Smog, Matchdays and Camping on the Eve of War

Late 19th Century Widnes

We end the year in darkness. Or on a dark topic, at any rate.

In Glasgow and Edinburgh, 1909 began with the outbreak of “smog” – the sticky, intrusive and often lethal combination of coalsmoke and fog – that led not only to the coining of the term, but to an estimated 1,000 deaths.

The deaths themselves were hidden, elusive tragedies: The Scotsman notes only that the unusual weather had closed ports and railways, stopped ferries and hindered work in the docks. But the reports go on day after day.

Des Voeux, who actually came up with the word “smog”, spent a lifetime campaigning for clean air. Two years later, in London, he wrote to the Times after a particularly bad Sunday:

How long – oh, how long! – will the people of London continue to endure the murkiness and gloom of its winter months, the fogs that turn daylight into a darkness worse than night, and the dirt which penetrates into all houses and covers the rooms with a film of sticky filth which only arduous and continuous labour can remove?

What he says next casts light, surely, on what must have been a constant, now hidden, factor in the life of football clubs in the period. Imagine as you read that he is discussing Saturday, not Sunday, and that kick-off is at 3:

As I write (at 2pm) we are in complete darkness, the whole house lighted artificially, the daylight being absolutely blotted out by a black cloud overhead, produced, not by a threatening storm, but by the smoke that has been formed from the fires that have cooked the Sunday luncheons or dinners of 6,000,000 million people.

The tone of the protester rings the same from age to age:

At 8 o’clock this morning the air of St James’s Park was clear, by 9 darkness was coming on, and by 1 o’clock it was nearly complete. Sunday fog and darkness are always an hour later than week-day fog, thereby indicating their origin from the domestic hearth.

What this implies is, of course, that a football ground to the east of central London would stand every chance, in the right (wrong) conditions of being blacked-out long before the game was underway. But there are few reports of matches being abandoned because of fog in these circumstances. That can only mean that men were made to play in conditions that were dangerous for their health.

Given that we have records of men like Thomas Bradshaw who, having contracted tuberculosis, played on for his club until shortly before his Christmas Day 1899 death so that he could feed his family, this is no surprise.The same fate overtook Herbert Chapman’s England international brother, Harry.

Players had little choice, or at least were driven by a self-sacrificial zeitgeist to forgo what choice they had. Contractually, they had to play or forfeit their income. The physical courage this required was matched, in black-and-white fashion, by the financial corruption and profit-taking typical of club owners before the First World War (I don’t mean that clubs were, horror of horrors, privately owned, but that good business practice was even more of a stranger to the game in this period than it became thereafter).

Others, not much better paid, but unencumbered by a carry-on-regardless culture, found their own solutions to the smoke. Arthur Clark was a schoolmaster in Manchester in 1913. Robert Roberts, who was a slum child in Salford at the time, remembers queuing for coke beside the hot walls of a plant, smoke (not steam) billowing down over the line of women and children, filling their lungs and covering their clothes with soot. Clark lived as far out as he could, but even so:

Early in March I had given notice (to his landlady); I had endured influenza twice in two months and was utterly weary of a Manchester suburb with its damp and its early spring fog. So I decided to live for a few months under canvas. Of course, my friends told me I should die, but a kindly colleague helped me to collect my outfit, and on March 16 I started my camp in a little village some sixteen miles south of the city..

It didn’t go well, at least not at first:

It certainly was cold. For days we woke up in the grey morning to find the water in the buckets at the tent door frozen. We had to get up before six o’clock if we were to get our breakfast, clean up the tent, cycle sixteen miles (the last four over badly-paved streets), and turn up bright and early for nine o’clock prayers.

It still beats turning out on a Saturday with TB.

But getting back again at night was worse. Five hours of steady teaching is tiring, the journey back to camp was uphill, and the usual south-west anti-trade made all the hills seem stiffer. And when we arrived it was to find a cold, damp, unlit tent with a door that flapped mournfully in the wind.

Things improved in the summer, which was a good one, as was the summer following until it was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

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3 responses to “Smog, Matchdays and Camping on the Eve of War

  1. My wife saw the last London smog, a cousin the last one in Auld Reekie. I never saw a British smog, though I saw the LA smog from the desert above in 1966.

    Schoolchildren used to be indoctrinated, perhaps they still are, in the belief that the Clean Air Act put a stop to British smogs, but apparently if you plot out measures of air pollution, they were decreasing at the same rate before the Act as afterwards.

  2. James Hamilton

    Happy New Year!
    One of the things I’ve learned about the decline in smog over this period – that I wouldn’t have guessed before – is that the installation of gas fires was well underway by the turn of the 20th century, and made quite an impact on air quality.
    More recently, the switch by London Regional Transport to the use of “clean” diesel has made a palpable difference. Edinburgh hasn’t switched – and it’s instantly recognisable that they haven’t. But I can recall as recently as 1995 traffic fumes on the Embankment causing severe breathing difficulties to bronchial friends – and I remember a day in 1991 when Streatham High Road won brief glory as the most polluted road in western Europe: if you looked up, you could see an odd, almost invisible “snaking” of some substance in the air above you.

    As for 1899-1912, there must surely have been matches abandoned due to bad light, but they’re quite hard to track down. Although men did go out to play in the air of east London with mortal TB on their chests, it surely can’t have been the routine procedure.

  3. One of the odd things about the Environmental Movement is how they fret about non-problems while ignoring real ones. I learnt about the nastiness of diesel emissions decades ago, and was struck how little fuss was made about them, compared to all the piffle about Acid Rain from Britain destroying forests in Germany and Scandinavia. It can’t just be that many Environmentalists are discernibly dim – but I’m not sure what the other reasons are.