Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Carry Coals To Newcastle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 4, 2011

If you carry coals to Newcastle, what you’re doing is redundant and unnecessary. So why would someone want to carry coals to Newcastle, figuratively or literally? No one knows for sure but there are more than a few examples of it happening.

The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette of September 27, 1900 where it was reported that the Klondike wanted ice and was paying exorbitant prices for it in during the summer months.

[Consul J.C. McCook] says there has been an abundance of wild blueberries, currants, raspberries and cranberries this summer. Cattle herders on the hills and a few Indians gather the berries and bring them to Dawson, receiving from $1 to $1.50 a quart. The idea of building an ice plant in Dawson seems like “carrying coals to Newcastle.” The lack of ice in summer, however, has been seriously felt, and a contract has been given fo an ice machine, to be placed in a cold storage warehouse. The cost of ice this summer has been 5 cents a pound, or at a rate of $100 per ton.

In the Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon, the following was reported:

It was not, therefore, without surprize, that at my last visit to the works in the year 1830, I perceived several score of large casks of Stourbridge fire clay in the yard, which had been brought over from England at considerable expense. It seemed to be verifying the proverb of carrying coals to Newcastle. I was informed, however, in London, that as the directors had determined to adhere strictly to Mr. Twigg’s suggestions, and to leave the responsibility of success upon him, so, in such a comparatively trivial matter as bringing fire clay from Stourbridge, it was judged more advisable to incur that expense, and to let Mr. Twigg be thoroughly satisfied, as to the excellence and durability of his materials, than to leave any excuse for failure.

In Thomas Fuller’s book, “The History of the Worthies of England” which was published in 1661, Fuller wrote:

To carry Coals to Newcastle, that is to do what was done before; or to busy one’s self in a needless imployment.

And in 1606, Thomas Heywood wrote ‘If you know not me, you know no bodie: or, the troubles of Queene Elizabeth‘ in which coals and Newcastle are referenced in this way:

 As common as coales from Newcastle.

Now it’s a fact that people knew from the time King Henry III granted Newcastleupon-Tyne a charter for the digging of coals — making it the first coal port in the world — in 1239, that carrying coals to Newcastle was a pointless task. And being able to read or write didn’t determine whether you were smart enough to know that carrying coals to Newcastle was a pointless task. People from all social classes were well aware that it made no sense to carry coals to Newcastle.

It’s also a fact that in 1344, Edward III made a decree that all coal from the Durham and Gateshead side of the Tyne was required to pass through Newcastle for transport, further cementing the concept that it was pointless to carry coals to Newcastle.

Despite numerous claims — in various publications and from reputable online sources — that the first recorded instance of the contextualized saying appears in 1538 in England, Idiomation was unable to locate the exact written passage.

However, it would make sense that it would appear in print sometime around 1538 for one  reason in particular. In 1530, a Royal Act restricted all shipments of coal from Tyneside to Newcastle Quayside, giving a monopoly in the coal trade to a cartel of Newcastle burgesses known as the Hostmen. This monopoly, which lasted for a considerable time, helped Newcastle prosper.  With a monopoly on coal in Newcastle, one can easily see the probability of the phrase being an off-shoot from that action.

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One Response to “Carry Coals To Newcastle”

  1. Slava said

    The Russian version of this is to take your own samovar to Tula. Tula was the main samovar manufacturing city of old Russia.

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