London Fog?

Today we woke up to find a thin mist spreading over everything. It's the first "fog" we've had here in southeast London this autumn. Fog is unfamiliar enough that my daughter looked out of the window with shining eyes: "Jack Frost is here!" she exclaimed. "It means it's almost Christmas!" There wasn't a trace of frost anywhere, so clearly this strange weather event is very unfamiliar.

Which got me thinking about the famed London fogs. What happened to them? My father described fogs in the fifties so thick that you would lose your way home, wondering around and around for hours without being able to see further than your hand. Even allowing for some exaggeration, we know London is notorious for its fogs. Jack the Ripper would not be the same without the swirling fog, and where would Sherlock Holmes be without the London fog? What of the famous pea-soup fog or pea souper? Or, as it was called in the 19th century, the London Particular?  There are so many descriptions of yellow-green fog in literature that I can only puzzle over the current day absence of this natural phenomena.

A little research reveals that, far from being an exaggeration, my father's description of the fog was in fact understated. In December 1952, over a period of four days, the fog was so thick that people claimed that they could not see their shoes. It was virtually impossible to go anywhere. People abandoned their cars on the road. Not only that, but thousands of people who suffered from respiratory diseases died, their lips turning blue from lack of oxygen.

But far from being a natural phenomenon, the yellow London fog was made up of sulpher compounds resulting from the burning of coal in factories and households. After the Clean Air Act of 1956, which introduced smokeless zones and limited the use of coal particularly for domestic purposes, the pea soupers disappeared.

Which is why my daughter, a couple of generations later, can look out of the window in south east London and fail to recognize the real natural phenomenon called fog.


  1. That's so interesting, I hadn't really thought about it. It's something we all link with London, but it's not really brought up anymore. Good to realize why (and yay for that).

    See, now, I love fog. It's one of my favorite things. I've only ever run across lovely white/grey fog, though. The kind that even if it sticks around all day it gets pretty thin during the day (usually) and while it gets thick at night, it doesn't get too thick. I think the worst was when we couldn't see the road from the house.

  2. Back when I was in college, one of my English lit professors explained the relationship between London fog and coal when we were reading Bleak House. Here's the wonderful second paragraph of ch 1.

    "Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds."

    But it took an American (Carl Sandburg) to write this:

    The fog comes
    on little cat feet.

    It sits looking
    over harbor and city
    on silent haunches
    and then moves on.

    I love the photo you included with your post :)

  3. Interesting post. I'm glad that clean air acts has cleaned up air both in the U.K. and U.S. That is more than a little disturbing that people died from lack of oxygen in the 50's from the poor air quality!!

  4. I loved your Dickens quote, JaneGS! And of course the Sandburg is so evocative. Thank you for posting these.

    kt, yes -- real fog can be very beautiful, as long as you don't get lost in it!

    Laura's Reviews -- yes, awful to think that it could be so deadly, not so many years ago, really.


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