Tuesday, August 31

Great Smog - 1952

I have an engaging sunny afternoon conversation with neigbhor Martin, who has lived in his house all his life or (by my estimate) >75 years (Martin's mother won Wimbledon twice in the 1920s and Martin plays there every Sunday morning like clockwork). Today he tells me all sorts of interesting things like our neighbor, Clive, having emergency open-heart, by-pass surgery while we were away ("But doing all right." Apparently). I also learn that our council will replace the 1960s cement lamp-posts (which I kinda like as a period set-piece) with new, modern, poles. Martin recalls those days when a council-man, dressed in official council-gear, would light the gas lamp-lights on our block every night using a rod. He made haste on his bicycle, usually not needing to dismount for the chore. Our conversation turns to London's terrible fog which, today, is a rarity and maybe a few times a year. In the 1950s, however, the coal-ash particles condensed air moisture and fog (smog) was normal. Martin would bike home from school arriving covered in black.

The Great Smog darkened the streets of London and killed approximately 4,000 people in the short time of four days (a further 10,000 died from its effects in the following weeks and months). Initially a flu epidemic was blamed for the loss of life. A period of cold weather, combined with ananticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants mostly from the use of coal to form a thick layer of smog over the city. It lasted from Friday 5 to Tuesday, 9 December, 1952, and then quickly dispersed after a change in the weather. Although it caused major disruption due to the effect on visibility, and even penetrated indoor areas, it was not thought to be a significant event at the time, with London having experienced many smog events in the past, so called "pea soupers". Public transport ground to a halt, apart from the London Underground; and the ambulance service stopped running, forcing the sick to make their own way to hospital.

More recent research suggests that the number of fatalities was considerably higher at around 12,000 with another 100,000 effected. Most of the victims were very young, elderly, or had pre-existing respiratory problems. The deaths were caused by respiratory tract infections from hypoxia and as a result of mechanical obstruction of the air passages by pus arising from lung infections caused by the smog. It is considered the worst air pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom, and the most significant in terms of its impact on environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health. It led to several changes in practices and regulations, including the Clean Air Act 1956.

(Source: Stegeman, John J. & Solow, Andrew R. A Look Back at the London Smog of 1952 and the Half Century Since; A Half Century Later: Recollections of the London Fog, 2002).
Photo from the WWW.

Madeleine: "Guess what the best part of my day was?"
Me: "What?"
Madeleine: "Guess."
Me: "What?"
Madeleine: "Guess."
Me: "Buying some yarn?"
Madeleine: "That was going to be the best thing but the store was closed."