The Killer 1962 Smog Of London

The Killer 1962 Smog Of London

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The Houses of Parliament shrouded in ab orangy mist
The smog of 1962 killed dozens of Londoners. Image: ogoco via creative commons

The Great Smog of 1952 is well documented, but 10 years later London was hit by another devastating bout, which precipitated havoc across the capital.

On 3 December 1962, a thick fog enveloped the capital, for what would be three days. "People and double-decker buses grope their way through the fog," wrote The Sphere, describing Holborn Circus, "The statue of Prince Albert on his horse looks down on the murky scene..."

Visibility on the roads ranged from 30 yards to nil. In Chingford and Highgate, there was almost no visibility at all. Scores of cars were abandoned on the North Circular. Planes were grounded at Gatwick and London Airport (Heathrow). As Christine L Corton writes in London Fog: The Biography, the smog could be seen drifting through the Royal Festival Hall, making it difficult for the audience to see the orchestra. A steam engine's fireman had a fatal plunge from a viaduct, while bus conductor Arthur Curtis was knocked down by his own bus.

Newspaper clipping about bus conductor getting hit by own bus
Image © Reach PLC. Image created courtesy of the British Library Board

An eminent American scientist flew to London to experience the smog first hand, saying, "I've never seen or tasted anything like it and I didn't enjoy it one little bit. It set off a beautiful cough." The news was big enough to make the front page of international papers; the New York Tribune ran the headline: "Killer Fog Stalks London". They weren't exaggerating either; London's elevated levels of sulphur and carbon dioxide had turned the fog into a poisonous smog. On 6 December, the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported that 66 Londoners had already succumbed to the deadly air. Hundreds more were admitted to hospital. The public were advised to keep their windows shut, and wear makeshift masks.

Following 1952's smog, in which at least 4,000 Londoners died, the Clean Air Act of 1956 had been introduced. (FYI Netflix series The Crown invented the story that prime minister Winston Churchill's mind had been swayed to do something after his secretary was hit by a bus in the pea-souper.) But while this act tackled smoke from fireplaces, furnaces, factories and the like, it didn't address the sulphur dioxide beginning to spout forth from thousands of new motor vehicles. December 1962 was a warning shot across the boughs that more needed to be done. From the mid 1960s, sulphur dioxide and smoke emissions reduced significantly — thanks to a switch to cleaner fuels — and smogs like those of 1952 and 1962 thinned out.

ULEZ expansion: two green and white TfL road signs, side by side, announcing the start of the ULEZ.
Photo: Matt Brown

Still, there have been some significant smogs in the capital since; on Friday 13 December 1991, health advisers met in secret (£) to discuss a particularly nasty fog that had all but obscured Big Ben. London continues to suffer from photochemical smogs today, in which a brown haze hovers over the city — there was a bad one of these in August 2020. Perhaps London will only see the end of smogs once and for all, when every vehicle in the city runs off electric, or otherwise doesn't exist at all.

Last Updated 17 October 2023

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