Today was the sixtieth anniversary of one of the defining smogs of London. It started on 5th December 1952 and continued for four days, bringing death it is said to some 4,000 people. A ‘smog’, for those unfamiliar with the word, is a combination of smoke and fog that, in urban areas, can reduce visibility almost to nothing while being very bad for the lungs due to the chemicals trapped in the water vapour. They were known in London as ‘pea soupers’, reflecting the vaguely greenish yellow colour of the smoke-filled vapour.
At the time of the ’52 smog we were living at Bush Barn Farm in Robertsbridge and, as I would have been 14, I must have been at Lancing College. However, I remembered earlier smogs when we were still at the Green Walk in Chingford, north London, particularly one occasion when I walked with my father into a murky, after dark Ridgeway as far as the bus stop, unable to see more than a few feet in front of us
Cities, of course, burnt a vast amount of coal. On journeys by train from Chingford to Liverpool Street we used to travel across an overhead section of the line through an area we called Chimney Pot Corner from the squadrons of the eponymous structures sticking up from the roofs of the tightly packed terraced houses. I think this must have been just west of St James Street station in Walthamstow (TQ362886) now, in part, a conservation area.
On 6th December 1962 there was another memorable smog in London that went on for several days. I was working at the Automobile Association’s Emergency Service in Leicester Square, but used to commute every day by train from Robertsbridge. On this occasion I was due to do a night shift and the train, which ran very late, could get no further that Waterloo (its normal terminus was Charing Cross over the Thames). It was only quite a short walk to Leicester Square so I set off over the river bridge, passing people in soot-blackened smog masks looking like ghostly surgeons. It was here, for the first time, that I realised that the sulphur dioxide in smog had a distinctive taste, an almost meaty flavour, though described by one commentator as “like licking rusty metal”.
On the northern side of the river the smog was so thick I had difficulty working out quite where I was, though I knew the area well, and eventually I ended up in the Aldwych, maybe half a mile east of where I intended to be. I did, however, manage to find my way back to Leicester Square and it was quite important to keep the London Emergency Service of the AA going through such appalling conditions
One of the night shift jobs at the AA was to telephone a series of garages around the area as dawn broke before the morning rush hour and ask about the fog and local visibility. This was usually calculated by the overnight mechanic looking out of the window. A report was then put together which was passed on to radio stations and other media. On 6th December 1962 according to the BBC “one AA spokesman described the icy stretch of road on the A12 near Chelmsford as ‘a battlefield’ after a series of minor accidents.” I wonder if that might have been me.
After the 1952 and 1962 episodes clean air legislation saw an end to these unforgettable smogs. We did, however, see some very thick conditions in the industrial parts of northern England when we lived in Derbyshire. I remember, in the late 1960s, motoring home from Ramsbottom in Lancashire through towns like Oldham in thick fog when ground level paraffin flares had been set up at street corners. Nowadays in Sussex we just have mist, white and benign mist that fills the river valleys, and wanders in from the sea a few times a year. So far as fog is concerned, no one can beat that wonderful description of a pea souper in the opening paragraphs of Dickens’s Bleak House: “Fog everywhere. 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. ....”.