From the start of the 20th century, the landscape of London was blighted by thick smog. The word ‘smog’ described the city’s characteristic blend of fog and smoke caused by industrial flues and domestic coal fires. The smog was also referred to as the capital’s ‘pea-souper’, and Charles Dickens described it as ‘London’s particular’.
The worst affected area of London was the East End, which had the highest density of factory smokestacks and domestic chimney pots. The low-lying geography of the area encouraged the smog to settle. To a large extent, Londoners tolerated the unpleasant effects of the smog as the cost of the city’s economic growth, but conditions became intolerable in the 1950s.
The ‘Great Smog’ blighted London for five days from Friday 5 December 1952. It was caused by an anticyclone (an area of high pressure) that settled over southern England for an unusually long time. Due to a combination of freezing temperatures (people burnt more coal to keep warm) and a lack of wind, the smog became thicker than ever.
The smoke-laden fog that shrouded the capital caused the premature death of up to 4,000 people. Many of those who died suffered from lung-related illnesses, but many Londoners also perished because of low levels of visibility. People could not see further than a few feet in front of them, which led to road accidents and incidents of drowning when people fell into the Thames.
In other parts of London, road, rail and air transport were brought almost to a standstill, and a performance at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre had to be suspended when fog in the auditorium made conditions intolerable for the audience and performers.
To alleviate the congestion, two Clean Air Acts were passed in 1956 and 1968, outlawing the burning of coal in open-hearth fires. As a result of these measures, combined with the clearance of older housing, the loss of manufacturing and the rising popularity of central heating and smokeless fuels, the effects of the pollution began to subside.
By the beginning of the 21st century, London (still known as ‘the Big Smoke’) had not solved its air pollution problems. The less visible but equally toxic pollutants of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and benzenes emitted from traffic fumes and other exhausts continued to spoil London’s air and adversely affect people’s health.
Air pollution still causes the premature death of up to 1,600 Londoners a year and contributes to rising levels of pollution-aggravated asthma in children. Concern led to further provisions being made to clean up London’s air, and the introduction of the congestion charge to discourage the use of private cars in central London.