Coal Posts. What are they? Where are they and why?

On a walk or maybe in slow traffic along the roads nearby, you may have wondered what are the white metal posts with the shield shaped City of London coat of arms.

These are coal and wine tax posts (erected in the 19th century and restored in 1997) marking the point and giving due notice at the place when duty became payable on coal and wine being transported into the City of London.

There are over 200 located around London in a boundary that was set in 1845 at a radius of 20 miles from the City of London General Post Office in St. Martin’s le Grand. In Elmbridge there are 23 publicly accessible surviving coal and tax posts consisting of four different types made of either cast iron or stone. Most are Grade II listed and they can be found in Walton-on-Thames, Molesey, Esher, Claygate and Oxshott.

Coal post
Type 1 Coal Post

The post shown in the photo above is known as a Type 1 made of cast iron. It is the most common and the one you are most likely to have noticed. They are the most obvious as they are usually sited next to roads and are painted white. These were cast by Henry Grissell at the Regents Canal Ironworks and were cast 1.8m tall but with about 1m showing above ground. 

Type 2 is 4.2 metres high and made for the railways. Other types can be found by canals and railways. An example of a stone Type 2 post is shown below with a train just seen in the background.

Type 2 Coal Post

In our area of Esher, Lower Green and Hersham Riverside, there are 8 posts but only 7 can be readily seen and these are at:

  • Arbrook Lane junction with Milbourne Lane – Type 1
  • Arbrook Farm Lane off Copsem Lane – Type 1
  • Douglas Road on the railway embankment opposite the junction with Blair Avenue – Type 2 in granite
  • Littleworth Lane north of the junction with Littleworth Road – Type 1
  • Littleworth Road junction with New Road – Type 1
  • Lower Green Road opposite the open space – Type 1
  • Portsmouth Road north side by the old Toll House, now a nursery – Type 1
  • River Ember north bank (sorry, no public access) – Type 1.

Although the posts were not erected until the 19th Century, it was the need to rebuild a destroyed London after the The Great Fire of 1666 that spurred a new era of coal tax legislation being enacted in 1667 to raise the funds. The coal levy then was set at one shilling/5p (around £12.25 now) per chaldron (25 cwt/1.27 tonnes metric). The revenue gained helped rebuild the likes of St Paul’s Cathedral and 51 other churches that had been razed. Other structures such as Blackfriars Bridge and Holborn Viaduct were also built with the tax money.

Of course, its all very well having all these unmanned warning posts but where did one pay the duty, how was it monitored? The obligation to pay the taxes was enacted under The Coal Duties (London, Westminster and adjacent counties) Act, 1851. The railway and canal companies or local coal merchants calculated the sums due and paid the money to the to the Clerk of the Coal Market (however wine duties were collected in the Port of London).

The taxes were particularly unpopular and were eventually abolished with the last tax collection occurring in 1890. A tax had been collected for over 300 years but was abandoned within 30 years of the posts going up. A 19th century example of eternal Government profligacy

The Elmbridge guide can be found on their website at https://www.elmbridge.gov.uk/planning/other-heritage-assets/ and contains a map showing the location of all the posts in the Borough.

Thanks to Elmbridge’s own guide to Coal Posts, The Londonist and Maurice Bawtree’s 1969 article, ‘The City of London Coal Duties and their Boundary Markers’ published in the ‘London Archaeologist’.

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