“A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven…there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths.” That’s not a description of North India during a bad air day, even though could well be. It is, instead, a London scene from RL Stevenson’s
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published in 1886.
Such scenes were common in London from the mid-nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution spread its tentacles. Visitors to the city felt cheated if they didn’t experience these “London particulars” and pea-soupers at first hand. Novelists incorporated it into their work to create ominous settings and metaphors, especially Charles Dickens, the beginning of whose
Bleak House is still unforgettable. The city’s fog became an essential backdrop for real-life characters such as Jack the Ripper as he prowled for prey in Whitechapel, and fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes as he hailed a hackney from Baker Street. “Without fog, London would not be beautiful,” Claude Monet exclaimed as he looked with an artist’s eye at the shrouded vistas of Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Railway Bridge and the Houses of Parliament in the early 1900s. The Great Smog of London
Picturesque it may have been, but the fog’s deleterious health effects had been observed for quite a while. There was also concern over incidents of crime and disorder on murky streets and byways. Preventive measures were, however, half-hearted. Politicians and others pointed to a lack of options other than coal for heating, and some claimed that economic growth was a priority. A decisive change in public attitudes only came about as late as in 1952, the winter of which was blighted by the terrible event known as the Great Smog of London.
In her book,
Death in the Air, Kate Winkler Dawson illustrates how this fog spread, the effect on the man, woman and child on the street, and the shift in stance towards air pollution. That isn’t all her book deals with. It is the parallel story of two killers: “One was a toxin that ignored race, wealth, and age — a mass murderer that asphyxiated thousands of Londoners and sickened hundreds of thousands. The other was a psychopath, a serial killer, who terrorized one of the world’s most important cities.”
This latter killer was one John Reginald Christie, a soft-spoken but thoroughly unpleasant fellow in his mid-50s at the time of his arrest. He was a necrophiliac who killed at least eight people – primarily girls he chatted with at local cafés -- largely by means of a contraption in which a rubber tube emitted cooking gas. Christie disposed of the bodies in his coal cupboard, garden, and under the floorboards of his Notting Hill flat. After his capture and confession in 1953, London’s enterprising tabloids were quick to dub him “Jack the Strangler” and “the Notting Hill Killer” and even Madame Tussaud’s, ever responsive to public mood, displayed a wax figure of Christie preparing to be hanged.
Dawson’s book tries to interweave the story of the 1952 fog and of Christie’s actions. On the page, however, they sit uneasily side by side, forming separate halves rather than resonating with each other. Dawson’s attempt to fit the timelines together, for a start, can be confusing. The Great Smog of London lasted for five days in December 1952, with the effects being felt over the next year as well as in subsequent Parliamentary discussions and legislation. Christie’s murders, meanwhile, went on for ten years, ending only when he was apprehended in 1953.
More pertinent to our time is the light Dawson throws on the gloom of the smog. At the time, millions of domestic coal-burning grates, the major source of heating, were stuffed into an area of just six hundred square miles. With a high-pressure weather system caused by the Gulf Stream’s warm, moist air, the sulphur dioxide trapped in the air became deadly.
As visibility dropped, ships were docked, planes at London’s airports grounded, double-deckers halted mid-route, and automobile drivers urged to stay home. The Underground was packed with passengers as trains sat, delayed, on the tracks. Major thoroughfares were lit by flaming torches, offering pedestrians scant relief. (Some of this is captured in an early episode of Netflix’s
So thick and widespread was the fog that a performance of
La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells theatre had to be stopped after the first act because the audience could no longer see the stage. Cinema halls, too, turned off their projectors as screens became obscured. In an echo of AQI measurements in India, many pollution-measuring devices were rendered useless because of high emissions.
People thronged emergency rooms with respiratory and cardiac diseases, while ambulance calls increased by a third. Funeral directors reported a surge in bodies, making caskets scarce. After the fog lifted, initial estimates put the number of lives lost at 4,000; this figure rose to 12,000 mainly due to pre-existing respiratory conditions. Dawson’s book brings all this to life largely by means of accounts by those who lived through those awful days: from a teenager who lost her father, to recollections of doctors and nurses, among others.
The Clean Air Act
Pushed and prodded by opposition MPs and others, the government set up a committee led by civil engineer Sir Hugh Beaver which, in its December 1953 report, pointed to causes such as the use of coal in domestic hearths, locomotives and power stations, as well as the city’s new diesel buses which had replaced the electric tram system. It was this report that led to the 1956 Clean Air Act, a milestone in environmental protection. It tightened restrictions on industrial smoke, banned coal in many domestic and industrial areas, and shifted sources of heat toward cleaner fuels such as electricity and gas. In doing so, it made the Great Smog the last major air pollution event in Britain’s history.
Dawson highlights the efforts of those who, by their tenacity, made this possible. In particular, she shows how Labour parliamentarian Norman Dodds and his cohorts constantly raised the issue in Parliament, even when it was in danger of being forgotten once clearer skies were visible. In this, they were aided by the National Smoke Abatement Society, an independent coalition of politicians, medical officers, reporters, lawyers and health professionals. The lesson, all these decades later, is clear: don’t let go, and don’t give up.
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Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. here.