John Evelyn and London Air
The air of London in the seventeenth century was polluted by clouds of sea-coal smoke against which Evelyn proposed some drastic remedies. By Steven R. Smith
In the relatively clean air of London today, many Londoners might not suspect that for centuries their city was known for its polluted air. Though the problem was an old one, it was not until the Clean Air Act of 1956 that positive steps were taken to eliminate the major source of air pollution: coal-burning fires. Approximately 300 years earlier, however, John Evelyn, the diarist, vividly described and condemned air pollution and proposed a solution that would have accomplished some of the goals of the 1956 act. Evelyn correctly identified the cause of pollution; but his proposal was far more drastic than the modern solution, and was based on an apparently erroneous assumption that commercial, rather than domestic, fires were the chief cause of dirty air. In the seventeenth century, of course, the distinction between commercial and domestic fires was not so clear as it is today, since most shop-owners and craftsmen lived in the same buildings with their shops. Evelyn’s solution was also aimed at improving the appearance of London, and would have resulted in altering the function of the city; for it would have removed all of the shops and industries that burned coal from the city to a suburban location, and would have created gardens throughout the city and a belt of fragrance around it. Despite these important differences, Evelyn’s description and proposals will seem familiar to those who knew London before the great clean-up of the mid-fifties.
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