Smog Kills Thousands of Londoners Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The death of close to twelve thousand Londoners was attributed to a killer smog, a mixture of fog and smoke, that blanketed the city in December of 1952. The smog also asphyxiated cattle and other animals and led to other health problems for those who lived through the air pollution disaster. The disaster led to the implementation of strict clean-air acts throughout the United Kingdom.

Summary of Event

The great killer smog of December 4-8, 1952, caught London unprepared. It should not have, for Londoners were certainly aware of the potential for disaster. London’s foggy climate, a result of its location on a river and near the sea, coupled with the city’s many industries and coal-burning domestic heating systems, had long created problems. London’s infamous “pea-soupers” were legendary and were frequently used as backdrops for fictional mystery and mayhem. Still, while there had been periodic bad smogs prior to 1952, there had never been anything like the 1952 incident. The disaster’s causes, however, were 750 years in the making. Smog Pollution;United Kingdom Great Smog (1952) Big Smoke (1952) [kw]Smog Kills Thousands of Londoners (Dec. 4-8, 1952) [kw]Londoners, Smog Kills Thousands of (Dec. 4-8, 1952) Smog Pollution;United Kingdom Great Smog (1952) Big Smoke (1952) [g]Europe;Dec. 4-8, 1952: Smog Kills Thousands of Londoners[03960] [g]United Kingdom;Dec. 4-8, 1952: Smog Kills Thousands of Londoners[03960] [c]Environmental issues;Dec. 4-8, 1952: Smog Kills Thousands of Londoners[03960] [c]Disasters;Dec. 4-8, 1952: Smog Kills Thousands of Londoners[03960] [c]Health and medicine;Dec. 4-8, 1952: Smog Kills Thousands of Londoners[03960] [c]Urban planning;Dec. 4-8, 1952: Smog Kills Thousands of Londoners[03960] Beaver, Hugh Dodds, Norman Macmillan, Harold Nabarro, Gerald Duncan-Sandys, D. E.

By the start of the thirteenth century, as nearby wood fuel was exhausted, London turned to sea coal for fuel. This bituminous, high sulfur-content coal, when burned, produced a smoke that was not only noxious in odor but also filled with particulate matter. Medieval and early modern chronicles frequently refer to London’s smoky fogs, particularly at the onset of colder weather in December. In 1661, John Evelyn Evelyn, John described the noxious air of London in his work Fumifugium: Or, The Inconvenience of the Aer, and Smoake of London Dissipated. Fumifugium (Evelyn) He noted not only the unhealthy nature of the air, which caused coughing and snuffling among Londoners, but also the dearth of trees and flowers. Evelyn also described the effects of thermal inversion: smoke, fog, and the “coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke.” This happened in a city of only 500,000 or so inhabitants.

During the next two centuries, London grew larger and more commercialized. The Industrial Revolution resulted in urbanization and industrialization throughout the British Isles, with the largest city, London, growing to more than one million people by 1800. Throughout Great Britain, most heating and cooking was done with coal. Even though coal was dirty and smoky, it was cheap and warming. Coal-burning railways revolutionized transportation, and coal-powered steam engines provided power for machinery. British cities suffered from pollution of all types, but there was no real demand for environmental protection. Industry was against such measures, as pollution prevention cut profits. “Muck is money” was one common slogan of the era.

London’s fogs became internationally famous, with the “London Particular,” as described by Charles Dickens in his 1852 novel Bleak House, being typical of the image. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were often set in London’s foreboding, foggy environs. The fog of fiction was merely a gentle, enshrouding mist; the fog of reality was deadly.

Consumption, the name given to most bronchial conditions, was endemic to Great Britain’s smoky cities. One particularly bad smog episode in 1873 and 1874 resulted in the Public Health Act Public Health Act, British (1875) of 1875, but loopholes made the legislation meaningless. Home fuel consumption by London’s four million inhabitants was not addressed at all, and commercial burning was to be dealt with only “as far as practicable” or exempted entirely. The definition of “practicable” was whatever business determined it to be.

Early twentieth century reformers such as the Coal Smoke Abatement Society Coal Smoke Abatement Society, British , formed in 1899, described the dangers, but few people listened. A smoke abatement bill was introduced in Parliament in 1913, but it was not passed. More successful was the Public Health (or Smoke Abatement) Act Public Health Act, British (1926) Smoke Abatement Act, British (1926) of 1926, but this legislation did nothing to limit smoke and soot from domestic chimneys. London’s air pollution was affecting surrounding areas, but depression and war prevented pollution-control measures from being considered.

Following World War II, a 1946 report encouraged cleaner coal and alternative-heating sources, but no action was taken by the Labour government. A smog in December, 1948, killed three hundred people, but the ministry of health thought it unnecessary to conduct an extensive investigation. In early 1952, with the Conservative Party back in power, Minister of Housing and Local Government Harold Macmillan stated that he did not believe that remedies were necessary.

Greater London of 1952 covered more than 693 square miles and was populated by more than 8.5 million people. The first days of December were beautiful, but disaster struck late on Thursday, December 4. An extensive high-pressure weather system spread slowly across Great Britain, with its center located 200 miles north of London. Simultaneously, the wind velocity dropped to zero. As the air near the ground grew colder with the air above remaining relatively warm, a temperature inversion Temperature inversions;London occurred. The smoke from millions of fires could not rise vertically, and there was no wind to dispel it laterally. Londoners endured a frightening smog of four days’ duration. Smoke, fly ash, soot, and sulfur dioxide poured into the air and was trapped. It was not uncommon for people who left home during this period to become lost in the blinding, yellowish mist.

Throughout Friday, the next day, the smog grew worse. Official London took no measures to cope with the tragedy: Radio weather reports gave no indication that conditions were abnormal, and government health authorities issued no warnings. By Friday evening, ambulance calls had increased by one-third, and deaths in the city had increased by 50 percent. Saturday was worse, with visibility at zero in places. Airports were closed, and shipping was at a standstill. Being caught outdoors in the thick, choking mist was terrifying, but the poor and the elderly trapped in their homes suffered the most. Sunday continued damp and cold, and a thick, black, sticky film covered everything. Worst hit was the Thames River Valley area. From Hampstead Heath, 3 miles from the river and 400 feet above the river level, or from Shooter’s Hill on the other side, spectators could see the smog-shrouded city. Finally, on December 8, breezes began moving the smog away. London was finally clear on December 9.

In the days that followed, the killer smog’s full devastation was revealed. For thousands of residents, breathing the noxious fumes for four days resulted in lengthy hospital stays. An early statistical investigation, conducted by the ministry of health, noted that one out of every two thousand Londoners died either during the four-day smog or within two weeks of it. It was impossible for this study to determine in any meaningful way how many were to die later as the result of smog-related stress on human body systems, but a 2001 study showed that as many as twelve thousand died in the days and months that followed. The tragedy of 1952 did not go unheeded, however, for the killer smog resulted in meaningful air-pollution legislation. It took decades to clean up London’s air, but the London pea-soupers of fact and fiction became a thing of the past.


Within days of the dispersion of the smog, the Conservative government was urged to conduct an official inquiry, but the request was initially refused. The government’s position, as stated by Minister Macmillan, was that existing government programs could and would deal with the problem. Norman Dodds, Labour member of Parliament, became the government’s gadfly, refusing to permit the killer smog to be ignored and continually calling for an official inquiry.

The National Smoke Abatement Society National Smoke Abatement Society, British devoted the spring, 1953, issue of its journal Smokeless Air to the disaster. Finally, the government capitulated in July, 1953, appointing a committee to investigate. Hugh Beaver, who admittedly knew little of air-pollution control but who was a master administrator and politician, was selected as chairman of the Air Pollution Committee Air Pollution Committee, British .

Realizing that doing a thorough job would require time and wanting the public to forget, Beaver continually fed information to the popular press. An interim report was issued in December, 1953, and was widely quoted and discussed. Written in nontechnical language, it indicted national and local governments for doing little for smog abatement despite substantive data indicating that the problem was bad and growing worse. During the committee meetings, Beaver faced determined opposition from both ends of the spectrum: Coal merchants and energy producers were adamantly against higher standards, and pollution-control reformers wanted no compromise with their opponents. The final report, issued in November, 1954, not only was well conceived and impartial but also offered a practical plan of action for smoke abatement. The government, however, had not publicly committed itself to official action.

To spur the government into action, Gerald Nabarro, a Conservative member of Parliament, initiated action. By introducing a private member’s bill based on the plan outlined in the final report, Nabarro placed the government in the position of either supporting his bill or developing one of its own. Finally, the newly appointed minister of housing and local government, D. E. Duncan-Sandys, stated that the government was willing to put forward a bill of its own.

In the general election of 1955, both major parties included air-pollution control as part of their platforms. Finally, on July 5, 1956, three and one-half years after the killer smog, the Clean Air Act Clean Air Act, British (1956) was passed. The act created smoke-control policies by providing subsidies of up to 70 percent of the cost for homeowners to convert from coal to electric heating. A national fuel policy was also implemented, with the use of high sulfur-content coal being limited and anthracite coal becoming the coal of choice. The use of alternative fuels such as nuclear energy and oil was also encouraged. At long last, a significant air-pollution control bill had been enacted.

The enactment of legislation did not result in immediate relief. Even the framers of the act believed that fifteen years would be needed to accomplish significant change. As if to emphasize the need for pollution control, another smog invaded London in 1959 and still another in 1962, when an estimated 750 people died. While sulfur dioxide levels reached 1952 levels, particulate levels were dramatically lower in 1962, hence the lower death rate. In 1968, an even stronger air pollution act was passed by the Labour government, allowing, among other provisions, the national government to require local governments to establish smoke-free zones. Necessity for such interventionist legislation was stated to be the health factor, for debilitating diseases such as bronchitis had been shown to be ten times more common in Great Britain than in other industrialized countries.

By 1970, the government was declaring victory over the smogs. The 156,000 tons of smoky soot once belched into London’s air each year had been reduced by 80 percent. Less smoky dirt in the air meant fewer particles around that water in the atmosphere could condense. Fogs of any type had become virtually nonexistent, with only three or four significant fogs appearing annually.

While the health benefits of the Clean Air Acts were significant, there were other by-products of pollution legislation. Less fog meant less acidic mist ruining marble buildings and statues. Less pollution inspired facelifts of famous London buildings and monuments such as the Tower of London, the National Gallery of Art, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in the 1960’s and 1970’s. There was also less damage to textiles and leather goods. Sunnier weather meant greater visibility, with one estimate noting that London received 50 percent more sunlight in the winter than it had before the act. Birds that had been missing for decades returned to the city.

The victory over the coal-generated air pollution did not mean total victory. An increase in automobile usage caused London to develop air pollution similar to that of the United States. Nuclear power plants caused different problems, such as the need for nuclear waste disposal; increased oil usage led to increased oil pollution. The Ecology Party, later renamed the Green Party, was founded in Great Britain in 1967 to continue efforts to educate the public to the dangers of pollution. Nevertheless, the reaction to the London killer fog of 1952 illustrated that something of significance could be accomplished when government and reformers found common ground for action. Smog Pollution;United Kingdom Great Smog (1952) Big Smoke (1952)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Michelle L., and Devra Lee Davis. “Reassessment of the Lethal London Fog of 1952: Novel Indicators of Acute and Chronic Consequences of Acute Exposure to Air Pollution.” Environmental Health Perspectives 109, suppl. 3 (June, 2001): 389-394. A scholarly article that revisited the London fog disaster of 1952 and reassessed the death toll, earlier held to be about four thousand Londoners. The authors claim that nearly twelve thousand died during that week in December, 1952, and in the year following.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Britton, Peter. “Cleaning up Coal.” Popular Science 242, no. 4 (April, 1993): 78-83. Notes that coal is the most abundant fossil fuel yet is also the most damaging to the environment. Looks at technology that could revolutionize coal’s use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DuPuis, E. Melanie, ed. Smoke and Mirrors: The Politics and Culture of Air Pollution. New York: New York University Press, 2004. A look at the social, cultural, and political aspects of air pollution, with a chapter that revisits the London smog disaster of 1952.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lodge, James P., ed. “Fumifugium: Or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated by John Evelyn and The Doom of London by Robert Barr.” Elmsford, N.Y.: Maxwell Reprint, 1969. Modern reprints of the John Evelyn classic Fumifugium (1661) and the classic by Robert Barr, The Doom of London (1892).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Albert, ed. Industrial Air Pollution Handbook. London: McGraw-Hill, 1978. Primarily a scientific monograph pertaining to the emissions of industries, this work provides information about air pollution in Great Britain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thorsheim, Peter. Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006. A thorough analysis of the “culture” of pollution in Great Britain since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Chapters include “Coal, Smoke, and History” and “Death Comes from the Air.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Richard, Steven D. Solome, John D. Spengler, and David Gordon Wilson. Health Effects of Fossil Fuel Burning: Assessment and Mitigation. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1980. Several sections of this book chronicle the evolution of London smogs. Particularly useful in locating sources pertaining to the topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wise, William. Killer Smog: The World’s Worst Air Pollution Disaster. New York: Rand McNally, 1968. Written as a warning against air pollution in general and smog in particular. Fictionalizes many of the personal accounts by eliding data, but humanizes and personalizes the disaster. Also chronicles the disaster’s political results.

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Bookchin Publishes Crisis in Our Cities

Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act

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Pittsburgh Residents Form the Group Against Smog and Pollution

Congress Amends the Clean Air Act

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