Qualitative and quantitative coal petrological analyses have been undertaken on the laminated lignite at the base of the Cobham Lignite Bed, from Scalers Hill, Kent, England. The maximum negative carbon isotope excursion, which marks the beginning of the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), occurs near the top of the laminated lignite. The lignite contains inertinite, a petrographic term used to describe charcoal. The laminated lignite has inertinite-rich and inertinite-poor layers indicative of episodic fires and post-fire erosion. Charcoal clasts are derived from living or recently senesced plants and are dominated by the leaf stalks of herbaceous ferns and wood fragments from flowering plants. The charcoal assemblage reflects a low-diversity flora, possibly adapted to disturbance by fire, derived from a source vegetation subjected to seasonal surface wildfires. The environmental conditions leading up to and across the onset of the PETM are, therefore, interpreted as incorporating a persistent fire regime with episodic wildfires followed by rainfall and runoff events. Abundant charcoal indicates near-modern oxygen levels whereas the absence of charred peat in this area calls into question previous suggestions that burning of Palaeocene peats might have contributed to the short-lived negative carbon isotope excursion at the Palaeocene–Eocene boundary.