Fuelling Antarctic exploration: The Crown Patent Fuel Company in Cardiff

Jennifer Protheroe-Jones

A block of Crown Patent Fuel.

A block of Crown Patent Fuel.

Age of Polar Expeditions

The early 20th century was a time of great heroic explorations to the Antarctic continent. Crown Patent Fuel from south Wales was the fuel of choice for these Antarctic expeditions.

Crown Patent Fuel

In addition to 100 tons of steam coal from south Wales coal companies, Captain Scott's 1910 British Antarctic Expedition was also given 300 tons of fuel blocks by Cardiff's Crown Patent Fuel Company. This, along with other sponsorship from Cardiff and south Wales, persuaded Scott to designate Cardiff the home port of his ship, the Terra Nova. He sent the Terra Nova to load fuel in Cardiff rather than have it sent by rail to London.

The Crown Patent Fuel works were situated alongside the Glamorganshire Canal at Maendy. The works was one of a number along the canal and, together with a number of works at other south Wales ports, made the region the largest producer of patent fuel in the world. Most of the patent fuel was exported, with France being a major customer.

Scott commends Welsh coal

The fuel was made by mixing and heating waste small coal with pitch, the residue from distilled coal tar, and ramming the mixture into moulds. Various size blocks were produced, ranging from 7lbs to 56 lbs, with 28lbs being the most common — and the size taken on Scott's expedition. The blocks stacked well and took up less space than coal.

When the expedition reached their base at Cape Evans on Ross Island in Antarctica, the fuel blocks were used to build a back wall to the stables for the expedition ponies.

Earlier expeditions

In 1901 the Discovery, Captain Scott's first Antarctic expedition ship, took on 200 tons of Patent Fuel in Cardiff. The Aurora, the ship of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-14), was also in Cardiff taking on Crown Patent Fuel on 4 August 1911 before sailing for Australia and Antarctica.

Comments (20)

3 March 2022, 19:07
we have just found a block in West Yorkshire near the river calder and the canal system.
there has been flooding recently and it has washed away a lot of the plant growth and exposed the block.
20 February 2022, 12:38
I have just seen from the 1921 census that my Uncle William Henry Ursell worked for the Star Fuel Company Blackweir and it was interesting to have read your article. Thank You.
28 June 2021, 10:56
Hello from Greece.
I am a University student at the department of conservation of antiquities and work of arts. I am currently doing my thesis which is about blocks of coals which are found in a shipwreck near dodekanisa. Only Crown patent fuels match in size and shape with my objects. Can you please give me more informations about this product? Like if it was traded with mediterranean countries, until when and if you know about any lost ship and cargo?
Thank you in advance
Mike miller
1 March 2021, 13:53

Why molded blocks of coal draw my interest I'll never know.
Weird, ain't it ?

Marc Haynes Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
4 August 2020, 13:52
Dear David Adams,

Thank you very much for contacting us about your find. I have forwarded your message to our Principal Curator for Industry (and the author of this article), Jennifer Protheroe-Jones. Please note that she is currently on furlough, so it may be some time before she is able to advise on your question. I would like to apologise for the inconvenience.

Best wishes,

Digital Team
David Adams
4 August 2020, 09:28
I am just contacting you to say that I have just found a Crown Works Block ( Size 10" x 6" x 4.5" Weight 10lbs ) at the back of a local garage in Wingerworth , Chesterfield , Derbyshire.

It is in excellent condition and I have no idea how long it has been there or how it got there . This is obviously ( after reading your previous comments ) one of the later manufactured blocks . If you could give me any additional information on it , ie , approx date of manufacture , rarity etc , etc or any other web sites I could look at it would be appreciated .

Regards David Adams
Sandy Medina
5 July 2020, 07:43
Yo encontré un carbón en la playa que felicidad tengo parte de la historia en mis manos
Jennifer Protheroe-Jones, Principal Curator – Industry Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
3 January 2020, 12:13
Dear Keith Gribble,

Thank you for your message. It is always interesting to hear of new finds of Welsh industrial products.

These blocks of patent fuel and large pieces of coal most likely originated from a vessel departing Cardiff, most likely one of the various vessels that were lost due to collision or stranding in locations that were variously described as Cardiff Entrance, Cardiff Sand, and Cardiff Roads. Coal and patent fuel was carried below decks in cargo holds, the hatches to which were secured covered with heavy timbers and tarpaulins before a vessel departed port. There was minimal likelihood of loss of cargo unless a vessel foundered.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, south Wales was the main exporter of patent fuel in the world, with around three million tons a year being exported each year in the first decade of the twentieth century. These finds are most unlikely to have been lost off the Terra Nova which stowed its patent fuel far below decks as it was not needed until the vessel reached Antarctica, and it effectively acted as ballast to offset the lighter expedition equipment and supplies. The Terra Nova departed Cardiff south westwards, passing Penarth, the vessel sailed in excellent weather which would not have resulted in loss of stowed cargo.

The Crown Works was established in 1857 and, with variations in ownership but not in the name ‘Crown’, the works continued production until 1964. Because of this very long time span of production, it is almost impossible to accurately date blocks that are found. The main clue come from the size of the blocks, with earlier blocks from a number of manufacturers weighing 56 lbs, and later blocks, from the later nineteenth century onwards, becoming standardised at 28 lbs (illustrated in the web article), although smaller blocks were also produced.

The Museum is informed of finds of Welsh patent fuel blocks around once a year: in recent years the Museum has been contacted by finders of blocks in Cardiff Docks, in the cellar of a house in south west England, trawled up in UK waters and on wreck sites in UK waters, at wreck sites off Florida USA, and off Chile, and in river and port locations in Guyana and in West Africa. These foreign locations accord with export statistics that recorded the numerous locations that Welsh patent fuel was exported to.

Thank you for your interest in the Museum and its collections.

Yours sincerely,

Jennifer Protheroe-Jones
Principal Curator - Industry
Keith Gribble
2 January 2020, 22:35
Hi there. I am an ex trawler skipper. Working the grounds off the orchard ledges/cardiff foreshore we have trawled many of these blocks patent cardiff. From this area. I have one at home now. It's very interesting to think that this may have been on board the terra nova all them years ago. We also trawled up huge pieces of coal. We assumed that it had fallen off of overloaded ships leaving the cardiff basin. ? Regards Keith
Marc Haynes Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
3 July 2019, 12:15

Hi Stacey,

Thank you very much for your message. One of our curators will contact you about your interesting find.

Best wishes,

Digital Team

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