For more than 150 years, Clerkenwell and the capital as a whole endured a famous fog that was both friend and foe: harmful to health yet romantic and full of mystery. Christine L. Corton, author of a new history of London fog, explores the impact of the pea-soupers – from Smithfield cattle to Sadler’s Wells.
In December 1873, the annual Smithfield Club Cattle Show coincided with one of the thickest fogs in living memory. Its impact on the cattle was so devastating that the phrase ‘fog fever’ was coined to describe it. “The unpleasant thickness and pungency of the fog-laden atmosphere bore heavily on the fat cattle which stood openly panting and coughing in a very distressing way,” reported one paper.
One visitor to London at the time, the American writer Mark Twain, commented: “The cattle are choking & dying in the great annual Cattle Show, & today they had to take some of the poor things out & and haul them around on trucks to let them breathe outside air & save their lives. I do wish it would let up.”
The Daily News described how “by nine o’clock the reception yard was full of the great suffering animals, panting piteously in a state closely akin to suffocation; while in the interior of the hall sobbed and panted others nearly, if not quite in as bad a state.” Despite efforts to relieve the animals’ suffering, 91 cattle had to be removed from the show at the request of the owners or agents, and, “of these, 50 were slaughtered, some died in the vans in which they were taken away.”
The same fog took its toll on the human population as well. People noted “a choking sensation was felt in breathing.” Unlike the animals led outside to try to help their breathing, medical experts cautioned people against following the age-old practice of ensuring good ventilation even in cold weather.
The death rate amongst Londoners rose sharply over this period and The Times, in a deliberately Dickensian style, stated: “We are very glad indeed to hear that 780 Londoners above the average died the week before last of the fog. We do not want them to die, of course, but if they were to die, it is better that they should die of the fog, and so get rid at once of the superstition that the most disagreeable, inconvenient, dangerous, and spirit-depressing visitation which falls on Londoners is somehow ‘good for us’.”
The 1873 fog lasted a week or more and, as The Times article implied, it was not an uncommon occurrence. Situated in a slight basin with a river running through it, and marshlands around it, London is liable to natural fogs, but the advent of the coal- powered steam engine turned the damp atmosphere into a deadly killer.
The coal fires from industrial and domestic chimneys emitted sulphur particles which, mixed with London’s natural fog, could turn day into night. Confusion ensued on the streets, with people run over by unseen carriages or walking blindly into the river. One paper reported that some youths on a spree played a game of leapfrog along an alleyway and jumped straight into the unseen water.
Yet in spite of its deadly nature, London fog inspired many writers and artists. The opening of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House (1853), in Lincoln’s Inn, famously uses London fog as a metaphor for the obfuscation caused by the law.
George Gissing employs it in New Grub Street (1891) to describe the pain of researching and writing in the British Museum. Later the West Indian immigrant writer Sam Selvon uses it as a metaphor for racism and the isolation of newly arrived immigrants from the West Indies in his 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners: “grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the light showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet.”
Artists such as Claude Monet, James Whistler and the now forgotten Japanese painter Yoshio Markino arrived from different parts of the world to depict the London fog. London fog was given many popular names such as London Particular, King Fog or pea-souper to denote that while people knew its lethal power, they were also proud of its appearance. Industrial smoke and fog meant that the factories were working and people could afford coal on their domestic fires.
In 1952, sporting fixtures and entertainments were curtailed by the fog, including a performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells on 8 December, which had to be stopped after the first act because the audience could no longer see the stage.
The Smithfield Cattle Show was again interrupted during this winter fog. Not so many animals died this time but many humans did, possibly up to 12,000 people above the usual number.
The government was forced into passing the Clean Air Act of 1956. In the same year, King Fog made its final attempt to regain his rule but by this time the legislation was making a real difference. By December 1962, the Metropolitan Borough of Holborn, which incorporated the western part of Clerkenwell, had achieved the distinction of becoming the first London authority (after the City of London) to become completely smoke free.
Nowadays Londoners still endure polluted air, but not the old kind of fog where you could not see your hand in front of your face. The new pollution from vehicle exhausts no longer exudes the romantic aura that its predecessor maintained for over 150 years.
“London Fog: The Biography” (Belknap Press) by Christine L. Corton is out now