The pea souper that killed 12,000: How the Great Smog choked London 60 years ago this week
A dense, green-yellow fog choked the streets. Cars edged forwards with passengers sitting on the bonnets shouting instructions. From behind the wheel, drivers could not even see as far as their own headlights. Mothers took their children to school with handkerchiefs and scarves wrapped over their faces. With their hands tightly clasped, they shuffled along in ‘crocodiles’.
One pedestrian remembers bumping into a motorcyclist who asked: ‘Which way to the Tube station?’
A thick, greasy, grimy fog descended on the city and killed 12,000 people in four days. A blanket of soot hung over the streets so thickly that visibility was reduced to a couple of yards or less.It was a pea-souper, a ‘London Particular’ — and it was the worst in history. The city had been paralysed by swirling fogs since the Napoleonic era, 150 years earlier. By the time Dickens came to write about them, he imagined dinosaurs stalking out of the mists. Readers of Sherlock Holmes cannot imagine the great detective without seeing him striding up Baker Street shrouded in eerie tendrils of fog.
But the Great Smog was not romantic. It was murderous. People and animals suffocated in appalling numbers, making it 20th-century Britain’s worst peace-time catastrophe. Londoners again had to summon up the Blitz spirit which had sustained them through the war. Professor Roy Parker, now a social historian, was living with his parents in Lewisham, South-East London in 1952. His father, a World War I veteran who had been gassed in the trenches, was intent on cycling to work even though the choking conditions caused severe pain in his damaged lungs. ‘He was 56 and in great distress, gasping for breath, struggling.’ But still he cycled on. Trams and buses could not run. One driver who tried said ‘fat flakes of soot stuck to the greasy windscreen like paint’ and could not be wiped off. In order to see just a couple of yards ahead, to where his conductor was walking with a torch to light the way, he had to lean out of the window.