When Preston was gripped by an Arctic blast

Seventy five years ago this week Lancashire was in the middle of a big freeze.

Friday, 31st January 2020, 5:00 pm
Seventy five years ago this month Ribble was frozen from bank-to-bank. This photograph was taken by the North Union Bridge, in Preston

January 1945 saw the Ministry of Works draw up plans to appeal to factory owners to make available volunteers with plumbing experience to meet the demand for plumbers to deal with frozen pipes as temperatures plummeted to -11.

The problem was exacerbated by the fact 90 of Preston’s plumbers were away with the armed forces serving in the Second World War. One builder told the Lancashire Post: “We have only about half the number of plumbers available compared with pre-war.”

But the appeal struggled to attract enough volunteers and there were reports of plumbers working 15 and 16 hour shifts. Preston’s plumbers prioritised vases in which burst bathroom pipes resulted in water pouring through ceilings below.

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But neighbourly good spirits prevailed during the wintry weather with people providing supplies of water in buckets, kettles and pans for those who found their pipes frozen solid.

While queues for buckets of water formed outside Chorley Police Station in the cold until a burst pipe there brought the service to a halt. In Leyland on an estate of 60 houses only four had a supply of water because of the freeze.

Residents lit bonfires in an attempt to warm the ground beneath sufficiently to thaw the underground pipes. When the thaw did eventually arrive council officials in Preston recorded up to 70 reports a day of burst pipes in corporation homes.

Householders were urged to be conservative with the use of gas for cooking and heating as demand saw dips in pressure at a time when the Second World War brought its own demands on the nation’s resources.

A similar message was issued by electricity suppliers with home owners told not to ‘overwork’ ovens and radiators. While merchants deployed the phrase ‘one house, one fire’ to encourage residents to ration their use of coal with some parts of England in the grip of the coldest spell since 1895.

By the end of the month there were fears over supply as deliveries of coal to Preston ceased up. Preston Fuel Overseer’s office received hundreds of applications for supplementary rations with the sick and elderly looked after first. The cold weather had been blamed for an increase in cases of bronchitis and pneumonia, mainly in the older age groups.

However, soldiers back home in Lancashire on leave from the war in Burma were also given priority for extra coal supplies. But the cold weather did bring out the funseekers with skaters taking to the ice in Haslam Park while other hardy souls made the journey from Preston to Garstang and back along the Lancaster Canal on skates.

For the first time in five years the snow was deep enough to lure tobogganers to Avenham Park while swathes of the Ribble were frozen over. With up to half of schools closed one Post journalist noted many of the children out racing down the snowy slopes had used their own initiative to make home made sledges.

Few were equipped with the sleek iron runners which were familiar to pre-war sledges. Our journalist reported: “The lads I saw had a handful of nails and a hammer with which to do running repairs on the spot and, enterprisingly, had provided themselves with a makeshift brazier - a paraffin oil-soaked rag, burning in a tin - with which to keep their hands warm.

“One grown-up, away from the crowd, was ostensibly teaching her little daughter how to sledge, but I observed that Mummy contrived to take most of the rides herself.”

But for some, the icy weather proved treacherous, with dozens of people checking into Preston Royal Infirmary with fractures to arms and legs. And ice-bound road and fog made for hazardous conditions on the roads and railways.

Preston Corporation Transport Department battled with between 40 and 50 members of staff calling in sick due to the cold snap. It was a similar story at Ribble Motors where one quarter of employees were off work.

At peak times bus services were reduced to cope with a shortage of drivers. And in Blackburn and Burnley fractured gas mains saw five people needing medical treatment after becoming overcome by escaping fumes.