I stand on the touchline watching a match that would not have been played 50 years ago. You see the thermometer is reading -2deg C and there is 4″ of snow everywhere. That is everywhere but here. This is Ewood Park and the pitch itself is green and capable of taking a stud thanks to the undersoil heating system that’s been installed.
My mind wanders and I think back to my childhood. Suddenly it’s Boxing Day 1962. I awake to a bedroom that has been rearranged into chaos, but it’s my chaos. On my bed there is a long woollen sock which yesterday contained some of the items now strewn around the room. Down at the toe end there is still an orange, a chocolate bar and some nuts. A Christmas stocking wouldn’t be complete without these items. The orange and chocolate would get eaten but the nuts I would return to the bowl downstairs. Does any 11 year old boy eat nuts? Still, it was a tradition, a ritual that my family and millions of others would perform every year. You may be poor but to get oranges, chocolates and nuts at Christmas you were a rich man indeed.
I glance up at the football league ladders on my wall. Reading FC are in mid table in the 3rd division. Sundays were normally the day to study the newspaper and rearrange the little cardboard names on the ladders into their rightful position in each league. League ladder charts were the best free gift you could get from a comic. The only thing that ever came close was the cardboard triangle that sounded like a gun as you snapped it through the air, annoying any adult within hearing range. Dressed, my first job would be to check the Guinea Pigs in their hutch which had been moved to the relative warmth of the garage. They, or me were unaware that this winter was going to be different. This was the winter of 1962-63.
My parents had memories of the winter of 1947 and the hardships that it brought with it, but for me this would be a new experience. It started snowing on 17th November 1962 and the big freeze would last until 5th March 63. In early January of that year the snow would be lifted off the fields and deposited into the lanes around our village in snowdrifts 15 foot deep. The village was cut off to the outside world. I would not go to school for 3 weeks, a young lad’s dream. Our lifeline was the village shop. A complete emporium selling everything you could ever want. From freshly sliced bacon to wonderful bread and cakes which were baked on the premises. My favourite was Berkshire Lardy Cake. A highly sugared and full fat cholesterol delight which was much prized in our household. It was only bettered by mum’s steamed ginger pudding which had to be eaten with either golden syrup or butter and sugar on top. As mum would say “Food to keep you warm, food to ‘stick to your ribs.”
This winter would devastate all sport. The racing stables of nearby Lambourne and East Ilsley would see the horses tucked up in their stalls for many weeks with no prospect of their next race and football would be almost wiped out for the next 11 weeks.
Boxing Day saw 19 of the 46 Football League games postponed, with a further 3 abandoned.
On December 29th the blizzards that had swept across Devon and Cornwall, fog covering the Midlands and the North, combined with bitterly cold temperatures down to -9deg C put paid to 26 of the 46 planned League games.
By January 5th a slight thaw which had started in Europe had reached parts of the South, West and up to the Midlands, but came too late to save all but 5 of the 32 FA Cup third-round ties.
On January 8th, the rearranged FA Cup ties would have to be postponed. The Guardian printed a wonderful photograph of Jimmy Armfield of Blackpool FC skating across the frozen pitch at Bloomfield Road. To date 145 out of 211 Cup and League matches had succumbed to the weather.
During January I would build an igloo from 12″ thick blocks of snow and ice from our front garden. The igloo would stand until early March, giving many hours of play within its icy walls.
Towards the end of January and through much of February the temperatures would fluctuate, leading to mini thaws in some parts of the country, leading to flooding. However these thaws would be short lived as blizzards would once more sweep the country and keep us all in an icy grip.
A letter from the rather aptly named J. M. Winterbottom to the Guardian published on January 28th 1963 put the blame for the Arctic conditions squarely onto the weathermen who in his words stated
“This present Arctic spell follows the arbitrary adoption of degrees centigrade by the weathermen. Things were rarely as bad when we were on the old Fahrenheit scale.”
John Samuel wrote on February 8th that 420 Cup and League games had been postponed in just under seven weeks. He estimated the total liability of the 92 clubs to be approximately £450,000, spread out in the form of overdrafts and FA and directors’ loans. Not a lot in today’s money but a small fortune in 1963.
Undersoil heating was already known to be an answer to the problem of frozen pitches. The surface at Murrayfield had helped men with odd shaped balls to continue to play Rugby when others would have no option but to turn to indoor sports. This was achieved by electrical wiring laid under the turf. Everton were the first football club to use this method in 1957 during ground reconstruction but had to dig them up in 1960 when further drainage work became necessary. So during the winter of 1962-63 no club had heating installed. Mr W. Dickinson, the Everton secretary at the time said it had cost them around £16,000 to install, with part of this cost down to the need to install a separate sub-station from the floodlights to carry the load. They were planning to re-install the wiring during the summer of 63.
Mr F. R. Osborne, the general manager of Fulham thought differently about undersoil heating. He said “We have three or four thousand season ticket-holders, a thousand or more over 50 years old. If we had electrical wiring, and I don’t think we can afford it, how many people would turn out in a blizzard even though the pitch was playable?”
Fulham FC also gave a financial insight on February 8th with the following facts:
Bank overdraft increased by £10,000 since December
The weekly wage bill stood at £1,200 for a staff of 50, including 40 professionals and apprentices.
£700 had been spent on attempts to clear the ground of snow.
Laundry and other incidentals would take the total outgoings above £10,000
Their only income was the £1,200 share of receipts from the Cup game with West Ham.
Some took a longer term view of the lack of income by saying that the crowds would come back in greater numbers when the matches were finally played and this would ultimately be more rewarding than trying to get supporters to come through the turnstiles in bitterly cold weather.
It would be the ninth week of this cold winter, on February 23rd, that more than half the Football League games would be played and the first time since December 28th that the football pools would operate without the help of the pools panel.
March 2nd brought some good news for football fans in as much as only 14 Football League matches were postponed, the best Saturday in eleven weeks. Halifax FC were one of those postponed but the Shay ground was opened to the public as an ice rink, where hundreds flocked to take part. Whilst this brought in some welcome revenue it would not prevent them from being relegated to the 4th Division at the end of the season.
The Football League ladders on the wall of my bedroom were not the only thing that failed to move during those 11 weeks. Shortly after Christmas we woke up to find that our water supply had frozen. The only option was to run a hosepipe from the house next door into our water tank in the loft. It would be March before the supply pipe could be dug up, only to find that it had been installed a mere 4″ below the surface.
If you are off to a football match in the next few days make sure you wrap up really warm. Think I might take some chocolate and an orange too, but I won’t bother with the nuts.