I was looking through some of my old negative scans and found four photos of St Paul’s Cathedral dating from 1977. Nothing special about the photos, and the cathedral is one of the buildings in the City that has not changed, however they did highlight how much dirt the cathedral had accumulated, and in comparison, how clean it looks today.
The following photo shows the view of the cathedral from the junction of Cannon Street and New Change in 1977:
The following photo shows the same view, forty four years later in 2021::
St Paul’s Cathedral has had a number of extensive cleaning and restoration projects over the years, however the state of the cathedral in 1977 was probably not what those who worked on the mid 1960s cleaning project would have expected.
At the end of the 1960s cleaning, it was expected that with recent clean air legislation, and the City of London being designated a smokeless zone the cathedral would remain clean and there was a possibility that in “250 years time, St Paul’s Cathedral will look as Sir Christopher Wren would have liked to have seen it”.
The above quote and the following still is from a fascinating BBC programme from 1965, when “Tonight” had a lengthy feature on the cleaning of St Paul’s Cathedral. The full programme can be watched here, and also highlights the 1960s approach to health and safety (as illustrated in the still below) as well as the rather basic method of cleaning employed. At times the wind lifted the sheets preventing cleaning water from falling to the streets, resulting in some very annoyed City Police Officers who threatened those cleaning the cathedral with a summons if they did not stop work as water was blowing as far as Cannon Street.
There is also a 1962 British Pathe film of the 1960s cleaning project here, which shows how jets of water and wire brushes were used to scrub the soot from the surface of the building, which in some areas was in layers over one inch thick.
Only 11 years after completion of the mid 1960s clean, the cathedral was again looking rather dirty.
The above photo is the south facing side of the cathedral in 1977 and the photo below is the same view in 2021:
In my 1977 photos, the cathedral appears cleaner towards the top, and dirtier towards the bottom of the building. Although central London was a much cleaner place than it had been for many centuries, vehicles were emitting far more pollutants than they do now, and pollution would still be blowing in from the surrounding area.
It is hard to appreciate just how dirty London was up until the late 1960s. Coal burning in homes, offices and factories along with electricity power stations, and industries producing gas from coal all contributed to a significant smog of pollution and dirt.
The 1960s cleaning of the cathedral had to deal with dirt that was over an inch thick in places, and we can get an idea of the impact of this amount of dirt from a Parliamentary question asked on the 06 April 1955 by Mr. George Isaacs, MP for Southwark, when he states that based on measuring equipment installed next to Bankside Power Station, and at the Town Hall in Walworth Road, they found that over a year, the “deposit recorded at that time was the equivalent to 235 tons to the square mile on Bankside and a mile away in Walworth Road the deposit was 60 tons to the square mile”.
In the written question, he states that it is necessary to live in the area to really know what the impact of this level of pollution to everyday life means, which he describes as: “Our people have grit in their eyes and grit in their food; there is grit underfoot and grit in the laundry on washing day. I know that what I say has happened. There are the large blocks of the Peabody Buildings less than 150 yards from the station. The only place there for women to dry their laundry is on the roof. They put their laundry on the roof, and the grit comes down. Father comes home to tea, and mother goes upstairs to take in the washing, and when she comes down father knows all about it because she is not in a good humour if she finds that she has to do her laundry all over again. I can say with some justification that this is a nuisance not only physically but in the way it upsets amenities and family life in the area”.
The following graph shows how the level of pollution in London, measured by Suspended Particulate Matter (measured in micrograms per cubic metre), has changed over time (source: What the history of London’s air pollution can tell us about the future of today’s growing megacities by Hannah Ritchie, using data from Foquet (2011) – Creative Commons BY license):
Whether these figures could have been accurately measured going back to 1700 is an interesting question, however the key point of the graph is the overall shape, and the rapid decrease in the second half of the twentieth century, confirming that the air is London is now much cleaner than it has been for many centuries.
The cathedral featured in classroom material produced by the National Society for Clean Air. A chart was produced which included a before and after the recent cleaning view of St Paul’s Cathedral. The chart also included a picture of a boy and girl in clean country air, as well as devices such as smokeless domestic heating equipment. Rather scarily, the chart also included drawings of the sections of the lungs of those living in the city and in the countryside, showing the damage that was being done to the lungs of city dwellers.
School education continues, with the Mayor of London now producing toolkits for schools focusing on air pollution and the dangers of high levels of Nitrogen Dioxide, which particularly affects children, and those with breathing difficulties.
Whilst the clogging grit and smoke that quickly blackened London’s buildings may no longer be a problem, invisible gases such as Nitrogen Dioxide, and very small particulate matter are now the main problem.
Another view of the south facing side of the cathedral in 1977:
The same view today of a much cleaner building:
The most recent full clean of St Paul’s Cathedral completed in 2011 ready for the 300th anniversary of the cathedral.
This had been a 14 year project which cleaned both the interior and exterior of the building. There were some controversial methods used to clean the cathedral, including a latex paste that was applied to the interior stone, which absorbed the layer of dirt and allowed this to be pulled away with the latex layer.
New methods have frequently been used for cleaning the building. In 1903, an American method of stone cleaning where a blast of pitsand was blown at the cathedral walls through a tube at a pressure of 30lb to the square inch, to try and remove the soot and dirt that was ingrained on the Portland stone of the building.
The main west facing entrance to the cathedral in 1977, photographed from Ludgate Hill.
The same view today:
My early memories of walking through the City are of a grey and dirty place, although it is also difficult to be sure how real some of these memories are. What is certain is that the buildings of the City are now much cleaner. The air in many places is better, but there are still many places where pollution levels are too high, generally close to busy roads as London today does not have the same polluting industries as it did.
Hopefully George Isaacs, MP for Southwark would be happy with the change, as well as Sir Christopher Wren who would now recognise the cathedral as it was when it was built.