"Severe winters in Britain
The climatologist's view ... by Professor Gordon Manley
Recent correspondence in the "Guardian" has been of much interest to those
who, in our highly diversified, populous, cottage-pie of an island, venture
to tackle the long, long tale of our meteorological records.
The cumulative impressions given by the available measurements of snow, the
reports of drifting, and the extent of blockage throughout the southern
counties certainly give primacy to the snowstorm of January, 1881. But to Mr
Gold's query about that 15ft. drift that the storm is said to have raised in
Oxford Circus, this comes from a long-lost newspaper report, and hence was
probably an estimate subject to possible exaggeration. Yet contemporary
accounts emphasise the strength of the wind, the exceedingly fine snow, and
the exceptional drifting.
Drifts are commonly estimated to their summit, and under the lee of a
building of suitable height and orientation the side of a wall might well
become plastered to something approaching that depth. Such a drift might be
likely to slope outward for 40ft. or so from the wall, and no doubt would
soon begin to settle. Much depends on wind direction and fetch; the wind was
due east on the morning in question, and New Oxford Street is quite wide.
Sowerby Wallis quoted a report of a drift 13ft. deep at Oxford, where there
was rather more snow than in London; although Glaister at Blackheath
estimated an average of 15in. compared with nine or so in Middlesex.
The possibilities in Oxford Circus gain some support from Mr Lionel Baker's
account (in " Weather," 1958) of a drift 18ft. deep near Cobham station.
Given a lengthy fetch of open fields, this last week in Cambridgeshire has
shown that locally such accumulation can develop, although not generally
This snowfall coming at the end of December has slightly preceded one of the
notable peaks in the frequency of incidence. In London the greatest
frequency of days with snow falling, over 145 years, comes about January 10.
From Hartlepool, Mr Gill was quite right about the greater chance of
snow-fall around "Old Christmas " before the ll-day calendar change in
1752. Both in Edinburgh and in London the records for more than a century
indicate that the frequency of snow has been upward of 30 per cent greater,
and in London the chance that snow will fall appears to increase to about
two in seven for the days in the second week of January.
Various correspondents have noted the snowstorms in particular years -
March, 1947, in Bedfordshire as well as Furness; January, 1940, in the
Chilterns, December, 1927. and February, 1900, around London; March, 1909,
in the West Country. Each of these in individual localities may have been
more striking; but the noteworthy fact this year has been the much more
widespread depth and drifting, not only in the customary uplands fringing
the South Coast but also in the Cotswolds and Central Wales.
Just as in 1881, Lancashire has been relatively favoured, and has a long way
to go yet before it can match January, 1940. According to one eminent
wartime meteorologist, his opposite number on duty at Squires Gate declared
that he was unable to take his observations at all. Blackpool, after all,
must be able to say that sometimes it can match Brighton for bad weather. It
would be unfair if that sunny Bank Holiday last August on the Lancashire
coast were not counterbalanced some day for the benefit of all those
Northerners who have chosen to embower their families amid the suburban
sprawl of Surrey.
Statistically we have been running short of cold Januaries, and a severe
month is by no means out of place. So far, the winter has provided some very
interesting features; notably that quite formidable anticyclone over
Iceland. No doubt we shall soon hear of some exceedingly low temperatures
under the clear, calm skies in the Eastern Highlands, although both they and
the North of England will find it hard to match the sequence of below-zero
temperatures that befell 1881. Even Blackpool went to minus one (Fahrenheit)
in that January.
The historic Januaries of the past 300 years in England were those of 1684,
1716, 1740, 1795, 1814, 1838, 1881, and 1940. We have more than one daily
record during the " Long Frost " of 1683-4, and from the primitive
instrumental readings then kept it appears that the three months
December-February put together make that winter the coldest of all, although
individual months in other winters may have been colder. "
As reported in the Manchester Guardian booklet "The Long Winter 1962-63"