Hitler, A Serial Killer & Bankruptcy: The Fascinating Tale Behind The UK’s Smoke Control Areas

Many towns and cities in the UK are now Smoke Control Areas – but very few people realise they came about partly because of Adolf Hitler!

This fascinating tale starts just after World War II. The UK, heavily debt-ridden after seeing off the scourge of Nazism, was having to export like crazy in order to pay off the £21 billion we owed.

At that time, we were still major producers of solid fuel. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1950, there were 901 colleries in the UK, employing over half a million men.

However, much of the better grade coal they were mining, such as the naturally occuring smokeless fuel anthractite, wasn’t going to homes in the Uk – it was exported to the USA, our largest creditor.

As a result, British people were left with lower grade, more polluting, brown coal.

This was the stuff which people cooked on and used to heat their homes, usually on open fires and hob grates.

Air quality in our towns and cities was naturally poor as chimneys, domestic and industrial, belched day and night. It wasn’t a luxury back then to have a real fireplace, it was a cold, hard necessity.

However, there would be a price to pay for our need to export better grade coal, and it came to head on December 5, 1952.

This was the day when our capital city woke up to a dense thick fog. Poor air quality combined with unusually cold weather and windless conditions, resulted in a heavy smog which had settled over London.

These ‘pea soupers’ were not unusual, but what marked this one out was the length of time it took to shift – five whole days. During that time, public transport was grounded, apart from the Tube service.

Outdoor sporting events were cancelled and visibility was reduced to just a few metres.

People started becoming ill. Panic started to set in. Criminals, however, used it to their advantage with one man, John Reginald Christie, posing as a quack doctor to murder women.

Christie killed at least seven by luring them back to his Notting Hill flat by telling his victims he had a homemade cure for bronchitis.

He tricked them into inhaling coal gas until they passed out. At that point he raped and strangled them. He buried two in the garden and stashed several more in a papered-over kitchen alcove.

He was eventually caught and hanged the following year.

However, a much wider death toll was racking up as The Great Smog of London made its way into the lungs of local people.

Hospital admissions soared and record numbers of cardio respiratory diseases were reported.

The final death toll was estimated at over 6,000, although research in later years believe the knock on effects to be closer to 12,000.

Political pressure meant that changed was now needed. This manifested itself in the Clean Air Act 1956, which brought in Smoke Control Areas. People were encouraged to burn smokeless fuels or convert to gas.

If you lived in a Smoke Control Area, you were banned from burning housecoal or wood.

The era of solid fuel as a main source of heating and cooking was coming to an end.

Fast forward over half a century and Smoke Control Areas still exist but knowledge about them is patchy. It’s also slightly confusing for some as you are now allowed to burn wood in a smoke control area, provided it is on a Defra-exempt appliance (which of course never existed when SCAs first came about).

However, the push for better air continues with the government announcing that by February 2021, sale of bagged housecoal will be phased out. Sales of loose housecoal will follow by 2023. The will also be some restrictions on the sale of unseasoned wood coming in 2021.

But what has also changed since the 1950s is that more and more people are now using stoves and woodburners.

These require more knowledge in terms of correct operation.

Good fuel on a well installed appliance can still cause issues if burnt in the wrong way.

That’s why initiatives such as the sweeps-led Burnright campaign continues to be very important. We are able to give people advice and guidance in a way most sweeps would never have dreamt was necessary in the 1950s.

So ‘pea soupers ’ may be thankfully a thing of the past.

But we all still have a part to play in ensuring the air we breathe is as clean as possible.

Mr Soot Chimney Sweep is a co-founder of the Burnright campaign, a fully qualified sweep and a member of the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps.

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