City Limits

The Corporation of the City of London had exercised the right of metage (i.e. measuring) of coal – amongst other commodities – entering the Port of London since medieval times.

It also defined the limits of the port, and marked those limits with boundary stones, many of which remain along our highways and in the countryside today, which stretched all the way from the Isle of Grain to Staines.

[T]he existence of administrative machinery for recording the import of coal into London and the collection of fees for weighing and measuring meant that the city possessed a convenient method whereby extra revenue could be raised without having to devise an ad hoc administrative apparatus.

This is one of the factors which led to the choice of coal duties as a means of raising revenue after the Great Fire of London, which as featured on previous posts occurred 350 years ago this month. The first rebuilding Act of 1666 was mainly concerned with what we would call nowadays town planning (e.g. laying down the types of building which could be erected and the width of streets etc) but also imposed a duty of 12d. per ton or chaldron on all coal entering the Port of London to be applied to certain specific expenses in connexion with the rebuilding. The duty was to run until 1677, but its inadequacy was soon recognised and by an Act of 1670 it was extended to 1687 and increased to 3s., half of which was to go to help pay for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the parish churches destroyed in The Great Fire of London.

Post-and-pillar-boxThe City’s share of the rebuilding duties lapsed in 1687 though it was found to be a very useful source of revenue while in operation. Even before the fire the City’s finances were in a rather precarious position and of course the fire made things worse. Thus in 1672 the city decided to disregard the spirit, and arguably the letter, of the law by charging to the coal duties any expenses which could conceivably be ascribed to the effects of the fire. This relieved the situation until the City’s portion of the duties expired in 1687, but the financial troubles continued and by 1694 the City owed considerable sums to various creditors.

The City’s share of the duties (i.e. 1s. 6d. per ton) lapsed in 1687 whereas the portion for St Paul’s was continued and eventually became a government duty.

In 1831, following the reports of select committees of both the House of Lords, and the House of Commons which had been set up to examine aspects of the coal trade, London, Westminster and Home Counties Coal Trade Act 1831 was passed making a number of reforms. The changes included the stipulation that coal was thereafter to be sold by weight and not measure and the granting of extra powers to the City in respect of the coal market.

The unpopularity of the coal duties combined with their association with the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had become unpopular on account of its indirect method of election, which resulted in the London County Council (LCC) declining to renew the coal duties after that body was set up in 1889.

There are five types of boundary stones: granite obelisks a bit over a metre high, found on canals and navigable rivers; cast-iron posts about a metre high, found beside roads and tracks; cast-iron boxes or plates about 230 mm square, found in parapets of road bridges; stone or cast-iron obelisks about 4.5 metres high, found on railways opened before 1865; cast-iron obelisks about 1.75 metres high, found on railways opened from 1865 onwards.

There are today about 210 boundary marks in position, including some which been moved to new locations or are in museums. The original total was probably about 275-280 so about three quarters have survived.

This is just a short summary of the history and purpose of boundary markers. Much of which was taken from Martin Nail’s Coal Duty Posts Copyright © 2010 Martin Nail (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 UK)

Picture: This Coal Tax Post is No. 191 on the list linked to below. Alongside it is a George V postbox. By Ian Capper (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Featured Coal Tax Post: (Nail Number 199). West side of Chelsfield Lane beside the entrance to Goddington Park. The majority of these posts such as the one beside Colnbrook Bridge give the reference of the exact act of parliament: “24 & 25 Vict. Cap. 42”, i.e.. the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act, 1861. This post was cast before the act had been passed and just bears the legend “24 VICT” which was as meaningless in 1861 as it is today.By Roger W Haworth. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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