Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #6 of the Anglotopia Magazine in 2017. Support great long from writing about UK Travel, Culture, and History by subscribing to the Anglotopia Print Magazine.
As Christmas drew near in London in 1952, a strange phenomenon like something out of a Quatermass story became all too real for the city’s residents. Under a perfect set of conditions, a combination of air pollution and fog combined into one of the worst ecological disasters of the 20th Century. It only lasted five days, but by the time it was through, the Great Smog would be responsible for injuring approximately 200,000 people and killing 12,000. Recently depicted in the original Netflix series The Crown, the smog was an even worse event for London than what was depicted on screen.
The first instances of smog were a result of the coal furnaces that began to appear in the 19th Century as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The smoke and coal ash could be so thick at this time that it was known to change the color of buildings and even turned 10 Downing Street’s bricks from yellow to black. People became so used to the color that the building’s bricks were later painted black to maintain the look. The term “smog” would not come to be used to describe this natural and man-made phenomenon until Dr. Henry Antoine Des Voeux’s paper “Smoke and Fog,” presented in 1905 at a meeting of the Public Health Congress.
The smog that befell London had two root causes: man-made coal smoke and perfect weather conditions. For weeks prior to the event, the city had experienced an unusual cold snap and businesses, and residents alike burned even more coal to keep warm. Post-war coal was notoriously low-grade with a higher sulfur content (higher quality coal at the time was exported), which in turn added to the sulfur dioxide in the smoke that went up the chimneys and into the London air. In addition to the smoke released from homes and offices, the coal-burning furnaces of factories and major power plants in Battersea, Fulham, Bankside, and Kingston Upon Thames contributed even more pollution. The Met Office figures that, during the smog event, coal burning released 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds, and 370 tonnes of sulfur dioxide.
While this sounds bad on its own, the weather in London during that first week of December made for deadly conditions that would trap all those pollutants within the city. Dr. Renyi Zhang at Texas A&M University in the States, doing a study of similar effects in Chinese cities, discovered that “under naturally foggy conditions, sulfate will build up inside water droplets due to chemical reactions between sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.” The sulfate then makes the water particles in a fog denser as well as toxic, contributing to even hazier conditions than normal and transforming the water vapor into a deadly inhalant. In the midst of this cold weather, a high-pressure system became stuck over the city due to an anticyclone. This anticyclone and the lack of wind that would ordinarily move these systems along created a temperature inversion wherein the warm air 1,000 feet above London kept cooler air at ground level. The result of the inversion was then to keep the smoke closer to the ground, where the sulfate particles clung to London’s fog.
Londoners were pretty used to fog, but as it began to roll in on 5 December 1952, this fog slowly began to show that it was something different and dangerous. The sulfur combined with the water particles in the smog to give it a yellow-ish black color, leading the citizens to dub it a “pea-souper,” but no one on that first day could have known how deadly this fog would become. Trapped under the warm air, the smog became thicker to the point where people couldn’t see across the street, and some others in East London reported that they couldn’t even see their own feet. Visibility at its poorest was done to one foot, and it made driving and simply cross the street practically impossible. In less than a day, London was effectively shut down.
London transport stopped completely aside from the Underground since buses couldn’t see where they were going (making the death of Churchill’s fictional secretary one the series’ historical liberties). Outdoor sporting events ceased, and indoor events were canceled as the smoke was able to creep into buildings and reduce the visibility of the stage or cinema screen. The only sporting event that was carried out was the cross-country race between Oxford and Cambridge at Wimbledon Common, though it required track marshals to shout verbal directions at the runners to keep them on the course. Authorities told parents to keep their children away from school since they were concerned about the kids getting lost. Ambulance service was halted as well, and those afflicted by the smog were forced to transport themselves to hospitals. The visibility also increased crime as some Londoners took the opportunity to loot closed stores and at least one death was linked to the smog, not because of the cloud’s poisonous effects, but because it concealed the stabbing of a sixteen-year-old girl.
The real deadliness of the smog was not apparent at the beginning of the event. Some of the first casualties were actually birds who got lost in the smog and crashed into buildings. At Earl’s Court, eleven heifers choked to death at the Smithfield Show, forcing the remaining livestock owners to quickly fashion crude gas masks out of grain sacks soaked in whiskey. Sadly, this event was buried in a story on page 9 of the paper, but as the smog accumulated to the level that it began to affect humans, nearly everyone began to take it more seriously.
Breathing in the air was equivalent to inhaling acid rain, and those most susceptible were children, the elderly, and persons who already had difficulty breathing. Inhaling smog in any capacity has been found to be linked to everything from minor pains (caused by irritation of the lungs) to lung cancer. In fact, some doctors today believe that many cases of asthma in London during the 1950s were a result of young children and unborn babies being exposed to the sulfur. A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that the Great Smog was responsible for thousands of cases of asthma and that the rate of the condition was 20% more likely in those children and babies born or living in London during that time than outside the city.
It wasn’t long before the city’s hospitals were inundated by the affected. The death rate in London’s East End multiplied by nine, while overall deaths from bronchitis and pneumonia increased by a factor of seven. Even so, the serious health problems presented by the smog were not apparent to the average Londoner until florists began to experience a lack of inventory and undertakers started running out of coffins. Despite all this, there was no great panic or rush on the hospitals as depicted in The Crown. One doctor reported that “there was no sense of drama or emergency.” It appears that no real precautions were taken to limit exposure beyond what has already been mentioned, and the true effects of the of the Great Smog were not revealed until a total count of the dead was made. Initial estimates put the figure at 4,000 and rose steadily to 12,000, most of which were due to exacerbation of pre-existing respiratory conditions.
The little reaction from the public was mirrored by their leaders. Whereas the Crown portrays Winston Churchill and his ministers as unresponsive to an increasing public health threat, newspapers from the time seem to focus more on the fog itself and its effects rather than trying to put the blame on anyone in Parliament or Whitehall. Additionally, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that the government could have foreseen the fog or its effects before it hit the city. While Harold Macmillan had once called for a committee to be formed to study the effects of air pollution, ultimately nothing came of it before the Great Smog struck in December 1952. Government action would not come for some time after the fog lifted.
The end of the Great Smog would come on 9 December 1952 when a cold wind blew into London from the west and moved the sulphuric cloud out to the North Sea, where it dissipated. Even though the cause of the disaster was gone, the lingering effects caused the death toll to rise to the full 12,000, and the mortality rate remained higher than average through the summer of 1953. While the government initially took no action in the wake of the smog, the London County Council was not so slow to respond and produced its own report in January 1953 that detailed the results of the smog upon the city and its residents. In the same year, doctors began urging Londoners to guard themselves against future events by protecting their lungs with gauze folded into a six-layer mask covering their mouth and nose. However, amidst renewed calls for parliamentary action, Macmillan, then Minister for Housing and Local Government, felt that no “further legislation [was] needed.”
It was then under mounting pressure from the LCC and London MPs that the government finally launched its inquiry with a committee led by Sir Hugh Beaver in August 1953. The committee was tasked with investigating the problem of air pollution in general, but it spent its initial months looking into the cause and results of the Great Smog. The committee published its interim report four months later in December, which concluded that domestic coal burning produced twice as much smoke as the city’s industries and released the smoke at a lower altitude than the tall chimneys of the power plants and factories. The report also recommended some of the first alternative energy measures, namely in suggesting that smokeless fuels be used in periods in which smog was more likely. Additionally, it recommended that the Meteorological Office put out a warning when the conditions were prevalent for another smog event.
The committee’s final report wouldn’t be released until a year later in 1954. Beaver’s committee further recommended, “smokeless zones” in which some emissions would be prohibited as well as “smoke control areas” in which there would be a restriction on the domestic burning of bituminous coal. Lastly, it also suggested the establishment of grants to convert domestic fires to more smokeless fuels. However, despite these recommendations, the government continued to be sluggish in its response. Several MPs, including Gerald Nabarro, then took it upon themselves to introduce a Private Members Bill of the Clean Air Bill, which would be withdrawn after the government promised to introduce its own legislation, which became the Clean Air Act of 1956.
The act instituted several of Beaver’s committee’s policies, including the “smokeless zones” which would be known as Smoke Control Areas, which limited the burning of various fuels to only those authorized, which included smokeless fuels. Local authorities were charged with implementing the Smoke Control Areas, much to the appreciation of the LCC. The Clean Air Act of 1968 continued the efforts of the original act, amending and extending it as well as requiring future power plants to be built outside of metropolitan areas. Both acts would later be consolidated under the Clean Air Act of 1993. The acts had a great benefit to the city, and while it would be subject to another smog event in 1962, no other events would rise to the level of the Great Smog.
London’s air quality gradually improved over the decades so that by the time The Crown aired, the phenomena would seem unreal to the modern Londoner. Not content to use CGI to reproduce the effects, the programme instead built its sets inside a warehouse that was filled with man-made fog. While the events of those five days were exaggerated for drama, the real effects of the Great Smog were indeed terrible and forced the British government to come to terms with the dangers presented by pollution and a lack of regulations. With recent smog events threatening the likes of cities in China and Iran, the view of London’s history offered in The Crown still acts as a lesson for modern audiences all over the world.