A Knight’s Tale (32: The Great Smog)

Today we are battling even greater global problems with air pollution than that of the smog Chris and I experienced in 1952.  Smog is a term coined by compacting elided versions of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’.  One nickname for London is ‘The Smoke.  The capital in those days was frequently visited by fog exacerbated by smoke from the burning of coal.  It had been a problem in industrial towns since the previous century.  The return home from school in December 1952 was expected to be in the dark.  Normally, when we got off the trolleybus at Arterberry Road, even at night time, we could see the pillarbox at the corner of Stanton Road in which we lived, and the street lamps rendered the crossing as bright as daylight.  Not so, soon after 4 p.m., when the great smog hit ‘The Great Wen’, another name for London.  Imagine a gas lamp in a Victorian alleyway, glowing a dull, weak, egg-yolk hue, its halo vanishing into the darkness, and offering no practical illumination.  This is what the street lamps of Wimbledon, and the headlights of passing cars looked like for a week of winter evenings.  They had no impact on the pea souper that penetrated our lungs and our living rooms.  Alighting from our bus, Dad having come to meet us, we felt our way along fences to the corner of Arterberry, peered into the depths of Worple Road, and hoped the lack of feeble car lights would persist until we tripped over the kerb and into Stanton Road on the other side.  We then had to progress down to the dog-leg around which, over the road, lay our home.  Fortunately there were very few cars on these roads at that time.  Those that did emerge, crawled along, their drivers blinking into the gloom.  I really don’t know how the bus drivers managed.


I do not exaggerate these conditions.  I see the all-enveloping obscurity blanket still.  In 1956 the Clean Air Act, which introduced smokeless zones, came into effect.  It was a direct result of the virtual blackout of December 1952.

It was interesting to find corroboration of my own memory in

Great Smog of London, lethal smog that covered the city of London for five days (December 5–9) in 1952, caused by a combination of industrial pollution and high-pressure weather conditions. This combination of smoke and fog brought the city to a near standstill and resulted in thousands of deaths. Its consequences prompted the passing of the Clean Air Act four years later, which marked a turning point in the history of environmentalism.

The phenomenon of “London fog” long predated the crisis of the early 1950s. Known as “pea-soupers” for their dense, yellow appearance, such all-encompassing fogs had became a hallmark of London by the 19th century. But polluted fog was an issue in London as early as the 13th century, due to the burning of coal, and the situation only worsened as the city continued to expand. Complaints about smoke and pollution increased in the 1600s, when ultimately ineffective legislation was passed under King James I to restrict coal burning. Rapidly increasing industrialization that began in the late 1700s made conditions even worse.

Air pollution reached a crisis in the 19th century with the spread of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid growth of the metropolis. The increase of domestic fires and factory furnaces meant that polluted emissions surged considerably. It was at this time that the fog-laden atmosphere of London portrayed vividly in the novels of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle emerged. The fogs of London could last a week, and fog-related deaths were reported on gravestones in the early 19th century. Despite the deterioration of public health, little was done to check the smog, given the plethora of jobs that new industry provided and the comforts afforded by domestic coal fires.

The Great Smog of 1952 was a pea-souper of unprecedented severity, induced by both weather and pollution. On the whole, during the 20th century, the fogs of London had become more infrequent, as factories began to migrate outside the city. However, on December 5, an anticyclone settled over London, a high-pressure weather system that caused an inversion whereby cold air was trapped below warm air higher up. Consequently, the emissions of factories and domestic fires could not be released into the atmosphere and remained trapped near ground level. The result was the worst pollution-based fog in the city’s history.

Visibility was so impaired in some parts of London that pedestrians were unable to see their own feet. Aside from the Underground, transportation was severely restricted. Ambulance services suffered, leaving people to find their own way to hospitals in the smog. Many people simply abandoned their cars on the road. Indoor plays and concerts were cancelled as audiences were unable to see the stage, and crime on the streets increased. There was a spike in deaths and hospitalizations relating to pneumonia and bronchitis, and herds of cattle in Smithfield reportedly choked to death. Though the fog lasted five days, finally lifting on December 9, its severity was not fully appreciated until the registrar general published the number of fatalities a few weeks later, which amounted to about 4,000. The effects of the smog were long-lasting, however, and present-day estimates rank the number of deaths to have been about 12,000.

After the events of 1952, the seriousness of London’s air pollution became undeniable. Slow to act at first, the British government ultimately passed the Clean Air Act four years later, in 1956, as a direct response to the lethal fog. The act established smoke-free areas throughout the city and restricted the burning of coal in domestic fires as well as in industrial furnaces. Moreover, homeowners were offered grants that would allow them to switch to different heating sources, such as oil, natural gas, and electricity. Though change was gradual and another smog crisis occurred in 1962, the Clean Air Act is generally considered a major event in the history of environmentalism, and it helped improve public health in Britain.


Published by derrickjknight

I am an octogenarian enjoying rambling physically and photographing what I see, and rambling in my head as memories are triggered. I also ramble through a lifetime's photographs. In these later years much rambling is done in a car.

66 thoughts on “A Knight’s Tale (32: The Great Smog)

  1. Wow! I knew about London fogs, of course, but I had no idea their history went back so many centuries. I can’t believe how awful this one was. They couldn’t see the stage inside the theater?!

  2. My father recalled the terror of crossing the (old) London Bridge to get to the station for his train home and not being sure where the parapets were or indeed if he was still walking in the right direction.

  3. I was at junior school in South Derbyshire from 1959-1964 and we had a few fogs where we had to feel our way along walls to get home, but it was definitely fog and not smog. Just once we had a similar fog in Nottingham in either the late 1970s or the early 1980s, but since then, fog is probably the rarest of weathers here.

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  5. An interesting real life story of British history. I’m surprised that you even had school during such weather. Your father was wise to meet you at the bus stop. What perfect conditions for street crimes!

  6. I am vaguely aware of this moment in history, but whether it’s from a TV show, a movie, or a book, I can’t recall. It sounds terrible.

    After that first night coming home, when you father met you, did you have to go back to school the next day? Or did you just hunker down at home till it rectified?

  7. I heard of this, and it’s amazing isn’t it. Can you imagine the respiratory illnesses people suffered, and yet I can imagine there was pushback from homeowners having their cosy fires restricted. I see there were alternative heating schemes financially sponsored, but there must have been resentment during the changeover. I wonder if you get onto this subject next time you visit your mother, what recollections that would spark.

      1. Oh dear Derrick. That is a difficult time. We know it must come to all of us eventually, but it always seems too soon, no matter what great age is achieved. My thoughts are with you and all the family.

  8. Fascinating. A really clear explanation of the times. Brought so many memories back to me. I had just come to The Big Smoke’ from the North Yorkshire Moors to start my national service in the RAF in 1953. I was living in Sussex Square at the Joint Services School For Linguists, and found it a real trial travelling in the gloom between there and Russel Square daily. A baptism of sorts, which I could have done without.

  9. This is so scary, so sad, and so tragic. 😦
    I can see how living through it would have been amazing…and then become a memory in your memory bank for the rest of your life.
    How long before you had school, etc., again? The 5 days or longer? Shorter?

      1. It was bad here recently with smoke from fires, and smelled somewhat oily at times. All kinds of things went up in smoke beside trees. A change in the weather has been clearing it out now.

  10. Even as a rather unaware Canadian country girl of 16, I was vaguely aware of what a dreadful thing far away London was going through. But reading about it now portrays graphically what a nightmare this was for so many people.

    1. I hadn’t realised about the deaths. Interestingly, when I searched the internet for a picture which best fitted my memory, I noticed that many people wore masks. Thanks very much, Yvonne.

  11. I hadn’t known any more of the London smog other than what T S Eliot told us in his bewildering poetry. Your post is a revelation, however, we don’t seem to have done much to purge our habitats in a cumulative manner. Delhi has worn the crown of the most polluted capital past three years in a row. Naturally, it wears the crown of the contemporary smog capital of the planet. It doesn’t help matters that I have temporarily moved into its entrails.

  12. Thank you for this fascinating post, Derrick and apologies yet again for getting here so late. My mother was a policewoman working in south London during the 1952 smog and she remembers one night especially. She was on a bus going home when the driver stopped and told everyone he couldn’t drive any further as the smog was too thick and the conditions were much too dangerous. Every one had to get off and were terribly worried about getting home. Fortunately there was a blind man on the bus who said he would take everyone as far as he could. Like the Pied Piper he led everyone off and took most of them to their roads and/or homes! Mum also remembers a poor man being crushed between two vehicles because the drivers had no idea he was standing in the road.
    You have been in my prayers, Derrick.

      1. That would have been a wonderful coincidence but I don’t think she was. I think she was stationed mainly in the Brixton/Camberwell/Peckham area. I believe the furthest west she got was Tooting but I’m not sure of the timescale.

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