Victorian London - Weather - Smoke

"All strangers, I believe, are compelled to acknowledge the unfriendliness of a London atmosphere on their first arrival, at this season of the year. Both my companion and myself were seized with a violent catarrh, from which we have not yet recovered ; and we are told that few escape a similar fate. Whether it is to be attributed to the dampness of the air, or to the thick smoke inhaled—for the smoke, instead of rising, rolls down into the streets—is perhaps neither very easy, nor very important to determine. The effects are disagreeable in the last degree."

Nathaniel S. Wheaton, A Journal of a Residence during Several Months in London, 1830

In the hope of obtaining a bird's-eye view of the port, I went up to the Golden Gallery that is immediately below the ball of St. Paul's. It was noon, and an exquisitely bright and clear spring day; but the view was smudgy and smeared with smoke. And yet the haze which hung like a curtain of shadow before and over everything, increased rather than diminished the giant sublimity of the city that lay stretched out beneath. It was utterly unlike London as seen every day below, in all its bricken and hard-featured reality; it was rather the phantasm - the spectral illusion, as it were, of the great metropolis - such as one might see it in a dream, with here and there stately churches and palatial hospitals, shimmering like white marble, their windows glittering in the sunshine like plates of burnished gold - while the rest of the scene was all hazy and indefinite. Even the outlines of the neighbouring streets, steeples, and towers were blurred in misty indistinctness. Clumps of buildings and snatches of parks loomed through the clouds like dim islands rising out of the sea of smoke. It was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the city began; and as you peered into the thick haze you could, after a time, make out the dusky figures of tall factory chimneys plumed with black smoke; while spires and turrets seemed to hang midway between you and the earth, as if poised in the thick grey air. In the distance the faint hills, with the sun shining upon them, appeared like some far-off shore, or a mirage seen in the sky - indeed, the whole scene was more like the view of some imaginary and romantic Cloudland, than that of the most matter-of-fact and prosaic city in the world. As you peeped down into the thoroughfares you could see streams of busy little men, like ants, continually hurrying along in opposite directions; while, what with carts, cabs, and omnibuses, the earth seemed all alive with tiny creeping things, as when one looks into the grass on a summer's day. As you listened you caught the roar of the restless human tide of enterprise and competition at work below; and as you turned to contemplate the river at your back, you saw the sunlight shining upon the grey water beneath you like a sheet of golden tissue, while far away in the distance it sparkled again as the stream went twisting through the monster town. Beyond London-bridge nothing was visible; a thick veil of haze and fog hung before the shipping, so that not one solitary mast was to be seen marking the far-famed port of London. And yet one would hardly have had it otherwise! To behold the metropolis without its smoke - with its thousand steeples standing out against the clear blue sky, sharp and definite in their outlines - is to see London as it is not - without its native element. But as the vast city lay there beneath me, half hid in mist and with only glimpses of its greatness visible, it had a much more sublime and ideal effect from the very inability to grasp the whole of its literal reality.

Henry Mayhew, Letter to The Morning Chronicle no.47, April 11 1850

    Those members of the Court [of Common Council] who have visited foreign capitals where other fuel than coal is employed, will remember the contrast between their climate and ours—will remember (for instance even in Paris) the transparence of air, the comparative bright­ness of all colour, the visibility of distant objects, the cleanliness of faces and buildings, instead of our opaque atmosphere, deadened colours. obscured distance, smutted faces, and black architecture. Those, even, who have never left our metropolis, but who, by early rising or late going to rest, have had opportunities of seeing a London sunrise, can judge, as well as by any foreign comparison, the difference between London as it might be and London as it is.
    Viewed at dawn and noon-day, the appearances contrast as though they were of different cities and in different latitudes. Soon after day­break, the great factory shafts beside the river begin to discharge immense volumes of smoke; their clouds soon become confluent; the sky is overcast with a dingy veil; the house-chimneys presently add their contributions; and by ten o’clock, as one approaches London from any hill in the suburbs, one may observe the total result of this gigantic nuisance hanging over the City like a pall.
    If its consequences were confined to rendering London (in spite of its advantages) the unsightliest metropolis in Europe, to defacing all works of art, and rendering domestic cleanliness expensive, I should have nothing officially to say on the subject; but inasmuch as it renders cleanliness more difficult, and creates a despair of cultivating it with success, people resign themselves to dirt, domestic and personal, which they could remove but so temporarily: or windows are kept shut, in spite of immeasurable fustiness, because the ventilation requisite to health would bring with it showers of soot, occasioning inconvenience and expense. Such is the tendency of many complaints that have reached me, and of their foundation in truth and reason I have thorough conviction and knowledge... I ought likewise to tell you, that there are valid reasons for supposing that we do not with impunity inhale day by day so much air which leaves a palpable sediment; that many persons of irri­table lungs find unquestionable inconvenience from these mechanical impurities of the atmosphere; and (gathering a hint from the pathology of vegetation) that few plants will flourish in the denser districts of London, unless the air which conduces to their nourishment be previously filtered from its dirt.
    If the smoke of London were inseparably identified with its commercial greatness, one might willingly resign oneself to the inconvenience. But to every other reason against its continuance must be added as a last one, on the evidence of innumerable competent and disinterested witnesses, that the nuisance, where habitual, is, for the greater part or entirely, voluntary and preventable; that it indicates mismanagement and waste; that the adoption of measures for the universal consumption of smoke, while relieving the metropolis and its population from injury, would conduce to the immediate interest of the individual consumer, as well as to indirect and general economy. For all the smoke that hangs over us is wasted fuel ...
    With the progress of knowledge on these subjects, a time will undoubtedly arrive, and at no distant period, when chimneys will cease to convey to the atmosphere their present immense freight of fuel that has not been burnt, and of heat that has not been utilized; when each entire house will be uniformly warmed with less expenditure of material than now suffices to its one kitchen fire; and our successors* will wonder at the ludicrous ingenuity with which we have so long managed to diffuse our caloric and waste our coal in the direct ions where they least conduce to the purposes of comfort and utility.

* To the philosophical thinker there would seem to exist no important difficulty which would prevent the collective warming of many houses in a district by the distribution of heat from a central furnace—perhaps even so, that each house might receive its ad libitum share of ventilation with warmed air. Ingenuity and enterprise, in this country, have accomplished far more arduous tasks; and I little doubt that our next successors will have heat-pipes laid on to their houses, with absence of smoke and immense economy of fuel, on some such general organization as we now enjoy for gas-lighting and water-supply.

Dr John Simon, City Medical Reports, 1850

see also George Godwin in London Shadows - click here

see also Andrew Wynter in Our Social Bees - click here