The Five Days of December 1952 When the Killer Smog Blanketed London.


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Myself 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Smokestack belching dense dark smoke.
Smokestack belching dense dark smoke.

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The modern fight against environmental pollution around the world owes much to the tragedy that befell Greater London, about 63 years ago. The haphazard use of coal brought the country to the brink of a frightening black disaster on December 5, 1952.

During the Industrial Revolution, from about 1760 to around 1840, there was a transition to new manufacturing processes. The main factor in this transition was the change from wood and other biofuels to coal.

Indiscriminate use of coal drove Britain, the most powerful empire in the world. Tall smokestacks became the symbols of the industrial age in Britain. The appalling use of coal in industries, for generating electricity, heating homes, for cooking, etc., was frightening. Trains, boats, iron, steel, everyday items used coal. In London, it was like millions of micro-volcanoes erupting all at once. It was as if London was eating coal to survive.

People were burning large quantities of poor quality coal and emitting pollution at low elevations. The pollution from home chimneys was double the amount of the industries.

In the Victorian era, London was well known for its romantic fog that covered the city for 90 days each year for decades. But as the years passed by, this romantic fog and the smoke and fog turned into a poisonous cloud of smog (smoky fog) during each winter. In his book “Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (18591930) wrote:

In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses. … But when, for the fourth time, after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the windowpanes, my comrade’s impatient and active nature could endure this drab existence no longer. He paced restlessly about our sitting- room in a fever of suppressed energy, biting his nails, tapping the furniture, and chafing against inaction.

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A view of Battersea Power Station in 2012 from River Thames.
A view of Battersea Power Station in 2012 from River Thames.

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Construction of the first phase, the A Station of the Battersea Power Station, began in March 1929. It first generated electricity in 1933, but was not completed until 1935. The total cost of its construction was £2,141,550. It burned approximately 10,000 tons of coal each week to supply one fifth of the electricity for the entire city of London.

Washing off the accumulated soot in London.
Washing off the accumulated soot in London.

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Slowly, with time, London became completely covered in soot.

In late 1952 an unusual cold cinch had gripped London for weeks. On December 5, 1952, the day the disaster began, Londoners awoke to find a clear sky, but coal fireplaces worked overtime to fight the chill in the air. As the day progressed, a light veil of fog began to blanket the city. In the afternoon, the fog mixed with the thousands of tons of soot being pumped into the skies of London by million or more coal stoves, home chimneys, from local factories and industrial smokestacks began to turn a sickly shade of yellow and settled in the London basin.

Smog was nothing new for Londoners, but on that day, this thick sulfurous yellow “pea souper” quickly thickened into a poisonous brew, unlike anything the city had ever experienced before. A high-pressure system parked over London caused a temperature inversion. The air about a thousand feet above the surface, warmer than that at ground level kept the smog under the clouds and prevented it from rising. And, there was no breeze to disperse and dissipate the soot-laden soup.

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The Killer Smog That Blanketed London, 63 Years Ago (Source: history.com)
The Killer Smog That Blanketed London, 63 Years Ago (Source: history.com)

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For five days from Friday, December 5 to Tuesday, December 9, 1952, the Great Smog paralyzed life in London. Poisonous smog closed down all establishments.  Day became as dark as night.

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People found it difficult to breathe the murky air.
People found it difficult to breathe the murky air.

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People found it difficult to breathe the murky air. The smog was so dense that residents of the Isle of Dogs section of the city reported they were unable to see their feet as they walked. It was as if they needed a blind person to lead them home.

The dense smog crippled all transportation. Boat traffic on the Thames came to a halt. Bus conductors holding flashlights and torches walked in front of the double-deckers to guide drivers. Flights were grounded, and trains canceled. Only the Underground was in service.

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The ambulance drivers had to rely on the police and people holding live burning torches s to show them the way.
The ambulance drivers had to rely on the police and people holding live burning torches s to show them the way.

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London was completely silent. Only sirens of ambulances which brought those whose lives were in danger to the hospitals was heard. The ambulance drivers had to rely on the police and people holding live burning torches to show them the way.

Even at mid-noon, automobile drivers and motorcyclists turned on their headlights. They hung their heads out the windows in a futile attempt to inch ahead through the yellow gloom. Many abandoned their vehicles.

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Traffic police used large lamps to light themselves up to avoid getting hit by vehicles.
Traffic police used large lamps to light themselves up to avoid getting hit by vehicles.

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Traffic police used large lamps to light themselves up to avoid getting hit by vehicles.

A greasy grime covered exposed surfaces. Pedestrians with their faces and noses blackened by the smog tried not to slip on the greasy black ooze that coated the sidewalks.

People wore face masks to go to shopping, to walk their dogs. Students wore face masks to go to school.

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People wore face masks even to kiss.
People wore face masks even to kiss.

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People wore face masks even to kiss.

Fearing the children might get lost in the smog, authorities advised parents not to send their children to school.

Fearing the children might get lost in the smog, authorities advised parents not to send their children to school.

Criminals emboldened by the thick dark smog resorted to purse snatching and burglaries and then vanished into the cloaking darkness.

Birds lost in the fog crashed into buildings.

Breeders fashioned improvised gas masks for their cattle by soaking grain sacks in whiskey. Eleven prize heifers brought to Earls Court for the famed Smithfield Show choked to death.

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All weekend soccer matches were canceled.
All weekend soccer matches were canceled.

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All weekend soccer matches were canceled. However, Oxford and Cambridge carried on with their annual cross-country competition at Wimbledon Common. As runners materialized out of the thick haze, the track marshals shouted continually, “This way, this way, Oxford and Cambridge.”

Since the smog seeped even inside closed buildings, movie theaters closed down as the yellow haze made it impossible for the audience to see the screen. The opera houses too put up their shutters as the audience could no longer see the performers on the stage due to the acrid smog.

The unparalleled admissions to hospitals and the great number of pneumonia reports overwhelmed the medical authorities.

Sadly, the Great Smog was not only a nuisance, it was also lethal for those with respiratory and cardiovascular problems, the elderly, the babies and the infants. Amidst coughing and the wheezing, death came silently to London. The smog literally choked thousands to death. Deaths from bronchitis and pneumonia increased more than seven-fold and the death rate in the East End increased ninefold.

Eventually, the siege abated on December 9, 1952, when cold winds from the west swept the toxic smog away from London and carried out to the North Sea. Yet, the detrimental effects lingered on, and death rates remained above normal into the summer.

Initial reports estimated that upwards of 4,000 died prematurely in the first week of the Great Smog. The mortality rate remained high for a couple of months after the Great Smog. People realized the impact of the deadly Smog when the undertakers ran out of caskets and the florists out of flowers and bouquets.

There were 12,000 unexplained deaths and additional deaths during the episode and in the two months after the abatement of the peak smog.

A preliminary report not finalized yet attributed these later deaths to an influenza epidemic. New evidence shows that only a fraction of the deaths could be from influenza.

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The lungs of the dead confirmed that they died due to prolonged exposure to black carbon.
The lungs of the dead confirmed that they died due to prolonged exposure to black carbon.

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Thorough examinations of the lungs of the dead confirmed that they died due to prolonged exposure to black carbon, a byproduct of burning coal and a short-term overexposure to a high concentration of fine particulate matter containing heavy metals.

Initially, the British government was reluctant to act in the wake of the Great Smog.

The Coalition for Clean Air calculated the concentration of pollution in London at the time. They concluded that it might have surpassed the current pollution in China by a large margin even though PM2.5 was not measured at the time. During the Great Smog, the concentration of sulfur dioxide was 190 times higher than the WHO standard.

Following the investigation, the British Parliament passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, which restricted the burning of coal in urban areas. The Act authorized local councils to set up smoke-free zones.

The public received grants to convert from coal stoves to alternative heating systems.

It took years, for London to transit from its primary source of heating coal to gas, oil, and electricity. During the transition period, deadly smogs occurred periodically, such as one that killed 750 people in 1962. But none of them reached the scale of the Great Smog that descended upon London on December 5, 1952.

In the 1960s, after the Great Smog in London, other countries began to reduce and control their use of coal.

Now, India, a country suffering from severe air pollution is also on a similar footing. Soon, India will become the world’s second largest consumer of coal. Yet, as of today, India has not yet set standards for emissions of important pollutants in its industries.

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