It was called ‘The Great Smog of London’ or ‘The Great Smog of 1952’ – and sometimes simply ‘The Big Smoke’. Whatever it was called, it is clear that it was a severe air-pollution event that affected the British capital of London in December 1952.
Whatever you wish to call it, the city of London was brought to a standstill by a dense blanket of toxic smog that reduced visibility to a few feet. For five cold December days, a heavy fog combined with sulfurous fumes from coal fires, vehicle exhaust and power plants, blocked out the sun and creating a public health disaster. It is claimed that the “Big Smoke” was the worst air pollution crisis in European history, killing an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people.
Clear skies had dawned over London on Friday 5th December 1952. A wintry cold snap had gripped the capital for weeks and, as Londoners awoke, coal fireplaces were stoked in homes and businesses across the city to take the chill from the early morning air. As the day progressed, a veil of fog – not unusual in a city famous for its cool, misty weather – began to enshroud Big Ben; St. Paul’s Cathedral; London Bridge and other city landmarks. Within a few hours the fog began to turn a sickly shade of yellowish brown as it mixed with thousands of tons of soot pumped into the air by London’s factory smokestacks, chimneys and automobiles. Diesel-fuelled buses had recently replaced the city’s electric tram system, and this added to the toxic brew.
Despite this, Londoners carried on their business, ignoring the foul air as much as possible – but within a day, it became impossible to ignore the unfolding crisis. Fog, combined with smoke to produce smog, was nothing new in London, but this particular “pea souper” quickly thickened into a poisonous stew unlike anything the city had ever experienced.
A high-pressure weather system had stalled over southern England and caused a temperature inversion with a layer of warm air high above trapping stagnant, cold air at ground level. This prevented the coal smoke from rising and, with not a breeze to be found, there was no wind to disperse the soot-laden smog. The noxious, 30-mile-wide air mass – teeming with acrid sulphur particles and reeking like rotten eggs – was getting worse every day.
We’re not going to leave this story as a one-off. We’ll see what was happening on Saturday 6th December 1952 tomorrow.