The Sugar Girls and the Great Smog, 60 years ago today

Today marks 60 years since the Great Smog of London, which saw the city almost grind to a halt. Many sugar girls we interviewed remembered the freak weather event, and we incorporated some of the stories they told us into our book. We would love to hear from anyone with memories of the Smog – you can email us here to share your stories.

From The Sugar Girls, Chapter 13

The winter of 1952 was bitterly cold, and families everywhere were throwing as much coal on the fire as they could afford. The timing could not have been worse. On Friday 5 December, an anticyclone settled over London, and combined with the cold weather it created a lid of warm air, under which an unliftable yellow-black smog began to form. The East Enders were used to pea-soupers, but this was on a scale never experienced before, and on Silvertown’s Sugar Mile, where the factories belched out their own smoke hour after hour, visibility was reduced to a mere foot.

That morning the buses crawled the streets as slowly and carefully as they could, conductors carrying lanterns out in front in a desperate attempt to see through the smog. At the Plaistow Wharf Refinery, workers arrived in dribs and drabs, and even by midday less than half of the machines were fully staffed. In a rare act of generosity towards latecomers, the management announced that anyone who had made it in at all, however late, would be paid for the full day. Those who had stayed at home would be docked pay accordingly.

Dave Price, who worked on the raw sugar landing, spent most of his morning stuck on the Woolwich Ferry. Halfway across the Thames, the captain of the paddle steamer lost his way, and the passengers were ordered to line the sides of the boat as lookouts, to warn of any incoming vessels. They endured a near miss from a petrol tanker and collided with a barge, before the captain decided it was best to stay where they were. Four hours later they were rescued by a police boat.

When Dave finally made it in to work, his supervisor demanded to know where he had been. ‘I’ve been marooned,’ he told him, ‘in the middle of the river!’

‘Oh well, you better go straight home again,’ his boss responded. ‘There’s no work on the landing today anyway.’

The sugar girls had no such luck, since the Hesser Floor was still running. When the day came to an end they struggled as best they could to find their way home, stumbling from street to street and relying largely on memory to guide them. By the time one poor girl found her way back to Argyle Street, she had walked around St Luke’s Square four times. She got home to find that not only her dungarees but her underclothes had been blackened by the smog.

Ethel had less distance to travel home from work than most, but she found it a challenge nonetheless. It was as if a velvety cloth had fallen upon Silvertown, smothering everyone and everything beneath it, and even the familiar sounds of the area seemed muffled.

In the market at Smithfields, livestock were dying of suffocation, and they weren’t the only ones to perish. In the following weeks, the human casualties of the Great Smog reached 12,000.

To see some haunting pictures of the Great Smog, check out this gallery at the Guardian website, and for more information take a look at this feature from BBC News.