Old Ways

The Historical Significance of London’s Coal-Tax Posts

Coal-tax posts, often referred to as coal duty markers, are historical artefacts that played an important role in the administration of the coal duties levied on coal entering the City of London. These posts were installed to mark the points at which duties on coal were payable as it was transported into London. Originally, there were around 280 posts, of which about 210 remain today.


Design and Placement

The design and placement of coal-tax posts were meticulously crafted to serve their function effectively, marking the boundaries within which the coal duties were levied. Typically standing about a meter in height, these posts are robustly constructed from cast iron—a material chosen for its durability and resistance to the elements.

Coal tax posts on Banstead Heath
Coal tax posts on Banstead Heath

Most posts prominently display the City of London’s shield or coat of arms, an emblem that clearly identifies them as official markers of fiscal authority.

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Strategically situated at vital entry points into London, these posts were positioned along major transport routes that were commonly used for coal transportation. Major roads leading into London, which saw heavy traffic of coal carts and later motorized vehicles, were obvious choices for the placement of these markers.

A very clean maker's mark on a Coal Tax post
A very clean maker’s mark on a Coal Tax post. It reads “Regents Canal Iron Works, London. Henry Grissell, 1861”.

Rivers and Canals

Rivers and canals, integral to the distribution networks of the time, also featured these posts along their banks. Notably, some posts were directly installed on the banks of the Thames itself.

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In addition to natural and traditional routes, the posts were also set up along the railways. The advent of rail transport revolutionized the way goods, including coal, were moved across the country, and the railways became a new frontline for the collection of duties.

 obelisk-type Coal Tax Post
Railway west of Swanley.
This is the Southeastern main line from London (Victoria) to the Medway towns and beyond. In the background on the top of the cutting bank can be seen an obelisk-type Coal Tax Post

The positioning along railways was particularly strategic, reflecting the shift in transportation technologies and ensuring that the emerging networks complied with the existing tax regime.

The specific locations of these posts were not chosen at random but were the result of careful planning to maximize their visibility to those transporting coal and their effectiveness in enforcing the tax laws. The posts served as both physical and legal landmarks, signaling the point at which the coal tax became payable.

Coal Tax post, Woldingham Road
Coal Tax post, Woldingham Road

Their presence was a constant reminder to coal merchants and transporters of their tax responsibilities as they moved goods into the bustling economic centre of the capital.

Coal Tax History

Coal has been taxed upon entry into the City of London since medieval times. Originally, since all coal was transported by sea to riverside wharves, collecting these duties was a relatively straightforward task. The City, though small—encompassing just one square mile—is a notably affluent and influential part of London.

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Historically, the Port of London, within which these duties were payable, extended well beyond the City’s boundaries, stretching along the Thames from Yantlet Creek (downstream from Gravesend) to Staines.

By the 19th century, the landscape of trade had transformed with the increasing use of canals and railways. Consequently, various Acts of Parliament were passed to expand the catchment area to include these new transport routes.

Alldin’s Coal Wharf at low tide, London – Circa late 1800s

In 1845, the boundary was established at a radius of 20 miles from the General Post Office in London, encompassing areas from Langley in the west to Gravesend in the east, and from Ware in the north to Redhill in the south.

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In 1851, legislation was enacted permitting the erection of boundary markers to demarcate this area; approximately fifty markers, bearing references to the Act, were installed.

New Marker Posts

A further legislative change came with the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act of 1861, which narrowed the area to that covered by the Metropolitan Police District plus the City of London. This revised boundary ranged from Colnbrook in the west to Crayford Ness, at the mouth of the River Darent, in the east, and from Wormley, Hertfordshire, in the north to Banstead Heath, Surrey, in the south.

Coal barges at Lindsey Wharf, London – Circa late 1800s

About 280 new marker posts were erected to indicate the boundary within which the duty was payable, each citing the Act by regnal year and chapter number, specifically 24 & 25 Vict. c 42. On certain railways and canals, markers from earlier acts were repurposed for this new boundary. Most of these posts—over 200—still survive today.

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Wine Duties

Although the title of the act includes reference to wine duties, these were collected solely at the Port of London; therefore, it is incorrect to refer to the boundary markers as “coal and wine duty posts.”

The primary function of these posts was to signify where the boundary lay, ensuring that no one could claim ignorance of their liability for the duties. Generally, duties were not collected directly at these boundary points, with the notable exception of the Grand Junction Canal, where duties were initially collected at Grove Park, Hertfordshire.

Coal Tax post near Mogador
Coal Tax post near Mogador

After the boundary was adjusted in 1861, a permanent residence for the collector was established at Stockers Lock near Rickmansworth. The Queens Head Public House in High Street, Colney Heath, also features a post close by, which reportedly had a “canted front bay used for the collection of coal tax.”

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In other instances, railway and canal companies or local coal merchants calculated the due amounts and submitted the payments to the Corporation. Initially, railway companies were permitted a duty-free allowance of coal for their engines.


Since medieval times, the City of London held the authority to levy dues for weighing and measuring coal entering the Port of London. Following the devastating Great Fire of London in 1666, Acts of Parliament were enacted to impose additional duties to aid in the city’s reconstruction.

Coal Tax Post no 121, Epsom and Ewell
Coal Tax Post no 121, Epsom and Ewell

While a portion of these funds was allocated for general rebuilding efforts, the majority was designated specifically for the restoration of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City churches. Upon the completion of St Paul’s, the duties were then directed to the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches.

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By 1718, these duties were transformed into a Government tax, although a segment continued to be used for ecclesiastical purposes, such as the rebuilding of Gravesend Church in 1730. During the Napoleonic Wars, the duty was increased multiple times to contribute to the war effort. These government duties on coal were ultimately abolished in 1831.

Coal Tax Post by Swiss House

At the close of the 17th century, the City of London found itself heavily indebted, particularly to funds held in trust for the orphans of City Freemen. In 1694, the City successfully lobbied Parliament to enact the Act for the Relief of the Orphans and other Creditors of the City of London, which permitted the raising of funds through various means, including the imposition of duties on coal.

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Established Coal Tax Posts

This Act became the precursor to those that established the coal-tax posts. By the mid-18th century, revenues from these duties began to be channelled into financing public works not only within the City but also in adjacent areas such as the West End, Southwark, and Whitechapel.

Coal Tax Post no 147, Reigate and Banstead

Coal Market

Projects funded included the construction of bridges like Blackfriars Bridge, road improvements such as those at Temple Bar and the Ratcliffe Highway, and judicial buildings like the Old Bailey and the Middlesex Sessions House in Clerkenwell. In 1803, an additional duty was introduced to cover the expenses associated with the coal market in London.

The tradition of utilising coal duties to finance public works persisted into the 19th century, funding significant undertakings like the rebuilding of the Royal Exchange and the construction of New Oxford Street.

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Following the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) in 1855, the majority of these duties were allocated to the board, supporting the creation of a unified sewerage system for London and the construction of the Thames embankments. The City’s share of the duties contributed to the construction of landmarks such as Cannon Street and later, Holborn Viaduct.

Coal tax boundary post no.104, Portsmouth Road, Esher

In the 1870s, these duties were employed to eliminate tolls on several Thames bridges—Kew, Kingston upon Thames, Hampton Court, Walton upon Thames, and Staines—as well as Chingford and Tottenham Mills on the Lea.

Abolishment of Coal Tax

The coal tax in London was eventually abolished due to several factors that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

  1. Economic Diversification and Modernization: As London and the wider UK economy diversified and modernized, the reliance on coal as a primary energy source diminished. This was particularly evident with the advent of oil and gas, which became more popular for both domestic and industrial use. The decrease in coal consumption made the tax less relevant and less productive.
  2. Administrative Changes: The expansion of London’s administrative boundaries and the reorganization of local government, notably with the creation of the London County Council in 1889 and later the Greater London Council, led to changes in how infrastructure projects were funded. These changes reduced the necessity for specific taxes like the coal tax.
  3. Public and Political Pressure: There was increasing public and political pressure to reduce the burden of taxation on everyday commodities, including coal, which was a staple energy source for households and industries. The coal tax was seen as regressive, disproportionately affecting poorer residents who relied heavily on coal for heating and cooking.
  4. Legal and Legislative Reforms: Legislative changes at the turn of the century aimed at simplifying and streamlining tax collection also played a role. The coal tax was increasingly seen as an anachronism, unsuited to the economic conditions and administrative practices of the time.

The culmination of these factors led to the formal abolition of the coal duties in 1890 within the City of London, and by 1901, the tax was completely abolished across the wider London area. This move was part of broader efforts to modernize the tax system and reduce the cost of living for London’s residents.