Clearing The Air

Clement Richardson

(First published in 1986 in volume 2, pp. 28-34, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

Not so long ago the image of Bradford was one of blackened buildings shrouded in the smoke of countless mill chimneys, and this view may persist with those unfamiliar with the present-day smokeless city. Bradford was the archetypal 'coaltown', the product of 19th century industrialisation. That it was built on coal is true both in the literal and the metaphorical sense. Its rich, accessible and varied deposits of coal, iron ore, and other useful minerals were the main sources of its phenomenal growth in the last century. However, by 1840 the town had acquired an unflattering reputation as one of the smokiest places in Britain. It took almost 130 years to clean up its atmosphere, during which time the inhabitants paid a high price in pulmonary deaths and environmental squalor.

Diagram showing air pollution and respiratory deaths in Bradford
Air pollution and deaths from respiratory diseases, excluding pthisis in Bradford.
The peak in 1890 was due to an influenza epidemic.

The diagram above traces the number of deaths from chest diseases and the changes in the level of air pollution. Unfortunately, records of the scientific measurement of atmospheric pollution in Bradford did not begin until 1930. As the diagram shows, there was a marked fall in mortality in the city after the 1926 coal strike, a period which was notable both for more effective national legislation to reduce atmospheric smoke and for a low level of industrial activity during the 1930s slump. It will be seen that this reduction in smoke was matched by a fall in the number of deaths from chest ailments, providing strong evidence to support the views of a succession of local medical officers that there was a causal link between air pollution and respiratory disorders.

The seriousness of air pollution was recognized at the beginning of the 19th century, when Bradford had only a few coal-burning steam engines, although at that time there were other important sources of pollution in the form of foundries, and major ironworks at Bowling, Low Moor and Shelf, together with the outpourings of thousands of household fires. From a couple of steam-driven textile mills in the central townships in 1801, the number increased to 83 in 1841 and to 133 in 1871. The 1867 report of the Smoke Prevention Sub-Committee of Bradford Council listed 591 boilers burning 1200 tons of coal a day, and another 1300 tons as being consumed in other industrial establishments in the borough. These chimneys belched out large quantities of smoke, ash, sulphur and other irritants into the atmosphere of Bradford Dale. As the diagram shows, there was a rise in deaths from chest diseases between 1860 and 1880.

The Bradford Improvement Act of 1803 required that

"Engine chimneys are to be erected of sufficient height as not to create a nuisance by the emission of smoke. All owners of engines etc. are to construct fireplaces thereof in such a manner as most effectually to destroy and consume the smoke arising therefrom".1

Bradford's incorporation as a borough in 1847 provided an elected administration to regulate and manage the expanding town. Along with other health improvement regulations its byelaws covered smoke control, but records show that these byelaws were not enforced with sufficient strictness to reduce the smoke and the deaths which occurred through related chest diseases. That council members were aware of the problem is shown in the request of Councillor Bilton, who, in 1848, moved 'that the 65th byelaw dealing with the consumption of smoke, be carried into effect.'2 Titus Salt, a leading industrialist and Bradford's second mayor, had said in 1853 that it was not for him 'to do anything to pollute the air and water'. He had earlier fitted smoke-consuming apparatus into his Bradford factories but his pioneering example was not taken up by his fellow millowners.

The association between air pollution and respiratory diseases had often been argued by medical men. Thus the town's Medical Officer of Health referred in his annual report of 1884 to the bad effects of a smokefilled atmosphere in 'excluding sunlight, rendering life precarious for man and animals'.3 His successor, Dr J. McLintock, reported more directly on the connection, stating that he was

"inclined to think that our high mortality from chest diseases, including consumption, is in some measure due to the irritation caused by the unnecessarily polluted state of the air which we are obliged to breathe."4

Detailed information on mortality from respiratory complaints other than phthisis is available in the Bradford Medical Officer's Reports from 1859 until the reorganization of local government in 1974. Deaths from these causes were at a rate of 3.50 per 1000 in 1859 and were still running at 4.30 per 1000 at the end of the century. The rates fell from 2.45 in 1900 to 1.37 in 1931, but rose slightly during the post-war trade boom and settled down to 1.52 per 1000 in 1971.5 By the end of the latter period a clean air programme had been implemented for the whole of the city.

The local byelaws specified a chimney height of at least 90 feet and set time limits on smoke emissions.6 During still-air conditions, especially in winter, polluted air was trapped in the basin-shaped valley of the Bradford Beck, and killing 'pea-soup fogs' used to occur. High mill chimneys were necessary to discharge gases and smoke into the higher atmosphere, where they could be carried away by the turbulence of the upper air. The Council's smoke nuisance inspectors regularly reported violations of the byelaws. For example, almost annually they drew attention to the number of mill chimneys that were below the required height, or to the failure of millowners to fit smoke-burning equipment. During 1863 they recorded that several owners had introduced appliances, but subsequent reports show that generally little was done to rid the town of its smoke. As an example of the Council's weak response to the hundreds of breaches of the byelaws each year, often by persistent offenders, in 1867 it declared 'that the problem be tackled in a spirit of conciliation,.7

The Borough Medical Officer, Dr T.W. Hime, in his report of 1884, attributed the lack of effective remedial action to the widespread belief that because factories provided work, the employers should not be pressed too hard. He also remarked that the low fines which were being imposed by local justices did little to discourage law-breakers. Council committee minutes of the period reveal that Bradford's leading industrialists were frequent offenders, and some of them had been, or were, council members and J.P.s. In effect the councillors who formulated the byelaws, exercised responsibility for their enforcement and acted as judges when offenders were finally taken to court, were at times the very people who broke the law. Thus in 1875 eight of the thirteen members of the Smoke Prevention Subcommittee were in manufacturing, and one of the remaining five was a coal merchant. In that year Councillor Silas Scott was the Sub-committee's chairman and he also served as a borough magistrate.

The Sub-committee's minutes frequently noted the delivery of abatement notices, delays by the mill owners in applying remedial measures, and the very lenient penalties awarded by the courts. Among the offenders so reported were such important representatives of Bradford's industrial establishment as S.C. Lister & Co., Edward Ripley & Son, T. Ambler & Sons, J. Priestman & Co., Smith Anderton & Sons, Samuel Smith & Co., and Bowling Iron Company. Senior members of some of these firms were on the Council, or, like H.W. Ripley, were borough justices.

The Bowling Iron Company was a persistent offender. It was reported by John Pickles, the Smoke Nuisance Inspector in February 1868, but little had been done by the firm to meet the requirements of the byelaws by August, and the Council gave its approval to prosecute. It was later recorded that 'the experiment had failed', but the Company was given a further three months to deal with the nuisance. Still nothing happened. The story was repeated in subsequent years. However, on 12 December 1874 they were brought to court and fined a total of £5 with £9. 10s. costs for ten offences. S.C. Lister & Co. were also generously treated both by the Council in delaying action, and by the court in levying low fines, or imposing no penalties other than court cost.8 It should be emphasized that these two examples serve to show the generally sympathetic attitude of councillors and magistrates towards the business community in general on the question of smoke abatement. They should not be interpreted as marks of undue favouritism towards the distinguished associates of these civic officers. In effect, little, if anything, was done to deal with the pollution problem.

John Pickles, in his first report of 1867, produced a kind of industrial 'doomsday book' for the town. In that year he and his assistants examined 264 works and served 683 smoke prevention notices. As an indication of his zeal and impartiality the inspector reported the Council's own public baths in 1868.9 Despite the inspector's efforts there was no improvement. The explanation lay partly in the inadequacy of the law as a deterrent, especially the section relating to maximum penalties for offences. The Public Health Act 1875 limited the maximum fine to ten shillings, but in many cases even this derisory fine was not levied. For example, in 1903, 103 notices were served on local owners of steam engines, of which 71 cases reached the courts. Of these, 49 were fined an average of ten shillings with six and eight pence costs.10

Power was sought by Bradford Council in 1904 to increase the maximum penalty from ten shillings to £5 for the first offence, £10 for the second and a sum not exceeding £50 for each subsequent offence. The records indicate that the established fine of ten shillings continued. Even as recently as 1930 the average fine, plus costs, for discharging black smoke for more than a total of three minutes in the half hour was £1. 6s.11 It seemed much cheaper to pay the fines and costs than to install smoke-burning equipment. For example, G. Garnett & Son Ltd. paid £2000 to install smoke-burning equipment in 1908, while Barkerend Mills spent £8000, and Smith Anderton & Sons £2000 on similar measures.12 The description of this kind of apparatus as 'economisers' is significant, a point appreciated by Bradford's Medical Officer of Health in 1884, when he argued that the large amount of smoke in the atmosphere 'represented a permanent leakage of profits of a very considerable amount. The visible cloud of smoke which hangs over the town is unburnt fuel'.13

The use of low-grade fuel during certain years made things worse. Thus in 1908 the M.O.H. complained that 'smudge' or 'small slack' produced large quantities of atmospheric grit, as well as black smoke.14 During that year there were 714 deaths from respiratory diseases other than phthisis, more than a quarter of which were children under five. The diagram shows a marked fall in air pollution from the late 1920s when the General Strike resulted in less coal being used. This was followed by the recession, a switch to cleaner coal and the installation of effective smoke-reducing equipment. As the graph shows, some industrial and commercial establishments had begun to use electricity. There were 1512 electric power users in 1915, and 1735 in 1916.

A Council survey of 1920 showed that there were 351 large factory chimneys in the city, ranging in height from 45 to 245 feet, and from one to 130 square feet in cross-sectional area. It also listed 521 Lancashire boilers and a variety of steam boiler types amounting to a further 161. From these it was calculated that in a ten-hour day 53,732,500lb of water was evaporated and that 425 boilers were operating on some kind of forced or induced draught to facilitate the more complete burning of fuel. Although this was a year of depressed trade, it was recorded that 1.6 million tons of coal were used by Bradford industries. Even with the improvement in the mills the M.O.H. had cause to complain about 'the foulness of the atmosphere, and that only fines and prosecutions can bring home to them [the millowners] the hideousness of their offences'. He argued that stipendiary magistrates should impose penalties instead of cautioning offenders.15

The diagram shows a marked correlation between the reduction in air pollution (represented by the volume of air-borne solids in the main industrial centre of Bradford) and the considerable drop in the number of deaths due to chest diseases, from the peak of the 1890s, when there were 1318, to 993 in 1900 and 940 in 1929. However, the real attack on air pollution came with the Clean Air Programme, following the passage of the Clean Air Act 1956, although the Bradford Local Act 1949 empowered the Borough Council to create smokeless zones in which both domestic and industrial emissions could be controlled. New council housing estates dating from 1950 were covered by the smoke abatement policy.

At the launch of the Clean Air Programme in 1960, Dr John Douglas, M.O.H. for Bradford, spoke of the city as a black spot in deaths from bronchitis, which he described as the 'English disease'. To illustrate his argument he compared the low rates for deaths from bronchitis per million of population in Norway and Denmark (where the rates were 33 and 44 respectively), with the high rates of 828/million for England and Wales, 1121/million for the West Riding of Yorkshire, and 1690/million for Bradford. Exactly one hundred years earlier the Bradford rate was 4270/million.16 As a measure of the effectiveness of this programme, which was completed in 1974, there was a reduction in fall-out from an average of 292.3mg of smoke per cubic metre in 1959 to 73.4 in 1971. There were corresponding reductions of sulphur dioxide emissions from 289.4mg per cubic metre in 1959 to 142.6 in 1971, and the associated mortality rate from chest diseases was down to 1.52 per thousand of population. 17

Local historians have concentrated a good deal on the improvement in water supply and sanitation, but air pollution has received less attention. Local politicians, with a few notable exceptions, gave a low priority to air pollution, as may be deduced from the behaviour of the council committees and local magistrates. For several years smoke prevention was treated as a residual function of the Hackney Carriage and Cleansing Committee. Even though conscientious officers were appointed to oversee the byelaws, and the city's Medical Officers of Health constantly demonstrated the connection between air pollution and chest complaints, there was a marked reluctance on the part of industrialists to co-operate, and on the part of the councillors to press matters too hard. Improvement had to await changes in technology, and an appreciation by the polluters that it was in their own interest to use fuel more efficiently. Local administrators, too, had to show a willingness to take action to eliminate smoke. Changes in the franchise helped to produce a generation of councillors and aldermen with different economic and social values from their 19th century predecessors. Armed with the powers of the Clean Air Act 1956, with a will to support their medical officer by taking appropriate action, they succeeded in the space of less than twenty years in cleaning up the city's notoriously dirty atmosphere and making Bradford a healthier place in which to live.


1. An Act for Paving, Lighting, Watching, and Improving the Town of Bradford etc., 1803. (back)

2. W. Cudworth, Historical Notes on the Bradford Corporation, 1881, p.110. (back)

3. Dr Wm. Turner, in Bradford News, Oct. 1972. (back)

4. Dr Wm. Turner, op. cit. (back)

5. Bradford M.O.H. Reports to Council for the years shown. (back)

6. Bradford Council byelaws from 1848 onwards (back)

7. Smoke Nuisance Inspector's Report 1867. (back)

8. Bradford Council Smoke Prevention Sub-committee Minutes, 22.2.1868, 1.8.1868, 5.9.1868, 31.10.1868, 22.2.1869, 7.12.1872, 15.11.1873, 29.8.1874. (back)

9. Annual Report of Smoke Prevention Sub-committee 1867 and Sub-committee's Minutes 4.11.1868. (back)

10. M.O.H. Report 1900, p.51. (back)

11. M.O.H. Report 1930, p.27. (back)

12. M.O.H. Report 1908, p.142. (back)

13. M.O.H. Report 1884, p.108. (back)

14. M.O.H. Report 1908, p.143. (back)

15. M.O.H. Report 1921, p.27. (back)

16. Dr Wm. Turner, Bradford News, loc. cit. (back)

17. M.O.H. Report 1972, p.75, for air pollution. The figures are for the seven sampling stations in the city.
The death rate is derived from Table 2, p.98 and Table 26, p.123. (back)

© 1986, Clement Richardson and The Bradford Antiquary