The Great Smog of London Killed Thousands of Souls

Noon during Great London Smog of 1952
Noon during Great London Smog of 1952

Most everyone knows of the heavy smog that routinely hangs over China’s capital, Beijing. But few remember a far deadlier version that attacked London in 1952That’s right, London.  A FIVE DAY long blanket of smog so thick it brought road, air and river traffic to a complete halt and was so polluted it left thousands dead!  It remains the deadliest environmental disaster in recorded history.  And ironically, the people it killed were partly to blame.

Since the 1800’s, London was no stranger to pollution.  Britain has long been affected by its famous pea-soup fogs, but these became much worse with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution of the mid 19th century. Hundreds of London area factories belched noxious smoke into the air, much of which was poisonous. The River Thames valley is flat and low-lying, making it hard to disperse.

Deadly smog episodes occurred in London as early as December 1813 (from house chimneys), then again in January 1880 (from houses and factories), and November 1948 (houses and factories and cars). The London death rate would increase after each incident.  The worst affected area was usually the East End, where most of the factories and lower-class houses sat. A small scale version had occurred just 4 years earlier Pennsylvania in the U.S., the so-called Donora Death Fog. No one thought such thing could ever happen in London though.

Back in the 1950’s, industrial smog had become a part of London daily life. As dawn broke on Friday, December 5th, the London sky was clear blue and winds were light. The sky was so clear in fact, the autumn ground cooled. When the moist air contacted the cool ground, a layer of fog formed.

Now an early-winter cold snap had been gripping London for weeks. As folks awoke that Friday morning, Londoners did what they have for centuries, they stoked their furnaces and fireplaces with coal to take away the chill. Smoke billowed from the chimneys of every London abode, and we’re talking thousands of chimneys.

Then a rare atmospheric inversion began trapping the smoke over London.

A 30 mile wide high-pressure system had stalled over southern England.  This pushed cold air downwards, creating an ‘inversion.’ So when smoke belched out of a thousand chimneys and stacks, it was trapped over London with no place to go.

During the morning of 5 December, the fog was not especially thick. But as the day progressed, a veil of smog began to enshroud Parliament’s Ben, St. Pauls Cathedral, and Tower Bridge.  Londoners had endured countless smogs, so no one had any idea a deadly catastrophe was brewing in the air above them.

This smog’s foul-smelling, yellow-brown appearance was totally different than the clean white fog of the English coast. With not even a wisp of a breeze, there was no wind to disperse the soot-laden air. Nonetheless, Londoners went about their business, going to work and school, ignoring it as much as possible. But by the end of the day however, it became impossible to ignore.

Witnesses recall the blackness of this particular smog. After a few hours, drivers couldn’t see the curb from behind the wheel of their cars.  They turned on their headlights in mid-day to inch ahead in the gloom. Boat traffic on the River Thames slowed to a halt. Flights in and out of Heathrow Airport were grounded. Conductors walked in front of red double-decker buses holding lanterns to guide drivers down city streets. The smog had crippled all transportation, except for the London Underground. 

“It swirled like it was alive,” one witness said. “It’s like you were blind,” said another. 

Everyone in London would stumble along blind for the next four days.  The smoke blocked out the sun and the air turned colder. Londoners heaped even more coal on their fires, making even more smoke out their chimneys.  Evening concerts and motion picture shows had to be cancelled.  Streets were littered with abandoned cars as drivers were forced to walk home.  

The smog had a nauseating rotten egg smell.  Wheezing pedestrians with kerchiefs over their mouth, groped their way home, trying not to slip on the greasy black ooze beginning to coat streets and sidewalks. By the time they returned home, their faces were blackened by the air, resembling Welsh coal miners.

The following day, Saturday, December 6, the winter sun was too low in the sky to burn the fog away. That day and for the next two, the smog continued to thicken. Authorities told parents to keep children home from school. Looting and burglaries increased as emboldened criminals easily vanished into the gloom.  Weekend soccer games were cancelled, a rare occurrence indeed. In most parts of London, it was impossible for pedestrians to find their way at night.

In case you’re wondering, with every opened door, the smog seeped inside buildings as well. A greasy grime covered exposed surfaces, like floors, windows and door knobs.  Librarians found smog lurking among the bookshelves. Movie theaters closed as the yellow haze made it impossible to see the screen, not to mention the coughing patrons made it hard to hear the sound.

On the second day, the deaths began as 500 people died in London from the smog. 

Some of the smog’s sulfur mixed with water in the air, turning into sulfuric acid vapor, caused severe breathing problems, plus skin and eye irritation.  When the ambulances stopped running, thousands of gasping and gagging Londoners stumbled through the smog to try and find the overwhelmed city’s hospitals.  

Lying on hospital beds and gurneys, the lips of the dying were turning blue. Cigarette smoking and long term exposure to pollution had already weakened many Londoner’s lungs. Particulates and acids in the killer smog finished the job by triggering massive pulmonary inflammation.  In essence, the dead suffocated in their own London air.

By Sunday, December 7th, visibility fell to one foot.  It was so dark and thick you could no longer see your feet outside. Services at St. Pauls Cathedral were cancelled as the dealt toll rose to over 1,000 souls. It wasn’t until undertakers began to run out of coffins, that the deadly impact of “The Great Smog” was finally realized by city officials.

London Bobby during the Great London Smog
London Bobby during the Great London Smog

The effects weren’t limited to people either.  Birds lost in the smog crashed into buildings. Dogs were found dead in the gutters.  Cattle died, their lungs black with soot, and were discarded rather than slaughtered.  Breeders  tried to fashion improvised gas masks by soaking grain sacks in whiskey and placing them over the cows’ heads.

Some 900 more died from the smog on Tuesday, December 9th.

The Great Smog was exceptionally lethal for the elderly, younger children and anyone with asthma or respiratory problems. Heavy smokers were especially vulnerable. The link to lung cancer was not yet known, so cigarette smoking was still widespread in the 1950’s.

Then on Tuesday night, a brisk wind finally swept in unexpectedly. The killer fog vanished off into the North Sea as quickly as it had arrived.  Thousands of Londoners were dead, and thousands more were about to die. Those who survived no longer spoke of London’s romantic pea-soup fog, where couples could sneak away for a hidden rendezvous.

Initial reports estimated that 4,000 more died in the immediate aftermath of the smog. But the detrimental effects lingered, and death rates remained well above normal into 1953. Many experts now estimate the Great Smog claimed as many as 12,000 lives.  Many suffered from long term breathing problems. Deaths from bronchitis and pneumonia increased more than seven-fold.

The British government was slow to act during the Great Smog. Heavy fog was, after all, a common occurrence in London, so there was no immediate sense of urgency. Following a government investigation, however, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, which restricted burning coal in urban areas. Homeowners received grants to convert to cleaner oil hea furnaces. Factory operators had to convert to more smokeless fuels.

The transition took years however, and deadly fogs continued to occur, 750 died a decade later in 1962, for example. Thankfully, this kind of smog has become a thing of the past in London thanks to pollution legislation. While the killer fog is not very well remembered by current generations, it did change the way many nations around the world looked at their own air pollution. 

But sadly, not everywhere, as similar conditions are now well established in modern China. Beijing’s smog is infamous and legendary, and nearly derailed their 2008 Summer Olympic Games. With an atmospheric inversion, another death smog could occur there any day.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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