Tacitus mentions it in his account of Caesar’s invasion, so its spectral presence has haunted London from earliest times. The fog was originally generated by natural means, but soon enough the city was taking over from nature and creating its own atmosphere. As early as 1257 Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, complained about the smoke and pollution of London and, in the sixteenth century, Elizabeth I was reported to have been “herself greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-coals.” By the sixteenth century a pall of smoke hung over the capital, and the interiors of the more affluent London houses were dark with soot. One of the contributors to Holinshed’s Chronicles noted that the number of domestic chimneys had greatly increased throughout the latter decades of the sixteenth century, and that interior smoke was considered a preventative against wood decay and a preservative of health. It is as if the city enjoyed its own darkness.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century numerous and various complaints issued from the polluted city. In 1603 Hugh Platt wrote a ballad, “A Fire of Coal-Balles,” in which he claimed that the fumes of sea coal damaged plants and buildings; seventeen years later James I was “moved with compassion for the decayed fabric of St. Paul’s Cathedral near approaching ruin by the corroding quality of coal-smoke to which it had long been subjected.” There was also the prevalent fear of fire; there can be no doubt that the sight and smell of smoke aroused instinctive fears of flame in the thoroughfares of the city.
John Evelyn, in his treatise entitled Fumifigium, or The inconvenience of the Air and the Smoak of London (1661), lamented the condition of a city covered by “a Hellish and dismal Cloud of SEA-COAL.” Here the invocation of hell is significant, as one of the first manifestations of that connection between the city and the lower depths. The dark and dismal cloak of London comes from “few funnels and Issues, belonging to only Brewers, Diers, Lime-burners, Salt and Sope-boylers and some other private trades, Oneof whose Spiracles alone, does manifestly infect the Aer, more than all the chimnies of London put together besides.” Here, rising with the sulphurous smoke, is the spectre of infection. The city is literally a deadly place. It is the same image conjured by a contemporary Character of England which described London as enveloped in “Such a cloud of sea-coal, as if there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano in a foggy day: this pestilent smoak, which corrodes the very yron and spoils all the movables, leaving a soot on all things that it lights: and so fatally seizing on the lungs of the inhabitants, that cough and consumption spare no man.” It was in this period that in meteorological observations there emerged the incidence of “Great Stinking Fog” as well as that consistent cover of smoke which has become known as the “urban plume.” It might be said that the industrial city emerged from this terrible childbed.
Despite written records of great fogs in previous eras, it is commonly believed that nineteenth-century London created the foggy darkness. Certainly Victorian fog is the world’s most famous meteorological phenomenon. It was everywhere, in Gothic drama and in private correspondence, in scientific reports and in fiction such as Bleak House (1852–53). “I asked him whether there was a great fire anywhere? For the streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen. ‘Oh dear no, miss,’ he said. ‘This is a London particular.’ I had never heard of such a thing. ‘A fog, miss,’ said the young gentleman. ‘O indeed!’ said I.”
Half a million coal fires mingling with the city’s vapour, “partly arising from imperfect drainage,” produced this “London particular,” rising approximately 200 to 240 feet above street level. Opinions varied concerning the colour of the fogs. There was a black species, “simply darkness complete and intense at mid day”; bottle-green; a variety as yellow as pea-soup, which stopped all the traffic and “seems to choke you”; “a rich lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration”; simply grey; “orange-coloured vapour”; a “dark chocolate-coloured pall.” Everyone seemed to notice changes in its density, however, when it was sometimes interfused with daylight or when wreaths of one colour would mingle with another. The closer to the heart of the city, the darker these shades would become until it was “misty black” in the dead centre. In 1873 there were seven hundred “extra” deaths, nineteen of them the result of pedestrians walking into the Thames, the docks or the canals. The fogs sometimes came and went rapidly, their smoke and gloom blown across the streets of the city by the prevailing winds, but often they lingered for days with the sun briefly seen through the cold yellow mist. The worst decade for fogs was the 1880s; the worst month was always November.
“The fog was denser than ever,” wrote the author Nathaniel Hawthorne on 8 December 1855, “very black indeed, more like a distillation of mud than anything else; the ghost of mud, the spiritualised medium of departed mud, through which the departed citizens of London probably tread in the Hades whither they are translated. So heavy was the gloom, that gas was lighted in all the shop windows; and the little charcoal furnaces of the women and boys, roasting chestnuts threw a ruddy misty glow around them.” Again the condition of the city is likened to that of hell itself, but with the additional association that somehow the citizens are privately enjoying—and indeed are rather proud of—their hapless condition.
Fog was called a “London particular” with some measure of satisfaction, since it was a unique emanation from what was then the largest and most powerful city on the earth. Darwin wrote that “there is a grandeur about its smoky fogs.” James Russell Lowell, writing in the autumn of 1888, remarked that he was living within a yellow fog—“the cabs are rimmed with a halo” and the people in the street “like fading frescoes”—but at the same time “It flatters one’s self-esteem”; he was proud to survive such an extreme condition of the city.
In turn the fog itself conjured up images of immensity. “Everything seems to be checked,” wrote a French journalist of the nineteenth century, “to slacken into a phantom-like motion that has all the vagueness of hallucination. The sounds of the street are muffled; the tops of the houses are lost, hardly even guessed … The openings of the streets swallow up, like tunnels, a crowd of foot passengers and carriages, which seem, thus, to disappear for ever.” The people in this fog “are innumerable, a compact army, these miserable little human creatures; the struggle for life animates them; they are all of one uniform blackness in the fog; they go to their daily task, they all use the same gestures.” So the fog renders the citizens indeterminate, part of a vast process which they themselves can hardly understand.
One other aspect of this darkness severely affected the inhabitants of London. Every observer noticed that the gas-lights were turned on throughout the day in order to afford some interior light, and noticed, too, how the street-lamps seemed like points of flame in the swirling miasma. But the ambience of the dark fog settled upon many streets which had no lighting at all, thereby affording cover for theft, violence and rape on an unprecedented scale. In that sense the fog was indeed “particular” to London because it intensified and emphasised all the darker characteristics of the city. Darkness is also at the heart of the notion of this black vapour as an emanation of sickness. If “all smell is disease,” as the Victorian social reformer Edwin Chadwick thought, then the acrid smell of the London fog was a sure token of contamination and epidemic fear; it is as if the contents of a million lungs were being disseminated through the streets.
The very texture and colour of the city carried all the marks of its fog. The author of Letters from Albion, written as early as 1810, noticed that above the level of the ground “you see nothing but the naked brick fronts of the houses all blackened by the smoke of coal,” while an American traveller remarked on the “uniform dinginess” of London buildings. Heinrich Heine was the author of one of the most evocative and instructive remarks upon the city—“this overworked London defies the imagination and breaks the heart” (1828)—and he himself observed that the streets and buildings were “a brown olive-green colour, on account of the damp and coal smoke.” So the fog had become part of the physical texture of the city, this most unnatural of natural phenomena leaving its presence upon the stones. Perhaps in part the city defied the imagination, in Heine’s phrase, because in that darkness “which seems neither to belong to the day nor to the night” the world itself was suspended; in the fog it became a place of concealment and of secrets, of whispers and fading footsteps.
It can be said that fog is the greatest character in nineteenth-century fiction, and the novelists looked upon fog as might people upon London Bridge, “peering over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.” When Carlyle called the fog “fluid ink” he was rehearsing the endless possibilities of describing London through the medium of the fog, as if only in the midst of this unnatural darkness could the true characteristics of the city be discerned. In the narratives of Sherlock Holmes, written by Arthur Conan Doyle from 1887 to 1927, the city of crime and of unsolved mysteries is quintessentially the city of fog. On one foggy morning in A Study in Scarlet, “a dun-coloured veil hung over the housetops looking like a reflection of the mud-coloured streets beneath.” In “the steamy, vaporous air” of a “dense drizzly fog” in The Sign of Four, Dr. Watson soon “lost my bearings … Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets.” London becomes a labyrinth. Only if you “soak up the atmosphere,” in the cliché of travellers and sightseers, will you not become bewildered and lost.
The greatest novel of London fog is, perhaps, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) in which the fable of changing identities and secret lives takes place within the medium of the city’s “shifting insubstantial mists.” In many respects the city itself is the changeling, its appearance altering when “the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths.” Where good and evil live side by side, and thrive together, the strange destiny of Dr. Jekyll does not seem quite so incongruous. Then for a moment the mist melts and the curtain lifts, revealing a gin palace, an eating-house, a “shop for the retail of penny numbers and two penny salads,” all this life continuing beneath the canopy of darkness like a low murmur of almost inaudible sound. Then once again “the fog settled down again on that part, as brown as umber, and cut him off from his blackguardly surroundings.” This also is the condition of living in London—to be “cut off,” isolated, a single mote in the swirl of fog and smoke. To be alone among the confusion is perhaps the single most piercing emotion of any stranger in the city.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of “the great town’s weltering fog” as somehow erasing all the signs and tokens of the city, blurring “Spires, bridges, streets, and squares as if a sponge had wiped out London” (1856). Fear of this invisibility actively assisted the programme of building and decoration that marked the Victorian city. Building News, in 1881, discussed the fact that “the smoky atmosphere has done its best to clothe our most costly buildings in a thin drapery of soot … they soon become dark and sombre masses … all play of light and shade is lost.” That is precisely why architects decided to clothe their buildings in bright red brick and shining terracotta so that they would remain visible; the features of nineteenth-century building, which may seem vulgar or gaudy, were attempts to stabilise the identity and legibility of the city.
Of course there were some who extolled the virtues of the fog. Dickens, despite his lugubrious descriptions, once referred to it as London’s ivy. For Charles Lamb it was the medium through which his vision, in every sense, was conceived and perfected. Where some saw only the amounts of sulphate deposited in the bowels of the fog, particularly in the City and the East End, others saw the murky atmosphere as clothing the river and its adjacent areas “with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanile, and the warehouses are palaces in the night.” This devoted invocation is from Whistler, the painter of mist and smoke at twilight, and it contrasts sharply with a comment about the building of the Embankment in the same period as his atmospheric works of art. “Who would think of promenading along the channel of a great hazy, ague-giving river in any case?” But Whistler’s opinions were shared by other artists who saw the fog as London’s greatest attribute. The late nineteenth-century Japanese artist Yoshio Markino noted that “Perhaps the real colours of some buildings in London might be rather crude. But this crude colour is so fascinating in the mists. For instance that house in front of my window is painted in black and yellow. When I came here last summer I laughed at its ugly colour. But now the winter fogs cover it and the harmony of its colour is most wonderful.” It is sometimes observed that the buildings of London look best in the rain, as if they had been built and coloured especially for the sake of showers. A case can be made, then, that even the private houses of Londoners are designed to be pleasing in the fog.
When Monet stayed in London between 1899 and 1901, he had come to paint the fogs. “Then, in London, above all what I love is the fog … It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth. Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak.” Here he is repeating, in more delicate tones, a conversation which Blanchard Jerrold held with that Gothic delineator of fog, Gustave Doré. “I could tell my fellow traveller that he had at last seen one of these famous darknesses which in every stranger’s mind are the almost daily mantle of the wonderful and wonderworking Babylon.” Here the fog contributes to the city’s splendour and awfulness; it creates magnificence, yet, with the suggestion of Babylon, it represents some primeval and primitive force which has lingered over the centuries. For Monet the London fog became a token, or revelation, of mystery; in his depictions of its subtle atmospheres and ever-changing colours, there is also a strong impression that the city is about to dissolve or be hidden for ever. In that sense he is trying to capture the essential spirit of the place beyond particular epochs and phases. His paintings of Charing Cross Bridge, for example, give it the brooding presence of some elemental force; it might be a great bridge constructed by the Romans or a bridge built in the next millennium. This is London at its most shadowy and powerful, powerful precisely because of the shadows which it casts. Ancient shapes loom out of the foggy darkness or the dim violet light, yet these shapes also change quickly in a sudden shaft of light or movement of colour. This again is the mystery which Monet presents; this shrouded immensity is instinct with light. It is prodigious.
In the early years of the twentieth century, there was a marked diminution in the frequency and severity of foggy weather. Some attribute this change to the campaigns of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, and the various attempts to substitute gas for coal, but the very expansion of the capital might paradoxically have lowered its levels of fog. Industries, and people, were now more widely dispersed and the intense heat-laden centre of smoke and fog was no longer burning so brightly. The whole phenomenon has been ably reported in an essay, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Edwardian London Fog,” by H.T. Bernstein, in which it is claimed that coal-burning was not directly related to the incidence of fog. Some of the great London fogs appeared on Sundays, for example, when no factory chimneys were in operation. If fog was in part a meteorological phenomenon, it exhibited local and specific characteristics; it particularly affected parks and riversides, for example, as well as areas with low wind speed. It might swallow up Paddington, where no one could see their way, but leave Kensington less than a mile away to its brightness.
It has been said that “the last real fog was ‘presented’ on or about December 23, 1904”; it was pure white in colour and “the hansom cabmen were leading their horses, lamps went before the crawling omnibuses and some guests … went past one of the biggest London hotels without seeing it.” In fact, throughout the 1920s and 1930s “pea-soupers” descended without warning. H.V. Morton, in his In Search of London (1951), remembered one such fog “which reduces visibility to a yard, which turns every lamp into a downward V of haze, and gives to every encounter a nightmare quality almost of terror.” Here once more there is intimation of fog carrying fear into the heart of the city; it is perhaps no wonder that, when the easterly wind sent the clouds of yellow haze away from the city, the Berkshire farmers called it “blight.”
Others, less distant, also suffered from early twentieth-century fogs. The Stoll film studios at Cricklewood had to close during the winter because, according to Colin Sorensen’s London on Film, “The fog got into the studio for about three months.” The element of intrusiveness, or of invasion, also emerges here: many people recall how, upon the opening of a front door, draughts of smoke-laden fog would eddy through a private house and curl up in corners. The “eternal smoke of London” found other pathways, not least through the vent holes of the underground system where Arthur Symons noticed how its “breath rises in clouds and drifts voluminously over the gap of the abyss, catching at times a ghastly colour from the lamplight. Sometimes one of the snakes seems to rise and sway out of the tangle, a column of yellow blackness.”
But perhaps the worst of all London fogs were the “smogs” of the early 1950s, when thousands died of asphyxiation and bronchial asthma. In some of the theatres the fog was so thick that the actors could not be seen upon the stage. On the afternoon of 16 January 1955 there was “almost total darkness … People who experienced the phenomenon said it seemed as if the world was coming to an end.” A Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, as a result of public disquiet, but in the following year another smog caused death and injury. Then again in the winter of 1962 a lethal smog killed sixty people in three days; there was “nil visibility” on the roads, shipping “at a standstill,” trains cancelled. A newspaper report put the facts plainly: “The amount of smoke in the London air was 10 times higher than normal for a winter day yesterday. The amount of sulphur dioxide was 14 times higher than normal.” Six years later there followed a more extensive Clean Air Act, and this legislation marked the end of London fog in its ancient form. Electricity, oil and gas had largely taken the place of coal, while slum clearance and urban renewal had reduced the level of close-packed housing.
But pollution has by no means disappeared; like London itself, it has simply changed its form. The city may now be in large part a “smokeless zone” but it is filled with carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons which together with “toxic secondary pollutants” such as aerosols can produce what is known as a “photochemical smog.” High concentrations of lead in the London air and a general increase of sunshine in the cleaner air have in turn inspired more contamination. There is a problem with ozone at ground level and the effects of “temperature inversion” mean that the emissions from traffic and power stations, for example, cannot be released into the upper atmosphere. So they linger at the level of the streets. The fog that Tacitus described in the first century AD still hovers over London.