My novel, Out of the London Mist takes place during a prolonged period of smog, or a London Peculiar. Over the centuries, London became known for its noxious, choking fogs that were sometimes called ‘pea-soupers’ as they were as thick as pea soup. Other countries around the world have suffered from smog, but London became known for them at an early date due to an uncomfortable set of circumstances.
The London Peculiar formed when fog settled and absorbed the fumes and soot of the myriad of fires that fuelled England’s capital. When London, or Londinium, was first built by the legions on the low-lying Thames estuary, and so subject to sea fogs, the soft woodsmoke was not such a problem. However, by the twelfth century, London was the largest city in England, with around twenty thousand souls. Not only did the population use open fires and flame filled ovens for heating and cooking, but many of them were busy with the industry and commerce that was fuelling London’s growth, including large scale iron and glass works. At the same time, wood became expensive as the demands of Edward I’s military expansion and castle building made a diminishing resource even scarcer. London turned to coal.
Woodsmoke is not safe, and, when mixed with the fogs that rolled in through the estuary, would not have been pleasant in concentration, but coal has its own hazards. Like wood, burning coal produces carbon monoxide that, when trapped in the fog, would be far from healthy. Coal, unfortunately, also produces such nasties as sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide becomes sulphuric acid when mixed with water, and fog is, essentially, water vapour. In the still conditions that produce a fog, the fumes of carbon monoxide, sulphuric acid and irritating soot particles, are trapped at street level. There is no escape. By the time of Out of the London Mist, London was a vast, sprawling city filled with workshops and factories and stuffed with tenements with only coal for heat and cooking. Fogs could be so dense that moving around the city was nearly impossible. Only the London Underground was likely to keep running.
The regular winter smogs took a terrible toll on the people of London. Far too many died during these events, and the death toll kept rising. Finally, there was the Great Smog of 1952 which lasted five days and is generally thought to have caused 12,000 deaths, either immediately or in the following few months. This was such a striking event that it led to the passing of the Clean Air Act, which limited what sort of fuel could be used within urban areas and meant a massive reduction in London Peculiars.
As the air quality around the world improves during the lockdown due to Covid-19, perhaps it’s as well to remind ourselves that the air we breathe isn’t always as wholesome as we think, and we should never take it for granted.
And meanwhile, back in the world of Out of the London Mist, the smog rolls around the East End, shrouding the horrible deeds within.
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