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The 1950s battle against smog can clarify the ills of car dependency

Phil Goodwin
14 October 2019
The unintended irony of a 1950s Ovaltine advertisment
The unintended irony of a 1950s Ovaltine advertisment
 

I guess that not many readers of LTT will actually remember the reality of smog. The dark, filthy air was a mixture of smoke (from domestic coal fires, industrial production and coal fired power stations) and fog. The ‘pea-souper’ was a romantic image in Victorian novels of London – Sherlock Holmes in a hansom cab, chasing criminals through the haze – but the reality was not romantic at all. 

I grew up near Battersea Power Station, whose four chimneys are still inspirational as design, but during bad episodes, I was sent to school with a handkerchief tied over my nose and mouth, white when I left home, but covered with an evil mixture of mucus and dirt by the time I arrived. It included smoke particles, hydrochloric acid, compounds of fluorine, and sulphur dioxide or sulphuric acid. It was strangely quiet. My mother would be disabled by asthma. Buses, and the few cars by modern standards, would need to crawl along, with as close to zero visibility as one ever saw.  Disgusting.

At this time, a ‘real fire’ in a house, including some of the poorest, was a symbol of homely comfort. The flickering flames were quite hypnotic, and the direct heat was wonderful, even if it rarely reached to the far corners of a room, and left bathrooms and bedrooms cold. (‘Jack Frost’ – never mentioned now – left fascinating patterns of frozen condensation on the inside surface of windows). A room with a fire became the symbol of domestic luxury. ‘Keep the home fires burning’ was a reassuring slogan in times of trouble.

A cultural history of post-war housing, homes and coal fires was written two years ago by Lynda Nead, Professor of the History of Art at Birkbeck. Titled As snug as a bug in a rug, it is available free online from the Science Museum (https://tinyurl.com/y2e8q5fv) It’s very informative, and a pleasure to read.

I was particularly caught by her account of the campaign against smog, triggered by the ‘Great Smog’ of 1952, which led to the Clean Air Act of 1956. It was initiated by a Private Members Bill in Parliament, the Government initially resisting it, but it overcame opposition in a time scale that actually today seems very swift. But the background and undercurrents of the resistance were deeply rooted. 

The cognitive dissonance of wanting to go home, out of the smog, to the warmth of a coal fire, is precisely equivalent to parents driving their children to school to protect them from the dangers of traffic, or turning the air-conditioning up in the car to protect against a strangely unseasonable heat wave

Linda Nead tells the story:

“Whilst marriages and families were straining to adapt to post-war domestic life, the coal fire remained a symbol of continuity and well-being and in her second Christmas broadcast as Queen, it is hardly surprising that Elizabeth II drew on its reassuring and familiar image to represent the tribulations of the Commonwealth:

‘When it is night and wind and rain beat upon the window, the family is most conscious of the warmth and peacefulness that surround the pleasant fireside, so our Commonwealth hearth becomes more precious than ever before by the contrast between its homely security and the storm which sometimes seems to be brewing outside…’ 

“These almost folkloric associations made it harder in the 1950s to legislate against domestic smoke than it was to regulate the smoke from industrial chimneys. Vested interests drew on the powerful rhetoric of the coal fire to combat the smoke pollution reports of the early 1950s and the growing inevitability of legislation. In its response to the 1954 Beaver Report on Air Pollution, a member of the Institute of [Coal] Fuel stated: ‘I refuse to be deprived of some of the things that are dear to my heart, and one of them is the open fire’; watching the flames of a coal fire, he continued, is a trigger for the romantic imagination, like ‘…watching waves break on the sea-shore – and who wanted to sit and look at the electric radiator or the gas fire?’ ” 

The article includes some telling images, of which the one here, an advertisement for Ovaltine, has the following words: “As you come out from the damp, cold streets and the fog swirls into your eyes and nostrils, how heartily you wish you were at home by the fire…”.  Yes, indeed. Nobody noticed the irony. The fires themselves were the major cause of smog. 

What happened was that coal fires – whose essential function was to provide warmth – became overlaid with all sorts of other symbolic functions and social significance. The warmth could be provided by other, cleaner, means, which indeed eventually happened, though is not yet complete. But the symbolism got in the way.

Now consider the situation we are in currently with cars. Their essential function is to provide mobility, and there are many other cleaner and less harmful ways of doing so. But the resistance comes from the symbolism of cars, including sexual success, status, protection, the open road without other cars, even, intriguingly, the idea of an enclosed warm protected ‘home’ just like a house with a coal fire. These themes are an elaborate part of the marketing of cars, by the industries that provide and service them. The cognitive dissonance of wanting to go home, out of the smog, to the warmth of a coal fire, is precisely equivalent to parents driving their children to school to protect them from the dangers of traffic, or turning the air-conditioning up in the car to protect against a strangely unseasonable heat wave. 

But the 1956 Act was actually passed, in spite of the opposition, and the air swiftly became very much cleaner. The open fire’s role as the focal point of a room was replaced by a television (there’s food for thought) and its role to provide warmth was replaced successively by less glamorous but cleaner radiators – and people discovered after all how nice it was not to have to handle the paper and sticks and coal and ashes. 

The rhetoric of the open fire, used deliberately to campaign against the Clena Air Act, was powerful but, eventually, defeated. So are there now powerful counter images of the much wider range of pollutants and emissions, and there are other personal and social advantages to reducing car use than the emissions involved in their manufacture and use. There are less damaging ways of providing mobility, just as there were less damaging ways of providing warmth.  

Phil Goodwin is emeritus professor of transport policy at both the Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England, Bristol, and University College London. Email: [email protected]

Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin is professor of transport policy at the Centre for Transport and Society, University of West of England, Bristol, and emeritus professor at University College London. Email: [email protected]

 



 

 
 
 
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