Tag Archives: UK Capital

Why is London Called The Smoke?


With the combination of coal fires and weather conditions, smog often settled over the city and London became known as The Smoke or Big Smoke, an expression still used lightheartedly today.

This came from the low grade post-war coal, burned primarily in homes, which caused an increased amount of sulfur dioxide, polluting the foggy air. Additional contributions to the cause of smog were the abundant coal-fired power stations in the Greater London area, including Fulham, Battersea, Bankside, and Kingston upon Thames, all of which added to the air’s contamination.

Other Words to Describe the Fog

Pea soup, or a pea souper, otherwise known as a black fog or killer fog, is very thick and commonly yellowish, greenish, or blackish smog caused by air pollution that contains soot and the noxious gas sulfur dioxide.

Pea soup fog was once rampant in UK cities, especially London. It resulted from the smoke of millions of coal-burning chimneys pooled with the mist and fog of the Thames basin. This occurrence was commonly known as a London particular or London fog, which resulted in the phrase, thick pea and ham soup or thick as pea soup.

The Great Smog of ‘52

The term “Big Smoke” originated from the Great Smog of 1952 and is known to be the worst air pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom. It lasted from Friday, December 5 to Tuesday, December 9, 1952, and then dispersed swiftly after a change of weather.

  • Cause of the Smog – It stemmed from a period of cold weather in which London residents burned more coal than usual to keep warm. This combined with an anticyclone (a large-scale rotation of winds around a central area of high atmospheric pressure) and windless conditions caused a collection of airborne pollutants, from the coal-burning chimneys, to form a dense layer of smog over the city.
  • Effect of the Smog – It caused major visibility issues with fog so thick, it disrupted the use of trains, cars, and transportation as a whole. Public events were canceled. The foremost consequence was the respiratory illnesses caused to over 100,000 people and there were reported deaths of some 4,000, all of which happened in these few short days. Later research put the final fatality rate at nearly 12,000 citizens of Greater London.
  • Response to the Smog – Being the worst case of smog the City of London had ever seen, with illness and death in the thousands, parliament finally took action to reduce air pollution.

Clean Air Act of 1956

An Act passed by the UK Parliament in response to London’s Great Smog of 1952. The stipulation made by the Act was the reduction of air pollution by way of ‘smoke control areas’ in which only smokeless fuels could be burned. Domestically, homes were shifted to cleaner forms of coal-burning, electricity, and gas. This was only enforced in some towns and cities but did reduce the overall amount of smoke pollution and sulfur dioxide. Commercially, the Act instituted the relocation of power stations away from cities and even for the height of some chimneys to be increased. The Clean Air Act was in effect until 1964 and then repealed in August 1993.

London Smog or Fog Literary References

“The Smoke” was such a phenomenon that it was often referenced in literature by many English writers. Whether by name or insinuation here are a few examples.

  • A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett – “Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night…”
  • The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot – “Unreal city, under the brown fog of a winter dawn, a crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.”
  • The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans – Arthur Conan Doyle – “a greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops on the windowpane…”

Can you imagine what it must have been like to live in London during those coal-burning days? It certainly explains all the filthy-looking characters in a Dickens novel. I think I would have wanted to move out to the country. For different reasons now, London is still covered with a blanket of fog from time to time.


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