South Hertfordshire's coal posts

You might have passed them in the car, by train, or on foot, and you probably won't have given them a second glance. 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.

Picture of the coal post at Potters Bar's Church Road junction with A1000 OS ref: TL 260 022
The coal post at Church Road, Potters Bar,
at the junction with A1000
OS ref: TL 260 022
They are the coal tax posts, many of which were erected following the Coal Duties Act of 1851, and, thanks to them, many of the bridges across the Thames were paid for.

Some are at busy road junctions, others are buried away in woodland and hidden in hedgerows.

There are estimated to be 250 coal posts in the countryside surrounding London and more than 40 of those are in south Hertfordshire, although the exact number is not known.

Records vary, but a survey, carried out in 1961, and filed at Hertfordshire County Council, puts the number at 43, although there is at least one coal post, featured on this site, which isn't included in that list.

Many mark the old boundaries for the collection of duties at points, roughly 20 miles from the General Post Office in the City of London.

(The area was later reduced by the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act of 1861 to include only those places lying within the Metropolitan Police District.

That explains why, when you plot the positions of the coal posts on a map, it does not form a neat circle round the capital but is more a scattering of markers.)

Map of the extent of the London Coal Posts courtesy of Martin Nail. Image released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0
Map of the extent of the London Coal Posts courtesy of Martin Nail.
Image released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0

Some coals posts were moved when the new Act became law, others were left where they were originally placed 10 years earlier. Most of the coal posts existing today are at the spot where a public road or path, railway, or canal entered the Metropolitan District.

Picture of the coal post at Hawkshead south of Brookmans Park on the east side of the railway line at the top of the golf course OS ref: TL 243 028
The Duty Stone at Hawkshead
south of Brookmans Park
on the east side of the railway
line at the top of the golf course
OS ref: TL 243 028
The posts to the south of Brookmans Park followed the former boundary between Hertfordshire and Middlesex, and they still follow the boundary between the present day Hertsmere and Welwyn Hatfield districts.

The majority are iron pillars about four foot high. Others, particularly those by canals or railways, are either small plaques set in the wall, or large obelisks made of cast iron or granit such as the Duty Stone on the east side of the east coast main line just north of Potters Bar and south of Brookmans Park.

The Ordnance Survey map of 1898 shows 'Hawkshead Siding' to the north of the Duty Stone. There is no such thing as Hawkshead Sidings today. Could it be that it was worthwhile building railway sidings there in order to offload goods just before duty became payable?

Most posts are brightly painted, some white, some black. All have ornate designs containing historic information, although some of the writing has been worn away by the elements over time.

Until the 19th Century, the transport of coal and other goods into London had been by sea. But the growth of the canal and railway systems meant that collecting points for taxes had to be set up beyond the boundary of the City.

Originally an official was stationed by the posts, at the side of a road or on the bank of the canal, to record the tonnage and collect the duty.

But as canal trade dwindled with the arrival of the railways, it became uneconomic to employ collectors and it eventually became the responsibility of the operating company to collect and pay the taxes to the Clerk of the Coal Market.

Photograph of the coal post deep in Wormley Wood at the junction of two footpaths just north of the lake OS ref: TL 322 054
Coal post deep in Wormley Wood
at the junction of two footpaths
just north of the lake
OS ref: TL 322 054
Many coal posts are in areas where it is easy to imagine horse-drawn carts full of coal and wine being driven to the City.

Others, like the coal post in Wormley Wood (OS ref: TL 316 057), are at points where small footpaths cross deep in woodland and far from the beaten track.

Some industrial archaeologists say the reason why a few coal posts are found in unusual locations such as by streams, footpaths and cart tracks is because there was no clear ruling in the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act as to where they should be placed.

However, regarding the Wormley Wood coal post, on closer inspection of the Ordnance Survey sheet 166 Luton Hertford map, it is easy to see how those small footpaths in Wormley Wood could have provided a route for a trader, who may have wanted to avoid paying tax, to dodge the collectors.

Either side of Wormley Wood, at Wormley End and at Newgate Street, there are coal posts situated at the side of country lanes where it is much easier to imagine trade routes existing more than 100 years ago.

Could the coal post in Wormley Wood have been set up by the taxman after he got wise to people trying to avoid payment by taking a short cut through the footpaths?

Although the posts date back only 130 years, the history surrounding them goes back much further. The City of London has collected dues on coal and other goods entering London since medieval times.

Picture of coal post detail showing ACT 24 & 25 ViCT CAP 42
Coal post detail
Little Heath, Potters Bar
The Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London a year later, used up many of the City's funds for rebuilding works.

An Act of Parliament was passed which increased the duty payable on coal entering the Port of London.

Money was needed for rebuilding and renovation work. In 1667 the First Rebuilding Act was passed, authorising an increase in the duty payable on coal entering the Port of London, partly for this purpose.

The funds collected from these taxes, together with the "Orphans Fund", were used for the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral and numerous other City churches, Guildhall, the City's markets and Newgate Prison.

But the City remained in debt. In 1694, an Act "for the Relief of the Orphans and Other Creditors of the City of London" was passed.

Picture of coal post detail Little Heath, Potters Bar
Picture of coal post detail
Little Heath, Potters Bar
This Act gave the City the power to impose a duty on each tun (a large cask) of wine entering the Port of London, and increase the duty payable on coal.

This is thought to be the forerunner of the Act of 1861 that led to the setting up of the Coal and Wine Tax Posts.

Once all debts had been repaid, surplus funds were used to finance the building of a number of bridges over the Thames, street paving and new roads into London.

Several further Acts for raising building funds were passed during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The money raised was used for improvement schemes including the building of the Thames Embankment and the erection of the Holborn Viaduct. It was also used for the purchase of the River Thames bridges, including Kingston upon Thames, Hampton Court and Walton on Thames, to free them from tolls.

Picture of the coal post at Little Heath near Bricklayers pub OS ref: TL 257 025
Coal post at Little Heath
near the Builders Arms pub
OS ref: TL 257 025
The tax was finally ended by an Act of Parliament passed in July 1889. But although the law had gone, the tax posts remained, and many have survived.

Many of these symbols of our commercial past have been made Grade II structures, listed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, with their maintenance falling to the local authorities. If you see any in need of attention please contact the relevant local council.

According to locals of Brookmans Park, there was a post at the side of Warrengate Road, where it meets Hawkshead Lane (OS ref: TL 230 031), until the mid 1980s.

It had lain knocked down for many months before it was removed. Mystery surrounds where it went.

You can contact this site (a contact form is at the top right of every page) if you know of any coal post in Hertfordshire not included in the photographs on these pages or mentioned in the list of known coal posts in the south of the county. An Ordnance Survey map reference would be a great help, too,

How to find Hertfordshire's coal posts


There are four main types of coal posts found in Hertfordshire. Below are the descriptions of the different types along with Ordnance Survey map references for locating them.

  • Type A: Four sided stone obelisk on square base.
  • Type B: Large cast iron pyramids set on a square base
  • Type C: Slightly tapered stone obelisks
  • Type D: Square cast iron column with bevelled corners

The following is based on an original list from Hertfordshire County Council's Archives, prepared in 1961. Since then, some coal posts have gone missing and many details have changed. Some were missed off the list.

Updated notes from 2000 have been added after the posts have been checked and where changes to the records are needed.

To see the exact location of the posts on a map, copy the references, go to the Ordnance Survey site, enter the grid reference in the search field and you will see a map showing the exact spot where the post can be found.

All the grid references relate to the Ordnance Survey Landranger Series 1:50,000 scale map for Luton and Hertford (sheet 166).

Coal Post Type A


These are four sided stone obelisk set on a square base. They are 12' to 14' high with, on one side, the arms of the City of London and details of the Act under which it was erected.

  • TL 368 052, Wormley. Alongside the railway line, lying in several pieces on the ground. The inscription not identifiable. 
  • TL 243 028, Hawkshead. Between Brookmans Park and Potters Bar. Appears on the two and a half inch Ordnance Survey Map 1898 as the Duty Stone. 
  • TL 117 967, Watford. Below railway bridge over Colne. In several pieces on the ground, inscription not identifiable.

Coal Post Type B


These posts are large cast iron pyramids set on a square base. They are about 5' to 5' 6" high with, on one side, the arms of the City of London and details of the Act under which they were erected. Many bear the inscription "ACT 24 & 25 VICT. CAP 42" on a metal plate which is fixed to each face.

The ACT 24 & 25 means the posts were set up following the Act of Parliament in the 24th and 25th year of the reign of Queen Victoria and the Cap 42 refers to chapter 42 of that Act.

  • TL 159 008, Radlett. Near two cottages at the end of The Avenue, half way down an embankment, rusty and overgrown. 
  • TL 114 919, Oxhey. Down footpath from the school in Little Oxhey Lane. Not on or near a railway. 
  • TL 091 921, Northwood. (Middlesex). On railway embankment. Arms and inscription on all four sides.

Coal Post Type C


These are slightly tapered stone obelisks, about 3' square at their base and 4' in height. They have a shield depicting the arms of the City of London embossed on one face and the details of the Act under which they were erected, "14 & 15 VIC. C.146" (details of the inscriptions explained above).

  • TL 372 050, Wormley. Alongside Lea Navigation. Bench Mark. 
  • TL 046 932, Rickmansworth. Alongside the Grand Union Canal. Bench Mark.

Coal Post Type D


Photograph of coal post at the A1000 junction with Church Road OS ref: TL 262 022
Coal post at the A1000
junction with Church Road
OS ref: TL 262 022
These square cast iron column with bevelled corners are the most common. They are set on a base with a cap and a small collar just below. Out of the ground they are about 4' high. When in position, and part buried, they are 3' to less than 2' depending on how deep they are set in the ground.

Between the cap and collar there is the arms of the City of London. Below the collar many have the details of the Act under which the posts were erected. On the base of the marker are the details of the casting company - Henry Grissell, Regents Canal Ironworks, London.

These inscriptions are usually dated. The columns erected under the 1851 Act have the inscription recording the 1861 Act screwed over the original (in some cases the plates have been lost). There are other minor variations.

The body in the post, including the cap, is white. The coat of arms depicted is that of the City of London, with the shield bearing the Cross of St. George and the Sword of St. Paul, painted red on a white background.

Beneath the coat of arms is to be found the letters "24 & 25 VICT. CAP 42" (details of the inscriptions explained above).

TL 364 056, Wormley. On the east side of the A10 behind a brick pillar box.
TL 322 054, Wormley wood. Deep in the woods just north of the lake.
TL 343 058, Wormley/Cheshunt boundary. About half a mile north of Paradise Hill.
TL 304 042, Hatfield. Half a mile south east of Newgate Street at the railway bridge over the road.
TL 300 042, Hatfield. Half a mile south of Newgate Street and North of Carbone Hill.
TL 272 035, Northaw. West end of the Ridgeway.
TL 270 032, Northaw. At entrance to Queenswood School drive.
TL 260 021, Potters Bar. North Road A1000.
TL 260 021, Potters Bar. Church Street. These two markers are within a yards of each other.
TL 257 025, Potters Bar. Turn left from north end of Barnards Road, outside house called Lancresse.
TL 230 031, North Mymms. South end of Water Lane.
TL 205 058, Colney Heath. Road junction.
TL 205 059, Colney Heath. Opposite The Cock public house.
TL 205 050, Colney Heath. Near Coursers Farm. Bench mark.
TL 199 059, Colney Heath. On the heath north east of the river Colney.
TL 182 037, London Colney. Alongside bridge.
TL 176 032, London Colney. Broad Colney bridge.
TL 172 023, Shenley. Near Colneyhouse Farm.
TL 171 020, Shenley. Near Harperbury Hospital.
TL 170 011, Shenley. In hedge on Wild Farm.
TL 163 995, Radlett. High Street, alongside Messrs Wright and Mills.
TL 161 007, Radelett. On the east side of the A5, south of the bridge over the stream and half a mile north of the station.
TL 151 939, Watford, Bushey Heath. On the A4140.
TL 131 926, Oxhey. On the A4008 at Burntoak Farm, gatepost to No.1, The Hollies.
TL 120 952, Bushey. Capell Road near Bushey Station - rusty.
TL 118 955, Bushey. North-east corner of Bushey Arches - rusty.
TL 116 963, Watford. Water Lane. Rusty and deeply buried. Likely to be affected by road reconstruction. (Removed April 1966 and relocated at the College of Further Education).
TL 106 916, Oxhey. On the B468 at Potters Street Hill, near junction with Oxhey Drive.
TL 087 923, Rickmansworth. In playing fields of St Martins School, south of Batchworth Lane.
TL 078 924, Rickmansworth. Batchworth Heath, just south of the Prince of Wales public house.
TL 070 915, Rickmansworth. At the junction of White Hill and Jackets Lane.
TL 069 915, Rickmansworth. Battlewells Farm.
TL 065 917, Rickmansworth. 300 yards west of Battlewells Farm and north of the old reservoir.
TL 058 922, Rickmansworth. On the road from Woodcock Hill to Harefield.
TL 041 935, Rickmansworth. At the bridge over Colne near Drayton Ford.

Potters Bar


There are three coal posts in Potters Bar, at the junction of North Road and the A1000 (TL 260 021), near the corner of Church Road, (TL 260 022) and on the north side of Barnards Road (TL 257 025).

Colney Heath


There are four coal posts in Colney Heath suggesting that this small village was once a busy route for trade travelling to London. The posts are at the road junction (TL 205 058), opposite the Cock pub (TL 205 059), near Coursers Farm, (TL 205 050) and on the heath by the Colney River (TL 199 059).

Hawkshead


The Hawkshead post is at the east side of the rail track in the north-west corner of the golf course (TL 243 028). It appears on the two and a half inch Ordnance Survey Map 1898 as the Duty Stone by what are marked as the Hawkshead sidings.

Wormley


There are two coal posts at Wormley and both are in unusual locations. One is in the middle of Wormley Wood (OS ref: TL 322 054) and the other on the north side of a country lane on the  Wormley/Cheshunt boundary about half a mile north of Paradise Hill (OS ref: TL 343 058), at a point where it is hard to imagine any significant trade traffic passing by.

Northaw


There are two coal posts in Northaw. One is at the west end of the Ridgeway, (OS ref: TL 272 035), at the junction with Well Lane and second is almost within site further down Well Lane outside the entrance to Queenswood School's rear entrance (OS ref: TL 270 032).

Newgate Street


There should be two coal posts in Newgate Street but the one which is supposed to be north of Carbone Hill has either been moved or has become overgrown and hidden from view. It is supposed to be half a mile south of the village at (OS ref: TL 300 042). The second coal post in Newgate Street is under the railway bridge on the south side of the road half a mile east of the village and on the east side of the bridge, (OS ref: TL 304 042).

References


The inspiration for this feature, and some of the information in it, came from an article written by Brian Powell, called, 'These most useful relics', published in the December 1999 issue of the North Mymms Local History Society Newsletter.

In that work, Brian Powell lists, as his references, an article entitled, 'The City of London Coal Duties', by M Bawtree 1969, printed in the London Archaeologist, spring edition 1969, and 'The Industrial Archaeology of Hertfordshire', by W.B Johnson, 1970.

Thanks also to members of two Brookmans Park groups that have since disbanded, The Gobions Woodland Trust and the North Mymms Local History Society. Both were extremely helpful in researching this feature which was written in 1998 and revised in 2018.

Information was also taken from the Elmbridge Borough Council website and its tourism history pages, and by seeking information via internet archaeology newsgroups.

Other references

From the records at Hertfordshire County Council Archives department.
Guildhall Library, London.
Middlesex Council Bulletin, November 1961.
Hertfordshire Countryside, Spring 1963.
W.Branch, Johnson, Bangor House, Welwyn, Herts.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article. The fact that railway sidings were built just outside the boundary where tax became payable, may apply even more poignantly to the Builders Arms pub. The coal (and wine) post is just outside the pub. Guess which side of the boundary the pub is on.

    ReplyDelete

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