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Fogs & Smogs In Old London

January 24, 2017
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 respiratory diseases. In old London, the city resounded with a symphony of fog horns on the river and thousands of people coughing up their lungs 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 courtesy 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

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Lisa Hirsch permalink
    January 24, 2017

    The 1920 photo looking over the City of London – is that the Fishmonger’s Hall? In current photos, the bridge is on the other side of the hall. I think the plate was reversed when it was reproduced.

  2. Jim McDermott permalink
    January 24, 2017

    Lovely! As usual, GA, you make me wish that Dr Who did weekend breaks.

  3. January 24, 2017

    Where is New River Head? Does it still exist?

  4. January 24, 2017

    Yes the smog conditions were bad in London and other cities up to the 1950s. The text does cover the smog quite well. The coal fire smog has changed to unseen car exhaust pollution still respiratory, sometimes there is a haze. The way out is enhance public transport, phase out petrol cars use electric cars, the future is starting to happen. But that is another story line. Poet John PS natural fog is with us and always will be.

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    January 24, 2017

    A “proper” fog, is, of course, not photgraphable – there would be nothing to see.
    What these pictures show is the “normal” mist & fume that was ordinary in London at that time. Now thankfully, long gone – I can just remember the 1952 smog & certainly the ’55 one. Yellow-brown fog, visibility less than 5 metres.

    Present day scares about vehicular pollution are, quite frankly, just scares.
    Those fogs really did kill people.

  6. gabrielle permalink
    January 24, 2017

    Harsh place in those days of course but London looks beautiful in these photos. My ancestors were in the heart of London during those times and before, and, although I can walk down the same streets they did, I’m fascinated to see London exactly as they saw it. Much still recognisable but property developers on the rampage!
    Thank you, Gentle Author.

  7. Roger C permalink
    January 24, 2017

    Yet another great GA post :) I know all about the health problems caused by the old smogs, but I do miss the atmosphere created by those foggy days in old London town in the ’50′s.

  8. January 24, 2017

    Wonderful photos, the foggy atmosphere reminds me of my childhood days, and the stillness that the fog brought with it, and the sounds of the fog-horns by the Thames. Valerie

  9. January 24, 2017

    I don’t think that the photographers here accentuated the fog and smog, but it is possible to accentuate fog in black and white by using a blue filter. In, er, contrast, a red filter will cut through the haze, though when I tried blue and red filters (well, digitally) on Sunday, while there’s a big difference between the two, the red filter still can’t make the mist disappear.

    I remember reading somewhere years ago, that the great clarity of the distance seen in some paintings was not a creation of the artist, but a true rendering of atmospheric conditions before the industrial revolution.

  10. John Finn permalink
    January 24, 2017

    Fascinating images, as usual on here. The slide labelled ‘unidentified building 1910′ – I don’t know exactly where it is, but under the window is the rebus of Prior Bolton, a prior of St Bartholomew’s. A rebus is a visual pun – here you have an arrow and a barrel (‘bolt’ and ‘tun’) and you can find these on buildings near Canonbury Tower, which was the country residence of the priors (I don’t think it’s one of those) and around the church in Smithfield. Of course, this particular building may have been a victim of the Blitz or redevelopment.

  11. Robin permalink
    January 24, 2017

    Fantastic look back .I love seeing these old photos that you add to you blog G.A. But ..oh the photo of the Cenotaph with all the flowers :*-( heartbreaking.

  12. Helen Breen permalink
    January 24, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wonderful evocative photos. Such great archives at the Bishopgate Institute.

    Reminds me of Monet’s obsession with London fogs/mists when he painted so many scenes of the Houses of Parliament and various London bridges during 1870. He and his family sought refuge in London during the Franco – Prussian War. I believe they stayed at the Savoy – not bad.

    Thanks for reminding us of “the old days” …

  13. nicholas borden permalink
    January 25, 2017

    Dont get the chance to read this every day however quite often there is a merserising level of observing, to a subject which has been overlooked. This makes for interesting viewing and probably explains the success. Cheers

  14. David Spencer permalink
    January 25, 2017

    The picture of The Woodman 1900 ..do you know if that location is at Highgate at the junction of Muswell Hill Road where a pub of that name still exists?

    Love your work GA …brings my old large London family back to life for me in many ways :)

  15. John Rowe permalink
    January 25, 2017

    Dear Belle,

    I think the Mew River Head is now Claremont St / Claremont Sq off Pentonville Rs

  16. jgvincent permalink
    January 26, 2017

    Wow, this is one of my top few favorites of all your posts…these photos, for some reason, are so evocative for me.

    And no wonder my grandmother developed severe respiratory problems, living in Bethnal Green ca 1900.

  17. Ian Silverton permalink
    January 26, 2017

    In the 1950s we had road works in Gosset Street Bethnal Green,new sewers so they said,anyway a large hole and a very foggy night,what we called a pea souper, a horse drawing a cart got itself down their,well stuck in. Although hard for any of us to see,we got him out,failed to notice if he was cut as we could not see much,but he trotted off. Had some members of my Family die very young back then of TB.

  18. Linda Kincaid permalink
    February 6, 2017

    Wonderful pictures as usual. Thankyou.

  19. February 16, 2017

    The public house ‘I am The Only Running Footman’ if it’s the one in Charles Street, off Berkeley Square, is much altered! Up until the mid 19th century, it seems to have been used for ‘poste restante’ as I think many inns were. My great great great grandfather Charles Tanswell had lodged certain of his legal documents there, from what I gather from his Will. He was a retired inn keeper having had public houses in both Dorset & London; I have often wondered if he was once landlord of the Running Footman or merely knew them through his publican connections. I visited the Running Footman a few years ago & it was a delightful, old world place but now it’s become a gastro pub & I have not re-visited.

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