Background Exposure to air pollutants is suggested to adversely affect fetal growth, but the evidence remains inconsistent in relation to specific outcomes and exposure windows. Methods Using birth records from the two major maternity hospitals in Newcastle upon Tyne in northern England between 1961 and 1992, we constructed a database of all births to mothers resident within the city. Weekly black smoke exposure levels from routine data recorded at 20 air pollution monitoring stations were obtained and individual exposures were estimated via a two-stage modeling strategy, incorporating temporally and spatially varying covariates. Regression analyses, including 88,679 births, assessed potential associations between exposure to black smoke and birth weight, gestational age and birth weight standardized for gestational age and sex. Results Significant associations were seen between black smoke and both standardized and unstandardized birth weight, but not for gestational age when adjusted for potential confounders. Not all associations were linear. For an increase in whole pregnancy black smoke exposure, from the 1st (7.4 μg/m3) to the 25th (17.2 μg/m3), 50th (33.8 μg/m3), 75th (108.3 μg/m3), and 90th (180.8 μg/m3) percentiles, the adjusted estimated decreases in birth weight were 33 g (SE 1.05), 62 g (1.63), 98 g (2.26) and 109 g (2.44) respectively. A significant interaction was observed between socio-economic deprivation and black smoke on both standardized and unstandardized birth weight with increasing effects of black smoke in reducing birth weight seen with increasing socio-economic disadvantage. Conclusions The findings of this study progress the hypothesis that the association between black smoke and birth weight may be mediated through intrauterine growth restriction. The associations between black smoke and birth weight were of the same order of magnitude as those reported for passive smoking. These findings add to the growing evidence of the harmful effects of air pollution on birth outcomes.