Riches, Poverty and Pollution: Living with Coal Smoke in Early Modern London

One of the recurring questions on the many-headed monster is how the world is experienced by people at different levels of the social heirarchy. In this guest post, William M. Cavert looks at the unequal impact of pollution, drawing on his new book: The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge, 2016).

“Poverty,” wrote sociologist Ulrich Beck, “is hierarchic, smog is democratic.”[1] Pre-industrial cities, according to Beck, were full of dirty and unpleasant dangers, but the wealthy could escape or avoid them easily because such hazards smelled badly and looked ugly. In the modern world risk is invisible, and is everywhere.

A working replica of the first Newcomen steam engine, 1709, built and operated at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. The engine is a similar size, and uses a similar amount of mineral coal, as many of the facilities that produced beer, spirits, glass, and bricks in early modern London

A working replica of the first Newcomen steam engine, 1709, built and operated at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley. The engine is a similar size, and uses a similar amount of mineral coal, as many of the facilities that produced beer, spirits, glass, and bricks in early modern London

London during the early modern period offers an interesting test for this idea because it was at once clearly pre-industrial and yet it also developed one of the hallmarks of the modern, industrial urban landscape: pervasive air pollution.[2] The “smog” that Beck suggests envelopes industrial cities became widespread in London by about 1600, caused not by great factories as in 19th-century Manchester, but by the domestic coal fires of 200,000 people, as well as coal’s importance in every industry that involved boiling, heating, or melting.[3] During the 17th and 18th centuries, pre-industrial London struck residents, rulers, and visitors as a smoky, dirty place. Modern scientific modeling suggests that their impressions were accurate, and that the concentrations of pollutants like sulfur dioxide in 18th-century London are matched today only in the world’s very dirtiest cities.

Did early modern Londoners experience this smoky air as yet another aspect of a deeply “hierarchic” society, as Beck suggests? In many ways the answer is clearly yes. During the 1630s, for example, King Charles I worked hard to exclude smoky brewhouses from his own backyard, arresting and harassing those who polluted St. James Park and Whitehall. But at the same time his regime worked to expand coal burning elsewhere in London, so it was not smoky air per se but rather its infiltration into royal palaces and gardens that was the problem. Similarly, as the elite streets and squares of the West End were developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, smoky industries were prohibited by building leases even as they proliferated in less exclusive parts of the capital. Residents of Mayfair would often have experienced a very different urban environment than those living in poorer areas like Southwark or the suburbs east of the Tower.

The common law itself assumed that exposure to dirty trades should be mediated by the social hierarchy. One justice in 1628 pointed out that dirty trades were legal in “fit” locations but clearly illegal in exalted settings. Obviously brewing or tallow melting was legal, he argued, but it should be confined to poorer and more densely-developed parts of the city. To pursue such an unpleasant trade on the Strand, across the road from the Queen’s residence in Denmark (now Somerset) House, was certainly unacceptable. Perhaps the clearest expression of this legal distinction between places where dirty smoke was fit and where it was not was written by the eminent Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, who wrote in the later 18th century that Whitechapel, in the east end of London, was an appropriate place for polluting industries that the law would prohibit in the cleaner western suburbs. Whitechapel was a working urban landscape, poor, already dirty, already full of unpleasant industries, and its residents could therefore not complain about the addition of yet another manufacturer – in this case a chemical works. “Where,” the Justice asked, “is a beneficial trade to be carried out if not in such company?”

In such ways, the experience of air pollution in early modern London was socially unequal, with the poor enduring greater concentrations of dangerous pollutants than the rich. But the story is a bit more complex than this, since urban smoke was, to a limited extent, “democratic” within the metropolis. The West End was clearer than the East, but numerous sources suggest that quite often smoke afflicted residents across the metropolis. The asthmatic 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, found it impossible to endure the smoky winds that reached him in Chelsea, which was barely even part of the urbanized metropolis. Nowhere was entirely free of the smoke of London. After Charles I, neither monarchs nor parliaments tried to restrict the expansion of London’s coal burning and smoky air. The problem – for those perceiving it as a problem – was clearly too big, so the best response was avoid, rather than reform, the smoky city. Asthmatics often suffered greatly in London, whether they were commoners or elites like Shaftesbury and King William III.

Jan Siberechts, View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex (1696). The smoky capital is seen in the background, while in the foreground sits the kind of house where the rich could escape from the bustle, care, and dirtiness of the city.

Jan Siberechts, View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex (1696). The smoky capital is seen in the background, while in the foreground sits the kind of house where the rich could escape from the bustle, care, and dirtiness of the city.

But if pollution was, at least to a limited extent, democratic, access to green spaces and clean air was less so. Shaftesbury, after all, left England altogether for his health, traveling to the south of France and Italy, while William III usually stayed in palaces like Kensington and Hampton Court, beyond the reach of the urban air. Complaining about the urban environment (alongside associated urban vices and frustrations) was a favorite pastime of early modern poets and playwrights, and for them, as for many people, the only practical response to such nuisances was escape into the country. For the rich retreating to suburban villas was a normal part of the weekly and seasonal calendar, and many middling sorts similarly owned or rented a cottage where they could retreat from the city to relax and breathe freely. But the poor were constrained from enjoying such escapes, unless they could walk to them on a Sunday afternoon. Suburban pubs and fields were therefore popular destinations, but even such modest slices of greenery were unavailable to many. For those too weak, unwell, or poor to walk or otherwise be transported out of London, finding ways to escape the capital would have been much more difficult than for healthier, stronger neighbors.

In early modern London, then, smoky air was something that impacted everyone, but it did so unequally. The poor were more likely to spend their days in close, poorly-ventilated rooms, or to live near to industrial manufacturers that emitted large amounts of smoke or other fumes, or to live in densely-populated neighborhoods with endless smoky chimneys and bad circulation. The rich, while still subject to the smoky haze that enveloped much of the city much of the time, could find ways to limit their exposure. But what no one could do in early modern London was to figure out how the city could survive and thrive without burning huge amounts of coal. The smoke that was already notable by 1600 was, therefore, all-encompassing by 1800. By the time northern cities boomed into the industrial revolution England’s capital had two centuries of experience living with urban air pollution and its pervasive, though unequally distributed, impact on urban life.

[1] Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (London: 1992; orig. 1986), 36

[2] This discussion draws on William M. Cavert, The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge, 2016).

[3] For more on coal in the early modern beer brewing industry see a recent blog post here, or William M. Cavert, “Industrial Fuel Consumption in Early Modern London” Urban History (2016), available here on FirstView.

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6 thoughts on “Riches, Poverty and Pollution: Living with Coal Smoke in Early Modern London

  1. This para made me do a double-take:
    ‘ “Poverty,” wrote sociologist Ulrich Beck, “is hierarchic, smog is democratic.”[1] Pre-industrial cities, according to Beck, were full of dirty and unpleasant dangers, but the wealthy could escape or avoid such hazards easily because they smelled badly and looked ugly. …’

    I suspect the wealthy could escape because they were wealthy, not because they smelled badly or looked ugly…

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: year2, Vol. #45 | Whewell's Ghost

  3. Isaac Pennington, who financed the 1643 revolution — or possibly his wife — was done for upsetting against whom he was plotting by causing his (or her) brewery to make a stench. As if a brewery could possibly be offensive!

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