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Thursday, January 11, 2007

1947: The year winter brought Britain to a standstill

Before Britain became infected with 'affluenza', camaraderie, solidarity and a sense of 'we're all in this together' prevailed across the land.
They were qualities which not only helped Britain defeat the Nazis, but which served the country well during the incredibly harsh winter of 1947. Here's my piece from today's Daily Express on how Britons coped with the Arctic conditions of 60 years ago.

For traditionalists, it’s been a thoroughly disappointing winter. No snow, very few frosts and only a handful of those cold, crispy mornings when stepping outside into the fresh air gives us that exhilarating, good to be alive feeling.

But those of us who wouldn’t mind a short dose of proper seasonal weather, shouldn’t despair. The Met Office as reported in the Daily Express yesterday, have warned that a cold snap could be on its way. If they’re right, it wouldn’t be the first time that an exceptionally mild spell in January has been followed by much colder conditions, as those who can remember the incredible winter of 1946/7 will concur.

The winter of 60 years ago may not have been quite as cold as that of 1962/3, but it has solid claims to be the most dramatic Britain has ever experienced. The extreme weather conditions would have caused enough disruption on their own, but their effects were compounded by post-war shortages of fuel and food, which were more severe in the aftermath of the war than they were during it.

The first icy blast of winter came on the January 23rd, when snow fell heavily over the south and south-west of England. The blizzard in south-west England was the worst since 1891; many villages in Devon were cut-off and even the Scilly Isles were blanketed with snow. Temperatures started to plummet throughout the country: on the night of the 28th, -20.6 was recorded in Essex and the following night, -21.3C in in Kent. It was so cold that Big Ben started missing beats.

The Arctic weather brought with it fresh hazards: newspapers reported how the fireman on an early morning train approaching Bradford had stuck his head out the cab and been knocked senseless by a huge icicle hanging down from a bridge.

Fuel shortages were soon a major problem. Britain was already half a million tons of coal short before the winter had begun and even with the miners union consenting to 150,000 Poles, who had stayed in Britain after the war, working in the mines, supply could not reach demand. The government’s response was swift: the introduction of an emergency, country-wide programme of power cuts, with electricity cut-off every day from 9am- 12 noon and 2pm-4pm. The new-fangled television was shut down completely, (broadcasting did not start up again until April) while on radio, the Third Programme was taken off air and the Home and Light Programme (the equivalent of Radio Four and Radio Two today) merged.

Food was harder to come by in the winter of 1947 than it had been during the war. It was so cold, parsnips had to be dug up with pneumatic drills. Eggs, cheese and bread were all on ration. Bananas were only available for children. And in February, the ration-free status of tea, the nations’ favourite drink, was also under threat. Obtaining meat provided the biggest problem.

Newspapers reported that imported beef, allocated for the central London meat ration, had frozen so hard, it was doubtful whether it would be jointed in time. The alternative to beef, promoted with great enthusiasm by the government, was whale meat, which arrived in the country for the first time in January. A consignment of 15,000lbs of whale meat landed at North Shields from Norway and was soon available at fishmongers for 1s 10d (9p) a pound. “It looks exactly like British beef, tastes somewhat like it and is cooked in the same way” was the official spiel, but few were convinced.“I remember eating whale steak, which was called Moby Dick and chips. It wasn't pleasurable”, recalls the writer John Mortimer.

In many parts of Britain snow fell on 26 of the 28 days in February. In Oxford, the temperature failed to rise above freezing for over two weeks, while on 21st, -21 degrees was recorded at Woburn, Bedfordshire.
Sports schedules were disrupted. More than 140 matches were postponed and the back-log of fixtures meant that the football season did not eventually finish until June 14th, making it the longest of all time.

On 4th March, newspaper headlines held out hope for an end to The Freeze. “Real thaw tomorrow“ . “Complete Change”. “Mild weather forecast“.
But the Air Ministry had got it horribly wrong. Instead of a thaw, fresh blizzards swept across the country. In the Scottish Highlands, drifts more than 23ft deep were reported.
There were stirring tales of heroism. In Wales, the villagers of Llanstephan risked their lives to dig out an eight-mile route through to Carmarthen so that a soldier, who had contracted a serious disease while in the Army, could be driven to his parents’ home.

In the second week of March, milder air did finally start to move up from the south-west. The drama, however, was far from over: on 17th March London was hit by a hurricane and the thaw led to severe flooding in over 30 counties. Somehow though, the country muddled through.

Perhaps the stoicism that Britons had shown in the winter of 1946/7 was best personified by postman Samuel Jones of Denbigh. On March 6th, Jones had left the town at 7am to make his round of deliveries in the Bylchau district six miles away. At 8.30pm a day later, a “battered, bruised and exhausted postman” crawled into Bylchau Post Office and collapsed. But he had delivered all his mail. Could we expect such devotion to service today?

The never-say-die spirit that enabled Britain to win the war also helped see it through its toughest winter for over 100 years.


Neil Craig said...

Oh for the days before global warming ;-)

Peter Nolan said...

... and US aid.

Wait a moment, if society was superior in those days, as you claim, how come Britain was losing a war in the Middle East, this time against the less than vast forces of Begin and Shamir?

Peter Nolan said...

How exactly do you "remember" the winter of 1947?

You should remember the winter of 1978 too, shouldn't you? Labour government, Viscount Wedgwood-Benn's friends in the unions running the country...

Remember those privatised utilities? Well, Tate & Lyle was slated for nationalisation at one stage before being left alone. The UK had the three day week, but did they ever run out of sugar?

Anonymous said...

I was just surfing on Google to find some information about the winter of 1947 and came across your blog article about this subject.

It made for interesting and informative reading. My parents had talked about some of their experiences, though both of them where still children then. My mother also mentioned about the winter of 1962/3, how cold it was and how they had to dig a path from the house to the coal shed so as to have enough coal to make the fire each day.
After all those years, they still have a coal fire, having never converted to central heating.

I think that my winter experiences pale into insignificance in comparison!

We have had a mild winter where I am living now, until last week when a heavy snowfall made life very interesting.

Anyway, thank you for the article. It made for interesting reading.
I may visit again in the future if I have a spare moment.


Anonymous said...

rapidly approaching my 60th birthday,[I was born on 6th feb 1947] I was more than interesed in your article. I am told that I was born in my grandmother's house which had no electricity and with rationing still in force,not a lot of food for either my mother or me! I wonder how, as a nation, we would cope with life if the same conditions were to visit today!

G's Cottage said...

I am placing a link to your post on today's post. My mother and sister had pen pals in Yorkshire and Scotland between 1957-47. I have transcribed the letters in hopes someone recognizes the authors.

Gil Hughes said...

From Gil Hughes b 1942.

I remember that the snow in our back garden in Romford Essex was deeper than my child-sized wellies could handle; the snow poured in and I developed chilblains.
We burnt our WW2 chicken-run and roost-box for fue1 I seem to remember. But I suspect that 1963 was worse, more cold even if less snow. Whilst in 1947 fuel was short, in 1963 the generating stations went on strike (just to even things out?) For our evening meal I remember having to warm tinned soup up with a blowlamp in my workshop; we had recently gone 'all electric' and had no gas.
Although it is only January 2011, (we still have the worst months to come)it does make me smile when I heard the 'doom and gloom' merchants before Christmas 2010 saying it 'was the worse weather for 100 years'

tony rainsford said...

I was 17 in 1947 and lived in a liverpool backstreet. the 'kitchen' had a coalfire and gaslight.and that was the sum of our mod cons. Snow drifts were 20ft high and the country ground to a halt.We had no coal so I searched for wood to no avail. i chopped up the attic door then a bedroom door,then a rosewood sideboard,old shoes, books, anything to keep out the intense cold. I prospected for pieces of coal on the bomb site opposite. The winter of 1963/4 was a piece of cake in comparison.t