Great Smog of London

The Great Smog of London, or Great Smog of 1952, was a severe air pollution event that affected London, England, in December 1952. A period of unusually cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants—mostly arising from the use of coal—to form a thick layer of smog over the city. It lasted from Friday 5 December to Tuesday 9 December 1952, then dispersed quickly when the weather changed.[3]

Great Smog of London
Nelson's Column during the Great Smog
Date5–9 December 1952 (1952-12-05 1952-12-09)
LocationLondon, England
Coordinates51.507°N 0.127°W / 51.507; -0.127
  • 4,000 killed · 100,000 injured
    (1952 government estimate)[1]
  • 10,000–12,000 killed
    (modern estimates)[1][2]
  • unknown number of people affected by breathing difficulties, lung cancer and bronchitis

The smog caused major disruption by reducing visibility and even penetrating indoor areas, far more severely than previous smog events, called "pea-soupers". Government medical reports in the weeks following the event estimated that up to 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog[1] and 100,000 more were made ill by the smog's effects on the human respiratory tract. More recent research suggests that the total number of fatalities may have been considerably greater, with estimates of between 10,000 and 12,000 deaths.[1][2]

London had suffered since the 13th century from poor air quality[4][5] and diarist John Evelyn had written about "the inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London [sic]" in Fumifugium, the first book ever written about air pollution, in 1661.[6] However, the Great Smog was many times worse than anything the city had ever experienced before: it is thought to be the worst air pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom,[7] and the most significant for its effects on environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health.[1][6] It led to several changes in practices and regulations, including the Clean Air Act 1956.[8]


Sources of pollution

A period of unusually cold weather preceding and during the Great Smog led Londoners to burn much more coal than usual to keep themselves warm. While better-quality "hard" coals (such as anthracite) tended to be exported to pay off World War II debts,[9] post-war domestic coal tended to be of a relatively low-grade, sulphurous variety (similar to lignite) which increased the amount of sulphur dioxide in the smoke. There were also numerous coal-fired power stations in the Greater London area, including Fulham, Battersea, Bankside, Greenwich and Kingston upon Thames, all of which added to the pollution. According to the UK's Met Office, the following pollutants were emitted each day during the smoggy period: 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds and 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide which may have been converted to 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid.[3] The relatively large size of the water droplets in the London fog allowed for the production of sulphates without the acidity of the liquid rising high enough to stop the reaction, and for the resultant dilute acid to become concentrated when the fog was burned away by the sun.[10][11]

Research suggests that additional pollution-prevention systems fitted at Battersea may have worsened the air quality. Flue gas washing reduced the temperature of the flue gases; so they did not rise but instead slumped to ground level, causing a local nuisance.[12]

Additionally, there was pollution and smoke from vehicle exhaust, particularly from steam locomotives and diesel-fuelled buses which had replaced the recently abandoned electric tram system. Other industrial and commercial sources also contributed to the air pollution.[13]


On 4 December 1952, an anticyclone settled over a windless London, causing a temperature inversion with relatively cool, stagnant air trapped under a layer of warmer air.[14][15] The resultant fog, mixed with smoke from home and industrial chimneys, particulates such as those from motor vehicle exhausts, and other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, formed a persistent smog, which blanketed the capital the following day. The presence of tarry particles of soot gave the smog its yellow-black colour, hence the nickname "pea-souper".[13] The absence of significant wind prevented its dispersal and allowed an unprecedented accumulation of pollutants.


Effect on London

Although London was accustomed to heavy fogs, this one was denser and longer-lasting than any previous fog.[16] Visibility was reduced to a few metres, with one visitor stating that it was "like you were blind",[17] rendering driving difficult or at times impossible.

Public transport ceased, apart from the London Underground, and the ambulance service stopped, forcing individuals to transport themselves to hospital. The smog was so dense that it even seeped indoors, resulting in the cancellation or abandonment of concerts and film screenings, as visibility decreased in large enclosed spaces, and stages and screens became harder to see from the seats.[18] Outdoor sports events were also cancelled.[19]

In the inner London suburbs and away from town centres, there was no disturbance by moving traffic to thin out dense fog in the back streets. As a result, visibility could be down to a metre or so in the daytime. Walking out of doors became a matter of shuffling to feel for potential obstacles such as kerbs. This was made even worse at night since each back street lamp was fitted with an incandescent light bulb, which gave no penetrating light onto the pavement for pedestrians to see their feet or even a lamp post. Fog-penetrating fluorescent lamps did not become widely available until later in the 1950s. "Smog masks" were worn by those who were able to purchase them from chemists.[20]

Health effects

There was no panic, as London was infamous for its fog. In the weeks that ensued, however, statistics compiled by medical services found that the fog had killed 4,000 people.[21] Most of the victims were very young or elderly, or had pre-existing respiratory problems. In February 1953, Marcus Lipton suggested in the House of Commons that the fog had caused 6,000 deaths and that 25,000 more people had claimed sickness benefits in London during that period.[22]

Mortality remained elevated for months after the fog. A preliminary report, never finalised, blamed those deaths on an influenza epidemic.[1] Emerging evidence revealed that only a fraction of the deaths could be from influenza.[23] Most of the deaths were caused by respiratory tract infections, from hypoxia and as a result of mechanical obstruction of the air passages by pus arising from lung infections caused by the smog.[24][25][26] The lung infections were mainly bronchopneumonia or acute purulent bronchitis superimposed upon chronic bronchitis.[27][28]

Research published in 2004 suggests that the number of fatalities was considerably greater than contemporary estimates, at about 12,000.[1][2]

Environmental impact

Environmental legislation since 1952, such as the City of London (Various Powers) Act 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, led to a reduction in air pollution. Financial incentives were offered to householders to replace open coal fires with alternatives (such as installing gas fires), or for those who preferred, to burn coke instead which produces minimal smoke. Central heating (using gas, electricity, oil or permitted solid fuel) was rare in most dwellings at that time, not finding favour until the late 1960s onwards. Despite improvements, insufficient progress had been made to prevent one further smog event approximately ten years later, in early December 1962.[29]

The Great Smog is the central event of season 1, episode 4 of Netflix's show The Crown. The representation of the air pollution was regarded as reasonably accurate by critics, although the political importance and the chaos in the hospitals were thought to have been greatly exaggerated.[30]

An episode of The Goon Show entitled 'Forog', broadcast on the BBC Home Service 21 December 1954 was a thinly veiled satire on the killer fog crisis. The script by Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan concerned the statues of London's monuments, who could only get up and move about the city undisturbed at times when it was enveloped in a characteristic smog. Government-sponsored scientific research sought to dispense with the choking fog, to the annoyance of the statues.

The Great Smog is the setting of the Doctor Who audio play The Creeping Death.[31]

The Boris Starling novel Visibility is set in the 1952 smog event.[32]

The D.E. Stevenson novel The Tall Stranger (1957) opens with a dense "fog" that penetrates indoors and endangers hospital patients, in a reference to the 1952 smog event.

Kate Winkler Dawson's book Death in the Air (2017) interweaves the story of the Great Smog of London with that of serial killer John Christie.[33]

See also


  1. Bell, M.L.; Davis, D.L.; Fletcher, T. (2004). "A Retrospective Assessment of Mortality from the London Smog Episode of 1952: The Role of Influenza and Pollution". Environ Health Perspect. 112 (1, January): 6–8. doi:10.1289/ehp.6539. PMC 1241789. PMID 14698923.
  2. Stone, R (2002). "Counting the Cost of London's Killer Smog" (PDF). Science. 298 (5601): 2106–2107. doi:10.1126/science.298.5601.2106b. PMID 12481106. S2CID 32721947. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 February 2019.
  3. "The Great Smog of 1952". Archived from the original on 3 September 2014. Retrieved 12 October 2014.
  4. Brimblecombe, Peter (1976). "Attitudes and Responses Towards Air Pollution in Medieval England". Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association. 26 (10): 941–45. doi:10.1080/00022470.1976.10470341. PMID 789426.
  5. Graunt, John, 1620–1674; Petty, William, Sir, 1623–1687 (1662), Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index, and made upon the bills of mortality [microform] / by John Graunt ... ; with reference to the government, religion, trade, growth, ayre, diseases, and the several changes of the said city, Printed by Tho. Roycroft for John Martin, James Allestry, and Tho. Dicas
  6. Evelyn, John (1661). Fumifugium, or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London. London: W. Godbid. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
  7. McKie, Robin & Townsend, Mark. Great Smog is history, but foul air still kills (The Observer, 24 November 2002).
  8. "The lethal effects of London fog". BBC News. 22 December 2015.
  9. Matthew Wills (24 August 2015). "Old Smoke: London's Famous Fog". JSTOR Daily.
  10. Domonoske, Camila (23 November 2016). "Research On Chinese Haze Helps Crack Mystery of London's Deadly 1952 Fog". NPR. Retrieved 23 November 2016.
  11. Wang, Gehui; Zhang, Renyi; Gomez, Mario E.; Yang, Lingxiao; Levy Zamora, Misti; Hu, Min; Lin, Yun; Peng, Jianfei; Guo, Song; Meng, Jingjing; Li, Jianjun; Cheng, Chunlei; Hu, Tafeng; Ren, Yanqin; Wang, Yuesi; Gao, Jian; Cao, Junji; An, Zhisheng; Zhou, Weijian; Li, Guohui; Wang, Jiayuan; Tian, Pengfei; Marrero-Ortiz, Wilmarie; Secrest, Jeremiah; Du, Zhuofei; Zheng, Jing; Shang, Dongjie; Zeng, Limin; Shao, Min; Wang, Weigang; Huang, Yao; Wang, Yuan; Zhu, Yujiao; Li, Yixin; Hu, Jiaxi; Pan, Bowen; Cai, Li; Cheng, Yuting; Ji, Yuemeng; Zhang, Fang; Rosenfeld, Daniel; Liss, Peter S.; Duce, Robert A.; Kolb, Charles E.; Molina, Mario J. (29 November 2016). "Persistent sulfate formation from London Fog to Chinese haze". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113 (48): 13630–13635. Bibcode:2016PNAS..11313630W. doi:10.1073/pnas.1616540113. PMC 5137769. PMID 27849598.
  12. Sheail, John (1991). Power in Trust: the environmental history of the Central Electricity Generating Board. Oxford: Clarendon. pp. 22, 42–3. ISBN 0-19-854673-4.
  13. Mason, Nigel; Hughes, Peter (2001). Introduction to Environmental Physics. CRC Press. pp. 112–13. ISBN 978-0748407651.
  14. "Atmosphere, Climate & Environment Information Programme". 4 December 1952. Archived from the original on 25 February 2009. Retrieved 30 June 2010.
  15. "The Great Smog of 1952". UK MetOffice. Retrieved 1 July 2022.
  16. Greater London Authority. 50 Years On: The struggle for air quality in London since the great smog of December 1952.
  17. Nielson, John. "The Killer Fog of '52". NPR. Retrieved 14 December 2013.
  18. "London fog clears after days of chaos". BBC News. Retrieved 7 December 2014.
  19. "Busy Time for Thieves: Traffic Disrupted". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 April 2020.
  20. Hutton, Mike (2014). Life in 1950s London. Stroud, Gloucestershire. ISBN 978-1-4456-2124-1. OCLC 907976332.
  21. "The Great Smog of 1952". Retrieved 17 August 2008.
  22. "Coal: Nutty slack". Commons Sitting of 16 February 1953.
  23. Davis DL. 2002. When Smoke Ran Like Water. New York:Basic Books.
  24. Peters, Annette; Döring, Angela; Wichmann, H-Erich; Koenig, Wolfgang (1997) 'Increased plasma viscosity during an air pollution episode: a link to mortality?' The Lancet, 1997, Vol. 349 (9065), pp. 1582–87
  25. Hunt, Andrew; Abraham, Jerrold L; Judson, Bret; Berry, Colin L (2003). "Toxicologic and epidemiologic clues from the characterization of the 1952 London smog fine particulate matter in archival autopsy lung tissues". Environmental Health Perspectives. 111 (9): 1209–14. doi:10.1289/ehp.6114. PMC 1241576. PMID 12842775.
  26. Bell ML, Davis D. 2001. Reassessment of the lethal London fog of 1952: novel indicators of acute and chronic consequences of acute exposure to air pollution. Environ Health Perspect 109(suppl 3):389–94.
  27. Camps, Francis E (Ed.) (1976). Gradwohl's Legal Medicine (Bristol: John Wright & Sons Ltd, 3rd ed.) ISBN 0-7236-0310-3. p. 236.
  28. Andrew; Abraham, Jerrold L.; Judson, Bret; Berry, Colin L. (2003). "Toxicologic and Epidemiologic Clues from the Characterization of the 1952 London Smog Fine Particulate Matter in Archival Autopsy Lung Tissues Hunt". Environmental Health Perspectives. 111 (9): 1209–14. doi:10.1289/ehp.6114. PMC 1241576. PMID 12842775.
  29. "Choking fog spreads across Britain". BBC News. Retrieved 16 January 2015.
  30. Fullerton, Huw (26 March 2019). "The Crown: Discover the real Great Smog that brought London to a standstill". Radio Times. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  31. "3.3 Doctor Who: The Creeping Death - Doctor Who - The Tenth Doctor Adventures - Big Finish". Big Finish. Retrieved 14 September 2020.
  32. Boris Starling, London, 2007 ISBN 978-0-525-94996-1
  33. Potenza, Alessandra (16 December 2017). "In 1952 London, 12,000 people died from smog — here's why that matters now". The Verge.

Further reading

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