Today we have another fact filled post… If that’s not what you want, scroll down, my friend.
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the great smog of London.
In 1952, London was an industrialised, coal-powered city. December was a cold month. Cars were becoming more prevalent as a means of transport.
The cold weather meant that people began to heat their homes. This was done using coal fires. British coal for household use was the lower quality sulphur rich leftovers once the high grade coal had been sold for export.
London was famous for its pea-soup fog from Victorian times, named for its yellowy black thick, soot filled air. Londoners were born and raised to breathe the stuff. But 1952 was different.
The freezing cold weather trapped the noxious fog at ground level and continued to thicken for almost a week. Visibility during ‘daylight’ was around 1 metre. When night fell, the street lamps in use at the time failed to penetrate the smog, leaving pedestrians blind.
Driving became impossible. All ambulance services in the capital were cancelled, leaving the sick to make their own way to hospital. Public transport was cancelled (although the Underground managed somehow to maintain a service) but there was nowhere to go anyway as the smog penetrated theatres, concert halls and movie theatres which were all closed down due to the appalling visibility levels in the stalls. All sporting events were cancelled too as people began to feel the effects of the smog
London became a silent and still place, with only the explosion of railway warning charges breaking through the calm (as a footnote, these charges were placed manually by engineers at all signal posts and detonated beneath train wheels to give drivers an audible warning when approaching invisible junctions).
For the first time, Britain began to see that air pollution was not something to accept and ignore.
In one week, hundreds of thousands of Londoners were stricken with respiratory illness caused by the smog which had slipped its toxic tendrils into people’s homes, managing to kill some 12000 people by modern estimates.
Eventually, the weather broke and rain rinsed London clean, taking streams of odorous poison away with it. London got up from its knees and did what it does best, passing under-powered legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the City of London (Various Powers) Act, neither of which were enough to prevent more deaths 10 years later as similar weather trapped the pollution once more. Luckily the Beatles came along to save the world and everything was fine and dandy.
To leave some kind of positive note amidst this depressing post, these events kick-started environmentalism in the UK and lead to a new awareness of the dangers of air pollution.
Personally every time I return to London after a stay in my home pastures of the Staffordshire Moorlands or a holiday stay near the salt marshes of Norfolk, I can feel the London air seeping into my lungs as we drive back into the capital. It’s good to clean the air filters now and then but London is still a vibrant living city.
Having by now destroyed you with a tedious history lesson, I can reward those who have made it this far with the truth about the Great Smog.
The Great Smog was a super-villain of epic proportions. Think of him as The Joker and Victorian London as Gotham City. His evil plan? To turn the air from a gas into a solid. He would’ve gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those pesky kids (TM Hannah-Barbera) and Britain’s first superhero, the vaguely derivative and slightly tenuous Pea Souper Man.