The Ice Storm, January 1940

Eric did not complete an entry in his diary over the next few days, presumably due to illness and possibly as a result of the intense cold weather which Britain experienced from 26th - 31st January 1940, which culminated in unprecedented snow and ice storms.

January 1940 had already been exceptionally cold - only the January of 1838 had recorded lower temperatures - and as Eric's previous diary entries have shown, snow fell heavily and frequently throughout the month. The collision of two weather systems from the 26th January led to the whole country experiencing severe snow storms until the end of the month whilst an area from the South Coast to North Wales endured an ice storm. Temperatures were so low that rain froze as it fell, coating everything in a thick layer of ice and bringing down telephone wires, power lines and trees as well as causing many animals and birds to perish as their fur or feathers became encased in ice.

Under these conditions, Britain's transport network, commercial operations and military preparations were paralysed for a week. The severity of the storms was not publicised in the press until six weeks later so that enemy forces would not learn that Britain had been brought to a standstill by the weather conditions.

(Notes taken from a 'Weather Eye' report: 'The Ice Storm that Britain Hid from Hitler' by meteorologist, Philip Eden, dated 31/12/98).

26th January 1940

Another tremendous snowstorm today from 4.30 to 6pm so that a further 6 inches fell. I am told that at places only a couple of miles out of the town, people have been snowbound for more than a week.

24th January 1940

Still freezing hard. I feel very ill. Chapman [Museum Attendant] went off sick today.

23rd January 1940

Freezing hard today, the roads just glistening sheets of ice. I have not yet heard that any horses have been involved in accidents through this cause. The Highways Dept: have put a minimum of sand down, even in the very worst places.

19th January 1940

Vaughan got all one side of the old house [from Culver Street] up today [in the Castle], and Sisson came in to inspect it. It looks even more impressive than I thought it would, but the interior of the Castle Main Hall is so high that the thing will not, I feel sure, look out of place. Sisson is taking a great deal of trouble over this, and we must be grateful to him.

Marshall Sisson, RA (1897-1978), was an architect who specialised in the restoration of old buildings.

For Eric's previous diary entries on rescuing part of the old 15th century timber-framed house that was demolished in Culver Street, click here.

17th January 1940

Woke this morning to find it still snowing. I decided that tonight Bob and Donkey must be shut in the Bourne Mill stable, but I must let them out during the day to drink. This morning the Donkey was rolling joyously in the snow, while Bob trotted round and kicked up his heels. The Pond has been mostly frozen over about 6 inches deep for a week or more now. The stream side never freezes, and the horses can always drink out of the stream lower down.

Bourne Mill, 1940 - Bob can be seen grazing in the paddock on the left of the photograph.
(Photograph courtesy of Essex Record Office)

Apparently the depth of snow and possibly the need to economise in war-time made the Highways Dept decide not to attempt to clear the streets, with the result that the traffic moved silently all day long, on roads impeded by vast mountains of snow shovelled off the footpaths.

In Colchester Castle Park the white carpet lay undisturbed at a depth of about 18 inches. It was almost impossible to get into the Castle. I had to wear top-boots [leather riding boots].

It is terribly dangerous to ride a cycle, at least it is to me, as the roads are now solid ice. Plenty of [horse-drawn] coal-carts going about tandem today [for greater safety], a sight I have not seen so much of for many years.

They say there will soon be a very great shortage of coal and coke in the town. Already we have great difficulty in getting enough at the Castle.

A photo of Colchester Castle in the snow in January 2010 by Chris Kerry can be seen here and presents a similar picture to the one Eric describes above.

16th January 1940 - The Winter of 1940

This evening a tremendous fall of snow began. Never in my life have I seen such a fall. It started about tea time and fell in huge, soft flakes, hour after hour, with a north wind piling it up into drifts. By 10pm there was over a foot deep, and still snowing hard. I think it must be more than the great fall of 1916, which I remember so clearly. To this day I remember the roar of snow sliding off the roofs which so terrified me.

Everything that could have been said about the beauty of snow has been said, but it is a chance we may never have again of seeing heavy snow as they saw it in olden times, silent, white, still, with no street lights to give any touch of modernity [owing to the blackout]. Tonight Bourne Mill and the Pond were transformed in an hour from the 20th century to the 16th, without a single thing visible to connect the scene with the present day. If I were 20 years younger, how I would revel in all this. As it is, while I make the most of its beauty, I wonder how I am going to get hay and fodder down to Bourne Mill, as the hill is now just a sheet of ice.

Eric was the custodian for Bourne Mill, a National Trust property in Colchester and stabled his horse, Bob, and a donkey there.

A photo of Bourne Mill and Pond taken during the recent heavy snow in January 2010 can be seen here and is little changed from the scene Eric describes in 1940.

The winter of 1939-40 was to be the coldest for 45 years. Eric recorded the first snowfall on 29th December 1939 and temperatures remained very low in the intervening weeks with heavy snow beginning on 16th January 1940, adding to the difficulties of life under wartime conditions.

The Diary of Nathaniel Bryceson, 1846

Readers may be interested in another historical diary which has just been launched on-line. The Diary of Nathaniel Bryceson follows his life for a year as a 19 year old clerk in Victorian London. The diary is being published for the year 1846 and each entry is published on the corresponding date in 2010. This diary has been transcribed by staff and volunteers at the City of Westminster Archives Centre and provides a fascinating insight into life in London in the early Victorian era.

12th January 1940

German planes in the district this morning. Heavy gunfire heard from the direction of Clacton, but no alarm.

10th January 1940 - London in Wartime

Went up to London this morning to attend the first Royal Archaeological Institute Council since the war began. [Eric served on the RAI Council from 1939-1942].

The first thing you notice is that barrage balloons are up, and very beautiful they look too. The next is that the tremendous works for extending the Central London Tube are still going ahead, with many hundreds of men working on them, especially round Stratford way.

In London all the police now wear “tin-helmets” all the time, though why is difficult to see. The traffic looks, to me, quite normal, in the City at least. Sandbags are everywhere. Some big banks are actually having brick and concrete buttresses put over their basement windows as if they expect the war to last for a century. Perhaps it will.

Walked down to London Bridge, always a favourite spot of mine. Several Dutch and Belgian boats in, unloading bananas of all things. The usual crowd, nearly all workmen and office girls, feeding the sea-gulls. To see the British workman feeding gulls with part of his dinner is a pretty good sign that there is no food shortage in this country. While I was there a little Dutch boat slipped down the river, tooting her siren, the crew nonchalantly leaning over the rails, a brand new raft on the stern, a brand new lifeboat ready on the new davits. I uttered a prayer that she would get across the other side safely.

Had lunch in a milk bar, and then went to Burlington House. Dr R.E. Mortimer Wheeler was there in a Colonel’s uniform, and one man actually turned up as an AFS man, complete with tin-hat and axe, which made it very awkward for him to sit down. Apart from these our august assembly looked and behaved normally. I noticed that the President never spoke of the war: he occasionally mentioned “the present circumstances” or “the international situation”, but nothing more outspoken than that.

After all was over, I went to a News Cinema for an hour, had a meal, and came home on the 7.30, a dreadful journey, with only dim blue lights, the train packed full of soldiers going on leave, singing because they were happy, soldiers going back from leave, singing to cheer themselves up, and new young conscripts, too miserable to sing at all.

6th January 1940

Today went off on a journey to Braintree and Chelmsford. I went by Hick’s bus. At Braintree there are many soldiers – all the big pub yards seem to be in army hands.

Braintree doesn’t bother about gas-masks or air-raid shelters, although in the last war a bomb fell on a house here and killed 7 people. The biggest joke, the Air-Raid Precaution to end all Air-Raid Precautions, is that they have stopped the Town Hall clock, and covered it in sacking, so that the enemy cannot see it or hear it strike! The idea of a man in a bombing plane, 20,000 feet up, hearing a clock strike, seems to me to be distinctly funny. The Town Hall is almost buried in sandbags, but apart from that only one or two shops have boarded up their fronts. The town looked very busy. I had a good look round, and found that the beautiful Courtauld Fountain has been boarded round 8 feet high, with printed notices on the boarding to say that this precaution is necessary owing to the wilful damage done to the fountains and figures by school-children evacuated from London “over whom there is no control”.

Caught another bus from here to Chelmsford. Had a look at the Market. Very poor horse-sale. Good cobs for £6! Cart-horses, 8 yrs. old, only £20, perfectly sound in every way. Instead of the war bringing back horses, it would appear to be the cause of their extinction.

The diaries that inspired Eric Rudsdale's journals

Eric Rudsdale was an avid reader of diaries, in particular the diaries of Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and Francis Kilvert, the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth and the diary kept by the 19th century Colchester antiquarian, William Wire. All of these diaries inspired him to keep his own diary as this entry from his 1929 Journal explains:

1st January 1929

It is my ambition to become a diarist, and I think that a successful journal should contain the domestic and social interest of Pepys, the travellings of Evelyn, and in my case the careful observation on buildings and drains of William Wire. That then is my aim in this and future volumes. If I succeed or not, it will at least be my best. I must, of course, crave pardon for suggesting that events appertaining to my home life might be of interest, but I think perhaps one day some one may be interested in the social life of the 20th century, although from the present trend of affairs it seems doubtful.

A reader of Eric's blog has drawn my attention to George Orwell's wartime diaries which are also being published on-line 70 years after they were first written. These form an interesting parallel to Eric's journal entries and I hope readers will find them of interest.

It is striking how often these diary accounts remain relevant to events of today. Eric's New Year's Day 1940 entry has been cleverly updated to 2010 to good effect in a comment on Robert Peston's (the BBC's Business Editor) blog for the New Year - see comment 137.

Thank you to everyone who has supported Eric's blog to date and hope you will continue to enjoy his diary through 1940. CP

2nd January 1940

Greatly to my surprise and joy, Vaughan came to the Castle today and began work re-erecting the old [timber-framed] house [from Culver Street]. There are four men on it, and they laid out one side on the floor today. Nice to see such work going on.

For more information on the 15th century house that Eric rescued from demolition, see his earlier diary entries here.

1st January 1940 - New Year's Day

Never during my lifetime have I viewed a New Year with more unrelieved gloomy prospects than 1940. I have never been much of a one to look into the future, and although I always at these times wonder whether each successive New Year’s Day is the last I shall see, I have never before felt so sure that it may really be the last. If I see New Year’s Day 1941, still in the place I am now, I shall regard it as no less than a miracle. As for myself, were it not for the war, I should be considerably prosperous. I have about £200 in cash, £90 in superannuation fund, books etc. worth at least another £50. Taking everything into account I may be worth £400, with a steady job. The joke is that within 6 months it is not improbable that I shall have lost my job, and be coughing my life out in some remote barracks, while my £200 rusts in the Bank.

Hull is still away ill. The Museum is dreadfully cold, as we are unable to get enough coke. The weather is very bad.

Announcements today of a new Royal Proclamation calling up men from 21-27 inclusive. Grim forebodings.