Churchill and the Great London Smog, 1952

Churchill and the Great London Smog, 1952

“Churchill and the Great Lon­don Smog” is excerpt­ed from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the unabridged text includ­ing end­notes, please click here. To sub­scribe to arti­cles from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

No, he didn’t kill 12,000 Londoners…

The Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project was asked for com­ment by a Lon­don tele­vi­sion pro­duc­er of a doc­u­men­tary on London’s Great Smog of 1952: “What was Win­ston Churchill was doing dur­ing the cri­sis? We are strug­gling to find any records.”

Our sen­si­tive anten­nae rever­ber­at­ed. The Great Smog came up recent­ly in a pop­u­lar TV series, The Crown, reviewed in 2016. A view­er wrote: “Churchill is accused of killing 12,000 because he insist­ed on keep­ing coal and wood burn­ing, caus­ing pol­lu­tion, smog, emphy­se­ma, civ­il unrest and mass mur­der. The Clean Air Acts were only passed after the evil Glob­al Warmer was final­ly brought down, which The Queen was just about to do.”

Skip the most log­i­cal rejoin­ders: Was smog unknown before 1952? How many would have died with­out heat? Instead con­sid­er what real­ly hap­pened, and Churchill’s role (or non-role) in it. Hope­ful­ly The Crown‘s line will not be thrust on us in  the upcom­ing production.

The Great Smog 

The smog which descend­ed on Lon­don on 5-9 Decem­ber 1952 is accu­rate­ly described on Wikipedia. Poor air qual­i­ty had been known in the cap­i­tal since the 13th cen­tu­ry. In 1952, it occurred fol­low­ing a tem­per­a­ture inver­sion dur­ing a very cold Decem­ber. Lon­don­ers burned more coal than usu­al to keep warm. Con­tem­po­rary esti­mates that 4000 died from res­pi­ra­to­ry effects have since expand­ed to 10-12,000. What­ev­er the num­ber, this was a seri­ous misfortune.

Envi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion swift­ly fol­lowed: The Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 dimin­ished air pol­lu­tion. Finan­cial incen­tives saw home­own­ers replace open coal fires with gas, or switch to low-smoke coke instead of coal. Cen­tral heat­ing was not then com­mon in Britain, but its expan­sion even­tu­al­ly con­tributed to a clean­er environment.

What was Churchill doing?

On the week of the Great Smog, Churchill was in Lon­don. On Decem­ber 4th he faced down a motion of Cen­sure (for gen­er­al incom­pe­tence, not smog). The Con­ser­v­a­tives’ thin major­i­ty pre­vailed, 304-280.

Churchill spent the week­end at Che­quers, where he met with Antho­ny Eden on for­eign affairs. But we could find no Churchill com­ments on the Great Smog. We also searched the online Churchill Archives with­out suc­cess. Nor does the Great Smog appear in the Harold Macmil­lan mem­oirs (Tides of For­tune 1945-55). (It fell under Macmillan’s min­istry in 1952.) Nor is there any­thing about smog, fog or pol­lu­tion in Hansard (the Par­lia­men­tary Debates) dur­ing the peri­od in question.

One solitary reference…

…occurs in the Churchill Project’s dig­i­tal archive—80 mil­lion words by and about him. That is in Antho­ny Seldon’s Churchill’s Indi­an Sum­mer, an excel­lent book on the 1951-55 gov­ern­ment. Sel­don writes:

As a result of Macmillan’s con­cen­tra­tion on hous­ing he was unable to devote as much time as he would have liked to his oth­er min­is­te­r­i­al respon­si­bil­i­ties, in par­tic­u­lar the prob­lems of rates, hous­ing sub­si­dies, req­ui­si­tioned hous­es, local gov­ern­ment and pub­lic health. In this lat­ter cat­e­go­ry, the Min­istry had to cope with the noto­ri­ous “smog” of Decem­ber 1952—when the death rate sud­den­ly shot up by 4000 a week….

Smog debates

Churchill took no part in debates over air pol­lu­tion. Remark­ably, the sub­ject didn’t even come up dur­ing the Decem­ber event. Not until 12 Feb­ru­ary 1953 did Mar­cus Lip­ton MP raise the issue. Lip­ton asked if the Min­istry of Works was not research­ing “the heavy mor­tal­i­ty in the Lon­don area caused by the fog last Decem­ber.” On the 24th Lip­ton crit­i­cized “the mis­er­able sum of £3000 spent on research­ing the prob­lem. Ernest Marples assured him that “inten­sive inquiry” would occur. The Clean Air Act of 1956 even­tu­al­ly followed.

One cause of the smog Par­lia­ment did rec­og­nize was “nut­ty slack,” a soft coal then in domes­tic use. Iron­i­cal­ly, gov­ern­ments past and present had unfor­tu­nate­ly increased its use at home by encour­ag­ing hard coal exports. Col. Lip­ton not­ed this in debate on Feb­ru­ary 16th.

None of this fea­tured in The Crown, which car­ried its own spin. As Hugh Fuller­ton wrote, the film

depicts Churchill as unin­ter­est­ed in the fog, much to the cha­grin of his min­is­ters and new Queen and to the detri­ment of the coun­try. It also shows Labour leader Clement Attlee being briefed about the cri­sis before it unfolds, and using it to his polit­i­cal advan­tage. But in actu­al­i­ty, there’s lit­tle evi­dence for any of these dra­mat­ic inter­pre­ta­tions, with most news­pa­per reports from the time main­ly focus­ing on the effects of the fog itself and not the politi­cians in charge. There’s also lit­tle to sug­gest that the gov­ern­ment would have antic­i­pat­ed the strength of the fog before­hand, or been expect­ed to.

That was of course a time long before gov­ern­ment was involved in every­thing under the sun (includ­ing the sun), and imme­di­ate­ly blamed or appealed to when any­thing went wrong.

Postscript: 1962

There is no evi­dence that Churchill opposed or vot­ed against clean air leg­is­la­tion. If he said any­thing at the time, it has not to our knowl­edge been quot­ed or published.

Lon­don was infa­mous for its fogs, and Lon­don­ers coped with them. Ten years after the Great Smog, anoth­er “pea-souper” descend­ed. Sir Win­ston was now 88, but it was not enough to keep him from attend­ing The Oth­er Club. This should not infer that he was indif­fer­ent to the prob­lem, only that he was deter­mined to “nev­er give in.” Roy How­ells, his male rurse, recalled:

… the worst smog of the year swirled round the Savoy and quite a few mem­bers decid­ed that con­di­tions were too bad for them to attend; but not the founder mem­ber. With his black hat set at a rak­ish angle, the Right Hon­or­able Mem­ber for Wood­ford announced to his house­hold, “Of course I must go.” There were some doubt­ful looks but he had his way as usu­al and he deter­mined­ly climbed into his car which grad­u­al­ly groped its way through the smog to the Savoy. He was so keen to be present that he was the sec­ond mem­ber to arrive! Only eleven mem­bers of the club attend­ed that night.

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