Residents of London are accustomed to foggy conditions. When diminished visibility began to cloud the view of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben, and Westminster Palace, few thought there was any reason for concern.
As the fog changed from the expected grey to a sickly shade of yellowish brown, experienced Londoners realized it wasn’t fog that was blocking the sunlight; it was smog that was collecting in the atmosphere. Even then, there was little reason for concern. After all, the Industrial Revolution was born in London, introducing the unpleasant consequences of air pollution to the world. Smog may not be anything to brag about, but there certainly was no reason to be alarmed.
As the day progressed, however, it became evident that this was unlike any other smog event in the city’s history. Visibility plummeted to near-zero, even at mid-day. Reports of accidents and fatalities spread throughout the city, The thick, putrid air made it difficult to breathe, and the sulfurous fumes were so thick in some places that pedestrians were unable to see their feet. The streets were too obscured for navigation, and the city came to a screeching halt. The normally-busy streets were eerily silent, except for the frantic cries of victims of respiratory distress and those who suffered accidents, trying to navigate in the dark.
You might think that an air pollution event of such severe impact must surely have been an event of the 18th or 19th century. Those were the days when factory smokestacks belched foul black smoke without any concern for health or the environment. As bad as those days were, the horrible days that would be known as The Great Smog of London took place in 1952.
It all started in the early morning hours of December 5, 1952. The clear skies that greeted the sunrise on that Friday deceptively suggested that Londoners could look forward to a rare day of sunshine. Coming on the heels of a wintry cold snap, the city looked forward to a sunny weekend that might bring some welcome warmth.
If they were going to get a break from the cold, however, that relief had yet to arrive. Homes and businesses throughout the city stoked their fireplaces and coal-fueled furnaces, seeking relief from the frigid outdoor air and sending smoke out of thousands of chimneys.
Unbeknownst to most of the city’s residents, atmospheric conditions were conspiring against them. A high-pressure weather system stalled over southern England. It triggered a temperature inversion, wrapping a layer of warm air over the cold air at ground level. Unable to escape the bubble of warm air, London effectively had an invisible bowl lowered over it, trapping the air and its contaminants within.
The people of London went about their usual routines, unaware that the rapidly-disappearing clear skies had very little to do with fog. The smoke from the chimneys, automobiles, and diesel-powered buses poured into the air and was trapped within the temperature inversion. The continuing cold snap encouraged Londoners to throw more coal into the furnaces, hastening the growing crisis.
Before the day had ended, as visibility declined, the gravity of the situation grew more clear. The city was swimming in a toxic stew unlike anything it had ever experienced. The weather pattern remained stalled, creating a 30-mile-wide (48 km) poisonous air mass that smelled like rotten eggs, burned the eyes, and was getting worse by the hour.
For five days, the city gasped for air in the grasp of the Great Smog. Near-zero visibility brought all boats on the River Thames to a stop. Visibility at the airport was less than 10 meters (32.8 feet), and air traffic was grounded. The trains were halted. Drivers turned on their headlights at high noon and leaned out of the driver’s side windows, desperately trying to see as their automobiles crept forward inch-by-inch. Finding it impossible to navigate, many drivers were left with no choice but to shut off their cars and leave them abandoned in the middle of the road. The only transportation that continued to operate was the London Underground subway.
Authorities advised everyone to stay home. Those who ventured outdoors did so at their own peril. Many people got hopelessly lost in the hellish conditions. The air was so thick and poisonous that even a short walk triggered wheezing and coughing. The pollution coated the streets and sidewalks in a thick, slippery, greasy black ooze, giving many pedestrians serious injuries from slips and falls. Assuming the adventurous traveler found the way to his or her destination in the murky morass, he or she would arrive looking like a coal miner, with face and nostrils blacked by the air.
Although most sporting events were canceled, Oxford and Cambridge decided to move forward with their annual cross-country competition. Track marshals were positioned throughout the course, continually shouting, “This way, this way, Oxford and Cambridge” so runners would not blindly veer off course.
Those who remained indoors were not immune to the ill effects of the crisis. The foul air seeped inside buildings, covering all surfaces with greasy slime. The indoor air quality was so poor that patrons of movie theaters were unable to see the featured films.
As commerce ground to a halt, one industry did not suffer. The criminal element enjoyed a sudden influx of prosperity. Looting, burglaries, and purse snatchings skyrocketed as the city’s undesirables took advantage of their ability to vanish into the camouflage of the darkness.
When another industry saw rapid growth, the true magnitude of the crisis began to hit home. Undertakers reported they had run out of coffins, and florists were unable to fill orders for funeral bouquets. The Great Smog was no longer just a nuisance.
The first who were affected were young children and the elderly. Those with pre-existing respiratory problems were also vulnerable. The hospitals were flooded with a sevenfold increase in cases of bronchitis and pneumonia. This does not take into account the numerous injuries and fatalities as a result of low visibility.
Official reports count the deaths from the immediate effects of the Great Smog at 4,000. Over the next six months, deaths that were linked to the Great Smog were estimated to be between 8,000 and 12,000. London’s East End saw a ninefold increase in the death rate.
A study by Barbara J. Polivka showed that nearly 20% of children born in London around the time of the Great Smog reported having had childhood asthma, compared with 11% of those in the other groups studied.
It wasn’t just people who experienced ill effects from the Great Smog. Countless birds lost their way in the smog and crashed into buildings. Eleven prize heifers brought to Earls Court for the famed Smithfield Show choked to death. Breeders designed improvised gas masks for their cattle by soaking grain sacks in whiskey.
For five days the Great Smog held London in its grip. Finally, on December 9, the weather pattern changed. A wind from the west and a cleansing rain dissipated the toxic cloud, allowing Londoners to have their first grateful gasps of fresh air in days.
The government adopted measures in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the Great Smog. The Clean Air Act of 1956 put limits on the use of coal in urban areas and established smoke-free zones. Homeowners received tax incentives to convert to alternate heating systems.
In 1962 another deadly smog attack gripped the city, killing about 750 people. Although periodic episodes have occurred, triggering their own stories of tragedy, nothing has come close to the Great London Smog of 1952.