Air, Water and Energy in the Industrial Revolution

Air - unhealthy smoke, who cared?

The following extracts describe the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the city of Leeds in a local context.

A 1806 Report from the Committee on the Woollen Manufacture of England:

Leeds, like all the great manufacturing cities of England, is a dirty, smoky, disagreeable town… The attention of Parliament has lately been drawn to the state of this city, and many provisions for its improvements have been made. Among other regulations it has been enacted that all the factories should provide themselves, before 1st January 1843, with chimneys for perfect combustion, by which Leeds will be spared the infliction of much of their noxious smoke.

Extracts from the Illustrated History of Leeds entitled 'The Balance Sheet of Industrialisation' suggest just how bad the effects of smoke were:

Though the middle classes enjoyed distinct benefits from the economic growth of the period (circa 1790 -1830), there were major drawbacks which all classes experienced. The pollution of the atmosphere by smoke was one of the worst. The decline was epitomised by the blackening of the manor house with smoke. When the Winter family (tenants of the manor house, the former Wilson residence in Bishopgate Street) took the dyer, George Nussey to court in 1811, claiming that the smoke from his ten chimneys had changed an agreeable and handsome mansion into a ‘place which was odious to inhabit’, defence counsel pointed out that there were 450 chimneys in the immediate neighbourhood of the former manor house. Derisory damages of one shilling were awarded.

In 1824 some of the residents of the West End of Leeds brought a prosecution against Benjamin Gott on the grounds that the smoke from his factory was a public nuisance. Witnesses attested that the smoke came in through their windows, that their washing was discoloured and the vegetables in their gardens blackened with soot. All this was true but, as the defence made clear, Gott’s mill was only one of many in the area and it had been there before most of the houses had been built. In directing the jury, the judge observed that the indictment charged Gott with a public nuisance, ‘yet an immense number of people had been building houses in the neighbourhood, which was a pretty strong evidence they did not consider it in that light’. ‘Manufacturers’, he observed, ‘were of the greatest importance; if people chose to go and live where manufactures were carried on, which sent forth a great quantity of smoke, they chose to be annoyed by it, and had no right to complain…In such a place as Leeds, which flourished in consequence of all this nuisance, some inconveniences were to be expected.’ Gott was absolved of blame and the smoke was there to stay. The most affluent middle classes could move north if they chose, and leave the smoke to others."

The poster on this page is advertising a report about clean air from Leeds 1926 Tercentenary Committee (300 years). What a contrast in attitude to a hundred years before when the skyline of Leeds had over 100 smelly factory chimneys!


Attested - to show that something is true
Affluent - rich or well-off
Combustion - fire or burning
Decline - two meanings; to refuse, or a weakening 
Defence Counsel - a person who officially defends in court someone being prosecuted
Epitomise - typical or to characterise
Economic growth - economic improvement shown by recognised factors
Local context - relating to something near home
Manufacturing - mechanised, developed
Odious - horrible or repulsive
Pollution - contamination or poison usually of the environment
Prosecution - the trial of someone in a court of law
Tenant - lodger or occupant

Document icon Learning article provided by: Armley Mills Museum, Leeds Museums and Galleries | 
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