Think The Beast from the East was bad? Try 1963…
- Credit: Archant
‘By now, the cold spell in Britain is in its 64th day – the coldest winter since 1829-30. The last really cold spell, in 1949, lasted 49 days...’
The EADT’s front page of Monday, December 24, 1962, offers a hint of what was to come. If anyone has time to spare amid Christmas Eve preparations, or following the debate about Polaris nuclear missiles, there are items of interest. Queen of Crime Agatha Christie is confined to bed in Baghdad, with flu. And Europe has been hit by snowstorms.
It is cold in Britain, too. Saturday brought ice and fog. Forecasters now speak of a frosty outlook for Christmas. That will prove an understatement.
When the next edition hits the streets (not until the Thursday) we read of the coldest Yuletide in France for 83 years. In the UK the midlands, north and Scotland have borne the brunt as “Snow settling on icy roads made the going very treacherous on one of the coldest Boxing Days for years”.
This is but the beginning. For we are entering one of the coldest UK winters ever, as the mercury plunges and rivers – and even stretches of the sea – freeze. With an average temperature of -2.1C, January 1963 becomes the coldest month across Central England since January 1814.
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Tottenham skate to a 5-0 Boxing Day victory over Ipswich at White Hart Lane, with a Jimmy Greaves hat-trick in the last hectic five minutes. After that, football fixtures are thrown into disarray and there is no horse-racing in England until March 7.
Thursday the 27th is bad. The EADT says: “Motorists faced what the RAC called ‘grim and grisly’ conditions… over almost the whole of snow-blanketed Britain as frost turned slush into ice. More snow is forecast by the weather men for many parts, and there is no sign of a thaw.”
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Snow across southern England is up to a foot deep. At Mildenhall, the warmest temperature is -1C.
December 28: Thick fog spreads over much of central England. A sentence in the EADT: “Two swans have been frozen to death in the River Stour at Sudbury.”
On the last Sunday of the year, 20 air cadets are rescued from the Brecon Beacons in Wales, and five people die as blizzards sweep much of England and Wales. People are stranded in cars in Dorset and an Essex milkman dies on his round. More than 70 coach passengers, including a month-old baby, are rescued from deep drifts on the Dorchester to Yeovil road.
Police in Suffolk and Essex report roads passable though slippery, and British Rail eastern region services hold up well.
On New Year’s Eve, police say all roads from Haverhill are blocked, apart from the almost-blocked A604 to Colchester. Snowdrifts of 18 inches to four feet are common around the county, and there are six-feet drifts at Gazeley, near Newmarket.
A bus full of children returning to Lowestoft from a pantomime in Norwich are among traffic caught in queues at Loddon by drifts that narrow the road.
“On Sunday the new scheme in West Suffolk for farmers to go out with plough blades supplied by the county council to do snow clearance on certain specified roads worked admirably,” says the county surveyor.
By January 2 the experts talk about snowfall in the south being the worst for 82 years. Britain is “still in the grip of Arctic conditions” and more blizzards are coming.
Many of East Anglia’s country roads are blocked by snow blown off fields by a strong easterly wind. Some drifts are 10 feet deep.
EADT delivery man Harold Poole, of Ipswich, takes more than 10 hours to complete a rural delivery route that normally lasts three to four hours. He travels 200
miles instead of 120 and says it was one of the worst three journeys he’s made in 13 years. He’s had to turn around frequently after finding roads impassable.
On January 2, freezing rain makes two power cables collapse onto the A45 near Badley, “making a flash that lit up the sky for miles around and cutting electricity to 4,000 consumers in a wide area extending to Eye and Diss”.
Across Britain, more than 100 main roads are impassable. In East Anglia, drizzle hits the ground and turns to ice. In Essex, fog cuts visibility to about 25 yards in places.
The Retail Fruit Trade Federation warns against panic-buying. Despite low stocks of fruit and vegetables, and transport hindered, there is enough for “immediate needs”.
That said, food prices are rising: Sprouts now 1s 2d a pound, up from 8d the previous week. And a shortage of milk bottles is “fairly critical”.
On one day in the first week of the year, only a single place in Britain enjoys sunshine – Lerwick – and then for only 18 minutes.
County surveyor JG Heasman says they’d hoped to take advantage of farmers to help with gritting, “but the law is such a silly ass”. He explains: “We can use the farm tractors for clearing snow with the ordinary agricultural licence, which costs about £2 10s a year. But we cannot use them for gritting, even if it is just outside the farm gate, without a full licence which costs about £40 a year.”
Mr HH Lamb, a principal scientific officer at the Meteorological Office in Berkshire, feels Britain is too optimistic about winter because it has enjoyed temporarily warm ones earlier in the century.
More winters like this one can be expected over the next decade, he reckons – so we ought to be wondering if present snow-clearing equipment is adequate.
“Glazed ice” is said to be the worst in 22 years. When it hits Suffolk, raindrops freeze as soon as they reach the ground. Pavements, car windows and other
exposed surfaces are soon coated with layers of clear ice. In 1940, such a phenomenon had frozen birds’ feet to trees and left pheasants unable to fly because of glazed ice on their wings.
January 4 sees parts of East Anglia experience ice, heavy snow, slush, more snow and then a thaw within 12 hours. On the 8th, we report that the cost of clearing roads in Ipswich (hiring extra lorries, buying salt and so on) has so far been about £4,000.
There’s a bit of a lull, then “Ice all the way. That was Britain last night (the 7th) after a day with snow and slush turned solid under sub-zero temperatures, reported the AA”.
Roads around England – particularly the West Country – are hard-packed, rutted and like switchbacks, it says. In Devon, volunteers dig out or feed 4,500 sheep, ponies and cattle.
News reports on the 11th call it the Ice Age. Felixstowe is the joint-coldest place in Britain on the Wednesday night, at -7C, according to the Air Ministry. The AA says 10 major routes in England and Wales are still blocked.
On the 14th, the RAC says 200,000 miles of snow-covered roads have “disappeared off the maps”. At Herne Bay in Kent, the sea freezes off the prom – the first time that’s happened since 1947. London Fire Brigade says water mains are bursting “all over the place”.
The Air Ministry predicts a slow thaw.
Headline on January 16: “General thaw hopes dashed”.
The freeze continues. With demand for power soaring, many parts of London and the south coast are temporarily blacked out as an energy-saving measure. So is Bedford.
A baby is born by candlelight at a Sussex hospital, and rehearsals for TV show The Avengers carry on by candlelight for 40 minutes after electricity is cut to studios at Teddington.
South-Eastern Gas Board says demand is unprecedented.
On Sunday, January 20, one of the biggest airlifts ever staged in Britain sees four RAF helicopters evacuate nearly 300 civilian workers from snowbound Fylingdales early-warning station in Yorkshire. Many have been trapped since the Wednesday.
At one point all roads between England and Scotland are blocked.
In Essex, the next day, the River Colne freezes at Wivenhoe for the first time since 1929. A channel is cleared by a cargo vessel at 8.20am, but it’s frozen again by 12.30pm.
Six main roads in Suffolk and Norfolk are blocked on the night of January 21-22, and several roads around Haverhill are impassable because of deep drifts. During the day, jobless people in Haverhill are pressed into action to help clear snow.
Blocked roads include Elveden to Bury St Edmunds and Framlingham to Wickham Market. There’s only a single-width lane open between Thetford and Bury, and Ipswich and Hadleigh. There are drifts 6-7 feet high between Stradishall and Clare.
Three days of isolation end for villagers at Boyton End, near Stoke-by-Clare, on the 22nd when tractor-ploughs bulldoze a route through the drifts. About a dozen cottages have been without fresh bread and milk, but there have been no dramas.
At Clacton, the sea freezes – in parts up to 100 feet out. Many fish, including a five-foot cod, lie dead on the beach.
Ipswich records its lowest 9am temperature of the century on the 22nd: 16F (almost -9C).
The EADT tells of water pipes freezing. Ipswich Civil Defence and the 1st East Anglian Regiment organise a supply to parts of Woodbridge left without, using a 300-gallon tanker.
On the 23rd, the 9am temperature in Ipswich is 6F (-16C). At RAF Mildenhall, the air temperature falls to 4F.
The next day, forecasters say warmer air’s on the way. The gas crisis is easing.
Freezing fog brings visibility in parts of East Anglia down to 25 yards. There are (generally short) power cuts in the Thetford, Halesworth and Clacton areas. Boxted and Sudbury are also affected. There’s a planned slight reduction in gas pressure in most parts of Suffolk and Essex – a precautionary measure to stop demand outstripping supply.
Towards the end of the month soldiers from the Engineer Regiment come from Kent to blast ice up to 10 inches thick and unblock the River Colne for shipping from Colchester to the river mouth.
The East Anglian Water Company delivers supplies by tender to homes in need, while the USAF at Bentwaters, near Woodbridge, gives water from a 1,000-gallon tank to nearby households whose pipes are frozen.
January 28: The British Insurance Association says companies expect to pay out more than £15million in claims for snow and ice damage, which would make it the most expensive winter on record.
The last day of the month brings fresh warnings of “snow again and more to come”. No sign of a let-up.
The importation of raw veg from parts of France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands is again being allowed.
February brings freak conditions in Sussex: blue skies in the west, three inches of snow in half an hour in East Grinstead and Worthing. The south-west and Wales are badly hit.
The Meteorological Office says January was London’s coldest month since 1838.
The 6th is a day of raging blizzards. There are many road accidents in Suffolk and, with Eastern Counties buses affected, many folk from the Shotley area are unable to get to Ipswich to work. The AA describes the road as “just a sheet or sea of ice”.
Homes in Leiston and Aldeburgh are without milk after the lorry bringing supplies from the Co-operative Wholesale Society creamery at Stowmarket skids off the road at Little Glemham.
On the Suffolk-Essex borders, the A12 at Stratford St Mary is blocked for four hours when a lorry loaded with cabbages and potatoes overturns.
The headline on Monday the 11th is: “Britain back in Winter’s Grip. Prospect is more snow, frost and icy roads.”
Valentine’s Day brings talk of a possible fast thaw, with warm air from the south-west. The headline the next day? “South gets yet more snow.” And on the 16th: “Thaw that hardly ever was. Back to snow and bitter winds.”
The story reads: “The great thaw is over – almost before it had begun. Last night the Meteorological Office issued a warning that snow was expected over most parts of Britain during the next 24 hours…”
Parts of East Anglia are the coldest in Britain on the 18th – the mercury failing to rise above about 0C.
The Government announces extra fuel allowances for 400,000 pensioners and jobless people. The retail price index has risen, mainly because of the cost of fresh vegetables.
On the 20th, temperatures at Stansted in Essex and Wattisham in Suffolk do not rise above -1C all day.
An article in the EADT on February 23 talks about how Europe is beginning to monetise the cost of the century’s worst winter.
“The past two months or so have cost hundreds of lives, devastated crops and cut pay-packets because of forced unemployment.”
Between 15 and 20% of the wheat in northern Italy is reckoned to be damaged. The blow to the Dutch economy is put at £50m-£150m. Vegetable prices are soaring to five times the normal amount.
By now, the cold spell in Britain is in its 64th day – the coldest winter in Britain since 1829-30. The last really cold spell, in 1949, lasted 49 days.
The mean temperature from just before Christmas to February 18 has been 33.3F (0.7C).
While the weather slowly gets better – the temperature on March 1 is forecast to hit about 3C – we aren’t out of the woods. Front-page headlines tell us merchants have run out of domestic coal and a relapse in the weather will cause great problems. The Coal Merchants’ Federation of Great Britain hopes to persuade the Coal Board to produce more.
There’s a desperate shortage of vegetables across Europe. The sowing of early spring crops, particularly green vegetables, is seriously behind. Two days earlier, the French government suspends import duty on cauliflowers and lettuce, and reduces it on other produce, in a bid to bring down prices.
Then: Sunday, March 3 is like coming out of hibernation. The temperature is 4 to 7C. Motorists chasing the sun see traffic levels up 40% compared to an average year. Clacton and Southend are popular destinations, as is the Norfolk coast, the Broads and Great Yarmouth.
About 600 vehicles an hour are counted on the Ipswich to Felixstowe road in mid-afternoon, though roadworks at Nacton cause major delays. At one point traffic queues all the way back to Ipswich. (Good to see some things never really change!)
The terrible winter has its tales of courage. Lowestoft businessman Tony Cooper rescues teacher Berry Powell after she falls through iced-over Oulton Broad and nearly drowns. She’s been skating on it with her sister. Tony himself goes through the ice three times before Berry is brought to safety with the help of other rescuers, a ladder and rope. Police later have warning notices flashed on-screen at Lowestoft cinema.
* Farm foreman John White, 33, wades into the freezing River Deben to rescue a pedigree Friesian heifer that has fallen through ice into 15 feet of water.
* Ipswich Town chairman John Cobbold – described as sick and tired of postponements and, at best, football on snow-covered and frost-bound pitches – sends telegrams to the Football Association and Football League: “Due to the conditions, farcical matches and the obvious lack of interest on the part of the general public, urgently request postponement of all matches till a general thaw.”
* BBC 1962 Christmas Day TV includes Andy Pandy, the Queen’s Christmas message to the commonwealth at 3pm, Billy Smart’s Circus, pantomime Puss in Boots, Christmas at Fulham Palace (‘a visit to the ancient home of the Bishops of London’), Christmas Night with the Stars, and The Good Old Days – a festive edition of the old-time music-hall programme.
ITV has The Queen, Chipperfield’s Circus, Discs A Gogo, Emergency – Ward 10, The Dickie Henderson Christmas Show, and No Hiding Place.
* At the end of January, former England and Newcastle United player Jackie Milburn is named the new Ipswich Town manager, to take over from England-bound Alf Ramsey on April 29.
* Harold Wilson is elected Labour leader, after death of Hugh Gaitskell