Historic photography

The Story of the Great Smog of London

From 5 to 9 December 1952, a thick, toxic smog blanketed London.

From 5 to 9 December 1952, thick, filthy, toxic smog, a combination of industrial pollution, domestic coal fire burning and unusual weather conditions, blanketed the London area.

Visibility was reduced to less than a metre in places, bringing the city to a virtual standstill. An estimated 12,000 Londoners died, including babies, citizens with respiratory problems and elderly people. More than 100,000 people became ill, with many hospitalised.

This catastrophic event, the worst pollution incident ever in Britain, prompted the Clean Air Act of 1956, a watershed moment in the history of environmentalism.

Here we look at what led to the Great Smog and what happened.

The rise of industry

A black and white photo of London from above, showing smoke hanging over the buildings.
View over rooftops towards Battersea Power Station, London, visible in the far distance. This photograph from 1947, five years before the Great Smog, shows air pollution hanging over the city. The power station at that time had only two chimneys. A further two were built in the 1950s. Image © Historic England/AA093777.

19th-century London, like much of Britain, saw rapid industrialisation following the Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840). The traditional agrarian and craft skills economy had been largely replaced by machine manufacturing, with factories and mills driven by coal-powered steam engines.

As increasing numbers of people moved from rural areas to the city to search for work, there was a huge growth in London’s population over the 19th century, from 1 million in 1801 to around 6 million.

London’s ‘pea soupers’, dense yellow fog, became a common feature of life, (continuing into the first half of the 20th century), as emissions and gases from factory chimneys increased, coupled with families burning coal to warm their homes and to provide fuel for cooking.

How did the Great Smog form?

A black and white photo of a tall column seen through fog.
Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, London, during the Great Smog. (The word ‘smog’, an amalgamation of the words smoke and fog, is thought to have been first coined by public health scientist Dr Henry Des Voeux in 1905). Image via Creative Commons.

The winter of 1952 was freezing. Households burnt enormous amounts of coal to keep warm. Smoke poured out of hundreds of thousands of chimneys. This cheap low-grade coal was more poisonously sulphurous than the hard high-grade version that the government exported to maximise revenues and pay off war debts following the Second World War (1939 to 1945).

Factories and power stations were also continually belching out smoke. Pollution from steam locomotives, powered by coal, and exhaust from vehicles added to the toxic mix.

A black and white photo of a tall clock tower, accompanying ornate building and bridge surrounded by smog.
The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Bridge barely visible in the smog. Image in the Public Domain.

But it was a rare weather event that triggered the deadly smog:

Usually, smoke and pollution would rise up into the atmosphere and disperse naturally, but an anti-cyclone (high pressure) had stalled over a windless London, allowing a layer of fog up to 200 metres deep to form over the city at ground level, trapping the pollutants, included the highly dangerous gas, sulphur dioxide. This toxic mix resulted in a thick, stinking smog.

What were the effects of the Great Smog?

A black and white photo of the blurry outlines of people walking through smog.
Ghost-like pedestrians making their way through the smog. Image in the Public Domain.

The smog was so dense in some places that people could barely see their own feet. Their clothes and faces were blackened with soot. There was often a smell of rotten eggs. People made improvised face coverings. The number of street robberies rose. 

A black and white photo of a policeman holding a flare while standing in front of traffic.
Police officer with a flare. Image in the Public Domain.

Transport was severely affected. Police officers guided traffic with flares. Bus conductors, using flashlights or flares, walked in front of their buses to show the way. There were many traffic accidents.

Train drivers, inching along the tracks and unable to see signals, were alerted to them by a loud bang as the train wheels ran over a small explosive charge laid for the purpose of railway lines. Flights were cancelled or diverted. Boat traffic on the River Thames came to a halt. Only the underground was unaffected. Thousands of people queued for tickets to get to their destinations.

A black and white photo of a theatre.
At Sadler’s Wells, the opera La Traviata had to be abandoned after the first act because the theatre was full of smog.  Image via Creative Commons.

Schools and many workplaces were closed. Sporting fixtures were called off. The smog seeped into homes, and into the auditoriums of theatres and cinemas, obscuring the stage and screen. 

A number of previously healthy young cattle were slaughtered at the Smithfield Show at Earl’s Court to prevent them from suffocating to death after they displayed acute respiratory symptoms, with one animal having already died due to the smog.

On 9 December, five days after the smog began, the weather changed and the smog lifted. A brisk wind got up, clearing the air and revealing greasy black-streaked streets, buildings and trees.

A map of Greater London, with the boroughs of Southwark Lambeth, Wansworth, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, City of London, Hackney, Newham and Barking shaded dark grey to represent the smog being heavier in these areas.
Map showing the extent of the smog across Greater London, from the borough of Hounslow to the west, to the borough of Havering in the north-east. The darker grey shading indicates the worst-affected boroughs. Image in the Public Domain.

The Great Smog stretched 40 miles (64 kilometres) across the London area, according to contemporary headlines.

In its immediate aftermath, it was estimated that the number of people who had lost their lives was around 4,000, but a scientific re-assessment in 2004 suggested that as many as 12,000 Londoners may have died. The further 8,000 having died over the course of the following year (1953), most from respiratory tract infections caused by the smog.

A black and white photo of a power station with two chimneys.
Lots Road Power Station, Chelsea, photographed here in 1994, supplied electricity to the London Underground from 1905 to 2002. The power station was originally coal-fired, but was converted to burn heavy fuel oil in 1969, then to dual oil and gas firing in 1977, closing in 2002. Today it houses luxury apartments. Image © Historic England/DD004491.

The tragic event of 1952 was unignorable and the government passed the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. These restricted the burning of coal in urban areas, including factories which had to convert to smoke-free fuels. Local councils were given powers to set up smoke-free zones. Homeowners were offered grants to convert from coal to central heating.

A black and white photo of a row of chimneys on terraced houses.
Roofscape, North London, 1960s, showing a polluted haze beyond. Image © Historic England/AA072985.

However, the move away from coal was slow. Deadly fogs still occurred, including one in 1962 which killed around 750 Londoners, but nothing on the scale of the Great Smog of 1952.  

Pollution legislation and the widespread use of central heating has ensured that such an extreme event has been consigned to history.

But London’s air pollution has not gone away. With the huge growth in the number of vehicles, the chemical mix is now more insidious and invisible. In 2003, the Congestion Charge Zone in Central London was introduced. Most motorists have to pay each time they enter the Zone, this financial deterrent helping reduce traffic flow and thereby pollution. 

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Banner Image: Bus terminus shrouded in smog in 1952.  Image in the Public Domain.

7 comments on “The Story of the Great Smog of London

  1. Ref: Image © Historic England/AA093777. First picture towards Battersea power station.
    My picture taken from same location at top of Westminster cathedral bell tower ( note church steeple to foreground right of power station ) with 30x zoom lens In 2014.
    You may use picture UN-cropped for use on site free of charge and on any other historical sites.
    https://www.ssrichardmontgomery.com/images/batpower1.jpg

  2. I am at the moment reading Christine Corton’s book “London Fog” as I have also planned to write something about it on my blog….I will put a link to this post, too. 🙂

  3. Charles Kightly

    Thank you very much for this fascinating piece. I was only a very young lad at the time, but happened to be visiting London and remember this smog very well. I was very frightened

  4. Helen Frewer

    My grandfather died in this smog and my father had to queue for hours to register his death as so many people had died. He wrote an account of it which I have.

  5. Robert Newman

    I lived in Leytonstone and was 6 years old in 1952 but I also remember how smogs continued well into my teens and being sent home early from my secondary school in Leyton because the smogs were still so bad. You found your way home by using garden walls as a guide. The smogs were green/yellow in colour, had a terrible taste and felt as if they were almost solid.

  6. Steve Huges

    I remember my Mum talking of the smog, we lived just off Eversholt Street next to Euston Station, she worked in Russell Square, to walk to work Mum had to walk down the street with her hand touching the walls when she got to Euston Road she had to listen for any traffic approaching before crossing.
    My Dad’s diary from the 50’s shows my brother and sister were ill many times with breathing and chest problems, sometimes they were sent to stay in the country side by the doctor to clear their lungs.
    We moved from London in 1959 to the clean air of Essex, Harlow New Town as it was called then.

  7. Peter Butt

    Exciting times. As a teenager cycling home from work, Hainault to Seven KIngs in East London, we could see better than car drivers, so overtook them calling out “Going to SK, tag on behind”. One evening I had at least a dozen cars on my ‘tail’ by the time I reach SK High Road.

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