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The Great Smog of London: A 1952 Environmental Disaster

By Edited Nov 14, 2015 1 2

Over the course of Friday December 5th to Tuesday December 9th 1952, the sun failed to shine in London England due to a thick fog. This event was known as the Great Smog of '52 or Big Smoke. Since Roman times and possibly before, England had been known as the land of mist and fog to which its residents are no stranger to. However over those few days in December 1952, London did not experience just any fog. Good old London town was permeated with a thick and hazardous smog that claimed at least 4,000 lives during its short span and at least 12,000 afterwards.

This event was the climax of a dirty industrial history filled with failed attempts to clean up smogs from the ever increasing amount of factories. Londoners, at that time, were no strangers to smogs. The emissions that mixed with the fog were known as "peasoupers" because of the yellow tint it gave the air.

All over London visibility dropped to below five feet. At one point, people reported that visibility was down to one foot. This meant that you could look down at your feet and not see them or place your hand out in front of you and lose sight of it.

great smog 1952

Those who took their cars out had to abandon them and walk, though most people stayed indoors fearing they would get lost in their own neighborhoods. Buses gave up trying and had to nose to tail convoy themselves back to the depot.

What is worse was when the smog seeped inside. Sadler's Wells Theater had to abandon its performance of La Traviata because the smog had seeped in and the audience could no longer see the stage. Nurses at the Royal London Hospital reported not being able to see from one end of the ward to the other.

When the smog left, it also left a thick layer of black, wet soot over everything it touched. This thick layer of grime stayed for several days until the rains came.

big smoke in london


Londoners were no strangers to smog, but were very unaware of its dangers. There was no panic about London during this time about the giant fog cloud of grey death. Instead of being worried about staying inside due to health effects, London citizens were more concerned about staying inside so they did not get lost.

After the Big Smoke cleared, statistics estimated by medical services stated that around 4,000 young or elderly people had died during the event. However, for several months after that around 25,000 people reported respiratory problems.

The most common death was caused by respiratory tract infections from hypoxia. In layman's terms, this means that pus blocks the airways causing the lungs (and the person) to suffocate.

Those 4,000 deaths were from respiratory complications, but because the smog virtually shut the whole city, including ambulance services. Not being able to access medical services efficiently would have made the death toll much higher.

the great smog in london 1952

Why Did This Happen?

So what caused this smog that choked up London and brought life to a near standstill for several days? For years leading up to this event, factories and households had been primarily dependant on the burning of coal as a fuel source. This is what lead to the "peasouper" smog bouts in the city. The coal used as fuel during post-war London was low grade. The econmic state in the United Kingdom following World War 2 forced them to have to export the better quality coal to keep the economy afloat. The lower grade coal used for fuel in London was very sulphurous. When it burned it released high amounts of sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide not only caused they air to smell like a small room filled with people after a feast of beans, but it also caused respiratory inflammation.

The pollution prevention systems fitted on coal power stations actually increased the amount of sulphur dioxide the seeped into the air at the time. They reduced the amount of soot in air, but the amount of sulphur dioxide remained unchecked.

During the days of the Great Smog, the normal amounts of smog was made worse by the weather. An anticyclone had settled over London causing wind flow to stop. This also cause a layer of windless cold air to settle over London while being trapped under a layer of hot air that served as sort of a "lid" over the London sky.

Since the air was cold, this caused London citizens to turn up their heat, which at the time was primarily powered by coal. So up from the chimneys sent extra air pollution and formed an even thicker layer of smog. With no wind to blow it away, there the smog stayed for several days.

Impact on Environmental Legislation

The death toll caused by this smog had London rethink its air pollution standards. Before the smog, there had been several attempts to limit coal emissions, but they were half-hearted at best. Like with many governments, it takes an incident that claims lives to get them to pay attention to the issues.

After the Great Smog of 1952, London legislation passed the Clean Air Acts of 1956 to reduce air pollution. This led to power stations being moved away from cities, chimneys being lengthened, and a move towards cleaner burning fuel. They even offered financial incentives that encourages households to remove coal fires in lieu of installing gas fires or the burning of coke (a gas bi-product) to decrease the amount of smoke pumped into the air.

Of course, even after the Big Smoke, legislation continued to drag its feet. Because of this, ten years later in December 1962, a similar smog event occurred. This brought the onset of central heating via electricity to be placed in household s in the late 1960's. With today's emission standards, there have not been any great smog events like the Big Smoke. However, officials have stated that it is still the worst air pollution event to date. Though with the modern rapid industrialization of China, that may change. They are plagued with horrible smogs, of which rival post-war London.



Apr 17, 2013 3:28pm
This was my history lesson for the day. Thanks for the informative article.
Aug 27, 2015 3:30pm
This article brought back a lot of memories. I was born in 1948 and grew up in London. I clearly remember the great fog to this day, the yellow stink of it and how we had to cover our noses and mouths with a scarf when we went out so that we could breathe.

F.Y.I. coke is not a "a gas bi-product" but a by product of coal. They take out all the sulphur and other chemicals from the coal, leaving behind lumps of pure carbon which burn cleanly. The extracted chemicals are used to make plastics.
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