UNUSUALLY thick and impenetrable fog threw much of Britain into chaos 60 years ago today, sparking fears it could be a repeat of the deadly smog which seven years earlier claimed around 4,000 lives.
Mercifully, the dense fog of January 29th, 1959, lasted nowhere near as long and was far less toxic than the ‘smog’ – a choking mixture of smoke and fog – which enveloped London for five deadly days in December 1952.
It was, however, much more widespread, affecting much of southern England, East Anglia, South Wales and stretching up into the Midlands. It was at its worst in big towns and cities, especially London, where the heavy fog once again mixed with pollutants in the air to create and even thicker and potentially more dangerous smog.
In the worst-affected areas, road, rail and air transport were brought to a virtual standstill. London Airport (now Heathrow) was closed, with visibility down to just 20 yards and incoming flights diverted to Gatwick or other airports. Train services in and around London were cancelled because drivers couldn’t see the signals, while police traffic patrols reported nose-to-tail jams throughout the capital, with similar reports from other towns and cities.
Out in the country, even though the fog was patchier it was extremely dangerous to drive and many people heeded official advice to stay at home. The Met Office allayed fears of a ‘days long’ smog like that of seven years previously, saying that the unusually still weather would only last for around 24 hours before winds picked up to disperse the fog. In the end it lasted a little longer in the cities, where the heavier ‘smog’ proved more stubborn and harder to shift.
A spokesman for the AA said that almost 30 hours of fog in London had left a nil-visibility ring around the city: “It’s a motorist’s nightmare as rush-hour drivers grope their way through nil visibility in the Hendon, Finchley, Northolt, Wandsworth, Bromley and Sidcup districts,” he said.
Many businesses shut down as people struggled to get to work or simply admitted defeat and stayed at home. Many people remembered how those who ventured out in the 1952 smog returned looking like coal miners, with blackened faces and gasping for air. Most of the estimated 4,000 deaths during the 1952 “Great Smog of London” were people with existing respiratory conditions unable to cope with the thick, cloying and pollutant-laden smog.
Some businesses did open and chemists reported selling out of ‘smog masks’ – basic filters which covered the nose and mouth. Travel agents also reported an upsurge in business, as people made plans to escape the British winter and head for warmer, and clearer climes.
Thankfully, by the middle of the following day the worst of the fog was gone and without the appalling death toll of 1952. There were several major road accidents reported, including a pile-up in Middlesex which involved up to 40 cars. However, most of them were already moving at a snail’s pace through the thick fog, which meant most injuries were minor.
The 1959 fog and smog led to calls to speed up implementation of new rules brought about by the deadly smog of 1952. It led to the Clean Air Act 1956, which was an attempt to cut down pollutants in the air so they couldn’t combine with fog to create lethal smog. In particular, it created ‘smoke control areas’ in some towns and cities in which only smokeless fuels could be burnt, and provided incentives to switch to other heat sources such as electricity and gas. However, the Act allowed businesses and householders time to make the switchover and the process still had some way to go by 1959.
In 1968 the Clean Air Act was revised, with more restrictions on polluting industries, which now had to use tall chimneys. Six years later, in 1974, the first Control of Air Pollution Act focussed more on toxins from vehicle fumes, introducing regulations on the composition of motor fuels.
Today the smoke-laden ‘pea-soupers’ which blighted cities and industrial towns in the 1950s and ’60s are a thing of the past, but the thorny issue of air quality is still high on the political agenda, with plans to gradually phase out petrol and diesel-powered vehicles over the coming decades.