Do you know the origins of London’s most well-known nickname? Well, the name ‘The Big Smoke’ hails from the 19th century when it first appeared in an 1874 dictionary of slang. The name refers to the bleak period of heavy lethal smog that suffocated the city.
From the 13th century to the 1950s London had been experiencing a worrying rise in air pollution caused by a growing population which had extensive demands for the fuel needed to cook, heat houses, run cars and trains, and to do just about anything. This terrible air quality was spurred on by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution which heightened the need for coal on a far larger scale.
Because of this, London was taken over by heavy smog, often called ‘pea-souper’ fog as the fog that enveloped the city was so thick and yellow or green in colour that it resembled pea soup (hence the name). Already a pretty unpleasant description of the fog, to make matters worse it was lethal too. Not only was it a nuisance but it caused serious respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, with many cases proving to be fatal. In 1880, Francis Albert Rollo Russell, the son of former Prime Minister Lord John Russell, remarked that over 2,000 people had ‘literally choking to death’ in a leaflet he published blaming home hearth smoke. Although the air pollution in London isn’t much to brag about right now, I think we can all count ourselves lucky that it’s not so bad to literally be choking on air.
The fog would damage buildings in the city, its thickness would deprive London of sunlight, make it more difficult to launder clothes, and made it incredibly difficult to drive because of low visibility. Autocar magazine described the struggle with a car journey made in December 1946 that would have been a straightforward 45-mile car ride but instead took a taxing eight hours to complete. In December 1952 conditions took a turn for the worst in what is now known as ‘The Great Smog of London’ when a thick layer of smog descended over the city after a period of windless and cold weather conditions combined with the smoke the city was omitting. It has been said that conditions were so terrible that blind people would help others get home because they could find their way without seeing. This thick smog lasted for four days and resulted in the deaths of 4,000 people with a further 100,000 becoming sick directly because of the smog.
The smog finally came to an end in 1956 with the introduction of the Clean Air Act which stated that only smokeless fuel could be burnt in towns and cities. The Great Smog of 1952 is now known as the worst air pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom and was hugely significant in changes to environmental research and regulation on air quality.