In recent years, most Britons have gotten used to relatively wild winters, with snow a rare sight in many parts of the country. But these newly colorized pictures demonstrate how, for much of the 20th century, the weather was far more severe than it is today, with heavy snow and thick ice being a common occurrence. One of the images – which were released by the TopFoto archive and colorized afterwards – shows a group of children in the 1940s having fun as they hurtle down a hill on a sledge while another portrays a young boy playing on a weapon emplacement near Tower Bridge.
The frost of 1940, which began in December the previous year, was the most severe to hit Britain since 1895. It came soon after Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. Temperatures dropped to an average of 38F (3C) and the cold weather continued until February. In some parts of the country, the mercury fell to -13F (-25C), and, for the first time in six decades, the River Thames froze over. In some parts of the country, four feet of snow blanketed communities. Pictured: Three Metropolitan Police officers are seen ice skating on the River Thames during the winter of 1900.
In the south, rain fell instead of snow, meaning that trees, telegraph poles, power lines and vehicles were coated with thick layers of ice that were sometimes nearly a foot thick. Because of the need to censor information that may have been useful to Germany during the war, the details of the weather in the UK were mostly kept out of the media. However, the Daily Mail did report about the freezing temperatures, which affected Europe at the same time. The newspaper told how, in Italy, gondolas in Venice became covered in ice that was four inches thick. And in Rome, pipes burst across the city. Pictured: A group of children in the 1940s having fun as they hurtle down a hill on a sledge.
In Denmark, there was a fuel shortage and dance halls were ordered to close at midnight. The sea also froze in the country, making the arrival of cargo and transport nearly impossible. Troops who would ordinarily have had to sail with their equipment across the Great Belt – the strait between the islands of Zealand and Funen – were instead able to drive on the frozen stretch of water. Pictured: A small boy has the time of his life as he scrambles over one of the snow covered canons near Tower Bridge in the 1940s.
In Sweden, coal supplies were held up, and in Norway, sailors nearly starved to death when their ships became trapped in ice. Another winter famed for its fierceness was the one in 1946/47, which forced further hardship on a population that had only just been through the trauma caused by the Second World War. The heaviest snow falls were in the south of England, where the blizzard which struck was the worst since 1891. Villages were also cut off from the outside world and temperatures barely rose above freezing for weeks. Pictured: A group of boys is seen rolling an enormous snow ball.
The huge amount of snow and ice led to a crisis as stocks of coal and food plummeted, while transportation ground to a halt. Flights were also canceled and drifts of more than 15 feet blocked roads and railways. With Britain still dependent on railways to move goods around the country, it was a disaster when the lines became impassable due to the snow. Milkmen innovatively used sledges to carry on making their deliveries. In Lincolnshire, 200 German prisoners of war, who were still waiting to be sent home, helped dig out dozens of passengers who had become trapped on a train bound for Peterborough. Pictured: A little boy collects snowballs.
By the time of the last heavy snowfall, on March 15, 1947, snow had fallen somewhere in the UK on every day since January 22. Fifteen years later, the winter of 1962-3, which was known as the Big Freeze, was even worse. In Britain, it brought the coldest weather since 1814. In Leigh-on-Sea, in Essex, the sea froze, leading it to be dubbed ‘Leigh on Ice’ by the Daily Mail. Pictured: A little girl dragging a sledge through the snow in the 1960s.
Elsewhere, the weight of snow and ice – which stayed until March – was so great that it weighed down telephone wires until they touched the ground. Football matches also stopped for months, and the Daily Mail sent a helicopter – after the RAF’s own aircraft had been beaten back by the bad weather – to drop food for 33 orphans living at a Church of England care home in the village of East Knoyle, Wiltshire. Pictured: A women’s marathon team finishing their race in the midst of a snowstorm during the 1940s.
For more than two months, temperatures did not climb above freezing and were an average of 28.4 F (-2C). In Braemar, Aberdeenshire, they fell as low as -8F (-22C). Many schools were also closed and power cuts hit thousands of homes, while snow lay on the ground in London for two months. Pictured: A London street snowed-in during the 1960s.
The River Thames also froze over once again. In previous centuries, the sight of ice on the river had been common and frost fairs, which included dancing, football, nine-pin bowling and gambling, were a regular occurrence. Pictured: Children on their way to school in the snow during the 1940s.
After a big snow fall, these children were out with their sledge and making the most of the winter weather during the 1960s.
A scene in Market Street Mottram in the 1940s shows a man using a shovel to clear snow drifts during one of the harsh winters.
A young girl is seen testing the ice next to a sign from HM Office of Works that reads: ‘Danger – Any person going on the ice is liable to a fine of five pounds.’
Here, a women’s polo team is pictured practicing in the snow.
Fun and games: A young boy is seen playing in the snow.
This photo of a young girl on a sled was taken during one of the harsh winters in Britain in the 1940s.