The Great Smog of London and the Fumifugium

This day in London history: on 5 December 1952 the Great Smog of London began. As many as 12,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the severe air pollution, with up to 100,000 who fell ill because of the smog’s effects on their respiratory systems.

Nelson in fog
Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square during the Great Smog. Photograph N T Stobbs

In the days that the smog lasted, visibility was virtually nil; public transport ceased, and public events, such as cinema screenings and theatre performances were cancelled as the fog seeped indoors. This event was a direct contributor to the first of the Clean Air Acts, which was passed in 1956, ensuring that such an event never occurred again.

At the time, there was little or no panic, Londoners being accustomed to the ‘pea souper’ fogs so beloved of movie directors. This was not the first time that severe cold and the burning of coal made the air of the city poisonous. In fact, there are a Seacoal Lane and an Old Seacoal Lane in the Fleet Street area, named because of the barges on the River Fleet that docked arrived here with their loads of seacoal.

Seacoal croppedThis mineral coal was so named to distinguish it from charcoal and it proved to be such a contributor to air pollution that in the 14th century,  following a petition from the City’s population, Edward I passed a law prohibiting the burning of it .

This had little effect; subsequent monarchs and increasingly severe punishment – at one time death – did not stop people from burning seacoal. In  1661 John Evelyn, diarist and member of the Royal society, wrote a pamphlet, one of the earliest known publications on air pollution. One of his recommendations was to remove works using seacoal to five miles outside the city.

This pamphlet rejoiced in the title of Fumifugium, or, The inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated together with some remedies humbly proposed by J.E. esq. to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now assembled. On the 13th of September that year, Evelyn notes in his diary that he presented his Fumifugium ”dedicated to his Majesty, who was pleased that I should publish it by his special commands, being much gratified with it”.

Later that year Evelyn writes of another encounter with Charles II, this time on one of the royal boats, when the king, he says, “was pleased to discourse to me about my book inveighing against the nuisance of the smoke of London, and proposing expedients how, by removing those particulars I mentioned, it might be reformed; commanding me to prepare a Bill against the next session of Parliament being, as he said, resolved to have something done in it”.

In the winter of 1683-1684, known as The Great Freeze, when the Thames was frozen for two months, the cold conditions and the continued pollution gave rise to this comment in Evelyn’s diary: “London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast so as one could scarcely breathe.”

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