Coal was formed in wide, low-lying equatorial swamps crossed by large rivers and covered by forests of primitive trees. Here, the remains of trees and plants were saved from biodegration and oxidation by mud and water. Coal is usually black in colour but sometimes it occurs as a brownish-black colour. There are four broad ranks or types of coal depending upon its age. Commencing with the youngest and lowest carbon content, these are: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite. Anthracite is classified as a metamorphic rock because of its subsequent exposure to elevated pressures and temperatures. Bitumen obtained from bituminous coal is a black viscous material generally referred to as 'tar'. Coal is primarily composed of carbon, along with a range of other elements, particularly sulphur. It has been estimated that a coal seam 1 foot thick needed as much as 7 to 10 feet of peat thickness to commence with.

Bituminous coal.

Coal is formed by natural geological processes applying pressure to dead matter. It is principally used for steam/electricity generation purposes. Under suitable geological conditions dead matter is formed successively into:

PeatConsidered to be the precursor of coal.
Lignite or brown coalThis is the lowest rank of coal. It is soft and still shows traces of plant material. It has a high sulphur content and it burns with a smoky flame. Jet is a compact form of lignite used for ornamental purposes because it can be carved and highly polished.
Sub-bituminous coalThe properties of this coal lie between those of lignite and bituminous coal.
Bituminous coal*This is a dense black or dark brown coal and it is the most abundant.
Steam coal Used to fuel steam engines.
AnthraciteThis is the highest rank of coal. It is hard glossy black and it burns slowly with a smokeless flame. It consists of up to 95% carbon with low sulphur and particulate content.
GraphiteTechnically, this is the highest rank of coal but it is difficult to ignite. It is used as pencil lead and in a powdered form as a lubricant.
*Cannel coal (or candle coal) is a type of bituminous coal, which, due to its composition of organic matter and texture, is considered to be oil shale. Being rich in oils, this coal has a waxy lustre and is long burning with a bright yellow flame and little ash.

Cannel coal.

Coal was formed during the Carboniferous Period, which was betwen 360 and 290 million years ago. It was mainly formed from tree-like plants that grew in warm humid swamps:

Seed FernsSphenopteris, includes small plants and trees
Seed TreesMedullosales, up to 35 feet tall
Tree FernsPsaronius, up to 50 feet tall
Horsetail TreesCalamites, up to 65 feet tall
Giant Club MossesLepidodendron, up to 130 feet tall, related to club mosses (Lycopodiaceae)
Sigillaria Up to 95 feet tall, related to club mosses (Lycopodiaceae)
Carboniferous Forest
Giant Club Moss
Carboniferous Forest

During the Carboniferous Period early conifer trees began to appear that were cone-bearing seed plants closely related to seed plants called Cordaites, which are now extinct.

Four families of plants that have survived are:

  1. Ferns (Filicopsida). Ferns reproduce by means of spores that are usually situated on the undersides of leaves.
  2. Horsetails (Equisetaceae). Horsetails have hollow, ribbed, roughish, leafless, jointed stems, the joints being covered by toothed sheaths. The joints often bear whorls of similarly ribbed, jointed and leafless branches. They reproduce by means of minute spores that develop in cones at the tip of some stems.
  3. Club Mosses (Lycopodiaceae). Club mosses reproduce by means of minute spores that develop in cigar-shaped cones.
  4. Lesser Club Mosses or Spike Mosses (Selaginellaceae). Lesser Club Mosses or Spike Mosses reproduce by means of minute spores.

Coal miners found plant fossils during their work and sometimes they would take these home to show their families. The two fossils illustrated below are typical of those found by miners.

Left: Calamite. A genus of extinct tree-like horsetails to which modern horsetails (genus Equisetaceae) are closely related. These plants had distinct nodes, similar to modern horsetails, and their branches and leaves emerged in whorls from these nodes. Their upright stems were woody and connected by an underground runner system.

Right: Sphenopteris or seed fern. These ferns varied in size from small plants to trees and they were among the earliest seed-bearing plants but they have no descendants.