Memories of 1947 - A Winters Hell

severe winters


Since daily meteorological records began in Britain in the 17th century, there have been a number of severe winters. The coldest of all was probably 1684, when the diarist John Evelyn took a coach to Lambeth along the frozen River Thames. There was an exceptionally cold and protracted winter in 1739/40 when, between November 1739 and May 1740, snow fell on 39 days in the London area. January in both 1795 and 1814 were colder than January 1740, and the month of February in 1855, 1895 and 1947 were colder than February 1740.


England and Wales would have to wait 223 years for a winter as cold as 1740: 1963. But what was so remarkable about the 1739/40, however, is that the mean temperatures of both January and February were below 0-C in the Midlands and southern England. The only other known instance of two successive months with mean temperatures below freezing took place in December 1878 and January 1879.


Extreme weather hit the West Country Hard


IN THE bitter winter of 1947 snow fell somewhere throughout the whole country every day from the end of January to the middle of March. But, here in Bristol, we also had to cope with floods and winds of more than 70 miles an hour.


It was on January 24 that people woke up to the start of what was to become known as 'The Big Freeze'. At the city's airport - then situated at Whitchurch - the mercury in the thermometer plunged to -5.6-C (22-F) with about 5.6-C (10-F) of frost.


The next day the Post reported that ice, snow and fog had combined to dislocate the city's traffic flow. A 10 per cent reduction in electricity voltage across the city was ordered but some districts were completely disconnected from all supplies. While people living in Falcondale Road, Westbury-on-Trym, were groping around in their homes and trying to cook breakfast with improvised heating, their neighbours in Downs Cote Drive still had their lights burning. Two cinemas and a theatre in Old Market were all without lights for an hour on February 3 - the filmgoers were told they could sit it out or return another day.


At the King's Cinema the power cut came just at the climax of the second feature, a dramatic moment centring on the result of the heavyweight championship of the world. The cast of Dick Whittington at the Empire weren 't going to let a mere blackout stop their show - they continued with the aid of candles and night lights. At the end of January we were hit by 'The Great Bizzard'.


There was a big fall of snow-19cm (7.5 inches) at Long Ashton - and in Bristol 38 ploughs and scrapers were used to clear the streets with the help of 200 lorries and about 1,000 men. Many offices reported that staff were working in overcoats, gloves and scarves - some even had blankets wrapped around them. Factory workers were often sent home as their machines refused to work on the reduced voltage.


One tragic story belongs to a Great Western Railway worker, a Mr Henry Holley, who at 56 was walking into work from the village of Bitton. After three miles in atrocious conditions he collapsed and died.


February 24 was the coldest night for 18 years; the thermometer at Bristol's University's research station at Long Ashton dropped to -12.8-C (9-F). As the severe frost continued it led to the death of a 70-year-old Bedminster man. His sister was found unconscious on the settee. On March 3, weather conditions began to improve and thousands of workers went back to their benches for the first time in three weeks. Meanwhile, farmers were using tractors and \ off-road vehicles to get milk to the Cross Hands Hotel at Old Sodbury where it was collected by lorry.


Then, after the snow and ice, came the thaw and the rain. After the heaviest downpour Bristol had seen for months fell on March 11 the river Frome rose 104cm (3ft Sin) in just 24 hours. Allotments adjoining Bell Hill, Stapleton, were under several feet of water. At Keynsham, the river Avon was reported to be half a mile wide and 4.6m (15 feet) above normal.


By the middle of March there was a sudden change in the weather. A gust of wind was recorded at 77mph at Long Ashton. At Lawrence Hill the side of a house collapsed. Fifteen years later history was to repeat itself. As Bristolians were putting out the cat on Boxing Day night 1962, snow started falling. But this wasn't the Christmas card variety but a blizzard - the first of many to hit the city over the next two months. In that time there were nearly 40 snowfalls creating drifts up to 5.5m (18 feet) deep.


Conditions were so bad that the Bristol Post advised its readers to 'Slip home - then stay there'. It was good advice - three days later there were 4ft drifts across some parts of the city. On the last day of the year the paper's front page screamed, 'Misery Monday' -we were in the icy grip of the worst blizzards since 1947.


The litany of chaos, damage and disruption makes depressive reading. Scores of villages around Bristol were cut off and minor roads closed for weeks on end. Schools were closed and bus services badly disrupted. It was impossible for transport to climb the twisting hill from Bishopsworth into Dundry and a coach party was trapped at Ston Easton on the Mendips for nearly 24 hours. At various times, half of the train services in and out of Temple Meads station were cancelled. Two trains were almost buried in snowdrifts at Yate and Bristol Airport, now at Lulsgate, was closed for five days. In Clifton, the weight of the snow on a house caused the roof to collapse.


In just one weekend in January the council received more than 2,000 calls for help from tenants with burst water pipes. There was so much snow on the roads that 1,000 council workers were employed full time clearing it, day and night. It was then loaded into a fleet of lorries and tipped into the river Avon at Coronation Road. When the thaw finally arrived, council officials were left to count the cost of one of the worst winters on record. Clearing the streets alone had cost some £250,000.


There was a further fall of snow, again after a sudden short lived thaw, on the night of the 6th of February. In Bristol 38 ploughs and 'scrapers' were used to clear the streets with 200 lorries and 1,000 men. These men may well have been transferred from refuse collection as these services had been suspended due to the snow fall.


The snow depth of the latest fall was 7 inches at Long Ashton, the heaviest for 20 years. Many bus routes in Bristol became impassable including Stoke Hill, Druid Hill, Cranbrook Road, Horfield Road, Kings Drive, Falcondale Road and Westbury Hill.


Domestic and some industrial users were now being denied electricity in a systematic way twice per day between the times of 7.30 to 11.30 in the morning and again at 12.15 to 5.15 in the afternoon. I guess dinner was early and quick!


One of the major industries in Bristol, the St Anne's Board Mills, with 1,500 workers, stated it was having to close down for a few days because of the fuel shortage. After no potatoes in the city for 16 days a consignment of 600 tons arrived at Avonmouth in the middle of February.Fresh snow on the 21st of February rendered Park Street, Bristol, un-negotiable to buses. The temperature by now was a real concern considering the power cuts and the lack of comforts afforded to most of the population.


Records were being broken: it was already colder than the previous coldest February recorded at Long Ashton which was in 1929. Air temperatures at this station fell to -12.8-C (9-F), and on the ground the temperature plummeted to -20.6-C (-5-F). At Fry's factory, Somerdale, Keynsham, they recorded an air temperature of only —15.6-C (4-F).


During the coldest part of February, which was towards the end of the month, there was very little sun and it seems for one period, from the 15th to the 24th, there was no sunshine at all! For the first time since 1895 the Bristol Floating Harbour became frozen over.


The Bristol Evening post on Tuesday the 25th of February and were as follows:-


Fry's factory, Somerdale, Keynsham -15.0-C (5-F) Long Ashton -14.4-C (6-F)


Bristol Airport, Whitchurch -15.6-C (4-F)


When on the 26th of the month the temperature rose to a very ordinary 5-C (41-F) the papers thought it so remarkable that it was the headline story on the front page. Perhaps we should bear in mind that it was the first day in three weeks that the minimum temperature had risen above freezing.


By the end of February the winter so far had claimed a further two victims when an elderly couple were killed by a frost fractured gas pipe in South Street, Bedminster. Burst water pipes were causing enormous hardship to a great many people and the water board was in a 'crisis' over its lost supplies.


On the 3rd of March the local papers were reporting a return to normal with a warm weekend that brought sightseers out to Bristol Zoo and Weston-super-Mare. It was also the sunniest day since the previous September! Despite the optimism expressing the hope that the awful winter had passed the temperature only reached 5.4-C (41.7-F) over that weekend. Of course the hope that winter was done was immediately dashed when on the 5th of March the most violent blizzard of the whole winter swept the country.


On the plateau of the Cotswolds 500 vehicles were stranded in drifts, reported in the Gloucester Echo, as deep as an amazing 20 feet, yet another blizzard in this devastating winter.


The AA said that all roads in the Cotswolds were impassable and in the whole region 260 important roads were blocked with many villages cut off. Trains to London were held up, country buses were badly hit and the 40 lorries out gritting had a torrid time of it. Another hazard was the breaking of large branches as the weight of ice became unsustainable. This latest blizzard was said to be the worst of the whole six weeks of the winter. In many places drifts were piled up to the roofs of houses and people were stranded in buses and cars.


Drifts were reported to 12 feet in the Stroud valley. Two Bristol bound buses had become firmly stuck and buses travelling between Cheltenham to Oxford, one in each direction, took some time to even locate. Rescue parties were made up and set out struggling to reach the isolated travellers to give them food.


The railway line crossing the Cotswolds had become blocked at Notgrove and trains that had set out returned to Cheltenham unable to get through. The Inns on the hills were doing a brisk trade with the stranded taking refuge for the night. The main A40 route was said to have 7-8 foot drifts along its entire length. The police of Northleach and a party of prisoners-of-war set out to get food to the stranded and eventually two massive bulldozers got through to Northleach.


Even several days later the road was still only really open to essential traffic. One of the casualties in the snowbound Cotswolds was a hearse, complete with coffin, which was stranded for five days. Unfortunately after the snow fall the wind became stronger and the snow was being whipped up into new drifts. The village of Chedworth reported drifts of seven feet. Cold Ashton was experiencing "solid blocks of snow" and was completely isolated from neighbouring villages.


Black and White coach services, based in Cheltenham, but which covered much of the country were trying desperately to maintain a service but they had coaches stuck in several places. The coaches travelling north toward Cheltenham were being turned back at Bristol.


On a lighter note the R.A.F. Meteorological station at Moreton-in-Marsh could not record the ground temperature as the thermometers were lost under four feet of snow.


Great snowdrifts blocked the Birdlip to Cirencester road with some of the homes in Birdlip cut off by drifts six feet deep even after the thaw had set in at lower levels. At nearby Winstone the farmer delivered milk to the main Cirencester to Gloucester road by tractor where a lorry would take over for the perilous journey south. Lorries were almost buried for several days on even the main Cotswold routes.


One of the major concerns for farmers was to get fodder to their stranded livestock on top of the Cotswolds. The Cheltenham police, led by the Chief Constable, marched double file up Birdlip Hill with each man carrying a heavy pack of provisions for the village.


Near Cheltenham villagers from Brockhampton and Severnhampton set out to walk to Shipton to get bread from the bakery there. Two people set out from Marshfield to Tog Hill to get yeast for bread making and they finally made the three mile journey after an heroic journey that took nearly seven hours and required them to overcome 14 foot drifts.

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Taken on May 17, 2009