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The Fogs & Smogs Of Old London

November 21, 2021
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

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    November 21, 2021

    I will henceforth stop envying those who lived in London or Paris in the 1920s, although the TB vaccine, started in the early 1920s, must have been a deep cultural change.

    As far as your writing, GA, that just gets better and better. I never miss this blog and read only one other blog that comes out very occasionally.

  2. Wendy permalink
    November 21, 2021

    These foggy photos have reminded me of living in Wapping (Milk Yard) and tge fog would roll in along Wapping High Street. It was in the early 1980s before the warehouses were converted into apartments. I wish I’d taken more photos in those days – but film and processing was expensive. I don’t think the fog rolls in in Wapping these days – probably too much heat from all the buildings / Street lights? Hopefully someone can tell me.

  3. Mark permalink
    November 21, 2021

    Lovely atmospheric pics.
    The ones taken in the 1950’s are even better, especially the Kodachrome ones.
    Similar to Los Angeles of the present I would imagine.

  4. November 21, 2021

    Beautiful photo classics! — The thing is, “my people” who have never been to England, think it’s still so foggy in London! I can not convince them otherwise. And there are a number of other stereotypes… Real ignorants.

    Love & Peace

  5. November 21, 2021

    Three words that guarantee excellent Time Travel…….”glass lantern slides”. I rest my case.
    “The Woodman” is an incomparable/atmospheric image. Full of narrative possibilities. In fact, there is a character right THERE, lingering on the threshold. A story in the making. The building turns its flat façade to the weather, becoming a crusty kiosk of handbills and announcements. And notice the blank wall to the right of the lamppost……
    What’s that word….? “Palimpsest”? Each time I look at it, I detect different shadows, shadings, forms, outlines. Wait, I just noticed the two dormers at the top of the building.
    Thank you, GA, for providing such rich compost for my imagination this morning.

  6. David Antscherl permalink
    November 21, 2021

    Just looking at some of those images brings back childhood memories of ‘pea soupers’. I can almost smell the acrid, distinctive odour of those dense blankets of pollution. At the end of the day there was always a grey-black edge on my white shirt collar. I shall not speak about the state of my handkerchief!

    Thanks again, G.A., for these wonderful daily essays and images.

  7. November 21, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I really enjoyed those London images cloaked in “fog and smog” on bygone days. Beautifully described too – “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.”

  8. November 21, 2021

    I belive that the pub, I Am The Only Running Footman, (now called The Running Footman) is in Charles Street, just off Berkeley Square, which I have visited several dozen times!

    Every morning I look forward to receiving your blogs GA, thank you for writing and sending them.

  9. Lizebeth permalink
    November 21, 2021

    I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the London of those pre-WWI days — but oh, how I would love to go back for a week and walk through as much of it as I could…

  10. Sonia Murray permalink
    November 21, 2021

    Thanks G.A.! Your picture of Battersea Bridge evoked a memory. My mother said that when she was a child – this must have been about 1912 – Gran took her up to London in the winter, on the train. They left Victoria and turned a corner, only to be confronted with a roiling wall of thick black smog ahead and rushing toward them, a wall too dense to see through. Gran snatched her up and fled back to the station, where they took the next train home. Gran had reason to fear smog; her mother had died of bronchitis in Islington in 1899.

  11. Karin permalink
    November 21, 2021

    Dear Gentle Author

    Thank you once more for another wonderfully told and illustrated story!

    Please let me recommend a fascinating book, London Fog. A Biography, by Christine L. Corton. I bought and read it a couple of years ago, at the occasion of a great exhibition at the Tate Britain on Impressionism. Many works with this most atmospheric subject have been produced a hundred years ago by famous French artists like Claude Monet. He made several trips to London, took rooms at the Savoy Hotel just for the purpose of painting Palace of Westminster on foggy days, in many different versions.

    And one small detail: the picture of Church Row, Hampstead, has been printed mirror-invertedly. The facades of the buildings there haven’t changed over the decades. So go and check for yourselves!

    With kind regards from Berlin

  12. Mary permalink
    November 21, 2021

    Wonderful atmospheric images.
    I think it may be possible to identify the “unknown public building c 1910”.
    It has the name written in brickwork in relief above the main entrance. I have tried to read it with the aid of a magnifying glass but the resolution is not good enough, but it may be possible to photograph the original glass slide with a high resolution digital camera and then by processing in Photoshop or Lightroom it should be possible to read. It is now possible to digitally “remove” fog.
    I note that a street name is on the side of the building, but again not clear enough to read.
    Is there a competent local photographer out there?

  13. Chris Webb permalink
    November 23, 2021

    I had no idea the Tower moat had water in it so recently, I thought it had been dry for many centuries. About 20 years ago there was a plan to re-flood it but the idea seems to have been dropped.
    I think most of these photographs show genuine fog but one or two appear to have faded due to inadequate fixing due to exhausted fixer or not being left in the fixer long enough.

  14. John permalink
    November 23, 2021

    There is a certain mystery and romance about night time in a city. The twilight time when darkness is falling and lights start to appear. Nothing to do with fog in my experience but the reflection of neon on a wet city street with traffic splashing by is especially atmospheric. Think of Picadilly circus around 1965…I now live in the deep country where darkness is absolute but having lived in several cities I do believe that a night time city with it’s mixture of bright lihlghts and dark corners brings much more possibity to the night.

  15. November 26, 2021

    That picture of the moat at the Tower cannot be from 1910. It is most likely from the great flood of 1928 when the moat was said to have flooded for “the first time in 80 years”. (The Duke of Wellington had it drained in 1845 due to the threat of disease)

    I enjoy walking about in fog nowadays. Thirty years ago it made me ill, possibly due to the leaded petrol cars were still using.

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