It must be difficult for anyone born after the end of the 1950s to imagine what
British fogs were like before then.
Why fogs were so bad
How I remember the fogs of the first half of the 20th century.
This photo appears on a number of websites, but no-one so far has
responded to my queries about its copyright. If you own the
copyright, please get in touch.
These fogs were a mixture of natural mist
(water droplets) with smoke, soot and tar from countless chimneys. At that time
almost all family homes were heated with coal fires, and factories and power
stations worked from coal too. So a better word to describe the fogs would be 'smogs'
although I don't ever remember hearing that word while I was growing up in
the 1940s and 1950s.
Smog is a contraction of the two words 'smoke' and 'fog'.
A quotation from a Sherlock Holmes book
from 1917 describes those old-style fogs well:
"... for the fourth [day] after pushing back our chairs
from breakfast, we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us
and condensing in oily drops upon the window panes .. "
The Bruce-Partington Plans, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Fogs and getting around
In December 1952, there was the ‘Big Smog’ in London. It was disgusting, evil smelling and greasy, and the world disappeared outside. We couldn't even see the
gas street lights right outside the front gate.
I was 10 years old. There was going to be a concert at the hall attached to St Joseph's Church, Wealdstone, and I was determined I wasn't going to miss it, because I was doing a solo on the violin. My mother tried all types of persuasion to get me to stay at home, but to no avail. So off we went, hand in hand, trailing our fingers along the hedges and fences because we couldn't see where we were going. The silence was deathly because the fog muffled everything, and there was of course no traffic.
On turning the corner into Farmstead Road, we heard the voices of obviously young Jack the Lads coming along, one of them saying, "Don't know what all the fuss is about - it's only a bit of mist". However,
the next thing that happened was that we heard the sound of someone walking slap bang into the
pig bin! - and it tipping over and rolling around. This was
immediately followed by a string of curses coming from the same lad, with screams of laughter coming from his mates.
My mother and I got as far as a shop called Toddlers on the corner of Whitefriars Drive and the High Street, and it was only then that I became really frightened. I
told my mother that I didn't want to go any further - just to go home! My mother never actually said,
"I told you so", but I could tell by the way she pulled me back home at great speed that she was fuming!!!!!! -
Oh! By the way. We found out later that the concert had been cancelled, which was hardly surprising in the circumstances.
Fogs could be really dense. I remember them from my childhood, but
they were common earlier in the century and in Victorian times. Then, and in
my generation, they were widely known as 'pea soupers', presumably because of their
likeness to pea soup. This may say something about the diets of people
living in the 1800s and early 1900s, as I don't think that pea soup would be
the first likeness that would come to mind for anyone today.
The worst fog I remember was in the late 1950s. I was
on my way back from the Washington Singer Laboratories in Exeter to my lodgings in Pinhoe. It
was my custom to make this journey by bike every day, and that day was no
exception as there had been no fog in the morning.
On the way back it was impossible to ride my bike
because I couldn't see far enough ahead of me. I had to walk with the
bike, guided by the kerb which I could just see. It was crucially
important to keep a map in my head of where I was and this required a
surprising amount of concentration as distances were difficult to judge. Had I, for example, arrived at a
bend in the road? Or was it a turning into another road? . Fortunately I
did come across a few road signs which I could just read if
they were close enough. It was all quite frightening, and the memory
stays with me. Fortunately I did get back
to my lodgings eventually, but it was a close thing.
Being caught out in a bad fog could be dangerous. It was all too
easy to lose one's way, because one street tended to look like any other, and
buses could not see their way to run. At my
school, the rule was that if a
certain tree could not be seen from a certain window, then the school packed
up for day to allow time for everyone to get home before it thickened as
fogs and dirt
from the problem of limiting visibility, fogs were also extremely dirty, and they
could last days if there was no wind. They were at their worst in winter
when the air was naturally more damp, and coal fires were burning in every
house. The extra hours of darkness made visibility worse, and the
street lighting was much less
My mother would take down the net curtains to wash after particularly bad fogs.
fogs and health
The fogs were dangerous for old people and anyone with breathing
difficulties. Such people had to stay indoors with doors and windows shut.
Nevertheless the fog still managed to get in somehow. Deaths
were always above average in times of severe fog.
The end of bad fogs
So what happened in the late 1950s that made these fogs things of the
past in Britain? In 1956 the Government passed the Clean Air Act which
legislated for zones where smokeless fuels had to be burnt and which
relocated power stations to rural areas. Later acts legislated still further
against air pollutants.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.