On This Day: Great Smog ends after 12,000 Londoners die

Julian Gavaghan

DECEMBER 9, 1952: The Great Smog – the longest lasting, deadliest and densest pollution fog to ever shroud London – ended on this day in 1952.

The so-called pea-souper - caused by smoke, soot and noxious gasses from millions of coal fires and factories - killed 12,000 people after enveloping the city for four days.

It was so thick that visibility was reduced to a few feet - and East End funeral director Stan Cribb, who buried many of the dead, later said: “It was like you were blind.”

London was reduced to a standstill – and the black fug was so invasive that it even drifted inside people’s home.

And with ambulances unable to take the capital’s choking citizens to hospital, many were left to make their own way on foot – often suffocating on the way.

The smog, a portmanteau of the words smoke and fog, killed quickest those whose lungs had already been weakened by cigarettes or working in polluting factories.

After four days, the shroud disappeared as quickly as it arrived as the temperature rose and the winds shifted.

At the time, 4,000 people were thought to have died. But studies later showed the actual death toll was 12,000 – almost as many Londoners as were killed in the Blitz.

In response, the Government was pressured into passing the 1956 Clean Air Act, which banned home coal fires in the capital and other cities.

For about two decades, households in these Smoke Control Zones were routinely inspected to make sure they did not flout the new law.

















But since so few homes then had gas central heating, which is now widespread, this presented a problem – with often smelly paraffin burners often the only solution.

A British Pathé newsreel, which was reporting on smog in 1953, showed how the London County Council tried to tackle this by building new flats with gas supplies.

It also filmed public health officials handing out “bunny masks” to residents – with even a pet dog being fitted with one.

The terror was a far cry from a few years earlier when Londoners had generally viewed their city’s frequent smogs in an almost romantic light.

Indeed, they proudly took up the phrase pea-souper after the New York Times in 1871 derided Britain’s capital as a city frequently “submerged in a fog of the consistency of pea soup.”

Smog, which first emerged in the aftermath of the British-inspired Industrial Revolution, was caused by coal smoke failing to rise due to the cold air.

As with fog, when moist air is suspended at ground level, so too were the lingering fumes from household hearths and kitchens.

And, as the weather got colder, people tried to keep warm by heaping on more coal, which was then very cheap and dug in huge quantities by Britain’s 800,000 miners.
The Great Smog was made worse by the fact that only a year before, census records showed that London’s population had peaked at 8.34million.

Its deadliness was also boosted by a unique combination of cold and still air.


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Following the Clean Air Act, which also closed Battersea and Bankside power stations in London, smog quickly became a thing of the past.

It was also helped by London’s shrinking population, which by 1991 had dipped to 6.68million – the lowest in a century.

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It has since risen steadily again to 8.3milion -but the widespread use of clean fuels and other restrictions means smog has never returned.

However, London is still occasionally blighted by pollution hazes from car emissions.