Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fact or Holmesian fantasy? The London Fog...

by M.M. Bennetts

There was no dawn, just a slow thinning of night into the obscuring mist which lay sagging and inert over the city like a slattern in her bed.  Jesuadon gazed out of one clouded window to the dockside and drank down his tankard of flip.  Fistfuls of fog swirled and eddied before fading about the forest of masts--all he could see of the multitude of boats, skiffs and barges, all confined to port, becalmed beneath the stagnant sky, the bustle and rush of St. Katharine's Docks brought to a muffled, deadening halt.

It looks so good in all those costume dramas, doesn't it?  The swirls of fog rising, the mist clotting the air through which the gorgeously or raggedly costumed actors emerge from alleys onto Baker Street...I mean, it's an atmospheric masterstroke, isn't it, into which baddies and goodies can disappear at will--just on the street--no special effects required.


But the truth is...the truth is, the London fog was fact--a very big, very present, very smelly fact.

It wasn't just a delicious figment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Charles Dickens' pen.  And, it had been around for years and years, centuries even before those two ever caught the writing bug...

In Shakespeare's day, visitors approaching the city or leaving it were known to remark that one could smell the place from fifty miles away.  (And in 1600, fifty miles was a fair distance--a couple of days journey probably.)

By the early 19th century, London was a sprawling metropolis of some one million inhabitants, the largest city in Europe (Naples was second)...and it had the vapours and stench to prove it.  The whiff of the city's smoke "could always distinguish a London letter...on putting it to the nose."

A visitor to the city, Louis Simond, wrote:  "London does not strike with admiration; it is regular, clean, convenient (I am speaking of the best part) but the site is flat; the plan monotonous; the predominant colour of objects dingy and poor.  It is altogether without great faults and without great beauties."

Speaking of the fog, he continued:  [In winter]...smoke increases the general dingy hue, and terminates the length of every street with a fixed and grey mist, receding as you advance."

And he wasn't joking.  And he was speaking of every day.

Early 1814 saw the worst fogs since November 1755--during the few weeks of the Great Frost Fair--which caused chaos and great consternation.  Carriages were regularly overturned as the drivers couldn't see more than a few paces in front of them.  The mails (which began in London) were held up and neither dispatched nor received.

Only a few of the capital's hackney carriages were willing to venture forth--and those only at walking pace with an assistant leading the horses.  And on any street, all one saw were lanterns bobbing and moving in all directions, joined by muffled cries of "Mind!  Where are you?  Have a care!"  And that was during the day.

But even in summer it was disgustingly bad (and bad for your health).  For even then, there were those people who were astonished if they could look out of their window and see up to the end of their street.

And those who lived in the posh newly-built squares of the West End were delighted if they could see the houses across the square...They certainly didn't look out and see the sunlight glinting off the dome of St. Paul's...or off any other dome for that matter.  The fog would have obscured all such clarity of vision.

The painter J.P. Malcolm wrote of his surprise on a particularly fine August morning:  "Then lengthened perspective, and enabled the eye to penetrate depths unfathomable at eight o'clock, and shewed retiring houses at distances I had never seen them before.  The fanciful decorations of shop windows, doors, and the fresh-painted fronts, had each their relief; and the brazen appearance of the gilt names [that] had vanished with the smoke now darted with due lustre..."

(It kind of ruins the idea of a spinster seeing everything by standing behind her lace curtain though, doesn't it?  I mean, she could twitch all she liked, but what actually would she have been able to see?  Not very much.)

So what caused this notorious, pestiferous, stinking, mottled blanket of dingy obscurity which lay over the city?  A combination of factors--the location of the city on the tidal estuary of the Thames, England being an island and a fairly soggy one at that...but most of all, it was the use of coal to heat the homes and fire the furnaces of the factories that were beginning to line the Thames and fill the poorer parishes of the city.

If you haven't smelled coal smoke, it is surprisingly acrid and there's a sharpness about it.  A bite.  It is entirely unlike wood smoke or the relatively smokeless heat produced by charcoal (which is how houses were heated in Paris and Vienna).  Coal also produces soot on an unprecedented scale.

Yes, it does heat to a hotter, higher degree than wood--hence its desirability in industry (iron work, foundries, horse-shoeing).  But it coats absolutely everything with a black film, and as a city, not just the buildings of London would be blackened with coal soot, but the air itself would be laden with small flecks of soot...

(Which is why, during the Regency for example, those gentlemen who could afford it had their shirts laundered far enough away from the city so that when the clean laundry were hung out to dry, they wouldn't be soiled by the very air.  Oh, and they would have smelled a great deal more pleasant.)

Also, by the early 19th century (though it had been growing and growing for years) small industry was firmly established in the nation's capital.  It was a city of slaughterhouses (around Whitechapel), knackerers, shipbuilding, tanneries (the main ingredient for tanning leather being urine), small foundries, the brick makers, and all sorts...and all of these cottage industries spewed their toxic by-products into the Thames and through their tall chimney stacks into the atmosphere...

So, the London fog?  Yes, absolutely!  And if it wasn't foggy, it was probably raining...


M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century European history and the Napoleonic wars, and is the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame (from which the opening excerpt of this blog was taken), set during the period.  A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2014.

For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at


  1. Excellent post M.m. Thank you for that.

  2. Thanks for sharing your research! Of all the times that I've read of the fog, never once was mentioned the stench. So, Sherlock was smelling the letters when he raised the paper to his face? :)

  3. M.M.

    Wonderful post and very helpful for those of us writing in early 19th century London.

    I think you may know the answer to this question: Was there ever a part of the year or time when the burning of coal was banned? I seem to remember reading this somewhere and could never back track to find the answer.

    1. They certainly didn't ban the burning of coal in the 19th century. I think they must have considered it one of the necessities of life with which one must put up.

      Visitors to 18th century and Napoleonic Paris, for example, always, always remarked on how clear and clean the air was there (they burned mostly charcoal in small stoves for heating) but those same people never seemed to make the connection of "Oh, we could have clearer air here too if we stopped burning coal..."

      It's very odd, isn't it?

    2. That is odd if there is a cleaner alternative. Now I say that, aren't we doing that now? That's what I love about history--we are doomed to repeat it.

      Thanks for clearing up the coal burning ban.

  4. My mother remembers that it was much the same in the 1950s when I was a little boy in London. it was hard to find her way home, often, through the fog, buses went at walking pace, and everything was filthy. That's probably why men wore detachable collars - a new one everyday. It ended with the Clean Air Act 1956 - apparently passed in response to The Great Smog of 1952, which maybe what my mother remembers.

    But there must have been some clear days, unless Wordworth was a fantasist: 'Earth has not anything to show more fair,' etc.

  5. Thanks for the information, and well put.

  6. Well, I've spent a foggy night or two in London myself but honestly, it can be quite a spooky place even without it...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.