to the extent of 1s. 11d. or 2s. per cwt. This is an exceedingly serious matter, and it is not to be explained, even under present conditions, by the ordinary laws of supply and demand. Why should coal in a village on the banks of the Thames be actually cheaper than the corresponding quality of coal when sold in London?
There can be only one answer—the London supply is in the hands of the coal "ring" which has compelled all the London coal merchants to come into line. So extensive and powerful is the organisation of this ring, that the small men, unless they followed the lead of the big dealers, would be immediately faced with ruin: they would not only find it difficult to obtain coal at all, but would promptly be undersold—as the Standard Oil Company undersold thousands of small competitors—until they were compelled to put up their shutters.
The big coal men, the men who make the profit—and with their ill-gotten gains will purchase Birthday honours later on—of course blame the war for everything. The railways, they say, cannot handle the coal; so much labour has been withdrawn for the Army that production has fallen below the demand. But I am assured, on good authority, that coal bought before the war, and delivered to London depots at 16s. or 17s. per ton, is being retailed to-day at between 36s. and 40s. per ton. The big dealers know that, cost what it may, the public must have coal, and they are taking advantage of every plausible excuse the war offers them to wring from the public the very highest prices possible. "The right to exploit," in fact, is being pushed to its logical extreme in the face of the country's distress, and the worst sufferers, as usual, are the very poor, who for their pitiful half-hundred-