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The pea souper that killed 12,000: How the Great Smog choked London 60 years ago this week
PUBLISHED: 00:53 GMT, 6 December 2012 | UPDATED: 15:12 GMT, 6 December 2012
A dense, green-yellow fog choked the streets. Cars edged forwards with passengers sitting on the bonnets shouting instructions. From behind the wheel, drivers could not even see as far as their own headlights.
Mothers took their children to school with handkerchiefs and scarves wrapped over their faces. With their hands tightly clasped, they shuffled along in ‘crocodiles’.
One pedestrian remembers bumping into a motorcyclist who asked: ‘Which way to the Tube station?’
The pedestrian could only reply: ‘Carry on 20 yards, and you’ll go straight down the steps — you’re on the pavement!’
Such were the scenes during the Great Smog of London, which began 60 years ago today.
A thick, greasy, grimy fog descended on the city and killed 12,000 people in four days. A blanket of soot hung over the streets so thickly that visibility was reduced to a couple of yards or less.
It was a pea-souper, a ‘London Particular’ — and it was the worst in history.
The city had been paralysed by swirling fogs since the Napoleonic era, 150 years earlier. By the time Dickens came to write about them, he imagined dinosaurs stalking out of the mists. Readers of Sherlock Holmes cannot imagine the great detective without seeing him striding up Baker Street shrouded in eerie tendrils of fog.
But the Great Smog was not romantic. It was murderous. People and animals suffocated in appalling numbers, making it 20th-century Britain’s worst peace-time catastrophe.
Londoners again had to summon up the Blitz spirit which had sustained them through the war.
Professor Roy Parker, now a social historian, was living with his parents in Lewisham, South-East London in 1952. His father, a World War I veteran who had been gassed in the trenches, was intent on cycling to work even though the choking conditions caused severe pain in his damaged lungs. ‘He was 56 and in great distress, gasping for breath, struggling.’ But still he cycled on.
Buses could not run. One driver who tried said ‘fat flakes of soot stuck to the greasy windscreen like paint’ and could not be wiped off. In order to see just a couple of yards ahead, to where his conductor was walking with a torch to light the way, he had to lean out of the window.
In the East End, people could not see their own feet. Yet dock workers reported that, in crane cabins 50ft above the ground, the skies were quite clear. Below them, the smog lay like a dark sea.
It was a particularly cold December and the damp, freezing air soaked up the pollution and held it like a blanket over the city.
Even more deadly, 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid was formed as sulphur dioxide coming from chimneys mixed with moisture in the air.
The acid burned the back of the throat, bringing on choking fits. It caused inflammation of the lungs, especially in children, the old and people with bronchial illness.
Thousands died, suffocating from within. As the death toll mounted, undertakers ran out of coffins.
More than 100,000 people suffered such health problems as bronchitis and pneumonia.
Some estimates suggest a further 8,000 may have died in the weeks and months after it.
Sir Donald Acheson, the government’s former chief medical officer, recalled as a young doctor feeling his way through deserted streets: ‘I had to creep along the walls of the buildings, to the next corner, to read the name of the street.
'I remember an eerie silence, as there was little or no traffic. Visibility was less than three metres, and it was bitterly cold.’
At the Middlesex Hospital, off Tottenham Court Road, where he was resident medical officer, Acheson saw an unstoppable tide of admissions.
‘Within a few days, patients with acute respiratory distress spilled over into all wards — they were in the surgical wards, and even in the obstetric wards, and as the majority were men, room had to be found in some of the women’s wards. The supply of oxygen was stretched to the limit.’
Nothing could keep the smog out and as it oozed indoors, it left a film of black over every surface.
It even closed cinemas — the black pall made it impossible to see the screens.
At Sadler’s Wells theatre, the opera La Traviata was halted because of the noise of choking as smog spread through the auditorium.
Dog racing at White City was abandoned because the greyhounds couldn’t see the hare.
Ambulances, of course, had to stay on the roads whatever the conditions. One crewman would drive the vehicle, while another walked ahead, warning people out of the way.
Some trains were kept in operation, but, in near-total darkness, ingenious measures were needed to avoid accidents.
Railway engineers put small packets of explosive on the lines, to be set off like pop-gun caps by the wheels as trains inched along the tracks — the noise warned workers that a train was approaching.
In the days that followed, the Mail reported: ‘The Great Smog Grows Worse: Thousands in Fog Queues. London Paralysed. No Buses, No Taxis, No Coaches, No Planes.’
Richard Scorer, a professor at Imperial College, recalled cycling home through the fog, following the kerb at a snail’s pace.
‘I became very dirty,’ he told an inquiry into the Great Smog, 50 years later. ‘My eyebrows were covered with what you might call mud; my hair was filthy; and my hands had collected a lot of muck. It was as if I’d fallen into a puddle of mud.’
And it wasn’t just men, women and children. At the annual Smithfield livestock show in Earl’s Court, cattle gasped for air and collapsed. More than a dozen had to be slaughtered to put them out of their suffering.
After five days, the weather changed. A breeze cleared the air, leaving an oily residue caked on every building and tree. It was as if the city had been sprayed black. Rain came and washed the grime into the gutters, producing an evil-smelling trickle of sooty gunge.
There were smogs again, but never so bad. A campaign by backbench MPs forced the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956. It enforced the use of smokeless fuels in homes, and ordered the relocation of power stations further from cities.
London would never again see the return of a fog as choking, blinding and terrifying as the Great Smog which suffocated the capital city 60 years ago.
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