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Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800 (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 42, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 507-508 | 10.1353/jsh.0.0094

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Over the last two decades or so, as concerns over urban smog and greenhouse gas emissions have grown, there has been an upsurge of historical interest in the topic of atmospheric pollution. Peter Thorsheim's new book, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800, is an interesting addition to this burgeoning subfield of environmental history. Drawing on an impressive range of source materials, including some excellent photographs, cartoons and advertisements, this concise and clearly-written study explores public understandings of air pollution in Britain over the past two centuries. Thorsheim tackles the complex history of atmospheric pollution—from a view of coal smoke as being largely benign in the early nineteenth century, through the increasing severity and perceived dangers from late Victorian London's smoke fogs, to the problems of smog and acid rain in the mid and later twentieth century—in a little over 200 pages of argument.

While much of this ground has been covered before, Thorsheim's thesis that Britain—the world's first industrial nation—was the place in which modern ideas about pollution first emerged adds a fresh dimension to debates in urban environmental history. At the heart of the book is an account of the 'invention' and 'reinvention' of air pollution over time. It begins with a short discussion of early nineteenth century miasmatic theories about 'bad air', and the role of sulphurous coal smoke—not yet viewed as pollution according to Thorsheim—as a 'disinfectant' that protected against airborne impurities. Chapters follow on the redefinition of smoke as pollution in the last decades of the nineteenth century, as anxieties about miasma subsided; the relationship between smoky skies, urban degeneration and eugenics; and London's Great Smog disaster of 1952, as a result of which over 4,000 lives were lost and a shocked British public finally supported policies to clear the air. While changing understandings of air pollution are the predominant theme, there are also chapters devoted to environmental activism, pollution displacement, and legislative responses to the problem of coal smoke, which culminated in the passage of the 1956 Clean Air Act. Thorsheim, to be sure, has produced a wide-ranging and highly informative study of air pollution and its meanings and impacts in British cities, particularly London. But the book does have a number of problems.

The author's bold interpretations of his material, and the imposition of a strong chronological and thematic structure, bring clarity to the narrative. But at times he creates far too neat a picture of events. In his brief discussion of the 'miasma era', for example, the struggles of the first generation of modern British antismoke reformers are almost wholly neglected. Smoke abatement societies were being established in northern industrial towns such as Leeds and Manchester from the 1840s. The meetings of the Manchester Association for the Prevention of Smoke, founded in 1842, were attended by some of its leading scientists, technologists, and industrialists, includingWilliam Sturgeon, Peter Clare, William Fairbairn, and Henry Houldsworth. Their campaigning led to a parliamentary inquiry into smoke prevention and the passage of local acts that attempted to control smoke well in advance of national legislation. These early reformers certainly viewed coal smoke as 'matter out of place', and their efforts to protect the public and the environment from pollution should have been examined here.

Similarly, in the chapter on degeneration and eugenics there is no reference to Caleb Saleeby and the organization he founded in 1924, the Sunlight League. Although primarily concerned with promoting the benefits of sunlight and fresh air for 'the health of the race', both were active and influential opponents of smoke pollution during the interwar years. According to Thorsheim; "British clean air activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were among the most significant opponents of eugenics in Britain" (p.78). Yet the Sunlight League's membership included some of Britain's most prominent eugenicists, such as William Inge, Dean of St. Paul's, as well as Saleeby himself, who had been instrumental in getting the Eugenics Education Society off the ground in 1907. Saleeby also wrote a column for the New Statesman under the pseudonym of 'Lens' in which he regularly denounced...



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