By the early years of the twentieth century many of Britain' s towns and cities had enjoyed a considerable measure of success in cleaning up environmental 'nuisances' relating to land and water, while, in stark contrast, a solution to the problem of reducing smoke pollution in urban areas remained elusive. 'Insanitary conveniences, defective drains, foul methods of sewage disposal, polluted streams, are all being steadily improved', observed the Builder in 1899, before continuing, 'But while other nuisances are being gradually abated, the smoke nuisance increases year by year' ? The sense of achievement that many contemporaries undoubtedly experienced as damage caused to the health and property of urban dwellers gradually abated with every new advancement in town planning and water and sanitation systems was tempered by the notion that smoke pollution in Britain was going from bad to worse. However, the idea that the 'smoke nuisance' in Britain's cities was a rapidly proliferating problem, due to sustained urban and industrial growth, was already being hotly debated at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The 1819 Select Committee on steam engines and furnaces was told that the nuisances caused by factory smoke were 'daily increasing' in Britain's manufacturing centres, with Birmingham and Manchester already thought to be smokier than London. ~ In 1843 the Select Committee on Smoke Prevention concluded that 'the evils arising from smoke are severely felt in all populous places, and are likely to increase in proportion as wealth and the use of machinery cause a greater extension of furnaces and steam -engines'. 9 The Reverend John Molesworth's evidence to the same committee protested: 'In Manchester there are nearly 500 chimneys discharging masses of the densest smoke; the nuisance has risen to an intolerable pitch, and is annually increasing' .10 Almost half a century later a correspondent to the Manchester Guardian thundered,
Manchester is doomed to perpetual smoke! Our city, which ought to be one of the finest in the kingdom, is to be entirely at the mercy of the smoke and noxious vapour producer, with the result that the atmosphere is poisonous, mortality at its highest rate, and altogether produces a most depressing effect upon the spirits of those unfortunate inhabitants who are compelled to live within its boundaries . .. Manchester has an unenviable reputation. It is time to roll away the reproach. 11
By the late 1880s Manchester's dismal image as one of the most smoke-polluted cities in Britain was certainly assured. But the numerous complaints of its citizens about smoke over the years give few real clues as to whether atmospheric conditions had deteriorated in the city since the beginning of the century. The perceived upward trend in the growth of the 'smoke nuisance' remained a serious cause for concern in Manchester (and the rest of industrialising Britain) throughout the nineteenth century. But was the problem getting worse as many contemporaries feared?