Call the Midwife: the real history behind the Big Freeze of 1963

One of the worst winters on record brought the country – and Poplar's midwives – to a standstill

Call the Midwife, BBC Pictures, SL

Call the Midwife has reached the Big Freeze of 1963 and this year’s Christmas special is seriously snowy, with Poplar buried in huge snow drifts and Trixie’s skiing plans put on hold. The heavy snowfall brought much of the country to a standstill but babies will still be born and the midwives’ vital work must go on.

Advertisement

Still, they had plenty to contend with thanks to one of the worst winters on record. Find out more about the Big Freeze of 1963 below…

What was the Big Freeze?

1963’s Big Freeze was the coldest snap of weather in Britain since 1740, according to the Met Office, with temperatures dropping as low as -20oC bringing on blizzards, snow drifts and even freezing over the Thames.

Call the Midwife, BBC Pictures, SL
Call the Midwife, BBC Pictures, SL

When was the Big Freeze?

The Big Freeze of 1963 actually began in 1962. The beginning of December was very foggy with some snow midway through the month but the first heavy snowfall began on the evening of Boxing Day, going into the 27th. Then on the 29th and 30th December, a blizzard swept through south west England and Wales, leaving drifts of up to 20 feet of snow in its wake.

How long did it last?

The snow blanketed the country for up to two months in some parts, thanks to the below freezing temperatures (the average was -2.1oC in January).

January and February were largely sunny but February also brought more snow, including a 36-hour blizzard which caused heavy drifts. It wasn’t until March that the thaw had properly set in – 6th March was the first morning of the year with no frost anywhere in Britain.

How did it happen?

The Big Freeze was all down to an anticyclone which hovered over Scandinavia and drew cold, continental air from central Russia all the way to Britain. A westerly wind usually brings mild, wet air in from the Atlantic but in 1963 this was blocked by an area of high pressure near Iceland. The atmosphere stayed pretty much the same for the best part of two months.

Did the Thames freeze over?

Yes! Incredible pictures from 1963 show people skating across London’s river and – according to BBC London meteorologist Peter Cockroft – the Thames saw its first car rally on the ice. But it wasn’t the only body of water to freeze. The River Dee in Chester turned to ice, as did the River Humber and River Medway, and in Kent and Dunkirk the sea itself froze over. Meanwhile, in Trafalgar Square…

14th January 1963 in Trafalgar Square, Getty, SL
14th January 1963 in Trafalgar Square, Getty, SL

Which services came to a standstill?

The snowfall blocked roads and railways, brought down telephone lines and – in some cases – cut off villages for several days, with some farmers unable to reach their livestock before they starved to death. The freezing sea and canals also caused problems, as the canal system was used to transport goods. Meanwhile, at Coaley Junction in Gloucestershire, a train carrying mail froze and a fire had to be lit underneath to thaw the engine. Flights were also cancelled as airports closed.

How did it affect sport?

Sporting fixtures were a major casualty of the winter of 1962/63 with the FA Cup among the worst affected. Matches were delayed by over a month while the football league was extended by four weeks. But it wasn’t just football – horse racing also felt the effect of the cold snap with 94 meetings cancelled and no racing in England between 23rd December and 7th March.

Advertisement
Cheltenham Racecourse on 28th February 1963, Getty, SL
Cheltenham Racecourse on 28th February 1963, Getty, SL

What happened to the milk services?

The midwives had to drink their tea black in the Christmas special, much like their real-life equivalents in 1963. The inclement conditions caused milk bottles to freeze to doorsteps and the delivery routes turned treacherous. “After five days battling, milkmen had to take the day off with exhaustion and 15,000 London housewives went without milk,” read a BBC News report from February 1963.