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.

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  • Alan quite correctly states that periods of warming have taken place periodically since the beginning of time, which would infer that human activity is not a major factor in the changes.

    However that there is historical evidence that the  suggested very warm period of 800 AD to 1200 AD extended far longer than this and that the so called mini ice age came much later than 1400 and that the years 1421 to 1428 were among the warmest of recent history.    In a book “1421- The year China discovered the world”, by Gavin Menzies, it is recorded that a fleet of Chinese junks sailed westward to reach and cross the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of Canada and then north to circumnavigate Greenland which was described as a green and pleasant land with cattle grazing in the open from Pentecost to Cross Sunday.

    These vessels were only wind powered, but accomplished a voyage not possible today even with ice breakers indicating that our present period of global warming falls a long way short of that in the early 1400s, but could get much worse with or without the human activity.

    By W.H.Diment (24/05/2014)
  • Whilst I am a bit too young to remember the 1952 smog, I can recall some very thick fogs in the late 50s. I remember walking home from Laindon Park school in a fog so thick that we had two adults in front of a large “crocodile” of children and each time we crossed a road we where told to shout “children crossing”, as it was impossible to see even car headlights. This included crossing the arterial road. Exciting at the time but I suppose quiet dangerous. Happy days.

    By Paul Stickland (24/05/2014)
  • Bill Diment touches upon a subject much discussed today. Climate change! I have lived abroad for many years and cannot comment on the present autumn or winter weather. It does seem to me however, that when I return to the UK, the spring and summer seem to have fewer extended periods of good weather than I remember. To that extent I can agree with Bill.

    Climate change, as such, should not be a matter of contention. Of course it is taking place! Climate change has always taken place! From the initial cooling of the fiery planet, to the breakup of Pangaea the original single continent, through several ice ages, to the global blackout which killed off the dinosaurs and over seventy five per cent of living species, the climate has always been changing. In more recent times 800 to 1200 AD is referred to as the Mediaeval Warming where England enjoyed a more Mediterranean climate and grapes for wine were grown as far north as the Scottish border.

    Conversely, the years 1400 to 1800 AD are known as the Little Ice Age. During this period the Thames froze regularly to a depth of several feet. Henry VIII travelled by sleigh on the frozen river and fairs were held on the ice with crowds of people walking on it. Stalls were set up on the ice, fires were lit, and food was for sale. There are paintings, by the Dutch artist Hondius and others, which depict these events.

    Climate change is, and always has been, undeniable. It is nature at work. The real question is whether humankind, since the industrial revolution, and with its exponentially exploding population, is contributing to a more rapid change than nature intends. And to what degree!

    By alan davies (23/05/2014)
  • The submission of Alan Davies in respect of the weather long ago has obviously revived many memories held by the subscribers.   For myself I believe the seasons were then, apart from short periods we get today, much colder in winter, wetter in the autumns and hotter in summer.

    I can recall that at the turn of the years 1929/1930, a person managed to walk across the frozen Thames, although it did freeze over again in January 1963, it was not to the extent of supporting a person.  Also in Jan 1947, we had heavy snowfalls as high as the tops of hedges. At that time, Church Road was a main traffic route, the snow compacted with continuing frosts at night and although the days were bright, just the surface melted but was glazed over in that ice several inches thick covered the road until early March.

    I can remember there were more sustained periods of hot weather in the summers which often melted the tarmacadam on the roads and stuck to the soles of shoes.    The autumn rains were more persistent and heavier than today and there were many ponds which no longer exist as the supply of water has diminished.  One such pond was twelve tree pond in the land between Laindon and Great Burstead which was fairly big and had trees growing down the centre and which farmers relied upon to water their cattle and while this is still agricultural land, the pond is dry with only the dead trees to mark its earlier existence.

    I read a further report in the Laindon and Pitsea recorder of an old man who claimed to have remembered boat races in Honey Pot Lane. While this was possibly an exaggeration, it does indicate that Laindon was very wet in winter.

    By WH.Diment (22/05/2014)
  • One tale emanating from the 1950’s great smogs concerns the Charlton Athletic goalkeeper, Sam Bartram. Referred to as “the greatest goalkeeper never to play for England” Sam had the misfortune to play in the same era as the great Frank Swift of Manchester City and Ted Ditchburn of Spurs.

    Playing at Charlton’s home ground, The Valley in south London, a dense fog rapidly moved in. Sam thought the game must be going Charlton’s way as he saw progressively less and less of the other players in the dense fog. “We must be attacking at the other team’s end” he thought. Fifteen or twenty minutes passed and Sam, ever vigilant in his goalmouth, could see nothing of the play.

    Eventually out of the fog came a light and, as it came closer, Sam could see it was a torch held by a policeman. The policeman eyed Sam incredulously. “What are doing here?” he asked. “The game was abandoned fifteen minutes ago. Everyone has gone home.”

    Whether or not the story is apocryphal it is indicative of just how dense these smogs were.

    By alan davies (21/05/2014)
  • My story didn’t happen in the great smog of the fifties but in the great fog of 1962.  I was 16 years old and working in my first job on the No. 2 industrial estate before St Nicholas Lane had been made up to the east of Church Hill.  My friend Jenny and I who had been classmates, now worked in the same office.  I left home each morning at around 7:45 and walked to meet her on the Pound Lane estate where we walked together up the side of Church Hill, (to avoid the muddy unmade St Nicholas Lane), followed the road around passed Laindon Hall and Laindon Park School, emerged from Basildon Road, then crossed Uppermayne, arriving at our office at about 8:50.  We took the same route home.

    In the November, there was a very thick fog.  We walked home keeping close together, unable to see much more than about one foot in front of us.  As we walked slowly behind the church we saw a dark shape in the distance and stopped in our tracks.  It was the size of a tall stocky man.  The fog was thick and swirly making it very difficult to focus.  We stood frozen to the spot for a minute or two but eventually decided to start edging slowly forward.  I must say we both felt very spooked and nervous, but needed to get home, so decided to press on, but as we got nearer, we looked at each other and burst out laughing.  It was the truck of a tree.  When I reached home, I relayed the story to my mother, explaining how scared we had felt.  She listened with a concerned expression on her face.

    The fog cleared slightly the next morning but by late afternoon had come down again and was just as thick as before.  A group of us girls and ladies left the office and turned right into Crompton Close and headed towards Uppermayne where we would separate to go our own ways, Jenny and I going westward into Laindon.  We’d only walked a few steps when we saw a bright light coming towards us and as it got nearer we could see it was a figure carrying a torch.  As this person approached, I suddenly realised it was my mum.  My dear considerate worried mum had walked about a mile and a half to meet and escort me home.

    The next day at work, some of the ladies remarked how thoughtful my mum had been.  I had of course been grateful for the torch but I felt hugely embarrassed.  Most sixteen year old girls at that time liked to feel they were grown up and to be seen being escorted by a parent in front of older work colleagues was just not on, I can still remember how I cringed inside.

    About eighteen months later, work began on the road from the bottom of Church Hill to Uppermayne. (I believe that stretch of road had once been known as Church Avenue).  St Nicholas Lane became fully made up and we no longer needed to walk behind the church.

    By Nina Humphrey(née Burton) (21/05/2014)
  • Oh yes, the fifties’ fogs.  The worst  one I remember was one evening on my way home along our unmade road; visibility nil; I had to walk with one foot on the footpath and one foot in the ditch as a guide in order to find my way.

    This was a variation on times of flood when it was better to take ones shoes off and wade through the shin-high water barefoot to avoid all that slipping and sliding.  It also saved the shoes.  Oh happy days!!!

    By Anne Burton (20/05/2014)
  • I was not involved in smog, my memories go further back to standing on Laindon station freezing cold, no heat or seats on train.

    Arriving at Fenchurch Street late as usual, walking to Adams. Ct. working for Stock Brokers.  No heat allowed until 10 and switched off at 2 pm.  Candle light, manual typewriters and wearing fingerless woollen gloves to try and thaw hands.

    My memories include doughnuts from Leadenhall Market, good old steam trains chugging up from Pitsea and struggling up to Upminster.

    By Thelma Oliver (20/05/2014)
  • One small point of Thelma Oliver’s comment was that the trains struggled up from Laindon to Upminster.  While travelwise we speak of travelling up to London, there is no uphill gradient travelling west from Laindon, but down hill as far as Dunton and virtually level running from there-on.

    Although her remark about no seats on the trains could sometimes be taken literally as at weekends some of our youth who travelled elsewhere for entertainment would further amuse themselves by throwing the cushions out of the windows which meant that weekday off peak trains on the down road often had to stop to retrieve these.

    By W.H.Diment (20/05/2014)
  • In common with Alan, I too can remember the smogs which prevailed in the fifties, once having stood on Barking station platform and unable to see my own feet.

    These continued for a number of years causing  havoc with rail traffic and in many cases when trains arrived at signals which were only lit by an oil lamp, it was necessary for the fireman to climb up the post to determine the aspect and while some had detonating machines connected to the signal these were few and far between and there were never anywhere enough men to act as fogmen.

    It was one such fog which was the primary caurse of the Dagenham rail disaster in 1958.   Ironically, when coloured lights were introduced they actually enhanced the aspect during fogs.   

    By W.H.Diment (19/05/2014)

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