London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow flakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
The well-known opening sentences of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House describe a peculiar phenomenon of English weather that lasted from Elizabethan times to the early 1960s, with peak fogginess occurring in the later nineteenth century. These thick Dickensian fogs came to characterize London, so much so that visiting foreigners expected them and even felt a bit shortchanged if fog was absent. In 1956, when Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin came to London on a state visit from Moscow, he was tactful in congratulating his official hosts—as it turned out prematurely—on the change in London weather brought about by the recent Clean Air Act. “London fog,” he said, “seems to be a thing of the past.” But one senses a tinge of disappointment in Bulganin’s lauding of London’s clear blue skies and sunny weather. London without fog wasn’t London anymore.
What exactly were these London fogs that some of us remember from way back in our childhoods as a source both of terror and enchantment? Alongside the Thames Embankment the fog became so dense you couldn’t see your little mittened hand held out in front of you. London fog created a rather Lewis Carroll topsy-turvy world of anarchy and fantasy as bus conductors walked ahead of their own vehicles to guide them through the murkiness. A man leading a performing elephant to a Christmas circus at Olympia got lost on the Haymarket.
In 1952, in an arguably all too symbolic episode, fog infiltrated the chamber of the House of Commons at Westminster and government business was rushed through in a panic. A Sadler’s Wells performance of La Traviata was abandoned when the audience could no longer see the stage. Bob Hope, in his comic act in London in the 1950s, said, “I’m sorry I was late getting here, I was lost in the fog…. I wanted to whistle for a cab, but I couldn’t find my mouth.” The Miltonic concept of “darkness visible” takes on a whole new meaning as Hope dimly makes out a light shining through the fogginess, which turns out to be the end of his cigarette. As Christine Corton emphasizes in her well-informed, original, and stimulating survey, the history of London fog is humorous and cozy but has aspects of the awesome and apocalyptic too.
She reminds us that London was susceptible to fog because of its geographical position as a city in a river basin, hemmed in by low hills that trapped the dampness and mists. This situation was exacerbated, as the city slowly grew in medieval and Tudor times, by polluting smoke from wood fires and unpleasant fumes created from the burning of “sea-coal”—coal found washed up on the beaches from open seams beneath the sea and transported to London to be used both domestically and commercially. Queen Elizabeth confessed “herself greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-coales,” in a royal protest on behalf of the environment that predates Prince Charles’s querulous diatribes by centuries.
By the time that the diarist John Evelyn’s thundering denunciation of London pollution, Fumifugium; or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated, was published in 1661, the damage was done. London began to be enveloped in what Evelyn describes as “Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Darknesse,” the condition that some of us remember to this day.
There were always people who adored the oddness of it as London fogs grew denser in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Byron writes delightedly in Don Juan of
a wilderness of steeples peeping
On tiptoe through their sea coal canopy,
A huge, dun cupola, like a foolscap crown
On a fool’s head—and there is London town!
London fogs were now no longer merely yellowish in tone, colored by the sulphur content, but “dun” or even black, darkened by a new preponderance of soot particles in the atmosphere. This phenomenon was caused partly by industrial pollution but much more by the proliferation of domestic coal fires and kitchen ranges as London’s population grew and grew. When Thomas Carlyle arrived in London in 1824 he wrote home to his brother: “O that our father [could see] Holborn in a fog! With the black vapour brooding over it, absolutely like fluid ink.” By then London fog was being viewed in fond Romantic terms as a curiosity, a kind of marvel. Inky blackness could be seen to be enfolding the whole city. Carlyle describes how “the thick smoke of it beclouds a space of thirty square miles.”
Those who knew London fogs never forget the taste of them, acrid but also faintly sweet and cloying. Often coughs in winter meant spitting black, with little specks of soot embedded in your phlegm. Ingesting fog was just a fact of life and fog a kind of food, as Joseph Haydn recognized on his arrival in 1791 in London, when he was faced with “a fog so thick that one might have spread it on bread.” In a particularly fascinating section Corton traces the origins of the term “pea-souper,” a sweetly affectionate name for London fog that domesticates its terrors. “Pea-souper” makes its first appearance in The Oxford English Dictionary for 1849, with a citation of Herman Melville as the source. The pea soup in question was not a fresh green garden pea soup but was made from dried split peas that give a yellowish-brown hue to the resulting pottage. Split-pea soup and its near relation, pease pudding, formed the staple diet of the London urban poor. Here was an underlying sense that a pea-souper fog was nourishing.
There were other intimate names for the phenomenon that was so predictable a part of London winters. One of these was “London ivy,” popularized by Dickens in Bleak House where he writes of London fog in terms of plant life that was clingy, sooty, parasitic, potentially deadly, threatening to suffocate the fabric of the city.
Another term for fog of more questionable meaning was “London particular,” entered by John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley in the first systematic dictionary of slang, published between 1890 and 1904. Here they comment on the usage of “particular” as a name for mistresses, “perhaps hinting,” comments Corton, “that Londoners felt as ambivalent about fog as some married men may have felt about their extramarital affairs.” Certainly “the friendly fog,” as Henry James describes it in an essay on London, could “protect and enrich” illicit relationships.
Corton’s endearing collection of love-in-a-fog fiction reaches its climax with H.G. Wells’s Love and Mr. Lewisham. This is a novel written in 1899 but set in the 1880s, in which the hero, now officially involved in love elsewhere, rediscovers an old flame at a séance. As they wander the streets their reunion is protected by
thick fogs…turning every pavement into a private room. Grand indeed were these fogs, things to rejoice at mightily, since then it was no longer a thing for public scorn that two young people hurried along arm in arm, and one could do a thousand impudent, significant things with varying pressure and the fondling of a little hand.
Here was London fog as the enabler and encourager, the spur to the erotic. But Corton sensibly reminds us that this was a scene still very much dependent on the male as the protector. With the scope that they offered for violent crimes, rapes, and murders, London fogs were not so marvelous for women on their own.
We’ve recently become aware of a new genre for British writers, the “wanderlust” book of whom the prime exponents have been Ian Sinclair and Robert Macfarlane. These are books in which the author perambulates and ruminates through countryside and cityscape. With her interest in the emotional effects of weather and environment, Corton’s sensitive book is almost one of these. It has obvious overlaps with Matthew Beaumount’s recent Nightwalking (2015), a brilliantly evocative literary study of nocturnal meanderings through London, and a still-closer connection with Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies.*
Both Corton and Harris explore the way that Dickens in his writings makes use of London fog as an extended metaphor, representing the hopelessly clogged-up legal system, the inert Court of Chancery, the whole pitiful paralysis of human judgment. To Dickens fog signifies a general confusion and corruption, an end to moral sense. John Ruskin too saw London fog as connected with spiritual blindness. London particulars were punishments from God, he told the audience at his 1884 lecture “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” since in “London fog the air itself is pure, though you choose to mix up dirt with it, and choke yourself with your own nastiness.”
What was to be done about these lethal London fogs? Complaints accumulated. Solutions were endlessly but uselessly suggested. Back in the seventeenth century, John Evelyn had proposed banishing industries that produced smoke from London, creating a smoke-free zone encircled with aromatic plants and hedges. According to Evelyn’s diary King Charles II approved of this suggestion and a bill against the smoke nuisance was drafted. But nothing more was heard of it.
This became the pattern as objections against London air pollution grew more and more vociferous through the 1800s. The serious threat to public health and the damaging disruption of normal urban life were cited as London fogs grew in intensity and frequency. A 200 percent rise in mortality was reported in the course of the fog of 1879. But attempts to legislate for smoke control were blocked repeatedly by the pro-industrial lobby in Parliament. And as the London suburbs expanded, with a smoke-belching coal fire in each new suburban home, there was also a reluctance to be seen as attacking the domestic hearth, traditional focus of the English family.
In her view of London fog as symptomatic of a self-serving inertia in English public life, Christine Corton alights on a wonderful succession of “Doom of London” novels, of which the most alluring is the The Doom of the Great City; Being the Narrative of a Survivor, Written A.D. 1942. William Delisle Hay’s futuristic novel, published in 1880, tells the story of a cataclysmic black fog descending on London in 1882 and destroying all life in the capital.
But alongside doom-mongers were the fog aficionados, in particular those artists who came to London positively seeking its peculiar fluctuations of weather. Corton is particularly good on these, first Eugène Delacroix arriving in 1827 and thrilled to discover that “the daylight too is here of a special kind, always as on the day of a solar eclipse.” Whistler, based in London from 1859, wrote of London fogs, “I am their painter.” His almost possessive attitude toward fogginess is at its most evident in Nocturne in Grey and Gold—Piccadilly (1881–1883), a painting emphasizing the mixed blurriness and brightness that rendered London in the fog so poetic. As Whistler saw it:
The poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us.
London almost becomes Venice in this magically atmospheric transformation scene.
When Monet came to London a decade or so later, in the autumn of 1899, he took a room on the sixth floor of the Savoy Hotel, looking out over the Thames. He returned to the Savoy twice more and he completed thirty-four paintings of Charing Cross Bridge and forty-one paintings of Waterloo Bridge, an extraordinary record of London in its characteristic atmospheric conditions, mostly showing the river through a haze of fog. “What I love more than anything in London is the fog,” wrote Monet. “Without the fog London wouldn’t be a beautiful city…. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth.” London fog was necessary to his whole ambitious project of painting Thames bridges. He later visited London just to check up on the fog, reporting one day:
When I got up, I was terrified to see that there was no fog, not even the least trace of a mist; I was in despair, it seemed all my canvases were going for naught, but then little by little, as the fires were lit, the smoke and the mist returned.
Perhaps in a sense London fog became a cliché. Certainly that was how it came to seem to Oscar Wilde, who, commenting sarcastically in 1891 on how art had reinvented London fog, blamed the Impressionists for giving a new glamour to the vagaries of weather that had been a feature of London life for centuries without anyone particularly noticing. According to Wilde, fogs were now
carried to excess. They have become the mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold.
But in spite of Wilde the artists kept coming. Indefatigable Corton finds a particularly marvelous example in the Japanese artist Yoshio Markino, who had spent four years in San Francisco painting the fog that rolled in from the sea at certain times of year. Dissatisfied with his work in America, and strongly influenced by Turner, Markino moved to England in 1897. Like Monet he saw the London mists and fogs as intrinsic to the city: “I think London without mists would be like a bride without a trousseau. I like thick fogs as well as autumn mists.” He especially loved the effect of London fog on raw and ugly black and yellow London brickwork, producing an unexpected visual harmony. The color reproduction of Markino’s delicate evocative Fog: Ladies Crossing Piccadilly, one of Corton’s many well-chosen illustrations, makes one long for a full-scale exhibition of his London sepia drawings and watercolors.
Public protests and attempts to control the fogs were mounting. Smoke control measures were included in the Public Health (London) Act of 1891, which ruled that factories and workshops should consume their own smoke and “any chimney sending forth black smoke might be deemed a nuisance.” The artist Sir William Richmond, evidently less susceptible than Monet to the charms of foggy riverscapes, founded the energetic Coal Smoke Abatement Society in 1899, which mobilized taxpayers to bring pressure on their local authorities to prosecute offenders in an early example of community protest on behalf of the environment. Through the early 1900s foggy days in London were visibly declining. In 1905, 1906, and 1908 there were less than twenty. But fog returned with a vengeance after World War I.
In November 1921 there was the densest fog in years, an old-time pea-souper that lasted for five days. Fog stories abounded. St. Paul’s Cathedral had taken as its text for the day “I am the light of the world” at a time when the cathedral itself was plunged in darkness, with the pulpit obliterated in the gloom. Two women unable to find their own way home to Shepherd’s Bush were assisted by a man going in the same direction who turned out to be a veteran blinded in the war.
The following January another huge fog descended upon London, “King Fog” as it was called in one letter to the Times, a sinister fog that could be seen “advancing like a brown wall, covering the whole of the eastern sky. The transition from brilliant sunshine to dense gloom in many districts was instantaneous.” This was modernist fog time, with the fearful unpredictable changes in the weather now being used by writers as descriptive of a more general urban dislocation. T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land writes of London as an “Unreal city,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.”
Such literary responses to London fog enthrall Christine Corton and she writes about them cleverly. She alights, as Alexandra Harris also does in Weatherland, on the novel Party Going by Henry Green, nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke, the nervy son of a family of English Midland industrialists whose novels bleakly comment on the jagged social structures of his time. Party Going, published in 1939, tells the story of a group of sharp, smart London “bright, young things” who have met to take a train to a party on the Continent but get stranded by the fog at a London railway station. Green’s style of writing is elliptical: “FOG was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.”
The surreal opening sentence of Party Going points to sophisticated London’s decline in moral stamina. London fog in this context becomes tantamount to fickleness. We are not surprised to learn that the announcement of King Edward VIII’s abdication from the throne of England in December 1938, in order to marry his twice-divorced American mistress Wallis Simpson, took place on a particularly gloomy foggy day. The famous evocation of fog in Margery Allingham’s detective novel The Tiger in the Smoke is a curious omission from Corton’s otherwise obsessively thorough history of London fog:
“It may be only blackmail,” said the man in the taxi hopefully. The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and at last was beginning to descend. The sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, overprinted in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish color as a policeman turned in his wet cape.
And in fact 1952, the year of publication of Allingham’s fine novel, marked an important turning point. After a particularly devastating postwar fog in 1948 was followed by an even longer-lasting fog in 1952, which brought chaos to all transport and reportedly caused several thousand deaths, British public patience at last ran out. In 1956, after furious public protests, the Clean Air Act became law and smoke-free zones were finally made obligatory throughout London. The last serious pea-souper came in 1962.
A future generation “will know nothing of carbon-laden fog-veils and sooty bricks and the blackened stems of trees against the spring.” This was what H.G. Wells prophesied a hundred years ago and London fogs now indeed constitute a generation gap between those who never knew and those who distantly remember those ineffably peculiar foggy days in London town.