bawtree 1969, printed in the London Archaeologist, spring edition 1969, and 'The Industrial Archaeology of Hertfordshire', by W.B Johnson, 1970.

Thanks also to members of the Gobions Woodland Trust in Brookmans Park and the North Mymms Local History Society who have also helped research this feature.


26th October 2015.

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