The March blizzard of 1952

Warm sunshine looks likely to bring London’s first 20°C this week but the weather 65 years ago couldn’t have been more different.

180029031952

This chart shows the Synoptic setup at 1800h on 29th, the peak of the blizzard with F5 – F6 easterly winds, courtesy of the Met Office

A cold easterly airflow on March 29th and 30th 1952 affecting the southern half of England brought heavy snow whipped into drifts up to 6ft deep in parts of the Chilterns.

According to the Royal Meteorological Society’s weather log the snow varied from 3 to 6 inches and reached 10 inches at Northolt.

Squally winds, which gusted to 60 mph, blocked 330 main roads across the south. In places the temperature on the 29th remained below freezing all day – the snowstorm was probably the worst to affect southern England in late March since 1916.

The wintry weather followed a dry and fairly non-descript winter and must have been quite a shock at the end of what had been a fairly mild March.

Bernard Burton, of Wokingham, has a clear recollection of the event: “I remember the day very well as the Oxford/Cambridge boat race was held that afternoon. I was 14 at the time, and my brother-in-law gave me a ticket for a place on a launch to watch the race.

“My home was in Tooting at the time, and I took the bus to Westminster pier to catch the launch. I recall sitting upstairs on the bus with a thick layer of snow covering the front facing windows, but the roads and pavements were mainly slushy.”

Bernard, who runs Wokingham Weather, added: “I then spent one of the most miserable afternoons I can recall. There was a ‘lounge’ on the boat, which was warm, but was also full of diesel fumes and was very noisy. I alternately stood outside on the deck until the cold got too much, or went below for warmth until the fumes got the better of me.

“I recall bleak views of London with snow on roofs, in a poor grey afternoon light, but I think it was mainly dry at that time, although there may have been slight sleety rain.

“The boat race itself was a close one, but the crowds that usually lined the banks of the river were absent, just a few hardy stragglers, and by the time of the race I had a headache, probably brought on by the fumes. For my part, I couldn’t wait to get back to Westminster and back home to thaw out.”

John Hall, who was three at the time, said: ” I, sadly, don’t have any memory of it at all. That’s in spite of the fact that we apparently moved house from Cranleigh to Effingham (about 15 miles away) on the day of the blizzard.

“According to my father it snowed all day but the following day – which he reckoned was the 1st of April – the weather was glorious and all the snow was gone by noon. I don’t think his memory is quite in accordance with the facts, but of course that’s common with memories of past weather.”

The snow didn’t last long. March 31st saw temps rise to 5C; much of the snow had melted in the strong spring sunshine by April 1st. By the 3rd an Atlantic ridge of high pressure had moved in, raising temperatures to over 10C.

kew

Stats for Kew suggest there was 21cm of level snow

1952 produced two more weather shocks. On August 15th and 16th over 220mm of rain fell on the hills above Lynmouth, Devon, leading to flash flooding of the village and the loss of 34 lives.

Months later, a large anticyclone during the last of five days of December produced the notorious ‘pea souper’ fog that contributed to the death of thousands of Londoners. This fog, initially freezing, became very dense and was directly responsible for the Clean Air Act enabled in 1956.

You can find an analysis of the unfolding pattern that produced the blizzard here. And here’s Xmetman’s take on the event.

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