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The horrific toll of winter 1952-53


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  • Location: Irlam
  • Location: Irlam

    In terms of human loss of life, there are few winters as terrible as winter 1952-53. 3 horrific weather related tragedies occurred during this winter

    The Great London Smog of December 1952

    When foreigners around the world are asked about what weather do you associate with London it invariablity comes down to two things: rain and fog. The London of the 19th Century and the first part of the 20th Century were famous for its pea-soupers, a combination of thick acrid smoke and fog with a yellow tinge to it.

    With industries and many homes in London burning coal or wood for fuel, pollution levels were very high in London and this was compounded when high pressure and an inversion was present trapping pollution near the surface. This is what happened in December 1952.

    High pressure was over the UK during the early part of December 1952 and dense fog formed in the calm conditions. Sulphur dioxide produced by coal burning attracts water molecules and produces a fine spray of sulphurous and sulphuric acid. The effect of this increases the density of the fog, visibilty can be as low as a few metres and gives it a yellow tinge, the pea-souper.

    Sulphur dioxide is a choking, acrid gas and in high concentrations is lethal but can be lethal to people with breathing problems such as emphysema and asthma or the elderly.

    It is believed that the smog of early December 1952 may have claimed the lives of 4000 people although the Guinness Book of Records has it at 2850, some even put the figure as high as 12,000.

    Conditons in the pea-souper were terrible, travel was extremely difficult because of the near zero visibilty, the smell and the acridness of the fog was choking brought tears to the eyes and many Londoners had to use handkerchiefs over their mouths.

    In 1956, an Act of Parliament was passed entitled the "Clean Air Act" to reduce pollution levels across the UK and to prevent another such smog from occurring again. However in 1962, there was another smog problem during early December across a number of counties in England but generally the incidence of pea-soupers has declined markedly and are now virtually non-existent in London. The problem has now transferred to exhaust fumes from traffic


    31st January 1953: Disaster at sea

    The sinking of the Empress Victoria was one of the forgotten disasters from the storm of January 31st/1st February 1953 which caused the storm surge in the southeast and over the Low countries.

    A deep depression was to the north of Scotland on the 31st of January and this directed severe NWly gales through the North Channel with gusts up to force 12. Despite the conditions, the Empress Victoria, a British Rail ferry connecting Stranraer with Larne in Ulster set sail. The ferry was hit by huge waves and this caused the cargo doors to burst open flooding the ferry. The ferry developed a list and started to drift out of control towards the Ulster mainland. She radioed MayDay messages out but the speed of the drift was such that when rescue ships reached the co-ordinates, the Empress Victoria had drifted considerably away.The Ferry keeled over onto her side as the crew and passengers abandoned ship about 3 hours after the intial flooding. A total of 128 people lost their lives, many perishing in the mountainous seas and frigid waters.


    February 1953: Storm surge

    The storm that contributed to the Princess Victoria ferry disaster on the 31st of January 1953 moved into the North Sea pulling down severe northerly gales down the east coast of the UK. This coincided with a high tide and the water piled up in the southern parts of the North Sea creating a storm surge. Sea defences were unable to cope and flooded many coastal areas from Lincolnshire to Kent. A massive rescue operation was launched to help thousands of people trapped by the flooding but sadly 307 people loss their lives to the flooding, the worst British weather related disaster since the Second World War. One of the worst effected areas was Canvey Island in Essex where over 50 people loss their lives here. The Netherlands suffered severely as sea walls and dykes were breeched and over 1800 were killed by the surge.


    Added to the fact the Lymouth disaster occurred in the August of 1952, 4 weather related disasters occurred within a space of 6 months. Something I hope we will never see again ;)

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  • Location: Brixton, South London
  • Location: Brixton, South London

    Thanks Mr D as usual a fascinating post.

    It was said of The Great Smog that if one stood on high ground on the Chilterns in bright sunshine there was a continuous "sea" of yellow/brown smog stretching from Bucks to the north Downs and across to the Essex marshes.



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    • 2 years later...
  • Location: s yorks
  • Weather Preferences: c'mon thunder
  • Location: s yorks

    56 year anniversary bump of the great 1st Feb 1953 north sea surge - one wonders why warnings were not taken seriously from the Dutch?

    "20ft waves crashing through lincolnshire sea defences"

    I wish their was more footage around as my `pops` stories are so interesting as he delivered all over lincolnshire but Norfolk bore the brunt as we all know.

    On this day etc

    Edited by mezzacyclone
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