Coal Hole Cover

Object: Coal hole cover

Found: On demolition site of 42 Phoenix Road

Date: unknown

During the second half of the 19th century, there was an ever-increasing demand for coal in London and as so much of the coal which came into the metropolis arrived at the huge coal drops in Kings Cross, this had a significant impact on Somers Town life. By 1860, the Eastern and Western Coal Drops were dealing with one thousand tons per day and as the work associated with loading and unloading materials was heavily labour intensive, this provided employment locally. By the mid-1880s, the Midland Railway Company’s depot in York Road alone employed two hundred porters and carters.

The vast quantities of coal coming in spawned the growth of local coal merchants and transportation contractors. By 1865, there were three main coal dealers listed in Somers Town, in Gee Street, Brill Row and Chapel Street and thirty-five coal merchants in the immediate vicinity of St Pancras, King’s Cross and Euston. By 1875 in Somers Town, there were five coal Agents listed in the Post Office Trades Directory, twelve coal dealers mainly situated in Chalton Street, Ossulston Street and Phoenix Street and several coal merchants. Coal was twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week business and such a dominant feature of life locally that a commentator noted in 1893, “There you will find coals to the left of you, coals to the right of you, volleying and thundering.”

Coal undoubtedly contributed to the poor health of local people and particularly the high rates of respiratory diseases, but it also brought employment and income to Somers Town, which as the area’s fortunes declined towards the end of the nineteenth century, was desperately needed.

By John Lynch

Note on Cover

This 16 inch diameter cast iron disc is a cover plate to a coal delivery chute and forms part of the palate of historic finishing materials for walkable pavements. Its larger size suggests it was used in a commercial premises – and indeed it was found in the rubble of the former nursery at 42 Phoenix Road. Its roundness allows it to be rolled if necessary – for it is very heavy. The artwork on the cover is a commonly seen design and is part of the casting of the whole. There is a ring cast on the rear of the plate – a chain would once have been attached there, a measure to safeguard it from being stolen, on account of its material value. The chain held the cover in its proper place by anchoring it to the wall in the storage. This kept the newly delivered coal heap safe from being picked out of the hole from above in moonless and streetlight-less nights by pavement coal hawkers. At coal delivery time, the charwoman or the cook of the household would loosen the chain from the anchor and the coal delivery man would lift off the plate. Perhaps the call would go out: ‘Thank you sweety!’

By Herman Tribelnig

Further information on the Coal Holes of London