5th July 1956. ‘Pea-Soupers’.
Wordsworth’s 1802 poem ‘Westminster Bridge’ described the City of London as ‘All bright and glittering in the smokeless air’.(1)
Matters changed in the 19thc as the industrial revolution took hold, coming to a head in the London smogs, a particularly bad one in the early 1950.s being responsible for thousand of deaths.
The resulting political pressure resulted in the Clean Air being passed by Parliament Today in 1956.
Thus ended the artistic romantic age of blurred edges to buildings so beloved of painters when the Impressionists caught London’s smeary atmosphere in a 1903-4 series of paintings of bridges and buildings looming through the murk, over the sun-dappled river, when the Smoke Abatement Society was calling for Smokeless Zones.
For 600 years monarchs were trying to stop the use of ‘soft coal’ but none of the prohibitions worked. In 1224 the Meaux Abbey Chronicles recorded, ‘A London fog occurred while the Bishop of London officiated at St. Paul’s such thickness of clouds and darkness of sun accompanied by thunder and lightning most foul stench people departed leaving one attendant and Bishop’.(sic)
Queen Eleanor wife of Henry III left Nottingham for Tutbury Castle because of the ‘fumes and obnoxious atmosphere’ caused by burning sea coal and in 1307 a man was executed for using ‘sea coale’, the soft coal which was carried from Newcastle by ship.
The same year a Commission of Inquiry was appointed in London ‘to inquire of all who burnt sea-coale in the city, and to punish them with great fines and ransoms, and upon the second offence to demolish their furnaces’.
In the 13thc sea-coal, used by the lime industry, was prohibited and in 1285 and 1288 complaints were made about the infection and corruption of the city’s air by coal fumes from the lime-kilns.
In 1661 John Evelyn presented a treatise to Charles II recommending the planting of trees to ’meliorate the Aer about London’. It was a time when coal was taking over generally from wood as a fuel source, particularly ‘sea-coal’ from Newcastle since the 14th century.
However social consciences were apparent when partners of the London Brick Lane, Truman’s Brewery, concerned about the effect of smoke on the local weaving industry installed smoke-consuming apparatus in the furnaces.
Fine silk woven locally was saved from damage and the health of the weavers improved in that they could now open their windows, and Lord Palmerston in Parliament publicly thanked Truman’s for their contribution to smoke abatement.
Smoke Abatement Acts were enacted between 1853 and 1856 for the Metropolitan area and a Committee was formed in 1881. A Public Health (London) Act of 1891 provided for a limited control of smoke pollution formed by solid and liquid colloids, smoke and air particulates and mists and fogs. In 1899 the Coal Smoke Abatement Society in London, was formed.
The London ‘Particular’ was legendary in the stories of Sherlock Holmes and no atmospheric novel was complete without adding a gloomy atmosphere as in Dickens’, Christmas Carol, ‘It had not been light all day… and the fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms’.
The poet Shelley wrote: ‘Hell is a city much like London, A populous and smoky city’; the later romantic notions of the ‘London Particular’ fog being lost on him!
As a post-script, it is ironic that one of the conditions for the Rocket in 1829 should have been that it consume its own smoke.
(1) Written 3rd September 1802.