Today (December 5) in London History – Worst Fog Ever

The mother of all London fogs took hold on December 5th, 1952. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I wonder if it will ever go away, ever wear off. 

I’m talking about the notion that London is shrouded in fog. There are a few million people who know better. Starting with Londoners. And visitors who come here a lot, know London pretty well. But that’s only a few million people. There are billions of people who are absolutely convinced London is fog-bound. We know where it comes from. It comes from Dickens and Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper and old films of London. And indeed from history. Once upon a time London was famous for its fogs. Except they weren’t fogs, they were smogs. Here’s a personal corrective for you – I’ve lived in London for 50 years and in that half-century I’ve seen fog once in London. And it was a lightweight, nothing to get worked up about. Growing up in Wisconsin – 20 years there – there were many more foggy days than there have been this last half century in London. Now pea soupers did of course exist. Mary can remember them. She experienced a couple of them when she was a little girl. Her dad trying to drive the car and not being able to see the road ahead. Her mum having to get out of the car and walk in front of the car, holding a torch, a flashlight an American would say, and Charles, Mary’s dad, would drive, very slowly, following the torch Penny was holding. A proper peasouper if you held your arm straight out, you couldn’t see your fingers. You couldn’t read house numbers. You couldn’t read street signs. And of course gas lamp lighting – which wasn’t very powerful, didn’t have many lumens – contributed to the overall effect. The gaslight up ahead – just a few yards up ahead – wouldn’t so much illuminate as faintly glow. Very romantic. Very mysterious. But not great for navigating the streets of London. 

But here’s the thing, it wasn’t fog, it was smog. 

And what got started on this day, December 5th, 1952 brought down the curtain on that London. 

It was the worst fog – and strictly speaking we should call it an inversion, should call it smog – it was the worst fog – or smog, take your pick – and it lasted for four days. 

It wasn’t a pea-souper. It was worse than a pea-souper. It was a blackout. 

A deadly blackout. Thousands of people lost their lives. Most of them people with serious respiratory problems. But some from accidents. 

The death toll – well, estimates vary. There were at least 6,000. Maybe as many as 10,000. The terrible cost in human lives is of course the big factoid. The others – the other factoids – pile up around that main one like the stones that make up a cairn. 

Let’s look at some of those stones.

In Trafalgar Square, shortly after noon, the figure at the top of Nelson’s column – yes, the 17-foot high statue of the great naval hero – 

was scarcely visible from the ground. Lights on Christmas trees that decorated the facades of stores in the West End seemed to be suspended in mid-air. Convoys of vehicles travelled at less than a walking pace and were led by someone carrying a white object. The A.A. – the Automobile Association – said it was the worst fog they had known. Visibility was so bad that the crews of the A.A.’s radio-controlled breakdown vans found it almost impossible to locate members who telephoned for help. Their reports showed that there was hardly half a mile of road in the centre of London where visibility was more than five yards. The A.A. advised all motorists to leave their cars at home until the fog cleared.

It took ambulances five or six times as long to get cases to hospital. Two women gave birth to babies in fog-bound ambulances. Several alterations were caused to BBC programmes because artists were unable to reach the studios. The Telegraph’s headline told the story in five words: London’s 40-Mile Fog Black-out. River traffic was at a standstill. All buses were stopped. Cars were abandoned. Planes were diverted. At London airport visibility was less than 100 yards. Well, it could have been worse. In many places visibility was nil. It was impossible for fire engines answering calls to race through the streets. Firemen holding flares had to walk in front the engines. The Smithfield Cattle Show was on at the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre. It took seven hours for entries from Cornwall to travel from Paddington to Earl’s Court by lorry. Many of the animals contracted respiratory ailments. Sporting fixtures were cancelled. It was the first occasion since Wembley was opened in 1923 that it was necessary to cancel a fixture there. There was widespread interruption of rail services. 

Trains that normally travelled 60 mph had to reduce their speed to 60 feet an hour.

And sometimes to zero feet an hour.

There were freak accidents, like what happened to John Maclean as he was walking home in Ifield Road, Fulham. A mallard presumably blinded by the fog crashed into Mr Maclean. Both man and mallard were slightly injured.

And of course the fog brought out the bad guys. Many reports of burglaries, attacks and robberies under cover of the fog were received at Scotland Yard throughout the weekend.

The mother of all London fogs lasted for four days. It was so horrific that the government was finally prompted to do something. Clean air acts came in and that was the beginning of the end for the peasouper, the famous London fog.

Ok, anyone for a Today in London Recommendation? It is – wait for it – Arresting Images. New art in the old police station in Hampstead. It’s seven contemporary painters, all of them North London based. The Arresting Images exhibition is mounted by the Koppel Project Station. The gallery is housed in the community room of Old Hampstead Police Station, an interior loaded with memories of past dramas and present possibilities. And catch it while you can. The show opens on December 9th and runs through December 13th. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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