Coaling Warships with Naval Labour 1870-1914

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    Malcolm Lewis

      I found Steven Gray’s article about replenishing the early steam navy with coal (MM 101.2 May 2015) most interesting. What organisation must have been required to supply a fleet operating worldwide. I hope Steven will contribute a follow up article on how this was managed.
      To think coaling was done once a week on big ships and even more frequently on smaller vessels, such as destroyers, makes one have much sympathy for the ships’ companies having to maintain high standards of cleanliness – even all the more challenging for white painted vessels in hot climes.
      Burning large quantities of coal would have produced big quantities of ash and clinker. Was this generally dumped overboard whilst under way – again without causing dirt on deck?
      With the general move to coal burning by naval and merchant shipping some considerable pollution must have been caused in narrow and also tideless seas.
      The huge demand for quality coal would have swelled the coffers of the coal mine owners, hence many of the grand houses built in the UK in that period.


        Thanks very much for this, I am glad you found it interesting. It was quite a vast infrastructure, but the navy used a lot owned by commercial interests. I am writing an article which touches on this subject at the moment, although not for the Mariner’s Mirror. I will also be publishing a book on this soon too. If you are interested in the meantime, my thesis is online here:
        If it is the same as the merchant vessels (which I assume it would be) they dumped what clinker remained overboard – you can still find it littering shipping route on the sea bed. The use of smokeless, clean burning coal in naval vessels would have limited the pollution I would imagine.
        Although the Admiralty was the biggest customer overall for Welsh collieries, it still represented a fairly minor share of overall sales, but the fact it could boast providing for naval ships certainly boosted its sales.

        Best wishes,


        Frank Scott

          Your thesis sounds interesting, if only I could access it.

          Following on from your comments above, could you quantify how small a proportion of UK coal production was needed by shipping (both naval & commercial) in period 1870-1914? As to profit, I know that coal mining was very much a boom & bust industry, but doubt that the maritime world played any significant part in driving this process. Obviously it had an impact on profitability of coal as a cargo (well documented on the American East Coast), and fuel costs, but those were the results of fluctuations in price, not the cause.

          Alastair Wilson

            By Alastair Wilson
            I, too, fond Steven Gray’s article extremely interesting, and I thought that members might be amused by the following ‘dit’ (naval slang for old sailor’s story). It was told to me on board the historic warship Warrior about 20 years ago, by an old sailor whose name I regret I cannot now remember (he was an enthusiast for steamboats, and lived in Fareham in ‘Steamboat Cottage’ – does anyone remember who I mean?). In 1928, he had been a Boy Seaman in the battleship Benbow, then in her last commission in the Atlantic Fleet, and he told me that it was the practice, after coaling ship, to leave one bunker empty, and to flood it partially with sea-water to act as a bath for the Boys. They were sent down, a mess at a time, to sluice the worst of the coal dust off themselves. As each mess emerged, the Boy’s Petty Officer, overseeing the ablutions, would cup his hands and dip them into the water. If he could see the bottom of his palms, that was all right, and the next mess was sent in: if he couldn’t, then the water was changed.
            I would also recommend to members, the coaling songs to be found in Cyril Tawney’s ‘Grey Funnel Lines’ (Routledge and Keegan Paul, London, 1987), pp 19-21.

            Alastair Wilson

              By Alastair Wilson
              Further to the above and more seriously: to answer some of the queries posed above: yes, ash and clinker were just dumped in the sea (nothing very ‘green’ about our 19th century forefathers) – Welsh steam coal made up to 15% ash by volume, so there was an awful lot of ash disposed of. In ‘Warrior’s’ case there was an ash hoist from the boiler rooms to the upper deck – the ash-bucket fitted inside one of the air-intakes for the combustion air – and an overhead rail on the upper deck to take the ash to an ash-chute which ran down the ship’s side to the waterline. Inevitably ash did escape, but not excessively, so long as the stokers doing the job were careful.
              In describing the fuel used by Naval vessels as smokeless and clean-burning – well, compared to some coals it may have been, but it still made smoke in copious quantities, especially if you were changing speed, and changing the rate of firing.


                Sorry for the delay in reply – been a busy few months!

                The question about how much of coal production went to the navy is a difficult one to answer, but I have seen the figure of 13% of Welsh coal in places – so a minority, although the Admiralty was the single biggest customer.

                You should be able to download the thesis for free – there isn’t any paywall.

                Thanks for the coal songs link – will look those up.

                Welsh coal is described as clean burning and minimum clinker, but as you say, this is all relative

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