"Hardest winter since 1740
Taking temperatures in the Midlands as representative, the months
December-February have been the coldest since 1740. March, too, is likely to
be colder than normal. We have long been accustomed to regard our Victorian
grandfathers with a mixture of awe and annoyance. They were the men who wore
boots: who told us tales of ice-yachting on Windermere in 1895, of that
coach on the Oxfordshire Thames in 1891, of the historic blizzards of 1886
in the North-east and 1881 in the South-west, of the prolonged ordeal by
cold from November, 1878, to May, 1879. They also founded the Meteorological
Office to provide a satisfactory public record of these events so that we
might pay heed in future.
Then came 45 years with only two severe winters: 1917 snowy and prolonged,
1929 short, sunny, and sharp. At length in 1940 they began again and it was
Lancashire's turn to experience a snowfall probably unmatched since1823.
Lancashire weather has an individual eccentric quality very appropriate to
that county of comedians, boggarts, and pure mathematicians. It does not
always fit with what goes on elsewhere; this year the lowlands have been
relatively free from snow and Manchester broke its record for January
sunshine. And in Oswaldtwistle and those parts, who has yet forgotten that
glorious snowfall on May 16, 1935 ? Last year's sunny Bank Holiday at
Blackpool was almost unpardonable in the opinion of the rainswept South,
where the legend of better weather is so strenuously upheld.
Compared with the South, Lancashire and the North. western lowlands
generally, from Anglesey to Ayr, have of late been relatively favoured. This
is because it has been one of those winters with a high proportion of east
winds reaching the southern counties by the short sea route. Tynemouth, in
January, was considerably warmer than Plymouth ; indeed, from an amateur
record kept early last century it seems that to equal the January of 1963
for cold and snow in Devonshire we must go back to 1814. By the same token,
average temperatures in Scotland have not departed anything like so far
below normal as in the South. Aberdeen, this February, shows itself a shade
warmer than Blackpool and but little below Plymouth.
Such a distribution owes much to the prevailing wind and the fact that
throughout the South and Midlands snow came earlier and lay more deeply; and
the strong cold east wind provided plenty of frozen ground before the
snowfalls began on Boxing Day. Scotsmen noted similar differences in
historic winters long ago, such as 1709 and 1891. South of Staffordshire and
away from the East coast, January's average temperature fell below that of
1940, 1881, and 1838. We must go back to 1814 to beat it.
But farther north the winter of 1881 was colder. So far there has been no
report of individual minimum temperatures surpassing those of 1881 and 1940
in January or 1895 in February. Reports of -8deg. F. and -10deg. F. on
Speyside have come in: but in past winters Scotland has gone below -15deg.,
England down to -10deg. and -11deg. (Fahrenheit is used here because most
people are more familiar with it.)
Quite evidently the cold last weekend will ensure that very many places will
record both January and February below 32deg.: a very rare phenomenon in the
lowlands. In consequence frost, here and there, has penetrated over two feet
into the ground, as it did in 1895 near Liverpool, where there was little
snow. Whatever may be said about individual extreme minima in unusual
localities, the contribution of length with strength is best demonstrated by
taking the mean temperature over the three months of " winter," December to
From long before the days of official records this island has provided its
splendid quota of eccentric amateurs of every sort, not least those who
contracted the habit of reading thermometers day by day. John Dalton stuck
his head out of his bedroom window in Manchester with memorable regularity,
while his equally punctual brother at Kendal satisfied his curiosity in the
shade of what he called a large gooseberry tree.
Such records-and there are many-can be integrated to provide us
representative values of the mean temperature characteristic of the Midlands
for more than 240 years. Only twice in all that time have there been two
successive months below freezing point, December-January, 1878-79, and
January-February, 1740. For the lowlands in Northern England, however,
January-February in 1838 and 1895 can be added. February, 1895, was
considerably colder than January that year, and this probably explains why
in 1895 Windermere seems to have been more thoroughly frozen than in 1963.
But in 1740 we learn that " heavy-laden carts and droves of cattle " crossed
the frozen lake.
Temperatures for the Midlands are reasonably representative of the wide
area, from,Canterbury to Chester and from York to Exeter, where this wicked
winter has been but little exercised; and if we use the mean for the three
months December-February as an index of "winter" it is clear that it will
rank, below 1879, 1814, and 1795, as the coldest since 1740.
A table giving all the winters that appear to have departed 4deg. F. or more
below the 1931 to 1960 average follows : they average one every ten years,
but are irregularly scattered. Before 1729 the departures must be regarded
as estimates only. The winter of 1684 (the " long frost ") is that of "
1681 -5 1740 -7.8 1823 -4.3 1891 -4.4
1684 -9 1766 -4.1 1830 -5.1 1895 -5.0
1695 -6 1780 -4.6 1838 -4.6 1917 -4.4
1697 -4 1784 -5.0 1841 -4.2 1929 -4.0
1698 -5 1785 -4.6 1845 -4.4 1940 -4.5
1709 -5 1795 -6.2 1847 -4.1 1947 -5.1
1716 -6 1814 -6.3 1879 -5.9 *1963 -7.0 *Approximately
In London, where we have nearly three hundred years of data with regard to
the frequency of snow falling, since early November Kew Observatory has
already recorded 2.9 times its normal number of days of snowfall for the
winter. In 1879 just over three times the normal number was observed; in
1695 approximately four times the normal. As March and April are yet to
come, we may well break another record. For snow cover, for which a strict
criterion of observation must be upheld (drifts beneath a wall do not
count), we have scarcely any reliable data before 1912. Hitherto it has
appeared that in the lowlands a total of 50 days above the average is very
rarely likely to be exceeded. But already many South Midlands places will be
close to this total, and still there is March to come and plenty of cold
ground for it to lie on. Nature has not yet used all her trumps, and might
yet lead from a green suit to make the grand slam.
And why ? The westward wrench that appears to have been imposed on the whole
Northern Hemisphere pressure distribution will become the subject of
research for a long time. Some will be tempted to blame warm water in the
Pacific: but an ocean five thousand miles wide requires a lot of
thermometers before we know all about it. Some will look at those very high
"Polar-night westerlies" whose behaviour has recently begun to be watched: a
displacement like that of 1947 has operated for a longer time.
But we can still safely say that 1740 and 1684 were more severe and more
prolonged; that both 1784 and 1785 gave an appallingly cold March; that 1795
broke down with heavy rain and severe floods. We can rightly call this a
great Georgian winter. Perhaps someone with a water-jug will provide us with
Gilbert White's criterion of eighteenth-century severity: " Vessels frozen
within the bedroom," * and it looks like nearly seven chances out of eight
that March will be appreciably colder than normal.
[*Somebody did!-Ed.] "
As reported in the Manchester Guardian booklet "The Long Winter 1962-63"