The deadly history of London's notorious fog

by Diana Wichtel / 30 December, 2017

Monet’s The Houses of Parliament, London, with the Sun Breaking Through the Fog (1904). Image/Getty Images

London’s epic fogs, which have seeped into our literature, culture and imagination, have fascinated British author Christine Corton.

“Fog everywhere.” With these resigned, reluctantly appreciative words, Charles Dickens launches the long, incantatory ode to the infamous London pea-souper that begins Bleak House: “Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.”

Back in 1853, when Bleak House was first published as a book, London’s two defining qualities – great, dirty – were inextricably linked. “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun,” writes Dickens, working himself up to near-apocalyptic mode. That’s how powerful a hold London fog had on the 19th-century imagination.

Fog’s creeping, insinuating quality made it a perfect metaphor. “And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery,” Dickens wrote.

London fog was a killer, and not just in the 19th century. “In the 1952 smog, which was the one most people remember, probably about 12,000 people died,” says Christine Corton, author of London Fog: The Biography, a vivid, scholarly, gorgeously illustrated cultural history of the reeking miasma that was the regular London fog.

City of London workers wearing masks against thick smog on November 17, 1953. Photo/Getty Images

City of London workers wearing masks against thick smog on November 17, 1953. Photo/Getty Images

When we meet in Auckland, Corton, a senior member of Wolfson College, Cambridge, is on her way back to the UK after visiting with her husband, historian Richard Evans, an expert witness in the 2000 David Irving libel case against Deborah Lipstadt. Corton gave a lecture at the University of Otago on the rise and fall of the classic London fog, the kind that produced the Great Killer Fog of 1952. The kind that was ultimately knocked off by the Clean Air Act of 1956, but which still seeps into just about any moody reimagining of 19th-century London.

“November was traditionally the major month for suicides and that was partly because it was the major month for fog,” says Corton. “Even if it wasn’t foggy, there was still this constant canopy of smoke that would hang over London, thereby stopping you from seeing the sun.”

The fog killed animals, too. The killer fog of 1873 coincided with the Smithfield cattle show, and did again in 1952. “I have pictures of cattle with masks which were soaked in whisky, creating a kind of disinfecting quality.”

Christine Corton: “Londoners knew it killed.” Photo/Simon Young

When fog cast its pall, life struggled to go on. In 1952, a performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells Theatre had to be abandoned because the audience couldn’t see the stage. “In the days of live television, the BBC would have to cancel programmes because the fog would seep into the studios,” says Corton. “This is a fog where you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face; where to drive a car you have to have someone walking in front with a torch and a large white handkerchief leading the car along so it doesn’t end up on the pavement or in the Thames.”

The 1952 fog is immortalised in an episode of the Netflix series The Crown: the smog even managed to seep into Buckingham Palace. The death toll included The Crown’s poor Venetia Scott, a secretary to Winston Churchill, knocked down in the pea-souper by a bus she never saw coming. The episode, out after her book, did a good job, Corton thinks. “What it got wrong was it blamed Churchill for the lack of legislation [and not] reacting to it quickly enough. In fact, it was [Chancellor Harold] Macmillan.”

There were plenty of reasons it took until 1956 for effective laws to be enacted. “We were exporting most of our high-quality coal. We needed the money.” Clean-air legislation required enough affordable smokeless fuel to go around. “To make smokeless fuel, you have to have high-quality coal. Also, Macmillan did say, rather cynically, ‘The problem is, since the National Health Service was introduced, everyone expects the Government to supply the answer.’ He introduced smog masks to try to reduce people’s anxiety.” That sort of reminder of recent war days was the last straw. “The campaign after the 1952 smog became too vigorous, too big for governments.”

Londoners had put up with the fog for a long time. As Corton writes, Elizabeth I once declared herself, “greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-coales”. Seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn wrote of “such a cloud of sea-coal, as if there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano in a foggy day: this pestilent smoak”.

Fog at Ludgate Circus, London, in November 1922. Photo/Getty Images

Fog at Ludgate Circus, London, in November 1922. Photo/Getty Images

But the classic London fog was a creature of the early 19th century, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and an expanding city. “London lies in a basin, it’s got a river running through it, it’s got marshlands around it, so it’s got a very naturally damp atmosphere. When you have increasing industrial chimneys powered by coke, coal, and increasing domestic chimneys, you fill the air with all these very large sooty particulates. They combine with the fog to become this horrible black, green, yellow mixture, which you breathe in and if you’ve got weak lungs, you can’t expel these particulates from the lungs and then you can suffocate.”

And yet there was ambivalence about this plague upon the city. “Londoners knew it killed, they knew it was damaging. They were also quite proud of it. If you’ve got a very smoky, foggy atmosphere, it means that you’ve got jobs, employment, industrial chimneys blowing out smoke. It means that you can afford a coal fire.”

It was Dickens’s foggy atmospherics that first drew Corton to the subject as a doctoral thesis. “Dickens was a supporter of clean air, but also worked against it because he very much made the open coal fire, the hearth, the centre of family life in his literature. In order to be a family, you had to have a nice coal fire roaring in the background.” George Orwell once wrote to the Evening Standard decrying “a noisy minority [who] will want to do away with the old-fashioned coal fire”.

Even the nicknames used for the fog were strangely domestic, intimate: pea-souper; London Ivy, because of fog’s tendency to cling; London Particular, after a brownish madeira. “‘Particular’ is also another name for a mistress. I like the idea of the fog being something that is hanging onto your arm that you don’t really want to acknowledge.”

Fog was also transformative, creating a world where lovers could linger unseen and criminals could go about their business. It became a signifier of the 19th century in literature, film and television – think any Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper recreation, ever. “Even the original Star Trek series has a Jack the Ripper character coming from the foggy side of the planet to kill women. Poor old Scotty is thought to be the murderer.” Where fog didn’t exist, it was invented. “Jack the Ripper’s crimes all took place on clear nights. On only one night was it raining.”

Corton’s book might almost have been called London Fog: A Love Story. It tells of a dysfunctional relationship, one you know does you no good, but the dangerous allure is seductive. “Smog comes in as a word in 1904. It was deliberately brought in by a chemist who wanted to get rid of the romantic ideas of fog,” says Corton.

A policeman using flares to guide London traffic in heavy smog in 1952. Photo/Alamy

A policeman using flares to guide London traffic in heavy smog in 1952. Photo/Alamy

In 1883, writer George Gissing admired the fog’s transformative power. “… the eye loves to dwell on what would offend it in a clearer light; the rude blocks of new houses on the north bank show only a glimmering window here and there …”

American artist James McNeill Whistler declared of the fogs, “I am their painter.” Claude Monet visited London and lined up his canvases, hoping for hideous weather. “He would be the only one in London who would be in despair if there was no London fog.”

As for a link between fog and Impressionism, “Some people say that Impressionism came about partly because Monet’s eyesight was poor and your eyesight is very poor in a fog”, says Corton. William Turner had a go at painting fog, but it wasn’t a success. “The people buying these paintings, the industrialists, did not want to be reminded of the damage they were doing to the environment.”

It was outsiders, such as Japanese painter Yoshio Markino, who were most struck by fog-bound London’s beauty. “I think London without mists is like a bride without a trousseau … Even on a summer day I see some covering veils.”

The mystery, the atmospherics and the sheer malign density of London fog possibly allowed it to hang around as long as it did. “Many politicians tried to push clean-air legislation through from the early 19th century. I’m sure it was the romance of it that stopped legislation from going through.” The Clean Air Act of 1956 was a success. The legislation was also a missed opportunity. “They did discuss in 1956 whether to include car-exhaust fumes, but they decided, no, we’ve got this far, we will just leave it with coal smoke. Who knows what might have happened had they put it in there?”

So, there’s still pollution. “It’s not like the London fog of yesteryear, which was very thick, pungent, smelt of sulphur. There would be a black rim left around the bath. The air pollution we have now is a haze and it doesn’t quite attract the imagination as London fog did.”

It’s still a killer. “They reckon Oxford St is one of the most polluted streets in the world. A lot of schools are being built next to major roads. And now they’re looking into the relationship between air pollution and lack of development in children, not only physically but brain development as well. So, yeah, we have to do something about it. I think if the clean-air legislation has shown us anything, we have to push or else it’s going to be very slow in coming through.”

The classic London fog may be gone, but nostalgia for it remains. “People came because they’d read their Dickens or whatever and they were disappointed that there was no London fog.” The tourist industry started making souvenir tins of it.

In the days leading up to the launch of London Fog, the great and still dirty city did its best to oblige. “I was very lucky. About three or four days before, suddenly London – and this is quite unusual now – was completely stopped by a fog.” It was a white fog, a natural fog. “So I suddenly had all these journalists ring me up. ‘What is the difference between this fog and a 19th-century fog?’” For the launch itself, a fog machine had to stand in. “Everyone had to go through this foggy archway, which was nice.”

London Fog records that the last great pea-souper was in 1962, with the final death toll given as 750. A fireman whose train had broken down fell to his death from a viaduct. A monkey was lost on Oxford St. Birds went astray. “… a slavonian grebe was found in the middle of Regent St, having been ‘unable to see the ground or the stars’.”

Fog, everywhere. “Unreal city,” marvelled TS Eliot in The Waste Land, “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.” Monet, as always, saw things differently. “Without the fog,” he decided, “London wouldn’t be a beautiful city.” For him, London in fog would never be more real.

London Fog: The Biography, by Christine Corton (Harvard University Press, 2015, $70).

This article was first published in the December 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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