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Air Pollution and Fuel Crises in Preindustrial London, 1250-1650

Air Pollution and Fuel Crises in Preindustrial London, 1250-1650

By William H. Te Brake

Technology and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1975)

John Norden's map of London 1593

Introduction: Throughout much of the great mass of literature generated by the present environmental crisis there runs a persistent misconception: that environmental problems result from modern industrialization and thus are no older than the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such a view implies that there were no serious environmental problems before industrialization, that, could we eliminate certain offending industries or develop the proper technology to control them, our present ecological ills would be cured. More properly, however, the basic problems of disposing of wastes and finding adequate sources of food, water, and fuel, though certainly aggravated by modern industrialization, are as old as civilization itself. I intend to show in this paper that the occurrence of air pollution in London before the Industrial Revolution was symptomatic of one of these basic environmental problems – the exhaustion of a society’s preferred source of fuel and the subsequent difficulty of finding an adequate substitute – and, further, that it was intimately connected to certain demographic and economic developments within that society.

Air pollution was already a very serious nuisance in London by the middle of the 17th century. John Evelyn, a fellow of the Royal Society of London but perhaps better known as a diarist, wrote in 1661: “It was one day, as I was Walking in Your MAJESTIES Palace at WHITE-HALL, … that a presumptuous Smoake . . . did so invade the Court” that “… Men could hardly discern one another for the Clowd, and none could support, without manifest Inconveniency.” This smoke, he explained, came from “one or two Tunnels” (smokestacks) nearby, “indangering as well the Health [of the king and his subjects] as it sullies the Glory of this … Imperial Seat.” “And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismall Cloud of SEA-COALE,” an “impure and thick Mist, accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their Bodies,” causing “Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions [to] rage more in this one City, than in the whole Earth besides.”

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