The air we breathe

When we think of city smog, we might think of the days when the new Victorian factories choked city air with thick smoke. Many times during the 1800s in the East End of London, in particular, it was barely possible to see from one side of the street to the other. It was hard to breathe and people died from the damage the polluted air caused to their lungs.

The two large steam coaches are named “The Infernal Defiance — From Yarmouth to London” and “The Dreadful Vengeance — Colchester, London”. On the rear of the coach in front is a banner proclaiming “Warranted free from Damp”, the small delivery wagon has “Bread served Hot” on its side, and the service station proclaims “Coals Sold Here: only 4s. 6d. per Pound(?)” As documented in Paul Johnson’s book The Birth of the Modern, the early British railroad companies used their political influence to preclude possible competition from free-running steam coaches (which may not have been ultimately too practicable at that time anyway…)
A futuristic view of the traffic and pollution problems to come, 1831. Steam carriages had already been tried, with limited success.

But in far more recent times the same levels of pollution have blighted the lives of city dwellers. One such event was the ‘Great Smog of 1952’. Information gathered by the Met Office explains how and why such an event occurred.

The weather in November and early December 1952 had been very cold, with heavy snowfalls across the region. To keep warm, the people of London were burning large quantities of coal in their homes. Smoke was pouring from the chimneys of their houses.

Under normal conditions this smoke would rise into the atmosphere and disperse, but an anticyclone was hanging over the region. The weather contributed to a situation that trapped the air close to the ground. As well as the smoke coming from household chimneys, gases were being pumped out of factory chimneys and easterly winds brought even more polluted air from the continent. It was ‘the perfect storm’…

Early on 5 December, in the London area, the sky was clear, winds were light and the air near the ground was moist.

The fog was so thick that people could barely breathe. It took several days for the fog to finally clear, but by then it was clear that the effects had been devastating. Reports were received that cattle had been asphyxiated by the smog and sadly at least 4,000 people died.

Despite the terrible toll on London residents, it would be another four years before the Clean Air Act of 1956 was passed and longer still before stricter laws came into force in 1968, which finally ensured that people could breathe more easily on the streets of London and beyond.

Published by Isabella Muir

Isabella is passionate about exploring family life from the 1930s through to the 1960s and beyond. She has published six Sussex Crime mystery novels set during the 1960s and 1970s, a standalone novel dealing with the child migrant policy of the 1950s and 60s, several novellas set during the Second World War, and two short story collections. All available in paperback from your local bookshops, or online as ebooks. Her novels are also available as audiobooks, and have been translated into Italian.

One thought on “The air we breathe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: