We are into a cold snap, 2010, But —-

Reprinted from The Times:


The winter of ’47: I’ve borrowed a balaclava helmet from Fred to wear in bed!

This winter seems bad but the freeze of 1947, the worst in living memory, tested the resolve of war-weary Britons to the limit,

The big freeze: Derbyshire bus stuck in a snow drift Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection
Dominic Sandbrook 4:43PM GMT 09 Jan 2010Comments

On the morning of Thursday, January 23, 1947, the front page of The Daily Telegraph made deeply depressing reading. “Bread Ration May Be Cut” read the main headline. “Less Bacon and Home Meat. Beer Supplies to be Halved Immediately”. After years of shortages and austerity, this was the last thing Britain’s weary people wanted to hear. But it was another small headline, hidden further down the page, that was to prove more significant. “Snow Falls in London” it said, and in those four short words, many readers had their first glimpse of Britain’s worst winter of the 20th century.

The cruellest cold snap in modern history could not have come at a worse time. In January 1947 Britain was exhausted after the long, valiant but ruinously expensive struggle to defeat the Nazis. The shelves were bare, the Treasury coffers were empty and the coal stocks were perilously low. On New Year’s Day the mines had come into public ownership, joining the railways, road haulage and utilities in the Labour government’s nationalised empire. But with the country already beset by shortages and strikes, the economy was dangerously close to collapse. And when the snow came down, life in Clement Attlee’s New Jerusalem ground to a halt.

In just a few days, so much snow fell on Britain that this week’s freak weather looks like a mere dusting. By the end of January, hundreds of remote Northern farms and villages were cut off by 20-foot snowdrifts, while a bitter 12-hour blizzard off the south coast brought shipping to a complete standstill. In Essex, the drifts were 14 feet deep; in Surrey and Middlesex, millions of commuters stayed at home. The railway network collapsed completely, and by January 29 the temperature in London – minus 9C – was the lowest for half a century, made worse by protracted power cuts. “Freeze up continues,” one Brixton woman wrote in her diary. “Thermometer has been at freezing point all day. Waste pipe in the bathroom and the geyser frozen … Even colder the forecast for tonight, so I’ve borrowed a balaclava helmet from Fred to wear in bed!”

There were plenty of tales of heroism amid the chaos: in the Essex village of Beaumont, the local postmaster trudged 16 miles through six-foot snowdrifts to collect rations for his famished neighbours. But for most people, facing the freezing evenings with the lights out and the heating off, the picture was unrelentingly miserable. “Wearing my snow boots and fur-lined coat I was not once warm,” recorded the upper-class diarist James Lees-Milne. “All my pipes, including WC pipes, are frozen, so a bath or a wash is out of the question. WC at the office frozen likewise … Even the basic elements of civilisation are denied us.”

Since many British cities, scarred by German bombing and years of neglect, looked pretty shabby already, the effect was like something from a post-apocalyptic fantasy. “This is a dying city,” one Londoner said bleakly to an American visitor. In the papers, headlines announced that Scotland was “cut off” and England “cut in half”. On the streets of the capital, some taxi drivers refused to venture north of Regent’s Park. And in the theatres, recalled the novelist Christopher Isherwood, actors took to the stage “heroically stripped down to their indoor clothes, while we their audience huddled together in a tight clump, muffled to the chins in overcoats, sweaters and scarves”.

For many people, however, the trials went well beyond the experience of the cold. By early February, with the snow still falling, the railways silent and the roads shut down, there was no electricity at all for industry in the South and Midlands, and more than two million people were thrown on to the dole. At the pits, stocks of coal were frozen solid, while 75,000 railway wagons laden with coal were cut off by snowdrifts. “I say it’s the judgment of the Almighty on the British people for voting Socialist,” a “thin, scholarly-looking” man eating lunch in his overcoat told a reporter in one West End restaurant. But in a reminder of the deference and stoicism of the day, there was no panic and no disorder as factories shut down. “Britons were in a bristling, grumbling mood,” wrote an American journalist. “But they stood and took it again. The British national character and the British political mood stood out in their words and deeds.”

As many saw it, there was an obvious scapegoat for the crisis of 1947: the balding, outspoken, passionately Left-wing figure of the Minister of Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell. Although Shinwell had been warned that coal stocks were dangerously slow, he had preferred to follow the advice of his friends in the National Union of Mineworkers, and had gambled on a warm winter. Now he found himself forced into the most authoritarian measures since the war. By mid-February, electricity to industry was cut off completely, while families were banned from turning on electric fires between 9am and midday or between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Greyhound racing was banned, the BBC’s Third Programme and the new gimmick of television were cut off, newspapers were cut to four pages, and German PoWs were ordered to clear snow from the railways by hand.

Not surprisingly, many people were furious at the government’s measures. “Starve with Strachey,” ran a popular Tory slogan of the day, mocking Labour’s unpopular Minister of Food, “and Shiver with Shinwell”. The hapless Minister of Fuel was “a yoke around our suffering necks”, agreed one diarist, after recording the spectacles of 15-foot snowdrifts in Northumberland and “queues of professional women in St John’s Wood with buckets at a water-tap in the road”.

And yet despite all the restrictions and privations, there were no riots. Britain in the Attlee years had its fair share of spivs and shirkers, but by and large it was a society proud of its stubbornness and stoicism, and a society in which people rolled up their sleeves and managed to cope. Children in particular were often delighted by the extraordinary weather: one Sheffield schoolboy recalled “tearing downhill on home-made toboggans as we used the public highways as our Cresta Run”. And even at a time when the shops had run out of soap and people were using pneumatic drills to dig up frozen parsnips, celebrity culture still exercised a magnetic appeal. One woman recorded seeing huge crowds outside a Trafalgar Square cinema, desperate to get autographs from Laurel and Hardy. Despite the freezing weather and oceans of slush, she noted, “both were hugely delighted at their reception”.

By the end of February, the cold snap seemed to be easing, and there were reports of factories taking people on again. But then, with a cruel twist, the weather turned again. Ice-floes were spotted off the coast of East Anglia; at Westminster, MPs argued over the fuel restrictions surrounded by 10-foot snowdrifts. By mid-March, 300 roads were still impassable, while Scotland was severed from the rest of the country by 30-foot drifts. More than 20,000 acres of corn had been destroyed by frost, while thousands of sheep lay frozen to death underneath the snow. And before things got better, they got worse. On March 16, one of the severest storms in British history saw the Severn and the Thames burst their banks, the London Underground flooded and more than 31 counties inundated with water. The great frost had given way to the great flood; after months of shivering, Attlee’s Britain now faced months of mopping up.

As though to mock Britain’s exhausted people, the summer of 1947 was freakishly hot where the winter had been appallingly cold. But there was no escaping the winter’s terrible legacy. Industrial output was down by at least 10 per cent, while the cost of the damage was estimated at more than £5 billion in today’s money. At a time when it could least afford it, the economy had taken a fearful battering, and Attlee’s new Chancellor, Sir Stafford Cripps, was forced into a painful series of austerity measures, including stinging tax rises and cuts in domestic consumption. And, in the long run, the crisis took a heavy toll on the reputation of the Attlee government; although he did not lose office until four years later, it was the winter of 1947 that arguably did most to undermine Labour’s Utopian dreams.

But the overriding impression of the great freeze of 1947 is not the grumbling, the misery or even the sheer cold. It is the spectacle of a tired, threadbare people, never happier than when they were grumpy, dragging themselves by sheer grit through the worst winter in living memory. Britain in 1947 was a country that loved complaining, but it was also a society in which people, to use Churchill’s immortal phrase, “kept buggering on”. “Britain Can Take It!” had been the patriotic slogan a few years earlier. And as the winter of 1947 amply proved, it could indeed.

The Anchoress of Shere, Christine Carpenter

We had our very own Anchoress back in the 14th century. She lived in Ash and Willow cottages down by the Tillingbourne , the river which runs through the village, and her father was a carpenter by the name of William. Her name was Christine; the cottages are still there, lived in by generations of other families.

There have been more famous Anchoress’ in Christendom, at least one of whom became a saint, but I think they are all saints, willingly closing themselves off from the world to devote their lives to God. In 1329, our Christine asked to be perpetually enclosed in a cell attached to the wall of the village church, where the opening through which she received her food still exists.

She can’t have been much more than a teen-ager when she made the decision, a decision which was so binding that to change your mind was tantamount to excommunication, thus everlasting hell. But the church fathers investigated her, her family, her life, her friends, to assure themselves that she was indeed chaste and virtuous before they would allow her the privilege of being shut up in a cell. No therapy to help her decide if this ambition was what she really wanted, of course, just proof that she was good enough.

After their investigation as to whether or not she was worthy of such a splendid sacrifice, the then Bishop of Winchester, wrote:

That, whereas she desires for the fulfillment of a better life to remove herself, and spend her life in the service of God and in all sanctity and chastity in the churchyard of the parish church of Schire aforesaid, alongside the church there, striving with her whole heart to endure henceforth perpetual enclosure; we are please to grant her our consent in this matter…”

I often walk along the path in Albury Park, where livestock graze on each side of the fence in spring and summer. There are ancient oak and chestnut trees with trunks several feet in circumference, which she might have seen as younger trees; would have seen the same view as I do across the valley to wooded hills, and seen the spire of the same church. It is a beautiful world, inspiring and soothing. I can almost imagine her gratitude to her God for creating such a world, and to believe an even better one awaited the faithful.  I can understand her wanting to make this huge gesture with all the idealism and passion of a young teen-ager, not fully aware of the consequences.

Then, too, I can imagine that the lives of women were not so inviting to an intelligent and ambitious young woman, as I imagine she was to take such a step. She might have married a labourer , borne several children, half of whom would die, worked hard every day to keep up with the necessities of a large family. Or she might have become an ordinary nun, living in a convent, spending her days in prayer and contemplation with other nuns. But that would not have been enough for Christine.

So she was enclosed.

But in 1333 there is another document. It is a request for the re-enclosure of Christine. She had changed her mind, sometime between 1329 and October, 1332. Letters were written for her (she probably couldn’t write, females not being educated), requesting to be re-enclosed. We don’t know how long she was out of the cell, only that she “had left her cell inconstantly and returned to the world. Now with God’s help changed in heart, wishing to return to her former abode and calling, she has humbly petitioned us that she may be treated mercifully by the Apostolic See. Mercifully!!!!

The letter asked that she be permitted to return to her cell “lest by wandering any longer about the world she be exposed to the bites of the rapacious wolf and, which heaven forbid, her blood be required at your hands”.

Further, if she behaved herself after being re-enclosed, she would be granted a “penance in proportion to her sin; if, however, she neglects to come to you ….. henceforward she shall lapse into the sentence of excommunication. ” So “the said Christine shall be thrust back into the said re-enclosure”, there to contemplate her “nefarious” sin, and be saved .

It is difficult for my 21st century mind to wrap around the language of censure in these documents aimed at a young girl who changed her mind about being shut up in a cell for the rest of her life. Nothing could be more understandable. But it was breaking the vow which was such a huge sin; she might have lost her virginity, too, out here in the big, bad world, and thus her immortal soul!! There must have been tremendous pressure in the form of certain hellfire and guilt for a sensitive and religious young person to return to her cell. Cells and isolation in our day are forms of punishment. Back then, punishment for being human? For being susceptible to temptation? For being young and full of vitality? Was it a true choice for her to go back in?

We don’t know when she died. But I wonder, how long can you live without sunshine?

Another Remembrance Day —


I watch from my window this morning as the man who lives across the street sets out for the church. He is slightly bent over, but walks briskly, dressed in a neat, pressed black suit instead of the soiled gray anorak he usually wears. Bernard and I follow a few minutes later, poppies in lapels, for the chilly 5 minute walk to the war memorial. It stands in a little square just outside the churchyard, inscribed with the names of sons of the village who died in the first and second world wars.  This November 11th, people are gathered for the annual service of remembrance.

Four ancient but upright men with colorful medals across somber jackets stand at attention before the memorial, two of them holding flags. The vicar, Nick,  leads us all in a short prayer, then wreathes are laid at the foot of the monument by the British Legion, the girl guides, and the boy scouts. Flags-tips lower humbly onto the steps around the monument as the vicar begins to read out the names, so many from the same families, especially from the first world war; some of the names are the same as people we know in the village, still there, still honoring sons, fathers, brothers and sisters. 

A white-haired woman in a wheel chair struggles to her feet as the service begins.  She stands the whole time, head bowed, her grand daughter holding an umbrella to shelter her from the rain.

Our neighbor steps forward, straight as an arrow now, and says:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, not the years condemn, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

The last post is bugled, then silence, broken only by the whisper of rain falling around us.

At last Reveille sounds, clear and clean, bringing us back to this misty, cold morning, the blood-red wreathes against rain-drenched gray stones, the silent crowd of villagers.

A memorial service continues inside the church, where we pray for peace, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and between nations. We pray that there will be no more maimed young men, sorrowful mothers and fathers, children and siblings.  We know there must be a better way  for humans to live together on this planet than rivers of blood.

Later on in the evening, B nd I are watching the results show of a favorite program, Strictly Come Dancing. It’s  an entertaining, if frivolous display of healthy bodies, smiles, energy.   But still, they acknowledge the day and the sacrifice with a song by a trio of soldiers in uniform, the studio awash with lights of red poppies, while two professional dancers enact an appropriate and moving routine. 

Each year, I am struck by the universality of respect shown to their soldiers by the English.  For a week, I have seen poppies in the lapels of most people on the street, on television presenters and in shops.  It isn’t an act, here, to prove how patriotic you are, but a heartfelt and reverent appreciation.