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Pea soup fog

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Piccadilly Circus during the Great Smog of London, 1952

Pea soup fog (also known as a pea souper, black fog or killer fog) is a very thick and often yellowish, greenish or blackish fog caused by air pollution that contains soot particulates and the poisonous gas sulphur dioxide. This very thick smog occurs in cities and is derived from the smoke given off by the burning of soft coal for home heating and in industrial processes. Smog of this intensity is often lethal to vulnerable people such as the elderly, the very young (infants) and those with respiratory problems. The result of these phenomena was commonly known as a London particular or London fog; in a reversal of the idiom, "London particular" became the name for a thick pea and ham soup.[1]

Historical observations[edit]

From as early as the 13th century,[2][3] air pollution became increasingly prevalent, and a predominant perception in the 13th century was that sea-coal[4] smoke would affect one's health.[5][6] From the mid-17th century, in British cities, especially London, the incidence of ill-health was attributed to coal smoke from both domestic and industrial chimneys combining with the mists and fogs of the Thames Valley.[7] Luke Howard, a pioneer in urban climate studies, published The Climate of London in 1818–1820, in which he uses the term "city fog" and describes the heat island effect which concentrated the accumulation of smog over the city.[8]

In 1880, Francis Albert Rollo Russell, son of the former Prime Minister Lord John Russell, published a leaflet that blamed home hearth smoke, rather than factories' smoke, for damaging the city's important buildings, depriving vegetation of sunlight, and increasing the expense and effort of laundering clothes. Furthermore, he charged the "perpetually present" sulphurous smoke with increasing bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. More than 2,000 Londoners had "literally choked to death", he wrote, on account of "a want of carefulness in preventing smoke in our domestic fires" which emitted coal smoke from "more than a million chimneys" that, when combined with the prolonged fogs of late January and early February 1880, fatally aggravated pre-existing lung conditions and was "more fatal than the slaughter of many a great battle".[9][10][11]

The difficulties of driving through the fog were vividly described in the Autocar magazine, with an otherwise straightforward 45 mile car journey on the night of 12 December 1946 taking over eight hours to complete. At times, the passenger had to get out and walk alongside the car to see the kerb and operate the steering through the side window while the driver operated the pedals.[12]

The most lethal incidence of this smog in London occurred in 1952 and resulted in the Clean Air Act 1956 and Clean Air Act 1968, both now repealed and consolidated into the Clean Air Act 1993, which were effective in largely removing sulphur dioxide and coal smoke, the causes of pea soup fog, though these have been replaced by less visible pollutants that derive from vehicles in urban areas.[13]

Origins of the term[edit]

Reference to the sources of smog, along with the earliest extant use of "pea-soup" as a descriptor, is found in a report by John Sartain published in 1820 on life as a young artist, recounting what it was like to

slink home through a fog as thick and as yellow as the pea-soup of the eating house; return to your painting room ... having opened your window at going out, to find the stink of the paint rendered worse, if possible, by the entrance of the fog, which, being a compound from the effusions of gas pipes, tan yards, chimneys, dyers, blanket scourers, breweries, sugar bakers, and soap boilers, may easily be imagined not to improve the smell of a painting room![14]

An 1871 New York Times article refers to "London, particularly, where the population are periodically submerged in a fog of the consistency of pea soup". The fogs caused large numbers of deaths from respiratory problems.[15]


Table and title page of John Graunt's (1620–1674) Natural and political observations ... upon ... mortality (1662) which notes mortality attributed to air pollution in London[16]

King Edward I of England banned the burning of sea-coal by proclamation in London in 1272, after its smoke became a problem.[17][18] By the 17th century London's pollution had become a serious problem, still due, in particular, to the burning of cheap, readily available sea coal.[7] John Evelyn, advisor to Charles II of England, defined the problem in his pamphlet, Fumifugium: Or, the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated[19][20][21] published in 1661, blaming coal, a "subterrany fuel" that had "a kind of virulent or arsenical vapour arising from it" for killing many. He proposed the relocation of industry out of the city and the planting of massive gardens of "odiferous flowers" to "tinge the air" and thus mask the pollution.

Clean Air Act[edit]

The worst recorded instance was the Great Smog of 1952, when 4,000 deaths were reported in the city over a couple of days, and a subsequent 8,000 related deaths, leading to the passage of the Clean Air Act 1956, which banned the use of coal for domestic fires in some urban areas.[15] The overall death toll from that incident is now believed to be around 12,000.[22][23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jo Swinnerton (1 October 2004). The London Companion. Pavilion Books. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-86105-799-0.
  2. ^ Brimblecombe, P. (December 1975). "Industrial Air Pollution in Thirteenth-Century Britain". Weather. 30 (12): 388–396. Bibcode:1975Wthr...30..388B. doi:10.1002/j.1477-8696.1975.tb05276.x. ISSN 0043-1656.
  3. ^ Brimblecombe, Peter (October 1976). "Attitudes and Responses Towards Air Pollution in Medieval England". Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association. 26 (10): 941–945. doi:10.1080/00022470.1976.10470341. ISSN 0002-2470. PMID 789426.
  4. ^ Cantril, T. C. (1914). Coal Mining. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 3–10. OCLC 156716838.
  5. ^ Calendar of Close Rolls, 35 Ed. 1. m6d
  6. ^ Calendar of Patent Rolls, 13 Ed. 1.ml8d.
  7. ^ a b Graunt, John; Petty, William (1662), Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index, and made upon the bills of mortality [microform] / by John Graunt ...; with reference to the government, religion, trade, growth, ayre, diseases, and the several changes of the said city, Printed by Tho. Roycroft for John Martin, James Allestry, and Tho. Dicas
  8. ^ Landsberg, Helmut Erich (1981). The urban climate. Academic Press, New York, p.3.
  9. ^ F. A. R. Russell, London Fogs. London: Edward Stanford, 1880, pp. 4, 11, 27
  10. ^ B. Luckin, "Demographic, Social and Cultural Parameters of Environmental Crisis: The Great London Smoke Fogs in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries", in C. Bernhardt and G. Massard-Guilbaud (eds) The Modern Demon: Pollution in Urban and Industrial European Societies. Clermont-Ferrand: Blaise-Pascal University Press, 2002; pp. 219–238
  11. ^ B. Luckin, "Pollution in the City", in M. Daunton (ed.) The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, Volume III 1840–1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 207–228.
  12. ^ Michael Brown (17 January 1947). "A Night of Fantasy". The Autocar. London: Iliffe & Sons Ltd: 80–81.
  13. ^ Brimblecombe, P. (2006). "The clean air act after 50 years". Weather, 61(11), 311–314.
  14. ^ John Sartain (1820). Annals of the fine arts. London, Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, digitised by Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, p.80
  15. ^ a b Fouquet, Roger; et al. (June 2001). External Cost and Environmental Policy in the UK and the EU (PDF). Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy and Technology. p. 18. ISBN 1-903144-02-7.
  16. ^ "GRAUNT, John. (1620-1674). Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index and made upon the bills of mortality..." Christies.
  17. ^ David Urbinato (Summer 1994). "London's Historic "Pea-Soupers"". United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 6 October 2021.
  18. ^ "Deadly Smog". PBS. 17 January 2003. Archived from the original on 6 October 2021. Retrieved 6 October 2021.
  19. ^ Evelyn, John (9 September 1976). "Fumifugium". Exeter, Eng. : University of Exeter, the Rota. Retrieved 9 September 2022 – via Internet Archive.
  20. ^ HTML text of Fumifugium.
  21. ^ "He shewes that 't is the seacoale smoake That allways London doth Inviron, Which doth our Lungs and Spiritts choake, Our hanging spoyle, and rust our Iron. Lett none att Fumifuge be scoffing Who heard att Church our Sundaye's Coughing." from; "Ballad of Gresham College". Original text.
  22. ^ Bell, Michelle L.; Michelle L. Bell; Devra L. Davis; Tony Fletcher (January 2004). "A retrospective assessment of mortality from the London smog episode of 1952: the role of influenza and pollution". Environ Health Perspect. 112 (#1): 6–8. doi:10.1289/ehp.6539. PMC 1241789. PMID 14698923. Archived from the original on 14 October 2008.
  23. ^ "Counting the Cost of London's Killer Smog" Richard Stone Science 13 December 2002: Vol. 298, Issue 5601, pp. 2106-2107 DOI: 10.1126/science.298.5601.2106b

Further reading[edit]

  • Cavert, William M. (2016) The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City. Cambridge University Press.
  • Corton, Christine L. (2015) London Fog: The Biography. Harvard University Press. Excerpt The Reason London Is Renowned For Being Foggy
  • New York Times, 2 April 1871, pg. 3: "London... fog the consistency of pea-soup..."