[The author has kindly shared the following essay on the history of air pollution and reactions against it from his blog on Medium. _ George P. Landow]

Image of London from December 1952.

On 8 December 1952, London was brought to a standstill for almost five whole days. Public transport effectively ceased, and in most areas of London visibility was only a few yards. There were over 4,500 deaths that week. The reason for this chaos was smog. The city had previously experienced bad fogs but the Guardian newspaper at the time called it ‘the worst fog for many years’. The actual number of deaths is likely to have been higher because the smog exacerbated the illnesses of those who had existing respiratory diseases. The events of that week in December 1952 finally forced the government to act against smoke pollution in the United Kingdom. The result was the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1956. While the “Great Smog” of 1952 must be seen as a tipping point it was actually the last in a long series of events and changing attitudes towards smoke pollution in which the public and the government alike came to see it as a problem with which the nation had to deal.

The people of England have long been aware of the environmental problems that ensue when coal is burnt. In 1306, King Edward I passed a proclamation prohibiting the burning of ‘sea coal’ due to the nuisance that it caused. A few centuries on, smoke was creating problems for the inhabitants of the city. In 1661, John Evelyn published Fumifugium, or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated Together with some Remedies Humbly Proposed. By the nineteenth century Charles Dickens opened his novel Bleak House (1852) by describing what had by that time become a “London particular”: “Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full grown flakes…Fog everywhere…in the eyes and throat…cruelly pinching the toes and fingers.” Dickens in the passage cited above brings to life some of the ways in which Londoners saw and felt smoke pollution in their city. It irritated people’s eyes and got into their throats. Thus the problems caused by smoke pollution were evidently nothing new or unprecedented by December 1952; Londoners were used to them.

The pollution which Dickens described in his novel intensified with the onset of the industrial revolution. The beginning of the industrial revolution can be said to have started in the mid-1700s. The refinement of the steam engine by James Watt, and subsequent inventions of other engineers during that period, in Thorsheim’s words, ‘made steam power an attractive source of power in industry and thus boosted demand for coal’. Statistics reveal the striking increase of coal use in the eighteenth century. In 1700 Britain had an annual coal output of 2,985,000 tons of coal, yet increased mining saw that figure rise to 21 million tons by 1890. Industries during that period were using coal in ever greater numbers. Indeed, in 1800, there was a total of 2191 coal powered steam engines in use in various manufactories in Britain, and by 1907 that figure had risen to 7,734. New technologies along with market forces stimulated increased demand for coal. Previously, wood was the main source of fuel in British industry. However, in the 1700s the price of wood rose, due dwindling supplies in the British Isles, and the cost of coal fell. It is a fair assumption that early industrial magnates certainly saw smoke pollution as a good thing. Despite even the purely aesthetic effects of smoke upon the built environment, such as the blackening of buildings, businessmen seem to have thought, as the saying goes, “where there’s muck there’s brass”. The workers must have agreed, for ‘a smokeless chimney signified enforced idleness, hunger, and poverty’. Thus the responsibility for the increase of smoke pollution in the nineteenth century must partly rest with the factory and mill owners in the industrial towns and cities of the UK.

However, the largest amount of smoke pollution came from the domestic hearth. Again, this increase in the use of coal for heating was down to market forces. In his research Mosley reveals how “as the availability of cheap wood supplies declined coal became an essential commodity for many of Manchester’s citizens […and] the main source of heat and power in the homes of Britain’s new urban masses.” Yet, Mosley further states, house chimneys were thought to ‘not appear to be of sufficient magnitude to attract attention’ despite the fact that they were the biggest polluters’. And there certainly was a lot of domestic chimneys; the 1851 census revealed that more than half of the population of Britain lived in what was classed as an ‘urban’ area; workers had flocked there because the factories which were based in centres of industry such as Leeds and Manchester offered poorer citizens employment were based in the emerging industrial towns, and workers generally lived close to their place of employment. Middle-class citizens — those employed in the professions — likewise often lived near to their place of employment (the process of ‘suburbanization’ was only just beginning in 1851). For most classes — from the bourgeois banker down to a mechanic — the coal fire was “the hub around which family life revolved…It performed many vital functions, providing heat, light, hot meals, and boiling water, while the “cheerful glow” of the “homely hearth” denoted warmth to contemporaries in every sense of the word.”

It is because smoke pollution began to increase so much during this period, leading to global environmental problems such as climate change, that scientists Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill have designated the beginning of the industrial era as the start of the anthropocene. This is when humankind began to have as large an effect upon nature itself as to rival the other great forces of nature. The smoke pollution which Dickens described, therefore, stemmed not simply from the “dark satanic mills” of the industrial era but also from the homely, comfortable domestic hearth.

Important Meeting of Smoke Makers. Punch 25 (1853): 80. Click on image to enlarge it.

Attitudes began to change in the late-nineteenth century. Throughout that period there were a number of major fog disasters in London. In December 1873 a fog lasting three days killed over 700 people; in 1880 another fog disaster resulted in approximately 1000 excess deaths; and a fog in 1892 resulted again in approximately the same number of deaths. Despite the Victorian era being the age of laissez-faire, there were some piecemeal attempts by the government to deal with what was becoming a smoke ‘nuisance’. Much of the legislation against smoke pollution in the nineteenth century occurred within sanitary regulations passed during the era. The Public Health Act (1866) was supposed to have forced local corporations to identify such ‘nuisances’ and take steps towards minimising or removing them. However, corporations were often reluctant to implement its measures because of the additional expense which would be incurred by doing so. Yet even though the above legislation lacked “teeth,” so to speak, it does show that in the great age of laissez-faire liberalism the government was turning its attention at least towards doing something about the nuisance of smoke pollution. Moreover, it cannot be denied that during the nineteenth century coal was equated with wealth. Perhaps this was one reason why local authorities were reluctant to fully implement the 1866 Act, probably wanting to protect their regions’ trading interests — powering as it did Britain’s economic and industrial might, coal arguably occupied a position analogous to oil in today’s society.

By the late-nineteenth century, another narrative concerning smoke was pushed by the many national and regional smoke abatement societies which emerged during the Victorian era. They said that chimneys belching out black smoke constituted a waste of Britain’s most precious resource. At a meeting of the National Smoke Abatement Society in 1883, the speaker said there was “Indisputable authority that the smoke, which is unconsumed fuel, is a waste of the most gigantic character…the value of the coal thus annually wasted in the metropolis alone amounts to a million sterling.” As Mosley further points out, ‘coal smoke…meant a failure to make profitable use of valuable and finite natural resources and a reckless waste of irrecoverable energy’. By the 1860s there were concerns as to just how long this precious resource would last and if it was not used conservatively, Britain would decline from a great power into a lesser nation.

Furthermore, during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, smoke and darkness began to be identified as both unhealthy and as a signifier of moral decay. Prior to this, smoke, it was believed, helped to safeguard people’s health. Smoking had long been used as a way of preserving food, and sulphur, which is contained in coal, was marketed as a disinfectant during the Victorian era. It is in this context that we can understand why the majority of Victorians assumed that smoke pollution was not a huge threat to life and human health. Yet attitudes changed during the era of new imperialism (1880–1914). The great powers of Europe, USA and Japan scrambled for overseas colonies on the continent of Africa — termed the “dark continent”. Alongside this period of intense imperial rivalry a pseudo-scientific ideology emerged: Social Darwinism. Its proponents — scientists, medical men and proto-environmentalists — aimed to create an Anglo-Saxon “master race” and they could not do this if the British “race” were living in unhealthy and crowded slums; many self-help books during the period were published which urged young men (and future soldiers of the empire) to keep themselves healthy. Imperial ideologues had reason to be worried: diseases such as rickets, caused by a lack of sunlight, were rife among the poor inhabitants of industrial towns and cities. Matters came to a head with the outbreak of the Boer War (1899–1902). In Manchester, for example, it was found that 8,000 out of the 11,000 men who volunteered for enlistment in the war were deemed to be ‘physically unfit to carry a rifle’ (Mosley, p.107). At a time of intense imperial rivalry from other great powers such as a newly unified Germany, it is understandable why ardent imperialists in British society were almost obsessed over a perceived “degeneration” in the British race. One of the contributing factors to illnesses such as rickets — responsible in part for this supposed “degeneration” — was the fact that smoke literally blocked out the sun.

Of course, not everyone who was concerned with the health of the nation was a social Darwinist. Religious reformers also worried about the ‘degenerative’ effects of pollution on the urban population. Contemporary cultural references to crowded, fog covered slums of Britain’s urban areas and their inhabitants could be found in terms such as “darkest London”. For Andrew Mearns in The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883) the “darkness” of the slums was equated with ‘poverty, misery, squalor and immorality’ (Mearns 1883, p.1). In other cities, reformers pointed towards the physical and moral degeneration of the inhabitants that would result from closely built slum housing, where there was minimal air and sunlight due to smoke pollution. In Leeds Slumdom (1897) the author remarked upon the closely-built housing and said that the municipal corporation was “either ignorant of the quantity of air required for a healthy life, or were so blinded by mercenary considerations, as to utterly disregard the laws of health in this respect…it is here where so much crime and immorality.” Thus, a blackened sky began to be associated with moral decay, and city dwellers, in particular the poor, were likened to the so-called “savages” of the so-called “dark continent”. Yet it was one thing for reformers to make claims linking smoke pollution with poor health; it was another matter finding hard evidence to substantiate their claims. Hard scientific evidence was often lacking in the arguments of nineteenth-century reformers. This lack of evidence accounts for the fact that the smoke abatement organisations were sometimes seen as nothing more than a ‘meddlesome “aesthetic craze”’. Complementing the efforts of the smoke abatement societies in the early twentieth century was technology which could finally measure the extent of smoke pollution. The scientific collection of data on smoke pollution, it was hoped by campaigners, would enable the public to better “see” and understand the problem. In 1912 the Standard Deposit Gauge appeared. It collected rainwater over the period of a month, and enabled the analysis of anything deposited therein, such as ash, tar, soot, ammonia and sulphates. Finally, instruments to measure the volume and scale of pollution had emerged, and formed another weapon in the arsenal of the reformers who represented their claims as being fortified with scientific evidence — an important step forward.

From the late-nineteenth century new and supposedly cleaner sources of fuel began to emerge as alternatives to coal. Coke, a smokeless form of coal, had been in use for centuries. However, it was difficult to ignite and at first it was difficult to use in homes. Perhaps unbelievably, householders also disliked it because of aesthetic reasons: coke did not give off the colourful flame that British householders expected from their fires. For most of the nineteenth century gas was available, having been used in street lighting as early as 1809. However, gas was expensive and out of most householders’ reach. That was until rapid advances in the 1880s in gas production transformed it from a predominantly light burning fuel into one that generated heat. Smoke abatement societies now had a viable alternative to offer to consumers in place of coal. This is what happened with the Manchester and Salford Noxious Vapours Abatement Association (MSNVAA). This association launched a cross-class campaign in the 1880s demanding the town council to cut gas rates, making it affordable to local people. Smoke abatement societies began to receive funding from gas and electricity companies, as Thorsheim points out: The National Smoke Abatement Society received substantial support from the manufactured gas industry…many anti-smoke activists viewed the relationship as beneficial to both…the Gas Bulletin boasted that ‘the gas industry has helped to put smoke abatement on the map, and the process has achieved for itself no little prestige.

Throughout their mutual partnership, the anti-smoke societies and the gas and electricity industries held exhibitions to highlight the dangers of smoke pollution. Along with promoting the advantages of using cleaner fuels such as gas and electricity, the ideal of a smokeless city was promoted to the public. The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were the great age of the exhibition; from the Colonial and India Exhibition in 1886 to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, there was a major exhibition on some subject held almost annually in cities across the UK. An exhibition held by the anti-smoke society and the gas and electricity industries at the London Science Museum in 1936 carried the shock factor. The exhibition displayed the effects of smoke pollution upon specimens of human lungs which were found to be coated in black soot.

Additionally, the propaganda pushed by the societies and the gas and electricity industries at this exhibition represented these new, cleaner forms of fuel as liberating for women. The housewife, it was implied, would be free from the domestic hardship of cleaning clothes and surfaces which were constantly grimy with soot and ash — home life would also improve and families, so the gas and electricity companies reasoned, would have more time for each other. Yet major cities still suffered from regular, paralyzing fogs. Matters came to a head in 1952 when London was for almost one week plunged into smog which completely enveloped it. The winter of 1952 was a cold one. Londoners lit their domestic fires to keep at warm at home. Wind carrying pollutants swept into the Thames valley became trapped under an inversion of an anticyclone, meaning that thick, dense smog hung over the city. Three days into the smog crisis, visibility was officially classed as “nil”. December 1952 is now referred to as a “disaster”. Yet it remains to be said that, although nothing could have prevented the wind sweeping into the Thames valley and settling, a “disaster” only ensued because of Britain’s continued burning of coal. In effect, it was a disaster of Britain’s own making, or as Mosley calls it, ‘a disaster in slow motion’, due to the fact that the problems of burning coal for fuel were long in evidence before 1952.

These events in December 1952 forced the government’s hand. The ensuing parliamentary enquiry resulted in the passage of the Clean Air Act (1956). The Act specified that “Dark smoke shall not be emitted from a chimney of any building, and if, on any day, dark smoke is so emitted, the occupier of that building shall be guilty of an offence.” It also gave scope for local authorities to designate specific urban areas as smokeless zones, or, if they could not entirely be smoke free, at least as ‘smoke control areas’. The idea of smokeless zones was hardly new or innovative — after the smog of 1931, in which approximately 450 people died, the smoke abatement societies had been calling for such measures. Whilst the Clean Air Act imposed fines upon property owners for non-compliance, a provision was also made to financially assist people to convert their properties to newer, cleaner, forms of energy. Through this combination of co-option and coercion, property and business owners were made to with the Act.

https://londonist.com/london/videos/video-the-great-smog-of-1952 However, along with the introduction of the Clean Air Act there were simultaneous socio-economic changes afoot — many businesses had begun to use electricity in their production from the 1930s onwards. There was also the so-called ‘consumer boom’ of the 1950s, a sign of which was a rise in real wages. As Sandbrook notes, “In 1950 the average weekly wage was £6 8s; by 1959 it had almost doubled to £11 2s 6d … the other basic premise of the consumer boom was the availability of cheap and dependable electricity.” During the course of the 1950s, sales of gas heating appliances increased by 500 per cent. No longer, it seems, did people want to huddle around a coal fire on an evening, indeed, many people simply did not have the time to light coal fires, as Scarrow explains:

A government committee on housing standards reported in 1961 that the two features most in demand in housing were more space and higher standards of heating. Not only was a comfortable home essential for enjoyable family life, but for persons or couples working all day, or for upper middle class families no longer able to afford servants, convenient heating systems were essential. Bad smogs had always occurred in the colder months, and 1969 saw record cold temperatures. Yet there was no major smog disaster as people would have expected to occur in previous eras. Progress in combatting London’s frequently occurring peasoupers had, at long last, seemed to have been made.

In conclusion, London and other cities in the UK are no longer buried in a black, smoky haze. People’s thinking has changed. Chimneys emitting soot, tar and sulphur are not seen as a good thing but as unclean and wasteful. Aesthetically cleaner sources of fuel are now in use in all British households. The events of 1952 were the tipping point which forced the government to act after almost a century of reform movements and campaigns against smoke pollution. However, the history of smoke pollution is not one of progress. London experienced deadly smog in 1962, and more pollution legislation was required in the 1960s. Moreover, whilst smog such as Dickens described has disappeared, the UK has exchanged one form of pollution for another. Now the car is the major polluter in the UK, producing photochemical fumes which contribute to global warming. In addition, with the migration of heavy industry overseas, developing countries like China are experiencing smogs today similar to the ones which London experienced half a century ago. Finally, due to the continued burning of fossil fuels, in May 2013 the amount of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reached 400ppm, and this was ‘a milepost on…[an] uphill climb towards and uncertain future’. Yet while we praise the steps which governments and citizens have taken towards combating pollution in the past, there is also a warning for us here: smoke pollution persisted in spite of the fact that people could see it, smell it, and taste it. How much more difficult will it be for us to convince people that action needs to be taken to combat environmental problems today when we cannot see them, smell them, or taste them?

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Last modified 4 September 2019