Big Smoke: The Great Smog of London

On Friday 5th December 1952, a dark cloud descended over London. Billowing smog, known as pea-soup on account of its density and sometimes slightly yellow colour was a fairly common sight and few initially believed it to be a cause for major concern. However, it soon became clear that, as a Ministry of Health report would later claim, ‘In a city traditionally notorious for its fogs there was general agreement on its exceptional severity on this occasion.’

During the preceding weeks, the British weather had been unusually chilly, even for the time of year. Consequently more coal was being burnt both commercially and by London residents. Severe winds had also contributed by blowing industrial smoke from Europe all the way across the English Channel.

It was as if London, one of the world’s busiest cities, had come to a complete halt. All public transport, with the exception of the London Underground ceased and vehicles were left discarded on the roads, visibility being so poor that driving was hazardous. There was even a report that a performance of La traviata at Sadler’s Wells was cancelled after the first act as the theatre gradually filled with black smoke. It was even claimed that cattle being brought to Smithfield Market died from asphyxiation. Many of London’s schools were forced to close, with one pupil, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, gleefully remembering how he ‘didn’t have to go to school for a few days.’ Those who did venture out covered their faces in an attempt to prevent themselves from breathing in the harmful pollutants.

Contemporary estimates placed the total number of deaths caused by the killer fog at around 4,000 with nearly 900 on the first day – mostly the elderly and those already in poor health. In early 1953, it was suggested by Marcus Lipton, the Labour MP for Brixton, that 6,000 had in fact been killed and up to 25,000 had been suffered illness as a direct result. New research indicates that the actual figure was much higher, with up to 12,000 casualties.

Indeed, those working in London hospitals at the time were aware that the death toll was exceptionally high, for instance, Dr Robert Waller who worked at St Bartholomew’s Hospital noted that whilst There weren’t bodies lying around in the street and no one really noticed that more people were dying’ in fact, ‘One of the first indications was that undertakers were running out of coffins and florists were running out of flowers.’ Furthermore, Dr Waller believed the reason for the initial conservative estimation, was that ‘There were many patients admitted but there were too many affected and they apparently couldn’t get into hospital and perished outside.’ A large proportion of those who succumbed to the fog actually did so only in the weeks and months afterwards, by which time it had disappeared.

Five days later, the smog finally began to lift. The loss of so many lives was played down by Churchill’s Conservative government, which viewed the event as an unwelcome distraction from dealing with the unstable post-war economy. By 1954, after pressure from the Select Committee on Air Pollution and an ensuing Private Member’s Bill, the government were spurred into action. In 1956 the Clean Air Act was passed in an attempt to curb air pollution and prevent any repetition of the events of December 1952. Areas where smoke had to be controlled were introduced and homeowners were encouraged to rely on gas and electricity for their heating rather than coal. It was also decided that future power stations must be built away from heavily populated cities and towns. Harold Wilson’s Labour government introduced a new Clean Air Act in 1968, which stipulated that it was an offence for a chimney to emit dark smoke unless certain strict conditions were met.

No further smog events have been recorded in Britain except for a relatively minor one in December 1962, yet the capital is still haunted by the memories of those deadly foggy days in London town.