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Smoke and the Clean Air Act 1956

Images and text provided by Terry Woolliscroft October 2019.

(Click on thumbnails to see larger images)

"This occasioned such immense and constant volumes of smoke, as literally to envelope the whole neighbourhood: and it was not infrequent for passengers to mistake their way, and run against each other, during the continuance of this process. The scene which presented itself upon these occasions, has been not inaptly compared to the emissions from Etna and Vesuvius..." from: A Topographical History of Staffordshire: Including Its Agriculture, Mines ... By William Pitt 1817

The firing of a bottle oven or muffle kiln was a profession in itself. It was an important and revered job. There was so much at stake. A successful fireman required years of experience since just a few minutes ignorance or carelessness could often mean ruin to the oven’s contents, and to the factory.

The final temperature to be attained must be as even as possible throughout the firing chamber. The long flames produced by bituminous coal carried heat to the middle of the setting. Temperature rise had to be carefully controlled, as a satisfactory finished article depended on the time it was subjected to the heat, at varying degrees of temperature.

In bigger ovens a ton of coal could be fed into the firemouths within the space of minutes. Baitings such as these created massive volumes of thick, black, choking smoke which enveloped the surrounding streets. Both the factory workers and their innocent neighbours were subjected to unacceptably high levels of pollution and their health inevitably suffered.

In the early 1950s the UK government concluded that they needed to introduce laws to curtail the production of dark smoke and on 5th July 1956 passed the Clean Air Act - "An Act to make provision for abating the pollution of the air" The essence of the Act was that '… dark smoke shall not be emitted from a chimney of any building, and if, on any day, dark smoke is so emitted, the occupier of the building shall be guilty of an offence."

Pottery manufacturers were given seven years to make provisions to fully comply with the Act. Use of the familiar bottle-shaped oven, fired with coal, declined and by 1963 their fate was finally sealed. Of the 2000 or so bottle ovens which once littered the skyline of the Potteries only 47 remain standing complete today (2019).

 
   


 

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