In 1952, weather conditions led to a massive smog descending on and gathering over London. Visibility was less than 30 centimeters (12 in), the air was black with coal and pollution, and the usually bustling city ground to a standstill. By the time the smog had cleared, 4,000 people had died from exposure to the pollution, and another 8,000 would die in the following weeks from complications. The smog would lead to increased awareness of the problems of pollution over city centers.
London has long had something of a romantic relationship with their fog. Our image of the Industrial Revolution often involves people wrapped in long trench coats, making their way through the pea soup that’s settled over the streets, barely pushed back by the gas lamps that line the sidewalk. That’s not an old image, either; in 1952, a smog settled over London that not only stayed for four days, but led to the deaths of more than 12,000 people.
On December 5, 1952, several factors came together in what would be a deadly mix. A prolonged cold spell meant that people were firing up their home heating units, meaning smoke was pouring from every residential chimney in earnest and for days, more smoke was added to the already heavy output that was gushing from factories across the city. A relatively new phenomenon was also adding to the problem—cars. An anti-cyclone was hovering over the area, keeping the smog from rising off the city. The wind that normally would have helped disperse the smoke had died, and smoke kept building up until the city turned black.
At the height of the event now dubbed The Great Smog, visibility was so bad that it was impossible for people to see their own feet. Cars were abandoned in the street as people sought shelter indoors, although they were no better off. People were so distracted by the fog that many lost track of friends and family members, whom they would later find had died in what they thought was the safety of their own homes.
Some did make it to hospitals—on foot, as even the ambulance services had stopped running. Nurses recount admitting patients whose lips had turned blue, patients who were struggling to breathe against the suffocating smoke. In the four days that the smog had settled over the city, about 4,000 people suffocated. For many fairly healthy individuals, the smog was survivable—but among the dead were children, the elderly, and chronic smokers whose lungs and respiratory systems were already comprised.
Schools closed, and so did airports and train stations. Buses stopped running, and among the first to die were the cattle that were on sale at the Smithfield Market. When they were butchered, it was found that their insides had turned black from the smoke and their meat was unusable. People’s clothes were permeated; even underwear turned black.
Winds came on the fourth day, and cleared out much of the smog. For many, the damage was already done, though, and another 8,000 people would die in the following weeks from smog-related illnesses.
The Great Smog of 1952 wasn’t the first time the city had been halted by smog and coal tar in the air. In December of 1873, the death toll was about 40 percent higher than usual because of the smog that settled over the city. Other smogs happened in 1880, 1882, 1891, and 1892, most severe around areas where there was a heavy concentration of factories and, consequently, workers.
After The Great Smog of 1952, legislation was passed to begin eliminating coal use in factory and residential fires. Originally, paraffin was used in place of coal, but the deadly event led to a long-lasting awareness in the city of the potential impacts of pollution.