The Great Smog of 1952
The memories of a Laindon lad
From December 1952 until March 1953, London and surrounding areas were subjected to a series of smogs. The worst of these occurred from December 8 and lasted for five days. Fog (or smog when mixed with smoke) is a weather pattern created by an inversion where colder air, trapped beneath a layer of warmer air above, cannot escape. The fact that London lies in a bowl accentuated this inversion.
At that time millions of homes and businesses in London and the surrounding areas were heated with coal. Making things worse were the half dozen or so power plants which also operated on coal. The parlous state of the national economy was such that the less smoky, hotter burning, hard coal was all slated for export. Domestic usage was almost exclusively soft coal which produced less heat and much more smoke. Given this toxic mixture of stagnant and increasingly smoke filled air, London encountered the Great Smog.
I worked in the city and on Friday December 8 stepped out of our house in King Edward Terrace to make my way to the railway station. The air was thick and grey. Motor traffic was very sparse and all had their headlights on. As I walked down the High Road I heard and sensed (for seeing was not possible) very few people. Reaching the station I realized that what was usually a platform where people stood literally shoulder to shoulder, two or three deep waiting to board a train, was ninety per cent empty. At least as far as I could see. Trains to Fenchurch Street ran to the minute. That day the train was thirty minutes late. I later learnt that most trains were simply cancelled whether from lack of drivers and firemen I know not. By the time we reached Fenchurch Street the train was well over an hour late.
This was another world! Far different than the one I had left in Laindon. Almost post-apocalyptic. Here the air was not simply thick and grey. It was yellow, sulphurous, and impenetrable. Very few people were about. I simply could not see more than a few feet in front of me. I made my way along Fenchurch Street to Gracechurch Street and then a right turn into Bishopsgate. Sound was magnified. I heard the footsteps of a person walking toward me and realised that my own hesitant walking also sounded on the pavement. As we approached each other we both almost stopped for we could not see each other. Then, five feet in front of me a man materialised out of the smog with a mask over his nose and mouth. Wordlessly we passed each other. Motor traffic was nil but one intrepid bus did make its way along Bishopsgate. I stood aside, not able to see it, only hearing it, not wishing to become a fatality. Then out the smog loomed a double decker bus, proceeding very slowly, with all of its lights on. In front of the bus walked the conductor. With a powerful torch he was illuminating the kerb so the driver could know where he was on the road! I reached the offices of Joseph Tetley & Co Ltd where I worked to find few had made it in although a several more trickled in almost up to the lunch hour.
This first and worst of that winter’s smogs lasted for five days. Cinemas and theatres shut their doors. Those that did remain open often found smog creeping under the doors and obliterating the screens or actors. Routinely people wore masks which later were found to be near to useless. Libraries and organizations with lower levels found these basements filled with smog as it crept in through any crevice.
The ill health effects, usually involving the lungs and disproportionately impacting older and already sick people, were not well understood. Only later was it realised by the health and governmental authorities that over four thousand people had died from smog related causes during this five day period. As one goverment official stated the Great Smog caused ”more civilian deaths that any one incident during the war.” By the time the last outbreak in March 1953 was over twelve thousand deaths were attributed to it.
As a result the Government passed the 1956 Clean Air Act. The air we breathe today may not be as pure and pristine as many would like to see but we shall never again see a repeat of the Great Smog of ’52.