Start of the Great Smog
We still have huge concerns today about air pollution, but much work has been done to reduce such problems in Britain, and The Great Smog of December 1952 was one of the most significant events driving the realisation home to both the man in the street and the authorities that filthy air brings a very human toll.
A multitude of factors combined to create The Great Smog in London. Coal fires were still very much the norm for home heating, and the quality of coal in the capital was poor - the good stuff was exported to earn foreign currency. Early December 1952 was exceptionally cold, so more of this rough coal was burned than would normally be the case.
Meteorological circumstances weighed in too. Winds from the continent had blown in heavily polluted air from industrial areas over the channel. An inversion of an anticyclone in London and the South East trapped the smoke laden air beneath it. As the sun was blocked, and the damp air made people feel colder still, yet more coal was heaped on domestic fires.
It has to be remembered too that this was an era when the majority of adults smoked, with consequent damage to their lungs.
On Friday December 5 the Great Smog arrived. Drivers abandoned cars; cinemas and theatres found that smog seeping into their buildings made performances impossible. Visibility dropped to a matter of feet, and in the very worst hit area, the Isle of Dogs, visibility was officially recorded as nil - in the open you literally could not see your hand in front of your face.
Inevitably the smog took its toll on those with existing breathing problems - asthmatics, sick children, those with bronchial complaints, the elderly. Some were asphyxiated. Some died from the sheer amount of pus in their lungs caused by infections brought on by the acrid air.
It is calculated that some 4,000 people died as a result of the smog in the week during which it occurred - it cleared with strengthening winds on December 9 - and that a further 8,000 died shortly afterwards, their health destroyed by the foul conditions of the five days' horror.
Politicians reacted with their usual alacrity - legislation was passed two years later covering certain air regulations for London, and in 1956 the first Clean Air Act saw the light of day. Which was more than could be said of Londoners for those few days of choking terror in December 1952.
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