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18 September 2014
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London's 'Great Stink' and Victorian Urban Planning

By Professor Martin Daunton
Nuisances and pollution

Any society experiencing industrial growth must strike a balance between creating jobs and degrading the environment, and many questions were raised as the century progressed. Was it better to be filthy and waged, or clean and poor?

'Did the workers ... lose more in ill-health than they made in higher wages?'

Victorian Yorkshire might boast that 'where there's muck there's brass', but should industrialists be allowed to create as much muck as they wished, or should they be forced to hand over some of their brass in order to clear up the environment? Did the workers in their factories, or the residents in the adjacent streets, lose more in ill-health than they made in higher wages? Is there much consolation in earning a high wage - only to die early from a respiratory disease caused by pollution of the air?

These issues were most pressing in towns such as St Helens, Swansea or Sheffield, all places producing chemicals and metals, where the 'noxious vapours' killed plants and animals and undermined the health of residents. The Government took action with the Alkali Act of 1874, which required manufacturers to use the 'best practicable means' of controlling these vapours. However, a Royal Commission concluded in 1878 that measures were only practicable if they did not involve 'ruinous expenditure'.

The courts were clear that they should not penalise industrialists for causing nuisances with their fumes, for the result would simply be to destroy the industry of many towns. The problem was not simply these heavy industries. As the standard of living rose, so more people burned more coal in their hearths. A prosperous economy, with factories and houses pumping smoke into the air, contributed to a high death rate from respiratory diseases, especially among the elderly.

In a situation that some may think has many parallels today, the paradox of the economic growth experienced during this period was that, in many ways, it created as many problems for society as it found solutions to help people in their daily lives.

About the author

Martin Daunton is Professor of Economic History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Churchill College. He is the author of Progress and Poverty: The Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850, (Oxford University Press, 1995). He has recently edited The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, Volume 3, 1840-1950, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), and completed Trusting Leviathan: The Politics of Taxation in Britain, 1799-1914, (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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Published: 2004-11-04



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