Coloured aquatint, ca. 1862, depicting a man covering his mouth with a handkerchief, walking through a smoggy London street – Source: Wellcome Library.
“Scarcely can I portray in words the dire and dismal scenes that met my vision here…
For here, where on the previous night had throbbed hot and high the flood-tide of London’s evening gaiety, was now presented to my poor fevered sight, the worst, the most awful features of the whole terrific calamity.
I had entered into the very heart and home of horror itself. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a bronchial spasm”.
That is, at least, according to William Delisle Hay’s 1880 novella The Doom of the Great City. I
t imagines the entire population of London choked to death under a soot-filled fog.
The story is told by the event’s lone survivor sixty years later as he recalls “the greatest calamity that perhaps this earth has ever witnessed” at what was, for Hay’s first readers, the distant future date of 1942.
The novella received only mild acclaim among its late Victorian readers, and today it is almost forgotten.
But, surprisingly enough, it has become possible to read our social and environmental problems foretold in Hay’s strange little story.
In our age of global warming, acid rain, and atmospheric pollution, we may become the first readers to take Hay seriously.
When Hay imagines a city whose wealth and “false social system” lulls it into complacency, we can recognize ourselves in his words.
And as for those air problems that loomed dangerously around them, Londoners “looked upon them in the light of a regular institution, not caring to investigate their cause with a view to some means of mitigating them”.
At moments like these, we get the feeling that Hay’s obscure 135-year-old story is eerily prophetic.