Editorial Introduction

Authors: Seth T. Reno and Allison Hamilton

 "Old King Coal" and the Fog Demon. Puinch. 1880.

“Old King Coal” and the Fog Demon, in Punch (13 November 1880). The Victorian Web.

William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City is simultaneously a typical text of Victorian England and a unique example of early post-apocalyptic literature. While the novella focuses on many issues one might expect to find in a Victorian-era work—such as the smog, pollution, poverty, and moral decay of late-nineteenth-century London—it is also original, in Brett Beasley’s words, as “the first modern tale of urban apocalypse.”[1] Although Doom was favorably reviewed in several nineteenth-century periodicals, it did not prove particularly popular, and is virtually unknown today. Nevertheless, it does well to capture the uneasiness, anxiety, and fear associated with London’s dangerous industrial fogs, as well as our contemporary emotions related to living in the Anthropocene—in a world where we constantly feel the effects of accelerated, anthropogenic climate change.

Authors have written about London’s infamous fogs and air pollution since medieval times, but it was not until the nineteenth century that the term “pollution” began to take on a negative environmental connotation and to be viewed as something that should be addressed through legislation.[2] England’s booming industrial revolution had resulted in ever-increasing clouds of coal smoke that would hang over the city of London for days at a time, and that were so dense, they could be seen from up to 40 miles away. Eventually called “smog,” these combinations of smoke and fog would soon prove deadly. Throughout the nineteenth century, several cases of “severe fogs” resulted in the deaths of people and livestock. One such fog occurred during January and February of 1880, just months before Hay published his novella. According to Francis Albert Rollo Russell, a Victorian meteorologist, these fogs contributed to the deaths of over two thousand London residents.[3]

During this period, early climate scientists such as Luke Howard and John Tyndall also began to make connections between carbon dioxide emissions and temperature. In his studies of London’s climate, Howard developed the concept of an “urban heat island,” and in 1859, Tyndall established the “greenhouse effect,” or the basic science of what we now call global warming. Smog also featured heavily in nineteenth-century literature. Charles Dickens famously memorialized the dire effects of London smog in his novels, and in 1825, the English writer Charles Lamb memorably wrote of the “London particular”: an atmosphere “manufactured” of particulate matter “by Thames, Coal Gas, Smoke, Steam, and Co.”[4] London fog was also a regular target of satire in popular magazines like Punch, the most well-known of which is probably the two-page spread of “Old King Coal and the Fog Demon” in the November 1880 volume, published the same year as Hay’s novella.

There are many other notable works of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction from the nineteenth century that center on climate catastrophes. In The Last Man (1826)—the first Last Man novel in English—Mary Shelley imagines a future industrialized world in which a mysterious infectious disease wipes out the human race, along with super-storms and natural disasters. H.G. Wells also tackles such themes in his popular scientific romances The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1897). In The Time Machine, he depicts one future in which humans have modified the climate to their advantage, and another in which all life on Earth becomes extinct. And in The War of the Worlds, an alien invasion is ultimately stopped by human disease. Richard Jeffries’s After London (1885), an influential novel in the history of post-apocalyptic fiction, depicts a flooded future world after an unspecified natural disaster destroys organized civilization, leaving London a poisonous swamp filled with the remnants of industrial chemicals. In M.P. Shiel’s Purple Cloud (1901), another Last Man novel, humans are wiped out by a poisonous volcanic cloud akin to London smog. Hay’s 1880 novella thus appears on the cusp of a proliferation in apocalyptic and science fiction writing, often attributed to the popularity of H.G. Wells.

It is from this cultural moment in Victorian England that The Doom of the Great City emerges. Written from the perspective of a survivor of the titular catastrophe some sixty years after the fact, it tells the story of how London’s fogs became so poisonous and detrimental to human life that they eventually hit a tipping point in 1882, killing everyone in the city in a matter of hours. Along with the narrator’s haunting depiction of his walk through the streets of London in the aftermath of the local apocalypse, the novella also includes several other memorable scenes, including diatribes on the problems of poverty, prostitution, and legal corruption, and a discussion of Victorian-era scientific and medical theories on pollution and illness.

In terms of structure, the story is comprised of two major sequences. The first is written in the style of a jeremiad describing the moral and social state of London in 1882, in which the narrator rants against the “evils” of capitalism (a term the narrator uses several times) and details the prevalence of gambling, prostitution, unfair legal and business practices, and the rise of hedonism and Aestheticism. In his mind, London’s “murky atmosphere” is as much moral as it is environmental. The story then transitions into its second sequence, which moves much more quickly than the first. In it, the narrator learns that while he was staying with friends just outside of London, a poisonous fog crept over the city and killed everyone inside, including, presumably, his mother and sister. As the narrator journeys from the suburbs into the heart of London in search of his family, he experiences and details a post-apocalyptic London: bodies line the streets, carnage surrounds him, and an eerie silence pervades the usually busy metropolis. When he finally reaches his home, he finds the bodies of his sister and mother, sitting lifeless in their chairs in front of the hearth. Considering that the use of coal in domestic fires was a major source of smog, this final detail is a testament to the pervasive presence and power of the fossil fuel economy in Victorian England.

While The Doom of the Great City received several positive reviews in its first year of publication, it nevertheless failed to achieve wide popularity. This may be due to the novella’s moralistic tone, which Brian Gibson identifies as “moodily reflect[ing] the Victorian man as religious demagogue trying to cling to his Biblical prophecy-vision of the world.”[5] One contemporary reviewer even attributed the story’s lack of a “wide circulation” to Hay’s “uncompromising” attack “against the depravity of the present generation.”[6]

Even so, given that Doom was one of the first novels to deal with urban apocalypse, it is surprising that it remains relatively unknown today, even among scholars who specialize in Victorian literature. There is little scholarship on the story, and it’s not commonly taught in high school or college classrooms. Our hope is that this critical edition will change that. Doom’s engagement with nineteenth-century science, environmental concerns, and the post-apocalyptic genre lend it much relevancy in the twenty-first century. It is also a unique story in the history of post-apocalyptic literature and Last Man narratives, both fashionable nineteenth-century genres that have sustained their popularity into the twenty-first century. While novels like The Last Man and After London have received much more attention than Doom over the past twenty years in scholarship and pedagogy, they are both fairly lengthy novels. In contrast, Doom is a short novella dealing with many of the same themes, but it can easily be taught in an introductory English class, or paired with other Last Man and post-apocalyptic writings in a more advanced course.

Autobiographical Sketch

Little is known about William Delisle Hay (1853–?) apart from his published writings. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and for a time, he lived in New Zealand, which was a British colony during the Victorian era. He wrote several books on British fungi and even recorded some of his experiences in New Zealand in Brighter Britain!; Or, Settler and Maori in Northern New Zealand (1882). Although of a completely different genre, this work embodies much of the same moralistic attitude found in Doom. In one particularly pointed passage, Hay rails against “the fripperies and follies of fashion and civilization,” denouncing Paris and London’s “city foplings and soft-handed respectabilities”: “All such people,” he writes, “we despise with positively brutal heartiness.”[7] Hay also wrote three futuristic works of fiction: The Doom of the Great City; Being the Narrative of a Survivor, Written A.D. 1942 (1880), Three Hundred Years Hence; Or, A Voice from Posterity (1881), and Blood: A Tragic Tale (1888). Three Hundred Years Hence is a long, racist novel that imagines a socialist utopia in the year 2180 where only white people exist, having exterminated all other races. It is difficult to determine if the novel reflects Hay’s personal beliefs in a possible utopian future or if he intended the novel as a satire. Blood imagines an experimental blood transfusion between a man and a woman; the young man dies during the procedure, but his identity is transferred to the woman, and the two must share her body. There are no known details on Hay’s death, though the last year he was documented as living was 1896.[8]


Bassett, Troy J. “Author: William Delisle Hay.” At the Circulating Library: A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901. http://www.victorianresearch.org/atcl/show_author.php?aid=2761.

Beasley, Brett. “Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880).” Public Domain Review (30 September 2015): n. pag.

Brimblecombe, Peter. The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London Since Medieval Times. London: Methuen, 1987.

Corton, Christine L. London Fog: The Biography. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Frost, Mark. “Ecocrisis and Slow Violence: Anthropocene Readings of Late-Victorian Disaster Narratives.” In Victorian Environmental Nightmares. Edited by Laurence W. Mazzeno and Ronald D. Morrison. London: Palgrave, 2019. 243–262.

Hay, William Delisle. Brighter Britain! Or, Settler and Maori in Northern New Zealand. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1882.

Gibson, Brian. The New Man of the House: Suburban Masculinities in British Fiction, 1880–1914. McFarland, 2022.

Reno, Seth. Early Anthropocene Literature in Britain, 1750–1884. Palgrave, 2020.

Review of The Doom of the Great City. John Bull. 7 August 1880. 506.

Russell, F.A.R. London Fogs. London: Edward Stanford, 1880.

Taylor, Jesse Oak. The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf. University of Virginia Press, 2016.

Thompson, J.C. Bibliography of the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb: A Literary History. London: J.R. Tutin, 1908.



[1] Brett Beasley, “Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880),” Public Domain Review (30 September 2015): n. pag.


[2] See Peter Brimblecombe, The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London Since Medieval Times (London: Methuen, 1987), 90–91.

[3] F.A.R. Russell, London Fogs (London: Edward Stanford, 1880).

[4] J.C. Thompson, Bibliography of the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb: A Literary History (London: J.R. Tutin, 1908, p. 88).

[5] Brian Gibson, The New Man of the House: Suburban Masculinities in British Fiction, 1880–1914 (McFarland, 2022), p. 38.

[6] John Bull, 7 August 1880, p. 506.

[7] William Delisle Hay, Brighter Britain! Or, Settler and Maori in Northern New Zealand (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1882): 285.

[8] Troy J. Bassett, “Author: William Delisle Hay,” At the Circulating Library: A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901. http://www.victorianresearch.org/atcl/show_author.php?aid=2761.


Published @ COVE

June 2022