london fog -- 2/10/16

Today's selection -- from London Fog by Christine L. Corton. In the early 1800s, as London's population grew from one million to two million in the span of a mere thirty years, coal fires and industry combined to create a fog so thick that on many days visibility was reduced to one or two feet. It was a pervasive health hazard that provided the mysterious backdrop to Victorian era characters such as Jack the Ripper. This pollution was not finally conquered until Britain's Clean Air Act of the late 1950s:

"There had been occasional 'Great Stinking Fogs' in the capital as early as the seventeenth century, but by the early 1800s London fogs were in­creasing in frequency and taking on a new character, thick, widespread, and prolonged. An 'extraordinary fog' was reported on November 5, 1805, and another on the same day the following year.' During a fog that oc­curred on January 10, 1812, The Times reported: 'For the greater part of the day it was impossible to read or write at a window without artificial light.' ... Fogs were lasting longer, too: in 1813 one was re­ported to have begun on December 27 or 28 and lasted until January 3, 1814. The prolonged gloom, extending more than ten miles to the east of the city boundaries, offered enterprising thieves plenty of opportuni­ties to boost their income. ...

"London fog created confusion and fear. The British caricaturist George Cruikshank (1792-1878) reveals this aspect in an 1819 print. Confusion reigns as coaches and horses collide with people in the foggy streets.

"Another prolonged visitation occurred in 1817, lasting from De­cember 22 to January 2, 1818, when the fog was so thick that The Times reported that within doors 'it was impossible to read without a candle.' ...

"In the revised edition of his book, The Climate of London, published in 1833, [Luke] Howard reported a fog which occurred on November 11 and 12, 1828: 'The effect was most distressing, making the eyes smart and almost suffocating those who were in the street, particularly asthmatic persons.' The frequency of fogs at the end of the 1820s seems to have been unprece­dented. In November 1829 The Times commented that at midday 'the neighbourhood of the Royal Exchange was nearly in midnight gloom,' although some people, who did not have to go out, could accept the loss of the day by pretending that it was really the evening.' Less than a month later the newspaper reported another London fog, during which 'the shops were lighted the same as at night.'

"In the 1830s fogs continued to increase in frequency. In December 1830 alone there were reports of dense fogs on the eighth, fifteenth, and twenty-­fifth to twenty-sixth, with further reports in every successive year apart from 1831-1832 and 1836 (and the list may be incomplete). ... Charles-Francois Daubigny's (1817-1878) painting St. Paul's from the Surrey Side (1873) depicted St. Paul's as Willis described, although at a later date (see Figure 1.4). The idea that St. Paul's should be smothered by smoke was another repeated image both in art and writings of the time. It supported the idea that London, through its fog, had become godless and irreligious. Daubigny visited England during the Franco-Prussian War, when he met Claude Monet. His attitude to the atmosphere of London certainly reflected that of many Londoners. He wrote in October 1870, 'It's eleven o'clock in the morning. So much for the climate. Fog! Visibility less than two paces.' ...

"The reason for the increase in the number of foggy days in London town was not some change in the climate but a rapid increase in the quan­tity of pollutants, above all from coal fires, that mixed with naturally occurring water vapour at times of temperature inversion to create a London fog, coloured yellow from the sulphurous emissions trapped beneath the cold air above the city. The more smoke and soot in the atmo­sphere, the more likely a fog was to form and the longer it was likely to last. And in the 1820s and 1830s smoke and soot from coal fires were spreading through the air in ever-increasing quantities as the city began to grow apace with the impact of the industrial revolution. London's population, around a million in 1800, had grown to one and a half million twenty years later and passed the two million mark in the 1830s. Helped by the growth of communications -- canals, metalled roads, and by the 1830s railways as well -- London was becoming an economic hub, with industries typical of a major city, such as paper, printing and publishing, instrument engineering, gas and power, chemicals, leather and luxury goods, and, even more important in terms of population growth, public administration, the law, and professions and services of many kinds.' As hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the capital to find work or make their fortune, new suburbs emerged, extending the city's housing in all directions; and every house had its coal fire, belching quantities of sulphur-laden smoke into the air during the winter months."


Christine L. Corton


London Fog: The Biography


Belknap Press


Copyright 2015 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College


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