Hot air in parliament: ventilation in the 19th century

Laurence Scales, Heritage and Collections volunteer at the Ri, was inspired by a lecture given on heating and ventilation in May 2018 by Dr Sean Fitzgerald to look into the history of this unexpectedly colourful subject, as told through Victorian lectures in the Ri archives.

People were already fearful of pernicious miasmas when cholera arrived in Britain in the 1830s. The belief that these miasmas, or ‘dirty air’, could cause disease drove a lot of interest in ventilation research. In the 1870s, Ri Professor John Tyndall carried out experiments on supposedly ‘empty’ air which provided support for the notion that disease agents, or ‘germs’ according to the newly formulated Germ Theory, could be carried in the air. Sir James Clark, royal doctor, instilled in Queen Victoria a fanaticism for fresh air, and her windows were usually flung wide, often to the consternation of guests.

It appears that several of the Ri’s Friday Evening Discourse lecturers may also have shared Clark’s views on the importance of ventilation.

  • Illustration showing the movement of air through a room.

    Credit: Lewis W. Leeds, Lectures on Ventilation (1869) via Wikimedia Commons.

Ventilating the Houses of Parliament

In 1834 overzealous packing of a furnace at the Houses of Parliament resulted in their burning to the ground. The reconstruction was a major technological project and Scottish physician and chemist, David Boswell Reid was invited to design the ventilation of both temporary accommodation and the new state-of-the-art building.

Reid gave one of the Ri’s Friday Evening Discourses in 1842, entitled: ‘Experimental Researches on the Connection Between Ventilation and Respiration’, but unfortunately no details survive.

Reid fell out with Sir Charles Barry, the architect who won the 1835 competition to redesign the Houses of Parliament, and so, while MPs still praise Barry and fellow architect Augustus Pugin’s ogives and pinnacles, Reid has been painted as a charlatan despite his innovations and successes.

Faraday gets involved

Despite his falling out with Barry, Reid was still responsible for ventilating the Commons. In 1847 Michael Faraday, whose advice had been sought on the matter, lectured on his ‘[…] Mode of Ventilating the New House of Lords’. We are told he found it “beautiful, both in principle and practice”.

“By passing the steam-cockle the air is warmed, but never highly heated or burnt, as it is called. In the wall of Victoria Hall there are eight flues which rise to the top of the building, leading from the mixing-apartment to the compartments from whence, through the perforated casings and ornamental work of the beams, &c. currents of air are brought down into the house.” – Literary Gazette

Faraday soon returned to the Ri lecture theatre with an additional lecture on the more particular details of the scheme for ventilation of the new parliament, entitled ‘The Steam Jet’. He was an advocate of Henry Bell’s steam jet, its blast a key feature creating air flow in the new ventilation system.

“He then illustrated the manner in which the circumambient air, even to the amount of several hundred times the volume of the steam, was drawn into and mixed with the issuing stream, and carried forward by it. This set and indraught of the air was shewn by the way in which large flames, applied at different parts of the cone of vapour, were drawn into it; by the manner in which light fabrics like muslin were swept up; and by the indraught and sustentation of glass bubbles, egg-shells, &c. into and in the jet of steam when either vertical or considerably inclined” – Literary Gazette

Ventilation in the Home

Moving from the House to the home, in 1851 William Hosking, an architect and engineer, gave a lecture ‘On Ventilation by the Parlour Fire’. He had a book out on the same topic, entitled ‘Healthy Homes’, in 1849.

But in his lecture there was something bothering him more than just the fireplace.

“Nothing has been done to relieve the drains and sewers of their worst offence. The evolution of foul and noxious gases in the drains is certainly not prevented by scouring the sewers. In the mean time the poison exists underfoot, and exudes at every pregnable point within and about our houses, and it rises at every grating in our streets, though the senses may become dull to them by constant suffering.” – William Hosking

Surgeon Thomas Pridgin Teale did not think much of metropolitan air either.  His 1886 lecture:‘The Principles of Domestic Fireplace Construction’ invoked the words of Ri founder Count Rumford, who had previously criticised the economy of domestic fireplaces.

“The enormous waste of fuel in London may be estimated by the vast dark cloud which continually hangs over this great metropolis, and frequently overshadows the whole country, far and wide; for this dense cloud is certainly composed almost entirely of unconsumed coal which, having stolen wings from the innumerable fires of this great city, has escaped by the chimneys, and continues to sail about in the air till, having lost the heat which gave it volatility, it falls in a dry shower of extremely fine black dust to the ground, obscuring the atmosphere in its descent, and frequently changing the brightest day into more than Egyptian darkness.”

Like Rumford, Teale wanted to burn fuel efficiently and project more of the heat forwards from the hearth and not up chimney.

Teale had long championed health and cleanliness in the home. His 1878 book, ‘A Pictorial Guide to Domestic Sanitary Defects’, illustrated how sewer vapours might invade the boudoir or nursery. His illustrations both amuse and horrify, with tableaux such as the butler who, sent to fetch a bottle of wine, disappears under the collapsing cellar floor into a long-forgotten cesspit.

  • Illustration from Thomas Prigden Teale’s 1878 book: A Pictorial Guide to Domestic Sanitary Defects.

    Credit: original from University of California, digitized by Internet Archive, accessed via Hathitrust.

  • Illustration from Thomas Prigden Teale’s 1878 book:‘A Pictorial Guide to Domestic Sanitary Defects.

    Credit: original from University of California, digitized by Internet Archive, accessed via Hathitrust

Measuring Contaminants of the Air

In his 1856 lecture ‘On Ventilation and the Means of Determining its Amount’, Henry Bence Jones introduced a quantitative analysis of ventilation.

“If a fish were confined under water in a glass tube open at the two ends, the time during which the fish would live in the tube would not depend on the cubic contents of the tube, but on the quantity of water caused to pass through the openings. So the cubic contents of a room will give no more information than the cubic contents of the glass tube.” Henry Bence Jones

This table produced by Jones showing cubic space actually given to persons”, as part of his published lectures, is a public health horror story written in plain statistics.

  • Table taken from Dr Bence Jones’ 1856 Ri lecture: On Ventilation and the Means of Determining its Amount.

    Note. Although the transatlantic slave trade was abolished by Britain in 1807 it continued elsewhere until 1859.

Jones examined various ways in which to measure the carbon dioxide of the air in a room. He made experiments with the “close air in St Pancras workhouse”, but the results were inconclusive. However, he did note the lower mortality in a maternity hospital where David Reid’s system of ventilation was used.

“We have all probably come to the full belief that a house badly drained causes disease and death; but we hardly yet fully admit to ourselves that a house or body without good means of ventilation is a house or body badly drained. At present our chimneys are our chief aerial drains, which almost cease to act as soon as the temperature outside and inside the house is the same.”Henry Bence Jones

Carbon dioxide is only one contaminant of the air. Robert Angus Smith lectured in 1859 ‘On the Estimation of the Organic Matter of the Air’, a few months after the climactic Great Stink of 1858 when feculent fumes from the Thames drove MPs from parliament. He measured relative quantities of organic and other oxidizable matter in the air in various locations, and it was from Smith, later in his life, that we gained the term ‘acid rain’.

Improvements to Ventilation Technology

One of the few Ri lectures of the century which might be described as mathematical had a most unexpected influence on the science and understanding of ventilation. In 1874 James Joseph Sylvester lectured ‘On Recent Discoveries in Mechanical Conversion of Motion’.

  • The motion of Peaucellier’s mechanical linkage. Bars of identical colour are of equal length.

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Sylvester brought the French engineer Peaucellier’s mechanical linkage to the attention of the British public. This was the first planar linkage with the capacity to convert rotation into linear motion. 

William Prim, an engineer at the Houses of Parliament, was inspired to install Peaucellier’s mechanical linkage there as part of a ventilating machine in 1877. The pure up and down movement of the engine had less of a squeak to disturb the house.

Word has it that it may still be there.

  • Illustration of Prim's blowing engine used for ventilating the House of Commons, 1877.

    Credit: photograph by Science Museum, London, in Kinematics of Mechanisms from the Time of Watt, by Eugene S. Ferguson, via Project Gutenberg EBooks.

In conclusion, while railways and electric lights are well known legacies of the Victorian period, the Victorians were also founding one of the less visible technologies enabling modern city life – heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.


Laurence Scales leads London tours featuring the history of science, invention and medicine. He is a graduate in engineering who has worked in various technological industries.

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