The Clean Air Act

For years the London air had been becoming more and more polluted by soot and fumes because factories and homes burnt coal. Only the new factories on the Great West Road and a few other places in London had modern machinery powered by electricity. There were a few electric fires, but electricity was expensive compared with coal. At that time a whole house heated by electricity drew headlines in local papers. The pollution became worse and worse and each winter there were periods of dense smog. This was a thick, choking, yellow fog which killed many people who had with asthma or other chest infections. In Victorian times these smogs were called London Pea-soupers, because the air was so thick you had to eat it, not breathe it. At last the position became so bad that, in 1956, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act forbidding the burning of coal in London . Only smokeless fuel was allowed.

In the nineteen fifties London was still one of the great manufacturing areas of the country. You have only to look at the variety of local cast-iron coal-cellar covers to realise how many local foundries there used to be in the neighbourhood. Each factory had its own furnace and they all burnt coal. The smoke from industry and the old fashioned coal burning trains produced dense yellow smogs. Many people died each winter. Men who had had Tuberculosis before the War, had been cured by serving in the 8th Army in the dry North African Desert, but developed it afresh when they returned to polluted London. Eventually, in 1956, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act, forbidding the burning of fossil fuels in London . Diesel trains were introduced and slowly London buildings could be cleaned of their age-old soot.

At that time every London Station had notices advertising new factories in the New Towns. Government grants enabled firms to re-locate in Stevenage , Harlow and other towns. New houses with bathrooms were available for the workers and a mass migration took place. They exchanged queuing up in London for a bath on Friday nights at the local slipper baths, for house with a bathroom, a separate downstairs toilet and a garden. Families with young children were delighted with the prospect and moved in droves. The older workers were less sure. Those nearing retirement hesitated at the prospect of starting again and then retiring within a few years in unfamiliar places, away from friends and neighbours.

Thus, when large firms like Gilbey's left Camden Town , Nagretti & Zambra left Islington, and hundreds of other firms moved away, the young married families with children moved with them. Older people tended to take their redundancy pay and find other work within their own familiar streets.

Immediately the movement of industry affected our Stoke Newington pupils by destroying their prospects of apprenticeships. Many of the local firms which had given apprenticeships for years, ceased to trade, or moved away. A number of my boys who had started apprenticeships a few years earlier, found themselves out of work because their firms had closed down. Some moved to other firms to complete their training, while others had to find completely different work.