Selling the smokeless city

Exploring advertising images and smoke abatement in Britain 1840-1960
by Dr Stephen Mosley

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sulphurous black smoke billowing out from industrial and domestic chimneys, dominated Britain’s cityscapes. Coal smoke was responsible for blackening urban architecture, blocking out sunlight,destroying vegetation and, not least of all, damaging people’s health. However,despite the tangible nature of this particular form of air pollution, it was not until 1956 that the public was willing to support the passage of a meaningful Clean Air Act (now widely considered to be an important milestone in environmental protection).

While urban air pollution has attracted a good deal of scholarly attention, few historians have focused on the strong visual culture that helped to shape understandings of smoke emissions. In his latest study, published in the journal 'History and Technology', Dr Stephen Mosley, a Senior Lecturer in History at Leeds Beckett University, looks at urban-industrial Britain circa 1840-1960.

It aims to show how images – mainly commercial advertising – offer an important lens through which contemporary attitudes to air pollution can be examined.

"Competing visions were communicated in powerful images that circulated in British society at the time, and they played an active role in shaping and reshaping ideas about smoke and the city," explained Dr Mosley. "The coal smoke that issued from industrial and domestic chimneys had contested meanings for contemporary urbanites. For most it signified the creation of wealth, jobs and wellbeing, while for a minority of critics this form of air pollution symbolised waste, inefficiency and ill-health.

“Images from cartoons to photographs, can reveal more vividly the values of past cultures than texts and other historical evidence. My work shows how visual culture can help to create social, technological and environmental change by influencing consumer behaviour."

The reign of darkness

In 1889 an editorial in The Spectator magazine spoke of a ‘reign of darkness’ in London, adding that its citizens lived ‘in something not far from perpetual twilight.’

High levels of atmospheric pollution, from both homes and businesses, had also enveloped other cities such as Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield in a permanent smoke haze. Industrialisation and urbanisation in Britain had been based on the use of inexpensive bituminous coal for heat and power. And as its consumption increased,from around 65 million tons in 1853 to over 200 million tons in 1950, the harmful impacts of smoke emissions were difficult for contemporaries to ignore. Rickets was endemic in British cities, and respiratory diseases were the nation’s biggest killer by the turn of the twentieth century.

The tall smokestacks that dominated cityscapes, some over 100 meters in height, were designed to reduce local air pollution and the problems it caused by discharging smoke far up into the atmosphere to be dispersed by the prevailing winds. It was erroneously thought that the earth’s atmosphere was an inexhaustible sink, a ‘vast sea of air’, that could dilute and neutralise the pollutants that industrial chimneys emitted. However, topographical and meteorological conditions often prevented the dispersal of coal smoke away from industrial cities.

But, smoke emissions were not generally viewed in a negative light by businessmen and the public. The production of smoke was commonly understood as an unmistakable sign that Britain’s industrial towns and cities were flourishing. Smoke meant bright trading conditions, jobs and wealth creation to most city dwellers.

Postcards transmitted cultural values and, despite its darkly humorous tone, ‘Beautiful Manchester’celebrated industrial smoke as a symbol of progress and prosperity.

Muck costs money

Anti-smoke pressure groups were active in many of Britain’s major cities since the 1840s.

Architects,doctors, engineers, lawyers and others from the professional ranks joined together to establish organisations such as the Manchester Association for the Prevention of Smoke in 1842, the Leeds Smoke Abatement Committee in 1890, and the London-based Coal Smoke Abatement Society in 1899. National organisations were formed in the early years of the twentieth century, most notably the National Smoke Abatement Society in 1929. Rather than viewing coal smoke as a symbol of wealth-creation and well-being, the members of these societies saw it as signifying waste, inefficiency and ill-health.One of their main aims was to educate industrialists and householders to see smoke differently; to discredit the popular and durable belief that muck equated with money.

From the outset, anti-smoke activists drew attention to the loss that air pollution represented in valuable resources. While the damage that it caused to both human health and the urban environment featured prominently in campaigning articles, pamphlets and other initiatives that challenged popular perceptions of smoke, activists never tired of pointing out that billowing chimneys meant the failure to make profitable use of coal.

Mr Therm, clean air promotion and a ‘fortune up the chimney’

Transforming coal into gas, electricity and clean-burning fuels such as coke held out the promise of making Britain’s cities smokeless. After the First World War the gas and electricity industries cooperated closely with clean air campaigners, and both marketed their products as clean, efficient and modern – the solution to the smoke problem. Businessmen and householders, however, were usually reluctant to replace tried and tested coal-burning furnaces and ‘homely’ fireplaces with costly new technologies, so they needed to be persuaded that it was in their interest to do so.

As well as promoting their technologies at smoke abatement exhibitions, where the public could see a wide variety of gas and electrical appliances working effectively and economically, ‘propaganda’ materials also included films, posters and advertising. A good deal of effort and expertise went into publicity campaigns, with the gas industry creating the popular cartoon character of ‘Mr Therm’ in 1931 – a ‘prime mover in smoke abatement’ – to represent the older utility. The distinguished artist and illustrator Eric Fraser designed the memorable figure for the Gas Light and Coke Company, a forerunner of British Gas, to keep the industry in the public eye and sell cookers, fires and water heaters. With his flame-like body Mr Therm was ‘instantly recognisable’, personifying the gas industry, and he added to the appeal of its press advertising for more than 30 years (he survived nationalisation in 1948). Fraser’s Mr Therm was ‘one of the most successful and long-lived cartoon images in the history of advertising’ (only the Michelin Man, created in 1898,was more successful).

In a hard-fought battle for customers, the ‘under-advertised’ electrical industry never came up with a convincing rival.

By the 1950s, it had long been known that the domestic coal fire was a hugely inefficient technology, with as much as 80% of the heat it produced being lost up the chimney along with smoke emissions. Mr Therm not only highlighted this heat loss, but also the valuable by-products that could be recovered from coal if only it was ‘carbonised’ in retorts to produce gas and coke (a smokeless solid fuel).

Turning old ideas about ‘wealth and well-being’ on their head, in 1954 a disapproving Mr Therm informed householders that coal smoke meant the loss of a ‘fortune up the chimney.’

That same year, the Beaver report on air pollution had revealed a huge disparity between death rates from bronchitis in urban and rural areas of Britain, and it also linked excessive coal smoke in towns and cities to lung cancer. Not only that, ‘wise’ Mr Therm encouraged people to think about what their choice of fuel meant for the wider economy. Coal was still in short supply as Britain emerged from post-war austerity, and its rationing did not end until June 1958.

The smokeless city

Images were an integral part of the smoke abatement story in urban-industrial Britain, and their careful interpretation helps to bring it to life more fully and vividly –adding another dimension to our understanding of social, technological and environmental change.

Commercial advertising by the gas and electricity industries did more than simply sell their products. It also sold the idea of the smokeless city; of how clean,efficient and modern fuel technologies could help to protect the environment and improve the ‘health and wealth’ of householders and manufacturers alike.Advertising images played an important part in changing the dominant narrative about smoke emissions. This shift in emphasis encouraged a move away from traditional coal-fired technologies even before the passage of the 1956 Clean Air Act (especially in businesses and middle class homes), and saw an intensifying sales battle for new customers between the gas and electricity industries afterwards. It also encouraged readers to see smoke differently, and the key messages to businessmen and the wider public were that smoke was preventable, uneconomic, and a waste of natural resources; and that environmental degradation, ill health and loss of life was unnecessary.