Thursday, January 04, 2018

Stephen Mosley - The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian & Edwardian Manchester

Stephen Mosley's The Chimney of the World is a fascinating book about one of the earliest environmental problems for a major industrial city, but for today's activists concerned about climate change and air pollution in the 21st century it will stimulate many thoughts about how we meet the environmental challenges we face. I read this book for two reasons. Firstly I live in Manchester today and before that lived in Salford for many years. Secondly I am an environmental and socialist activist and one of the key campaigns I'm involved in is against the extension of fossil fuel use through fracking. Thus Mosley's book resonates on several levels for me.

In 1898 there were 1,200 factory chimneys in Manchester and about 760 in next door Salford. To people living here today the figures sound incredible. In addition to these, every home had at least one chimney which was also producing smoke, and there were hundreds more in the towns that today make up Greater Manchester, many of these like Oldham, Rochdale and Stockport, themselves centres of industry. All these factories were belching smoke because they burnt coal to provide energy, and the homes used it for heating and cooking. The pollution was staggering.

In 1888 someone living in Ancoats, Manchester's main industrial area wrote:
The atmosphere in this neighbourhood is so dense with smoke that it is impossible to see any object at a distance of a few hundred years; and, as for sunshine, I have lived here ten years and never seen what could be called 'brilliant sunshine'.
In 1901 another observer wrote:
Deadly suburban fields form the most extensive element of the background; but what rivet the eye are the scores, and scores again, of mill chimneys, tall, straight, and lank, belching forth volumes of black, dense smoke straight at the rocks on which we stand! [Blackstone Edge] Rochdale, Littleborough, Bacup, Burnley, Nelson, Colne - each contributes its quota... and the great smoke drift from South an East Lancashire [can] be seen crossing over the Pennine Range of moorlands and then mingling with the West Riding smoke.
Smoke and fogs on this scale had an enormous impact on the health of the people living in Greater Manchester and beyond. The economic impacts were also huge. What we now call acid rain destroyed buildings in the area and much further afield - in fact the pH of acid was much lower than that experienced in Europe in more modern times. Nothing was clean for more than a few hours, and Mosley documents a couple of cases of women driven mentally ill by constant cleaning - a never ending battle. The Victorians put great emphasis on the need for nature and clean air to prevent ill health, but the parks that they built in Manchester were constantly destroyed by the acid rain, the lack of sunlight and the chemical pollution. Even the council's attempts to put planted trees around municipal buildings relied on the constant ability to cycle the plants into the countryside were they could recover after a few months.

But it was the human impact that is most shocking. By the 1870s Mosley reports, bronchitis had become the most common form of death in "England's factory towns, consistently killing between 50,000 and 70,000 people per annum". In Salford an 1881 report said that 598 out of 100,000 people die annually from lung complaints, compared to 334 in Mid-Cheshire only a few miles away. The contrast between health in industrial towns and rural areas was well know. In addition, sunlight killed TB and "rickets... [was] brought about by the combination of a dietary deficiency of vitamin D and sunlight deprivation".

But despite this, Mosley explains, there was no popular mass movement against smoke and pollution. The reasons, he argues, having nothing to do with lack of awareness of smoke or anger against it. People, including working people, clearly disliked the pollution. The reasons that anti-smoke and clean air campaigns never attracted mass support were mostly linked to economic reasons.

Firstly, Mosley provides ample evidence, that working people in particular associated smoke with prosperity. Chimney's without smoke meant economic down time, unemployment and poverty. As one visitor to Lancashire wrote in 1842:
Thank God, smoke is rising from the lofty chimneys of most of the! for I have not travelled thus far without learning, by many a painful illustration, that the absence of smoke from the factory-chimney indicates the quenching of the fire on many a domestic hearth, want of employment to many a willing labourer, and want of bread to many an honest family.
Smoke meant industry and well-being. This was something played upon by the manufacturers who tried to block attempts to encourage them to use smoke reducing technology by emphasising the economic impact. Indeed the manufacturers did manage to get their workers to protest and picket anti-smoke meetings and activists were attacked on occasion.

In terms of domestic pollution from home fires, another factor played a role. This was the close association in the Victorian mind of the benefits of a warm, open fire in the house as a centre for family life, and as a way of drawing clean air into the house. Tackling the home fires would mean a drastic alteration to behaviour.

To get around these issues, the anti-smoke campaigns tried to play the factory owners on their own territory. One of their main arguments was that smoke represented waste energy - inefficiently burnt coal - and that reducing smoke could save costs. But they found it extremely difficult to prove that the savings were worth the cost of installing specialist equipment and, they had to challenge the industrialists wealth and political power. Without a mass campaign the campaigners lacked political and social weight, and if anything the workers were on the side of the bosses. Despite firm evidence of the toll of the pollution on lives, as late as 1897 some doctors could confidently say that the smoke was not unhealthy.

But there was growing pressure on politicians for action. The Boer War found the working class so unhealthy that it was difficult to find able-bodied men to fight. Of eleven thousand Mancunions who volunteered to fight, 8,000 were rejected because of ill health and of the 3,000 who did join up, only 1,200 were found "moderately fit". But the anti-pollution measures that were introduced were ineffective and the fines so small, and the crimes so difficult to prove, that manufacturers didn't change their behaviour. In fact it wasn't until the 20th century that governments finally acted seriously to stop smoke, in particular as a result of the "Great Smog" of December 1952 that killed 3,000 people in London.

What can we learn for today? Firstly note some parallels. The Victorians had an optimistic belief in technological development to solve their pollution problems and while there were inventions that would reduce smoke considerably, as well as changes to working practises, the manufacturers resisted their introduction in order to maximise their profits. There are many similarities with modern pollution and companies refusing to innovate or introduce technologies because of costs.

Secondly, environmental activists often come up against the question of the economy. President Trump, for instance, frequently plays up the cost to the US economy of action on global warming when compared against China. He plays the jobs versus the environment card. In Victorian and Edwardian Manchester big-business was able to bring workers onto their side, because there wasn't an alternative narrative that attracted workers. Today when we argue against fossil fuels we have to provide an alternative that doesn't alienate workers but makes them feel they have an interest in opposition to the industries that might be providing work. In the UK, one example of this is the Million Climate Jobs Campaign. Finally, there are parallels with the cultural practises of in the 19th century around home fires and today's use of cars. Stephen Mosley makes this point when he argues that car-owners don't want to give up their vehicles in the same way as their predecessors clung on to coal fires  - "the extraordinary affection that the nation once held for the smoky domestic hearth... is rivalled by the contemporary attachment to the... automobile".

Stephen Mosley poses all these questions for us through the prism of historical campaigns to end pollution. If it only did this it would still be a valuable book, but his work is also fascinating, readable and entertaining. It ought to be read by a new generation of political activists and social historians.

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