The Industrial Revolution and the Atlantic Economy: Selected Essays

By Brinley Thomas | Go to book overview

1

BRITAIN’S ENERGY CRISIS IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY 1

John U. Nef’s classic work, The Rise of the British Coal Industry, concluded that

between the accession of Elizabeth and the Civil War, England, Wales, and Scotland faced an acute shortage of wood, which was common to most parts of the island rather than limited to special areas, and which we may describe as a national crisis without laying ourselves open to a charge of exaggeration. 1

(Nef 1932, I: 161)

In his view this crisis was the fundamental cause of the fourteenfold increase in coal production between the 1550s and the 1680s, and ‘by the mid-seventeenth century a new industrial structure was being built in England on coal and this structure provided the basis for the industrialized Great Britain of the nineteenth century’ (Nef 1964:170).

Nef’s work left a profound mark and inspired a considerable literature, some of which rejected his main thesis. For example, George Hammersley’s detailed examination of the Crown woods in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to the conclusion that ‘the much-vaunted fuel shortage…was always a strictly local and limited phenomenon. The story gained ground by an extension of hard cases—those of London, Bristol and Northumberland for instance—to make bad generalizations’ (Hammersley 1957:159). Other criticisms were made by Flinn (1959b, 1978) and by Coleman (1977). Space does not allow an adequate summary of the many issues raised in this debate. In this chapter I shall concentrate on one important aspect—the performance of the British iron industry in the seventeenth century. Between the

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