Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - February 2006
Just before Christmas there was a warning that this winter would be severe. So far so good and let us not tempt fate but we wonder how our ancestors decided what was likely to happen either in the long term, or even, from day to day. Did they rely on such sayings as "red sky in the morning" or the mid-term forecast of "as the day lengthens so the cold strengthens"? This year it might be appropriate to recall "a green Christmas, a white Easter".
Looking through old newspapers we find that 1881 was a year to remember. There were several days of 12 to 18 degrees of frost and snow blocked most streets. What was in the mind of Mr Bloomfield when he set off from Colchester in his father-in-law's horse and van to deliver items to Wigborough? Did he set off in the snow? Was his journey essential? He arrived in Wigborough and was on his return journey when he became buried in a snow drift. His cries for help were heard by a passing farmer who, with assistance, rescued him and the horse but the van was left in the snow. Where was the farmer going we wonder? Tracing roads in those days was not an easy matter in the dark let alone in a snow storm. That same year a mailman left Walton at 6pm to catch the mail train at Colchester. He had to be dug out twice but struggled on to arrive at the station at 11am the next morning.
1895 started with a very cold January but it warmed up towards the end of the month only for bitterly cold weather to return. By 7th February many men had been laid off due to the severe weather. Heavy snow falls meant that there was work for about 100 of them clearing streets in Colchester moving 1,000 tons of snow by using 45 carts. The unemployed were paid 2s (10p) a day by the Borough. In addition meetings were held to raise money to provide relief for those out of work. One intriguing item was that a professional skater had won a race of 1.5 miles in just over 5 minutes - what did a professional skater do for the rest of the year in the days before indoor rinks, or in milder winters?
The local news was over shadowed by an election but in Brightlingsea ice blocked the Creek and the Naval Reserve were forced to do their drill on "this side of the river being unable to cross to the battery". Three steam launches tried their utmost to stem the current of ice for wild fouling but had to give up the attempt - hardy folk in Brightlingsea! Additional worries arose when the gas and water companies had to apologise for lack of supplies causing hardship in the town.
The County Standard (January 1928) reported that local authorities were disturbed about water shortages but this may have been a case of tempting fate. Colchester experienced a very heavy fall of snow, a quick thaw and severe flooding with the Roman River spreading a "distance of several miles".
Within the living memory, of many of us, 1947 started with a very bleak, bitterly cold, few months. My recollection is of an iced over school playing field and snow that seemed to lay for months. Beaumont le Soken was cut off entirely for three days and the temperature fell to the lowest since 1940 - a winter not reported to any great amount on grounds of national security. The Mersea Road was the scene of an accident when a 'bus ploughed into a large drift on the grass verge and had to be dug out. In Mersea itself they were having a quiet chuckle about a number of prominent residents who had chosen that week for their holiday and were away for winter sports. Sixty years ago such holidays were not as popular as they are today. In Halstead a hundred German prisoners were marched into the town to assist in clearing the streets.
1947 was not only a severe winter but also one of fuel shortages and power cuts. Coming at a time when life was just beginning to settle down after the war and people were looking to freedom from shortages and rationing this was the last thing they needed. It was a time of planning to nationalise various industries and introduce the National Health Service which were hot political potatoes. In early February a thaw brought floods. A week later and the freeze was back. The paper headline was "Switch off saves half - Not Enough". Other cheery items were a forecast of a potato famine due to the likely impossibility of planting if the weather continued. Another forecast was that a series of severe winters would follow! By the end of the month the temperature fell to 26 degrees of frost, the coldest night since 1895, apart from one night in 1902. This continued into March. Attempts to keep Colchester's streets clear led to the use of 840 tons of sand, grit and salt but 64,000 tons of snow had been cleared. Some snowman!
There were, of course, milder winters than those described and others with short sharp spells. More recently 1962-63 was the coldest since 1740 starting just before Christmas. Snow fell on Boxing Day and by the end of the month 95,000 miles of highways were affected. I recall driving home to Manchester leaving Surrey in the snow finding in the Midlands that snow was high up the sides of houses. At home we found everything frozen inside and out. What had fallen froze solid and remained until March. The Thames froze over and people walked across it at Hampton Court. My work took me to Buxton one day in February where we were warned, by the police, to get out quick. This involved following a snow plough uphill to the Cat and Fiddle where it stopped at the Derbyshire boundary. Fortunately for us, after a few minutes, another plough appeared from the Cheshire side and we made our way, very slowly, into Macclesfield! Arriving back in Manchester we found it was raining but Buxton was cut off for days.
In wishing you all a Very Happy New Year may we end by saying that we hope we have not tempted fate by this article! If any readers have memories of earlier winters, or any other local recollections, please do let us know.
(Some of the information above comes from "The Essex Weather Book" and much of the rest from the County Standard and the Colchester Gazette.)