Victorian smog: death of the sun

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The Independent Culture
Air pollution has been with us since the invention of fire. Prehistoric humans suffered sinusitis and anthracosis - blackening of the lungs - through exposure to smoke. But it took the growth of industry and the formation of towns in the Middle Ages to put it on the political agenda.

Elizabeth I was "greatly grieved and annoyed" by coal smoke around the Palace of Westminster, and forced some of the culprits to use wood instead. But like her late medieval and Tudor precursors, her attempts to control coal-burning were largely unsuccessful.

A century after Elizabeth, the diarist John Evelyn, author of a polemic against smoke from coal fires entitled Fumifugium, noted that London "by reason of the excessive coldness of the air, hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly can one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one would scarcely breathe".

Like modern traffic smog, which drifts long distances from its source to affect rural areas like the West Country, London smoke travelled far. In the late 18th century, Gilbert White observed that his parish of Selborne in Hampshire experienced "a blue mist which has somewhat the smell of coal smoke, and as it always comes to us with a NE wind, is supposed to come from London."

The famous opening of Dickens' Bleak House, in which the November smoke appeared to cause the "death of the sun", remains the best description of Victorian and early 20th-century fogs. Despite a century of Factory Acts, these were to last until the Conservative Government of Sir Anthony Eden, against its will and better judgement, passed the Clean Air Act of 1956.