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Backwords: Black Spots

Mike Shaw recalls the dark days when mill chimneys and home fires belched smoke into the air of his native Colne Valley in Yorkshire.

We didn’t need make-up to black our faces like commandos for Army games in Marsden Park sixty years ago.

All we had to do was rub our fingers on the leaves of the rhododendron bushes and we had enough soot to transform ourselves into dark-skinned terrors.

Housewives hung out their washing in the grim knowledge that, especially in winter, it was unlikely to dry whiter than white.

Washing lines in the shadow of Colne Valley’s massive mills were at greatest risk from the dreaded black spot as their chimneys poured out columns of thick smoke from dawn to dusk.

At home, on the outskirts of Marsden, we and our neighbours struggled with newspaper, sticks and the occasional luxury of a firelighter to get the coals glowing in the grate.

Later, in a moment of inspiration, my mother went out and bought a gas poker which made the whole tiresome firelighting task that much easier.

The long-winded job was usually made into a game as I used a double page from the previous night’s Examiner as an improvised draw-tin.

Coals reluctant to burst into life were hurried along by holding the newspaper over the front of the fireplace.

It invariably worked. But the trick was to fan the fuel into flames -- and snatch away the paper before it became a blazing torch.

I’m forced to admit that, more often than not, I failed miserably and finished up thrusting the burning paper up the chimney as it threatened to fall like an incendiary on to the hearthrug.

From the snow-covered tops, where as boys we used to drag our sledges for the start of a long downhill run, we often had an uncanny view of a blanket of smoke shrouding the valley below.

Old King Coal really did rule in those days. Homes with central heating were few and far between, electric fires were considered too expensive and pre-war gas fires -- of a type we had in one of our bedrooms -- had gone out of fashion.

Every district seemed to blame the smoke on somewhere else.

Colne Valley’s health inspectors said we suffered from drift smoke blown over the Pennines from the cotton towns of Lancashire.

In Huddersfield the civic fathers claimed their air was polluted by the clouds of smoke carried down from Marsden, Slaithwaite, Linthwaite and Golcar by the prevailing westerly winds.

Only in the local holiday week was there any sort of guarantee that the smoky atmosphere would clear sufficiently to see from one end of the Valley to the other.

About thirty years ago, using brand new legislation, the old Colne Valley Council decided to grasp the nettle.

They embarked on an ambitious programme of setting up smoke-free zones, starting at the lower end of the valley.

We got our smokeless zone at Linthwaite. But before the council could go any further it was killed off in the 1974 reshuffle of local government.

Two decades later Kirklees carried on where our urban district councillors left off.

Now we can breathe more easily. The smoke from Lancashire comes over in smaller doses, the mills here are no longer allowed to churn out black smoke incessantly, and many folk have voluntarily deserted coal fires for central heating, gas and electricity.

Better late than never, I suppose.

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