For over 200 years, London fog defined our city. It’s brought confusion, suicide, and tragic death, but also reassuring anonymity, romanticize mystery, and an intangible beauty.
Joining Hazel in this episode is Dr. Elizabeth Dearnley, editor of the book called Into the London Fog. She will discuss how London fog has inspired writers, filmmakers, and herself.
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.
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This episode, we’re going to be talking about London fog. For over 200 years, London fog defined our city. It’s brought confusion, suicide, and tragic death, but also reassuring anonymity, romanticize mystery, and an intangible beauty. Over the years, London fog has inspired many artists, including the great French impressionist, Claude Monet who painted the Houses of Parliament effect of fog and Waterloo Bridge. He is famously quoted as saying “Without fog, London would not be beautiful.”
Before him, the American artists Whistler had encaptured a foggy night in London, complete with hooded pedestrians, horses, and carriages, and a yellowy brown air. His friend, the British check painter, Charles Albert Lu da Vici, painted London fog where a group of children, all holding flaming torches attempt to guide a horse and carriage through the murky London air.
If you’d like to see these pictures you can do so by accessing our show notes, just go to londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast and select Episode 43: London fog. London fog has inspired many writers too, including Charles Dickens, especially Bleak House and A Christmas Carol. And also Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Joining me in the studio today is Dr. Elizabeth Dearnley. And she’s here to discuss how London fog has inspired writers and filmmakers, and indeed herself. She’s written a book called Into the London Fog. Eerie tales from a weird city, which is a collection of weird London tales published by the British Library.
Elizabeth Dearnley is a folklorist, artist and Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies within the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Her work explores eerie landscapes, fairy tales and folk horror, and she has curated several projects delving into these fields, including immersive 1940s Red Riding Hood retelling Big Teeth and the Freud Museum London’s uncanny restaging of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman.
She is currently writing a book about the relationship between forests and fairy tales.
Hazel Baker: Thanks for joining us today, Elizabeth.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Thank you for having me.
Hazel Baker: What inspired you to write this book?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Well, so much of my work is all about weird London in one way or another. So I’ve always been fascinated by ghost stories, horror stories, fairy tales, and I’m also really interested in how familiar stories change when you tell them from different perspectives. So it really did make complete sense that I worked on this book. So what administered interested in are how are the stories we tell affected by the places we tell them in and also whose voices get to tell these stories.
Hazel Baker: And how did you find these stories?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: They’re all from between the 1860s and the 1950s. So they came from variety of places. A lot of them were published in literary magazines, at the times I had to sort of look through archives. Some of them were published in story collections. Some of them were supposedly true to life accounts. So they came from a real mixture of places.
Hazel Baker: And how about London fog? Does that sort of seep its way into these?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Yeah, I mean, once we got the title “Into the London Fog”, the whole thing just really came together. So, as I said, they’re from the 1860s to the 1950s. So this is all the time when London was at its foggiest. So you had the clean air act of 1956, and that was kind of when the London fog, that was really the smog of the particles and the mist in the air that’s when that kind of started to end.
But yeah, it really, it features in, I think pretty much all the stories. And even if it isn’t mentioned by name, you sort of think of it being there in the background. So it’s really great to sort of think about like what London fog actually is, what it does in fiction, and kind of how it can add to atmosphere. It’s really interesting kind of seeing where fog actually appears, where it doesn’t. I mean, it was Dickens really that started off sort of using fog as a metaphor. I mean he uses it in Bleak House quite famously as a metaphor for all the legal entanglements of Chancery and he calls it London Ivy. So seeing it is like sort of almost organic thing that winds its way around everything.
Hazel Baker: Yeah, and ivy does look good from a distance, doesn’t it? But when you get up close, you can see how ruinous it is to the brick work. And I think with London fog, it’s when you’re not in it, it does look good, you know, and you see paintings of it, but when you’re in it and having to live your life through this fog, it’s very interruptive, isn’t it?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Yeah, absolutely. And of course it would smell horrible as well. And we see it in films and in paintings, we just see this as kind of theatrical mist. Of course, if you were in it, it would be quite a different experience. Even knowing that it’s this kind of corrosive polluting thing, does sort of add this air of sort of uncertainty and mystery maybe, you know? You’re going through the fog and you don’t know what’s two meters in front of you because of this thing in the way.
So even in the 19th century, there were people who saw it as slightly more positive things, more exciting. When Henry James, for instance, he wrote about it in one of his essays, talking about the London fog being sort of friendly , exciting thing that made every adventure that you might go on in the city, kind of, it gave it this extra added thing, which is great. And Angela Carter as well, back in the 1930s, talks about it as having this kind of a loose, very theatrical effect. So again, you get this idea that the fog could conceal things, that it also leaves spaces of possibilities as well.
Hazel Baker: Fog, Is it like an invisibility cloak for them? It allows people who want to be hidden to be hidden even more.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, again, it’s this really good emblem of the more threatening side of the city. Again, it kind of gives a shape and a name to the fears that you might have about. Who’s lurking out there that you can’t see.
Hazel Baker: And I think it’s interesting how you’ve chosen between the 1860s and the 1950s, was that something deliberate?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: So I wanted them all to come from this foggy London period. So that’s kind of from the mid 19th century onwards, and then it’s in the 1950s, it started to dissipate a bit. But I think another really interesting thing about this time period is that so many of the stories start at the beginning of what we think of as modern London.
So in the 1860s, 1870s, you could do all sorts of things that we would think about as being part of present day city experiences. So you could travel by two, you could shop at department stores. It was even semi instant messaging system, more or less. There are 12 postal deliveries today in some places that, you know, you can be messaging back and forth. So a lot of the aspects of city life, I mean, of course in many ways it was very different, but there were these parallels. And I think the stories reflect this period of very rapid social change, enormous social change. And so the horror tale provides a space to explore these different social anxieties. So I think a lot of the fiction that I looked at does come from this period, maybe partly because of that.
Hazel Baker: And can you see the anxieties or any particular focus change from the 1860s to the 1950s? Can you see that changing in the literature?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: It can change the extent depending on what the particular anxieties are at the time. So one interesting thing that you see, maybe it’s in the LEP, but also to sort of moving into the early 20th century is anxiety about the role of women in society. So in the 1860s, you have the first women’s suffrage societies being formed. But obviously women didn’t actually achieved the vote or some women were given the vote in 1918. So you’ve got this, this huge period. You get women going to university for the first time in the 1860s, but then they weren’t allowed to have an independent, legal existence until the married women’s property act. So, you know, there’s lots of, kind of debate as to, you know, what dangers faced them, what danger they post a society.
So you get a lot of women writing ghost stories as a way of exploring some of these things in a coded way. So you might not want to talk about these things directly, but you could talk about them within the confines of supernatural fiction. So I find that something really interesting that came out.
Hazel Baker: That’s very fascinating, isn’t it? Because even if we think of Frankenstein, that used to give me nightmares as a teenager, when I read that and to think it came from a woman, but also the subliminal messaging in that as well. And also thinking about how Louis Stevenson with the Jekyll and Hyde , how the average readers of the time were women and then moving into writing and publishing more of these works was an acceptable way of highlighting issues of the day. That’s very, very clever.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Yeah, absolutely. I think Frankenstein obviously predates these, but it’s again, exploring is this idea of sort of monstrosity, maybe monsters, women, to an extent as well. Do you see this in lots of the stories? I think definitely over half of them are by women. I think it’s something like nine to eight, something like that. But anyway they do explore this.
So one of my favourites is the first story in the collection, which is by a writer called Violet Hunt. And she has this beautiful, single woman in her mid thirties, who feels that she has to find a husband because if her mother died. So she doesn’t have a chaperone anymore. And as the story unfolds, you’re kind of left wondering as to whether the danger is the supernatural things that happen in the story, actually societal pressures both can be as weird new areas, each other.
Hazel Baker: It sounds so exciting. I mean, researching and not really knowing what you’re going to uncover either. And you must have amassed a huge amount of stories. How did you choose which ones to include and exclude?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: They all had to take place in a London district. That was named, ideally they would have a fog in some way. I wanted them all to be weird in some way or another, or to explore this idea of weirdness. I think weird is a really interesting word in itself. So the whole series is called tales of the weird , so I really wanted to dig into what it might mean to be weird or what it might mean to experience weirdness and also how what’s considered weird depends on who’s making the judgment about the weirdness Sigma, this very othering word. Cause he, you know, you think you’ve got a store, there’s nothing supernatural it’s happening. What’s going on could be viewed as weird if the narrator sees it is weird. Whether that’s in terms of external events or the place, or also in terms of gender or sexuality or class or race.
So a lot of the stories don’t actually deal with the supernatural, but they do I think explore this idea of weirdness. So that was one way in which I narrowed them down. So I said, I wouldn’t want it to get a variety of perspectives as well. And I think a lot of the time in supernatural fiction as well, you get traditionally these metrics of weirdness being set by white male, usually straight writers.
So again, I wanted to explore voices that weren’t that and see how weird this is for you from different angles.
Hazel Baker: What about your favourite stories? Were there any that you really wanted to include, but you just couldn’t.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: So one person that I’ve really wanted to get in was Agatha Christie, who was just one of my all time favourite writers. I think she’s massively underrated. I think she’s so easy to read and so popular, but she’s also brilliant stylist and a great social commenter, very, very sharp social commenter.
And there was one story called The Dressmaker’s Doll that was set in Piccadilly. And I thought that, also from the 1950s, so its a really interesting contrast with my other 1915 story. Some cell phones, my girl in the city, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to include it because Christie state prefer to publish Agatha Christie with other Agatha Christie stories. So that was one that I really wanted to get in. Yeah, so I think that that was the main one that springs to mind that was the one that got away. So I’d love to do more work with Agatha Christie at a later point.
Hazel Baker: We were talking and touched on them should not Combs before and our vision of this fog, but actually it’s the, the films and the TV though, sort of made an imprint on our minds. So what about your favourite films or TV shows, which have effectively used London fog?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: So I think the one I’d start with is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger from 1927, which is subtitled A Story of the London Fog. So it’s absolutely focused on what fog means, what it does, and the threats that it embodies.
So it’s really the first quote, unquote Hitchcockian Hitchcock’s film. And it’s also an adaptation of one of the stories that I’ve included in my book, Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger. This is great scene in the story and so I won’t spoil the whole plot, but it’s basically the first story that I’ve included is the first fictionalization of the Jack the Ripper murders.
So it’s seen for the perspective of a working class middle-aged landlady, who starts to suspect that the young man who is lodging in her house might be the same person that is committing a series of Christy murders. So there’s a great scene in the film where we see The Lodger who’s played by Ivan for the first time. And he walks into her house. It’s a sort of a terrorist and Marylebone, and he’s got the scarf around his neck and he’s wearing his hat. And he stepped through the door, you see the fog kind of swirling around his body as he steps into the house. And it’s just, it’s so great. It just kind of shows the two folks and literally bound up with each other. So I think that’s my favourite one.
But I think, again, it just comes up all over the place. And I was also, I was thinking of this earlier, as I was trying to sort of tease out which films actually have fog and which ones don’t. And how many of them, you just think there’s fog because you kind of expect it to be there. Like what we were saying about Charlotte Holmes, this one of my favourite London films, like possibly slightly getting off the point though, there isn’t fog in it. But there’s a great film from 1970 called The Man Who Haunted Himself, Chaz, Roger Moore, not being James Bond. They’re actually being amazing.
And it’s this really weird, eerie feel about this man who has a doppelganger. And I know at the beginning he started off driving through sort of heavy rain. And so, maybe kind of Canada’s fog? But in my mind, it’s this very foggy film, but I haven’t seen it for a while. So I don’t actually know if it’s there and it says, can this Mandela effect, or we just sort of think it’s there, but yeah.
Oh, another one that I really like is called She Wolf of London. So this is from 1946. It’s this amazing 40s b-movie about an heiress in 20th century London who begins to believe that she’s a werewolf again after a series of murders take place in that doorstep. So if you’ve seen the validating cat people films around the same sort of time, it’s in that vein, although it’s not, it’s not quite imaginative but it’s good. And if you enter London werewolf films, I think I’d add that one to the list as well.
Hazel Baker: It’s an interesting point that fog plays tricks on our minds, whether it’s there or not.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Yeah, Completely. It just feels so theatrical as well. I think it’s a great effect to use in cinema because instantly, you know, you pump some fog and it can just be dry ice and it instantly looks kind of mysterious and strange. So I think it’s just something that we sort of, it is used a lot, but we also think it’s there probably even more than it is.
And I think another really interesting thing about fog in film and TV is that if we see things that have fog, it often has this kind of really nostalgic quality to it as well. It’s like this kind of shorthand like we’re in the past. It might be a less healthy time, but it’s also a more exciting time. So thinking of things like Penny Dreadful, for instance, so you get lots of scenes of people walking about in the fog.
Hazel Baker: The opera and the boat scene. It’s all very, very loose, isn’t it?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Oh yeah. Yeah. That’s another really good one as well. So again, it’s just sort of used, and I think we kind of blended the other weather effects as well. So, you know, if you get like steam rising from the water, does that count as fog? I mean it does the same sort of thing it does.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking about. Actual steam from trains, how that’s used. The steam and The Lady Killers, Kings Cross through. It’s the same kind of thing. Just maybe because it’s shorter blasts. You can tell a different story than the seeping creeping ivy effect of fog.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Yeah, totally. And that’s also just made me think about , like equivalents to London fog. So I’m thinking of a film set in New York. We see all the steam coming out of subway, it is that the New York equivalent of London fog for cinematic purposes?
Hazel Baker: So, are there any other stories that you’d like to share with us today?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: So I got really into some of the stories set in South London, which is where I live at the moment. So there are quite a lot of stories about the weirdness of suburbia, which I find really fascinating. So they kind of create a David Lynch stories about the weirdness, just under the surface. So one of my favourites was Edith Nesbit’s Semester of The Semi-detached, which is set in Crystal Palace.
So I used to live just opposite the park there and it’s quite an eerie place now I think , with the ruins, the palace, and the dinosaurs, and the sort of winking lights on the mast stair. But when Nesbit was writing about it , it was this place that was right for development. You see houses still being built. It’s got this sort of Truman show kind of stage SETI feel. And it starts off with this young man and he’s walking down a lane. It’s a bit like a country lane, but not quite like a country lane. So there’s this idea that it’s all a bit SAPs. Everything’s a bit off kilter. So, so I really enjoyed that one.
And another favourite is the story of SpringHill Jack. So this is a story that’s presented as it’s a sort of factual account. And I think that’s one of the other interesting things that came up because there’s a mixture of fiction and nonfiction stories. But when you’re talking about mythology, mythmaking, the line between what’s fictional, what’s fact, really becomes blurred. So Spring Hill, Jack wasn’t really discovery from your such because he’s a character that we knew about, but it was really fun to dig into his story a bit more. So he’s such weird phenomenon. So if you’ve not come across him he is this character that was first reported in the times in 1838.
It was first reported in the times in 1838, when an anonymous Peckham resident wrote to the Lord Mayor of London saying there was a supernatural attacker at large in suburban London. And the attacker was described as a manly villain who was disguised alternately as a ghost, a bear and a devil. And you get more people writing in and saying that they’ve seen SpringHill Jack as well. And he gets more and more features. Select reports describe him as breathing blue fire and having metal claws for hands. And he seems given this name, SpringHill Jack, because of the way he sprung out to sites when people came to place. So there were sightings of him for maybe 50 years or so. And then he just disappeared and we still don’t really know what was going on there.
There’s a brilliant book by Carl Bell, which I recommend to people looking at the legend of SpringHill Jack. So again, there’s no sort of conclusions drawn as to what he, or who he actually was or there’s dairies theories. So he’s a really fascinating story. He’s arguably the first Victorian urban legend, but he also fits into older folkloric traditions of trickster figures like Robin hood and putting a Midsummer night’s dream. So in the book, I’ve included a report from 1884 from a periodical all the year round, which is edited by Charles Dickens, which gives a rounder for these sightings,
Hazel Baker: How extraordinary and blue fire? That sounds fascinating. And also metal claws. It’s a bit like an early Wolverine.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: He’s very wolverine-like actually. Yeah. And I think that the blue fires is so interesting. Is it like, why, why blue? Why not red fire? Is it that blue is particularly eerie? I mean, it sounds a bit like Marsh fire as well, I think. So you’ve got these other subtle things coming in, so it’s just really interesting that the different elements that he has.
Hazel Baker: So Elizabeth, I know you are very, very busy. And what have you got coming up?
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Next project that I’m working on is a book about the relationship between fairy tales and forests. So I’m interested in the relationship between stories and places. And this is looking at the connections between the fairy tales that we tell about different wild spaces and how that affects our sense of how to behave and who belongs in these spaces.
I am actually going to be talking about Into the London Fog at Kensington and Chelsea Libraries on the 31st of March. So, if anybody wants to hear more about these stories, do come along to that. It’s a free event. So do check that out.
I’m also teaching at the Freud Museum London on the 8th of March, which is International Women’s Day. So I’m working with my friend and colleague, the wonderful Catherine Fry and we are doing a course on the Gothic Tales of Angela Carter. So we’ll be looking at fairy tales, psychoanalytic theory, women’s voices, and the Gothic. So it’s going to be so much fun. I’m really excited to do it. So if anybody wants to come and join us there, please do come.
Hazel Baker: And I’ve attended one of your talks. So can certainly recommend those. Thank you very much!
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley: Thank you very much for having me.