On 5 December 1952, a thick smog settled over London, reducing visibility across the city to mere metres, and contributing to the deaths of as may as 12,000 people. It would come to be known as the Great Smog of ’52 or Big Smoke.
The smog was essentially massive air pollution caused by coal fires. The weather had been cold, even for December, in the days leading up to the Smog, so people were burning more coal to keep warm. The coal-fired power stations at Battersea, Bankside, and Kingston-upon-Thames didn’t help; nor did all the vehicle exhaust from diesel-fuelled buses (which had recently replaced the electric tram system). A prevailing wind had blown heavily polluted air right across the Channel from Europe, too. Thanks a lot, France.
Even so, it might not have been so bad if Mother Nature hadn’t gotten in on the action, settling an anticyclone over London that caused a temperature inversion. Basically, cold, still air was trapped under a layer of warm air that kept everything mashed down on the city. All that muck in the air was trapped, causing a smog that refused to disperse. When it finally did clear up, the city was coated in black grime and smelled like acrid soot. Lovely!
This being London, there was no panic; people pretty much just got on with it, even though they could barely see their own feet. There were some concessions to the weather, though. Concerts were cancelled, theatres closed, buses stopped running (though, of course, the Tube carried on). Even the ambulance service sat this one out, forcing the sick and injured to shift for themselves.
The Smog eventually dispersed, on 9 December, but the damage had been done. In the weeks that ensued, at least 4,000 people had died due to the smog; most of them were young, elderly, or had pre-existing respiratory problems. Many more, perhaps as many as 25,000, claimed sickness benefits during the Smog period. Later estimates raised the number of possible deaths as high as 12,000.
The silver lining was, people sat up and took notice and started to think a bit harder about air pollution. New regulations that restricted the use of dirty fuels in industry and banned black smoke were quickly implemented, leading to a reduction in air pollution. Households were offered financial incentives to replace coal fires with alternatives, such as gas. It took a while for everything to make a difference (another, similar smog event took place exactly ten years later), but if you go to London now, you can rest assured that the London Fog is, pretty much, just that: fog.