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The Fogs Of Old London

January 14, 2022
by the gentle author

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Londoners are advised to avoid physical activity outside today due to high levels of air pollution

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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. paul loften permalink
    January 14, 2022

    Thank you for the remarkable photos. You didn’t have to go back so long to recall the pea soup. I got caught in a few on my way home from school in the 1960’s and never knew if I was walking in the middle of the road or on the pavement . You heard a bus coming but couldn’t see it until the headlights broke through the fog .The river bank and the excavations must have been a deadly place . Good old London!

  2. Robert Hradsky permalink
    January 14, 2022

    The ‘Unidentified building, c 1910’ is the 16th century summerhouse of Prior Bolton at Alwyne Villas, Canonbury.

  3. Annie S permalink
    January 14, 2022

    Very atmospheric photographs!
    …and to Paul who posted earlier…Yes, I know exactly what you mean! It was the same in Birmingham in the early days when I was at school – very weird in those fogs, not knowing exactly where you were.

  4. Ann V permalink
    January 14, 2022

    These photos bring back memories. We lived just outside London, about 14 miles south west of Central London, very near to Heathrow, but I remember the fogs. In the 1960’s it wasn’t unusual for us to be sent home from school early because the fog was so bad.

  5. Joanne Watson permalink
    January 14, 2022

    Dear gentle author,
    I received my book today thank you. It is beautiful and has made my day. The covid bug has caught up with me. I am a special educational needs coordinator so have been fortunate only to have caught it now. You have transported me to places I saw with my family this summer for the first time. We were lucky to visit in the hottest week and were able to walk ( for miles)around places not on the tourist lists. I can’t wait to be able to share it with my family but for now selfishly it is all mine!
    Thank you again

  6. parktown permalink
    January 14, 2022

    pea soup
    Yes same for me in the early sixties walking across the common to school.
    It had snowed. The ground was white. It was foggy. There was little or no vison. I was encased in fog and snow and could not see a lamp post, nor tree, nor rubbish bin. I just plodded on, walking until I cane to a dark landmark to guide my way. Lived to tell the tale. ?
    Thanks for the pictures,

  7. January 14, 2022

    As I looked through these photos, I started humming this:

  8. John Cunningham permalink
    January 14, 2022

    I grew up in the UK’s second city, Birmingham. A big memory for me of the 50s and 60s in Birmingham is of the smell of coal smoke during the winter months. We all had coal fires. Until burning coal was banned in the 70s we hadn’t realised what effect it had on our buildings as well as on our health. Throughout the 80s and 90s grubby black structures were revealed after cleaning to made of beautiful cream and and off white stone. I remember being amazed at the transformation of the central Post office from a gloomy gothic turreted structure to a glowing French Chateau. Several generations grew up in Birmingham believing that these impressive buildings were built in a grimy black colour. But despite its bad press I still find the smell of coal smoke to be very nostalgic.

  9. Robert Spano permalink
    January 16, 2022

    Fascinating shots as ever Gentle Author, thanks for sharing. Fogs seem to be less common generally that they used to be even in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, long after the Clean Air Act banished smogs. The last lingering fog event in London that I recall was about 20 years ago. Weather experts will doubtless know better!

    Just to note that the Church Row, Hampstead plate is reversed.

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