The Great Smog of London, 1952

The Great Smog of London, 1952

The Great Smog of London covered the city in a thick and lethal cloud for 5 cold December days in 1952. This 20th century phenomenon had a great impact on the city – causing thousands of deaths and impacting public policy in years to come. We delve into what happened, the tragedies that occured, and how the Great Smog of London changed our city forever.

What is Smog?

Smog is a haze or fog that occurs due to atmospheric pollutants. In the modern day, cities across the world, such as Los Angeles are known for their smog. But in times gone by, our very own London was covered in the unhealthy smog. In fact, London’s nickname ‘The Big Smoke,’ is as a result of how misty the city used to be with haze from the coal fires that heated the homes and fuelled power stations such as Battersea Power Station.

It’s believed that the actual term ‘smog’ was invented by a Londoner in the early 19th century – combining the words ‘smoke’ and ‘fog.’

When Did the Great Smog of London Happen?

Between December 5th and December 9th of 1952, a great fog covered London as a result of coal pollutants.

What Caused the Great Smog of London?

In the 1950s London was used to heavy fog, with Londoners calling them ‘pea-soupers.’ For lovers of London literature, you’ll be familiar with the foggy scenes of Charles Dickens. However, on the cold December days in 1952 the pollutants leaving the coal-fuelled power stations and factories, the smoke from fire-places, and the recently introduced diesel-fuelled buses mixed with the usual fog. The result was a lethal smog that would affect thousands and forever change the course of the city.

During these days a high-pressure weather system had moved its way to London. With a layer of warm air trapping being above the usual chill, the cold air – and so pollutants- were trapped below in the city. The sulphurous air therefore could not escape, and with little wind, the city began to smell like rotting-eggs. 

Londoners Struggle to See for the Smog

As the days progressed in early December 1952, the Great Smog became so thick that Londoners in some areas could not see their feet when they were walking. The impaired visibility brought all of London’s traffic, except for the underground, to a halt. Motorists ditched their cars, planes were grounded, and flights were cancelled. London’s double decker buses had conductors with flashlights walk in front of them to guide their path. The thick air also caused difficulties for ambulances to reach patients, with many stumbling along the streets to find their own way to hospital. 

Both outdoor sporting events and indoor concerts were cancelled as patrons could not see the pitches or the stages. People who dared step outside into the Great Smog of London found themselves returning home with nostrils black with particles from the air – and some stating they looked like coal miners.

How Many People Died in the Great Smog?

The rise of pollutants in the air saw increased cases of pneumonia and bronchitis during the 5 days. A few weeks after the Great Smog of London had cleared it was reported that around 4,000 people had died as a result. However, today’s estimates put it at a much higher 12,000.

People were not the only ones affected. One of London’s famous markets, Smithfield Meat Market reported that herds of cattle had choked to death during those December days in 1952.

It’s no surprise that the numbers of those affected was so high, when the MET Office reports that these levels of pollutants were emitted each day between 5th – 9th December 1952:

  • 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles
  • 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide
  • 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid
  • 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds
  • 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide
  • 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid

How Was the Great Smog of London Fixed?

On December 9th 1952 a brisk westerly wind swept the smog away, finally returning London to normal. But this was not before the pollution had done its damage to the thousands of Londoners that dealt with its deadly impact.

London’s Clean Air Acts

The UK government, whilst slow to react, did eventually bring in the Clean Air Acts in 1956 and again in 1968 to ensure another event like this would never occur again.The Clean Air Act enacted smoke control areas where only smokeless fuels could be burned. Domestic households switched to cleaner types of goal, gas, and electricity. This reduced smoke pollution in the city. In 1968 it was made an illegal act to emit dark smoke from any chimneys.

Introducing The London Eats List

On the hunt for the hot-spots to hit on your trip to London? The London Eats List has you covered. From the best chocolate shops in London, to reviews on the hottest restaurants including Circolo Popolare and Sticks’n’Sushi, we have the advice for you!