“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….
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.
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.