Fuelling mobility: coal and Britain’s naval power, c. 1870–1914

Steven Gray

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This article considers the introduction of steam powered warships to the Royal Navy to show how oceanic mobility in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was contingent on the global availability, and consequently mobility, of coal. Whilst the introduction of steam technology may have freed warships from the vagaries of wind and tides, the navy was now chained not just to coaling stations, but also to the wider infrastructure which guaranteed coal’s movement to these stations around the globe. Thus, the ability to control both the source of the fuel and its movement was crucial to the mobility of British naval vessels tasked with protecting British interests worldwide, and was, therefore, central to British global power. This article explores how the navy ensured the availability of high quality steam-coal at British overseas stations, analysing the processes involved in sourcing high quality coal for naval ships and its transportation overseas. It also shows how the admiralty sought to make such arrangements more professional, and to guarantee the highest quality of coal at every station. It explores how these changes ensured that the infrastructure remained remarkably robust, despite its complex nature. It then assesses how Britain’s rivals failed to achieve the same control over fuelling in the age of the coal ship, offering Britain a huge advantage in the wider world. Finally, the paper considers the ramifications of Britain losing this advantage when it switched to oil. Overall, it argues that, although generally ignored, fuel, and particularly the ability to control its global movement, is crucial to understanding naval mobility. This, of course, is true not just in terms of the navy, but also applicable to other significant geopolitical contexts and processes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)92-103
JournalJournal of Historical Geography
Early online date9 Jul 2017
Publication statusEarly online - 9 Jul 2017


  • mobility
  • fuel
  • coal
  • Royal Navy
  • British Empire
  • contingent mobilities
  • RCUK
  • AHRC
  • 996234


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