On this day in history : 5th December 1952 – ‘The Great Smog’…. A terrible killer fog descends on London and causes the death of thousands of Londoners….

A high pressure weather system had stalled over the South of England, causing a ‘temperature inversion’ – meaning the cold air at ground level becomes trapped by a layer of warmer air at a higher level…. A thick fog had formed – and with no breeze to disperse it – was unable to escape…. It was soon to turn a sickly yellowy-brown colour, as it filled with sulphur pollutants and soot, mainly from the many coal fires as people tried to keep their houses warm in the cold snap…. Smoke from factories and fumes from vehicles also contributed….

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog – N T Stobbs CC BY-SA 2.0

Londoners were used to ‘pea-soupers’ – but this was like nothing before…. Visibility was so poor that the transport system (other than the underground) ground to a halt…. Even the ambulance service stopped…. School children were kept home, sporting events called-off…. The smog seeped into buildings….theatre performances were cancelled and cinemas closed as people were unable to see the screens…. Criminals had a field day, as looting, bag snatches and burglaries became epidemic….

But by far the worse impact the fog was to have was on people’s health…. Most at risk were the young, elderly and those with respiratory problems – heavy smokers were particularly vulnerable…. It is estimated 4,000 died during the period and immediate aftermath – although experts claim the number to be more like 8,000 lives lost due to the smog – the most common causes of death being pneumonia and bronchitis…. Well into the summer of 1953 the death rate remained well above normal levels…. With that taken into consideration the final smog-related death toll could amount to as high as 12,000…. A further 100,000 are estimated to have been made ill….25,000 Londoners claimed sickness benefit during the period….

The smog finally lifted on Tuesday the 9th of December, the sulphurous cloud drifting out over the North Sea…. A government investigation resulted in the Clean Air Act of 1956 being passed by Parliament – authorising authorities to set up smoke-free zones and the restriction of burning coal in urban areas….

The Great Smog of 1952 is recorded as the tenth deadliest disaster ever to have hit Britain….


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