50 Years Ago – Wiltshire’s Big Freeze of 1963
Just a few of us at the History Centre were at school during the blizzards and Arctic-seeming conditions of early 1963 and can reflect on how slight recent snowfalls seem! It was Wiltshire’s worst blizzard for 80 years and surpassed the really bad winter of 1947. Some snow had fallen on Boxing Day; we missed a white Christmas as usual, while a further 6 inches fell over the weekend on 29th and 30th December. This was a proper Christmas holiday from school; snowmen were built and furious snowball fights peppered the streets and parks, although drifting snow meant that some families had to dig themselves out of their houses. Most people had plenty of food left over from Christmas and coal and wood for the open fires that still warmed most houses. Many people were still accustomed to walking to work and those that weren’t normally didn’t live far enough away to prevent them working.
New Year’s Eve saw a great change from this largely cheerful existence. A blizzard swept in from the west covering everything with a thick blanket of snow and causing difficulties for people returning from New Year’s Eve parties. New Year’s Day saw a rise in temperature and a slight thaw leading optimists to believe the worst was over. However overnight on the following two days another blizzard, followed by freezing rain, caused chaos. Throughout the county most major roads were closed for some hours despite 700 council roadmen and 200 snow clearing vehicles (snow ploughs and lorries and tractors with ploughs attached) working day and night. The total cost to Wiltshire County Council was around £50,000 – to put this in perspective road salt was £5 per ton whereas on line prices are now around £75 to £90 per ton. In towns, urban district council (UDC) workmen were clearing roads in the town centres but frozen snow several feet deep remained blocking side streets. In Trowbridge the UDC spent £4,000 on this operation.
Most motorists obeyed instructions not to make even essential journeys, although some cars were buried in snow and only found (empty) by snow ploughs a few days later. Villages relied heavy on delivery vehicles for most provisions and there was great disruption with some, such as Bratton, being unreachable. In Beechingstoke the rector of Woodborough was out clearing snow when he was called upon to act as a midwife as no nurses could reach the village. The baby was delivered safely. Two coaches were abandoned at Stourton and East Knoyle, the Bath to Salisbury bus was abandoned at Shrewton and many stranded motorists were put up by local families, although passengers from one car had to be rescued by helicopter from Willoughby Hedge, near Mere, However all train services were maintained due to the “superhuman efforts of the railway men” (Wiltshire Times January 4th 1963).
Some towns were cut off by reason of snow and abandoned vehicles and hills in Bradford on Avon, and many other parts of Wiltshire were impassable for long periods. I believe the infamous Brass Knocker Hill, up the side of the Avon valley into Bath was closed for many days. In Trowbridge, despite the Town Hall clock freezing, I returned to Trowbridge Boys’ High school on 8th January as planned, although 75% of all Wiltshire school remained closed. Walking alongside snow piled to the height of my 14 year old shoulders was a surreal experience, as was being out in the early evening when the townscape and fields were so light despite the black skies overhead.
However to our joy the school did not have enough fuel to provide heating for more than one day and it closed that evening, but in common with most schools did reopen two days later. At this time, when most teachers lived within easy reach of their school, providing the pipes didn’t burst and schools could be heated they were able to open.
The freeze lasted throughout January and snow was still lying on the ground in places until the end of March as there was a further blizzard in early February. In Trowbridge 16½ inches of snow were recorded and throughout Wiltshire there were 27 consecutive days when the temperature was mostly below freezing point – on only 10 of those days did it rise to a degree or two above freezing for an hour or two. These slight rises in temperature did produce some splendid long icicles with which we could have sword fights. The lowest urban temperature recorded was 4°F as we thought in those days; -16°C in today’s thinking. It was probably a little colder in the countryside.
People managed as best they could and most able-bodied men and boys were out helping to clear snow and ice. Mail was delivered to villages by postmen walking from the towns when the post vans could not get in. Some people in villages dug out sleds and skis from their attics and brought food and fuel into their villages; it was estimated that millions of small birds only survived because of food put out in gardens. Foxes, squirrels, and other wild animals apparently became ‘tame’, appearing in gardens in search of food as they were starving. Fuel was a problem as coal merchants were overwhelmed with orders but could not get their delivery lorries on the road. Many people took sack trucks and trolleys to the coal merchants’ yards, which were often at the railway station (the Beeching axe was poised to strike Devizes and Melksham stations only a few months later), and brought home their own fuel.
One major problem was the fracturing of gas mains owing to the extreme cold and some people suffered gas poisoning in their houses. Others died by sleeping in a downstairs room with an anthracite stove burning to keep warm and were overcome by the fumes. It wasn’t only in the snow and ice outdoors that danger lurked. However although road accidents in January 1963 rose to 478 from 387 in the previous year fewer people were injured; at least the ice meant vehicles were travelling more slowly when they collided.
In the great freezes of previous centuries fairs took place on frozen rivers, oxen were roasted on the ice and even printing presses were set up and an edition of the local paper printed. In an echo of this the Devizes Motor Club held a car rally on the frozen Crammer in the town. Rivers were also frozen in 1963 and the weir at Staverton on the Bristol Avon remained frozen until the end of January.
The Wiltshire Scouts were pretty hardy and held their 5th Winter Expedition from 28th December to 4th January. They hiked through Redlynch, Fordingbridge, Lymington, and around the Isle of Wight, staying in village halls, before returning to Salisbury. Here they cleared the snow from the roof of the cathedral. However to warm people up during January the Astoria at Chippenham and the Odeon in Trowbridge were showing Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday. I must have seen it in that month and if my imagination was fired by the possibility of taking a Mediterranean holiday it must have been partly due to the film and partly to the extreme cold outside the cinema.
County Local Studies Librarian