‘The Road to Putney’ from A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew (1817)
[Originally ptd in parts, 1813–17]

On arriving near the top of this road, I obtained a distinct view of a phenomenon, which can be seen no where in the world but at this distance from London. The Smoke of nearly a million of coal fires, issuing from the two hundred thousand houses which compose London and its vicinity, had been carried in a compact mass in the direction which lay at a right angle from my station. Half a million of chimneys, each vomiting a bushel of smoke per second, had been disgorging themselves for at least six hours of the passing day, and they now produced a sombre tinge, which filled an angle of the horizon equal to 70, or in bulk twenty-five miles long, by two miles high. As this cloud goes forward it diverges like a fan, becoming constantly rarer; hence it is seldom perceived at its extremity, though it has been distinguished near Windsor. As the wind changes, it fills by turns the whole country within twenty or thirty miles of London; and over this area it deposits the volatilized products of three thousand chaldrons, or nine millions of pounds of coals per day, producing peculiar effects on the country. In London this smoke is found to blight or destroy all vegetation; but, as the vicinity is highly prolific, a smaller quantity of the same residua may be salutary, or the effect may be counteracted by the extra supplies of manure which are afforded by the metropolis. Other phenomena are produced by its union with fogs, rendering them nearly opaque, and shutting out the light of the sun; it blackens the mud of the streets by its deposit of tar, while the unctuous mixture renders the foot-pavement slippery; and it produces a solemn gloom whenever a sudden change of wind returns over the town the volume that was previously on its passage into the country. One of the improvements of this age, by which the next is likely to benefit, has been its contrivances of more perfect combustion; and for the condensation and sublimation of smoke. The general adoption of a system of consuming smoke would render the London air as pure as that of the country, and diminish many of the nuisances and inconveniences of a town a future age be as difficult to believe that the Londoners could have resided in the dense atmosphere of coal-smoke above described, as it is now hard to conceive that our ancestors endured houses without the contrivance of chimneys, from which consequently the smoke of fires had no means of escape but by the open doors and windows, or through a hole in the roof!

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