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The Story Behind the Great Smog of London

Picture of Lizzie Thomson
London Writer
Updated: 28 March 2018
In early December 1952, a severe air pollution took over the city, lasting five days in total. It became the event we now know as The Great Smog London, or Great Smog of 1952.

At the time, the capital used cheap coal for everything, from generating power stations to heating civilian homes. When a period of cold weather struck London in December 1952 and an anticyclone caused air to stagnate, these mounting sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and smoke particles in the air formed a thick layer of smog. The smog engulfed the city from Friday, 5 December to Tuesday, 8 December, causing heavy disruption by reducing visibility and even worming its way into indoor areas.

This thick smog was a danger to London and its inhabitants, and it’s estimated the toxic air tragically caused 4,000 people to choke to death and left 100,000 ill or with injuries. Many who ignored warnings of the dangerous effects of the smog died from falling into the River Thames or getting hit by fog-masked vehicles. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just humans who suffered as a result; the air pollution was so toxic, it even caused cattle to drop dead in their fields due to suffocation.

Nelson's_Column_during_the_Great_Smog_of_1952
Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog | © Commons Wikimedia

The deadly effects of the smog finally prompted the British government to take action after previously denying any connection between the pollution and deaths. A series of laws were introduced in an attempt to clean up the city’s air and prevent such events from happening in the future. Clean air acts were introduced in 1956 and 1968, banning emissions of black smoke, meaning that urban residents and factory operators had to convert to smokeless fuels.

TV lovers will know the historical event is played out in an episode of hit TV show The Crown titled “An Act of God”, and interestingly, it also features in an alternate history novel by C. J. Sansom called Dominion.

All in all, The Great Smog of London lasted the better half of a week and wreaked havoc on the capital, causing thousands of civilian deaths and long-term health problems. Thick smog is fortunately a thing of the past, thanks to government legislation to protect the city’s air, something present-day government officials like Sadiq Kahn are still looking to enforce and protect.