Research into the marks and the duties

Frequently asked questions

What is the correct term for the markers?

There is no official term. The City Corporation's website formerly used the term "Coal tax posts". "Coal posts" is quite often used, as is "Coal duty posts", which I think explains most about what they are; it is preferable to "Coal tax posts" because "duty" rather than "tax" is the term used in the legislation. I personally call them "City posts", the term used on early Ordnance Survey maps.

The problem with all these terms is that not all the markers are posts -- the Type 3 plates certainly are not, and I think it is stretching the term "posts" to apply it to the railway and canal obelisks. On this website I have tried to use "boundary marks" or "boundary markers" when referring to the full range of marks and only to use "posts" for the Type 2 marks -- which do of course form the vast majority. The term used in the Historic England EH Monument Type Thesaurus is "Coal Duty Boundary Marker".

Shouldn't they be called "Coal and wine duty posts"?

No. I imagine that this surprisingly common error has arisen from someone noting that the inscription on the posts refers to an Act called the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act 1861 and leaping to the erroneous conclusion that the posts were therefore erected in connection with both duties. As described in The duties 1861 - 1890, the duty on wine continued to apply only to wine entering the Port of London and was not affected by the change in area of collection of the coal duties. What the Act changed was the purposes for which the wine duty was used. The boundary markers have absolutely no connection with the wine duty, and calling them "Coal and wine duty posts", "Coal and wine tax posts", or "Coal and wine posts" is quite incorrect.

Were the duties actually collected at the boundary markers?

In general, no. Customs officers did collect the government duty and the City duties on the Grand Junction Canal from 1805 to 1831 and the City employed a collector of duties there from 1831 to 1869 -- see Bawtree's articles on Stockers House. However, the vast bulk of coal coming to London came by sea (where there were established methods of collection) or later by rail, where the railway companies were responsible for paying the duty.

No coal would have been moved long distances by road. However, coal merchants receiving coal by rail in towns just outside the boundary, such as Watford or Dartford, would have been selling coal to customers over the boundary in the London District. The Coal Market report map in 1868 shows more than twenty coal depots around London just outside the boundary. The Skeleton map of area of coal duties makes a point of naming towns and villages just outside the boundary. The City employed inspectors in these areas to keep a eye on this trade and to ensure that the duty was paid by the merchants.

The boundary marks on roads were therefore not collection points, but a way of demarcating the boundary so that no-one could claim ignorance of their liabilities. Passages such as the following, found on a number of websites, are entirely fanciful:

But if you had travelled the same way 130 years earlier you might have found queues of people, many with carts loaded with coal, wine, clothing and food, haggling with the taxman.

What about coal moved back outside boundary?

As described in the paragraphs about so-called "drawbacks" in the The early railways and The London District 1845-1861 sections, coal was allowed to pass through the London District either without paying the duty, or being charged just 1d duty. The criteria for which of these applied were quite complicated, depending on the modes of transport used and whether it remained in the same railway wagon or vessel, and changed over the life of duties. However it did mean that coal bound by rail for places such as Epping, which could only be reached from the coalfields by traversing the district, did not bear the duty.

Why are there posts on rural footpaths and open land?

As mentioned above, the purpose of the posts was to make sure that no-one could claim that they did not know where the boundary ran: the existence of a post at a particular point does not mean that coal was ever actually likely to have been transported past it. However, it is also worth remembering that before the days of paved roads, the difference between a bridle path and a road was not so great as it is now. Many currently quite wide and busy roads around London would have been little more than unmetalled country lanes in the late nineteenth century.

How far are the posts from London?

Map of the 1861 boundary

The boundary

The markers are between about 30 km (18 miles) and 20 km (12 miles) from Charing Cross, the average distance being about 24 km (15 miles). Slightly different figures would come from adopting the datum point used in the earlier coal duties legislation, the General Post Office in St Martins le Grand. However, Charing Cross seems more appropriate as it is not only the normal point from which distances are measured today, but was used in an 1867 Return to Parliament in estimating the distances of the furthest points of the boundary from London, and in the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 and Metropolitan Police Act 1839 to define which parishes could be added to the police district.

The boundary is quite an irregular shape, as can be seen from the sketch map, so I am dubious about referring to it as a circle, as some writers do. It is certainly wrong, as can be seen from the figures above, to refer to it as a circle 20 miles around London. This figure must arise from a confusion with the boundary in operation between 1845 and 1861. The difference between the two boundaries is vivdly illustrated on the London coal &c duties map.

I read that the boundary was 25 miles from London at one time. Is this right?

No. As explained in the section on The early railways, the London and Westminster Coal Trade Act 1838 had regulatory provisions which applied to the area within 25 miles of London but the area of collection of duties was unaffected.

How many markers were there in total?

As stated in the The boundary marks today, adding the number of possible missing marks to the number extant gives an original total of about 275-280. There are about 257 shown on the latest of the Area of Coal Duties maps in 1885, though this would not include the Type 3 plates as the maps do not show the plates separately from the posts that accompanied them. In March 1887 a figure of 257 is given in the Coal and Corn and Finance Committee Minutes (53, p84), but this is in connection with painting the posts so might exclude the stone obelisks.

I have seen the figure of 1700. So that isn't correct?

I have no idea where the figure of 1700 comes from. In 1957 the Bourne Society Bulletin attributed it to a newspaper cutting (Bulletin 7, correcting the error in Bulletin 6).

What does "24 & 25 VICT CAP 42" mean?

This is the numerical citation for the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act 1861. The numbering of Acts of Parliament is explained in the page on Citation of Acts of Parliament.

So why do some posts just have "4 & 25 VICT CAP 42"?

The most likely explanation is that initial "2" was removed to allow a plate with a fuller inscription to be fitted -- see the discussion on the page on Type 2 posts.

Why do some posts just have "24 VICT"?

The posts of type 2c, with the short inscription "24 VICT", were apparently made before the 1861 Act was actually passed and thus before its full regnal year and chapter number were known -- see the discussion on the page on Type 2 posts.

What is a chaldron?

A measure of volume, which in London was equivalent to about 1¼ tons. See the Note on units and the reference given there.

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