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The Great Smog

Vic Howard


6th December 1952 is not a date that means much to most people. I remember it because it was the day I had to travel up to London to take a music exam at the Royal College of Music.  That sounds very grand, but it was a very low grade exam. For 12,000 elderly Londoners, however, the days between 5th and 9th December 1952 were the last they lived. They were killed  by smog. 12,000 in four days! For comparison, consider the fact that during the Blitz on London it took the Nazis two months to kill off 43,000 Londoners.

I don’t know the smog casualty figures for Barking, but Barking was not spared smog; it was part of our lives every winter. Barking was, after all, the home of Europe’s largest coal-fired power station at River Road, Creekmouth. There were  17 tall chimneys on that building, belching out smoke day and night. Then there was Beckton Gas Works where coal was reduced to coke while producing the gas. Our housing estate was neatly placed between the power station and the gasworks. No wonder we  never saw much of the sun even on a summer’s day. Depending on the direction of the wind, it was either smoke from one or the other. The other compass points either brought the smell from the Northern Outfall Sewage Works, that was located just  across the river Roding, or the whiff of vinegar from the Pickle Factory at the top of the road. It’s a wonder we survived till puberty.

Everyone had coal fires at home. Britain was then a major coal producer, but the best coal was exported to provide foreign currency to pay off the National Debt after the war. The railways took the best steam coal and what was left was sold to consumers.  It did not burn well and smoked a great deal. A coal fire could look friendly and inviting once it got going, but nobody can pretend that it kept us warm. One room might stay warm during the evening if you kept the door shut while listening to ITMA or Monday Night at Eight on the wireless. That’s what we called the radio in those days. A coal fire was good for roasting chestnuts at Christmas and even toasting bread on the long toasting fork we kept beside  the grate. The main contribution of coal, however, was to the dirty atmosphere and the dust that settled on the washing that hung on the lines in back gardens each Monday morning. Monday morning was always washing day. Greenhouse glass and conservatory  roofs were turned black by the acid rain that etched the soot into them.

Barking’s coal reserves were stored at the coal depot beside the old railway station. From there it was delivered weekly or monthly by the coalman who carried each sack on his shoulder, through the house, and tipped it into the coal box that everyone  had to keep behind the house. The light switch in our hall was replaced countless times due to it being hit regularly by the passing coal sacks. Mother always made sure that the empty sacks were piled on the ground outside the front door, so that she  could count them and not be cheated. Coalmen were not to be trusted – according to her. I must admit that a man whose face was covered in coal dust, who looked as though he had just come up from a coalmine, looked a lot less trustworthy than a  clean, yodelling milkman in a striped apron; but maybe we shouldn’t judge by appearances. The coalman might not have been as bad as he was painted, but the coal he delivered certainly was. It was a killer.

For those of us who still had young lungs, smog was just an inconvenience. Breathing it was difficult though. You wrapped a scarf around your head to try to filter out the smell and the acid taste, but that didn’t help much. It still gripped the  back of your throat. That trip to London that mother and I made on the 6 th December was long and eventful. For some reason that I can’t fathom, we went by bus rather than the  underground railway, which would have been the more sensible route. The 23 bus from Barking through the East End, the City and the West End took hours. At several points we had policemen walking in front of the bus carrying flaming torches to guide the  driver. At Oxford Circus, I remember, there were oil drums filled with burning wood on each corner pavement to show the way and perhaps clear the fog locally. They didn’t help much.

Hospital casualty wards could not cope with the casualties and undertakers ran out of coffins. These details were kept secret, however, and statistics were not published until thirty years after that weekend, because they were considered too terrible  to be revealed. They also would have been a condemnation of the politicians, Harold Macmillan in particular, who had for years ignored warnings by scientists of the consequences of not taking action to clean up the air. Industrial production and exports  were the priority, however, so people had to suffer the foul atmosphere and die breathing it.

It was another four years before the Clean Air Act was passed and several more years before it began to take effect. By then I had become a driver. One evening, when attending the Technical College in Longbridge Road, I came out into thick, impenetrable  smog. I had borrowed my dad’s car for the evening and had to drive it home. Since I was going to drive into Barking town I thought it would be quite easy to drive out of the gate, turn left and follow the kerb all the way to town. How wrong I was.  I drove out the gate and turned left, then lost sight of the kerb. I crept along until I suddenly felt a double bump under the car. I stopped and got out to discover I had driven onto the grass, on the other side of the very wide Longbridge Road, and  I had stopped almost touching a tree that I could not see from inside the car. That’s how easy it was to get lost in smog. Fortunately I did not meet a bus on the way over. On another occasion I managed to feel my way through the streets to the  local phone box one evening. Few people had phones in those days. I needed to phone my girlfriend to tell her that I couldn’t drive over to see her. She gave me a terrible time accusing me of not being sufficiently interested. Oh, how cruel you  girls could be!!!

Gradually the quality of air in Barking improved. The power station closed and is now demolished. And Beckton Gaswork’s destruction became a film set as Saigon during the filming of Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket.   I survived the piano exam; perhaps by getting marks for making it to the door through the smog. The girlfriend eventually married somebody else, poor chap. Central heating and double glazing came to Barking and the coalman stopped damaging light switches.

As a footnote to the terrible atmosphere and pollution that once surrounded Barking, I would like to tell you about a neighbour of ours who was born and grew up in a house close to the asbestos factory that used to be located in the north of the town. She died, of course, just a few years ago at the age of 101. Old Barking residents are a hardy lot.

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