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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 13:18 GMT
Days of toxic darkness
1962 smog
Despite clean air laws, smog persisted into the 60s
Fifty years ago, a choking cloud enveloped much of London and the Home Counties - a toxic fog which killed thousands. Here, Barbara Fewster recalls her 16-mile walk home - in heels - guiding her fiancÚ's car.

It was the worst fog that I'd ever encountered. It had a yellow tinge and a strong, strong smell strongly of sulphur, because it was really pollution from coal fires that had built up. Even in daylight, it was a ghastly yellow colour.

Barbara Fewster OBE, Sadler's Wells photo
Barbara Fewster was a dancer of 24 at the time
I was a dancer at Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet at the time, but I wasn't performing the night the smog came down. I'd gone out with my fiancÚ for dinner with a conductor who lived at the top of Hampstead Hill.

At the end of the evening we drove off towards Kingston upon Thames, where I was staying at time, when the smog hit us like a wall. It was absolutely solid.

It was a terrifying journey. The only thing to do was for me to walk in front of the car. My fiancÚ hung out of the window while I walked - in evening clothes, in evening shoes - in front to guide him.

Open in new window : Great Smog of 1952
Click here to see photos of the toxic fog

In those days if you had headlights up in the fog, they didn't help you very much, they just reflected off the fog.

Cow in smog mask, NSCA photo
Animals as well as people wore smog masks
So we inched our way down Hampstead Hill in this dreadful smog, with just sidelights to guide us. I had to be very near those sidelights for him to be able to see me.

We couldn't stop as that was far more dangerous than keeping going - somebody would ram you because you couldn't see a car's taillights until you were on top of them.

Cross-city trek

After a long time we arrived at Kew Bridge - that's at least 10 miles from Hampstead - when my fiancÚ called out to me, 'I've lost you, where have you got to?' I must have veered off out of range of the sidelights.

The Great Smog
5-9 Dec, 1952
Laced with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot
Caused by pollution and extreme cold
At that point, a milk float passed by and my fiancÚ told me to get in so we could follow its taillights. He put his foot down. Well, then the milkman disappeared and we could hear the float bouncing over the grass on Kew Green.

All I could do was get out of the car and continue walking. We later came across a car that had overtaken us earlier on in the journey - it was up a tree, crashed, and no sign of the occupant.

Dirty pretty things

We eventually got to Kingston at five in the morning, absolutely black as sweeps. As it was so cold - for fog brings the cold with it - I was wearing a woolly yellow scarf and that too was pitch black with soot and muck. Our faces were black, our noses were black and everything was filthy - and we were exhausted, of course.

St Paul's Cathedral: half clean, half dirty
Landmarks are still being cleaned of smog stains
Fortunately, I didn't suffer any ill effects from breathing in all those toxins, but my lungs have always been very strong.

You literally could not see your hand in front of your face. My partner of today tells me that he remembers the smog in that he brushed against what he thought was a human being and asked it for a light for his cigarette - and the human being turned out to be lamppost.

I remember little else of the great smog, but that journey will stay with me forever. I can't believe I walked that distance now, and in evening shoes.


Do you remember the Great Smog of 1952? Send us your experiences, using the form below.

My dad and I had set out for the North End Road market to get the weekend shopping. Normally we'd walked across the common, but that day we were too afraid; the footpath disappeared into a dense yellow fog, which was freezing on to the trees and bushes - they looked quite pretty with a delicate crystal growth of frost. It was early afternoon and you could just about see across the street. The market was in full swing - Hitler's bombs hadn't closed it and a fog, no matter how bad, was not going to do so. By the time we came back with the shopping, it was so dark and the fog so thick that we had to count the streets to find our way.
David Dickinson, US

Although only four at the time, I recall the big fog distinctly, as in walking home from our grandparents' house in Kentish Town to Hampstead we needed torches. With the surrounding bombsites which were still around at the time, little traffic and people suddenly looming out of the darkness, it was all very eerie and impressive to an infant.
Barrty Lynch, Ireland

It is quite true that you couldn't see your hand when you stretched out your arm, and my 8-year-old arms were shorter than most. After the 2 mile walk to school in Leyton we had great games running unseen in the senior girls' playground. Perhaps worst of all was what it did to the paint on our council house - the front door, which was dark green, was bleached to a much paler shade, and cracked and peeled. It was years before the council repainted it.
David Swindell, England

My granddad was a lorry driver at the time and says after making a delivery in the smog, he inched home only to find that 3 cars had followed his taillights. He and Nan had to put them up overnight before they could set off towards home.
Lydia Bryant, UK

We grew up in Islington, north London and were at infant school years then. Today we sometimes get Toronto weather forcasts warning of fog in which the visibility will be 100+ meters. We look at each other and say "you do not know what fog is, where were you in 1952?".
Chris and John Murray, Canada

I was 7 - we lived in Hackney and although my school was only 100 yards away, my Dad had to hold on to me and grope along walls and fences to find the school door, only for me to be sent home because nobody else made it in. Even in our tiny living room it was misty and choky. And every time I blew my nose it looked like soot in my hanky.
Barry Linton, England

My aunt June walked in front of a bus up Streatham High Road with a flashlight because the driver didn't know the route as well as she - a passenger - did.
Anna Morell, England

Getting home from school was a nightmare. We got on a bus but the journey was very hazardous - the conductor walked in front of the bus but we ended up in a side turning by mistake and nearly turned over. We had to all get off and walk. You could not see anything in front of you. Cars were following cars into their driveways by mistake. Mind you as a school girl, I did find it quite exciting.
Betty Crowhurst, England

In 1962 I worked at Charrington's brewery in east London. The smog was so bad that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Drivers could see even less, all they could do was follow the lights of the vehicle in front. One of our dray lorries, with the drayman guiding it through the smog, turned into the brewery - unfortunately all the traffic in Commercial Road, including double-decker buses, followed it into the yard. The following morning it took hours to free the deadlock.
Peter Prentice, England

I remember walking home from St Cecilia's primary school in North Cheam, Greater London, in 1962 in a thick yellow smog. It was so bad I had trouble finding my house as visibility was about 2 feet. Later that evening, a double-decker bus inched its way down our small residential street, a long way off its intended route.
Andrew Greig, Scotland

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The BBC's Emil Petrie
"The worst fog in living memory brought London to a standstill"


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05 Dec 02 | Health
05 Dec 02 | England
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