Environmentalism in 1880

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As the environmental movement looks towards the future, it can sometimes forget its past.

london fogLondon’s fogs are famous, but they’ve also been deadly. Image by Myk Reeve

This series is an attempt to provide a bit of perspective on how the environmental movement got to where it is today. So far we’ve covered a 1306 coal ban in England, an Indian emperor dedicated to protecting wildlife in 250 B.C., environmentalism in the Roman Empire, Benjamin Franklin’s environmental impact, the massacre of a tribe of environmentalists in 1778 and the forestry management programs of the Japanese Edo period.

Today we’ll begin in London in 1880, where years of pollution were about to take a heavy toll.

If you recall the first article in the series you’ll remember that England had been dealing with the ill effects of coal pollution for centuries. In 1306 King Edward had even banned the burning of coal with little in the way of results.

After the industrial revolution there was even more air pollution. With all that coal smoke and industrial pollution in one city something was bound to happen, and of course it did. On the 26th of January, 1880 a thick, slow-moving fog rolled over the city.

This wasn’t the first time a heavy fog had swamped the city. In 1813 a week long fog swept over the English capital, limiting visibility to the point that even the most experienced of London travellers were lost. The Prince Regent himself attempted to move to another of his official residences, but was forced to turn back. In 1873, a fog that was said to reek of coal tar filled parts of London, allegedly making the death rate rise 40%.

Then the 1880 fog came. The thick, soupy fog was a mix of pollution from coal burned to heat homes and pollution from factories. They came together to create a toxic mix of sulphur dioxide and combustion particles.

This choking smog was extremely deadly. For three days it hung over London, and by the time it cleared irreparable damage had been done to many in the city. The young, elderly, and those with respiratory problems suffered most. Far more than just those groups died however.

When it was all over an estimated 11,776 people were killed by the fog according to the Open University– some, however, say the figure was much lower, more like 2,200. The East End, with its higher concentration of factories and low-lying areas that made it hard for fog to escape, was affected the worst.

While the fog horrified London, very little was done about its source. Several more fogs in February 1882, December 1891, December 1892 and November 1948 killed thousands, but it wasn’t until 1952 that people began to think about air pollution in a more modern way.

In December 1952 a mix of fog and coal smoke again swept through London, killing 4,000 or so residents. For whatever reason, perhaps newer science and ideas, people finally began to really fight against air pollution. Before, air pollution was generally an accepted part of life in the city. Afterwards, these killer fogs helped make the view that air pollution was a preventable scourge much more widespread than it had been before.

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