The Smoke Abatement Exhibition of 1881

A hundred years ago this month the Smoke Abatement Exhibition was held in London. In this article, John Ranlett explains how the exhibition demonstrated the practicality of smoke control equipment and how a century later the efficacy of this can be observed in the city streets.

Much of the story of smoke abatement in England has taken place in the past quarter century – adoption of the first effective Clean Air Act in 1956, the absence since 1962 of major London fogs, the report in 1971 that winter sunshine in central London had increased by more than 50 per cent, the doubling of the number of bird species sighted in London. When St Paul's Cathedral was cleaned of its three-inch coating of accumulated grime in the mid-1960s it was the practical recognition that a corner had been turned – that cleaning was no longer a futile exercise.

An Exhibition which opened in London 100 years ago this month, however, shows that the events of the past quarter century do not encompass the whole smoke abatement story. The Clean Air Act of 1956 depended upon the availability of devices for the smokeless production of heat. But there was nothing new about such devices. All the Act did was to enforce the use of a technology displayed as early as 1881.

On November 30th, 1881 the Smoke Abatement Exhibition opened at the Exhibition Buildings in South Kensington to demonstrate the existence and practicability of smoke control equipment. During the eleven weeks of the Exhibition, 116,000 people inspected working displays of smokeless grates, furnaces, stoves, heating and cooking devices and vast pieces of similarly smokeless heavy industrial equipment. The Exhibition's slogan, 'Economy Combined with Smoke Prevention', reminded Londoners that complete combustion was not only smokeless but also had the additional advantage of saving money, that smoke was a visual sign of waste, of fuel going up the chimney rather than providing heat. Midway through the Exhibition a heavy fog, striking the metropolis in January 1882, had an acute effect on the old and the ill, and dramatised the Exhibition's main contention: that smoke was a serious hazard which must and could be made less dangerous by modern technology.

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