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The View from the East End (63)

By Inspector Hopkins

April 22, 2007

“London Fog”

by Inspector Hopkins 

No, no, I don’t mean a particular brand of raincoat . . . I’m talking about the actual fog that typically held London prisoner in its ghostly and ghastly grip over the centuries.

As a newer Sherlockian, every time I read The Bruce-Partington Plans I was always fascinated by Watson’s descriptions of the “dense yellow fog” and the “greasy heavy brown swirl” of the fog as it enveloped the city and the rooms in Baker Street. Until now, I had always thought of those descriptions as simply a literary device for planting a vivid mental picture in the mind of the reader.

But as my experience developed, I started to notice that other Victorian authors also gave these same sorts of descriptions. For instance, Sabine Baring-Gould mentioned a “dense umber-tinted fog” in A Dead Finger. Henry James noted a “dense brown fog” in The Princess Casamassima. And the grand master of descriptions, Charles Dickens, wrote about the “dense brown fog in Piccadilly” in The Trial for Murder.  Above all, no one could ever forget his many vivid images of the “stifling, stinging, suffocating yellow fog” in Bleak House.

My curiosity thus piqued, I started to compile more information about this weather phenomenon used to such a great extent in conveying an air of mystery throughout these writings. Using a search engine, I found that there are some fifty-five mentions of fog and foggy weather in the Canon. A full twenty of these are found in BRUC alone. Sixteen more are found in HOUN, and the rest are scattered amongst the other cases.

What is “Fog”, anyway?

A little more digging around shows that fog is actually a cloud that hangs close to and/or touches the ground or the surface of a body of water. It can occur anytime there is a noticeable difference between the air and the water temperatures. There can be many causes for that, but one thing that comes to my mind is the Gulf Stream. Also, something known as the North Atlantic Drift (NAD). These ocean currents affect England and the NAD carries warm water northeast across the Atlantic, making England several degrees warmer than it should be in the winter.  I conclude that, together with those facts, since England is an island, and London has the great River Thames running straight through it, there are more than enough ingredients to produce fog.

But what about the “Brown” Fog?

It turns out that the descriptions of yellow, brown, or umber-tinted fog were more than just literary devices. At the time, England was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Consider the hundreds of thousands of coal-fed fires burning throughout the factories and houses of London, as well as the hundreds of steam locomotives belching out great plumes of smoke day after day in the city. Add to this the untold number of gas jets and street lamps. All those minute particles of ash, dust, sulfur, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and heaven knows what else, provided nucleation sites for water vapour to condense into droplets. The resulting fog was saturated with these contaminants, and so it is not surprising that it had tones of brown and yellow. Such types of fogs were referred to as “Pea-Soupers”, and in the Granada Films rendition of The Bruce-Partington Plans, Sherlock Holmes used that very expression as he looked out the bow window at the enveloping cloud of death.

Watson, then, was describing what we commonly call “smog” today, and according to the link below, that term was coined just over 100 years ago. Over the centuries, thousands of Londoners sickened and died from it. Now I can more fully appreciate Watson’s description of Hilton Cubitt in The Dancing Men whose “clear eyes and florid cheeks told of a life led far from the fogs of Baker Street”.

For a short history of London Fog, the interested Sherlockian should check this link:

Until next time, being grateful that we can now breathe a little more easily, I remain, 

Yours Faithfully,