Winters of discontent: 6 of the worst winters in British history

Thames Frost Fair
During the Great Frost of 1683, the Thames froze over. Image: Thames Frost Fair, 1683–84 by Thomas Wyke

With panic buying, high energy prices, supply-chain issues and protestors blocking roads, what will the winter of 2021 be like?

Hopefully not as bad as the one that descended like an avalanche into Britain 43 years ago. Anyone over 50 will happily tell you about the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 when Britain seemed to grind to a halt throughout a dark, bleak winter.

Here we take a brief look at this dismal time in recent British history together with some of the worst British winters on record.

1978-79 – The Winter of Discontent

Can you imagine rubbish piled up in the streets, bodies left unburied, and petrol stations closed? Well, you have just imagined the winter of 1978-79 in the UK.

Known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’, this was one of the bleakest social and economic periods in post-war British history, and the coldest winter since 1963.

The term ‘Winter of Discontent’ comes from Shakespeare’s Richard III and was coined as a name for the crisis by the editor of The Sun in May 1979.

In autumn 1978, Britain was in the throes of upheaval. The prime minister was Labour man James Callaghan (1912-2005), but the problems had been brewing for some time, with the global energy crisis of the 1970s, the three-day week of 1974, and the nation having to go cap-in-hand to the IMF in 1976 to take out a vast loan.

Excessive trade union power coupled with the government’s failed incomes policy, which led to a fall in real earnings for millions of people, saw industrial relations deteriorate rapidly over 1978.

By January 1979 vast numbers of public and private sector workers were routinely striking, officially and unofficially, including water workers, truck drivers, and nurses.

At one point ambulance drivers in some parts of the country were refusing to attend 999 calls, leading to the army having to come in to provide a skeleton service.

Rubbish piled up on the streets as dustmen went on strike and at one point in some parts of the country even gravediggers went on strike and bodies went unburied.

A grave situation indeed!

1962-63 – The Big Freeze

One of the UK’s top three chilliest winters since 1659 is still the inhospitable cold season of 1962-63.

Bitter, icy air from eastern Europe and Scandinavia reached Britain in December and very deep snow took root across vast swathes of the land. In some parts, a snowdrift of over 20ft deep was recorded.

Rural areas saw villages cut off and without power. Snow sat in the coldest areas for months.

In January 1963, parts of Scotland experienced temperatures nearing -20 °C. The Thames did not freeze over in London, but it did in Oxford, with a car being driven over the river there on 22 January.

Winds of 120 mph were recorded on the Isle of Man and across Britain, hundreds of major sporting fixtures were cancelled.

This long, harsh winter has lived on in memory as ‘The Big Freeze’.

1816 – The Year Without a Summer

In the summer of 1816, Europe, already reeling from the costs and ravages of the long years of war against Napoleonic France, and the fledgling USA having just fought a war against Britain, were to have their problems exacerbated in the summer of that year – by the weather. and. A disastrous period for agriculture, the summer of 1816 was bitterly cold and much soggier than farmers like it to be. This year is thus famously known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’.

The temperatures over the summer of 1816 were in Europe the lowest seen in any year between 1766 and 2000. This climatic anomaly led to famine, unrest, and mass migrations.

The horrendous downpours that occurred across Europe in 1816 are recorded in art and literature. Mary Shelley remarked how the incessant heavy rain at Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 inspired her and her companions to stay in and write ghost stories, her’s was the genesis for her celebrated novel Frankenstein.

What caused this? The chief culprit is generally held to be, unsurprisingly, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. In April 1815, Mount Tambora in modern-day Indonesia blew its top, spewing huge amounts of ash, rock, and lava, and causing a brief period of climate change.

1739-40 – The Great Winter

From Christmas Day 1739 to February 17, 1740, much of Britain was one big ice cube.

The entire land became locked in ice as under some fairy tale spell. Frozen waterways caused shortages of fuel and food and large numbers of workers in the cities took to the streets begging for food and money.

Many of the boats and wherries carrying coal and corn supplies that did make it through to the Thames were, in late December 1739, sunk in a vicious blizzard which also sank numerous larger vessels moored along the river.

After Christmas, the Thames froze over completely and carnivals, stalls, pop-up beer tents, toy shops, and puppet shows set up on the solidified water and drew huge crowds.

1708-09 – The Big Chill

Britain wasn’t alone in suffering through a long, harsh winter in 1708-09 – most of the European continent was one giant snowball during this famously brutal winter.

Known as ‘Le Grand Hiver’ (The Great Winter) in France, this is still thought to be the coldest European winter of the last five centuries. London dropped to -12 °C and hard frost endured in many regions from December to March.

Noted natural philosopher and scientist William Derham (1657-1735) wrote in December 1709: ‘I believe the Frost was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within the Memory of Man.’

Rivers and lakes across Europe froze solid, fish and livestock froze to death, and trees exploded. With wheat crops failing, wine barrels blowing up, and soil in places stiffened to a dept of a metre, the subsequent famine may have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths across Europe.

1683-84 – The Great Frost

During this winter, in the reign of Charles II, England recorded one of the worst frosts in its history, with the River Thames freezing solid for two months, reportedly at one time to a depth of one foot. A contemporary account of the Thames during this winter describes coaches being driven across the frozen river, a printing press set up on it, and even ‘smoking fires’ being lit directly on the ice!

A hardening of the capital’s great waterway wasn’t uncommon in the 17th century, in the depts of the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ which lasted from broadly the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The winter of 1683-84 in Britain is still classed as one of the very coldest since records began in 1659.

Written by:

James Brigden