Lesson #321: The Great Smog of ’52

I’d like to start today’s lesson with someone totally unrelated to what will follow, but that made me laugh. In the course of an email thread between my parents and me yesterday, my dad brought up the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, which they took me and my brother to whilst on holiday in the Maritimes the summer I was 14.* I suggested that I’d need to read up on it because I had no memory of what he was talking about, to which my mother responded with this gem:

“Louisbourg: the French said to themselves, the back of our fort, from whence we get our fresh water is a swamp/ wetland. No one would be so foolish as to attack from that direction when we have such formidable water facing defenses. Well, gee, they forgot about the New Englanders who live in swamps/wetlands and have no trouble slogging through them, especially when there is a nice juicy fort to be had. Block the French’s access to their fresh water supply and it’s not long until they will consider a discussion about change of command. Turns out the English didn’t see too much advantage in holding the fort so eventually turned it back to the French. Some time later, it became a strategic position again so the English did exactly the same thing and came through the *still* undefended back door.”

Well told, Mom.

And now, on to today’s lesson. 

The beauty of the internet is random links allow you to find out all sorts of things you might never otherwise have learned because there are so many layers to peel back before you’d get to it in a book — by way, no doubt , of five others. Today, I was playing about on the Met Office’s website (see my very first post on the Shipping Forecast) and through a series of clicks came across the Great Smog of ’52.

On the evening of 5 December 1952, a heavy smog rolled in on London and spent the next three days wreaking havoc, made 100,000 people sick, and asphyxiated at least 4,000 people (a study published in the January 2004 edition of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests the number is closer to 12,000) and some cattle. In some places, the fog was so thick that people couldn’t see their own feet, which, as you can imagine, made it very difficult to navigate streets even when people were in familiar areas.

All of this came about because of a chain reaction of factors. It had been a cold, snowy November/Early December,** and as a result, people had been burning coal in their fireplaces a whole lot more than usual. All of this coal burning caused an accumulation of smog that the low winter sun — and let’s be honest, the UK isn’t exactly known for its sunshine — wasn’t able to burn off. So now you’ve got a heavy smog that hasn’t been dissipated during the day and the not-insignificant population of London adding to the problem because it’s still very cold. Add to this a perfect storm, as it were, of meteorological conditions that I don’t exactly understand. And then add the pollution from industrial areas on the continent that the wind has blown over the city. And then the sun rises and fails to burn it off and the factories keep working and the wind keeps blowing and the sun sets and the citizens of London light their fires to keep warm and a vicious cycle ensues for a few days.

Needless to say, this brought air, rail, and bus travel to a complete standstill. Theatre and opera performances were called off when the fog moved into the theatres. But really, the way you know something is serious in England? Football matches were cancelled.

More can be read here and here. For a retrospective from The Guardian, including full articles reported at the time, see here. Photographs — which are actually pretty stunning — here.

*I give my parents a lot of (fake) crap about the fact that they’re terrible parents because they never took me to Saskatoon — to this day, I’ve not been to Saskatchewan — but they did take us to a lot of cool places and made sure that we were exposed to a lot of interesting learning-type things.

**And if you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time in the UK in winter, you know that heavy snow isn’t particularly common and therefore results in all manner of chaos wherein everyone reacts as if they’ve never seen snow before and have no idea what to do.

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