The Great Smog of London: What was it, what caused it and how did it end?

What was the Great Smog of London in 1952, what caused it and how did it end?

Black and white photograph of a statue of a horse standing on its hind legs surrounded by fog in the Great Smog of London, 1952
Woods and Reed/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Published: September 6, 2022 at 2:53 pm
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The Great Smog of London was the worst fog in the history of the UK. At the worst of the Great Smog, those who ventured out struggled to breathe. Even indoors there was little respite as fog began to seep in.

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What caused the Great Smog of London?

The Great Smog started on Friday 5 December 1952 after a period of prolonged cold had led people to burn more fuel than normal. Five great coal-fired power stations – Battersea, Bankside, Fulham, Greenwich and Kingston upon Thames – poured smoke, hydrochloric acid, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Domestic fires contributed to the mix with their use of ‘nutty slack’ which was a cheap fuel made of small coal nuggets and coal dust. This had not been rationed as had other solid fuels so its use had become widespread.

Ghastly coloured fogs were a familiar feature of London winters, and they were named for their tint: a ‘London particular’ after a murky brown-coloured Madeira wine; or a ‘pea-souper’ which was a pale green colour. The Great Smog was a pea-souper. It was caused by abnormal atmospheric conditions where there was little wind and an anticyclone settled over the city, trapping cold stagnant air below a layer of warm air. It was so dense that pedestrians could not see far and in some cases were unable to see their own outstretched hands. The Great Smog got worse as people continued to use fuel in the cold and the low visibility kept cars and other vehicles off the roads so the air was not stirred by their movement.

What was the Great Smog?

By Saturday 6 December the roads of the capital were clear of traffic except buses crawling nose-to-tail back to their depots. The Great Smog meant London was a ghost city with the area for 20 miles around it also fogged. Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Essex and Suffolk had similar weather but to a lesser degree.

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The Great Smog brought shipping on the Thames to a standstill. Passengers on BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) were taken by rail from Victoria to Bournemouth where weather conditions were better and their planes could take off. The Automobile Association warned their members that they could not help them as they would not be able to locate people who telephoned them after breaking down. The ambulance service stopped driving around as there was almost nil visibility they were concerned that they might actually cause injury.

Sports events were cancelled due to the Great Smog. Films, plays and concerts were abandoned because the smog seeped inside buildings so nothing could be seen. One group of Londoners made use of the Great Smog: burglars did a brisk trade under its cover.

Sunday was a quiet day in the 1950s and on Sunday 7 December most people stayed at home, just suffering the annoyance of not having a newspaper as the delivery vans could not get through the gloom. On Monday 8 December people were additionally short of milk in their tea as milkmen could not do their rounds. The city tried to get back to work on underground trains which were running, but nearly all buses were at a standstill, with serious road accidents happening as people ventured out in cars. The Uxbridge Road and Hillingdon Road roundabout had to be closed after 15 vehicles piled up in a crash. Two trains collided at Gordon Hill, luckily without injury.

Farmers taking their stock to Earl’s Court for the Smithfield Show found low visibility meant it took many hours to drive around London by lorry. Cattle developed breathing difficulties in the putrid atmosphere; some died and others were put down because of their obvious distress.

Minor matters irritated. A lady wrote to The Times: “An increasing layer of moist grime on a polished table protested eloquently that I was paying a high price for my neighbours’ indulgence in nutty slack or some similar form of solid fuel.” She felt her reputation as a “good housewife” was besmirched because “clothes, linen, hangings were all begrimed”.

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How was the Great Smog of London fixed?

The Great Smog of London ultimately cleared on Tuesday 9 December 1952 when weather conditions changed. It led to the passing of the 1956 Clean Air Act which banned the use of smoky solid fuels in urban areas. But its after effects remained – some 4000 people died in the days of the Great Smog due to respiratory conditions and accidents. Research in 2004 suggested that the total number of deaths attributed to it is as high as 12,000.

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