A London fog is brown, reddish-yellow, or greenish, darkens more than a white fog, has a smoky, or sulphurous smell, is often somewhat dryer than a country fog, and produces, when thick, a choking sensation. Instead of diminishing while the sun rises higher, it often increases in density, and some of the most lowering London fogs occur about midday or late in the afternoon. Sometimes the brown masses rise and interpose a thick curtain at a considerable elevation between earth and sky. A white cloth spread out on the ground rapidly turns dirty, and particles of soot attach themselves to every exposed object.
R Russell, London Fogs (London: 1880), p. 6.
It is difficult today to conceive of the density of the nineteenth century fogs in and around London. Deaths were a common result either through the effects of pollution on weakened lungs or through accidents caused by the inability to see dangers because of the dense murk. On the 8th of February, 1834, three young men who had been out on a drinking spree with friends fell into the Thames in fog and drowned. On the same night there were a number of accidents attributable to the fog, on the river and several more deaths.
London stank constantly of coal in an age when that fossil fuel was the primary source of heat and power. The soot drifting down, commonly referred to as “blacks” and the smell of coal were pervasive as were the pea-soupers, fogs caused by a foul mixture of soot, smoke and fog. Some measure of the density of what Mr Guppy referred to as “a London particular”can be gathered from a report in The Times for Tuesday, 5 December 1837, describing the previous day’s fog.
Not only was the darkness so great [in the morning] that the shops were all lighted up., but also every object in the streets, however near, was totally obscured from the view of the persons walking along. In Piccadilly the darkness was very great, and the confusion caused by the vehicles running against each other beyond description. About 9 o’clock the Hastings branch coach, which had just left the Old White Horse Cellar, while endeavouring to turn into St. James’s-street, ran into the shop window of Mr Hoby, the celebrated bootmaker, at the western corner, which it demolished with a fearful crash, breaking upwards of 40 squares of glass.
At times the fog was so thick that the horses pulling omnibuses and coaches had to be led by men carrying torches in order to warn of their approach through the murk. Not surprisingly the fog was often densest upon the river. Steamers, which usually began plying their trade around 8.00 am couldn’t risk the river until later in the day when the fog was less dense.
At night, the combination of ordinary darkness and the blotting out of the moon and stars as well as the ordinary light of the city by the dense fog made movement in the metropolis especially dangerous. Omnibuses frequently ran off the road and individuals, such as the hapless Mr Jones from Southwark who was driving a horse and gig toward town, on 2 November 1847, were always at risk of colliding with stationary objects. Jones “ran against a heap of granite at the side of the road ... [and] was thrown out with great force on the footpath.” On the same night, as a result of the fog, a coal barge ran into Vauxhall Bridge and sank.
The fog crept in everywhere. As The Times of Tuesday, 24 January 1865 noted, “Even those who remained at home found a large clear fire but a poor mitigation of the unpleasant atmosphere that filled their comfortable rooms.” In the theatre, the voices of the actors were heard, but the actors themselves cold hardly be seen. As the century moved forward, the fogs seemed to increase in frequency and density. The growth of industry and the ever expanding population which relied on coal for heating and cooking meant that those elements which contributed to “pea-soupers” increased in volume. The Medical Times and Gazette in December of 1873 described one recent fog as “one of the most disastrous this generation has known,” going on to point out that “to persons with cardiac and respiratory disease it has in numerous instances proved fatal.” In fact, 273 people died as a result of bronchitis caused by the coal-smoke saturated fog which enveloped the city for days.
All during 1892, the columns of The Times were filled with letters dealing with the increasing number of fogs which slowed the great metropolis to a crawl. Most were concerned with what could be done to either end the great scourge or to at least ameliorate the worst effects of the great seasonal nuisance. By November of that year, the Governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company was becoming tired of accusations that they were not supplying enough gas during fogs and in a somewhat acerbic note pointed out that during a particularly foggy week in November of 1892, consumers used 60 million cubic feet of gas more than in the corresponding week a year earlier. Turning to the chief complainant, he suggested that his problem lay with is fittings “over which the company has no control” and went on to accuse him of “recklessly bring[ing] a baseless charge against this company.”
It was not until the 1960s that the fogs began to abate and eventually as a result of greater ecological awareness and stricter restrictions on those elements that contributed to the fogs they ended.
To read about one of the last great London fogs which lasted four days in early December of 1952; a fog to which 4,000 deaths were attributed, click here.