Sunday, November 5, 2017

London's smoke regulation

The Court of Aldermen and Common Council of the City of London (1780)
Last week's Reviews in History posted a review by Elly Robson of William Cavert's The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge UP, 2016, recently out in paperback). (For an earlier review see here.) From the review:
Cavert is particularly strong on the complex role of political and legal institutions – both local and national – in managing coal supply and regulating smoke. In his account, the politics of coal and smoke was a politics of governance. Chapter five, ‘Nuisance and neighbours’, deals with the legal category of ‘nuisance’ to cast light on how conflict over pollution was defined and mediated. In it, Calvert investigates a smorgasbord of relatively ineffective litigious avenues for pursuing redress against industrial polluters who infringed on royal or individual property and health. Law Reports form the mainstay of the chapter and Cavert’s frustration is evident when he describes searching for nuisance cases in Westminster court archives, including 10,000 pleas in King’s Bench, as akin to ‘looking for needles in large and messy haystacks’. Yet he casts his net wide, examining an impressive array of London institutions, including the Fishmongers Company, the Court of Aldermen, and the Wardmote Courts. He consequently has an acute sense of the regulative capacity of different, interlocking jurisdictions, but does not present them as totalising in influence. Instead his emphasis falls on their limitations. Private contracts by landlords were far more effective than common law courts in excluding noxious trades from certain parts of the city, particularly in creating an elite non-industrial zone in genteel west London. This chapter tells us more about institutions and their limits than it does about the ways in which smoke sparked neighbourly negotiation. Royal and aristocratic attempts to limit air pollution in their vicinity have left a more prominent archival trace. However, further light may be cast on environmental conflict between more lowly urban neighbours through further examination of legal depositions, which tend to be well catalogued and have provided a rich lens for early modern historians examining rural disputes over resources.
A concern with governance recurs in part three, where several chapters examine the role of the state in regulating London’s coal supply and mediating the competing claims of civic governors, coal suppliers, the military, the urban poor, merchants, and industries. Efforts to ensure a constant flow of coal to the capital were more energetically pursued than attempts to alleviate pollution, because the former aligned with the priorities of the fiscal-military state: taxation, naval power, social stability, and economic development. Although there was never a state monopoly over the coal trade, the state gathered information through taxes on coal imports and intervened in markets by granting and revoking charters. Tensions could arise, however, between state revenues and economic growth, as merchants mobilised to lobby against rising coal taxes. Similarly, in times of war, able seamen transporting coal down the coast became a valued resource and were vulnerable to naval impressment, forcing the government to balance external military dangers with the threat that fuel scarcity posed to internal social order. 
One of Cavert’s central contentions is that ‘there was social depth to environmental concern’ (p. 73). An impressive social span is covered in detail: ranging from crown and gentry to wealthy merchants, middling tradesmen, and the poor. While an appreciation of the dynamics of social degree, gender, and age in access to coal and exposure to smoke is evident throughout, however, it remains a relatively implicit strand in Cavert’s study. Tim Soens, whose work has examined how social inequalities shaped exposure to environmental risk in early modern Europe, is a notable absence in the bibliography.(1) Dealing with coal as the fuel of the poor, chapter seven on ‘the moral economy of fuel’ again adopts the perspectives of governors. Cavert highlights that fuel paralleled food as a necessity and subsistence ‘right’: the two were linked through difficult choices to heat or eat and, in 1665, the poor were said to be ‘ready to starve for want of fuel’ (p. 112). He proceeds to examine civic governors’ concern to fulfil moral expectations about subsistence provision of fuel to the poor through charity and regulation and corresponding fears about fuel scarcity igniting disorder. This is a selective interpretation of E. P. Thompson’s classic formulation, however, neglecting ‘from below’ perspectives that could have illuminated poor Londoners’ demands for coal and negotiations of scarcity. Cavert examines how the poor’s fuel needs were invoked in petitions from merchants, machinations by foreign enemies, and Privy Council orders, but they do not appear as agents making claims in their own right. Although there were no coal riots to parallel Thompson’s 18th-century food riots, Cavert acknowledges that there were probably ‘grumblings, complaints, and … frequent outbreaks of minor and contained disorder’ (p. 118). There is no concerted investigation of more quotidian negotiation, however, and only fleeting mention of an incident of outright fuel disorder during the First Civil War, when Londoners looted nearby wood supplies due to a Parliamentarian embargo of coal supplies from Royalist Newcastle (p. 147). Although strikes and protests amongst unincorporated and exploited Thames coal heavers are briefly considered, closer focus on the end suppliers of coal in London could reveal the politics of the marketplace. Instead, Cavert’s attempts to illuminate the lived experience of urban fuel poverty depend on a rich historical literature examining similar questions in a rural context – particularly research by Steve Hindle and Andy Wood – and extrapolation from a 21st-century study on the psychology of scarcity.