Frozen in time - the legendary winter of 1963

The current deep freeze is a reminder for some of 50 years ago when Ulster was gripped by an ice age. ADAM KULA reports

THE last several days have seen Ulster pummelled by snow, sleet and bitter cold.

Despite advance warning from weather experts and the benefit of 21st century technology and services, disruption has been widespread. For many people, the current freak weather conditions are literally a chilling reminder of the dreadful conditions which seized the Province just over 50 years ago.

Sometimes known as the Big Freeze of 1963, it began just after Christmas 1962.

Records show it was the toughest winter the Province has ever faced – and residents braved it with none of the modern help or gizmos which can help us deal with such conditions today.

Half a century on, The News Letter revisits the event and what it meant for the Province, and looks at whether there is truth to the widely-held belief that winter just isn’t what it used to be.

First port of call was the Met Office - the UK’s official weather agency, with 36 weather stations scattered across the Province.

Experts there confirmed that the winter of 1963 was indeed the coldest Northern Ireland has seen, with an average temperature across the whole season of 1.51°C (winter being defined meteorologically as December, January and February).

The coldest temperature of all during that time was minus 15 degrees Celsius, recorded on January 24, 1963. However a number of stations registered temperatures lower than minus 10 degrees Celsius.

By contrast, this winter’s average was 4.2 degrees Celsius, which was 0.2 C below average (and winter 2010/11 was 2.57 degrees Celsius, which was 1.75 C below average).

So what was reported at the time? And what did it mean for residents? Many of their tales are told in the panels opposite. But someone who also remembers the time is Dorothy Hanna, 73, living off the Lisburn Road, south Belfast.

“We had no option but to be stoic and resilient,” she said.

“Because you didn’t have an awful lot of the things we have nowadays – central heating, double glazing. Basically if we didn’t just get on with it nobody was going to come to our rescue.”

She was 23 at the time and had just had a baby.

In urban areas like hers they had problems getting about, but in rural areas it was much worse.

Her father was a postman, tasked with making a delivery in a rural area near Aldergrove. He could not find the house and thought he must have the wrong location - until a passerby pointed out it was buried completely by a snowdrift.

As she recalls, the snow began just after Christmas, 1962 and lasted until well into February before it started to get back to normal.

Consulting old copies of The News Letter from the period, her memory tallies very much with what was reported.

Leafing through the gigantic, yellowing volumes of the paper in Belfast Library’s archives, it seems the first serious snowfall began on December 26, 1962.

The front page of the December 27 edition bore the story: “Snow brings ice menace to Ulster roads… Frost and snow struck the Province with a vengeance last night”

But what might have seemed like a cold snap turned out to be no snap at all.

It just kept coming – day in day out. Days became weeks, and then fortnights.

The weather made it onto the front page again the following day (December 28), with the headline “Britain in grip of ice; and it’s getting tighter.”

The 29th saw much the same story, with the paper noting the Derry City against Linfield match had been postponed, and that helicopters were even being put on standby to help feed cattle in case the weather worsened.

By New Year’s Day 1962, the newspaper was reporting “the worst storm since 1947”.

As the month progressed, there were vegetable famines (January 4), power cuts (January 12), and a lake in Lurgan had frozen to a depth of six inches (January 14), allowing brave skaters to venture out on top of it.

A temporary thaw then burst 300 Belfast pipes (January 15), and firemen were hampered in their work by snow drifts up to 10 feet high (January 21).

And on it went into February. The last image of snow which this reporter spotted was on February 21 in a story about a cross-country run, in which the lightly-clad runners were making their way up a white-covered slope at Belfast Castle. From that point it appears the weather was returning more or less to normal.

It depends how one wants to define it. But judging by the coverage at the time, the Big Freeze of 1962/ 1963 lasted for perhaps around eight weeks – something which rather puts our recent winters, and the weekend cold snap, into perspective.