05 April 2023
A new exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum tells the story of the great fogs that plagued 19th century London, sometimes bringing life in the capital to a complete standstill. Charles Dickens fan & genealogist David Annal went along to explore the exhibition and the light it sheds on our London ancestors' lives & times.
Writing in Our Mutual Friend in 1856, Dickens described a London “with smarting eyes and irritated lungs ... blinking, wheezing, and choking”. “The whole metropolis,” he said, “was a heap of vapour charged with muffled sound of wheels, and enfolding a gigantic catarrh.”
The fogs, or ‘pea soupers’ as they were popularly known, were caused by the daily use of thousands of coal fires, both industrial and domestic. Particularly in the winter months, when Londoners across the entire social spectrum lit their fires in an attempt to keep out the cold and the damp, the fogs would quickly descend upon the capital and sometimes remain for days on end. In the opening chapter of Bleak House, probably Dickens’ foggiest novel, he writes about, “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes.” Dickens later refers to the smoke as ‘London ivy’.
Raising social awarenesss
Dickens used his novels as a way of raising public awareness of social issues. Poverty, sanitation, the mistreatment of children, a corrupt legal system and the barbarity of public executions all got the Dickens treatment and it’s clear from the frequent mentions of fog in Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop and many others, that the quality of London’s air was amongst his greatest concerns.
Environmental history is yet another subject that, as family historians, we should take an interest in. Air pollution would have had a major impact on the lives of our urban Victorian ancestors, whether they lived in London or in one of the other major industrial towns and cities. It would have influenced their daily lives (people were effectively imprisoned in their own houses during the worst of the pea soupers) and, in many cases, it would have been a contributory factor towards shortening those lives.
Museums, from the British Museum to the smallest local history collections, have so much to teach us about the social and political backgrounds to our ancestors lives and about the communities in which they lived and worked. Why not get out and visit one this weekend?
About the exhibition
'A Great and Dirty City: Dickens and the London Fog' runs until 22 October 2023.