Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 2 - London Smoke

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ALL those who have experienced the depressing effects of a November day, and have seen the atmosphere without a moment's warning put on the changeable complexion of a very bad bruise, and then resolve itself into a dull, leaden, hopeless hue, for the rest of the day, can readily understand the fixed belief of the Parisian that in that month Cockneys give themselves up to suicide, and leap in a constant stream from London-bridge. Indeed, a countryman from the breezy South Downs, or from any country village where the air "recommends itself nimbly to the senses," may well feel his heart sink within him as he looks up in vain for the blue sky, and sees nothing but that solemn gray canopy of vapour which sits like an incubus on the whole town.
    It may be said that it is unfair to take a November fog as offering any specimen of the atmospheric impurities in the midst of which we live. It may be so, but we look upon fogs as providential inflictions, which at certain times in the year seize for our special edification, as it were, the offending elements, and exhibit them under our eyes and noses, in order to show us what filth we are con-[-25-]tinually throwing into the air, and which as continually returns, although in not quite so demonstrative a manner.
    Smoke we have always with us. If we look out on a fine summer's day from the top of the Crystal Palace for a view of the great metropolis, we naturally exclaim, "I see it; there is the smoke;" indeed, any picture or London without its dim canopy of soot would be as unrecognizable as would a portrait of Pope, Hogarth, or Cowper, without their well-known headgear.
    This black and heavy cloud is supported by the 500,000 or 600,000 columns of smoke that arise from the 400,000 houses of London. In it we behold the great aerial coalfield, which contains annually no less than 200,000 tons of fuel that escapes from us up our chimneys. Escapes, did we say? Oh that it did, and that we never heard or saw more of it; but smoke, like a chicken, still returns to roost.
    We do not allude to "those horrid blacks" that dance and waltz before our very eyes, and then maliciously plump down upon the ample page of some fine edition, or "squat" deliberately upon the most delicate distance of a sketch by Copley Fielding or Cox, but to those finer blacklets that invisibly permeate the air. If we look at any fracture through which a draught penetrates, a cracked window or a shrunken skirtingboard, we shall find that the edges are ragged, with a fine fringe of soot pointing towards the fireplace; this fact alone is enough to demonstrate that the air is charged both inside and outside our houses with a vast amount of infinitely divided carbon. If it is deposited in this manner by the mere friction of passing any object, we may imagine what irritation it must occasion to [-26-] the human lungs, into which it is sucked 30 times in the minute, converting them, as it were, into a temporary coalscuttle, out of which we are perpetually compelled to shovel the obnoxious intruder with a cough.
    The effect upon vegetable life is still more striking; the plane, which annually throws oft' its greatcoat of soot, is the only tree which will flourish in London. Young wives fresh from the country in the summertime beguile themselves with the idea that they will snatch a recollection of home every morning by a view of the blooming geraniums and rosetrees in the balcony. Alas! in a month's time you shall see the débris of smutty stalks and melancholy flowerpots in the back court, and she never tries the experiment again. If vegetation grows black, our children grow white, and perish in far greater numbers than they would do in purer air. Life suffering thus, under the dominion of smoke, what shall we say of fabrics of all kinds, furniture, &c., which have not the capacity to throw it off? Families who have a town and country experience have only to compare their washing bills to perceive how enormously a residence in the former augments them. The loss to Londoners from this source alone must amount to millions sterling in the course of the year. But every article that is capable of being spoilt by the most tenacious of all floating pigments suffers alike, and in an incredibly short time tones down to the prevailing leaden hue.
    Five centuries ago the very condition to which the smoke nuisance has brought us was foretold, and attempts were made to avert it. Until the time of Edward II, London used only wood for fuel, drawn from the neighbour-[-27-]ing forests. In this reign, however, coal began to be imported from Newcastle, and, the effects of the smoke speedily showing themselves, Parliament in 1316 petitioned the King to prohibit its use in London, on the ground of its being a public nuisance; whereupon he all who burnt seaborne coal to be mulcted, and on a second offence, to have their furnaces demolished.  Like most unnecessarily severe orders, however, it speedily fell into abeyance, and the evil from that time has been going on apace. At the Restoration, there were only 200,000 chaldrons imported; in 1775, 500,000 arrived; a quantity which had increased to 900.000 at the beginning of the present century, and now upwards of 6,000,000 tons are received in the metropolis by land and sea.
    "Things when they are at their worst generally mend," says the old proverb. It required, however, a great deal of apparently hopeless agitation of the smoke question in Parliament to make that slowly-moved body entertain the idea of removing the nuisance by a public act, and it was not until 1854 that the measure now under review came into operation. According to this act, no furnaces employed in the metropolis, with certain exceptions to be mentioned presently, are to be used without being so constructed as to burn their own smoke, under a penalty of not less than 40s., and not more than £5., while for a second offence King Edward's punishment of "demolition" is almost equalled by the fine of £10, "and for each succeeding conviction a sum double the amount of the penalty imposed for the last succeeding conviction." As a considerable portion of the penalty inflicted goes to the informer, it may be readily imagined how narrowly the [-28-] 6,500 furnace chimneys which come under the act are watched.
    The smoke-producing districts lie almost entirely over the water, in the parishes of Lambeth, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, and the Borough of Southwark. Here lie the greater portion of the factories —  such as those of tanners, bone-boilers, brewers, saw-mills, flour-mills, distillers, and engineers, whose wealthy proprietors, before the passing of this act, were in the habit of deluging the town with the densest smoke, while they retired themselves every evening, with the most philosophic indifference, to their country villas, far away from its baleful influence.
    Nothing can be more satisfactory than the working of the act to abate the smoke nuisance. You may steam it many times up and down between Westminster and London-bridge and see the tall chimneys on the Southwark bank standing idle in the air. Upon its first passing, its utter and early failure was predicted; but the Home Secretary is not the man to let a measure fail in his hands; and, people having found this out, are gradually complying with its provisions.
    One would have imagined that the proved gain to the manufacturer of 12 per cent. on the amount of coals consumed by either Jukes's, Hazeldine's, or Hall's smoke-consuming furnace would have been sufficient to induce their adoption without the interference and coercion of the law; but such has not yet proved to be the case in any considerable degree. The advanced and more enlightened manufacturers — such as Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, & Co., the great brewers, and Price & Co., the patent candle; makers, indeed, adopted smoke-consuming furnaces long [-29-] before the passing of the act, and the latter company have introduced them into their .great factory on the banks of the Mersey, near Liverpool. It is not our purpose here to enter into any account of the different smoke-consuming furnaces which have lately been patented, and it will be sufficient to state that the principle of all those in general use is the same. By the action of movable furnace-bars a thin stratum of coal is continually pushed under the fire, and, of course, all the smoke has to ascend through the incandescent mass, and is consumed in its passage. Although this plan entirely meets the requirements of the act, yet it cannot be concealed that it does not consume the carburetted hydrogen, the carbonic oxide, and the various hydro-carbons — all of which escape in the form of thin unindictable vapour, of a highly obnoxious character. We ought to be able to adjust the quantity of oxygen to the quantity of disengaged gases requiring its presence to produce combustion in the furnace as easily as we do in a moderator lamp, where the slightest motion of a screw converts the angry and lampblack-giving flame into a pure white light. Attempts have been made, we believe, to produce such furnaces, but we know not with what success.
    The second clause of the act provides that all steamboats plying above London-bridge shall have their furnaces so constructed as to consume their own smoke. At first sight one certainly cannot see why the unfortunate people on the banks of the river below bridge should be condemned to wear out a sooty existence by reason of this arbitrary demarcation of the stream; indeed we feel strongly inclined to think that the framers of the act [-30-] must have plagiarized this idea from the announcement generally posted upon the paddlebox, of  "No smoking allowed abaft the funnel," west-enders, like cabin passengers, being supposed to demand an exemption which is not accorded to less fastidious people. The reason urged for this distinction is that ocean-going steamers never pass London-bridge; but why these leviathans of passage, which unfurl such long pennants of smoke, should be allowed to escape free, while the penny boats are pounced upon, we are at a loss to know. The Bridegroom and the Bride are forced to burn anthracite coal or to alter their furnaces, but the magnificent Dundee or Ostend steamers may do as they like; and, still more absurdly, Waterman No.3, that plies between Hungerford and Woolwich, may fume away as merrily as it pleases until it passes under London-bridge, but then it must cease to smoke as suddenly as any young gentleman in a train, when the suspecting guard pops his inquiring nose in at the window. Perhaps Lord Palmerston has given the west-enders the best of it by water, as a compensation for their sufferings by land, for the pedestrian passing by the Penitentiary is surprised to see the chimneys on the Lambeth side, between Westminster and Vauxhall bridges, staining the air with smoke as they did of old. These belong to glassworks and potteries, which are especially exempted from the operations of this act ! How long such obnoxious exceptions are to remain and abuse the patience of the public is a question which, perhaps, the Home Secretary can best answer.
    Since the six thousand and odd chimney shafts of the metropolis have been put under the surveillance of in-[-31-]formers and policemen, who watch their tops as a terrier would a rathole, the air has become sensibly purer on the south side of the river. It cannot be supposed, however, that the total suppression of smoke in all manufacturers' chimneys will have more than a partial effect in freeing the town from floating carbon. We have still left the reeking chimneys of the 390,000 and odd houses of the metropolis to keep up the dismal cloud for ever hanging over us. The question naturally arises, —  Can we put out the smoke of the domestic hearth? Dr. Arnott has attempted to solve this question by the introduction of his improvement upon Cutler's smoke-consuming fire-grate. We have seen this burning on the premises of Mr. Edwards, the manufacturer, in Poland-street, and we can safely say that if it will work as well under domestic supervision as it does there, nothing more is required. The grate is the ordinary fireplace, having underneath it, in lieu of the under bars, a square iron coal-box, which has a movable bottom. In the morning this box is filled with coal, and the fire is then built and lit in the ordinary manner. As it consumes, instead of replenishing it with coals placed upon the top, by means of a bent poker, which acts as a leveller, you press up the bottom of the coal-box, and thus supply as much fuel as you require below the fire; of course, there is no smoke, and it is warranted to burn for fourteen hours with 20 lb. of coal. An ordinary fire is generally allowed a medium-sized scuttle a-day, which must weigh from 28 lb. to 30 lb. The saving of fuel, according to this calculation, is very great. Of course, if there is no smoke, there is no soot produced, and therefore no fear of chimneys catching [-324-] fire, with their inevitable results — horrid fire-engines and officious policemen, who mulct you at the rate of about 5s. per spark.
    We do not see why in the course of time the smoke nuisance in London should not be entirely abated; and, when that period shall come, what shall we have gained?  The crisp, bright atmosphere of Paris, for the suicidal peasoup air of London, during a portion of the year, at least. Does our reader doubt it? Has he never experienced a perfect sensation, strolling home in the small hours some spring morning, at being able to see from the top to the bottom of Bond-street, and to distinguish the slightest detail of architecture at a hundred. yards' distance? Every fine summer morning of our existence this smoky, dirty town is born afresh, bright and clear, like Venus rising from the sea, only to descend upon the wheel of night black and grim as Pluto himself.
    Let us conquer this smoke nuisance, scare away this nightmare of our own producing, and who shall say that the richest capital in the world shall continue one of the ugliest? It lies within our power to perpetuate throughout the day to a certain extent the morning's pellucid atmosphere by act of Parliament, and by private economy as effectually as we are now purifying our water. When we shall have done this, Decimus Burton will no longer labour in vain, and we shall cease to be guilty of the folly of introducing Greek or Italian architecture, with a certainty of seeing all details incrusted and lost in a few years beneath a covering of soot. Passing on the north side of· St. Mary-le-Strand Church the other day we perceived with astonishment some exquisite carvings of cherubim, [-33-] flowers, and fruit over the heads of the windows, which had just been disinterred by workmen from their grave of soot, where for years they had been as completely hidden from human view as the Nineveh marbles were by the sandheaps of Mossul.
    If a still more glaring example were wanting of injury done to our architecture by the fugitive fuel of our fires, there stands St. Paul's. For generations the full tide of London life has passed around it, without learning the lesson it teaches. The picture-cleaner places a portrait in his window, one half restored to its original freshness, the other clogged with dirt. Wind and rain, the cleaners of nature, have swept the south side of the metropolitan cathedral in its upper half, and kept the Portland stone as bright as it came from the quarry, while the lower half, which is protected by the surrounding houses, is coated with dismal carbon. Nay, as if to teach the passer-by more distinctly the evil smoke is doing it, we have one side of a pillar white and the other black; and St. Paul himself, crowning the southern pediment, smiles benignly with a pure and spotless right cheek and side, while the drapery hanging over his left arm is thickly lined with soot ! Never did any building cry out in more dramatic manner to be purified and protected from pollution.
    While the smoke nuisance continues, of course decorations in colour of any semi-exposed building are absurd. Mr. Bang's polychromic embellishments of the arcade of the Royal Exchange have to be repainted every ten years ; the cobalt tympanum of the British Museum is becoming a good fog colour; the pictures in the National Gallery [-34-] are deteriorating ; Owen Jones is in despair ; and all because we will send our coal up the chimneys at an average cost of 26s. a ton, in order that it may distribute itself broadcast upon ourselves, our goods, and our public works of art!