A Foggy Day

“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

London bus in smog

via Wikipedia

I am old enough to remember when London was shrouded in smog on many days during the winter.  The smog was a combination of  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.

Open fire

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.

warm drink

Photo - Pamela Hodson

 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 thousand were made ill because of the smog.

Coal lorry

Courtesy lvvs.org.uk/

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 hundred weight sacks each week.  My first memories are of a horse drawn cart used by the coal men 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.”

London Collage

via Wikipedia

For more memories of this period see Pat Cryer.

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7 responses to “A Foggy Day

  1. What a wonderful post! I haven’t had the luxury to travel. I’ve grown up under blue collared workers (postal workers) and we were lucky to use the boat and go water skiing locally and camp.

    As an adult, and now a family of my own, we can’t afford to travel beyond the U.S. so, it’s nice to read stories from others, especially how it used to be and songs written/sung that explain the time.

    I very much enjoyed walking in your past, and the whole “not being able to breathe” thing really hit me. Ugh! I would have hated it! The recent photos are beautiful! It sounds that modern technology has caught up and cleaned the air!

    Sandi
    http://www.ahhsome.wordpress.com

    • Sandi thanks for the comment. Yes you can now breathe in London and it is a good thing. My father was a cabinet maker so I guess we were brought up in the same kind of environment with the Atlantic Ocean between us. But as I keep saying, little money but lots of love.
      I have traveled in the US quite extensively – where are you?
      Judith

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  3. What year was coal banned, Judith? I am sure I remember coal fires in our house in 1955… or maybe by then we were using coke? I remember the smogs, though not as early as ’52 as I was still just a toddler then. I got asthma when I was four so maybe some of it was due to the bad air quality, though my dad thought it was because I was allergic to a pair of love-birds we had (a small parakeet type bird).

  4. Hi Val – I think it was before 1960 but I can’t tell you exactly when.
    I have bronchitis as a legacy of growing up in London.
    And golly – who could ever be allergic to love birds – avian or human kind?

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