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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Nelson, Washington, cock fighting, and a giant blue… bird

This day in London history: on 30 November 1966 Barbados, the only island in the Caribbean to have remained British throughout the colonial period, gained its independence.

Barbados was also the only place in the world, outside of North America, that George Washington visited, and Bush Hill House the only house that he lived in outside of the continental US.

Cockspur Street signOne of London’s most famous landmarks, Trafalgar Square with its statue of Nelson, was pre-dated by a statue to Nelson in the centre of Bridgetown, Barbados’s capital. The bronze statue in Bridgetown’s Trafalgar Square (officially renamed National Heroes Square in April 1999) was erected on 22 March 1813. The statue in London was constructed between 1840 and 1843

By a strange quirk of fate, there is a Cockspur Street just off Trafalgar Square in London, and one of the world’s finest rums is Cockspur Rum, made in Barbados. The brand uses a cockerel as its emblem.

Cockspur Street is one of many London streets whose name reflects the old ‘sport’ of cock fighting. The spurs with which the birds were equipped to ensure even greater flow of blood, were made and sold in this street.

On 25 July 2013 the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, unveiled a giant blue cockerel that adorned the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, and managed, according to reports at the time, to avoid the obvious verbal trap by referring to the new giant blue… bird.

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The big blue… bird in Trafalgar Square

Silence, poppies, and colonials

This day in London’s history. On the 11th of November 1919 the first two minute silence was observed; it commemorates the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when World War I ended.

The two-minute silence was proposed by an Australian journalist, Edward George Honey, who felt that a respectful silence was a good way to to remember those who had given their lives. He wrote to the London Evening News suggesting a five-minute silence, and his letter, published on the 8th of May 1919, was brought to the attention of King George V.

On the 7th of November 1919, the king issued a proclamation calling for a two-minute silence:

“All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”

When the 11th of November falls on a weekday, the British Royal Legion hosts ‘Silence in the Square’ in Trafalgar Square when thousands of people attend to hear music and readings and to place poppy petals into the fountains.

During the devastation of World War I, poppies were the first things able to grow on the scorched battlefields, and inspired John McCrae, a doctor serving there with the Canadian Armed Forces, to write a poem, ‘In Flanders’ Field’ (sometimes also called ‘We Shall Not Sleep’, which begins:

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

The Poppy Appeal is the Royal Legion’s biggest fund-raising campaign and came about at the suggestion of Moina Belle Michael, an American professor and humanitarian, who vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance, and sold the first Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy on 9th November 1918, two days before the declaration of the Armistice.