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There’s something in the air

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By | From the Collections

It is easy to take the air we breathe for granted, but its quality has been ensured by tireless campaigning from societies such as Environmental Protection UK and its predecessors: the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, the Smoke Abatement League of Great Britain, the National Smoke Abatement Society and the National Society for Clean Air. The archives of Environmental Protection UK have recently been catalogued and are now available to read in the archive as SA/EPU. This non-government organisation can trace its origins to 1898, when it was formed as the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, and has its roots in Victorian philanthropy and social reform.

A south London street at 11am in December. Wellcome Library reference: SA.EPU.I.3

A south London street at 11am in December 19??. Wellcome Library reference: SA.EPU.I.3

From the late nineteenth century onwards, towns and cities grew at an unprecedented rate. The dark smoke, congested with unburned coal and sulphurous acids, released into the air by factories and domestic fires created, at best, unpleasant living conditions and, at worst, a highly toxic atmosphere. It is unsurprising that these vapours were damaging to health when they also corroded stone and metal, limited the growth of vegetation and obscured sunlight.

Smoke abatement movements emerged during the course of the nineteenth century with limited effect. In the 1880s the Kyrle Society, whose aim was to provide books, art and open spaces to the working class poor, set up its own smoke abatement committee. One of the founders of the Kyrle Society, the philanthropist and social reformer Octavia Hill, had returned from a period in Nuremburg where her eyes (and lungs) had been opened to the contrast between the clean air of a European city and the pollution prevalent at home in Britain. The Kyrle Society directed public attention to the problem by holding a Smoke Abatement Exhibition in South Kensington in 1881, which was attended by over 116,000 people. Not long after this, the noxious vapours abatement association in Manchester held a similar exhibition. The EPUK collection includes a report on Air Pollution published by the Manchester and Salford Noxious Vapours Association in 1882 (SA/EPU/G/5/1).

Minute book from the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, 1898. Wellcome Library reference: SA.EPU.A.1.1

Minute book from the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, 1898. Wellcome Library reference: SA.EPU.A.1.1

Relevant provisions in the 1875 Public Health Act were difficult to enforce and it excluded two of the worst offenders – domestic kitchen ranges and open hearth fires. By 1898 the air quality in London was so poor that the artist Sir William Blake Richmond wrote a letter to The Times in which he compared its effect to that of a total eclipse of the sun. In December of that year, the Coal Smoke Abatement Society (SA/EPU/A/1/1) was formed at a meeting in London where Sir William was declared the Society’s first president. A London surgeon, Dr Harold Des Voeux, who went on to play a prominent and important role in the smoke abatement movement, was made the Society’s first treasurer.

This first meeting was attended by prominent social reformers including Lady Frederick Cavendish, a pioneer of women’s education, and Dr Jane H Walker, who had set up a sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis sufferers in Colchester and went on to become the founder and first president of the Medical Women’s Federation (SA/MWF) in 1917.  In the spirit of Victorian philanthropy, the first committee of the Society included an eclectic mixture of artists and politicians, aristocracy and laymen.

SA.EPU.H.4.1 pamphlet 1a

Image from a 1950s leaflet published by Environment Protection UK. Wellcome Library reference:

The Society attracted other well-known names. In 1911 the dramatist George Bernard Shaw attended the Annual General Meeting of the Society, possibly invited by his friend, Des Voeux. Addressing the Society, Shaw stated that the secret of health and cleanliness were a clear atmosphere and clean clothes. With these ‘you will live as you do in the country, where you never wash at all, except as a sort of social ceremony to prove that you are well brought up.’

The archives of Environmental Protection UK run from 1847, with letter books inherited from an engineer, James Gilbertson, through to 2011. Compared to the wealth of information preserved on the Society’s movements from the mid-twentieth century, the early papers of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society may seem limited. However, they still provide valuable information on the origins of this Society and the context in which it was created.

Author: Kirsteen Connor, was a cataloguing archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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