Local historian Alf Ridyard in his weekly column Tash Tales takes a look back a time when winters really were winter!
You may remember we had a scattering of snow at the end of 2017 and the country became almost paralysed, schools closed, rail services suspended, airports closed and pure chaos on the road.
So spare a thought for the population of the UK in 1947, when it snowed somewhere in the country every day for almost three months, from January 22 until March 17, with drifts up to 20ft deep in outlying places.
Locally, the snow was as deep as garden walls plus drifts above that level, with footways dug out so people could get about. The bin waggons, which were unable to do the job they were made for, were put to use to clear the roads and pavements, with the snow piled alongside the roads until such times it could be removed.
The railways invested in snowplough trains to clear the tracks and get the trains running – some of the rural branch lines had great difficulty in functioning, but the general public and prisoners of war, still in this country, worked like Trojans to get them rolling again, as they did with the country lanes.
One major problem was getting coal away from the mines, particularly in Wales, where they suffered from massive drifts. With many coal mines around the valley’s villages and small towns, this led to Manny Shinwell, the minister for fuel and power, being accused of ignoring warnings of coal shortages, receiving death threats and generally being made scapegoat for the severe weather.
The country’s sporting obsession also took a hit, with sporting fixtures being particularly badly hit.
Rugby league, like many other sports, suffered and had to extend the season to the end of May, but unlike today, where a game would be called off due to footpaths and terraces having a scattering of snow, people got to work and cleared the fields and to a lesser degree the terraces.
At Leigh RLFC, who were in their first season after reforming, one incredible fact comes to light just before the snows fell. These days, we are used to hearing coaches and directors complaining about players being overplayed, but take a look at Leigh’s fixture list over Christmas and New Year 1946/47: Christmas Day – Bramley (H) won 23-2; Boxing Day – Bramley (A) lost 4-7; December 29 – Widnes (H) won 5-2; New Year’s Day – Batley (H) won 22-5; Jan 4 1947 – Workington (H) lost 3-8. Five games in 10 days!
As the snows fell, Leigh’s volunteer army kept the field clear of snow, but it apparently resembled a paddy field when, on February 8, 1947, Leigh played Barrow at the Leigh Harriers ground where they were based for their first season back. This replaced a fixture against Halifax, who were snowed in in Yorkshire. Halifax managed to dig themselves out the following week and journeyed somewhat perilously to Leigh, the home side winning 6-2.
As well as Leigh, Wigan and Salford managed to get games on that weekend, and as the weeks went on more and more teams dug themselves out of the deep snow. However, travelling to games was the most difficult part, as there were no motorways in those days, and the Pennine and Cumbrian routes were at times barely passable, with the snow never ceasing for 55 days.
Football, like rugby, used volunteers alongside ground staff to move the snow from the fields and again to a lesser extent the terraces, even when the snow was moved from the pitches the grounds were still frozen, and further snow falls meant repeating the job every day, while the pitch markings had to be done in blue or red as it was impossible to distinguish the lines as the snow fell. They also had sweepers on the lines in an effort to keep them clear. Plenty of people were available, as industry was in some cases shut down and workers laid off due to lack of fuel.
On the home front, electricity was cut off for five hours every day. Many readers, who were children back then, would remember having very little food, no hot water and going to bed with socks and jumpers on, and the beds weighted down with old threadbare blankets and the classic old army great coats. Maybe if you were lucky, you would a brick wrapped in newspaper and warmed in the oven alongside the fire.
Another comparison to today’s scatterings of snow was that children went to school and were allowed out at playtime. Postmen, milkmen, newspapers, although only thin, all battled through the snow.
Coal eventually started dribbling through as the railways were kept clear, while 100 coal ships managed, on February 27, in a quieter spell on the seas, to get coal to the power stations. Initially, householders had to collected it from either the council yards or the gas works where coke was also on sale, and the sight of mothers pushing prams laden with coal became common all across the country.
Unlike today, when people anticipate an odd day of inclement weather and stockpile food from the supermarkets, the shelves back then were almost empty. Vegetables were buried under three or four feet of snow – it was recorded that 71,000 tons of potatoes were lost – while livestock was buried in the snow and impossible for farmers to reach them in time in time to save them.