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Fogs & Smogs Of Old London

October 26, 2023
by the gentle author

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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 – in the days before anyone dreamed of the Ultra Low Emission Zone – 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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Julia MacKenzie permalink
    October 26, 2023

    Very atmospheric! Given that these are glass plates, some of the images are flipped. The view of Fishmongers Hall next to London Bridge and Church Row, Hampstead are the wrong way round. Just a private comment – no need to publish.

  2. October 26, 2023

    Another wonderful post – and so evocative of dark and rainy London! I believe the “unidentified” photo is of Prior Bolton’s symbol, which can still be seen on a house in Alwyne Villas in Canonbury. It’s mentioned and shown in this blog by “London on the Ground”.

    It’s a lovely post. Enjoy!

  3. Avril Towell (was Jenner) permalink
    October 26, 2023

    I lived in Shoreditch during the 1940s & 50s and well remember the awful fog or smog. We had to cover our mouths if we went outside and even inside the fog was like a dull light as if the electric lights were turned low. It killed many people and nearly killed my grandad, which is why we left London for the countryside. It was at a time when the old houses were being demolished to be replaced with flats which we didn’t want to live in. We all missed London where my family had lived for generations, but it also meant my grandad had a few more years of life in clean air.

  4. Mark Smith permalink
    October 26, 2023

    The mutableness of heavy fog is beautifully palpable. Would’ve loved to experience a London pea souper but perhaps not the 1952 variety. Great pics, thanks.

  5. John French permalink
    October 27, 2023

    Whether there was a fog or not, all major buildings in London until the late 60s were a shade of black. I suppose that until the Clean Air Act (1956) it just wasn’t worth cleaning stonework (because the smog would soon blacken it again).
    My grandparents often told me that they had to walk home to Thornton Heath from The City during the Great Smog. All public transport had stopped. It was only 10 miles, but took them all evening because they had difficulty seeing where they were going. At times they could not even see their own feet.

  6. October 27, 2023

    Among my people, who have never been to England, there is still an unshakeable rumour that it rains incessantly on the island and that there is nothing decent to eat. *lol*

    When I asked an Englishman what I could do about it, he just said: “Nothing. Let them stick to their beliefs. We don’t need people like that here!” — He is right. And let my acquaintances die stupidly!

    Love & Peace

  7. Douglas permalink
    November 26, 2023

    I am surprised know one mentioned the Lord Mayors Show in 1922 where it was cancelled after 3 minutes due to thick fog. Even though a man in front was holding a lantern.

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