On 5th July 1956, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act.
From the 14th century onwards, high levels of pollution from fires had been recognised. Elizabeth I had been ‘greatley greved by the taste and smoke of sea coales’. Christopher Wren never saw St Paul’s as he intended it, for the pollution of London ensured that clean stones rapidly became dirty. In all developing countries, the industrial revolution was largely coal powered, and mills were a sign of progress. It was pointless cleaning public buildings. Modest legislative efforts were made to improve matters in the 19th century.
It was the London great smog of 1952, and the massive death rate from chest disease and pneumonia, that forced government action. London was not the only city affected. As a school boy at Manchester Grammar School in the late 1940s, I once had to walk home as buses could not see enough to drive even slowly through city streets.
From 1952, the general acceptance of air pollution as a natural consequence of industrial development turned to awareness that progress without pollution control was no progress at all. Government was not keen to act because of the economic costs, but In July 1953, Sir Hugh Beaver was appointed chairman of a committee to examine the nature and effects of air pollution, consider what further preventive measures were practicable and make recommendations.
The committee reported in November 1954. There was nothing very new about its recommendations - smoke abatement lobby groups had been suggesting the same things for almost a century. However, it suggested that all existing legislation be replaced by a single comprehensive Clean Air Act that covered not only industrial premises but also domestic smoke. The report was highly praised and the government announced its acceptance of the recommendations in principle. The log jam was broken.
The Act introduced ‘smoke control areas’ in some towns and cities in which only smokeless fuels could be burnt, reducing the amount of smoke and sulphur from household fires and industry. It also included measures to relocate power stations away from cities and for the height of some chimneys to be increased.
The USA had passed an Air Pollution Control Act the previous year and other countries soon followed.
For a fuller account of the events, see www.nhshistory.net.