Warning, you might want to wear a face mask whilst reading the following article!
Today, London’s air contains a concoction of toxic gasses, and the capital is recognised as the worst area for air pollution in the United Kingdom.
There is no doubt about it, something needs to be done, and that something is going to take a brave government to implement it, since it will involve getting Londoners out of their pollution belching cars and vans, and onto their feet – or, failing that, onto the public transport system – and the only way that is going to be done is to tax people out of their vehicles, or. at least, that is the argument.
But, the arguments over London’s foul air have been raging for well over a century, and the Victorians were confronted with exactly the same problem, albeit their toxic air was the result of households burning coal in their fireplaces.
But, what was it like to actually experience one of London’s legendary pea-souper fogs?
Well, since these fogs continued to drape themselves across and over London on a regular basis well into the 20th century, we do have archive film footage of some of them. The following clip, for example, shows the visitation of 1952.
For an idea of the fogs that plagued Victorian Londoners, however, we are dependent on contemporary newspaper accounts, such as this one, which appeared on the letters page of The Dundee Evening Telegraph on Saturday 26th November 1887:-
“I do not believe that one who has never experienced a London fog can imagine what it is.
At this moment, the clock on my mantel shelf pointing to half-past two P.M., I have lamps and gas alight all over my house as though it were midnight, and I vainly strive to see even the opposite houses in the street.
I am anxious about my young folks who are out somewhere, I don’t know where, probably unable to find the familiar turning from the main road, and I am conscious that my window blinds and pretty frilled curtains are being dyed in the smoky, unbreathable, pea soup sort of atmosphere to a very unlovely shade of colour.
It is well for those who can abandon big cities, where coal is burned this season of the year, and take refuge in some charming country district where yellow and black fogs are unknown, and the only representative of their unpleasant species is a white misty sort of veil, which does but add a picturesque touch to the landscape.”
Five years later, The Islington Gazette, in its edition of Monday, 4th January 1892, published the following article concerning a menacing miasma that had afflicted London the previous week, and which even looked into its causes:-
“At this season of the year, and especially after the dismal experience of last week, it is natural that we should receive so many suggestions for the abatement, and even for the cure – so sanguine is human nature – of London fogs.
As to the cause of that particular abomination known as London fog, our correspondents are unanimous. Fog or mist, pure and simple, is a natural product of the climate, the soil, and the season. We cannot get rid of it in the latitude and climate of London without altering the course of nature.
But London fog could, by any means, be reduced to the colour, the consistency, and the density of fogs in other parts of the country, it would become a comparatively tolerable infliction, all the more tolerable, perhaps, because it would be recognised as inevitable.
But London fog, everyone knows, is a very different thing from a natural mist.
That which makes it different is purely a human, and in no sense a natural, product. It is a combination of natural mist with the products of coal consumption – that is, for practical purposes, with smoke.
We burn bituminous coal, and we burn it in open fireplaces. If we burnt it so as to consume its smoke, we should, so it is alleged, get rid of the noxious element in London fog.
Just as dirt is matter in the wrong place, so smoke is fuel in the wrong place. Let us get it into the right place, that is, where it can be consumed, and let us consume it there, and even when mist prevails in London, as it will and must in calm, cold weather at the winter solstice, it will be light as light an infliction as it is in Paris in like circumstances or even on Salisbury Plain, for that matter.
Mist is a nuisance, but London fog is an intolerable plague. If we can turn the intolerable plague into a fairly tolerable nuisance, it is as much as we can expect to do, and, all things considered, a great deal more than we are ever likely to be able to do.”
IS THERE A REMEDY?
The article then went on to discuss the means that might be adopted to tackle the menace of the pea-souper fogs that afflicted London throughout the latter years of the 19th century and on into the 20th century, and advocated the introduction of a hearth tax – a little like the congestion charge of modern times, but for houses as opposed to cars!
However, the article also noted the potential futility of asking Londoners to put environmental concerns above their own household-heating concerns:-
“If the evil is to grow with the growth of London, London will perhaps someday be in the mood for heroic remedies, and then, possibly, a hearth tax may come within the region of practical politics. It is better to submit to all the evils of taxation, inspection and compulsion than to be literally poisoned wholescale in pursuit of domestic liberty.”
THE MISERY OF A LONDON FOG
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, 22nd March 1892, The Dundee Evening Telegraph, treated readers who may not have witnessed firsthand the obnoxious effluvium of a London pea-souper to a gruelling account of what it was like:-
“It is not necessary to describe the misery of a London fog to anyone who has been compelled to reside in the metropolis during the few days of its prevalence.
The painful irritation to the eyes, the choking sensation to the chest, together with the general depression of spirits, and many other ailments caused by London fog, are the lesser sufferings that few who are exposed to it escape.
But it is not yet realised what an amount of serious illness, or how many death, one week of London fog causes.
It may be accepted that every ten days of this terrible visitation kills 2500 people, and if we calculate nine serious cases of illness to each death, we have 25,000 people laid upon beds of sickness.
To a certain extent the cold that always prevails during these dense fogs may be credited with a portion of this sickness, but not to any great extent, neither fog nor cold in country places produces any such change in the death-rate.
There can be little doubt that the extreme discomfort, as well as the deadliness of the London fog, arises from the poisonous gases with which the damp air gets saturated, and increasingly the longer the fog lasts.
The smoke which gives the fog its yellow appearance, and is dirty and unpleasant, is not injurious, being only carbon; probably, indeed, it prevents the poisonous gases from doing more harm.”