EFFECTS OF COAL-BASED AIR POLLUTION ON MORTALITY RATES: New evidence from nineteenth century Britain

Samuel Griffiths (1873) The Black Country in the 1870s. In Griffiths’ Guide to the iron trade of Great Britain.

Industrialised cities in mid-nineteenth century Britain probably suffered from similar levels of air pollution as urban centres in China and India do today. What’s more, the damage to health caused by the burning of coal was very high, reducing life expectancy by more than 5% in the most polluted cities like Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham. It was also responsible for a significant proportion of the higher mortality rates in British cities compared with rural parts of the country.

 These are among the findings of new research by Brian Beach (College of William & Mary) and Walker Hanlon (NYU Stern School of Business), which is published in the Economic Journal. Their study shows the potential value of history for providing insights into the long-run consequences of air pollution.

From Beijing to Delhi and Mexico City to Jakarta, cities across the world struggle with high levels of air pollution. To what extent does severe air pollution affect health and broader economic development for these cities? While future academics will almost surely debate this question, assessing the long-run consequences of air pollution for modern cities will not be possible for decades.

But severe air pollution is not a new phenomenon; Britain’s industrial cities of the nineteenth century, for example, also faced very high levels of air pollution. Because of this, researchers argue that history has the potential to provide valuable insights into the long-run consequences of air pollution.

One challenge in studying historical air pollution is that direct pollution measures are largely unavailable before the mid-twentieth century. This study shows how historical pollution levels in England and Wales can be inferred by combining data on the industrial composition of employment in local areas in 1851 with information on the amount of coal used per worker in each industry.

This makes it possible to estimate the amount of coal used in over 581 districts covering all of England and Wales. Because coal was by far the most important pollutant in Britain in the nineteenth century (as well as much of the twentieth century), this provides a way of approximating local industrial pollution emission levels.

The results are consistent with what historical sources suggest: the researchers find high levels of coal use in a broad swath of towns stretching from Lancashire and the West Riding down into Staffordshire, as well as in the areas around Newcastle, Cardiff and Birmingham.

By comparing measures of local coal-based pollution to mortality data, the study shows that air pollution was a major contributor to mortality in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. In the most polluted locations – places like Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham – the results show that air pollution resulting from industrial coal use reduced life expectancy by more than 5%.

One potential concern is that locations with more industrial coal use could have had higher mortality rates for other reasons. For example, people living in these industrial areas could have been poorer, infectious disease may have been more common or jobs may have been more dangerous.

The researchers deal with this concern by looking at how coal use in some parts of the country affected mortality in other areas that were, given the predominant wind direction, typically downwind. They show that locations which were just downwind of major coal-using areas had higher mortality rates than otherwise similar locations which were just upwind of these areas.

These results help to explain why cities in the nineteenth century were much less healthy than more rural areas – the so-called urban mortality penalty. Most existing work argues that the high mortality rates observed in British cities in the nineteenth century were due to the impact of infectious diseases, bad water and unclean food.

The new results show that in fact about one third of the higher mortality rate in cities in the nineteenth century was due to exposure to high levels of air pollution due to the burning of coal by industry.

In addition to assessing the effects of coal use on mortality, the researchers use these effects to back out very rough estimates of historical particulate pollution levels. Their estimates indicate that by the mid-nineteenth century, industrialised cities in Britain were probably as polluted as industrial cities in places like China and India are today.

These findings shed new light on the impact of air pollution in nineteenth century Britain and lay the groundwork for further research analysing the long-run effects of air pollution in cities.


To contact the authors:  Brian Beach (bbbeach@wm.edu); Walker Hanlon (whanlon@stern.nyu.edu)

Lancashire textiles in the long run: A financial perspective

by Steven Toms (University of Leeds)


Burnley, Lancashire, c.1900


Following decades of long run economic decline, recent calls to establish a “Northern powerhouse” offer some hope for the reinvigoration of once proud manufacturing regions of the industrial revolution. A recent 2015 report by the Alliance Project suggested that the textile sector had the capacity to create 20,000 jobs in the Manchester region by 2020.

But how would such a revival cut across the systemic causes of longer run decline? And what lessons, if any, can be learned from earlier phases of industrialisation?

To examine the long run rise and fall of the Lancashire textile industry, this research project has assembled financial data from over a hundred mainly Lancashire textile firms over the period c.1790-2000. Analysing this data in the context of wider economic trends and the strategic options available to individual firms offers new perspective on the long run dynamics of this once great industry.

Regardless of the size of the market, and the market share of the firms involved, firms’ profits were typically highly volatile. So although market instability was a continuous feature, profit instability reflected specific investments, which differed through time, according to ownership, industry organisation and technology.

In the early industrial revolution, the working capital cycle of inventory and credit was crucial, such that profit volatility reflected material supply and monetary conditions. Firms that were most successful in financial terms automated specific processes, using their enhanced capacity to exercise control over the remainder of the value chain and final product markets.

Greater investment in fixed capital in subsequent phases of industrialisation meant added risk in the face of volatile markets. Entrepreneurs were pressured by such investments to impose notoriously long working hours and lobby against regulatory interventions.

The most successful firms built partnerships that combined technical innovation, market access and mutual financial support. Like modern day venture capitalists, entrepreneurs operated through informal networks rather than hierarchical integrated structures.

Throughout the nineteenth century, and up to the post war boom and slump of 1919-1921, volatile profits reflected over-investment during upturns and surplus capacity during downturns. After 1920, firms that were most successful were those that avoided the temptation to refinance during the 1919 boom, and such firms at least survived, as profit opportunities dwindled in a declining market.

As more firms exited the industry, the remainder were absorbed by textile-based conglomerates. These firms enjoyed a short-lived period of success in the late 1960s and early 1970s, promoted by regional assistance and productivity-boosting capital investment.

Even so, exports dwindled further and the textile producers became increasingly dependent on contracts with large retailers. The more financially successful took advantage of strategic relationships with retailers to make further productivity enhancing investments.

The globalisation of retail in the 1990s undermined these relationships, resulting in the outsourcing of much of the remaining British textile industry to cheaper overseas locations. The few surviving firms had adopted niche strategies producing specialised fabrics for sectors like healthcare, outdoor equipment and motor vehicles.

Recent successes stories have also reflected strong demand in international markets for authentically British clothing. The Burberry brand is one good example and Marks and Spencer’s “Best of British” range is another. Authenticity requires genuine sourcing, which helps explain the opening of the first Lancashire cotton-spinning mill for several decades, in 2015, at Tower Mill, Dukinfield.


Untitled 2
Tower Mill, Greater Manchester, 2017

If textiles are to revive further in Lancashire, the lessons of history are important.

Regional, rather than national, financial institutions, ranging from informal networks to country banks to local stock markets, underpinned previous phases of development, and London’s influence as a financial centre then, and today, has little to do with investment in northern manufacturing.

Public sector funding, via the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, has helped secure the immediate future of Tower Mill. Meanwhile, recent research has identified further growth potential in the form of medium and small textile firms in the region fit the usual criteria for investment by private equity (n=52) and venture capital firms (n=125).

However, these are mere possibilities, and a far cry from the closely integrated networks of innovation and finance that underpinned success in earlier generations. Even if the demand for “Britishness” in fashion conscious international markets remains stable, and that is a big “if”, given the long run context of volatility, supportive regional financial institutions seem to be lacking.

In this sense, the lessons of history overshadow the future of the textile component of the Northern powerhouse project.


To contact the author:  @steventoms_lubs