The Killer London Fog of 1952

As the southeast part of the United States experiences polluted air due to massive wildfires that began several weeks ago, and are still going on, the skies appear a lot less like the winter skies we are used to and more like the foggy landscapes of London.

London is well known for its foggy skies, but there was one occurrence when, throughout five days in December of 1952, the City of London was covered in a toxic fog that left residents gasping for air. The strong, thick, and heavy fog smothered the British capital, causing the city to become paralyzed and blackening the sun. Here is a look back at one of the worst air pollution disasters in British history, which Is estimated to have killed at least 4,000 people.

While clear skies dawned over London on December 5, 1952, an unusual fall in temperatures had caused many Londoners to stay indoors for weeks. Coal fireplaces would work overtime to take the chill from the air. And as the day progressed, a light veil of fog started to cover Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the remainder of the city. By that afternoon, the fog turned into a sick shade of yellow as it mixed with the thousands of tons of soot being pumped into the skies of London by its forest of chimneys and industrial smokestacks.

Even though smog was nothing new in London, this strange form of smog thickened into a poisonous brew unlike anything that had been seen in the city before. A high-pressure system parked over London and caused a temperature inversion, that prevented the smoke from the record amount of coal burning to rise in the sky. Without any type of breeze, the toxic smog remained stagnant over the city.

The looming cloud of noxious smog was teaming up with acrid sulfur particles and it smelled of rotten eggs. It was so dense that the residents in the Isle of Dogs section of the city reported they were unable to see their feet as they walked. For five days, the Great Smog crippled all forms of transportation and keep residents indoors. Boat traffic on the Thames came to a halt. Flights were grounded and trains were cancelled. Even during the middle of the day, drivers turned on their headlights and hanged their heads out the windows in an attempt to inch ahead through the yellow gloom. Many found the transportation to be hazardous and abandoned their cars. Conductors grasped their flashlights and torches, and walked in front of the iconic double-decker buses to guide drivers down the city streets.

Authorities advised parents to keep their children home from school in fear they would get lost in the smog. There was a great increase in crime as burglars and purse snatchers took advantage of the fact that pedestrians were unable to see them. Birds would get lost in the fog and crash into buildings. And there were eleven prize heifers brought to Earls Court for the famed Smithfield Show that were choked to death, and the breeders came up with improvised gas masks for their cattle by soaking grain sacks in whiskey. Weekend soccer games were cancelled, although Oxford and Cambridge carried on with their annual cross-country competition at Wimbledon. Common with the help of track marshals who continually shouted, “This way, this way, Oxford and Cambridge” as runners materialized out of the thick haze. The smog seeped inside as well. A greasy grime covered exposed surfaces, and movie theaters even closed as the yellow haze made it impossible for ticket-holders to see the screen.

Unfortunately, the Great Smog was much more than a major nuisance that cancelled plans, it was lethal, especially for the elderly, babies and those who had either respiratory or cardiovascular issues. Outside of the coughing and wheezing death came silently to London. It wasn’t until undertakers began to run out of coffins and florists out of bouquets that the deadly impact of the Great Smog was realized.

There were deaths from bronchitis and pneumonia that increased more than sevenfold. The death rate in the East End increased nine-fold. Initial reports estimated that around 4,000 died prematurely in the immediate aftermath of the smog, which finally lifted on December 9th, 1952, after a cold wind from the west swept the toxic cloud away from London and out to the North Sea. The effects however lingered on and death rates remained above normal well into the summer, which have caused some experts to estimate that the Great Smog claimed as many as 12,000 lives total.