• Patrice McDonough

"The Doom of London"

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

In December 1891, a hellish miasma once again held London in its grip. For much of the nineteenth century, recurring fogs had plagued Victorian cities, and that month’s “London particular” spread its poisonous palate of yellow and brown like a pall over the city. At high noon, bobbies aimed their bull’s-eye lanterns at cross streets to keep cabs and carts from colliding in the daytime darkness. By the week’s end, an estimated 700 souls had succumbed to respiratory disease.

A year later, appalled by the way Londoners tolerated what one critic called “something like suffocation,” Robert Barr published “The Doom of London,” a short story that appeared in the November issue of the literary magazine The Idler. Barr, a well-known writer of his day, imagined an environmental catastrophe brought on by indiscriminate coal burning. In his story, nearly the entire population of London chokes to death in the dense fog. The hero, one of a handful of survivors, stumbles through a desolate, depopulated landscape. Corpses litter London streets; trains and taxis stand motionless, their ghostly passengers sitting erect in their seats.

Barr’s story was reprinted several times, often in the months that followed weeks of deadly fogs. In the illustration accompanying the 1904 reissue, the smoke rising from a row of brick chimneys resolves into a spectral, menacing figure floating in the sky.

Urban air pollution was all too visible to inhabitants and visitors of Britain’s large cities, yet, the resulting respiratory ailments remained “invisible” diseases to Victorians. As one researcher noted, coal smoke claimed its victims quietly, “made no unseemly disturbance, and took care not to demand its hecatombs very suddenly and dramatically.” “Shock” diseases such as cholera or typhoid fever— with their sudden onslaughts, mysterious causes, and high death rates—were the attention grabbing, fear-inspiring maladies. Smoke was a stealthy killer.

But who, exactly, was dying and where it was happening conspired to mask the killer effects of the smoke menace. After all, few Britons of the nineteenth century were surprised by inner-urban sickness; they expected it as a matter of course. Cities were diseased spaces, the slums of East London especially so. The victims of respiratory disease were likely to be the old, the poor, and the infirm. That the aged and the weak would die was not surprising, making their deaths invisible.

In 2020, we've heard a similar complacency voiced about the COVID pandemic. Articles are littered with references to “comorbidities” and the average age of the disease’s victims. Mask wearing might have been more universal and less an issue of libertarian freedom had the virus been a more equal-opportunity killer.

That all were vulnerable was the special horror of William Barr’s “Doom of London.”

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