Victorian environmental concerns came in many guises, from fretting over the endemic smoky haze that covered the northern manufacturing centres of Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield to fears sparked by the ‘Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’ and a capital drowning in equine faeces (a prospect avoided, somewhat ironically, by the invention of the internal combustion engine). Factory reformers, green space advocates, smoke abatement societies and activists against animal cruelty all became pioneers in environmental activism, drawing significant connections between a healthy environment and a healthy society.
As the urban world encroached, conservation became an important motif. The RSPB was founded in 1889 and, led by female campaigners, agitated for the protection of birds (and especially a limit on their use in millinery). The National Trust, founded by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley in 1895, began to lobby for the preservation of sites on the basis of their “beauty or historical interest”, abetted by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (which was later joined by sister bodies in Wales and Scotland), established in 1926.
A passion for the countryside, alongside concerns over the privatisation of commons land since the early 1700s, invited an activist response on Sunday 24 April 1932, when hundreds of workers (many of whom belonged to ramblers’ societies) engaged in a mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire: an important act of civil disobedience that demanded a “right to roam”. Such campaigns for nature conservation led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949), and the dedication of the Peak District National Park in 1951.
The post-1945 era augured a new phase in British environmentalism, one symbolised by the atomic bomb and a capacity for Homo sapiens to transform the biosphere on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Walkers marched from Aldermaston to London in Ban-the-Bomb protests led by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). Concerns about nuclear contamination were also joined by worries about pesticides and other encompassing threats to life, eloquently articulated by the US biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal tract Silent Spring (1962).
In postwar Britain, this sentiment was galvanised by striking examples of environmental crisis. London’s Great Smog of 1952 – a deadly conjugation of fog and smoke emissions – led to the deaths of 12,000 people, days of near-zero visibility and the removal of prized plants from Kew Gardens to Kent. The deleterious impact of modern industrialism was also made clear by the stricken Torrey Canyon oil tanker dumping more than 100,000 tonnes of crude off the Cornish coast in March 1967; images of mired seabirds capturing the public attention in an early example of TV environmentalism in action.