Skip to content

The Fogs & Smogs of Old London

November 30, 2012
by the gentle author

St. Martin, Ludgate with St. Paul’s Cathedral, c. 1900

At this time of year, when dusk gathers in the mid-afternoon, a certain fog drifts into my brain and the city itself grows mutable as the looming buildings outside my window merge into a dark labyrinth of shadows beyond. Yet this is as nothing compared with the smog of old London, when a million coal fires polluted the atmosphere with clouds of filthy black smoke carrying noxious fumes, infections and lung diseases. In old London, the city resounded with a symphony of fog horns on the river and thousands of people coughing in the street.

Looking at these glass slides of a century ago, once used for magic lantern shows by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Bishopsgate Institute, the fogs and smogs of old London take on quite another meaning. They manifest the proverbial mythic “mists of time,” the miasma wherein is lost all of human history, save the sketchy outline that some idle writer or other jotted down. Just as gauzes at the pantomime conjure the romance of fairyland, the hazes in these pictures filter and soften the images as if they were faded memories, receding into the past.

The closer I examine these views, the more I wonder whether the fog is, in some cases, an apparition called forth by the photographic process itself – the result of a smeary lens or grime on the glass plate, or simply an accident of exposure. Even so, this photographic fogging is no less evocative of old London than the actual meteorological phenomenon. As long as there is atmosphere, the pictures are irresistibly atmospheric. And old London is a city eternally swathed in mist.

St Paul’s Cathedral from the north-west, c. 1920

Pump at Bedford Row, 1911

Cenotaph, 1919

Upper Thames view, c. 1920

Greenwich Hospital from the Park, c. 1920

City roadworks, 1910

Looking north across the City of London, c. 1920

Old General Post Office, c. 1910

View eastwards from St Paul’s, c. 1910

Hertford House, c. 1910

New River Head, c. 1910

The Running Footman public house, c. 1900

Unidentified building, c 1910

Church Row, Hampstead, c. 1910

Danish Ambassador’s residence, Wellclose Square, Wapping c. 1910

Church of All Hallows, London Wall, c. 1890

Drapers’ Almshouses, Bromley Street, c. 1910

Battersea Bridge, c. 1910

32 Smith Grove, Highgate, in the snow, 1906

Unknown public building, c. 1910

Training ship at Greenwich, c. 1910

Flooded moat at the Tower of London, c. 1910

The Woodman, 1900

Bangor St, North Kensington, c. 1910

Terrace of the Houses of Parliament, c.1910

Statue of Boudicca on Westminster Bridge, c. 1910

Glass slides copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

The Nights of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

The Doors of Old London

The Staircases of Old London

The High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Dinners of Old London

The Shops of Old London

11 Responses leave one →
  1. November 30, 2012

    So moving to see the Cenotaph on what is most probably the first Remembrance Day after the First World War.

  2. CornishCockney permalink
    November 30, 2012

    Wow I didn’t think the moat at the Tower of London had ever been filled in the modern era, let alone captured on film! Brillliant!

  3. November 30, 2012

    Fantastic!!!

  4. Hardy permalink
    November 30, 2012

    There was smog in London as late as 50 years ago, even though the first Clean Air Act had been passed in 1956. I remember a night trying to find my way from work in High Holborn to Waterloo Station, preferring the excitement of smog to the underground. Silly boy.

    Getting to the Printer’s Devil in Fetter Lane for a pint I could do blindfold, but after that I shuffled along Fleet Street arms outstretched and head bent making sure I was still on the pavement. Each encounter with another lost soul would result in companionable wonderings about where we were – punctuated by coughing and spluttering. I retraced my journey in recent times. There were no conversations, the ‘PD’ was boarded up, but my handkerchief remained clean.

  5. November 30, 2012

    I remember the fogs of the 1950s, when I was a schoolchild. Part of me wanted the adventure of being lost in the fog – because in those days, even at 8 years old, I was doing a longish journey on the tube all by myself, and there was time enough to be lost and home in time for tea. It’s the throat-catching smell I remember, and the yellowish quality of the fog. It might have beeen dirty and dangerous, but I found it thrilling.

  6. November 30, 2012

    Despite their age these photographs maintain an alternate reality, to the point where the viewer feels like stepping through the mists.
    I had no idea that the Tower had a moat, let alone being filled. I have to say that my favourite is Bangor St. It’s a gritty photograph that has a lot to say about the socioeconomic undercurrent.

  7. Tom Shevada permalink
    November 30, 2012

    I don’t know how you do it, but everyday is a new experience. I look forward to seeing your work daily. Have you ever done anything in regards to Masonic activities or buildings of old?

  8. Peter Holford permalink
    November 30, 2012

    “The closer I examine these images, the more I wonder whether the fog is, in some cases, an apparition called forth by the photographic process itself – the result of a smeary lens or grime on the glass plate, or simply an accident of exposure.”

    Yes, indeed! These are great and evocative photos again but they give a very false impression of what the real London smogs were like. These photos show gentle mists. The true pea-soupers were on a different scale. I grew up with them, living near the Thames at Putney. Those were the days when you couldn’t see the houses on the other side of the street or you walked past your own house while guiding yourself by the kerb to make sure you were going in a straight line. Perhaps there are no photos of those extreme smogs because they wouldn’t have made very good snaps!

  9. Greg Tingey permalink
    November 30, 2012

    In answer to your question ..Yes(1), Yes(2) & Yes(3) …
    (1):Certainly any time much before 1930, the film would only have been “orthochromatic”, not “panchromatic”, which gave different tones, compared to more modern B&W films.
    (2): Again, any time much before 1920 (?) Lenses wouild not have been “coated” to cut down on internal reflection inside the lens’, which certainly made images hazier.
    BUT
    (3) It really WAS much foggier then, especially in the winter months, as those of us old enough to remember can well recall.
    HERE:
    http://www.hastingsdiesels.co.uk/history/
    is a photo taken in February 1957 – modern type of B&W film & clearly a good camera, since the image is sharp & clear – but look at the backgound “air”!
    Yes, it really was like that – the last really bad smog of 1955 was so bad that at mid-day, you could not see the other side of our street, 6 metres away, & the air was yellow-brown.

  10. November 30, 2012

    I always learn something new when I visit your “Spitalfields Life”. PS: I wonder if the apparitions are the Lantern Men still walking the streets.

  11. September 14, 2013

    Love these evocative, misty photos, which remind me of my childhood and youth in London. Valerie

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS