Surreal, brutal and sustained: Winter of 1962 in Honiton

In the winter of 1962 Acker Bilk was topping the charts with Stranger On the Shore, Jackie Kennedy was still influencing fashion trends and Lawrence of Arabia was the toast of the big screen. The world was in awe of the men who first travelled into space and relieved that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended without a nuclear war. But none of those things mattered in Honiton, not when winter arrived…

That was the year that ended on a decidedly chilly note.

Arctic blizzards blew in mountainous snow drifts that brought every-day life to a gruelling standstill.

At the turn of the new Year, temperatures were so cold they were said to be the lowest for more than 100 years.

In fact, the last time the mercury plummeted that far down the barometer it was the mid-1700s in most places.

And the misery dragged on for months. The first frost-free night since December didn’t arrive until March 5 in 1963.

The ill wind settled across Honiton on Boxing Day and lingered like a bad smell until mid-February. Elsewhere in the UK, the curse of winter dragged on even longer.

Minds previously preoccupied with things like the yearly inflation rate (3.6%) and Ray Charles’ hit I Can’t Stop Loving You were suddenly more concerned about achieving the mundane. They certainly weren’t ‘loving’ the weather.

Just getting out of the house was a task and a half. Farming and agriculture were badly hit by the big freeze.

With rural communities completely cut off, animal feed was airdropped to help some Devon farmers sustain their livestock. Nevertheless, thousands of animals perished.

Pets could only be allowed outside for a short periods of time. This grainy image depicts Pepe, winter of 1962a miniature poodle, pictured at the home of the late Phyllis Szyle, formerly of Manor Place, Clapper Lane and latterly Church Hill.

Robert Matthew, an Eton College-educated barrister, was the MP for Honiton at the time and had served as Parliamentary Private Secretary for Minister for Health, Derek Walker-Smith.

At the height of the crisis, he would have been aware of concerns being raised in Parliament about the extortionate cost of coal.

Hansard notes this comment being made during a debate in the winter of 1962 about meeting future annual demand for fuel: “Is the Right Honourable Gentleman aware that I was appalled by the prices being charged to poor people? The increase was equivalent to about £1 per cwt. Is it not immoral to take advantage of the poor during the kind of weather we have been experiencing?”

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan pointed out: “There have been very special circumstances in the last month, as the whole House knows. The whole tenor of our discussions on this matter has been to try to deal with the special problems of special areas…”

Lack of heating, lighting and power in hospitals, schools and other public buildings were highlighted, but there was no mention of the needs of Honiton residents nor those of the South West as a whole.

It will never be known how many Honiton residents died as a direct result of the bitter cold.

winter 1962

Pictures from the winter of 1962 show children happily playing in the snow in High Street and New Street. They do not convey the pressures local families were facing.

As larger employers used buses and tractors to get people into work and unemployment, nationally, was low, times were changing and Britain was struggling to keep up.

Traditional industries and manufacturing were facing competition from cheap imports and new processes. Macmillan saw a way forward through the European Community, an early form of the European Union.

It offered the potential for growth and a chance for British products to find new marketplaces. However, at the height of the cold snap, General Charles de Gaulle, President of the French Republic, rejected the UK’s application to join.

At the same time, train services in Devon were disrupted not just by the snow but efforts to get food and fuel into the county.

It is reported that conditions on the tracks were so atrocious that many of the trains that made it out of depots had to be abandoned.

A farmhouse provided refuge for one crew. Others were forced to walk for miles to look for shelter.

As if morale couldn’t sink any lower, 27 FA Cup matches were postponed on one day.

Amid power cuts, the chief engineer of the Devon River Board released a statement saying river banks across the county were expected to burst their banks within 24 hours.

Those living close to the River Otter braced themselves for the worst.

Quite incredibly, police were called in and used dynamite to break up ice on the River Exe to prevent flooding in the city.

Honiton wasn’t so lucky. When the flooding finally arrived, the timing was poor – Valentine’s Day.

The winter of 1962 remained the coldest in modern history until 1978 and 2009/10.

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