The Mysterious Killer Fog that Struck London.
August 31, 2015
Sara Marie Hogg
PERCY MET CECIL on the sidewalk at dusk and they walked across the lane. Percy rapped on the door to the cottage. After a moment the door swung open and they saw two sets of peering eyes at chest level.
“Here we are, ladies—coming to keep you company during these horrid events,” Percy announced as he and Cecil entered the door and withdrew the kerchiefs from their noses. They returned the white squares to their pockets.
“My, my, girls, you have made it look all cheery with these many candles,” Cecil said.
“Didn’t know what much else to do. We’ll get by, and do it in style. Come right in,” Tillie urged. “We can listen to our battery radio and maybe we’ll be up for a game of Whist as the evening rolls along.”
“Battery radio? Does that mean I am not going to have to do hand cranking on the radio all night, then?” Cecil cast a sly look toward the two women.”
“No, no, Cecil, I have one of the hand-crankers, but the one we will be listening to has cell batteries,” Tansie, Tillie’s sister answered. “Can we get you fellows a shot of bourbon, or something similar? Please come in and sit down, make yourselves comfortable.”
“Aye, I will take one. Nothing fancy, bourbon and water. I know you probably don’t have any ice so that is fine. Whatever is easy,” Cecil replied.”
“I’ll have the same, if you don’t mind,” Percy chimed in. “Something with medicinal properties for a night like this!”
When they were seated in the drawing room and comfortable, Tansie turned up the radio and they all listened with great interest as the news reports came in.
“We are urging all to stay inside and not go out except for short periods.” The radio blared. “Schools are cancelled tomorrow as a precaution. If you are just now learning what has happened, a high pressure cell has clamped down over London trapping fog and smoke from factory output and automobiles. Electrical power is out in some areas of the city due to a critical line being knocked out during a lorry crash because of poor visibility. It is being repaired at this time. Please be patient. Meteorological experts are confident that conditions will start to improve within the next twenty-four hours, due to blasts of cold air expected to be arriving from the English Channel. Now back to a favorite program here on the BBC…”
Tansie turned the sound down a bit so they could talk.
“Well that’s good to know,” said Cecil. “It looks as if this is not going to be another Killer Fog of London—like the one they had in 1952.”
“Wasn’t that a holy terror?” Percy asked this question, then, continued. “We were still in short pants when that happened. I barely remember it myself. I mostly remember the grown-ups talking and whispering about it.”
“Yes, and these ladies here were still wearing pinafores. In fact, I have seen their pictures in the album wearing them.”
“Yes we were,” Tillie answered. Both women giggled. “I don’t suppose you would like to look at the album again?” She waved her hand to let them all know she was not serious.
Percy and Cecil glanced at one another sheepishly. After a pause, Cecil could not resist talking once again about the London Killer Fog. “It was most bizarre.”
“Downright freaky, if you ask me,” Percy agreed. “Sorry, ol’ chap, do continue. I didn’t mean to interrupt, I truly didn’t—couldn’t help myself.”
“Four thousand people died during that horrid event, and they are fairly certain that the final death toll reached ten to twelve thousand. Isn’t that something?” Cecil added this tidbit.
“Let’s hope it never happens again, Cecil. What was the exact cause?” Tillie asked the question as she carried off his drink for refreshing and returned quickly.
“At first the London skies were crisp and clear on that December fifth morning in 1952. The recent days had been colder than usual and Londoners were using their coal fireplaces and heaters with great abandon. A fog descended over the city and by late afternoon, London’s landmark structures were encased in films of fog. The fog began to take on a yellow tone as massive amounts of soot from chimneys and furnace stacks streamed into the air and mixed with the fog.”
Percy added, “You see, ladies, this peculiar mixture of fog, soot and smoke was trapped over London, bearing down because a high-pressure system in the atmosphere would not budge from the area over London.”
“That’s right, Percy,” Cecil agreed. “It started to smell like rotten eggs as sulfur even made its way into the air. Visibility was nil. People outside could not see their hands in front of their faces. They could not even look down and see their own feet as they walked. Traffic barely moved or came to a complete standstill. Some few drivers left on the roads had to stick their heads out the windows to try to navigate through the thick air. Driving was so impossible that cars and trucks were left abandoned all over London.”
Percy could not resist injecting his own tales of the event. “And people who tried to walk outside often fell down because of an oily black film that began to cover roads and walkways. They gasped and wheezed as they tried to go about in the city. When they finally made it back home and looked in their mirrors they saw black smudges around their noses and mouths.”
“My goodness,” Tansie said. “I have heard plenty of horror stories, but I had no idea it was that bad.”
“It is odd how the real horror fades with time,” Tillie agreed.
“Bloody awful. Because it was so dark and gloomy outside,” Cecil continued, “crime went up. Those nervy enough to go outside were robbed and mugged by opportunistic criminals lurking about in the shadows. These very conditions also made it easy for the criminals to escape quickly. Schools were cancelled because they were afraid the children would get lost walking to the school because they couldn’t see. Sporting events were cancelled because the athletes could not see what they were doing on the fields. Movie theaters shut their doors because the fog inside the theaters prevented viewing the screens.”
“I say ol’ boy,” Percy blurted out with a chuckle. “I heard that Oxford and Cambridge did try to have a competition of some kind during the Killer Fog, and that officials had to call out instructions to them—which direction to run in because they couldn’t see. Run this way! Run over here! Run to your left.”
“I heard something like that myself. For those two institutions I guess they felt the show must go on, no matter what.” Cecil chuckled.
Tillie and Tansie giggled at this ridiculousness themselves, as their red tinted heads bobbed about.
“Birds could not see and crashed into buildings, then fell to the pavement below. They tried to go on with the Smithfield Show. Eleven heifers were lost when they choked to death. To try to prevent more animal deaths at the show the owners soaked grain bags in whisky and made gas masks for the rest of the cattle. A wave of death crept quietly over the city. It seemed so subtle that no one realized the gravity until undertakers ran out of caskets.
“My goodness!” Tillie exclaimed.
Percy explained, “It mainly killed the very young, the very old or those with existing medical problems, but it took a heavy toll.”
“How did it all end? I forgot,” Tansie admitted.
“It took five days for it to end, girls,” Percy said. “A cold wind came in and blew it away. It did have one positive effect.”
“What?” Tansie waited for the answer.
“Parliament passed The Clean Air Act of 1956. They gave citizens grants and incentives to decrease the use of coal and it set up smoke-free zones in the city. This worked wonders, but it was not perfect. There were more Killer Fogs, the worst of those was in 1962 and it killed 750.”
Tansie gasped, then, exclaimed, “Oh good grief, Percy. I had forgotten about that other one entirely!”
“So you see, our famous pea soup can be quite deadly,” Cecil commented as he began to shuffle his deck of cards. “We must have a respect for it.” He started to deal.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Dark Continent Continental.