The Great Smog

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

The Great Smog of 1952

Smoke is most commonly related to the burning of wood or other incendiary materials to produce heat and energy. People throughout history have gathered around fires to tell stories and promote community links. Smoke, as with other aspects of life have unexpected histories. An unexpected link is between the production of coal smoke and miasma.

Throughout history people have formed links between smoke, bad air and miasma. Often linking illness to poor air conditions, but not fully understanding what specifically made the air harmful. Most noticeably during the industrial revolution, the connection between coal smoke and poor health was not made. Leading to a lack of government supervision to protect the public.

London and the Clean Air Act, 1956

The development of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century saw the expansion of factories across the nation. These new factories introduced polluted fog and smoke that would change life in urban cities forever. When combined with extreme weather conditions the coal smoke could become disastrous, forming smog which is a thick black polluting fog.

The most famous accounts of the affects of smog was during the 1950s and 1960s, when smog settled across cities in England and caused long lasting health and political issues. The Great Smog of 1952 is one of the most famous incidents. It has been estimated that the death toll following the smog was around 4,000-12,000 people, with more being left with lasting health problems. During the 5th to the 9th December in 1952, London descended into darkness, with a thick smog encapsulating the entire city. It was in the midst of the cold early winter of 1952 that heavy snowfall caused an increase in the burning of coal as people tried to keep warm. The large amounts of smoke produced by an increase in home fires became trapped close to the ground. The trapped pollution made it impossible to see and prevented travel and movement throughout the city. Famously the visibility at the airport in London was down to less than 10 feet, and such incidents effectively halted the day to day running of life in the surrounding areas.

The smog left a heavy mark on the history of London, deaths were recorded not only within the human population, but it also impacted upon the area’s livestock numbers, as cattle and such like also died in the smog. The smoke which was released from the factories was full of toxic impurities in such large quantities that they directly caused breathing issues and on this occasion death. The smog might have only lasted for a couple of days, but the lasting impacts extended across the months that followed. The results of which propelled the government to take action to improve the quality of air, with the Clean Air Act of 1956 which looked to control and create “smokeless zones”. Work is still being done today to control and improve the air conditions in highly urbanised towns.

To find out more about the history of smoke listen to our podcast!

By Georgina Henderson.

Further Reading:

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