On 16 October 2017, the sun turned a peculiar pinky shade of red, a product of Storm Ophelia whipping up Saharan sands as she approached the UK. The strangely-coloured gloom that resulted was widely described as ‘apocalyptic’, resembling as it did the light seen in many fictional depictions of nuclear holocausts; yet, in Manchester, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the city as it was in the mid-nineteenth century:
‘One receives one’s first intimation of [the city’s] existence from the lurid gloom of the atmosphere that hangs over it. There is a murky blot in one section of the sky … which broadens and heightens as we approach until at length it seems spread over half the firmament.’
This ‘lurid gloom’ was, of course, not the consequence of Saharan sands, but of hundreds of chimneys belching smoke, as well as the even more numerous coal fires in the houses of those who worked in the mills. Manchester’s blackness was the result of its overwhelming reliance on coal to power the steam engines that filled its mills and factories, coupled with the city’s damp climate and the fact that it sits in a hollow surrounded on three sides by hills. Manchester retained much of the smoke it created and, because of the prevailing winds, gathered in much from its industrial neighbours as well. In 1902, it was calculated that 30 tons of soots fell back onto the city in that year.
In the industrial period, Manchester’s blackness was legendary. As Andrew Crompton has described, new buildings would go black in as little as three years, the corrosive action of the sulphurous soot-filled air eating away at stonework, as well as stinging the eyes of the city’s inhabitants. Water left standing would gather a layer of sooty scum within days; clothes had to be washed and rewashed incessantly; trees and plants were decimated by acid rain – even ones that survived in the summer had to be rehabilitated every year; and black snow sometimes fell in the winter months. The nature that did survive had to adapt quickly to these brutal conditions and Manchester was the first place where the dark carbonaria form of the peppered moth was observed. This normally light-coloured moth had evolved to camouflage itself against the blackened trees of the industrial city.
We might expect such environmental degradation to have been the subject of vociferous protest; and, for some, it was. A succession of groups were formed throughout the 19th century to lobby for the cleaning up of the city: from the Manchester Association for the Prevention of Smoke in the 1840s to the Noxious Vapours Abatement Association in the 1890s. Groups like these argued that smoke was not only a serious health hazard but was also a profligate waste of energy in that it represented a failure to make profitable use of a finite natural resource. Yet, throughout this period and beyond, their protests were drowned out by a much more powerful story of smoke as a signal of wealth and personal well-being. If Manchester was celebrated as the ‘chimney of the world’, it was so because chimneys were the most visible sign of the city’s preeminence as a global industrial city, the amount of smoke they generated being an immediate indicator of the relative health of industrial output. Indeed, when chimneys stopped smoking, as they did intermittently throughout the industrial period when there were slumps in trade, the resulting clean air meant hunger, sickness and ruin as thousands of workers faced destitution through unemployment. And in the homes of those workers, an extravagantly smoking chimney pot demonstrated that one was doing well, that your family was happy and healthy. Even as the smokeless fuel coke was sold as an inexpensive alternative to coal, it failed to take hold because its very inability to produce a smoking fireplace was widely perceived as a sign of poverty. The northern expression ‘Where there’s muck, there’s brass’ comes down to us today as a remnant of the age when smoke was thought of as ‘the golden breath of life’.
Of course, that’s all now gone. Even as the 1956 Clean Air Act restricted the burning of coal and transformed urban fogs from deadly miasmas to benign and often nostalgic signs of a lost age, Manchester’s smoking chimneys were already doomed. After the Second World War, as the cotton industry relocated to cheaper locales across the world, the city’s smoke abated as mills and factories closed. The buildings left blackened by years of smoke pollution were scrubbed clean: before and after photographs of such landmarks as the Athenaeum and the Town Hall creating a jolting sense of difference between the natural and unnatural colour of the built environment. Yet, such scrubbing also left its destructive marks, the high-pressure jets of water that cleaned off the smoke also further damaging soot-eaten stonework, the previously sharp edges of ornamental carvings now forever blunted. And, in the 1960s, the modernist fetishisation of white added its own vision of a city cleansed and purified – the new concrete towers of Piccadilly Gardens standing out against the old, still-blackened remains of the dirty industrial past the city now had to leave behind. Blackness was now a symbol of redundancy and lifelessness, a startling reversal of its former associations with wealth and vigour.
Yet blackened buildings can still be found across the city, often in places where cleaning was prohibitively expensive or out of the remit of the municipal authorities. Thus, many of Manchester’s church spires still stand out in their blackness, while the plaintive epitaphs on many Victorian tombstones in the city’s cemeteries remain obscured by soot. These offer powerful visual reminders of the city’s past even as the smoke that produced that blackness has long since disappeared. And, in the Northern Quarter, some of the old warehouses there still retain their soot-coloured brick and stonework, testament to the kind of historical authenticity that is so prized by the area’s mainly hipster populace. That kind of attitude may be scorned as just another form of nostalgia, albeit artfully repackaged as gritty rather than sentimental; yet, the blackness that remains still offers a powerful visual reminder of a past that continues to haunt the city and a miasma of smoke that has not gone away but has simply moved elsewhere.