Smog kills thousands in England

Smog kills thousands in England

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Heavy smog begins to hover over London, England, on December 4, 1952. It persists for five days, leading to the deaths of at least 4,000 people.

It was a Thursday afternoon when a high-pressure air mass stalled over the Thames River Valley. When cold air arrived suddenly from the west, the air over London became trapped in place. The problem was exacerbated by low temperatures, which caused residents to burn extra coal in their furnaces. The smoke, soot and sulfur dioxide from the area’s industries along with that from cars and consumer energy usage caused extraordinarily heavy smog to smother the city. By the morning of December 5, there was a visible pall cast over hundreds of square miles.

The Great Smog of 1952 became so thick and dense that by December 7 there was virtually no sunlight and visibility was reduced to five yards in many places. Eventually, all transportation in the region was halted, but not before the smog caused several rail accidents, including a collision between two trains near London Bridge. The worst effect of the smog, however, was the respiratory distress it caused in humans and animals, including difficulty breathing and the vomiting of phlegm. One of the first noted victims was a prize cow that suffocated on December 5. An unusually high number of people in the area, numbering in the thousands, died in their sleep that weekend.

It is difficult to calculate exactly how many deaths and injuries were caused by the smog. As with heat waves, experts compare death totals during the smog to the number of people who have died during the same period in previous years. The period between December 4 and December 8 saw such a marked increase in death in the London metropolitan area that the most conservative estimates place the death toll at 4,000, with some estimating that the smog killed as many as 12,000 people.

On December 9, the smog finally blew away. In the aftermath of this incident, the British government passed more stringent regulations on air pollution and encouraged people to stop using coal to heat their homes. Despite these measures, a similar smog 10 years later killed approximately 100 Londoners.

READ MORE: The Great Smog of 1952

1948 Donora smog

The 1948 Donora smog killed 20 people and caused respiratory problems for 7,000 of the 14,000 people living in Donora, Pennsylvania, [2] a mill town on the Monongahela River 24 miles (39 km) southeast of Pittsburgh. The event is commemorated by the Donora Smog Museum.

Sixty years later, the incident was described by The New York Times as "one of the worst air pollution disasters in the nation's history." [3] Even 10 years after the incident, mortality rates in Donora were significantly higher than those in other communities nearby. [4]


Sources of pollution Edit

A period of unusually cold weather preceding and during the Great Smog led Londoners to burn much more coal than usual to keep themselves warm. While better-quality "hard" coals (such as anthracite) tended to be exported to pay off World War II debts, [10] post-war domestic coal tended to be of a relatively low-grade, sulphurous variety (similar to lignite) which increased the amount of sulphur dioxide in the smoke. There were also numerous coal-fired power stations in the Greater London area, including Fulham, Battersea, Bankside, Greenwich and Kingston upon Thames, all of which added to the pollution. According to the UK's Met Office, the following pollutants were emitted each day during the smoggy period: 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds and 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide which may have been converted to 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid. [5] The relatively large size of the water droplets in the London fog allowed for the production of sulphates without the acidity of the liquid rising high enough to stop the reaction, and for the resultant dilute acid to become concentrated when the fog was burned away by the sun. [11]

Research suggests that additional pollution-prevention systems fitted at Battersea may have worsened the air quality. Flue-gas washing reduced the temperature of the flue-gases so they did not rise but instead slumped to a ground level, causing a local nuisance. [12]

Additionally, there was pollution and smoke from vehicle exhaust, particularly from steam locomotives and diesel-fuelled buses which had replaced the recently abandoned electric tram system. Other industrial and commercial sources also contributed to the air pollution. [13]

Weather Edit

On 4 December 1952, an anticyclone settled over a windless London, causing a temperature inversion with cold, stagnant air trapped under a layer (or "lid") of warm air. [14] [15] The resultant fog, mixed with smoke from home and industrial chimneys, particulates such as those from motor vehicle exhausts, and other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, formed a persistent smog, which blanketed the capital the following day. The presence of tarry particles of soot gave the smog its yellow-black colour, hence the nickname "pea-souper". [13] The absence of significant wind prevented its dispersal and allowed an unprecedented accumulation of pollutants. [ citation needed ]

Effect on London Edit

Although London was accustomed to heavy fogs, this one was denser and longer-lasting than any previous fog. [16] Visibility was reduced to a few metres ("It's like you were blind" [17] ) making driving difficult or impossible.

Public transport ceased, apart from the London Underground, and the ambulance service stopped, forcing individuals to transport themselves to the hospital. The smog was so dense that it even seeped indoors, resulting in cancellation or abandonment of concerts and film screenings as visibility decreased in large enclosed spaces, and stages and screens became harder to see from the seats. [18] Outdoor sports events were also cancelled. [19]

In the inner London suburbs and away from town centres, there was no disturbance by moving traffic to thin out the dense fog in the back streets. As a result, visibility could be down to a metre or so in the daytime. Walking out of doors became a matter of shuffling one's feet to feel for potential obstacles such as road kerbs. This was made even worse at night since each back street lamp at the time was fitted with an incandescent light bulb, which gave no penetrating light onto the pavement for pedestrians to see their feet or even a lamp post. Fog-penetrating fluorescent lamps did not become widely available until later in the 1950s. "Smog masks" were worn by those who were able to purchase them from chemists. [20]

Health effects Edit

There was no panic, as London was infamous for its fog. In the weeks that ensued, however, statistics compiled by medical services found that the fog had killed 4,000 people. [21] Most of the victims were very young or elderly, or had pre-existing respiratory problems. In February 1953, Marcus Lipton suggested in the House of Commons that the fog had caused 6,000 deaths and that 25,000 more people had claimed sickness benefits in London during that period. [22]

Mortality remained elevated for months after the fog. A preliminary report, never finalised, blamed those deaths on an influenza epidemic. [1] Emerging evidence revealed that only a fraction of the deaths could be from influenza. [23] Most of the deaths were caused by respiratory tract infections, from hypoxia and as a result of mechanical obstruction of the air passages by pus arising from lung infections caused by the smog. [24] [25] [26] The lung infections were mainly bronchopneumonia or acute purulent bronchitis superimposed upon chronic bronchitis. [27] [28]

Research published in 2004 suggests that the number of fatalities was considerably greater than contemporary estimates, at about 12,000. [1] [2]

Environmental impact Edit

Environmental legislation since 1952, such as the City of London (Various Powers) Act 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, led to a reduction in air pollution. Financial incentives were offered to householders to replace open coal fires with alternatives (such as installing gas fires), or for those who preferred, to burn coke instead which produces minimal smoke. Central heating (using gas, electricity, oil or permitted solid fuel) was rare in most dwellings at that time, not finding favour until the late 1960s onwards. Despite improvements, insufficient progress had been made to prevent one further smog event approximately ten years later, in early December 1962. [29]

The Great Smog is the central event of season 1, episode 4 of Netflix's show The Crown. The representation of the air pollution was regarded as reasonably accurate by critics, although the political importance and the chaos in the hospitals were thought to have been greatly exaggerated. [30]

An episode of The Goon Show entitled 'Forog', broadcast on the BBC Home Service 21 December 1954 was a thinly veiled satire on the killer fog crisis. The script by Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan concerned the statues of London's monuments, who could only get up and move about the city undisturbed at times when it was enveloped in a characteristic smog. Government-sponsored scientific research sought to dispense with the choking fog, to the annoyance of the statues.

The Great Smog is the setting of the Doctor Who audio play The Creeping Death. [31]

The Boris Starling novel Visibility is set in the 1952 smog event. [32]

Scientists Have Figured Out The Terrifying Reason London Fog Killed 12,000 People

In December 1952, a dense fog fell over London that lasted roughly four days, dropping visibility and making it hard to breathe. At the time, residents paid little attention to the strange event, writing it off as just another natural fog, but once it lifted, people started dying.

The event – referred to as the Great Smog – led to the death of roughly 12,000 people, and the hospitalisation of up to 150,000. But how could something like this happen?

Well, the general hypothesis back then was that coal emissions had somehow mixed with the fog, which led to people being poisoned by the noxious clouds.

This prompted the British Parliament to pass the Clean Air Act in 1956, and the event earned the title of the worst air pollution event in European history.

Despite the Brits ultimately being correct in their suspicions about the coal emissions, no one was quite sure how chemicals from coal-burning managed to infiltrate the fog.

Nw, over 60 years later, an international team of researchers might have finally figured it out, as part of an investigation into China’s modern air pollution issues.

The answer is actually pretty terrifying – it turns out people were breathing in the fog equivalent of acid rain.

How does that work? According to the team, it’s all about sulphate.

"People have known that sulphate was a big contributor to the fog, and sulfuric acid particles were formed from sulphur dioxide released by coal-burning for residential use and power plants, and other means," said team leader Renyi Zhang from Texas A&M University.

The team performed a series of atmospheric experiments in two Chinese megacities – Xi’an and Beijing.

The tests revealed that sulphate can form thanks to interactions caused by the presence of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide – two compounds that stem from coal burning – mixing with water droplets in fog.

This toxic sulphate builds up in the naturally foggy environment, forming tiny droplets of sulphuric acid that can be blown around the city and breathed in by its residents.

"Our results showed that this process was facilitated by nitrogen dioxide, another co-product of coal burning, and occurred initially on natural fog. Another key aspect in the conversion of sulphur dioxide to sulphate is that it produces acidic particles, which subsequently inhibits this process.

Natural fog contained larger particles of several tens of micrometres in size, and the acid formed was sufficiently diluted. Evaporation of those fog particles then left smaller acidic haze particles that covered the city."

So the compounds released from burning coal and the compounds found inside natural fog – an aqueous medium made of, you guessed it, water – work together to make droplets of sulphuric acid, the same stuff that makes 'acid rain'.

Except, unlike rain, fog is easy to breathe in, leading to many people becoming poisoned.

Even crazier, this sort of thing is happening all of the time in China, though the chemical process is slightly different, requiring ammonia for sulphate to form because the particles being emitted are much smaller.

"In China, sulphur dioxide is mainly emitted by power plants, nitrogen dioxide is from power plants and automobiles, and ammonia comes from fertiliser use and automobiles," Zhang said.

"Again, the right chemical processes have to interplay for the deadly haze to occur in China. Interestingly, while the London fog was highly acidic, contemporary Chinese haze is basically neutral."

This means that by understanding an event that happened more than 60 years ago, the team is helping scientists and governments to understand modern pollution problems as well.

They hope officials will use to make better regulations or technologies that limit the amount of air pollution pumped into the skies every year, especially in China.

"The government has pledged to do all it can to reduce emissions going forward, but it will take time," Zhang adds.

"We think we have helped solve the 1952 London fog mystery and also have given China some ideas of how to improve its air quality. Reduction in emissions for nitrogen oxides and ammonia is likely effective in disrupting this sulphate formation process."

Hopefully, the new research will also help countries around the world as they transition to industrial powerhouses like China has over the last century, allowing them to continue making goods without harming both the environment and the people who live in it.

The "London Fog" that killed over ten thousand people

Londoners will tell you that London is not actually that foggy. The famous London fog was actually the result of pollution. That’s unpleasant, but for a few days in 1952, it turned into something more: The Great Smog. By the time the cloud that choked out the sun lifted, twelve thousand people were dead.[jump]

No one likes smog, but until 1952, Londoners had considered it just part of living in the city. If anything, newer forms of heating had improved the air quality in the city. In Victorian times, when nearly everyone had a coal fire going, pollution got very bad. In November and December of 1952, much of the city did have fires going, since it has been even colder than usual. On the evening of December 5th, above London, though, an anticyclone was brewing. An anticyclone is a high-pressure area that keeps other air from flowing in. It allowed a warmish cap of air to settle over London. When the air is cold, hot chimney smoke rises quickly until it cools and disperses in the upper atmosphere. An atmosphere of hot air keeps the chimney smoke from rising and escaping. So while the anticyclone kept new air from coming in, the warm air on the ground kept the smoke from leaving. It was all trapped over a city that was still burning more fuel.

The resulting blob seemed, to some people, to gain a kind of sentience. Visibility on December 5th fell to a few yards. By December 7th, it was one foot. The sulfur dioxide and other pollutants mixed with water particles to form sulfuric and hydrochloric acid that burned people’s eyes and lungs. It made it impossible for cars to move, and so they were abandoned on the roads. By December 6th, five hundred people had died, and the ambulances had stopped going out. There were too many abandoned cars on the road, and the visibility was so poor that rescue workers had to walk ahead of their vehicles to get anywhere, anyway. Thousands of people walked to hospitals, arriving gasping for breath, their lips turned blue due to asphyxiation.

There were human dangers, too. Since police forces were practically incapacitated and people walking down the street couldn’t see more than a foot in front of them, robbers attacked and robbed people, or broke into houses with impunity. Even sealed and cleared spaces were infiltrated. Library workers reported walking through the stacks of libraries and turning a corner, only to find themselves in the middle of a solid swirl of the fog. On December ninth, when nine hundred people died, a wind suddenly kicked up, and the fog dissipated.

The government, which had ignored environmental protests in the 1920s and supported industries that put up smoke stacks which spewed out sulfur dioxide, maintained that most of the people killed during the fog had died of the flu. When that didn’t work, they set down strict guidelines as to what could be counted as a smog-related fatality. This pared the list of deaths down to four thousand, but ignored many deaths of already-sick people who would have lived if they had been able to breathe, and discounted those people whose lungs were destroyed and who were still dying of asphyxiation in hospitals after the smog had lifted. Still, the attitude toward smoke stacks in cities changed, and over the next few years, environmental regulations went through - although the summer of 2012 saw a record amount of smog in London. It is estimated that twelve thousand people died directly due to the smog - a little more than a third of the number that died during the Blitz - and many more probably died early due to the four days of poison gas that they had to live through.


A thick, greasy, grimy fog descended on the city and killed 12,000 people in four days. A blanket of soot hung over the streets so thickly that visibility was reduced to a couple of yards or less.

It was a pea-souper, a ‘London Particular’ — and it was the worst in history.

The city had been paralysed by swirling fogs since the Napoleonic era, 150 years earlier. By the time Dickens came to write about them, he imagined dinosaurs stalking out of the mists. Readers of Sherlock Holmes cannot imagine the great detective without seeing him striding up Baker Street shrouded in eerie tendrils of fog.

A poor sight: Visibility was reduced to a couple of yards with drivers not even being able to see as far as their own car headlights

Snug in the smog: Two-year-old Jill Hamlin, from Oxted, is seen at a mask fitting at Bourne And Hollingsworth store

Read all about it: This newspaper billboard can only just be made out through the fog that's making the headlines

But the Great Smog was not romantic. It was murderous. People and animals suffocated in appalling numbers, making it 20th-century Britain’s worst peace-time catastrophe.

Londoners again had to summon up the Blitz spirit which had sustained them through the war.

Professor Roy Parker, now a social historian, was living with his parents in Lewisham, South-East London in 1952. His father, a World War I veteran who had been gassed in the trenches, was intent on cycling to work even though the choking conditions caused severe pain in his damaged lungs. ‘He was 56 and in great distress, gasping for breath, struggling.’ But still he cycled on.

Buses could not run. One driver who tried said ‘fat flakes of soot stuck to the greasy windscreen like paint’ and could not be wiped off. In order to see just a couple of yards ahead, to where his conductor was walking with a torch to light the way, he had to lean out of the window.

Deadly fog: A young couple pictured wearing their home-made smog masks on their way to work in London during the Great Smog

Feed the birds: Trafalgar Square, pictured on December 5, 1952, was still surrounded by pigeons as well as smog

In the East End, people could not see their own feet. Yet dock workers reported that, in crane cabins 50ft above the ground, the skies were quite clear. Below them, the smog lay like a dark sea.

It was a particularly cold December and the damp, freezing air soaked up the pollution and held it like a blanket over the city.

Lighting up the night: A police officer using flames at Marble Arch to direct the traffic in London

A band of high pressure then settled over London holding the pollution in place, almost like a layer of oil over water.

As homes stoked up their fires, the conditions only became worse. Domestic fireplaces were the biggest culprits.

Households mostly burned the cheapest coal, which was heavy with dust. In the days before central heating, a fire was the only way to heat the rooms, and was often used to boil water and even cook.

But the smog was also the result of a lethal climate cocktail produced by coal-fired factories, diesel fumes from lorries and buses, and clouds of pollution drifting across the Channel from continental industrial centres.

The scale of the pollution was incredible. Every day, 1,000 tonnes of smoke belched from London’s chimneys, emitting 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds.

Even more deadly, 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid was formed as sulphur dioxide coming from chimneys mixed with moisture in the air.

The acid burned the back of the throat, bringing on choking fits. It caused inflammation of the lungs, especially in children, the old and people with bronchial illness.

Thousands died, suffocating from within. As the death toll mounted, undertakers ran out of coffins.

More than 100,000 people suffered such health problems as bronchitis and pneumonia.

Some estimates suggest a further 8,000 may have died in the weeks and months after it.

Sir Donald Acheson, the government’s former chief medical officer, recalled as a young doctor feeling his way through deserted streets: ‘I had to creep along the walls of the buildings, to the next corner, to read the name of the street.

'I remember an eerie silence, as there was little or no traffic. Visibility was less than three metres, and it was bitterly cold.’

At the Middlesex Hospital, off Tottenham Court Road, where he was resident medical officer, Acheson saw an unstoppable tide of admissions.

‘Within a few days, patients with acute respiratory distress spilled over into all wards — they were in the surgical wards, and even in the obstetric wards, and as the majority were men, room had to be found in some of the women’s wards. The supply of oxygen was stretched to the limit.’

Carrying on: Commuters pictured wearing extra layers to work to protect them from the dust and dirt on their way to work as London entered its second day of dense fog in 1952

Deadly fog: Pedestrians carefully make their way through the smog, as one lady visiting the capital shows she is prepared, bringing her own mask

Dark as night: Morning traffic at Blackfriars, London, almost at a standstill because of the blanket smog


The smog forms the background to recently- released C.J. Sansom spy thriller Dominion, which sees an alternative version of 1950s London.

In the book, Winston Churchill surrenders to the Nazis in 1940, leaving the British to live under strict authoritarian rules, with the Press restrained and Jews repressed.

Churchill leads a resistance organisation who use the cover of the great smog to evade capture from the Gestapo.

Nothing could keep the smog out and as it oozed indoors, it left a film of black over every surface.

It even closed cinemas — the black pall made it impossible to see the screens.

At Sadler’s Wells theatre, the opera La Traviata was halted because of the noise of choking as smog spread through the auditorium.

Dog racing at White City was abandoned because the greyhounds couldn’t see the hare.

Ambulances, of course, had to stay on the roads whatever the conditions. One crewman would drive the vehicle, while another walked ahead, warning people out of the way.

Some trains were kept in operation, but, in near-total darkness, ingenious measures were needed to avoid accidents.

Railway engineers put small packets of explosive on the lines, to be set off like pop-gun caps by the wheels as trains inched along the tracks — the noise warned workers that a train was approaching.

In the days that followed, the Mail reported: ‘The Great Smog Grows Worse: Thousands in Fog Queues. London Paralysed. No Buses, No Taxis, No Coaches, No Planes.’

Richard Scorer, a professor at Imperial College, recalled cycling home through the fog, following the kerb at a snail’s pace.

Completely covered: Thick fog blacked out large areas of London, including Brixton pictured above, and the Home Counties while bringing road and rail traffic to a crawl

Silent killer: The smog killed 12,000 in four days and an estimated further 8,000 died from ill health caused by the fog in the months after it

‘I became very dirty,’ he told an inquiry into the Great Smog, 50 years later. ‘My eyebrows were covered with what you might call mud my hair was filthy and my hands had collected a lot of muck. It was as if I’d fallen into a puddle of mud.’

And it wasn’t just men, women and children. At the annual Smithfield livestock show in Earl’s Court, cattle gasped for air and collapsed. More than a dozen had to be slaughtered to put them out of their suffering.

After five days, the weather changed. A breeze cleared the air, leaving an oily residue caked on every building and tree. It was as if the city had been sprayed black. Rain came and washed the grime into the gutters, producing an evil-smelling trickle of sooty gunge.

Dirty: Residents walking around London during the height of the smog, such as to a local market pictured above, reported being left filthy from simply walking through the streets

'A real pea souper': Bus conductors were forced to walk ahead of their buses, which were hardly visible from just a few feet away, to guide the drivers through the streets of London with flaming torches during the smog

Fog lights: Traffic moves slowly, with lights aglow, as smog descends over London during daytime hours

The government was keen to play down the scale of the disaster and the ministry of health released figures purporting to show the death toll was much lower than it really was.

In the Commons, the minister for housing, Harold Macmillan, future Tory prime minister, tried to blame the weather for the disaster, and emphasised that pollution was a necessary evil.

When the Opposition benches attacked the government for not doing more to cut down on pollution, he replied: ‘We do what we can, but of course, the honourable gentleman must realise the enormous number of broad economic considerations which have to be taken into account and which it would be foolish altogether to disregard.’

There were smogs again, but never so bad. A campaign by backbench MPs forced the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956. It enforced the use of smokeless fuels in homes, and ordered the relocation of power stations further from cities.

London would never again see the return of a fog as choking, blinding and terrifying as the Great Smog which suffocated the capital city 60 years ago.

A beacon of light: Piccadilly Square can hardly be seen and is only partially lit by the light from a fruit seller's stall in this picture from 1952 as London was plunged into darkness from the fog

Glow 'ello 'ello: In these Daily Mail photographs, PC Reg Nicol is seen helping pedestrians find their way through the fog (left) and smoke pours from chimneys, into the fog that 'caught' it and turned it into smog, seen from the top of Westminster Cathedral (right)

One culprit: Much of the pollution was put down to household fires using cheap coal heavy with dust

A Brief History of London Fog

With plans for the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street recently announced by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, the quality of London air remains a hot topic. But, while concern about dirty air may seem like a relatively modern issue, in reality it has been a point of discussion between Londoners for centuries, long even before the Industrial Revolution, the period we now associate with the misery of pollution, thanks to the work of writers such as Charles Dickens and William Morris. Here, we take a look at the long and murky history of London’s fog.

Londoners have been complaining about unclean air since at least 1272. After the 12th century, shrinking woodland areas in and around London caused households to switch from wood-burning fires to those that used ‘sea-coal’ from the North coast. An inefficient burner, sea-coal produced clouds of smoke in place of heat-energy, leading King Edward I to ban its sale or consumption on pain of torture and death. However, wood was now too expensive, and few complied in spite of executions.

London’s basin location in the Thames estuary had always made it prone to natural mist, with moisture becoming trapped by the surrounding hills but coal smoke combined with natural fog to create a ‘pea-souper’, a thick smog that could last for days. London’s troubles with smog persisted right through the 1800s — the very term ‘smog’ was coined by an oxygen-starved Londoner in 1905.

In 1873 came the first unusually thick and persistent fog, which caused at least 268 deaths from bronchitis. In 1879, a fog lasted for four whole months, but still no reform was passed — at the height of the coal-fuelled industrial revolution, there was no alternative with which to power progress. Gradually, from the 1890s, electric engines replaced steam, gas fires grew in popularity in London homes and heavy industry began to relocate to the city’s outskirts, easing the frequency of fog slightly.

Then, in 1952, a four-day fog dubbed The Great Smog hit amid a perfect storm of weather conditions, causing major disruption in transport. Every transport service apart from the London Underground ceased (including emergency services) due to a horrendous level of visibility — indoor performances were abandoned when the smog seeped indoors, blocking cinema screens and stages from view. Though smog-weary Londoners didn’t panic at first, weeks later 4,000 Londoners were found to have been killed, with 100,000 more made seriously ill, thereby forcing parliament to act (the number killed is now estimated to be closer to 12,000). In 1956 they passed the Clean Air Act, introducing smoke-free areas in cities, limiting the burning of coal and offering households incentives to install gas fires.

Though today smothering, pollutant-caused smog is mainly associated with major cities in nations like China, London still suffers from poisonous air, with almost 10,000 Londoners per year thought to die prematurely as a result of particulate or NO2 pollution mainly caused by vehicle emissions.

Breathing in London's history: from the Great Stink to the Great Smog

London has extremely polluted air. Toxic emissions on Oxford Street breached safe legal limits in the first month of 2017, and have only got worse since then. Two of our curators look back at the history of the city's air, to see how London solved pollution problems in the past.

Beverley Cook &Alex Werner

Curator of Socialand Working History &New Museum Lead Curator

Even before factories and cars began to pump pollutants into the city's atmosphere, Londoners have been no strangers to noxious air. 17th century writers complained of the foul smoke emitted by burning sea coal, and backed-up chimneys suffocated people in their beds every year for centuries. But there were two times in London's history when the air became not just foul-smelling but actually deadly: the Great Stink and the Great Smog.

A Balloon View of London as seen from Hampstead, 1851

Effingham Wilson. ID no. A23791

By the 1850s, London was the world’s most powerful and wealthiest city. But it was also the world’s most crowded city with growing problems of pollution and poverty that threatened to overwhelm its magnificence. At the beginning of the 19th century less than 1 million lived in London, but by the 1850s the capital’s population had doubled and, by the end of the 19th century 6.5 million lived in an ever expanding Greater London. London was now home to one in five of the UK population.

Printed cholera notice issued by the St Katharine Dock Company, 1832

Denying rumours of a cholera outbreak within the London docks.

Such rapid population growth placed a tremendous strain on London’s public services, in particular its fresh water supply, waste disposal and sewage systems and also caused a severe housing crisis. The greatest challenge for the city authorities thus became how to keep its growing and densely packed population healthy and nourished and free from disease.

The threat of mass epidemics of diseases such as cholera and typhoid in such an overcrowded city were never far from the surface. Whilst those living in overcrowded slum conditions were at greatest risk of infectious disease it was not just the poor who died young.

Tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera and typhoid were no respecter of class and killed both rich and poor. In the mid-19th century the high death rate amongst young children brought average life expectancy in London down to just 37 years.

Dirty father Thames, 1848

Dirty father Thames. Wood engraving for 'Punch Magazine', vol. XV, July-December 1848.

Dirt and smell were facts of urban life that equally contributed to the poor health of Londoners. People could not cross a road without the benefit of a crossing sweeper who cleared dust and horse manure from their path. The ‘summer diarrhoea' that occurred annually and killed many, particularly infants was largely caused by swarms of flies feeding on manure, rotting food and human waste left exposed in the hot, steaming streets.

Smell was a potent characteristic of London life. In the 1850s London experienced the Great Stink, when the River Thames became a giant sewer overflowing not only with human waste but also dead animals, rotting food and toxic raw materials from the riverside factories.

The 'Silent Highway-Man', July 1858

Punch cartoon. The hot summer caused a particularly awful stink from the Thames.

Songsheet for a popular ballad mocking the filthiness of the river.

The Thames, once the lifeblood of the city, now became a river of death. Londoners, overwhelmed by the smell, retreated behind closed doors and heavy curtains soaked in lime.

In the 1850s, there was no understanding that diseases, particularly cholera, were caused by germs in polluted water. Instead, the miasma theory of disease was dominant, which taught that contagion spread on the air, with the foul smells directly causing illness. This gave the Great Stink added terrors, as Victorian Londoners believed simply smelling the noxious odour of the Thames could kill them.

The summer of 1858 was one of the hottest in memory, and the heat and lack of rain left the city stinking and the Thames a river of effluent. The Houses of Parliament had to be closed, as the river running beneath its windows became too noxious. Even soaking the window-blinds in strong-smelling carbolic of lime failed to keep out the Great Stink.

Such appalling conditions in the world’s greatest city forced the authorities to act.

Clare Market, 1890

This market, surrounded by slums, sold fish, meat and vegetables.

The risk of water-borne disease was reduced by the building of Bazalgette’s great sewage system and Dr John Snow’s discovery that cholera was carried in contaminated water rather than through smell. A co-ordinated approach to the disposal of waste led to a reduction in the swarms of disease-spreading flies. In 1850-1860 the area of Whitechapel, in east London, had a typhoid death rate of 116 per 100,000. By 1890-1900 this had been reduced to just 13 per 100,000.

But whilst many benefited from such improvements, poverty continued to be a cause of poor health for many. Up to one third of late Victorian Londoners were identified as living in some degree of poverty. There was a growing polarisation between the health of the ‘better off’ who were moving to modern well-ventilated homes with plumbing in the healthier suburbs and those in the inner city who continued to live in cramped, unsanitary slum conditions.

For these Londoners smell was not so easily removed from their lives. As George Gissing noted in 1893 when describing Southwark, "an evil smell hung about the butchers' and the fish shops. A public-house poisoned a whole street with alcoholic fumes from sewer-grates rose a miasma that caught the breath."

A starving family, 1900

A poverty stricken East End family. A mother with her three children, all dressed in rags.

Those born in London were distinguished from new arrivals to the capital by their unhealthy pallor, weak stature, a habit of talking louder than ‘outsiders,’ with a distinctive slang and accent affected by their need to breath heavily through their mouths due to their congested nasal passages. The skin, clothes and nostrils of Londoners were filled with a compound of powdered granite, soot and still more nauseous substances. The biggest cause of death in London remained consumption or tuberculosis and lung disease. Recruitment for the Anglo-Boer War at the end of the 19th century had also revealed the poor health of Londoners when only 2 in 9 working class males were found to have been fully fit for combat. In 1903 the American Jack London equally noted the incapability of native Londoners to undertake demanding manual work.

Jack London, The People of the Abyss, 1903

The Victorian cult of cleanliness served to separate and divide the classes even further. As bathrooms and running water became more available in the homes of the wealthy the poor were more obviously identifiable on the streets as ‘the great unwashed’. Smell created a potent barrier between the social classes as the poor suffered from a lack of washing facilities and the high cost of soap and disinfectant. Middle class charity workers not used to such conditions often found the smell of the slums unbearable and heaved as they carried out their ‘good works’. Christian charities linked cleanliness to the prevailing concept of the 'civilising mission' of Empire believing it to stand for progress. The distribution of free soap and disinfectant was believed to create not only healthy bodies but also healthy minds.

Section of Charles Booth's Descriptive map of London Poverty, 1889

Shown is Victoria Park and the poor housing to its east.

Religious and charitable organisations worked tirelessly not only to improve the conditions of the poor but also to place pressure on the government and local authorities to take greater responsibility for the health and welfare of London’s poorest citizens. Working closely together they initiated and funded projects that gradually improved the life of all those living in London’s poorest areas.

The creation of landscaped green spaces such as Victoria Park in Hackney provided a ‘vital lung’ for those living in the slums. By 1880 the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association had erected 800 drinking fountains and troughs providing fresh water to up to 300,000 Londoners and 1,800 horses daily during the summer. Today, the network of parks across the city are still known as the "Lungs of London".

Fog at Cambridge Circus, Charing Cross Road. c.1935

© Family Suschitzky/Donat /Museum of London.

But all the reforms of Victorian moralists could not remove the fumes of London's industry, homes and, as the 20th century went on, motor vehicles. The infamous London fogs, known as "pea-soupers", choked the city on a regular basis.

The last time that Londoners faced a visible killer smog was in December 1952. Its impact was profound and led, after lengthy deliberation, to the creation of the Clean Air Act of 1956. It was a particularly scary moment for those living in the city. The smog penetrated into people’s homes, creeping through cracks and under doors. If one ventured outside, visibility was virtually non-existent. Those suffering from existing lung ailments were particularly liable to succumb to the poisonous smoke.

'We Want Clean Air' protest banner at Paddington, 1956

© Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London

At first, government refused to make the connection between the smog and the premature death of thousands of Londoners. An outbreak of influenza was considered as an alternative or contributing factor for the increased level of mortalities in the metropolis. Others blamed unseasonable weather conditions or felt that it was just one of the consequences of living in a large conurbation where coal was burnt to make gas and electricity, power machinery and above all to heat homes.

We are more and more aware today of extreme weather conditions, such as strong winds or torrential downpours. It is interesting that the Great Smog of 1952 was also the result of a set of unusual atmospheric conditions as an anticyclone trapped the smoke of the city matched by an easterly wind that carried further polluted air from the continent. The weather had been bitterly cold in November and December but for Londoners this was something quite normal for the winter months. They retreated to their homes and burnt coal to keep warm. Everything would have been tolerable had not been for the abnormal weather conditions that led to the smog hanging over the city. One of the most unpleasant gases caused by the burning of coal was sulphur dioxide but in the moist air it was converted into a much more dangerous and deadly liquid - sulphuric acid!

The Clean Air Act did much to stop the worst of the London smog, but modern pollutants, although less visible, are scarcely less deadly than cholera or coal fumes. By some estimates, 9000 people die prematurely every year because of London's poor air quality. The Mayor of London plans to establish an Ultra Low Emissions Zone surrounding the centre of London by 2020, which might cut down the worst pollutants. But for now, as in centuries past, breathing in London remains a risky business.

How are we tackling London's current pollution crisis? Read our article from the City of London's Air Quality Manager, Ruth Calderwood.

Smoke was tolerated as a trade-off for jobs and home comforts – Stephen Mosley

Despite growing public pressure to deal with the issue, the government's reaction was sluggish. Initially it even claimed that December’s high mortality was due to a flu outbreak, and seven months elapsed before it eventually ordered an inquiry.

Four years later, in 1956, the Clean Air Act came into force, banning the burning of polluting fuels in “smoke control areas” across the UK.

London’s Battersea Power Station, shown here in 1954, once consumed more than one million tonnes of coal each year (Credit: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The act was truly revolutionary, representing a major global milestone in environmental protection. Public health was vastly improved flora and fauna that had all but vanished from urban places by the 1950s began to flourish and the grand architecture of Britain's cities was no longer obscured beneath a thick layer of soot and grime. In the years that followed, a host of other industrial nations were inspired to follow suit.

But, while air pollution from coal may be a thing of past, London's air quality problem hasn’t gone away. And with a recent study suggesting that pollution in the capital claims as many as 9,500 lives a year, a growing number of scientists, politicians and campaigners believe that on the eve of the Clean Air Act's 60th anniversary, the UK must once again invoke its pioneering spirit.

The study, which was carried out for Transport for London by Kings College London’s Environmental Research Group, attributes these premature deaths to two main pollutants: fine particulates known as PM2.5 and the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

The Deadly Donora Smog of 1948 Spurred Environmental Protection—But Have We Forgotten the Lesson?

The yellow fog arrived five days before Halloween in 1948, swaddling the Pennsylvania city of Donora and the nearby village of Webster in a nearly impenetrable haze. Citizens attending the Donora Halloween parade squinted into the streets at the ghostlike figures rendered nearly invisible by the smoke. The Donora Dragons played their habitual Friday night football game, but, their vision obscured by the fog, ran the ball rather than throwing it. And when terrified residents began calling doctors and hospitals to report difficulty breathing, Dr. William Rongaus carried a lantern and led the ambulance by foot through the unnavigable streets.

On Saturday October 30, around 2 a.m., the first death occurred. Within days, 19 more people from Donora and Webster were dead. The funeral homes ran out of caskets florists ran out of flowers. Hundreds flooded the hospitals, gasping for air, while hundreds more with respiratory or cardiac conditions were advised to evacuate the city. It wasn’t until the rain arrived at midday on Sunday that the fog finally dissipated. If not for the fog lifting when it did, Rongaus believed, “The casualty list would have been 1,000 instead of 20.”

The 1948 Donora smog was the worst air pollution disaster in U.S. history. It jumpstarted the fields of environmental and public health, drew attention to the need for industrial regulation, and launched a national conversation about the effects of pollution. But in doing so, it pitted industry against the health of humans and their environment. That battle has continued throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, with short-term economic interests often trumping long-term consequences. Donora taught Americans a powerful lesson about the unpredictable price of industrial processes. The question now is whether the lesson stuck.

Before Carnegie Steel made its way to Donora, the town was a small farming community. Located on the Monongahela River some 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, Donora sits nestled in a narrow valley, with cliff walls rising over 400 feet on either side. Webster, meanwhile, is situated nearby, across the Monongahela. By 1902, Carnegie Steel had installed a facility in the immediate region, complete with more than a dozen furnaces by 1908, Donora had the largest volume of railroad freight traffic in the region by 1915, the Zinc Works began production and by 1918 the American Steel & Wire Company paid off its first fine for air pollution damage to health.

“Beginning in the early 1920s, Webster landowners, tenants, and farmers sued for damages attributed to smelter effluent—the loss of crops, fruit orchards, livestock, and topsoil, and the destruction of fences and houses,” writes historian Lynne Page Snyder. “At the height of the Great Depression, dozens of Webster families joined together in legal action against the Zinc Works, claiming air pollution damage to their health.” But U.S. Steel rebuffed them with lengthy legal proceedings, and plans to upgrade the Zinc Works’ furnaces to produce less smoke were set aside in September 1948 as being economically unfeasible.

The mill town of Donora, where a smoky, lethal fog killed 19 people. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Despite residents’ concern about the smoke burping out of the factories and into the valley, many couldn’t afford to be too worried—the vast majority of those 14,000 residents were employed by the very same mills. So when the deadly smog incident occurred, mill bosses and employees scrambled to find another culprit for the accident (though the Zinc Works was shut down for a week as a concession).

“The first investigators were run out of town by people with handguns,” says Devra Davis, the founder of Environmental Health Trust and the author of When Smoke Ran Like Water. “The majority of the town council worked in the mill, and some of them had executive jobs, like supervisors. Any suggestion that there could be some problem with the mill itself, which was supporting them financially, was simply something that there was no economic incentive to even entertain.”

Whatever their affiliation, everyone from the town leaders to factory owners agreed that they needed answers and a way to prevent such a catastrophe from ever occurring again. In the weeks after the fog, Donora’s Borough Council, the United Steelworkers, American Steel & Wire and even the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania called upon the federal government to launch an investigation led by the nascent United States Public Health Service.

“For decades, pollution was created by very powerful industries, and the state investigations were very friendly to industry,” says Leif Fredrickson, a historian at the University of Virginia and a member of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. “So [the people of Donora] were rightly concerned about that and wanted the federal government to get involved. But as it turns out, the Public Health Service was pretty concerned about their relationship with state researchers, and this is before the federal government has much say over what happens in terms of pollution control in state and local areas.”

The federal agency sent 25 investigators to Donora and Webster, where they took health surveys from residents, inspected crops and livestock, measured different sources of air pollution, and monitored wind speed and meteorological conditions. They found that more than 5,000 of the 14,000 locals had experienced symptoms ranging from moderate to severe, and that the American Steel & Wire Plant and the Donora Zinc Works emitted a combination of poisonous gases, heavy metals and fine particulate matter.

“If you looked at the X-rays of their lungs, they looked like the survivors of poison gas warfare,” Davis says.

A preliminary report was released in October 1949, with inconclusive results. Rather than singling out the mills and the effluent they produced, the researchers pointed to a combination of factors: the mills’ pollution, yes, but also a temperature inversion that trapped the smog in the valley for days (a weather event in which a layer of cold air is trapped in a bubble by a layer of warm air above it), plus other sources of pollution, like riverboat traffic and the use of coal heaters in homes.

Some locals pointed out the fact that other towns had experienced the same weather event, but without the high casualty. “There is something in the Zinc Works causing these deaths,” wrote resident Lois Bainbridge to Pennsylvania governor James Duff. “I would not want men to lose their jobs, but your life is more precious than your job.”

A local nurse administers oxygen to a patient in the emergency hospital in Donora, the town stricken by the death-dealing smog. (Bettmann / Contributor)

Others, furious with the outcome of the investigation and the lack of accountability for the mills, filed lawsuits against the American Steel & Wire Company. “In response, American Steel & Wire asserted its initial explanation: the smog was an Act of God,” Snyder writes.

In the end, American Steel & Wire settled without accepting blame for the incident. Although no further research was done into the incident in the years immediately after it, a 1961 study found the rate of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease in Donora from 1948 to 1957 was significantly elevated. Davis believes that, in the months and years after the incident, there were likely thousands more deaths than the ones officially attributed to the fog incident. That’s thanks to the ways our bodies respond to fine particulate matter, which were so prevalent at the time of the killer smog. The tiny particles slip into the bloodstream, causing increased viscosity. That sticky blood in turn increases the chance of a heart attack or stroke.

But, Davis says, the incident had some positive outcomes: it also sparked an interest in a new kind of public health research. “Prior to Donora there wasn’t a general appreciation of the fact that chronic exposures over long periods of time affected health. Public health back then consisted of investigating epidemics, when cholera could kill you, or polio could kill you.” Residents of Donora took pride in alerting the nation to the dangers of air pollution, Davis says (herself a native of Donora), and continue to commemorate the incident at the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum.

Following the deadly smog, President Truman convened the first national air pollution conference in 1950. Congress didn’t pass its first Clean Air Act until 1963, but progress continued steadily after that, with President Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the same year that Congress passed a more comprehensive Clean Air Act. But the work of protecting the environment is never entirely finished, as new industries and technologies take the place of previous ones.

The Donora wire mill (which later became part of the American Steel & Wire Company) on the banks of the Monongahela River in 1910. (Library of Congress)

“People are still dying in the United States from pollution, and it tends to be individuals who do not have access to better housing and things like that,” says Elizabeth Jacobs, a professor of public health who wrote about Donora in the American Journal of Public Health. “But it’s not as acute now. It’s more of a long-term, chronic exposure.”

That message was echoed by medical doctors writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, who cited new studies proving the danger of fine particulate matter, no matter how small the quantity in the atmosphere. “Despite compelling data, the Trump administration is moving headlong in the opposite direction,” the authors write. “The increased air pollution that would result from loosening current restrictions would have devastating effects on public health.”

Since 2017, when that review was published, the Trump administration has relaxed enforcement on factory emissions, loosened regulations on how much coal plants can emit, and discontinued the EPA’s Particulate Matter Review panel, which helps set the level of particulate matter considered safe to breathe.

For Fredrickson, all of these are ominous signs. He notes that while the Clean Air Act hasn’t been dismantled, it also hasn’t been modified to keep up with new and more numerous sources of pollution. “At the time that things like Donora happened, there was a very bipartisan approach to pollution and environmental problems,” Fredrickson says. Regulations were put in place, and industries quickly learned that those regulations would actually be enforced. But those enforcements are falling away, it might not take long for them adjust to a new status quo of breaking rules without facing any consequences. And that, he said, “can really lead to some sort of environmental or public health disaster.”

65 years on from the Great Smog nothing has changed. We're still choking

A n estimated 18,000 people die every day worldwide as a result of air pollution. The great majority of the world’s population breathe air that does not meet World Health Organization guidelines. Air pollution has become so bad that it’s said we now have a “fifth season”: this time of year, when lethal smogs envelop some of the most populated parts of the world. Delhi’s atrocious smogs, which caused an international cricket match to be halted on Sunday, follow similar ones last year.

But 65 years on from the toxic Great Smog of London that descended on 5 December 1952, and led to ground-breaking anti-pollution laws being passed, the air above the UK still hasn’t cleared. In London alone more than one person an hour dies prematurely from a range of conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma and emphysema as a result of exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has called for a new Clean Air Act that would enshrine a right to clean air.

Smog Day marks the anniversary of the Great London Smog, and the middle of the international smog season. It grew out of an initiative to share the experiences of people living with air pollution in London and New Delhi, whose air quality is among the worst in the world. In spite of many differences between life in the two capital cities, there are parallels in the experiences of people who work on the streets, runners who exercise along them, taxi drivers, parents and children and the doctors who care for those with breathing difficulties.

Progress on air pollution is already being made in many places around the world. The recent Lancet Commission on pollution and health points out that air-quality improvements not only save lives, but have other benefits. Over nearly half a century in the US, every $1 invested in improving air quality has yielded an estimated $30 in additional benefits. Shifting to 100% renewable energy by 2050 would prevent 90 million premature deaths between 2017 and then, according to work by Mark Jacobson at Stanford University.

Heavy smog at Piccadilly Circus, London, in December 1952. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Almost 200 countries are in the process of negotiating a series of resolutions on pollution at the United Nations, and cities around the world are being encouraged to be part of the UN Environment’s BreatheLife campaign to clear their air to meet health targets by 2030.

Cities can learn quickly from each other about what works, with transport policies crucial. Curitiba in southern Brazil has been said to set the gold standard in sustainable urban planning, with a comprehensive, high-quality public transport system and bus system used by 85% of local people.

In the UK, Nottingham introduced an all-electric park-and-ride service and one of the biggest electric bus fleets in Europe, while Birmingham promotes a “bicycle revolution”, offering free bikes, cycle training and maintenance lessons. Freiburg in Germany coordinated transport and land use to increase journeys by bike threefold, double public transport use, and cut the share of trips by car to less than one third.

But how could the UK government deliver a meaningful right to clean air? There could be a nationwide duty on all public bodies to take into account the impact of air pollution and climate change whenever they make a decision about public services or public funds. A precedent exists in the form of the public sector equality duty, which assesses whether the decisions of public bodies will have a discriminatory impact on vulnerable groups, and if so take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination. It is now embedded in almost every public body decision-making process.

We urgently need to change how we live, work and run the economy, to stop avoidable, premature deaths, tackle climate change and advance visions of a world in which the air is fit to breathe. Today’s awareness-raising Smog Day is a step in the right direction.