The Suburbs of Hell: 500 years of polluted air in London

Words: Thomas Banbury

Air, and what it might carry into our bodies and our homes, is more on people’s minds than usual at the moment, but the link between air quality and health is an old one. Most people who studied the Black Death in Europe will be familiar with medieval miasma theory, the notion that disease came from stagnant and impure air which could be cleansed with the burning of incense and fragrant plants. As early as the thirteenth century, people complained about other problems with the air – in particular the nuisances of smoke caused by wood and charcoal burned in domestic hearths for heating and cooking. These problems were particularly pronounced in London, where smoke producing industries such as brewing, lime-burning and brick making were side-by-side with dense, poorly ventilated housing. 

In the winter months, smoke was trapped low above the city by the cool air, filling the streets and creeping under doors and open windows into private houses. The problem became worse towards the end of the sixteenth century, when increased demand for fuel and concerns about the supply of wood in England drove a shift to coal. Known as ‘sea-coal’ (having been mined in north eastern England and transported by sea to London), it produced a dense, dark smoke when burned and released microscopic particles into the atmosphere, as well as dangerous quantities of sulphur dioxide (SO2). The World Health Organisation recommends that humans should not be exposed to SO2 concentrations exceeding 20 μg per m3 for more than 24 hours; it’s estimated that SO2 in London was as high as 120 μg/m3 in 1675, and had risen to 260 μg/m3 by 1725. 

Smoke so clouded the city in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the writer and gardener John Evelyn described London as resembling the ‘Suburbs of Hell’. His proposal to combat this problem was surprising. In a 1661 open letter to King Charles II entitled Fumifugium, or the Inconveniencie of the Aer and the Smoak of London Dissipated, Evelyn suggested surrounding London with a ring of gardens ‘elegantly planted, with such shrubs, as yield the most fragrant and odoriferious Flowers’. He coupled this with a proposal to remove all smoke-producing industries such as brewers, brick- and soap-makers, and lime-burners out of the city centre and relocate them south of the river; ‘These I affirm, together with some few other of the same classe removed at competent distance, would produce so considerable a Cure, as men would even be found to breath a new life’. Evelyn presents smoke as not only a public health issue, but also a political one. He argued that it was undignified for London, the centre of the British imperial project, to be shrouded in an unhealthy and intrusive smoke. However, Evelyn’s solutions only really relocate the problem away from the centres of government and courtly life at Whitehall and Westminster, ignoring the health of people living next to these newly relocated industries.  

Relocating smoke-producing industries away from the city seemed like a reasonable solution from the restricted view of maximising industrial growth, while minimising nuisance. However, the smoke always has to go somewhere. Skipping ahead three hundred years, the air in London had changed, but not necessarily for the better. By the 1950s, the advent of cars to the city added nitrogen dioxide to the mixture of up to 370 tonnes of SO2, 1,000 tonnes of particulate matter, and 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid produced by traffic, factories, and domestic heating and cooking each day in London. Combining with mist to form smog, pollution could become trapped above London for days at a time by the cold weather, reducing visibility to a few feet.

The worst, and most well-known, of these ‘pea-soupers’ was the so-called Great Smog of 1952. A cold weather system settled above the city in early December, creating windless conditions which prevented the smog from dissipating. At the time, 4000 deaths were recorded over the course of the smog between the 5th and 9th of December, with the pollution causing acute respiratory infections such as bronchopneumonia. More recent evidence puts the number of deaths as high as 10,000. 

More sinister than the creeping nature of the smog was the fact that there was no initial panic in London, as dense air pollution was still a common occurrence in the winter; the scale of the mortality was only realised when local registrars began reporting an increase in deaths, finally prompting the government to take action. The 1956 Clean Air Act mandated the burning of ‘smokeless’ fuels in cities, and recommended a shift to electric heaters and hobs in homes instead of coal fire and gas.

However, as John Evelyn pointed out in 1661, ‘materials which burn clear are very few’. The preferred alternative was coke, a smokeless fuel made by heating coal in an airless environment to remove smoke-producing impurities. But the 1956 Act essentially relocated the problem from London and other large cities to the coal fields in the North East, where the raw coal now had to be processed into coke to be marketable. This produced huge amounts of dangerous acidic by-products such as coal gas and coal tar. Just as with Evelyn’s proposal, the problem of air pollution was never substantively tackled – simply relocated away from the designated area of concern. 

More sinister than the creeping nature of the smog was the fact that there was no initial panic in London, as dense air pollution was still a common occurrence in the winter; the scale of the mortality was only realised when local registrars began reporting an increase in deaths.

Environmental policy in the capital is now under the control of the Mayor of London’s Office. In 2020, the Mayor’s Office helpfully highlighted the four ‘key findings’ of a 114-page report on air quality by King’s College, London, emphasising that ‘for the first time, parts of London meet the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended limit for PM2.5 [particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres]’. However, the report also reveals that 99% of Londoners live in areas with levels of particulate matter, such as soot and fine rubber dust from tires, in excess of the safe maximum. 

In December 2020, a Coroner’s Court concluded its inquest into the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in Lewisham, in February 2013. Ella lived next to the busy South Circular Road in Forest Hill, and was hospitalised 27 times dues to severe asthma attacks and seizures in the last three years of her life. The Coroner’s conclusion was that Ella died of ‘acute respiratory failure’ and that ‘air pollution [caused by heavy traffic] was a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbation of her asthma’. The new inquest came only after years of campaigning my Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, and in the aftermath of the Coroner’s verdict both Lewisham Borough Council and the Mayor’s office were quick to offer sympathy, but abjure responsibility. Sadiq Khan said that ‘ministers and the previous mayor have acted too slowly in the past, but they must now learn the lessons from the coroner’s ruling.’ David Edwards, the head of environmental health at Lewisham Borough, commented that ‘in terms of traffic, we have very limited powers.’ Indeed, transport policy is an area reserved to the mayor. Khan, however, has continued to support the controversial Silvertown Tunnel, linking the north bank of the Thames to the Greenwich Peninsula, which campaigners say will drive up air pollution in Greenwich and Lewisham.

Measures which have been put in place have all to predictable resonances in history. Towards the end of June, Lewisham borough council introduced a Low Traffic Neighbourhood initiative in Lee Green, which aimed to improved air quality and pedestrian safety by limiting traffic flow. By July, Ms Kissi-Debrah reported that the LTN measures in Lee Green had only had the effect of redirecting traffic to other parts of the borough, in particular the street where she now lives with her family in Hither Green, a fact she described as a ‘slap in the face’. At no level, borough, city, or national, have politicians taken substantive steps to curb air pollution. Instead, measures have proliferated which simply relocate the problem out of sight; think of Evelyn’s relocated brewers and coke processing in the North East. Responsibility is shifted between different authorities and organisations, and ultimately to regular citizens. Lewisham council’s awareness workshops, aimed at educating local school children about air pollution, were only rolled out to five of the borough’s fifty two schools. At any rate, making children aware of the dangerous toxins in the air they breath is not a substitute for a concrete policy to combat pollution.  

The environmental historian Brett Walker published a study of industrial diseases in Japan entitled Toxic Archipelago in 2011. By turns insightful and disturbing, Walker’s book argues that human suffering caused by polluted air and water is an inevitable part of modernisation. The example of London’s air seems to bear this out. The problem of pollution has systematically been either pushed out of one area and into another, or is presented as beyond the scope of the authorities. But historical reminders and examples can only go so far in affecting policy change. Invisible and insubstantial, it is difficult to get people motivated about air quality problems, usually not until it seems too late to make a real change. Alongside efforts to reduce ecologically detrimental behaviours in our own lives, authorities which champion abstract economic growth need to be reminded of their responsibilities to the health of their constituents and held accountable, if we hope to ever see the ‘inconveniencie of the Aer and the smoak of London dissipated’. 

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Thomas Banbury is a postgraduate student from Warwickshire, researching environmental and intellectual history in medieval and early modern Europe and East Asia at Durham University. Follow him on Twitter.