“A foggy day in London Town
Had me low and had me down
I viewed the morning with alarm
The British Museum had lost its charm”
from A Foggy Day by George and Ira Gershwin; sung by Frank Sinatra
I am old enough to remember when London was shrouded in smog on many days during the winter. The smog was a combination of soot and smoke from all the open fires burning in people’s houses and the fog that rolled in most days. This combination and fog plus sulfur dioxide gas combined to form deadly smog.
In the winter of 1952, the smog was really bad. From December 5 to December 9 this thick layer of smog covered London. It was caused by a period of very cold weather, an anticyclone and virtually windless days. Living in London we were used to ‘pea-soupers’ and Londoners went about their business in the usual way. Some of the smog penetrated into houses and offices it was so bad.
As usual, when cold weather struck, Londoners reacted by pouring more coal and occasionally some wood, onto their open fires and this of course, only exacerbated the problem.
At the time, the major problem appeared to be the disruption of traffic due to lack of visibility. Again, Londoners were used to this.
For my part – we had moved house and it was decided that my young sister would continue at her original primary school for the rest of the year. Being 3 years older (about 11 I think) I was designated to pick her up from the bus and bring her home.
It was a usual foggy day and as the day wore on and night approached the smog got thicker and the street lights that came on did nothing to penetrate the gloom. Visibility was practically zero.
I arrived at the bus stop and to get out of the cold a little, I stood in a shop doorway. What I didn’t know was that the bus had already arrived before me and my sister was standing in the next shop doorway. No shopping malls then. Just shops side by side along the high street.
It took a while for me to realize that my little sister was waiting for me. But all ended happily when we reached home and were given a warm drink in front of the open fire. In a cup of course. No coffee mugs then.
But in the weeks following the December smog of 1952, doctors were reporting the major effects on the human respiratory tract. It has been estimated that as many as 4,000 people died prematurely and thousands were made ill because of the smog.
Most houses were heated by open fires. Few had central heating. We had a coke-fired “boiler” in the kitchen that heated the water for the house and also reticulated hot water to the one radiator located in the hall. This meant that our house, that also had two open fires, was considerably warmer than many others. But coal and coke are heavy and the local coal men delivered it in hundredweight sacks each week. My first memories are of a horse-drawn cart used by the coalmen but later they progressed to lorries (trucks).
Following the terrible experience in 1952, the burning of coal in open fires was banned and the use of electricity to heat houses became common.
So while Frank Sinatra sang “A Foggy Day In London Town” Londoners were choking on the fog for real.
And now that oft-repeated quote from Samuel Johnson (also called Dr Johnson) 1709 – 1784, English author and diarist.
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
For more memories of this period see Pat Cryer.
- The Great Smog of London (kottke.org)
- Sunday in the East House – 4/17/2011 (pointcabrillolightstation.wordpress.com)
- Smog alert in England and Wales (bbc.co.uk)