Report from Samuel Jones, Inspector of Smoke Nuisance


Birmingham had a very different landscape to that other great product of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester.  There were few of those great ‘satanic mills’ that came to characterise  early nineteenth-century Northern England in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, this was a town of remarkable innovation and mass production and Birmingham certainly did have a problem with smoke pollution. When the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1835, he described a town where everything is black, dirty and dark, although every moment breeds gold and silver (‘Journeys to England and Ireland’).

The dirt and the smoke that blighted Birmingham came from the numerous steam engines that drove the town’s metal rolling mills, glass houses and numerous furnaces. In 1818 the Street Commissioners received a letter from Walter Hopper Esq., complaining that the smoke from steam engines at the New Union Mill was exposing his estate, near Five Ways, to ‘volumes of smoke’ which rendered the land ‘quite disagreeable’. When looking through the Street Commissioners minutes this appears as a perennial complaint across several decades and across the town.

By the 1840s there was an increasing interest in issues of health and personal comfort and the Street Commissioners appointed a full time inspector of steam engine smoke in 1844. Jones was responsible to the Steam Engine Committee and would present official reports annually. There doesn’t appear to have been a formal system for measuring smoke at this time, other than timing the emissions and inspecting the engines. This report is taken from the original minute books of the Birmingham Street Commissioners, which can be viewed by appointment at Birmingham Heritage, Archives and Photography at the Library of Birmingham, reference MS 2818/1/8 (please be aware that, as a result of severe staff cut backs, opening times for the archives is now restricted, I would recommend phoning first)

Report of Samuel Jones to the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act
February 5th 1849

‘When I commenced my duties in 1844 there were 173 steam engine chimneys, large and small, with 225 furnaces. Several parties had at that time applied means for consuming smoke but they were very seldom used, there being 111 chimneys that emitted dense black smoke from 16 to 35 minutes within every working hour, others varying from 6 to 16 minutes per hour. At the present time there are 224 steam engine chimneys, with 297 furnaces and 2 more now in course of erection. Which makes an increase in the last five years of 57 chimneys and 72 furnaces, the nominal power of the various engines amounting to about 3500 Horse Power. The quantity of fuel used for working of this power alone amounts to about 300 tons per day and most of it of the very commonest description. There are 17 of these chimneys, including some with flues from muffles in them that emit dense black smoke from 12 to 18 minutes within the hour, and 50 others though greatly improved since first under inspection, are still indifferent, they smoke from causes that may be avoided from 6 to 10 minutes within the hour, the others vary from 2 to 6 minutes per hour. There are 50 chimneys used exclusively for muffles, annealing pots and stoves – 22 for puddling and tube furnaces, 6 for glass houses, 2 for gas works – making a total of 304 chimneys (exclusive of smiths forges) from which such a quantity of dense smoke would arise as would envelop the whole town were it not for the many and excellent means adopted for its consumption. This shews that the nuisance is greatly abated but it is not to the extent it could be, as I am convinced that all steam engine proprietors ought to be in such a position, for their own advantage, as would enable them to work their engines without making so much smoke as would either injure the health of or be a nuisance to the Public’


Using Google Ngram viewer

There are all sorts of useful websites and digital tools for research. I’m not a particularly technical person and many of them go over my head. I tend to avoid things that require installation of extra software too. But Google Ngram viewer is free and very easy to use – just type it in your search engine bar and it should come up straight off.

You’ll see an interesting looking graph and a few boxes, Google have included some sample search terms as an example (Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein). What the lines on the graph are showing are the comparative books written on those subjects across the space of 200 years (in this case 1800-2000). I tried this out myself by inputting the words ‘Municipal Corporations Act’ and got the following results

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This shows that the peak in publications of books about the Municipal Corporations Act was in 1906 – this makes sense as this was the year that Beatrice and Sidney Webb published their great tome on English Local Government. Below the graph there are links to publications by year, which is really useful if you’re looking up a specific topic and unsure where to start. The search is limited to publications available on Google Books, but there are lots of those, particularly older publications, so it does offer a decent overview.

I’m sure there are lots of uses for this tool. Another that I tried was testing out how much interest there was in municipal towns in the early 19th century. This time I changed the date range to the period 1800-1850, which is my area of interest. It’s simple to do, you can see a small pair of boxes with ‘between’ next to them, just in the top left hand corner. In the search box I typed the towns I wanted to compare, separating each with a comma (this is important). So, this graph reveals the number of publications on Birmingham, between 1800-1850 and in comparison to the number of publications written on two other major centres of industry and urbanization

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It’s interesting to note a peak for each of the towns in 1838, the year that Birmingham and Manchester were first granted their Charters of Incorporation. Overall, there appears to have been far greater interest in writing about Manchester than there was for either Birmingham or Leeds. And again, there are links beneath the graph to numerous books available on Google Books for the topics from this date range.

Finally, it is possible to search books published in other languages – I changed this in the drop down box marked ‘corpus’ next to the date range boxes and selected German – I have highlighted 1845 here because that was the year that Engel’s Condition of the English Working Class was published, originally for a German audience. There is a small peak for Manchester at this point.

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The numbers on the left of the chart are revealing the percentage of Google Books that these publications represent – a very, very tiny number in these rather specialist cases. But I think the tool is good fun and has the potential to be interesting for research, if only as a way of locating free to download books on specific topics in certain years. Or to just gauge how much interest there has been in your topic over an extended period of time.

A Porcine Adventure

Report from the Birmingham Daily Post, January 18th 1858

Birmingham Police Court

Before Mr Kynnersley and Mr Phillips

A Porcine Adventure:-  A rough looking young fellow named William Bennett, living at the Worcester Wharf, was charged with being concealed on the premises of John Sheldon, a labouring man, residing in Cheapside, with intent to commit a felony.  Sheldon said that he was awakened by his “Missis” between one and two o’clock in the morning, in consequence of a noise in the pigstye, and on going down to ascertain the cause, he found he prisoner lying in the stye in the comfortable straw bed that had been made up for the pigs on the previous evening. The animals themselves had been turned out of their quarters, and were grunting their discontent in the yard. Sheldon naively observed to the Bench that he believed that if he had not so opportunely discovered the intruder his pigs “would have gone in no time”. The Magistrates appeared to take a similar view of the matter and committed the prisoner to the House of Correction for seven days.

At the same session:

A Couple of House Robbers:- William Smith and Maria Gill who cohabit together in Woodcock Street were placed at the bar charged with having in their possession a quantity of household goods, wearing apparel, and other articles, the produce of some of the innumerable house robberies that have taken place of late in all quarters of the town. The prisoners were apprehended on Friday night by Detective-officers Palmer and Clarke, and the house being searched a heap of bed linen, half a dozen chairs, a clock, and other property were found.  A portion of these were identified by Mrs Coley, a married woman, living in Sheep Street, whose house was entered by means of skeleton keys during her absence and robbed on the 21st ult.  The prisoners were therefore remanded until tomorrow, for the production of evidence in other charges against them.