the north face upland jacket How the Big Freeze of 1963 affected south Essex
The first series of the drama, set in poverty stricken Poplar, was set in 1957, now we’re all the way up to 1963 and the storyline is still focusing on the Big Freeze of the winter of 19 62 63. We’ve trawled through our archives to find out exactly what was going on this time in 1963 closer to home when Essex, like the rest of the country, was battling the bitter weather.
The Big Freeze, which started in December 1962 and would last all the way to March 1963 was one of the coldest winters on record in the UK. At the time it was the coldest winter since 1895.
Temperatures plummeted and lakes and rivers began to freeze over. As the Arctic conditions worsened, the sea froze for a mile out from shore at Herne Bay in Kent and four miles out from Dunkirk and the Southend Standard reported how even Southend pier was iced in.
“There’s been nothing like it for 15 years.” was the headline in the Southend Standard in early January. As nine inches of snow fell in one night the sea near the shore at Southend began to freeze.
A Pier officer told the Standard: “There were lumps of yellow, oily ice which looked like huge jellyfish bobbing about near the shore.”
The sub zero temperatures also led to power cuts, frozen pipes and dangerous conditions on the roads, leading to an increase in accidents. At one point 15 buses were stuck on Bread and Cheese Hill in Benflee and drifts of up to 10 feet high covered the south Essex roads. The Rayleigh to Chelmsford road was particularly treacherous.
But worse headlines were to follow. as the freeze began to claim lives. A dairy milkman named William Starkey, 61, of Leigh, was found slumped over the steering wheel of his milk float early one morning in January ’63.
A nurse passing by found him and attempted to revive him but could not. It later came to light Mr Starkey had struggled to deliver his rounds since the early hours but then became trapped by deep snow and overcome by the cold.
Other tragedies including a railway worker lengthman named John Warren, 64, of Shoebury was hit by a train as he examined the icy track at Hadleigh, wile many residents, especially the elderly, simply died in their homes as a result of the cold.
Emergency crews were out 24/7, doing whatever they could. The Standard reported how police patrol even cars fought their way through the snow drifts with vital blood and penicillin stocks to get to Westcliff Hospital.
To make things worse large areas of Southend were hit by power cuts, leading to a constant demand for paraffin oil as residents shivered in their homes. There was an increase in boiler explosions and fires and burst water pipes were a daily occurrence.
The newspaper reported how it was “plumbers paradise” when the coldest night ever recorded in Southend’s history occurred on Saturday January 12. when temperatures plummeted to 10 degrees.
One Southend plumber, who was called 50 times in the space of 30 minutes told the newspaper: “In some houses the pipes froze as quickly as they were cleared.” Another story told how customers were forced to go home in their curlers when pipes burst at a Westcliff hair salon. “Torrents of water, cascading from the loft of the upstairs flat in Westborough Road poured through ceilings and down walls, to the smart Parmador salon below,” the article described.
The Big Freeze saw countless heroes and heroines step up to help their communities. The Standard reported how Mrs J Wall of Fir Tree Dairy in Rochford was cheered as she was hauled into the villages of Paglesham and Canewdon which had both been cut off by snow drifts by a tractor.
“She arrived in the village in the milk float at lunchtime having been hauled through a drift by a tractor,” it was reported. Many other milkmen and women plodded on to deliver their rounds and were praised for their hardy attitudes.
As February 1963 came, so did yet more snow and stormy winds. A 36 hour blizzard caused heavy drifting snow in most parts of the country. Drifts reached 20 foot in some areas and gale force winds hit 81 mph.
The Standard reported the news that jobs were put under threat as a result of the persistent weather. A February edition read: “Unemployment in the Southend area continues to rise. This week for the first time in many years fishermen of Southend and Leigh signed on at the Employment Exchange. They are unable to follow their employment because owing to the icy weather.
“The staff of the Exchange are at full stretch to cope with the demand for unemployment benefit.”
Manager of the Exchange John Vigors told the Standard: “Everything possible is being done, Everything is frozen up. Our greatest hope is for a break in the weather.
Despite fishing boats from Southend and Leigh amalgamating to form a fleet, the situation was indeed bleak for local fishermen.
“The outlook for the next five weeks is just as black. Fish like sole, roker and plaice have been driven so far into deep water that it will take a very strong spring to entice them back,” an expert told the Standard.
One man who was run off his feet with work, however, was Southend United groundsman Dave Robinson, who, as the Standard reported, was kept busy shovelling snow at Roots Hall. Despite his best efforts, however, for three weeks on the trot during the Big Freeze the stadium had to be closed as it was too frozen to play on.
Keeping in with the theme of Call the Midwife,there was some happy headline news during the Big Freeze weeks, when a 21 year old woman from Westcliff who thought she was having twins actually gave birth to triplets at Rochford General Hospital
Children from across the patch also made the most of the snow, as our photo gallery shows, by larking about in local parks and skating over frozen lakes.
The snow even brought out the creative side in some. Artist Sheila Benford of Thundersley carved a magnificent ice sculpture of a woman in her front garden, which caused quite a stir. She told the Standard: “All the neighbours have been taking pictures a couple of workmen made a date with her for six o’clock!”
The Big Freeze finally came to end when a thaw set in during early March. The temperatures soon soared to 17 C (62.6 F) and the remaining snow rapidly disappeared.