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The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester.

The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester. By Stephen Mosley (Cambridge: The White Horse Press, 2001. x plus 271 pp.).

The Chimney of the World is Stephen Mosley's innovative contribution to the study of smoke pollution in nineteenth and early twentieth century England. Skillfully drawing upon vernacular literature, poetry, cartoons, and postcards, the Lecturer in History at the University of Birmingham shows that inhabitants of Manchester--working-class and middle-class alike--constructed an image of the coal smoke belching from local factories and domestic hearths as an "innocuous, even beneficial, form of dirt that constituted no great threat to life and health." (87) Consequently, he argues, campaigns to clear England's skies through lawsuits, legislation, or moral suasion often failed, especially when industrial leaders played upon the widespread perception of smoke as a symbol of prosperity. Mosley's work is valuable addition to the field of environmental history for two reasons: (1), because it untangles the complex way that residents of industrial cities like Manchester attached social meaning to the black smoke that clouded their homes and skies, and (2), because it underscores how important an understanding of the social construction of environmental hazards like the "smoke nuisance" are for those who want to improve the environment we live in today.

Mosley organizes his well-researched book logically, in three sections. Part I traces not only the pervasive, material effects of coal smoke on the lives of Manchester's residents, but also the way that they experienced their surroundings. Citing contemporary newspaper reports, public health journals, and parliamentary commissions, Mosley notes that, by 1840, hundreds of factory chimneys and domestic fireplaces were billowing forth dense black smoke across the sky, leading one observer to compare Manchester to an active volcano. Challenging scholars who argue that the ad-hoc approach of municipal governments in Manchester and other "shock cities" of the industrial revolution led to incremental improvements in air quality during the 1800s, Mosley demonstrates that no measurable reduction of smoke pollution actually occurred. Citing contemporary accounts, he maintains that coal smoke visibly increased in area, blighting more and more of the countryside. Most alarmingly, smoke contributed to high levels of respiratory illnesses such as pulmonary tuberculosis and bronchitis throughout the nineteenth century, and especially during cold weather when "thick, sulphurous fogs" descended upon Manchester's three hundred thousand residents. (62)

Part II contains the heart of Mosley's argument and the most insightful portion of his book. Here the author examines the development of several common narratives about coal smoke among the city's large working-class population, and within the circles of middle-class reform groups like the Manchester Association for the Prevention of Smoke (MAPS) and the Manchester and Salford Noxioux Vapors Abatement Association (NVAA). For workers and their families, the sight of idle chimneys signified the "misery of layoffs, short time, and wage cuts," according to Mosley. (72). In 1862 a popular poem entitled, "The Smokeless Chimney" lamented
 Traveler on the Northern Railway!
 Look and learn, as on you speed;
 See the hundred smokeless chimneys,
 Learn their tale of cheerless need. (72)


For the working classes, coal smoke also signified domesticity. The author cites Victorian novels showing that a smoky hearth symbolized the warmth and comfort of a loving family, while a fireless house indicated destitution. In contrast, the ample evidence presented by middle-class reformers that smoke caused respiratory disease and that it represented the inefficient burning of fuel failed to dislodge widely held notions that coal was one of "life's necessities." (113). Mosley successfully underscores this point by referring to an 1882 meeting of the NVAA, where an angry crowd badgered anti-smoke crusaders into silence.

The last one-third of The Chimney of the World traces efforts by groups like MAPS and the NVAA to enforce anti-air pollution laws, or to encourage British industry to adopt smoke abatement technologies. For the most part, these efforts failed, according to Mosley. Not only did working class families put a relatively low priority on reducing smoke pollution, but sanitary experts often chose the wrong strategy to promote their own efforts. Most importantly, Britain's prevailing laissez-faire business philosophy discouraged groups like MAPS or NVAA from promoting one form of smoke abatement technology over another. Rather than giving English factory owners a range of desirable options, this decision merely added to the confusion and doubt associated with the choice to install new kinds of furnaces or steam engines. This point is well documented with reference to parliamentary proceedings, contemporary accounts from the Manchester Guardian, and other sources.

Mosley's book is a highly welcome, very readable addition to the field of urban environmental history. It reflects recent work by Joel Tarr and other scholars who emphasize the way that a host of social, political, and economic values influence decisions about the urban environment, and demonstrates that anti-smoke crusaders always faced an uphill battle in overturning prevailing notions that a belching factory chimney signified wealth. There are some points to disagree with. His statement that "local and central government bodies could have done far more to improve the air quality in Victorian Manchester" (183-184) is not totally convincing. Mosley's overwhelming evidence that local workers fiercely opposed such actions undermines this argument. Yet overall, this book reinforces the need for a better understanding of the way that society constructs images of pollution, and pollution control.

Charles E. Closmann

German Historical Institute
COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History
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Author:Closmann, Charles E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
Words:891
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