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The Day London Vanished

Heavy smog in Piccadilly Circus, London, 6th December 1952.
Heavy smog in Piccadilly Circus, London, 6th December 1952 (Getty).

On Friday 5 December 1952, a thick yellow cloud descended onto London causing havoc. The event, now known as the Great Smog of London, is remembered as the worst air pollution disaster in the history of the UK.

Caused by a reaction between two byproducts of burning coal, Sulphur Dioxide and Nitrogen Dioxide, the Smog, unable to escape the cold London fog, became toxic.

For five days, the dense blanket of toxic smog brought the city to a standstill, flights were grounded, public transport cancelled, ambulances unable to work. It was so bad that some Londoners were unable to see their own feet through the fog. School was cancelled and Burglaries and looting spiked as emboldened criminals could escape through the deadly smog.

The physical effects on people in the city were even worse, it was lethal. It’s estimated that 4,000 people died during the five days before the Smog dissipated, many through suffocation and a further 8,000 are believed to have died in the following months. Most at risk were the elderly, young children and those with respiratory problems.

The event, which finally ended on December 9, was brought to life in dramatic fashion in Series 1 of Netflix’s The Crown, which depicted an uninterested Winston Churchill failing to deal with the fallout of the Smog cloud. In real life, the event had a big impact on government policy, who introduced the Clean Air Act of 1956.

The act dictated what types of fuels could be burned in the city, for example, restrictions on the burning of coal in urban areas. It also authorised local councils to set up smoke-free zones and offered grants to homeowners who switched to coal-free heaters.

The act began a process of transition away from coal as the city’s primary heating source which helped significantly improve air quality in London.

The Great Smog of London is undoubtedly the worst air pollution crisis the city has ever faced. However, after a recent triggering of the London emergency air quality alert and a study, which found dangerous levels of toxic air particles, it appears the lessons may have been forgotten.