Coal duties

Coal imported into the City, brought by sea to wharves on the river, had been taxed by the City of London since medieval times. By the nineteenth century this ‘sea coal’ was being augmented by coal brought by canal and later by railway.

A variety of acts extended the city’s authority in collection of duties, fixed the amount of the duty, established the purposes for which the duties were to be utilised, and defined the boundaries of the area over which the duties applied. These were octroi taxes, taxes collected on goods brought into a district for consumption.

The London Coal and Wine Continuance Act 1861 set the final structure until duties were abolished. The Metropolitan Police District, together with the City of London, became the district and many new markers were erected at the boundaries on roads and tracks as well as railways and canals. Altogether some 280 markers were placed, of which over 200 survive.Two examples are illustrated (courtesy of R. Haworth).

Coal Tax Post alongside 5-furlong post of Epsom Downs Racecourse, erected in1861. Another Coal Tax Post can be seen on the grassy knoll in the background.

A granite obelisk about 4m high, typical of those put up by railways. It has the City’s shield on its face.

These ‘City coal-tax octroi posts’ had no connection with wine duties. The duties were used primarily for rebuilding or new building. In 1670 they provided funds for rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral and fifty-one of the eighty-six churches destroyed in the Great Fire.

From 1767 onwards duties were used inter alia for building Blackfriars Bridge, Holborn Viaduct and the new Coal Exchange.

In 1862 most of the duties were transferred to the Metropolitan Board of Works and directed to a ‘Thames Embankment and Metropolis Improvement Fund’ used to build the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments, Hyde Park Corner and other infrastructure including the northern and southern outfall sewers that halted the ‘Great Stink’. The City of London received the residual duties, devoting them to improvements at Cannon Street and other City sites.

Railway companies were responsible for collecting the duties on all coal that was brought past the boundary markers and had to make weekly returns of the coal they brought into the district. These returns should provide an important source of information about coal movements but the data remains elusive.

Coal duties became an increasingly unpopular tax on an essential commodity, exhibiting both a regressive nature and failing the test of representation, as they impacted those outside the boundaries while benefitting only the metropolis. Two further acts of 1863 and 1868 extended coal duties to 1889, when they were abolished.