December 1952 started very cold. London found itself covered in a thick freezing fog which was unable to disperse because of an overlying cap of warmer air. In those days most homes were heated by open fires, so faced with the intense cold and fog Londoners began to burn more coal than usual. Concentrations of pollutants produced by the low quality, high sulphur coal increased 10 fold. One air quality reading measured 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds in London’s air. There was also 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide which converted into 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid. The smoke and the fog combined to form Smog – a dense, yellow blanket that stank of rotten eggs and obscured light and ultimately life. On Friday December 5th, with visibility dropping below 1 metre, cars and public transport stopped running and people, wheezing and coughing, had to grope their way through the streets. London was facing an environmental disaster the like of which they had never seen before. While higher parts of the city like Hampstead and Crystal Palace stood clear of the deadly miasma low lying areas like Richmond, Twickenham and St Margarets experienced its full horror. Local paper, “The Richmond Herald” reported;
“Those in Richmond and Barnes listening to their radios during the weekend heard that south west suburbs were the worst-hit areas when fog enveloped London. Looking out of their windows proved that it was no false statement!”
A man fishing in the Thames at Ham said the fog was so dense that he couldn’t see the water. A mounted policeman reported that he was unable to see the ground. “It was”, he said, “like sitting on a filthy cloud.” As the smog swept in, all over the Borough events were interrupted. When the orchestra booked to play at the Twickenham Home Guard Dance got lost in the fog the old soldiers didn’t panic – and danced to a piano instead. The Mayor and Mayoress of Barnes managed to get to the Beaulieu Bowling Club Annual Dinner only by abandoning their official car and walking there – a round trip of 5 miles. On Saturday 6 December 1952 the performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells was abandoned because of the incessant coughing of the audience due to the smog which had been slowly creeping into the auditorium. Even our local cinemas were forced to cancel their programmes when the fog entered the buildings and obscured the screens. At White City greyhound racing was halted because the dogs couldn’t see the hare.
Local resident 76 year old Cyril Whitby had a daunting experience when he accidentally walked into Barnes Pond. Undismayed he calmly walked out again and went straight to Putney Hospital where he was detained. Mrs Irene Chambers of Isleworth didn’t make it to hospital. The fog was so thick that she was obliged to have her baby in the back of the ambulance. The ‘Richmond and Twickenham Times’ reported that the birth was normal, the baby weighing 7½ pounds.
Under the cover of the fog there was an increase in crime. Using explosives one gang blew open two safes in Isleworth Head Post office and made off with £692 in cash and £1673 in stock. Another gang broke into a new men’s wear shop opposite Richmond Station and stole £100 worth of clothing. The shop had only been opened four days earlier by the American bandleader Cab Calloway. The Lantern Café in Brewers Lane, Richmond was also robbed of 1200 cigarettes worth £10. The following night two typewriters worth £60 were taken from the Ensor-Richmond Typewriter Company on Lower George Street.
There were also a number of ‘snatch and grab’ attacks in the streets. 24 year old Doreen Newby – a keen athlete and member of Barnes Sports club – was attacked by a man on a bicycle who stole her handbag. Other members of Barnes Sports club armed themselves with walking sticks when they went out in the fog. Another woman walking in Burlington Avenue, Kew saw a broad shouldered man looming out of the fog. As she tightened the grip on her handbag she was relieved to see the “He” was a stone gatepost.
At the time there was general surprise at the thickness and unpleasantness of the smog but when it eventually lifted 5 days later on December 9th no one gave much thought to possible ill effects. London was famous for its “pea soupers” and this was just one of them. It was only weeks later when medical reports revealed that over 4000 people, mainly the very old and the very young, had died from a whole variety of respiratory lung infections like hypoxia, bronchopneumonia and purulent bronchitis that London became concerned about its environment. Over the coming months as the death toll brought about by the Smog rose to 12,000 the government introduced a series of acts designed to reduce pollution. The Clean Air Acts of 1956 aimed to control domestic sources of smoke pollution by introducing smokeless zones where only smokeless fuels could be burnt. The increased use of electricity and gas helped to reduce sulphur dioxide levels in the air at the same time. In addition, power stations were relocated to more rural areas. With a clear and measurable decrease in pollution Londoners could breathe again… couldn’t they?
Some campaigners say that people are still at risk from toxic air pollution as in the worst days of the Great Smog of 1952.
In 2002 Tim Williamson, policy officer of the National Society for Clean Air in Brighton, said the killer was no longer smoke from domestic fires but car fumes. In 1950 there were 4m vehicles registered in Britain, half of them cars; now there are about 34m vehicles, 85% of them cars. On top of this we have a local source of air pollution from aircraft at Heathrow. In 1961 there were 146,000 aircraft movements – landing and taking off. The current figure is about 471,000 aircraft movements a year. As Mr Williams put it – “We have defeated one problem only to create another, and like the government of 1952 this one has yet to come to terms with the problem,”
— from Martyn Day