Is air pollution an overlooked element in the mortality decline?


‘Sheffield’, Harper’s Magazine, 1884

At the economic history society conference in April 2016 I attended a panel entitled Social Infrastructure featuring papers from Nicola Tynan (Dickinson College), and colleagues on ‘Who should own and control urban water systems? Disease and the municipalisation of private waterworks in nineteenth-century England’ and Bernard Harris & Andrew Hinde Public works loans, social intervention and mortality change in England and Wales, 1850-1914. Both papers were more or less concerned with the role of urban infrastructure in the mortality decline, provoking a heated discussion from an audience with a fair smattering of urban historians who challenged the findings of the two research teams. In particular, there was a call for less aggregate data and more specific case studies to allow us to understand the factors that may be influencing investment decisions and social and health change.

This session came to mind when I was preparing a recent presentation on Pollution and Public Health in early twentieth century urban England. The paper built on an article I published a few years ago on tackling pollution in Middlesbrough, extending that research by the inclusion of data on Leeds and Sheffield. Given their key roles in the industrial revolution of iron, coal and cloth, smoke was an everyday reality in these towns, a symbol of work, progress and prosperity. Yet it is apparent that historians – concerned with water-borne diseases and sanitation – have paid little attention to what was, by the 1880s, a more deadly public health problem. This is a strange situation, for as historians like Simon Szreter have noted, a key flaw in the McKeown argument is the rising mortality from non-tubercular respiratory diseases like pneumonia and bronchitis just as the old killers like typhoid were in decline. So this post will consider why air pollution has not attracted the attention of historians of public health.

First off we need to prove there was a link. Interestingly, for much of the 19th century Medical Officers of Health (MOHs) were reluctant to make an explicit link. Even in the most smoke blighted cities – like the iron and steel towns of Middlesbrough and Sheffield – council officials treaded carefully for fear of upsetting powerful local interests. Thus, in 1899 the newly appointed MOH for Middlesbrough, Dr Dingle, satisfied himself with a quote from Dr Harvey Littlejohn’s recent comments on smoke in Sheffield which he condemned for:

  1. Its power for conducing fogs and rain.
  2. Its power in shutting out sunlight and depriving us of certain qualities of light.
  3. By depositing smuts and rendering houses dirty, thus causing an unnecessary expenditure of labour and soap.
  4. Separation of the classes.
  5. Destruction of natural and architectural beauties

Yes this was skirting round the issues for even a cursory reading of the mortality figures for Middlesbrough raised the strong prospect of a causal link between smoke and respiratory diseases. By 1910 the MOH, along with external Local Government Board Inspectors, was admitting that 400 tons of ash a year were probably at least predisposing causes for chest related mortality twice the national average.

image (1)

Doyle, ‘Managing and Contesting Industrial Pollution in Middlesbrough’, Northern History, (2010)

Certainly by the late 1920s municipal medics were more willing to make the link. At the meeting of the Royal Sanitary Institute in Sheffield in December 1929 the assembled group discussed Smoke. Local politicians, representatives of gas and electricity concerns and a slew of MOHs, including the influential Dr Veitch Clark of Manchester and Dr Johnstone Jervis of Leeds, made demonstrable links between smoke and increased mortality and morbidity. Indeed Veitch Clark illustrated his insistence that ‘the evidence against smoke as a factor in the production of ill-health, disease, and defective development is overwhelming’ with ‘paintings of the lung…which demonstrated the way in which smoke pollution reached the innermost organs of the body’ [‘Congress at Sheffield’, Journal of the Royal Sanitary Institute, L.6 (1929) Sadly these illustrations were not included in the article.]

So why haven’t historians taken the problem seriously. First, there were few legislative instruments for public health officers to deploy. The main legislative tool was the 1875 Public Health Act which permitted councils to produce by-laws to regulate smoke pollution in some industries – although metal making was one of those exempt. When a new act entered the statute book in 1926 it was widely regarded as ineffective, a victim of business lobbying which actually eased some of the more restrictive by-laws. Under both pieces of legislation the process of bringing a prosecution was cumbersome and rarely effective.

More significantly, tackling smoke pollution didn’t require any capital expenditure on the part of the Council. There was no heroic engineering solution. Rather the task was labour intensive and deeply unromantic, with Sanitary Inspectors spending hours on end observing chimneys to see if they exceeded the local maximum number of minutes of black smoke in an hour – usually 5-6 but as high as 10 minutes in Middlesbrough and just 3 in Leeds. In the mid-1920s the inspectors of Leeds watched over 6,000 chimney in the year or more than twenty a day. If they caught a boiler offending they rarely opted to prosecute, choosing persuasion and education over the full force of the law. As Dr Clinch MOH for West Ham explained in 1929:

Briefly, the only method by which the local authority can abolish the black smoke of the boiler furnace is one of friendly cooperation with both owners and men, coupled with legal action if they are so foolish as to resist any other method.

Moreover, the engineering solutions that existed lay with the owners – technology like the mechanical stoker – which would only be adopted when the economic benefits outweighed the cost of pollution. There is much evidence to suggest this did happen as industrial air pollution fell sharply from the 1880s through to the 1930s as steam power was replaced by gas or electricity, smokeless coke was deployed or new technologies acquired. So on the face of it public health departments couldn’t even take direct credit for the improvements secured!

Hunslet Brit from Air

Hunslet, in South Leeds – note the large number of domestic chimneys

In part that was because the smoke was still there – generated now by the domestic coal fire. Dr Jervis, MOH for Leeds, felt more than 60% of atmospheric pollution was caused by the household grate, with he and his colleagues lining up to condemn the coal fire ‘fetish’ while accepting ‘the average Britisher will be a long time before he is prepared to sacrifice his open grate’ (Cllr Asbury, chair of the Sheffield Health Committee, 1929). Once again the public health department had few options beyond urging the population to switch to smokeless alternatives, like gas or electricity or take the expense and inconvenience of the newly created smokeless coke which few were keen to try. Propaganda in Health Week may convert a few but the reality was over one third of urban homes did not have electricity by 1938, many more could only access gas if their landlord was willing while in most of the industrial areas coal remained cheap and plentiful until the Second World War.

Finally health officials had to face what might be called the banal disamenity of smoke. On the one hand belching chimneys were seen by townsfolk as a sign of work and affluence – as the mayor of Middlesbrough asserted in 1888 ‘we are proud of our smoke’. This made it very difficult for council officials to pursue polluting businesses and often when they did they found magistrates reluctant to prosecute. But of equal importance was public acquiescence in  the continuation of the smokey gloom with ‘air and light…habitually.. forgotten…because our supply of both in urban communities is so bad. I suppose, that we have become blind to it.’ (Cllr Asbury)

Faced with these problems it is little surprise that the professionals and politicians at city hall chose to move either the people or the problem. They built their new estates (usually) at some remove from the worst industrial areas while supporting the zoning of industry. In both these they were aided by businesses choosing new sites outside the city for transport or cost reasons – as happened with the movement of the main iron and steel works out of Middlesbrough between the wars – and by private builders erecting their new estates in smoke free suburbs invariably to the south and west of the cities. Moreover, new houses were often equipped with gas and electricity and few, if any, coal fires – Leeds council restricting their own council houses to one coal fire per household! Ultimately the big the final push to major reform came in 1952 when a smog descended on London (metropolitan concerns determining national policy). Smokeless Zone legislation followed and the public – faced with the cost of Coalite – abandoned their coal fires.

As we can see, historians seeking greater understanding of the processes by which the mortality decline was effected in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain should pay much more attention to the role of air pollution and especially the deleterious impact of black smoke. But identifying its causes and effects and charting the course of the long and arduous war of attrition fought by the municipal authorities will require close attention to the local archives not just the returns of government departments or the legislation they promoted.




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