Policy Papers

Clearing the air: can the 1956 Clean Air Act inform new legislation?

Stephen Mosley |

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Executive Summary

  • Polluted air in Britain’s cities, mainly caused by nitrogen dioxide emissions and ultrafine particles from diesel-fuelled vehicles, has become a ‘public health emergency’, killing an estimated 40,000 people per annum.
  • A coalition of health, environmental and transport organisations have come together to call for a new Clean Air Act to tackle the problem. It seems timely, then, to ask if the 1956 Clean Air Act, which introduced smoke control areas and grants to switch from polluting to cleaner technologies, can inform the new?
  • In the ‘age of smoke’, air pollution damaged buildings, vegetation, and people’s health. Bronchitis became England’s commonest cause of death by 1900, killing between 50,000 and 70,000 people per annum.
  • Smoke abatement societies, rather than the government, were in the vanguard of campaigns to clear the urban air.  
  • It was estimated that coal smoke would take just ten to fifteen years to abate after the introduction of the first Clean Air Act. Yet Greater London’s smoke control programme was not fully completed until 1980, and Greater Manchester’s until 1990.
  • Lack of political leadership, shortages of smokeless fuel, the rising costs of conversion, and resistance to legislation (particularly in the north of the country), meant that progress was slow. The government had to pass a second Clean Air Act in 1968 to deal with ‘delinquent’ authorities.
  • History shows that stronger government leadership, proper funding, careful planning, and public support are required if a new Clean Air Act is to be implemented more successfully. Delays in cleaning up urban air pollution cost lives.


According to a recent report by a cross-party committee of MPs, poor air quality in Britain has become a ‘public health emergency.’ In February 2016 the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) estimated that around 40,000 premature deaths annually were attributable to outdoor air pollution. Health problems linked to dirty air include asthma and other respiratory diseases, heart disease, cancer, and even changes in the brain associated with dementia, at a rough cost of more than £20 billion per annum to the National Health Service and the country’s businesses (with 6 million working days lost). Harmful and illegal levels of air pollution are now part of everyday life for residents of major British cities like Glasgow, London, Leeds, and Manchester. European Union (EU) limits on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions, mainly produced by diesel vehicles, have been breached in 90% of Britain’s urban areas since 2010. However, the government is dragging its feet over taking tough legislative action to clean up the air we breathe, despite a ‘final warning’ from the European Commission in February 2017 to comply with EU law.

In response, a coalition of health, environmental and transport organisations, including the RCP, Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and Sustrans, have come together to call for a new Clean Air Act to tackle the sources of modern air pollution—particularly NO2 emissions and ultrafine particles from the millions of diesel-fuelled vehicles that clog city streets. A little over sixty years ago, the Healthy Air coalition points out, political parties of all stripes put their differences aside to pass a ground-breaking piece of legislation: the 1956 Clean Air Act. Following London’s Great Smog of 1952, which killed some 4,000 people according to official figures (and probably around 12,000 according to more recent research), the first Clean Air Act cleared the smoke-filled skies over Britain’s cities by phasing out the use of coal in homes and factories. It is now widely considered by historians around the world to be an important milestone in environmental protection, but it was not seen as an unmitigated success at the time. As recent surveys suggest that 65% of the British public would support the introduction of a new Clean Air Act, it would seem timely to evaluate the effectiveness of the old. Although the 1956 Clean Air Act dealt with a different problem, urban smoke pollution, there are some important economic, political, technological, and socio-cultural parallels with the present situation.

Smoke and the city

Unlike today’s less visible environmental pollutants—such as traffic fumes, carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’—before the Clean Air Act the dense black smoke billowing from the chimneys of factories, workshops, and homes in Britain’s cities could not be ignored. Coal smoke characterised the urban atmosphere, and it affected the lives of all city dwellers. It was readily perceived by four of the five senses: one could see it, smell it, touch it, and taste it. Urban smoke emissions, denser in winter than in summer, damaged buildings, vegetation, and people’s health. In 1854 Charles Dickens wrote about the problems caused by smoke pollution in his weekly journal Household Words:

 … the great destruction of life from pulmonary disease is due to the fact that the soot that blackens our public buildings, that suffocates our babies, that kills our plants, that blackens our faces, and buries our whole bodies in palls of fog, is also constantly passing into our lungs … [which] soon become the “vile prisons of afflicted breath;” and, stopping altogether, add mournful entries into the books of the Registrar General of Deaths.

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Registrar-General’s annual reports revealed that bronchitis had become England’s commonest cause of death, killing between 50,000 and 70,000 people per annum. Contemporary studies showed that the very young and the elderly were most at risk from respiratory diseases, particularly in the working-class areas of industrial cities. A lack of sunlight meant that rickets—a disease of childhood that affects healthy bone development—was also endemic. Of all the factors that shaped urban life in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, few were as influential—and as harmful—as smoke pollution.

Until the passage of the 1956 Clean Air Act, however, anti-smoke legislation in Britain offered little protection to either urban dwellers or the environment. Smoke control laws—from the early local acts of the 1840s, through the smoke clauses in the great Public Health Act of 1875, to the Public Health (Smoke Abatement) Act of 1926—all contained fundamental flaws, including:

  • An ambiguous ‘best practicable means’ clause. The ‘best practicable means’ of smoke abatement did not mean ‘the best available means’ using the latest technology. Rather, it meant the abatement apparatus that industrialists felt they could install at a cost they believed reasonable.
  • Insignificant fines. Legislation introduced to combat smoke—both local and national measures—only imposed very low fines on offenders, effectively providing Britain’s industrialists with a ‘licence to pollute.’
  • Exemptions. The failure to regulate emissions from domestic fireplaces, which were major polluters of city air, was perhaps the biggest flaw. Metal, brick, ceramic, glass, and other trades that used heating power intermittently were also exempt from early anti-smoke legislation.

Before the mid-twentieth century, then, weak and poorly enforced legislation had little effect in cutting smoke pollution and improving air quality in British cities.

One reason why legislation was so lax was that coal smoke was not viewed in a wholly negative light by contemporaries. The production of smoke was commonly understood as a sign that Britain’s industrial towns and cities were flourishing. Smoke, as Reuben Spencer, chairman of Rylands and Sons, Manchester’s largest cotton textile company, proudly boasted in 1897, was the ‘incense of industry.’ This view was extremely durable, as indicated by a northern expression that has survived to this day: ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’. Similarly, smoke from the domestic fireplace was widely associated with wellbeing and comfort. The ‘homely hearth’ signified warmth in every sense of the word, and it was the hub around which family life revolved. Despite being an active opponent of the ‘smoke evil’, Dickens penned many scenes of cosy domesticity depicting the traditional coal fire as an integral part of national culture (in, for example, The Cricket on the Hearth 1845). And just as governments today are unwilling to cause resentment by placing restrictions on car use to improve urban air quality, in the past they similarly feared the repercussions of interfering with a citizen’s freedom to enjoy this hugely popular British institution. There were few votes to be gained from smoke abatement. Despite the tangible nature of this form of air pollution, most city dwellers endured their smoke-polluted environment without much complaint.

The struggle against smoke

A long history of government apathy meant that pressure groups were always in the vanguard of campaigns to tackle urban air pollution. From the 1840s anti-smoke societies were founded in many of Britain’s major cities to educate businessmen and the public about the dangers of air pollution. In an age of laissez faire, education—rather than tough legislation—was thought to be the key to abating both industrial and domestic smoke. Doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects, and others from the burgeoning professional ranks joined together to establish organisations like the Manchester Association for the Prevention of Smoke in 1842, the Leeds Smoke Abatement Committee in 1890, and the London-based Coal Smoke Abatement Society in 1899. National organisations were formed in the early years of the twentieth century, notably the National Smoke Abatement Society in 1929. Rather than viewing coal smoke as signifying wealth creation and wellbeing, from the outset the members of these societies saw smoke emissions as unproductive and wasteful—of fuel resources and human lives. Many were experts in their fields, and they were prepared to challenge the dominant narrative that smoke was an inevitable trade-off for ‘progress.’ In 1936, for example, Dr J. Johnstone Jervis, Vice-President of the National Smoke Abatement Society and Medical Officer of Health for Leeds, argued that:

… the majority of lives lost from respiratory diseases are lives thrown away. Their prevalence and the high mortality due to them are a grave indictment of our modern civilisation. They are preventable; yet they are not prevented. They are curable; yet they continue to kill. Prevention can only be achieved by tackling the smoke nuisance resolutely.

Anti-smoke activists worked resolutely to win over the public to their cause. Campaigners and pressure groups used a wide variety of methods—from publishing books, pamphlets and posters to organising smoke abatement exhibitions, lectures and conferences—to ‘rouse the public conscience’ over air pollution and promote action toward the realisation of their vision: creating smokeless cities.

Shrewdly, anti-smoke propaganda always placed great emphasis on how adopting more efficient and modern fuel technologies would not only clear the air, but might also save householders and manufacturers money on their fuel bills. Increasingly, the smoke of Britain’s industrial cities came to be seen as ‘heat and power in the wrong place.’ In 1927, for example, the smoke inspector Herbert Clinch wrote: ‘It has long been said that where there is muck there is money to be made, but this should be brought up to date by remembering that muck at the top of the chimney means money wasted’. Converting raw coal into cleaner fuels such as gas, electricity, and coke, to be used in the latest smokeless appliances, had the potential, campaigners argued, to create more fuel-efficient cities. And by the 1930s, many businessmen had been persuaded to switch to smokeless gas and electric technologies, particularly where power was needed intermittently in production processes, such as the ceramic, steel, and engineering industries. However, the nation’s householder’s, responsible for more than half of the smoke that polluted city air, were still reluctant to give up their ‘cosy’ coal fires.

Advertising campaigns by the gas and electricity industries, sometimes in collaboration with the National Smoke Abatement Society, had encouraged many well-to-do middle-class families to install ‘clean and convenient’ smokeless appliances in their homes. But while having heat available at the flick of a switch, without the bother of laying and tending a dirty coal fire, had much to recommend it, labour-saving gas and electric fires were generally too expensive for working-class families to run. In 1946 the Simon Report on domestic fuel policy noted that for the continuous heating of rooms, especially during the winter months, coal-fuelled appliances cost the householder only about ‘half as much as gas or electricity’. In any case, space-heating appliances were usually ‘landlord’s fixtures’. It made sense for cash-strapped tenants—most housing was rented before 1945—to continue to use existing fireplaces. Unsurprisingly, most landlords were unwilling to cover the cost of replacing them with smokeless alternatives voluntarily.

In the Evening Standard of 8 December 1945, George Orwell defended the traditional open hearth against the ‘noisy minority’ who wanted to replace it with modern smokeless appliances. He declared: ‘the coal fire is wasteful, dirty and inefficient … [but] a gas or electric fire is a dreary thing by comparison. The point is that household appliances should be judged not simply by their efficiency but by the pleasure and comfort that one gets out of them.’ Despite more than a century of campaigning, where curbing emissions from Britain’s home fires was concerned the anti-smoke movement had made limited progress. On the eve of World War Two, Herbert Morrison, Leader of the London County Council, revealed in The Journal of the National Smoke Abatement Society that he was both ‘discouraged’ and ‘disillusioned’ by the government’s failure to strongly support the struggle for clean air, arguing that it preferred ‘to lead its smoke abatement regiments from behind.’   

Clearing the air

The catastrophe that gave the smoke abatement movement momentum was London’s Great Smog of 5-9 December 1952. As the high numbers of fatalities slowly emerged several weeks after the event, pressure began to build from the public and the press for the government to act. Yet it still dragged its feet, initially preferring to view the Great Smog as a ‘natural disaster’ that had been impossible to prevent. Indeed, when questioned on the issue the Minister for Health, Iain Macleod, replied indignantly: ‘Really, you know, anyone would think fog had only started in London since I became Minister.’ Not until July 1953 did the government bow to public pressure and appoint the industrialist Sir Hugh Beaver to chair a committee of inquiry into air pollution. The reports of the Beaver Committee, issued in November 1953 and November 1954, laid the foundations for the 1956 Clean Air Act.

The key recommendation of the Beaver Committee was that coal smoke from domestic chimneys, as well as from industrial premises, should be outlawed in urban areas. The 1954 Beaver report made clear that low-level emissions from Britain’s home fires played a major role in causing high rates of respiratory deaths ‘year in and year out’, and not just during smog episodes. It included comparative data of deaths from bronchitis that showed the English mortality rate stood at 107.9 per 100,000 in 1951, while Norway’s was 5.5, Sweden’s 5.0, and Denmark’s just 2.2. It also estimated the economic costs of smoke pollution at a massive £250 million per annum, including time lost to illness, and damage to buildings and vegetation. Combating this public health crisis, the Beaver Committee pointed out, would ‘require a national effort’ and ‘entail costs and sacrifices’ on the part of the public, who must accept the necessity of giving up their right to use an open coal fire in urban areas.

To prevent any foot-dragging by the government on putting the recommendations of the Beaver reports into practice, a Clean Air Bill was privately introduced into Parliament by the Conservative MP Gerald Nabarro (drafted with the support of the National Smoke Abatement Society). The government then had little option but to introduce its own Bill, which received the royal assent on 5 July 1956. While not ‘nearly the whole of Beaver’, as Nabarro had intended, the new Clean Air Act adopted the reports’ most important innovations, most notably:

  • The introduction of smoke control areas (or smokeless zones). Charles Gandy, a barrister and chairman of the National Smoke Abatement Society, first came up with this concept in 1936. Their constant expansion across highly polluted ‘black areas’ of the country would create a smokeless Britain. The Beaver Committee was convinced that it would take just ten to fifteen years to achieve this objective.
  • Only authorised smokeless fuels could be burned in smoke control areas. Given the high cost of gas and electricity for home heating, and public preference for open fires, more affordable solid smokeless fuels such as coke and manufactured briquettes—approved brands included ‘Coalite’, ‘Rexco’, and ‘BurnBrite’—were commonly used by householders in new smokeless zones. Industrialists were given seven years’ grace by the government to abate their smoke—or relocate.
  • Generous grants for householders to install smokeless heating appliances. Central government covered 40% of the cost of conversion to new heating appliances, estimated at £10 per home by the Beaver Committee, with local authorities and householders (owners or occupiers) each taking on 30% of the cost. From 1964 the government extended the scheme to cover more expensive gas and electric appliances, and by 1970 the average cost of conversion had risen sharply to £70 per home.

In January 1959, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government requested that some 325 local authorities in the ‘black areas’ of Britain draw up smoke control programmes in line with the Clean Air Act. However, they were enabled to set up smokeless zones by the new legislation, rather than it being a statutory duty. By 1970 only twelve local authorities had fully implemented them; a much slower rate of progress than envisaged by the Beaver Committee.

In December 1962, almost exactly ten years after the London disaster, there were major smog episodes in many of Britain’s cities (including the capital, which recorded another 700 ‘excess deaths’ from respiratory diseases). This led to widespread criticism, both in the press and on BBC television, of the government’s lack of leadership in carrying through reform. In its leader, ‘Poisoned Air,’ of 8 December 1962, The Times condemned the ‘atmosphere of lethargy’ that had prevailed since the passage of the Clean Air Act, arguing that: ‘Failure to move promptly over the creation of effective smoke control areas has been conspicuous.’ Around the same time the BBC Tonight programme called the Act ‘something of a swindle’ and ‘largely eyewash.’ The smoke abatement lobby was also becoming impatient over ‘laggard’ councils refusing to ‘fall into line’. In 1968 the government had to pass a second Clean Air Act that required ‘delinquent’ authorities in ‘black areas’ to submit smoke control programmes.

So what had been the obstacles to progress? Firstly, converting millions of domestic coal fires to burn smokeless fuels could not happen overnight. Outside of affluent London, many local authorities in the midlands and the north struggled to keep up with the costs of making grant-assisted conversions to smokeless appliances. Not only that, the administrative burden of approving and inspecting the work—each household had to be visited at least twice—was also a ‘staggering undertaking’, often involving the hiring of new staff. Secondly, the gas and coal industries could not produce sufficient coke and briquettes quickly enough, leading to shortages of solid smokeless fuels. From 1965, after the discovery of vast fields of natural gas beneath the North Sea, ‘town gas’ derived from coal began to be phased out. Its by-product gas coke, the main smokeless fuel for home heating, was increasingly in short supply. By 1970 some smoke control orders had to be suspended, and it provided an excuse for ‘delinquent’ authorities to continue to delay taking action. As the clean air programme slowed, Nabarro complained that the problem ought to have been foreseen by the government. And many householders who had switched to coke-burning fireplaces now had to convert for a second time, usually to natural gas. Lastly, ‘coal culture’ in the mining regions of Britain was deeply ingrained. There was resentment against, and resistance to, legislation that threatened the traditional customs of mining communities. Smokeless zones were particularly difficult to establish in areas where miners were entitled to so-called ‘concessionary coal’. Often of poor quality, it was coal that miners received as payment in kind from their employers to heat their homes. Not until mines began to close in the 1970s and 1980s did the air begin to clear in northern mining towns. It’s fair to say that there was something of a north-south divide where the implementation of the Clean Air Act was concerned, with the fastest progress being made in Greater London. The whole of London was smoke controlled by 1980, but it was 1990 before Greater Manchester’s programme was finally completed. The mining town of Wigan was the last part of Greater Manchester to become smoke-free.

Discussion: We’ve been here before

The result of more than a century of campaigning, when it was passed in 1956 Britain’s Clean Air Act was long overdue. It also took much longer than anticipated to fully implement because of economic, political, technological, and socio-cultural obstacles to clearing the urban air. London, which had suffered winter smog disasters in 1952 and 1962, made the quickest progress, covering 75% of the city with smoke control orders by 1970. The benefits of clean air were soon evident to city dwellers: more sunshine (especially during the winter months); a greater diversity of flora and fauna in urban parks and gardens; monumental architecture was cleaned (and stayed clean); and it brought improvements in public health too. A study by researchers at the University of Manchester in 1980 concluded that coal smoke was ‘no longer significant’ in explaining deaths from respiratory diseases. Yet while highly visible coal smoke was no longer a threat to health, less visible air pollution from motor vehicle exhausts was a growing problem (the 1954 Beaver report called diesel emissions a ‘serious nuisance’). And as more sunlight penetrated city streets, it reacted with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in exhaust emissions to create hazardous photochemical smog, especially during the summer months.

Those now calling for a new Clean Air Act are proposing similar solutions to those of 1956 to reduce harmful emissions from polluting vehicles and protect the public—particularly children and the elderly—from a preventable cause of illness and premature death. If there are lessons to be learned from the old, they are that:

  • More resolute leadership is required on the part of central government. Creating a national network of ‘clean air zones’ or ‘ultra-low emissions zones’ requires careful planning and the political will to implement such schemes. Delays in cleaning up urban air pollution cost lives. The government’s latest vague proposal to make local authorities responsible for developing ‘creative solutions’ to reduce urban NO2 emissions, while avoiding ‘undue impact on the motorist’, is simply passing the buck.
  • Following the example of providing conversion grants for grates, funding a car scrappage scheme would increase the take-up of cleaner vehicles. In today’s pollution ‘hotspots’, such as Leeds, Manchester, and London (the equivalent of earlier ‘black areas’), offering generous cash incentives to motorists to replace old and dirty diesel vehicles would undoubtedly encourage a switch to low emission alternatives. Although the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal shows the need for stringent air pollution monitoring in urban areas to ensure that safe vehicle emissions standards are actually being met. 
  • The transition to cleaner automotive technologies will take time and money. A successful car scrappage scheme could cost as much as £500 million in London alone. It will require proper funding in cities across the whole of the UK if clean air programmes are to be rolled out successfully. The lack of infrastructure for electric vehicles nationwide also needs to be addressed if it is to cope when sales start to increase.
  • The public needs to play its part. More education is vital if the public are to grasp that invisible air pollution from vehicle exhausts is just as harmful today as the coal smoke that characterised industrial cities in the past. As was the case in 1956, motorists will need to accept some costs, and make some sacrifices, to improve the quality of the air we breathe. Perhaps we must even be willing to give up a technology as central to people’s lives as the coal-fired hearth was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Action on urban air pollution cannot wait. And the ultimate success of the 1956 Clean Air Act in abating smoke pollution, although dealing with very different technologies, shows that change is possible.

Further Reading

Eric Ashby and Mary Anderson (1981) The Politics of Clean Air. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Peter Brimblecombe (1988) The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times. London: Routledge.

Stephen Mosley (2008) The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester. London: Routledge.

Stephen Mosley (2009) ‘A Network of Trust: Measuring and Monitoring Air Pollution in British Cities, 1912-1960.’ Environment and History 15:3, pp.273-302.

Howard A. Scarrow (1972) ‘The Impact of British Domestic Air Pollution Legislation.’ British Journal of Political Science 2:3, pp.261-82.

Peter Thorsheim (2006) Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Mark Whitehead (2009) State, Science and the Skies: Governmentalities of the British Atmosphere. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.


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