In December 1952 London was caught in the grip of a suffocating smog which lasted for four long days. Visibility was reduced to as little as a few yards and transport became impossible. A performance of La Traviata at the Sadlers Wells theatre was cancelled when the audience could no longer see the stage. It wasn’t just humans who were affected – cattle brought to London for the Smithfield Show at Earl’s Court were also afflicted by the noxious vapours, resulting in the death of 13 cattle and the treatment of another 160.
As reported in a previous blog post, the archives of Environmental Protection UK, which was founded as the Coal Smoke Abatement Society in 1898, have recently been catalogued and are now available to read in the archive as SA/EPU.
They provide a fascinating insight into this area as, during the 20th century, the Society was instrumental in improving the quality of air and raising public awareness of air pollution. It also played a key role in the creation of two important pieces of legislation: the 1926 Public Health (Smoke Abatement) Bill and the 1956 Clean Air Act. While the 1926 Public Health Act was a huge milestone for the Society, it received mixed reaction from members. One of the successes of the Act was that it stated, for the first time, that smoke no longer had to be black before it was described as a nuisance.
The proposal to include domestic stoves in the Act, however, was easily defeated. A large proportion of air pollution and coal smoke came from domestic stoves and fires and the Society began to campaign to raise public awareness and to promote the use of alternatives – including gas, electricity and coal substitutes such as ‘coalite’. Several of the Society’s papers and publications address both working women and housewives as the gatekeepers to this domestic realm. In a paper presented at a meeting in 1965, the Chairman of the Yorkshire division of the National Smoke Abatement Society, T Henry Turner, stated that:
“The National Society for Clean Air welcomes the opportunity of saying to housewives:
if you love your neighbours as yourselves, do not pour dirty coal-smoke over them.
As never before women’s own-earning-power contributes to the total-spending-capacity of the household, so at last they can safely ask for more efficient fireplaces and cleaner fuels. This is good because it means that mothers and housewives can eliminate those six D’s that are so often linked with the now avoidable coal-smoke: Dullness, Discomfort, Dirt, Drudgery, Danger, and Disease for their children.” (SA/EPU/C/2)
And the domestic realm was a force to be reckoned with: a press cutting from the Daily Mail in 1950 reported that housewives in Rotherham, Yorkshire, had complained of smuts falling on their washing lines from the chimneys of a nearby power station. As a result, British Electricity Authority agreed to raise three towers measuring 120ft by an extra 60ft at a cost of £24,000. (SA/EPU/D/5)
In large cities prone to fogs – such as London – coal smoke could mix with water particles forming a dense, toxic fog. In 1905 the Society’s treasurer, Dr Harold Des Voux, coined the term ‘smog’ to describe these fogs. These were also referred to colloquially as ‘pea-soupers’. Photographs in the EPUK collection show just how severely visibility would be limited in London during the first half of the twentieth century.
The 1952 smog highlighted the human cost of pollution. As many as 4,000 people died as a result, with many more dying later from respiratory disorders. An official enquiry was set up in 1953, headed by Sir Hugh Beaver. Beaver supported the enforcement of a national Clean Air Act, the prohibition of dark smoke emission from chimneys and for local authorities to have the power to create smokeless zones and smoke control areas. This paved the way for the introduction of the 1956 Clean Air Act. The implementation of this Act did not bring overnight change, as yet another heavy smog occurred in London in 1962.
However, by 1971 more than five million premises were covered by smoke control orders (the concept of which had first been proposed by Charles Candy, Chairman of the NSAS, in 1935). Furthermore, domestic smoke emission had fallen from about 1.35 million tonnes a year in 1956 to about 0.55 million tonnes and industrial smoke had receded from one million tonnes to 0.1 million. As the danger posed from coal smoke began to recede, the Society adopted a new name – National Society for Clean Air – and widened their scope to include other forms of air pollution.
For anyone interested in exploring these changes, the collection is well worth a look. It is particularly rich on material from the mid to late twentieth century and includes minute books, publications, conference and exhibition materials and divisional papers.
Author: Kirsteen Connor, was a cataloguing archivist at the Wellcome Library.