Today marks the 60th anniversary of one of Britain’s worst disasters, one that is surprisingly obscure (I only found out about it because it forms the backdrop to a Doctor Who novel) and yet which cost the lives of around 12,000 people.
Frankly the Great Smog of 1952 sounds like the plot of a horror movie – weather conditions and air pollution combined to create a thick, choking smog that slowly poisoned those who inhaled it. It consumed the city, leaving a sooty residue in its wake and even making its way indoors, reducing visibility to a couple of metres. Descriptions sound almost apocalyptic in a strangely London-ish sort of way; it summons up images of Jack the Ripper prowling foggy, gas-lit streets, a mysterious, silent killer on the move with no-one entirely sure what was happening until it was too late. Londoners were used to fog, of course, but this was different; it was only after the smog cleared and people started to compare notes did the authorities realise that it had killed in the region of 12,000 people.
Not only is this tragic and somehow terrifying, it’s also mind-blowing – this happened within living memory, within the lifetime of my parents, and yet it’s relatively unknown. It had a great impact on environmentalism and legislation around acceptable levels of pollution in the UK but it’s not among the household names of British disasters, considering it killed more people than the Great Fire of London, which everyone’s heard of.
And so the Great Smog of 1952 is my own personal reminder that history is a lot bigger than we learn about at school. Sometimes huge and dramatic events take place that are forgotten with a few decades. The history books are fickle.
But they’re very, very interesting…