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The Pea Soupers Of Old London Town

So you thought smog was a recent evil? Here's a tale of air pollution from olden days...

London! The greatest metropolis of the 19th century - and, according to some, the greatest city that there has ever been. Although nowadays there are larger cities, London has a unique, powerful atmosphere. You can still sense the fact that it was once the true nerve center of the world... a place where dreams, visions, industry, commerce, creativity [and imperialism!] fused to create "the Empire upon which the sun never set."

Another thing London was famous for, however, was its air pollution. The geographical location of the city made it prone to dense fogs - and when these combined with cold weather and the millions of people burning wood or coal to keep warm, there were problems. You think the smog of LA is bad? London smogs, known as "pea-soupers" on account of their being "as thick as pea soup", were so bad as to be life threatening - and the Great Smog of 1952 is reported to have killed thousands of people and to have been one of the deadliest environmental disasters on record.

Peering back into the 'mists' of history.... we see that London had smog problems going all the way back to the 13th century, when people began to burn "sea coal" instead of wood, which was in diminished supply. London Smogs were notorious for causing respiratory problems, but in the 19th century they seem to have been accepted - with more or less complaint - as a necessary evil of living in the city. One of Charles Dickens' characters in Bleak House describes fog as "A London particular".

After the severe smogs of the 1950's when many lives were lost, new legislation was introduced - and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 greatly alleviated the problem.

Here at, we were fortunate enough to be able to interview Mr. P. Newman, who was working in South East London in 1957 and experienced a London Pea-Souper first hand:

"I had only been working in S.E. London for a few months when we were hit by two successive days/nights of real pea-soupers. The first one [December 4th, 1957] was notorious for the train crash in Lewisham, London SE13 [caused when the fog made a red signal light invisible] - when if I remember correctly some 90 people were killed when two trains collided under a road bridge on the line next to the one I used to go to and from work. The train I caught at about 4.30pm was the train which should have been the 2.15 or something like that, and was so loaded with passengers that you had to step down into the carriage instead of up about 9 inches!! Someone said to me that I would never get on, but 6 years of rugby at school gave me the necessary scrummaging ability to succeed - otherwise I might never have got home.

"Due to the disruption caused by the crash, the train service was all over the place the next day, so I arranged with my brother Simon to meet me in Forest Hill, about a mile or so from where I worked, on his way home from Victoria around the South Circular Road. Unfortunately the smog was just as bad that night, and he was a lot later than usual. When he finally arrived, I had to assist him by hanging out of the passenger-side window to see the kerb, as we couldn't see much further than the front of the car's bonnet.

"We finally got home some 2 hours or so later, having at one point lost the kerb on a left-hand bend, finishing up mounting the kerb on the opposite side of the road, much to the consternation of a truck-driver coming at us from our left! He left us in no doubt as to what he thought of our driving! When (much to everyone's relief) we did get home, I found that when I blew my nose, the contents were almost black with soot particles I'd breathed in on the journey. The smog in those days was so bad that large numbers of people, especially elderlies, died from lung-related problems every year.

"The Clean Air Act meant that everyone had to burn smokeless fuels from then on. As far as the date of the first Clean Air Act is concerned, it was passed in 1956, but it may not have come into effect until '58 - quite often legislation takes a year or two to come into force. The coal merchants and producers would have needed some time to be able to create the necessary stocks of smokeless fuels.

"Since then, London gets fogs, but not the stinking smogs that were the norm most years. Whether the train crash was a factor in getting the Act through I don't know, but the new laws were certainly a good thing for Londoners, and I suspect for other city-dwellers in the U.K."

So there you are! A tale of extreme air pollution from days gone by --

"This city now doth, like a garment, wear the beauty of the morning; silent bare, ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie open unto the fields and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air." -- William Wordsworth

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