PortCities London

Powering the City


Smog and 'pea-soupers'

Men gathered around a beacon in thick smog.
View full size imageMen gathered around a beacon in thick smog. © NMM
Gasworks and coal-fired power stations contributed greatly to the pollution of the capital. A Londoner invented the word 'smog' in 1905 to describe the city's treacherous combination of natural fog and coal smoke.

By then, the dirty, smelly, smoke-filled 'pea-soupers' were familiar to everyone in London. Sometimes, the entire Beckton area was enveloped in its own private fog from the local works. This 1920s photograph demonstrates just how thick the smog could get.

Video File London smog
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The attached video file describes how a member of the deaf community experienced a thick smog during the 1950s. A mixture of pollution from power stations, factories and homes resulted in a 'pea-souper' along the banks of the River Thames.  

Monitor's report

View of Deptford Power Station
View full size imagePollution from Deptford power station. © NMM
As well as being damaging to people's health, the fog could also disrupt daily life. A 1902, twice-weekly report from a fog monitor gives an indication.

He wrote:

'White and damp in the early morning, it became smoky later, the particles coated with soot being dry and pungent to inhale. There was a complete block of street traffic at some crossings.

Omnibuses were abandoned, and several goods trains were taken off. From the summit of St Paul's Cathedral for instance the average limit of visibility was only one-half mile [800 m].'

The Clean Air Act

Greenwich Power Station
View full size imagePollution from Greenwich power station. © NMM
Not until the 1950s, when a four-day fog in 1952 killed nearly 4000 Londoners, did the politicians take action. Parliament enacted the Clean Air Act in 1956, effectively reducing the burning of coal.

It was the beginning of serious air pollution control in England and meant the beginning of the end for coal-fired power stations.



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