Memories of the Winter of 1947
The recent cold snap was nothing compared to ‘47’. It was not long after the war, there was a world shortage of food and our position was made worse by a lack of foreign currency. (Britain was broke and our American ‘allies’, who had grown richer during the war, were not being very helpful, but that is another story). Food rationing was still severe, in December 46 fat ration had been reduced from 8oz to 7oz/person/week (that was all fats and there were no oils for frying). In January 47 the meat ration was reduced and bread had been put on ration for the first time. Discontent grew as it was learned that the situation was much better in Germany. There were strikes by transport workers that led to shortages of coal and the army was used to move goods.
So that was the background when, in the third week of January, the snow fell heavily and it was the start of the big freeze and the beginning of what was to become the worst winter since 1881. Transport difficulties became acute, it became difficult to obtain even the meagre rations. Coal supplies became severely reduced. Practically all our electricity was generated in coal fired power stations and it became necessary to introduce power cuts, gas was produced from coal and gas pressures were lowered in order to conserve gas supplies, reducing the pressure increased the risk of fires and explosions from gas installations, many industries used coal directly for industrial processes, steel and cotton mills in particular. Over four million workers found themselves unable to work.
Coal piled up at the pits but it could not be moved as roads and rails were blocked with snowdrifts, some as deep as 20ft were reported, 22miles of the A1 were completely impassable for many days. Some coal was usually transported by coastal colliers and barges but blizzards and frozen coastal seas prevented them from moving. The same conditions kept the fishing fleets in port exacerbating the food shortage. Isolated communities in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk were supplied from the air by the RAF.
People carried on as best they could, pubs, restaurants and offices operated in candlelight. Houses were of a much lower standard than they are these days, hardly anyone had central heating in their house and heating was mostly by open fires, insulation was practically non-existent, windows and doors were often ill fitting, no windows were double glazed. The shortage of coal for domestic use and the power cuts and low gas pressures meant that it was very difficult to keep a house warm. Frozen pipes were common place.
The freeze finally released its grip in early March and the resultant floods were widespread and catastrophic for many. It was estimated that two million sheep were lost along with half a million acres of wheat. It was a period of severe hardship for very many people, the elderly must have suffered badly, emergency and support services were greatly hampered, no one knows how many died as a result of the weather.
I was 16 at the time and remember the situation at home. We had a modest sized kitchen with cooker and sink etc in an attached small scullery. We lived in that kitchen where there was a fairly large wooden table and a boiler for heating, the boiler was of a type that could be opened up and could be built up to provide great radiant warmth. Because of the fuel shortage that was the only fire that we could use in what was quite a large three storey house, anywhere in the house outside of the kitchen was bitterly cold. Getting fuel during that winter was a nightmare, the coal merchants had difficulty in getting coal and in getting round to deliver, as soon as he appeared with his lorry he was besieged and generally allowed each customer just 1cwt and that lasted little more than just a few days. We burned almost anything we could find on that kitchen stove, at considerable cost my father managed to get hold of a load of wooden road blocks with a bitumen coating, they burned beautifully. One way or another we did manage to keep the fire burning during the day, but not everybody was that lucky.
We all slept in freezing cold bedrooms, we wore our dressing gowns in bed and put coats on top of the bedclothes. In the morning the moisture from our breath had frozen on the outer bed covers and it was necessary to have a scraper to clean the ice off the inside of the window. In the mornings I would take off the pyjamas that I had worn in bed and put on another pair of pyjama trousers to wear underneath my outer trousers (I didn’t have any longjohns). We were fortunate because our one fire also heated the water so it was possible to have a bath but the bathroom was freezing, many other people had difficulty in maintaining personal hygiene during that winter. We had repeated trouble with frozen pipes but luckily no bursts, unlike many other houses.
It was not all gloom for young folk, we did tend to go hungry at times but we did have some fun. My younger brother and I built a large toboggan using an old bunk bed from the Anderson shelter and getting a neighbour with a gas welding set to attach runners, we had a lot of fun with that on Streatham Common, we could get half a dozen kids on board, but its end came when we crashed into a tree, the crew baled out in time.
Roads in town were not cleared of snow, I do not remember much use of salt, grit was spread on the roads by men standing on the back of a lorry and throwing shovels full as they moved along, the grit did get embedded in the hard snow surface and that did improve the grip to some extent. For reasons that I do not know the hard snow formed into ridges to produce a corrugated surface that shook cars with wooden framed bodies to pieces and broke leaf springs. Another odd phenomenon was the way in which ice blisters formed beneath the surface of the road pushing the surface up, I saw one such formation that was removed from under the surface, it was perfectly formed about half a metre in diameter and about ten centimetres thick at the centre.
People had suffered in many ways during the war and were probably hardened as a result, they faced this additional trial very stoically. When I hear people complaining today about a road not being salted and pavements not cleared I have to smile. It’s the same people who complain about a ‘nanny state’. If they don’t want the state to look after them they should get on with situations themselves instead of whinging.