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Histories of Windsor

The Great Freeze 1963 - Title

Updated September 19, 2012

This article was originally prepared for the web when modem speeds were very slow and pictures took a long time to arrive. They were therefore made quite small to speed transmission. Pictures included more recently are larger and the smaller ones will be increased in size as time permits.

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Historical Note - Other Thames Freezes

This is not intended to be a definitive list, and is based on reported weather conditions from agricultural records where the freezing of the Thames was recorded on most occasions in London.
  The intention is however to demonstrate that severe weather conditions such as described below were not unique and occurred from time to time on a reasonably regular basis.
  Freezes occurred in 1963, 1953, 1947 (the coldest February ever), 1940, 1895-6, 1893, 1880, 1857 (Source: Leslie Ward ('SPY' of Vanity Fair) Autobiography, page 17 where he recalls well that an ox was roasted on the Thames at Eton), 1821, 27 December 1813 - 27 March 1814 (Frost Fair 4th Feb 1814), 24 December 1739 to early March 1740, (Frost Fair Christmas 1739 - February 1740), 1708, 1688, 1685, 1684, 1683, (The winter was 'intolerably severe' (John Evelyn), Frost Fair), 1665, 1649, 1608, 1607 and 1564. There are earlier records of freezes also back to 1100AD.

The Great Freeze of '63

It started at Christmas time and lasted through to early March, with record low temperatures at night, regular snowfalls and thick ice from bank to bank across the Thames at Windsor and upstream such that thoughts turned to ox roasts and Frost Fairs on the ice as depicted in paintings from earlier centuries.

christmas tree

The Christmas Tree by Queen Victoria Statue.
New Year Jan 1963

But in the end it was just strolls on the ice, and bicycle hockey for the school boys, despite the obvious dangers of falling through the ice.
 In this article we recall events and reminiscences of the hardest winter Windsor has seen perhaps for a century, using the detailed diaries and contemporary photographs kept by Gordon Cullingham, Deputy Borough Engineer for Windsor at the time, and who was closely involved with the effects of the bad weather around the town.

The winter of 1962-63 had started unremarkably enough, with a dusting of snow on 20th November followed by milder weather at the end of the month. The first days of December saw temperatures below freezing all day, despite the sunshine, followed by thick, often freezing, fog from the 3rd - 6th. The effect on the trees was to cover them all with 'a wonderful frosting'.
   As Christmas approached there was nothing particularly untoward about the weather, some rain, a gale or two, but come Boxing Day, 26th December, all that was to change when the first heavy snow fell in the afternoon. It snowed again every day until the 29th December when
blizzards were forecast. The local council drivers were kept busy salting the roads and, overnight, snow drifts of up to 3 feet (90cm) accumulated around the town. Car travel was beginning to be difficult and longer journeys were postponed in the hope that the weather would clear,

path clearing

A common sight around Windsor at New Year, when up to 12" of snow had to be cleared from paths

York Ave

There was not much chance of side roads being cleared as the main roads regularly needed attention. A view of York Avenue and York Road.

Sunny and snowy

Sunny and snowy in Clarence Road

At New Year there was between 6" and 12" of snow lying and temperatures were regularly below freezing during the day. Stocks of solid fuel in people's homes were beginning to run low, with long delivery times. In a normal winter, deliveries could be expected within a day or two.
   In the early hours of Sunday 30th December there had been a fire at The Buttery adjacent to Windsor Bridge. A policeman had seen flames leaping through the roof and raised the alarm. Soon after the roof collapsed and flames were blown across the road towards the South Western Hotel (later William IV Hotel and recently Bell and the Dragon). It was snowing, which hampered the firemen, especially as the water froze on their hoses, and traffic had to be diverted because at that time Windsor Bridge was still the main crossing point between Windsor, Eton and Slough. The blaze was believed to have started in the top flat, but water damage affected the entire building, including Forbes and Francis, the book and record shop at street level. Although the covers of the LPs were soaked there were many bargains to be had later in the month when a 'fire sale' was announced.
   On the 2nd January there was a further snowfall of several inches but hopes of better weather rose on the 3rd when there was a slight thaw that lasted until the 5th.
   But then it turned cold again and was to remain below freezing for several weeks. Boys returning to Windsor Grammar School in Maidenhead Road on the 8th were sent home as the heating was not working and threats of power cuts due to industrial action by power workers was on the cards.
   The night of 10th January was the coldest for eight years, with frost all day once again, and by the 12th ice 'floes' were forming in the river. Gordon Cullingham witnessed a solitary skiff being rowed along the river, noisily hitting the chunks of ice - the Thames was beginning to freeze.


"...a solitary skiff being rowed along the river, noisily hitting the chunks of ice"

early days of the freeze

Early days of the freeze - Feeding the ducks on 13th Jan 1963
Picture taken on the promenade adjacent to the café.

Punt in ice

A view from the promenade on 13th Jan 1963.
The punt belongs to the ferryman who in the summer would take you across to the Brocas. Although a colour slide, there was little colour to photograph - see below

In Romney Lock Cut, downstream of the town, ice had already formed from bank to bank. The water flow here was much slower - almost stationary - and so ice formed more readily than in the faster moving weir stream.

Romney weir and lock cuut

Romney Weir and the Lock Cut. 13th Jan 1963
[Editor's note: This B/W picture is taken from a colour slide (!)
but it was such a grey day, there was no colour!]

   On the 14th January a slight thaw was noted, together with many burst pipes, including heating problems once again at the Grammar School and another day off for the boys!
   Around the town much effort had been made on a daily basis to keep the roads clear, but the problem was that the snow was just not thawing and it became necessary to shovel it into lorries and pile it up on open land. Great piles of snow were dumped by the arches at Baths Island on the site now occupied by the fun fair.
  There were complaints from residents who, having cleared the piles of snow in front of their drives, were awaking the next day to find that the snow ploughs had pushed it all back again!

 After five weeks of freezing weather, the Thames was now frozen right across. The following photographs were taken on 19th January 1963 and show that ice had formed right across the river at many points, although in some places it was not very thick, and certainly not thick enough to walk on. Despite this, many school boys from both sides of the river tried and survived to tell the tale...

The view upstream from the landing stage at Clewer. This view would now be dominated by the Elizabeth Bridge.

A short way downstream by the former ISC boathouse

From Baths Isle upstream towards the GWR railway bridge

From Baths Isle downstream towards Windsor

The view across the river to the Brocas

The view towards Windsor Bridge where certain areas of the ice were thick enough to support at least a swan

Ice under Windsor Bridge before the tarpaulin was erected

The view from Windsor Bridge. Note the small circle of clear water in the centre

East along Romney Walk and the Lock Cut

Downstream of Romney Lock

Alma Road

Alma Road, looking south towards Clarence Road junction.
The road was tinted brown from the brown rock salt.

Clarence Road and Vansittart Road Junction

Clarence Road and Vansittart Road junction with snow piled high in the gutters

The junction in 2000

Clarence Road and Vansittart Road junction in March 2000

Snow piled up at Barry Avenue
Snow removed from the roadsides and
piled up at Barry Avenue by the railway arches

  Of the 2000 gullies (drains) in Windsor there was concern that only 15 could be found under piled up snow and this would mean that localised flooding would result in the event of a quick thaw, or heavy rain. Efforts were made therefore to find the gullies and ensure that they were kept clear.
   Come the 16th there was more snow and the frosts continued such that by Saturday 19th January Gordon Cullingham wrote in his diary "An AWFUL day. Waterworks turbines frozen. ...get electric or other form of heaters - One "Comet" found. Aircraft heaters secured from Pan American Airways, British European Airways and BOAC at Heathrow."
  In addition, the power failed at the waterworks (Tangier Island). The river had frozen at Romney Weir, the weather had turned much colder and on the night of January 19th-20th there was a north east gale with blizzards and further snow drifts.
   The road salting was becoming ineffective - it requires a certain amount of traffic to 'stir it up' and make it melt the ice and snow. But traffic movements were much reduced, especially at night and over the weekend and anyway the temperatures were so low that even salt water froze.

Icey river, from the Brocas

A view from the Brocas after the river began to freeze, with areas of clear water
where the ducks and swans gathered.

  The river was now frozen for much of its length at Windsor, with pools of clear water where the ducks and swans gathered. Locals remarked that the ducks were keeping the water clear, but it is also possible that fractionally warmer water from the bottom was rising to the surface and keeping some areas clear.
  The swans and ducks were well fed by Windsorians, although the weather remained miserable, with a fine hail and freezing rain falling on the 20th January.
   One of the heaters from the airport was installed at the Corporation Depot in Alma Road because the piles of 'grit' (rock salt) were frozen solid into boulders, making it impossible to load and use on the gritting lorries.
   Food prices were beginning to be affected. Cox's apples and tomatoes were both 6d per lb (2.5p per 450 grammes), eggs 4s 6d (22.5p) per dozen and potatoes 7d (3p) per lb (450 grammes).
   Birds were "ravenous" Gordon Cullingham noted in his diary, and although many residents put out food for them, seemed to be less numerous. There were also ingenious ways of providing them with drinking water (almost more important than food) by placing 'Nitelite' candles under dustbin lids (metal in those days) filled with water. Gordon also noted that "the cold spell is in 5th week, one of three greatest cold spells this century..." and "End of Electricity work to rule, but not end of power cuts."
   And still the weather stubbornly remained very cold. From 21st - 25th temperatures were still below freezing and now freezing fog returned which made driving extremely dangerous. In addition diesel fuel froze causing many breakdowns. Water mains burst and on 23rd January a tarpaulin had been slung on the downstream side of Windsor Bridge to protect the 'main' that crossed the river at that point. It was planned to hang similar tarpaulins on the other side and somehow draw them together under the bridge filled with insulation, to prevent the main from freezing in the bitterly cold winds.

Tarpaulins hang beneath Windsor Bridge

Tarpaulins hang beneath Windsor Bridge.
Note the frost in the trees as freezing fog returned to add to the problems.
This photo dated 24th January 1963

A Summer View!

A reminder of warmer days! A similar view in Summer 1999

It was reported that some 200,000 gallons of water a day were pouring to waste in the Windsor area as a result of leaks and broken mains. The town's daily demand was in the region of 1,700,000 gallons a day and was supplied by the Water Works at Tangier Island. Heaters loaned from Heathrow Airport had already been installed to keep the turbines running as outdoor night-time temperatures were often recorded as low as ­5° Fahrenheit - 36° of frost.
  Mains bursts were reported in St Leonard's Road, Clewer Hill Road and Sheepcote Road and leaflets were distributed throughout Windsor advising residents about lagging and insulation as well as to make sure they knew where stop cocks were, and that they worked, in the event of a burst in their own homes.
  The greatest alarm was being felt by the Thames Conservancy and the officers of Windsor Borough Council. Geoffrey Baker, Borough Engineer, and George Waldram, Town Clerk, had a flood plan ready. The local Womens Voluntary Service (WVS) was ready with bedding and feeding arrangements for anyone made homeless as a result of flooding. The Adjutant of the Life Guards said that his men would be ready to co-operate if needed.
   There was one amusing incident reported in the Windsor Express. Two children aged 5 and 6 were found sitting in a dentists's waiting room each clutching a toothbrush 'ready pasted'. "Please," the children asked, "can we clean our teeth here 'cos we are all frozen up at home and they haven't been done since yesterday!"
  Less happily, many injuries were sustained by young and old alike. The Express reported in January that a policeman had slipped and fractured a rib, while an Express reporter had also fallen and fractured his wrist.
   When a gas shortage was announced in Wales Gordon wrote: "...gas cuts up to 50%. Sale of equipment stopped. Southern - 12 hours ban on use. Adverts were replaced by appeals for economy. Anti-freeze iced up in car radiator. Walked across old Baths [to Baths Island] on ice - some walked across river at Ferry [to Brocas], 27 accidents on the M1. Pack ice and ice floes around coast."

Thames Frozen - 2

View looking north across the river towards The Brocas.
   Small areas of clear water were populated by ducks and swans.

Birds CU

The ducks were not amused!
   (Closeup from the above picture)

Thames Frozen - 1

Windsorians walk on the frozen Thames.
   A view towards Windsor Bridge photographed on 24 January 1963.

   On 24th January "Continuing very cold, some thaw in extreme west and Scotland. High pressure slipping to S. Stand pipes in use, Birds noisy at lunch time - weather change??"
   On 25th January the ice at the Ferry crossing (from the promenade to the Brocas) was measured at 3.5 inches thick but there was a 4" air gap under it due to the lowering of the river.
  By the 26th a very slight thaw had started and 1947 records were now checked for possible information about likely flooding, but this time there was very little risk as the previous six months had been very much drier and so a quick thaw would be more readily absorbed by the sub-soil.
   But the thaw was a false dawn. By 30th January the cold weather had returned with some snow flurries. Fuel deliveries were unreliable at best, or non-existent at worst with Gordon writing that only two buckets of coke remained for the boiler.  Around the Borough water supply pipes into homes were reported as freezing up and by the 1st February the ominous comment in Gordon's diary was "Colder still. 1/2" snow. Still no coke... last bucket."
   Little did we know in Windsor that we were barely half way through the coldest winter of the century.

Gordon Cullingham on his sons' sledge

Gordon Cullingham enjoying a turn on his son's sledge!
26th January 1963 at Old Windsor

The Thames at Oxford

The Isis at Oxford which froze earlier than at Windsor

February 1963

The end of January saw the return of the cold weather after a brief respite.  By Friday 1st February the ominous comment in Gordon's diary had indicated that the really cold weather was returning. Gordon also mentions that frozen water supply pipes were a problem. "7 Hanley Close site... very badly frozen from main." Apparently attempts were being made to thaw pipes by passing low voltage current through them, but not with total success.
  On the 3rd February the diary entry reads "Siberian weather. Bad forecast. Car badly affected by salt, rust stains." Indeed any car that had been used regularly on the permanently wet, salty roads, would have suffered badly, the salt having a very corrosive effect.
   Old oil heaters had been put back into service - though many were probably past it - often by those who had no idea how to use them safely. The result was many fires were started either when a heater was knocked over, or was refilled whilst alight, or perhaps had been left unattended in a loft in an attempt to defrost frozen plumbing. In any event the fire brigade were kept busy!
  Priority in the distribution of coal was given to steam trains carrying supplies of food, coal, oil and petrol.

weather map

February 5th 1963. Weather Map

The weather map for 5th February 1963 showed a deep depression to the south west of the UK.The Air Ministry forecast for much of England, Wales and southern Scotland was for cloud with moderate to heavy falls of snow at times, Rain was only forecast for the West Country, with some sunshine, the rest of the country was in the grip of a cold air flow from Europe. In London the minimum temperature in the previous 24 hours was -3°C with a maximum of 1°C. As this was in the centre of London, temperatures would not have risen above freezing out of town.
  The efforts of "meals on wheels" - deliveries of hot meals to the elderly - were much appreciated to say the least and the help also extended to taking buckets of coal to those who had run out. It was clear that many old people were suffering severe hardship as a result of the shortage of fuel. This was at a time when smokeless zones were being introduced despite inadequate supplies of these fuels being available.
  Militant union action aggravated the situation with 'work to rule' orders to the staff of power stations. The result was power cuts that closed cinemas and theatres, darkened streets and traffic lights. It became necessary to carry a torch and also to keep matches and candles readily to hand at work or at home.
  On February 5th a thaw was forecast in the west, but a blizzard resulted with a very low depression moving up from Madiera. On 7th February the temperatures had warmed up, but only to about freezing and this led to more problems at night as the pavements became 'glazed' with ice from daytime melted snow. These were extremely dangerous conditions for pedestrians.
  On February 8th at Vansittart Road Recreation Ground photographs were taken of what seemed to be the long awaited thaw - pictures below - but by 10th February Gordon's diary records yet another frost warning and north easterly winds with more snow at midday. That evening, the BBC broadcast a TV programme about 'The Big Freeze'.

February 8th - Vansittart Road Recreation Ground

Vansittart Rec 1

Large puddles...

Vansittart Rec 2


Vansittart Rec 3

and more slush!

 The whole of the following week, from Monday 11th February through to Friday 15th, a very slow thaw alternated with night frosts such that by the end of the week there was still snow lying. There was more light snow on 20th February in the morning and again the next morning but nothing substantial, and Gordon's garden was by now almost clear of snow near the house, apart from a pile created when an attempt was made to clear the garden paths six weeks earlier on 5th January!
 22nd-26th February was half-term for the Grammar School boys who had a great game of bicycle hockey on the backwater by the school boathouse. By now the ice was almost 6" thick and so there was no danger of the ice cracking, but in mid-stream it was a different matter where areas of clear water still remained with very thin ice around them.
  Still there was no significant change in the weather and come 24th February freezing weather had returned by day as well as hard frosts at night. A few days later, however, by the 27th, the daytime temperature reached 40°F (4°C), warm enough to be noted in Gordon's diary and for the snow to have disappeared from all but the most sheltered and shaded areas.

March 1963 - it is all over!

By the 1st March the diary entry read 'warmest day since 21st November' yet there was still a frost by night. Gordon drove to Oxford on 2nd March and took two colour photographs, one of which is reproduced below. He reports that snow drifts remained on the Berkshire Downs, some 5'-6' high, with snow and ice still lying on side roads. Also, the road surface showed signs of damage both by diggers clearing snow, and by frost 'heave'.

Drifts on Berkshire Downs

Snow drifts on the Berkshire Downs 2nd March 1963

The signs were that the coldest winter for perhaps a century was now coming to a close. By 5th March Gordon records that there was 'NO FROST' in the morning and that the last remnants of Boxing Day snow had melted in the garden and that there was 'no ice'. The temperature during the day now reached 52°F (11°C) but the grass was brown from being covered in snow and ice for so long. Signs of Spring were becoming more and more apparent. The crocuses were through, though not yet in bloom and the birds were singing. Around this time, although a precise date cannot be determined, the Thames Conservancy apparently deliberately lowered the height of the river to break up the ice that remained and which was a genuine danger to anyone who ventured onto it, especially children.
  Around Windsor the last of the heaps of snow that had been piled in the gutters were now loaded into lorries and taken away. On 8th March the diary entry records the first rain since before Christmas and that lawns were beginning to green up once more. Eggs however remained at almost double the price of last year, being 4s 9d (23p) rather than 2s 9d (14p) per dozen.
  By 13th March the crocuses were blooming but the daffodils would not be in bloom until 6th April, virtually six weeks late, with apple blossom not appearing until May.
  The summer of 1963 proved to be uneventful and nothing extraordinary - everything it seemed was back to normal!

Postscript: It is now close to fifty years since 'The Big Freeze' and although there has been some snowy, cold winters, in particular 1980-81, none have lasted as long as 1962-63.
I wonder how long we will have to wait for another as bad?? The winter of 2009-2010 started badly with a cold spell that had begun in the week before Christmas but at the time of updating this article, it only lasted until the middle of January. Apparently it was all to do with El Niño, the warm ocean current out in the Pacific which drifted quite a way south and which affects weather patterns worldwide. At the end of January 2010 a snow shower or two have been forecast for the 28th, but they are unlikely to last long.
 Later in 2010, at the end of November and in early December the UK suffered another Big Freeze, although Windsor had only an inch or so of snow on the night of 2nd/3rd December.
 This page will be updated if the winter of 2010/2011 proves bad once more.

We have opened a Discussion Forum for The Great Freeze here

WARNING: During the 'Freeze of 1963' a number of people, especially children, were drowned when they fell through thin ice and were swept beneath thicker ice, through which they could not escape. They soon died in the freezing waters, weighed down by thick winter clothes. Sometimes they were chasing their dogs who had run off.

If you have any photographs of The Great Freeze of 1963 in the Windsor area, or any other years, including this century, we would appreciate an opportunity to include them on The Royal Windsor Website. To contact us, please email Thamesweb.

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