Nowadays we are familiar with severe weather events – climate change has altered our seasons resulting in populations across the world experiencing forest fires, floods and droughts. But back in 1940s Britain such dramatic weather was unexpected. What’s more, there was little in the way of weather forecasting available for the average family – certainly not the extensive weather maps we see on our television screens nowadays.
And so, on 23rd January 1947, when heavy snow began to fall, with massive snowdrifts blocking roads and railways and causing problems with the transportation of coal to the electric power stations, families across Britain experienced harsh changes which affected every part of their daily life. It was the start of Britain’s most severe and protracted spell of bad weather during the twentieth century.
Water pipes froze, gas was at about a quarter of its normal pressure – people wore coats to bed – even hats – as temperatures plummeted. People stood at standpipes in the street to fill buckets with water.
With electricity being in short supply many homes were limited to having power only nineteen hours each day and some supplies to industry were cut completely. The Longbridge Austin Motor Works closed down completely through lack of fuel. Street lighting was dimmed – or turned off altogether. Radio broadcasts were limited, television suspended and several magazines were told to stop publishing. Even the size of newspapers was affected – all in a bid to save power. And all these restrictions – coming on top of the austerity measures that were in place as a result of the post-war economic difficulties – meant that public morale was badly affected. The Minister of Fuel and Power at the time – Emanuel Shinwell – became a target for complaints. He even received death threats and had to be placed under police guard.
Coal miners were asked to increase their production – but they were working in impossible conditions, with pitheads often frozen solid and many mines completely inaccessible. And even when the coal was ready to leave the colliery, the problems on the roads and railways meant it was difficult, if not impossible, to get it to where it needed to be.
The situation worsened as the severe weather continued into February. Vegetables were frozen in the ground – there were fears of a food shortage. This, on top of the food rationing that was still in place. Up to this point, vegetables had never been rationed – but now it looked as though the potatoes, carrots and swede and sprouts that had formed the mainstay of family meals were going to be in short supply.
The novelist, Christopher Isherwood, was visiting London for the first time since the war and commented on what he found during the Big Freeze:
The adrenaline (of war) was no longer being pumped into our veins. We endured with misery and loathing the continual fuel cuts, the rooms private and public in which we shivered in our exhausted overcoats, while the snow blizzards swept through the country again and yet again.From Austerity Britain, by David Kynaston
It was a bleak time – no wonder public morale was at its lowest. The freezing conditions were to be endured, unlike the wartime privation, which at least could be tackled with nationalism spurring people on.
But with the war in mind, on Sunday 16th February Welsh miners worked a full shift – Coal Sunday – receiving praise for having a ‘Dunkirk spirit’.
On it continued, with a black out on the streets – only traffic lights remaining. If electricity was used during restricted times people faced a fine, or three months in jail – such was the seriousness of the situation affecting the whole country. Casualty departments were busy with young and old slipping and sliding on treacherous pavements. The milk – delivered to doorsteps by intrepid milkmen – was frozen solid threatening to crack the glass milk bottles as it expanded.
On the 8th March 1947 the headline article of the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported:
The paralysing grip of this Arctic winter continues to strangle transport and hold up food and industrial supplies in more of the country. Birmingham was again cut off by road from London and most of the south east.Coventry Evening Telegraph 8th March 1947
Wildlife was also suffering…
When a rapid thaw set in at Hastings, hundreds of birds, frozen to death, fell from the trees.Coventry Evening Telegraph 8th March 1947
With the thaw and accompanying rain came widespread floods destroying wheat crops and even more of the potato harvest. A frozen February was followed by the wettest March for thirty years! And if that wasn’t enough, gale-force winds blew down trees and the Army and Red Cross made sure milk reached families who were otherwise cut off. Food parcels arrived from as far away as Canada.
This wasn’t just a bad weather event – the knock-on effects were long lasting. Thousands of Britains emigrated to Australia – the land of endless sunshine! The people blamed the Labour Government, while the Government blamed the weather. But with the problems created by the Big Freeze, coming on top of the difficulties created by the economic crisis of post-war finances, the currency was less stable and, coupled with the emergence of the dollar as the currency of choice for foreign reserves, it was the beginning of Britain’s decline from superpower status.
Never has spring been so longed for!