Europe

The Great Smog of London — casualties, crimes and change

Harry & Meghan: Netflix trailer ‘heightened' the drama says expert

We use your sign-up to provide content in ways you’ve consented to and to improve our understanding of you. This may include adverts from us and 3rd parties based on our understanding. You can unsubscribe at any time. More info

Londoners woke up one December morning to discover that their city was shrouded in a dense, dark smog. The “pea-soupers”, as it was known, was a type of smog and was called as such due to their green and yellow hue, a common occurrence in the 19th century. However, the Great Smog of 1952 that engulfed the city was far worse than anything that had been experienced before.

Smog in London

From the 13th century, poor air quality was an issue in London which only worsened as the use of coal and the city itself expanded. Under King James I, restrictions on coal burning were introduced, although these were largely ineffective. 

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 1700s, only made matters worse as Britain relied almost entirely on burning coal with air quality not monitored until the 20th century. 

Such was the presence of the capital’s smoke-ridden conditions, that literature of the time soon picked it up as a theme. In Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, serialised between 1852 and 1853 and set in London, he describes the “smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” 

The term “smog”, a portmanteau of smoke and fog, was not coined until the early 20th century. The impact of it was so great that 10 Downing Street, which was originally made of yellow bricks, had to be covered in black paint in order for it to match the effect pollution was having on the building. 

What caused the Great Smog?

A lethal combination of unusual weather conditions and pollution saw London shrowded in smog for five days. Cold weather early that November and early December meant more people lit coal fires, adding to the pollution pumped out by factories and cars. 

On December 5, an anticyclone – where cold air is trapped below warm air – settled above the capital, trapping the smoke and pollution, and the particles and gases being emitted. According to the Met Office, the conditions were “ideal” for the formation of radiation fog. 

Each day, 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid were emitted. Not only this but 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide were converted into 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid, leading many to suffering from breathing problems, children sent into the streets wearing wet handkerchiefs which turned black by the time they got home. Many sneezed black grit in the days that followed. 

Professor Richard Scorer, speaking at a 50th-anniversary conference, told how his cycling in the smog left him looking as if he had “fallen into a puddle of mud”. A herd of cattle in Earl’s Court was reportedly asphyxiated, and on the Isle of Dogs people could not even see their own feet as they walked.  

Deaths and disorder 

As the lethal smog blanketed London, the city came to a standstill with only the underground in operation. Demand for ambulances went into overdrive but as visibility was drastically impaired, many were forced to walk to hospitals. Cars were abandoned in the streets and the smog even made its way into buildings, with theatergoers unable to see the stage. 

Jenny Hamilton, who worked for the ambulance service, was responsible for sending out paramedics although most did not reach their destination and it simply “could not cope” with the demand.  

The 75-year-old, based in Wimbledon, wrote in the Mirror in 1999: “On that cold night I remember going to work and not being able to see my hand in front of my face. The calls started coming in like crazy… it was all the same story: ‘My wife… my husband… my children are coughing and can’t breath’. They were dying from the fumes.”

At the time, approximately 4,000 deaths were recorded however today it is estimated that 12,000 people died with more than 150,000 hospitalised. 

Tragically, Ms Hamilton said she vividly remembered being handed “dead on arrival” pink slips filled in by the ambulance drivers after making a call. She added: “I had to personally count the dockets and by the time the smog began to lift, there were 4,000 with that same message. It was so sad…I’ll never forget the horrible day I had to file all those pink slips.” 

Criminals used the smog as a cover and there was an increase in break-ins, muggings and attacks with 16-year-old Wendy Hanchett being reportedly stalked and stabbed. That month, a serial killer took the lives of at least six women.  

DON’T MISS: Teenagers, aged 15 and 16, charged with the murders of two boys [REPORT]
Shamima Begum ‘threw tantrum’ after UK return refused [INSIGHT]
Meghan and Harry face backlash after ‘absurd’ claim in Netflix clip [ANALYSIS]

Could the Great Smog happen again? 

In the wake of the Great Smog, The Clean Air Act was passed four years later which introduced smoke-free areas and restricted coal in fires and industrial furnaces. Two further “pea-soupers” descended on London with 750 killed in 1962. Tougher regulations were therefore introduced in The Clean Air Act 1968. 

A combination of pollution legislation and the likes of central heating means the “pea soup” type smog which caused such devastation in 1952 is thankfully a “thing of the past”, according to the Met Office. However, some researchers say the effects of the Great Smog are still being felt today. 

Toxic air pollution remains the “biggest environmental risk to Londoners’ health”, according to Transport for London. The expansion of the Ultra Low Emisssion Zone hopes to improve air quality. 

On a global level, air pollution remains lethal with 6.5 million deaths caused each year, something that will only continue to increase, according to the Lancet. In particular, cities in India and China are still under threat. 

The winter of 2013 saw an “airpocalypse” in China with smog in its biggest cities causing some 90,000 deaths. On November 29 this year, smog consumed New Delhi – the world’s most polluted capital – as air pollution reached “severe” levels in some areas. 

Source: Read Full Article