Accommodating Pollution: Living with Coal Smoke in Early Modern London

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:40 AM
Chicago Ballroom A (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
William M. Cavert, Northwestern University
Recently environmental historians have paid increasing attention to the place of pollution in modern life, demonstrating that dirty and unhealthy air, water, and soil were often the sad results of industrialization and urbanization. One important contribution of this literature has been to historicize perceptions of pollution, in particular showing how the smoky skies of modern industrial cities have become sites of political conflict. In stressing the historically situated nature of modern environmentalism, however, such projects have identified a radical distinction between pre-modern and modern environmental perception.  Attention to early modern London, however, shows some of the problems of such chronologies. During the two centuries after 1575 England’s capital consumed increasingly large amounts of mineral coal. Such fuel was smoky, and London’s air was widely perceived - by political leaders and royal judges, by natural philosophers and physicians, and by inhabitants and visitors - to be ugly, unhealthy, or otherwise undesirable.  But if Londoners were not apathetic to smoky air, why then did coal consumption continue to increase without significant opposition?

One important answer to this question, this paper will argue, is that Londoners learned ways to live with their smoky city.  First, London’s environment became increasingly socially-differentiated, as the rich found ways to restrict dense development and industrial manufacturing from their preferred neighborhoods. Second, Londoners of all classes developed strategies for leaving the city, particularly on weekends, finding fresh air in suburban villas, gardens, and pubs. Finally, in the eighteenth century smoky air was increasingly represented as an inherent aspect of urban life, a necessary price to pay for the excitement and civility of the capital. In such ways, despite much concern over smoky air, London’s environment was rendered acceptable to its citizens and governors.

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