The Romans were the first to exploit coal in Britain on a large scale, so they would probably be unsurprised that the Victorians built a monument to it, the Coal Exchange, in the middle of the Roman-built City of London. Intended to facilitate the buying and selling of coal, it was even constructed, albeit unwittingly, above a Roman bath house.
You have probably guessed the rest: the Coal Exchange was pulled down after approaching 200 years of activity. But the foundations of the bath house, dating back to the second century AD, survive and can be visited by the public.
The industrial revolution couldn’t have happened without coal. Britain was by far the biggest producer of it in the world, and the Coal Exchange enabled a monopoly of City merchants to organise their trade, buying and selling coal across the world, in a building opposite the original Billingsgate fish market.
The original Coal Exchange building was opened in 1770. A second one, dating from 1805 was replaced by the most recent one (pictured) which was opened by – who else? – Prince Albert on 30 October, 1849. It was unusual in being built from cast iron, several years before the Great Exhibition of 1851 – also opened by Prince Albert – made iron and glass structures world famous.
It was in 1848, during excavations for that version of the Coal Exchange that the remains of the Roman bath house were found, 13 feet beneath the surface. It was the home of a wealthy late fourth century Roman, who may have made a hasty exit judging by the coins scattered across the floor. Heat for the bath was produced in a furnace fired by wood – sadly not by coal, which would have made the serendipity complete – and drawn into chambers beneath the floor. It was called a hypocaust – a form of central heating that circulates hot air below the floor and up the walls.
The final Coal Exchange building was demolished in 1962, amid a huge conservationist controversy led by the Victorian Society and others, to allow widening of what is now Lower Thames Street.
In Country Life, Mark Girouard summed up the opposition with typical British understatement: “It seems a pity to destroy one of the City’s most remarkable buildings, and a unique pioneer work of cast-iron construction, in order to gain three feet of road and save the back of the Custom House”. Architecture critic Nicholas Pevsner said its destruction would be “unforgivable”.
All this will seem strange to the new generation, because deep mined coal, once an large industry so large it employed well over a million people, has completely disappeared. The disappearance of the Coal Exchange building has left in its place an ancient Roman monument open to visitors as part of the events industry. This has provided – at least until Covid – a few jobs for some of those displaced by the serial decline of manufacturing industry, once fuelled by the all-conquering power of coal. Some exchange.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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