Canal On Fire & Beautiful Smoke

The rapid and largely unregulated expansion of English towns in the 18th and 19th centuries led to some pretty horrific environmental conditions, most famously the ‘Great Stink’ of London’s Thames that led to the closure of parliament in  1858. But the great northern cities were pretty bad too. This is about the Bradford Canal, in 1835 from Victorian Cities by Asa Briggs:

‘The drains of the town are emptied into this water-course, and principally above the flood-gates. Besides, on both sides of the stream there are a great many factories of various kinds of manufacture, etc., the soil, refuse and filth of which fall into the beck. In summer-time, the water is low, and all this filth accumulates for weeks, or months, above the flood-gates and emits a most offensive smell. This noxious compound is  conveyed through the sluice into the canal, where it undergoes a process which renders it still more offensive. For the mill owners below the floodgates having a deficiency of water, contract with the proprietors of the canal, for a supply of water for their boilers. The water is conveyed for this purpose in pipes to the boiler,s, and after being used for he generation of steam, is conveyed back into the canal, so that the waters of the canal are scarcely ever cool in summer, and constantly emit the most offensive gases.’ The canal occasionally ‘took fire’: even we it was quiescent there were complaints of ‘noisome effluvia’. With urban features of this kind it is scarcely surprising that one of he Health of Towns Commissioners described Bradford as ‘the dirtiest, filthiest and worst regulated town in the Kingdom.

The smoke nuisance was bad in both Leeds and Bradford. Leeds was described by Faucher as dark and disagreeable: ‘Sheffield is the only city in England which presents as gloomy an appearance as Leeds.’ Dickens, who knew that it was a ‘great town’ – he spoke wth feeling in 1847 at a Mechanics’ Institution soiree with George Stephenson as a fellow-guest – had described it also as we saw, as ‘beastly and nasty’. Bradford men either liked their own smoke or made fun of it. Just as one of its councillor defended the canal, which had acquired the nickname ‘River Stink’, so Councillor Baxendale called smoke a ‘good thing’. A local satirist took up the theme:

How beautiful is the smoke

The Bradford smoke”

pouring from numberless chimney-stacks,

Condensing and falling in showers of ‘blacks’,

All around

Upon the ground,

In lane and yard and street;

Or adding a grace

To the thankless face

Of yourself or the man you meet:

Now, n the eye, and now on the nose,

How beautiful is the smoke?”

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