Fifty years ago – The winter of 1962-1963 in Reading

The winter of 1962/63 was one of the coldest on the UK instrumental record, with the mean January temperature ranking fifth coldest (out of 354 months) and the mean February temperature ranking the seventh coldest, according to the Central England Temperature record [1]. Across the country as a whole gas and electricity supplies failed frequently, there were some noteworthy snowfalls and freezing rain (a relatively rare event in the UK) occurred on occasions – notably across southern England on 3 January. Here is the winter temperature in the context of recent ones in East Berkshire [2].

Winter mean temperature in East Berkshire, 1863-4 to 2011-12.
Winter mean temperature in East Berkshire, 1863-4 to 2011-12.

The cold weather started just before the Christmas of 1962, as temperatures from the University’s climatological station (then in London Road) show.

Daily maximum and minimum air temperatures, Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.
Daily maximum and minimum air temperatures, Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.

During early December it had been had been changeable and stormy, although the daily weather diary written at the time by the Reading observer Arthur Moon noted that 6 December (-2.3 C maximum; the third consecutive ice day) had the lowest daily December maximum temperature since 20 December 1938 (-2.8 C). There was also dense fog around Reading on the 4th to 8th – at the 0900 GMT observation on these days a visibility of 50 metres was reported. Indeed, the Reading weather diary notes that later on the 3rd visibility was a low as 15 yards (15 m) with ice needles being observed on the 4th.

(In London “the final ‘major’ old style London smog occurred in this month (4th to 6th): i.e. a combination of domestic coal smoke plus sulphur dioxide products producing an acidic fog droplet, which in turn caused major respiratory problems. About a thousand people died [in London] as a result. During the fog, the smoke & sulphur dioxide content in the atmosphere increased to a maximum of 10 to 14 times the normal concentration. This was noted at the time as the ‘worst’ since December, 1952”.[10])

Then on 22 December a high pressure system moved to the north-east of the British Isles, dragging bitterly cold winds across the country – as the NCEP reanalysis chart shows [3]. As the Reading weather observer noted “Later in the day colder conditions began to set in…”.

NCEP reanalysis surface analysis, 0000 GMT 22 Dec 1962 (white contours).
NCEP reanalysis surface analysis, 0000 GMT 22 Dec 1962 (white contours).

This NE’ly to E’ly flow was to persist for much of the winter, as the hodograph for the 0900 GMT observations at Reading from 22 December to 7 March shows.

Wind hodograph for Reading, 22 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.
Wind hodograph for Reading, 22 December 1962 to 7 March 1963. Hodograph drawn using the eight principal compass points.

The largely E/NE’ly surface flow is also confirmed by the mean MSL pressure maps for January-February 1963 – with MSL pressure being especially high across the British Isles in January. At Lerwick the mean MSL pressure during January was the highest for any January month during 1961-2012 – although at Heathrow the years of 2000, 1989 and 1964 have seen highest January values.

Winter MSL pressure, 1962-1963.
Mean MSL pressure (hPa), (left) January-February 1963 and (right) January 1963.

There was not to be a White Christmas in Reading, After some snow on the 12th, wintry weather began with a vengeance in Reading around noon on 26 December (Boxing Day) – which was the first of ten consecutive days with snowfall. This snow soon began to lie, the ground being frozen.

There was a blizzard on 29-30 December across Wales and south-west England; by the morning of the 30th the snow depth had doubled to 21 cm by 0900 h while the Reading observer noted on the 30th “drifts of 2.5 to 3 feet [75 to 90 cm] were present, the strong wind causing considerable drifting and blowing of snow.” The snow depth reached 31 cm at the 0900 GMT observation on 3 January. Lying snow (50% or more of ground cover) lasted continuously at Reading from 27 December to 14 February. Altogether, snow fell on 38 days during the three winter months (the average for the period 1981-2010 was just 7.6 days [6]). In spite of these snowy conditions it is reported that there were no delays to Reading’s trolley buses by the 28th [8].

The weather diary for 3 January  contains the following: “Dull conditions continued and overnight snow turned to freezing rain mixed with ice pellets (clear ice) at times. This coated walls and trees with a smooth ice glaze. … The ice covering twigs measured around 3 mm thick and where dripping occurred blunt icicles about one inch [2.5 cm] long formed. Trees so covered emitted a cracking sound when blown by the wind.”

However, the Reading and Berkshire Chronicle reported on 4 January that “staggering sums of money and huge quantities of material have had to be used in the fight to clear the snow in Reading and Berkshire: villages on the Downs have been isolated; public transport services and motorists have had difficulty in keeping going; milk, paraffin and vegetables have been in short supply. It is just a small part of the picture presented by this week of Arctic conditions” [8].

The 12th gave the lowest January maximum temperature (-2.2 C) since 20 January 1946 – but colder was to come. The weather diary for 23 January notes the lowest night minimum temperature (-12.5 C) since 15 February 1929 with the 24th noting the lowest day maximum temperature (-5.6 C) yet recorded. Fog on the 23rd led to riming of trees.

Images from the winter can be seen at [12] – an example is shown here of people walking on the Thames at Windsor. The website at [12] also relates many stories and news items about the winter.

Skating on the ice on the Thames in Windsor, 1963.
Skating on the ice on the Thames in Windsor, 1963.
Level lying snow depth.
Level lying snow depth, Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.A similar pattern of lying snow occurred at nearby Hurley (just outside Maidenhead) ref 9.

On 18 January -22.2 C was recorded at Braemar in Scotland. The long bitterly cold spell caused lakes and rivers to freeze and sea water froze in some of England’s harbours. This is also reflected in the soil temperatures measured here in Reading. At a depth of 4 feet (122 cm) the temperature fell throughout the winter, reaching the lowest level in early March. Close to the surface temperatures were sometimes close to -5 C, and frequently below -2 C. Even at a depth of 30 cm the soil froze for a while in mid-January, the coldest part of the winter.

0900 GMT soil temperatures, Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.
0900 GMT soil temperatures, Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.

Minimum temperatures recorded at Reading during the months of December to February 1962-3 were as follows:

Value (C) Date
Lowest maximum temperature -5.6 24 Jan
Minimum air temperature -12.5 23 Jan
Grass minimum temperature -15.1 23 Jan
Lowest bare soil surface temperature -13.9 23 Jan
Lowest 5 cm soil temperature -5.0 23 Jan
Lowest 122 cm (4 feet) soil temperature -2.6 9 Mar

Lower temperatures have been recorded more recently at Whiteknights – for example the air minimum temperature of -14.5 C on 14 January 1982; the grass minimum temperature was -20.1 C that morning. On 12 January -6.8 C was the highest temperature of the day in Reading. But in 1962-1963 it was the persistence of the cold and lying snow that was remarkable.

During January the Thames was almost frozen over at Caversham Bridge while in Wargrave snow ploughs struggled to clear tons of snow in the High Street. On 16 January a USAF officer was killed in a weather-caused accident on the Twyford-Henley Road and, on the same day, two Tilehurst men died in an accident involving a coach on the Bath Road at Sonning.  British Railways Western Region complained of the wrong type of weather for testing their new anti-freeze for points. A N’ly wind was blamed for blowing back coke fumes into Holy Trinity Church in Theale on 13 January; several people collapsed and were taken to hospital. By 18 January the Thames had frozen over completely at Reading and Windsor.

The cold continued into February – on the 2nd the maximum temperature of -1.7 C was the lowest in February since 2 February 1956. Ice days (when the temperature remained below 0 C all day) are very rare in Reading in February – there were two in February 1963 along with another three days that failed to rise above 0.5 C. As days lengthened and temperatures started to rise (slowly) in February the snow slowly thawed; the Reading weather diary notes that by the evening of 14 February the snow cover on the ground was below 50 % for the first time since early on Boxing Day (a period of 50 days with 50 % cover at 0900 h.)

High pressure for much of the wintry part of the winter led to some sunny days, even if they remained cold. 208 h of bright sunshine were recorded during the three winter months (despite problems keeping the snow and frost off the glass sphere of the sunshine recorder) – this amounts to about 20 % more than average.

Sunshine duration, Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.
Sunshine duration, Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.Note the sunshine around the end of February which helped to melt much of the lying snow.

Once the snow at the end of December/start of January had finished it was a mainly dry winter with just 33 mm of precipitation falling in the first two months of 1963 – or about 33 % of average – and most of that fell by 4 January.

Daily precipitation totals (water equivalents), Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.These are for the 24 hours beginning on the date shown.
Daily precipitation totals (water equivalents), Reading, 1 December 1962 to 7 March 1963.These are for the 24 hours beginning on the date shown.
NCEP reanalysis surface analysis, 0000 GMT 4 March 1963 (white contours).
NCEP reanalysis surface analysis, 0000 GMT 4 March 1963 (white contours).

On 4 March a mild SW’ly flow finally reached the British Isles and temperatures gradually rose, allowing snow to melt and winter to end. There had been quite sunny conditions in Reading towards the end of February and in early March so much of the snow had already disappeared – preventing the severe flooding along the Thames that sometimes occur after a cold, snowy spell.

So how cold was it here? This image, extracted from the annual report for 1964 from the Reading & District Natural History Society [11] gives the raw numbers for January.

Notes on the 1962-3 winter by A Moon, the observer at the time.
Notes on the 1962-3 winter by A Moon, the observer at the time.

For comparison, 1931-60 soil and air temperature anomalies, and 1921-50 rainfall anomalies ([4], [5], [7]) for the three winter months of 1962-63 are shown in the next table.

Month Mean max temp (C) Mean min temp (C) Mean temp (C) Mean temp anomaly (degC) Total Precip (mm) Precip anomaly (mm) Mean 30 cm soil temp (C) Mean 30 cm temp anomaly (degC) Mean 122 cm soil temp (C) Mean 122 cm temp anomaly (degC)
Dec 4.7 -0.9 1.9 -3.1 64.1 +5.7 3.7 -1.9 7.0 -0.6
Jan 0.4 -4.4 -2.0 -5.9 22.7 -38.5 0.5 -3.8 4.1 -1.6
Feb 2.6 -2.4 0.1 -4.3 10.6 -34.6 0.3 -3.8 2.9 -2.3

Finally, it is worth noting that it was not only the British Isles that was affected by cold weather this winter. January 1963 was memorable for the extreme severity of the cold weather which simultaneously gripped North America, Europe, and the Far East. [14] In Europe  it  was  one  of  the  coldest  months  ever  recorded,  resulting  in  shortages  of  coal  and  food  as  snowdrifts blocked roads and ports  and waterways were blocked by ice  or  were completely frozen  over. Shortages of  water and  gas  also  occurred  as  a result  of  damage by frost  to exposed  pipelines  in  normally  milder  climates.  Many died or were hospitalized from exposure to the cold. Average temperatures for the month were in excess of 5 degC below normal from southern England across Europe to the Urals. Warsaw reported an average temperature of -12.4C for January, or 10.3 degC below normal, while Paris averaged -2.9C, or -5.5 degC below normal.  Even Mediterranean regions averaged about 3 degC below normal.

700 hPa mean height in January.
700 hPa mean height in January, from ref. 14. Note the ridges to the west of North America and Europe.

In the  Far  East,  abnormal  cold was  accompanied  by blizzards,  notably in western Japan, where snowdrifts of 4 m depth  in  some  districts  paralysed  transportation  and collapsed roofs.  Soldiers and students were pressed into service to dig out trains and remove snow from roofs to save schools and other structures.

What about the winter of 2012-13? Who knows? While you’re awaiting developments why not relive the winter of 1962-3 in realtime via the observation archive at [13]?


The author is indebted to the intrepid observers at the time, who made daily observations without fail. The chief observer at the time was Arthur Moon who also assiduously compiled a daily weather diary. These observations, and both earlier and later observations, are currently being compiled by the author into a database showing the daily weather in Reading since 1908. The graphs were plotted using this database.

Note that the observation site in 1962-3 was on the London Road; as such mean maximum and mean minimum temperatures were about 0.4 degC and 0.6 degC, respectively, warmer than at Whiteknights.





[4] Averages of earth temperature at depths of 30 cm and 122 cm for the United Kingdom 1931-60. 1968. HMSO, London.

[5] Averages of temperature for Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1931-60. 1963. HMSO, London.

[6] Burt, S.D. and Brugge, R., 2011. Climatological Averages for 1981-2010 and 2001-2010 for stations appearing in the monthly bulletin of the Climatological Observers Link. ISBN 9780956948502.

[7] Averages of rainfall for Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1916-50. 1958, reprinted 1961. HMSO, London.

[8] Currie, I., Davison, M. and Ogley, R., 1994. The Berkshire weather book. Froglets publications. ISBN 1872337481.






[14] : J F Connor (1963). The weather and circulation of January 1963. Monthly Weather Review, vol 91, p 209.

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