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Frozen in time, the winter of 1962-63


BECAUSE of the coronavirus crisis, the chilling news is that the UK economy is on track for its worst year since the Great Frost of 1709

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, Gross Domestic Product – the total value of goods and service produced by the country – will shrink by 11.3 per cent this year.  

That’s almost as bad as when the Great Frost, a spell of killingly cold weather which suddenly hit Britain and much of Europe, sent the Georgian economy plunging by up to 14 per cent.

Starting on January 5, 1709, it lasted for three months, bringing trade and commerce to a virtual standstill. The cold killed people, animals and crops, leading to famine and food riots. 

Every stretch of open water became as hard as iron. It was so cold that bread and meat were turned into inedible lumps of ice, while wine froze solid. Church bells, made brittle by the sub-zero temperatures, cracked when they were rung. Even the rich, who could afford a roaring fire, found it almost impossible to keep warm. The poor just died.  

In England, clergyman-scientist William Derham recorded a low of 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 12 Celsius) saying: ‘I believe the Frost was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within the memory of Man.’  

So the 1709 event was certainly one hell of a cold snap. Another Great Frost, better known as The Big Freeze, came more than 250 years later, in 1962-1963. It lasted more than two months and is an abiding memory for those of us of more mature years.  

It started snowing on Boxing Day 1962 as a massive anticyclone wobbled across from Siberia and planted itself over Britain. Soon the whole country was engulfed by snow up to 20ft deep.  

Blizzards followed and with temperatures down to -4F (-20C), canals and rivers froze, seaports were icebound and there were ice floes in the Channel.  

Rural areas suffered most, with farms and villages cut off. At first, roads and railways were badly hit and life virtually ground to a halt for a while.   

But as I remember it (I was 12), things quickly got back to something near normal and everyone became accustomed to life in the freezer.   

Being in a town, my family got off relatively lightly. Most folk cleared the snow from the immediate area at the front of their houses and prevented slipping by throwing cinders from the firegrate on to the pavement.  

We had no central heating or hot water supply in our house, just one coal fire. So we kept muffled up during the day and at night piled on to the beds all the coats and blankets available.  

Many schools in the worst-hit areas were forced to close, but in ours – where all the pipes had burst and there was no heating – we stirred the inkwells to stop them freezing and simply shivered as we learned.  

I vividly remember two fellow pupils trudging through knee-deep snow, carrying in a crate of milk. No bottles could be seen – it was just a single, solid lump of ice.  

But outside school, the freeze was heaven for us children and we scarcely noticed the bitter cold while playing out. Every night there were slides, snowball fights, snowman-building sessions, fencing with icicles and pretending to smoke by blowing long plumes of vapour in the still, clear air.   

The council dumped huge mounds of cleared snow on a patch of wasteland near our house and we were soon burrowing into this mini-Himalaya range to make igloos.  

As for the adults, they just got on with it. Our parents’ generation had been through the war years and endured the awful snowbound winter of 1947, so were generally unfazed by a little more hardship.   

It’s tempting for us oldies to remember how such a massively disruptive weather event was dealt with calmly, sensibly and stoically back then, and wonder how it would be tackled now in the so-called ‘snowflake’ era (no pun intended).  

I supposed it helped that we didn’t have 24-hour rolling news channels putting the fear of God up us, idiots on the internet and social media whipping things into a frenzy, or politicians running round like headless chickens. As I said, people just got on with it. 

Towards the end of the harsh weather, around March 1963, the BBC’s Tonight programme made a documentary, The Big Freeze, about the dreadful winter. It was reshown in 2013 as part of the Winterwatch series, presented by Chris Packham, and can be seen here on YouTube. 

As well as being a fascinating watch, it’s also worth seeing for the clear, matter-of-fact presentation by Cliff Michelmore, Kenneth Allsop and Derek Hart.   

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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