Millions across the UK this morning woke to find their cities, towns, and villages covered in snow with last night recorded as the coldest evening yet this year, as temperatures plunged to -15.6 in some areas. Travel has been disrupted with trains, planes, and cars all affected. This difficult weather comes as many struggle to heat their homes with inflation at its highest in more than 40 years, all with a backdrop of mass strike action set to play havoc across various industries. Many are now asking how long this cold spell will last, and whether we’re in for a white Christmas and perhaps more pressingly: Are we facing a Winter of Discontent 2.0? Here, Express.co.uk looks at five of Britain’s worst winters and how they hit the country.
The Great Frost 1683-84
From the 14th to the 19th centuries, Europe and North America were hit with freezing cold winters and mild summers due to what has since been dubbed the “Little Ice Age”, with the average temperature dropping by two degrees. Lakes, rivers, and seas around southern Britain froze for up to two miles from the shore over the winter of 1683 to 1684.
Between 1400 and 1815, it was not uncommon for London’s River Thames to freeze over. But during the Great Frost, considered the worst frost in history, the famous river froze for two months straight, reaching a thickness of 11 inches.
While the weather had negative implications on things like livestock, livelihoods, and the cost of fuel, a positive thing borne out of the cold weather were the introduction of frost fairs, the most famous of which, The Blanket Fair, was held during the winter of 1683/4.
Everyone got involved in the fair which stretched for some three miles from London Bridge to Vauxhall, from paupers to the Monarch at the time, King Charles II. Stalls selling food and drink, ice skating, football, and plays were all enjoyed on the ice with coaches driven across it and “smoking fires” lit on the ice itself.
The Big Chill 1708-09
The winter of 1708-09 saw harsh weather across Europe, described as “Le Grand Hiver” or the Great Winter in France, where a weather induced famine killed 600,000 people.
London saw temperatures plunge to -12C, and the period is now regarded as the coldest European winter in the last five centuries. There were reports of birds dying mid-flight with it impossible to move dead bodies as they froze to their bedsheets.
The economy was brought to a standstill, similar to that seen during the pandemic in 2020, and did not recover for another decade. Once the frost thawed after three long months, widespread flooding ruined crops and led to starvation.
The Great Winter 1739-40
The bitterly cold winter of 1739 to 1740 — the second coldest on record — set in on Christmas Day and lasted until February. A vicious storm in late December saw many ships sink or forced to moor along the River Thames.
In Ireland, it was so cold that liquids froze indoors. The Thames once again froze over and the likes of carnivals and fairs were held on its surface.
READ MORE: New weather maps show exact areas set to be hit with more snow chaos
The Winter of Discontent 1978-79
The next coldest winter came in 1978, dubbed the Winter of Discontent by the editor of The Sun, who took inspiration from William Shakespeare’s Richard III. Freezing weather dominated with the cold – which reached -24C in Scotland – reflecting the frosty industrial discontent in the country.
Over the period, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike with rubbish piling in the street and hospital services reduced. So far this year, 741,000 working days have been lost — but this pales in comparison to 1979 when a total of 12 million working days were lost to industrial action.
Ford car workers were the first to strike that summer as they sought a 17 percent pay increase, with 20,000 railway workers following suit in January 1979. A total of around 4.6 million workers went on strike over the period.
The public and the press – which branded them “folk devils” – moved against the strikers particularly when it came to the strike of Liverpool’s grave diggers, which saw “the dead left unburied”.
Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in the May of 1979, taking over from the Labour Party, whose income policy had proved unpopular as it lead to a loss of earnings among those in both the public and private sectors.