Winter of 1946–47 in the United Kingdom
The winter of 1946–1947 was a harsh European winter noted for its effects in the United Kingdom. The UK experienced several cold spells, beginning on 21 January 1947, bringing large drifts of snow to the country, which blocked roads and railways. Coal supplies, already low following the Second World War, struggled to get through to power stations and many stations were forced to shut down for lack of fuel. The government introduced several measures to cut power consumption, including restricting domestic electricity to 19 hours per day and cutting industrial supplies completely. In addition, radio broadcasts were limited, television services were suspended, some magazines were ordered to stop being published and newspapers were cut in size. These measures badly affected public morale and turned the Minister of Fuel and Power, Emanuel Shinwell, into a scapegoat; he received death threats and had to be placed under police guard. Towards the end of February there were also fears of a food shortage as supplies were cut off and vegetables frozen into the ground.
Mid-March brought warmer air to the country which thawed the snow lying on the ground. This snowmelt ran off the frozen ground straight into rivers and caused widespread flooding. More than 100,000 properties were affected and the Army and foreign aid agencies were forced to provide humanitarian aid. With the cold weather over and the ground thawing there were no further weather problems. The winter had severe effects on British industries with around 10% of the year's industrial production lost, cereal and potato crops down 10 to 20% and a quarter of sheep stocks lost. The ruling Labour Party began to lose popularity, which led to them losing many seats to the Conservative Party in the 1950 election. That winter is also cited as a factor in the devaluation of the pound from $4.03 to $2.80, Britain’s decline from superpower status and the introduction of the Marshall Plan to aid war-torn Europe. The effects on the rest of Europe were also severe with 150 deaths from cold and famine in Berlin, civil disorder in the Netherlands and business closures in the Republic of Ireland.
The effects of the cold winter were made worse by problems in the energy sector which caused coal supplies to become low. The coal and electricity industries had been recently nationalised by Clement Attlee’s government and put under the control of the Minister of Fuel and Power, Emanuel Shinwell. Shinwell oversaw efforts to increase production, but there were concerns that the coal supply was inadequate. At the start of the winter the coal stockpiles contained enough coal to last for just four weeks, compared to the usual supplies of ten to twelve weeks which existed before the war. However Shinwell allowed himself to be lulled into a false sense of security by over-optimistic productivity reports from the miners’ union (NUM). These reports failed to translate into real production as the government feared to take on the NUM, whose members’ absentee rates were 2.5 times that of pre-war. The risk of a coal shortage caused the public to buy electric fires to ensure a source of heat for their homes. This, in turn, put a greater strain on the supply of electricity – the monthly demand increase caused by electric fires in 1946 was roughly the same as the annual increase in generating capacity. Shinwell was warned in mid-October 1946 that a coal shortage was possible, but gambled on a mild winter to keep consumption low so that he would not have to risk a confrontation with the miners.
The winter began with two periods of cold weather in December 1946 and January 1947, but the coldest period did not begin until 21 January 1947. The main cause of the cold weather was an anti-cyclone which sat over Scandinavia from 20 January. This high pressure area blocked the progression of low pressure depressions across the Atlantic Ocean and forced them to the south of the United Kingdom resulting in strong easterly winds, which brought snow to Eastern England and South East England before progressing across the entire country. This cold spell continued and by 30 January the Isles of Scilly were under 7 inches or 0.18 metres of snow and the overnight temperature at Writtle, Essex was −20 °C or −4 °F. Throughout January the highest recorded temperature in England and Wales was 14 °C or 57.2 °F and the minimum was −21 °C or −5.8 °F.
The easterly winds continued into February, which developed into one of the coldest months on record. At Kew Observatory there was no recorded temperature above 5 °C or 41 °F for the month and only twice was the overnight temperature above 0 °C or 32 °F. No sunshine at all was recorded at Kew for twenty days from 2 February, whilst across England and Wales the month was the second dullest February since records began in 1929, with only 30.8 hours of sunshine or 1.1 per day – although in contrast West Scotland was near-record dry and unusually sunny though still extremely cold. On 20 February the ferry service across the English Channel between Dover and Ostend was suspended due to pack ice off the Belgian coast. In some places snow fell on 26 days out of 28 in the month and a temperature of −21 °C or −5.8 °F was recorded at Woburn, Bedfordshire on 25 February. As a result, railways were badly affected by drifts of light powdery snow and three hundred main roads were made unusable. Several hundred villages were cut off. ice floes were also seen off the coast of East Anglia, causing a hazard to shipping.
This cold weather exacerbated the fuel problem. Stockpiles of coal at the pits and depots froze solid and could not be moved. The stockpiled coal was often unavailable with roads out of use and 750,000 railway wagons of coal trapped by the snow. Desperate attempts were made to get fuel to power stations by coal-carrying ships which risked storms, fog and ice to reach their destination. A force of 100,000 British and Polish troops and German PoWs were put to work clearing snow from the railways by hand. Despite this, lack of fuel forced many power stations to shut down or reduce their output. The Royal Navy launched Operation Blackcurrant, which used diesel generators aboard submarines to provide supplementary power to coastal towns and dockyards.
Shinwell acted to reduce consumption of coal by cutting the electricity supply to industry completely and reducing the domestic supply to 19 hours per day across the country. In consequence factories across the country were forced to shut and up to four million people claimed unemployment benefits. Although so many people were made redundant there was little unrest and no major public disorders. Television services were suspended completely, radio broadcasts were reduced, some magazines were ordered to stop being published, and newspapers were cut in size to four pages or one sheet. Food rations, still in use from the Second World War, were cut to levels lower than in the war years. These measures made little difference to the rate of coal consumption but served to reduce public morale.
Despite Shinwell’s actions the fuel supply remained insufficient and blackouts occurred across large swathes of the country with even the staff at Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and London's Central Electricity Board reduced to working by candlelight. A trade meeting with representatives from Russia and Iceland was also forced to meet without light or heat, ironically one of the items discussed was the purchase of coal from Britain. The public was reduced to queuing at gasworks to collect coke for use as fuel. Supplies of aspirin also ran low as it was then a product of coal-tar, thousands of chickens in poultry farms died of the cold, and public transport services were cut to save fuel. Shinwell became increasingly unpopular with the general public and received a bomb threat which resulted in him having to be guarded at his house in Tooting by four policemen. Despite this, he remained very popular with the miners, which made the government wary of firing him in case it caused industrial action. By 27 February sea conditions had improved and more than 100 coal ships had managed to unload their cargoes at the power stations, easing the fuel crisis.
During this period there was a fear that, despite the rationing, food supplies could run out, and several measures were taken to prevent this. This was due to the effects of the cold on vegetables, livestock and delivery vehicles. The government started a campaign to popularise Snoek, an inexpensive South African variety of fish. This campaign was largely unsuccessful as the public found the fish unpalatable and the stocks of it were eventually used as cat food. Many winter root vegetables could not be harvested as they were frozen into the ground, and in some areas pneumatic drills were used to excavate them. Frost destroyed 70,000 tons of potatoes and, as a result, potatoes were rationed for the first time.
On 4–5 March came heavy snow which left drifts across much of the country with some lying 7 metres (23 ft) deep in the Scottish Highlands. On 5 March one of the worst British blizzards of the 20th century occurred. Food supplies were again affected by the snow-bound roads and in some places the police requested permission to break into delivery lorries stranded by the snow.
On 10 March milder air of 7–10 °C began to move north across the country from the south west, rapidly thawing the snow lying on low ground. After such a long frost the ground stayed frozen, causing much surface run off which resulted in widespread flooding. Further heavy snowfalls occurred as the milder air pushed northwards. On 14 March the deepest ever recorded depth of snow lying in an inhabited location was measured at Forest in Teesdale in County Durham at 83" or 211 cm. On 15 March a deepening depression moved in from the Atlantic, bringing heavy rain and gales. It was the start of the wettest March for 300 years. By 16 March winds reached 50 knots (90 km/h), gusting to 90 knots (170 km/h), causing breaches in dykes in East Anglia resulting in the flooding of 100 square miles (260 km2) of land, and blowing many trees down. The River Thames and the River Lea flooded in London causing the Windsor borough engineer Geoffrey Baker to remark "We could only cope if we had a spare Thames, or two".
On 17–18 March the River Trent which had been rising ever higher, overtopped the riverbanks in Nottingham. Large parts of the city and surrounding areas were flooded with 9,000 properties and nearly a hundred industrial premises affected some to first floor height. The suburbs of Long Eaton, West Bridgford and Beeston all suffered particularly badly. Two days later, in the lower tidal reaches of the river, the peak of the flood combined with a high spring tide to flood villages and 2,000 properties in Gainsborough. River levels dropped when the floodbank at Morton breached, resulting in the flooding of some 77 square miles (200 km2) of farmland in the Trent valley. The flooding subsided in the west of the country by 20 March but rivers in the east were still rising and the Wharfe, Derwent, Aire and Ouse all burst their banks in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Selby was also badly affected with 70% of houses being flooded. More than 100,000 properties were affected by the flooding and the Army worked to prevent the spread of the floodwater, particularly at pumping plants and power stations. Royal Engineers on national service handed out milk to families with babies and the Australian Red Cross assisted in Gloucester. The people of Canada sent food parcels to villages in Suffolk and the Premier of Ontario, George A. Drew, offered to help to distribute them personally. The flooding lasted for about a week, with some waters taking an additional ten days to subside.
The winter had a lasting effect on Britain’s industry; by February 1947 it was already estimated that that year’s industrial output would be down by 10 percent. The effects of the March floods added a further £250–375 million (£8.74–13.1 billion in 2015) in damage. Farming was particularly badly hit with cereal and potato harvests down 10–20 percent on the previous two years. Sheep farmers lost one quarter of their flocks and it would be six years before sheep numbers recovered. The winter also had political ramifications and caused the public to lose faith in a Labour government who could not maintain food and electricity supplies. An example of this emerged when, at Mary Churchill's wedding on 11 February, her father, Winston Churchill was cheered by the crowd but prime minister Clement Attlee was booed. Emmanuel Shinwell, unpopular with the public, was made a scapegoat and sacked from his ministerial position. Despite this, the winter is cited as a factor in Labour's loss of a large number of seats to the Conservative Party led by Churchill in the 1950 election.
The effects of the winter came at a time of heavy government spending with 15% of the GDP being spent on the armed forces and large expenditure on the new National Health Service and post-war reconstruction. This made the currency less stable and, coupled with the emergence of the dollar as the currency of choice for foreign reserves, led to the government slashing the Bretton Woods official exchange rate from $4.03 to $2.80. This was a major event in Britain’s decline from superpower status. With the country struggling to feed its people at home and those it was responsible for in war-torn Europe, it also caused the US to take a greater interest in Europe and push through the Marshall Plan for assistance to Britain and the continent. In addition, the winter is cited as the reason for the emigration of thousands of British people, particularly to Australia. The winter as a whole was less cold than the winter of 1963 but more snow was recorded.
Outside the United Kingdom
The winter affected many other European countries. Similar cold periods and snowfalls were seen in much of Central Europe and the southern Baltic region. De Bilt, near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, experienced its worst winter since 1790.[when?] Because of the anticyclone to the north of the United Kingdom several incoming Atlantic depressions which would normally have hit Britain were forced south to the Mediterranean region, resulting in Portugal, Spain and Southern France having more rain than usual while remaining relatively warm. For example, the February rainfall at Gibraltar was 9.3 inches (240 mm), three times the average. As a result, France experienced both the extreme cold in the north, and much rain in the south. The winter caused 150 deaths from the cold and lack of food in Berlin, which was still recovering from its devastation during the final stages of the Second World War. It forced schools in the Netherlands to shut, led to a mob attack on a goods train carrying coal in Copenhagen, and caused the closure of businesses and the restriction of domestic gas supplies in the Republic of Ireland.
- 1947 Thames flood
- Winter of 1962–1963 in the United Kingdom
- January 1987 Southeast England snowfall
- Winter of 1990–1991 in Western Europe
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