Clearing the Skies: Air Pollution Problems in Post-war Manchester
School of Cultural Studies & Humanities, Leeds Metropolitan University
In 1950, the sight of sulphurous black smoke billowing out from industrial and domestic chimneys still dominated the skylines around Greater Manchester. Coal smoke was responsible for blackening urban architecture, blocking out sunlight, destroying vegetation and, not least of all, damaging people’s health. It was closely associated with high levels of mortality from bronchitis and other respiratory diseases, particularly during the cold winter months when demand for domestic coal fires was at its peak. Manchester’s ugliness, as J.B. Priestley put it, was ‘so complete’ that it was ‘almost exhilarating.’
Manchester, however, was also a catalyst for change (albeit slow). Mancunian Charles Gandy, chairman of the National Smoke Abatement Society (NSAS), came up with the concept of the smokeless zone following a winter smog episode in 1931 that resulted in over 450 ‘excess deaths’ in the city. In advance of national legislation, the NSAS worked together with the City Council’s Health Department to create one of the first experimental smokeless zones. But planning was disrupted by the Second World War, and the commercial centre of the city did not become an operational smokeless zone until May 1952. Manchester’s smoke control programme would not be fully completed until the 1980s, by which time most of its blackened buildings had been cleaned.
Clearing the skies of smoke, however, was to have unintended consequences, as a new air pollution problem soon arose. As sunlight penetrated Manchester’s streets it reacted with automobile exhaust emissions to create hazardous photochemical smog, especially during the summer months. In January 1995, The Guardian claimed that Manchester had the ‘foulest air in Britain’ as 65,000 cars crawled into the city centre during the rush hour. In June the same year, as asthmatic admissions to hospitals increased, the Manchester Evening News alleged that because of choking traffic fumes living and working in the city and its conurbation could ‘seriously damage your health’. Manchester’s skies have now cleared, but its air is not yet clean.
Stephen Mosley is Senior Lecturer in History in the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University. His publications include: Common Ground: Integrating the Social and Environmental in History (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011 with Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud); The Environment in World History (Routledge, 2010); and The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester (Routledge, 2008). He is also the editor of the journal Environment and History. He is currently working on a global-scale history of pollution problems for Reaktion Books.