Industrial heritage disappearing from Europe’s skyline: 2023 Year of the Factory Chimney

EFAITH estimates only 5% of industrial heritage icons remain in Europe

Image: genjok/Canva

To draw more attention to disappearing industrial heritage, the organisation for European Federation of Associations for Industrial and Technical Heritage (EFAITH) has designated the year 2023 as the Year of the Factory Chimney. Partly due to the trend of making heritage more sustainable, and these monuments often being regarded as symbols of pollution, multiple chimneys are taken down across Europe every day.

EFAITH estimates that around 5% of industrial chimneys remain today. They fear that without appropriate actions, these industrial monuments will completely disappear from the European skyline. By making 2023 the Year of Factory Chimneys, EFAITH hopes to draw more attention to these industrial landmarks.

Plan of action

To put factory chimneys in the spotlight, EFAITH wants to gather information via a survey on surviving factory chimneys in Europe and their condition. A questionnaire has been prepared and can be downloaded in several languages. Organising activities near factory chimneys, and making short videos could help draw more attention to endangered chimneys as well, the organisation reckons.

Lastly, EFAITH aims to establish a European network of partners willing to invest sustainably in the (re)valuation of factory chimneys. These partners should be willing to share knowledge and experiences on conservation and restoration of these monuments as well. Interested in becoming a partner, volunteer, or setting up an event of your own? Scroll down to the end of the article.

A chimney of the former Henninger brewery in Frankfurt am Main is blown up, December 2, 2006. Image: Heptagon/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Prosperity or environmental issues?

Factory chimneys were long regarded as a symbol of industry and economic prosperity. Their rise is linked to the invention of steam engines at the end of the 18th century. In the centuries afterwards, industrial chimneys started to dominate the European skyline.

However, the fumes from the industrial processes inside the factories often made people on the ground sick. The chimneys were built higher and higher, but serious environmental legislation only followed in 1956 with the world’s first national air pollution law passed in the UK.

The main reason for the act was the so-called Great Smog of 1952, a severe air pollution event in London. Due to the combination of cold weather, windless conditions and the high use of coal in the households and factories, the city was covered in a thick layer of smog for days. Government sources suggested 4,000 were killed due to the smog, while recent research estimates casualties between 10,000 and 12,000, National Geographic reported.

Although the heavy smog was not entirely because of factory chimneys, nowadays they have become an icon for environmental pollution in general. As heavy industry was moved out of European cities, the former factory buildings and their chimneys were demolished to make space.

Chimney heritage today

As chimney after chimney toppled in the 1990s, discussions arose about their fate and their possible future as monuments, as symbols of the European industrial past. In 1997, the Stichting Fabrieksschoorstenen (Foundation Factory Chimneys) was set up in the Netherlands with the aim of “studying and preserving factory chimneys that can be considered part of the industrial heritage.” This association still pleads for to conservation and restoration of chimneys in Dutch municipalities and also established an extensive documentation collection, database, and published a book with over 800 images on factory chimneys in the Netherlands.

Another example can be found in northern France, as a series of events highlighting the heritage of factory chimneys in Roubaix – “La Ville aux 1000 Cheminées” (The City of 1000 Chimneys) – was organised there in 2004. Three years later, the slogan “Beffrois du Travail” (Belfries of Labour) was launched. Where in the Middle Ages belfry towers became symbols of city rights, the ‘chimney-belfries’ were regarded as symbols of labour and workers in northern France.

The Monnoyer chimney (on the right) near the former coal mine of Zolder is a listed monument. Image: Eebie/wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Organisations in Malaga (Spain), Turku (Finland), Ramskapelle and Zolder (Belgium) have also successfully worked towards the preservation of iconic factory chimneys. Some even became listed historical monuments.

If you are interested in getting involved with EFAITH’s campaign, please contact: 
EFAITH (European Federation of Associations of Industrial and Technical Heritage)
p/a Vredelaan 72
B-8500 Kortrijk (Belgium)
[email protected]