Nowadays, a single snowflake is enough to send the country into a panic, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Britain faced freezing weather that brought with it extreme snowfall to all corners of the land.
And so, using newspapers from our Archive, will we take a look at how such extreme snowfall impacted Britain, how it disrupted the nation’s communication system, from the early days of the mail coaches, through to the technological advancements of the railway and the telegraph, and how they were not immune to the weather either.
So read on to discover how the nation coped with being snowbound, how villages were cut off for days, and how the country looked to combat such extreme weather (flamethrowers, anyone?).
1821 – Snow in May
We begin our journey into the annals of British winter weather history by looking at the particularly unseasonable snowfall which arrived in the May of 1821.
On Friday night, the thermometer fell two-degrees below the freezing point; and on Saturday, we had a fall of snow: the previous evening, between seven and ten, snow fell incessantly in and about Halifax.
This chilly May weather was not limited to Halifax and its surrounds, the Inverness Courier reporting some days later how ‘The weather in every quarter of the kingdom appears to have been inclement as with ourselves.’ Snow, hail and sleet had hit the north of England, as well as the south of Scotland, just as summer approached.
1836 – Waiting for the Mails
Over a decade later, Britain faced an incredibly cold December, which threw the country’s communication system into disarray.
In noting the severity of the weather, the Brighton Patriot in December 1836 describes how the town had been visited ‘by one of the most severe snow storms remembered by the oldest men in Brighton.’ And the visitation of such snow had a detrimental effect on the mail coaches, which crossed the country bringing news and letters, as well as conveying passengers.
The Portsmouth mail yesterday arrived only one hour and 45 minutes after time; the road open, but very slippery.
The Stroud mail arrived two hours and 20 minutes after time; the snow is still deep, but sufficiently cut through to admit of the coach passing.
The Bristol coach arrived three hours after time; the snow drifts are all cut through, but fresh snow was falling throughout the whole journey.
Elsewhere in the country the snow-blocked roads were eschewed in favour of other methods of transport:
The postmaster at Newcastle is authorised to provide a steamer for the conveyance of the mails to Edinburgh, and the northern parts of Scotland, if necessary, from Newcastle, Sunderland and Shields.
Steamers were also sent to London from Dover, with the ‘purpose of carrying up the French mails.’ This meant that ‘usual intercourse’ could be ‘carried on with something like ordinary regularity,’ but this harsh weather was not without its victims.
The combination of the snowy conditions and the Christmas celebrations was not a happy one, as the Brighton Patriot recounts:
It being Christmas night, it is apprehended that many who enjoyed the evening in hilarity were corpses before the morning…Between 3 and 4 o’clock, on Monday morning, a lamplighter found a man lying in a senseless state in Black Lion-street, near the Cricketters’ public-house…The man was quite dead.
1838 – 25 Degrees Below Freezing
Two years later and even colder weather arrived in Britain, London reaching a lows of -20 degrees Celsius, the coldest temperature recorded in the nineteenth century.
The Globe reports how:
The thermometer this morning at day-break, outside a second-floor window in Coldbath-fields, was as low as 7, or 25 degrees below the freezing point…there is good reason to infer that a thermometer on Hampstead-heath this morning would have marked zero – a degree of cold, we believe, unprecedented in England, at least in the memory of man.
There were reports of ‘a great quantity of floating ice and snow’ on the Thames, whilst a ‘great many people’ assembled on the Serpentine, ‘but the from the quantity of snow upon it skating is almost impracticable.’
Across the Channel in France, the Staffordshire Advertiser reports how the Seine had frozen over at the Bridge of Austerlitz, where people crossed ‘on foot.’ There were also unconfirmed reports of a man crossing with his cart – recalling the days of the Thames Frost Fairs, which ceased over twenty years before.
1849 – Summer Dresses and Snow Drifts
At first the snow descended very gently, but in less than half an hour it was sufficiently dense to lead one to suspect that April had given place to December.
The contrast betwixt some shop windows exhibiting summer dresses in all their finery, and the snow drifting about, is at once striking and unpromising.
Meanwhile, fellow Scottish newspaper the Inverness Courier had graver concerns, reporting how ‘The lambs are fast appearing and equally fast vanishing again. Hardly half of them live above a few hours’ due to the cold ‘easterly wind and snow.’
Another concern were the fruit trees, which ‘presented the unwonted spectacle of blossoms vying in whiteness with their load of snowy flakes,’ and the ‘effect of the storm on gardens.’
1875-1876 – New Technology: Interrupted
The winter of 1875-1876 was another cold one, the Edinburgh Evening News in December 1875 reporting how ‘The weather continues very severe, and in most parts of the country there is heavy snow on the ground.’
Whilst this was promising for skaters and their ‘favourite pastime,’ the country’s new communication system faced disruption, mail coaches having given way to the telegraph.
A severe snow-storm swept over the South of England on Friday, and so materially interrupted telegraphic communications that not a single telegram from places south of Birmingham could be wired till next morning.
The same article contains news of a ‘railway accident of the most appalling description’ having taken place in Huntingdon, ‘during a severe snow storm.’ This involved the pile up of three trains, two passenger and one goods, ‘the carriages heaped up on the other,’ with fourteen reported dead.
1880 – Snow in October
For the late snows of April and May, in 1880 London saw snow arrive unseasonably early, this time falling on 19-20 October.
During a total period of 48 years…there is only one instance of a heavy fall at an earlier date than the present, and that was in 1829, when on October 7 there was a considerable fall of snow between 1 & 3pm.
Mr. Symons records the ‘mean date of the earliest fall of snow’ as December 1st.
1907-1908 – Snowbound
The winter of 1907 to 1908 was an extreme one, with snow falling in all corners of the country. In December 1907 The Eastern Evening News records how even ‘Devon and Cornwall have been visited by the severest snowstorm for years.’ Snow drifts piled up in the streets of Princetown, with ‘many people literally snowed in, the drifts completely blocking the doors of the houses.’
And much further north entire villages were snowed in, and cut off from the rest of the world. The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail reports on ten feet deep drifts in Upper Teesdale in the March of 1908:
For nearly a week Upper Teesdale has been snow-bound, and outlying villages cut off from centres of food supply. Beyond Middleton-in-Teesdale, including High Force district, Langdon Beck, and Harwood, the snow still lies over ten feet deep, and miles of roads are blocked.
Trains were also stuck in the snow. Also in March 1908 the Sheffield Evening Telegraph reports on how ‘A passenger train from Glasgow to Fort William became embedded in a huge wreath of snow about a mile north of Rannoch station during Saturday evening, and all efforts to extricate it proved unavailing.’
The rescue of this particular train was a protracted one:
A flying squad, with an additional snow-plough, was sent from Crianlarich to its assistance, but unfortunately, owing to the accumulation of snow, the engine attached to this plough left the metals immediately behind the snowed-up train. A breakdown squad from Glasgow was immediately wired for, but this relief party, when about a mile south of Rannoch station, ran into another drift and was held up. Meanwhile a relief party with an engine and a snow-plough from Fort William succeeded in cutting through the drift to the passenger train, only to find that the track behind them had been choked up with snow.
And so it was that throughout the night fifteen passengers ‘were imprisoned in the train.’ But they didn’t suffer too much, as ‘the carriages were heated by steam and supplies of food were conveyed to them from Rannoch by the railway officials.’ The train was eventually freed, reaching its destination ‘twenty-seven hours late.’
1917 – Blizzard Tragedies and Pastimes
Whilst the country was in the grips of the First World War, severe blizzards hit both the United Kingdom and Ireland.
In the Lothians and in the higher districts of Midlothian snow lies four to five feet deep. Many of the roads are completely blocked, and several motor-cars, which were unable to make a passage, were snowed up.
Snow proved to be a menace to the latest of transport innovations – the car. Meanwhile in Ireland, the Weekly Freeman’s Journal in February 1917 reports on how ‘Railway traffic was interrupted in many places and roads rendered impassable by snow-drifts, ten feet in depth.’
Another new method of transportation found itself unable to cope with the weather – the aeroplane. The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail details how Lieutenant John Leask of the Royal Flying Corps was caught in a blizzard whilst flying his single-seater areoplane, when the ‘wind swung the machine completely round.’ Leask momentarily regained control, before the aeroplane ‘nose dived from a height of 500ft.’ Leask tragically did not survive.
Meanwhile, others were making merry in the snow. The Sphere pictures ‘the scene on the lake in the Royal Botanic Gardens,’ where many skaters had gathered. Indeed, it reports how ‘the weather has seldom been so kind to skaters in London as it has been this year, when all the lakes in the parks have been covered with thick ice.’
Elsewhere in the gardens the ‘Open-Air School for Children of Fellows of the Royal Botanic School’ was being conducted – in the snowy weather. This meant that ‘no child has caught any infectious illness from each other,’ although one can imagine the pupils must have been very cold!
1927 – No Need to Hurry – Snow
The Christmas of 1927 was a particularly white one (look out for more on this), the snow bringing an unknown stillness to the bustling streets of 1920s London and beyond.
The Sphere describes how ‘England has undergone one of the severest blizzards of recent times.’ Many Londoners decided to stay at home, ‘with the result that the great metropolis of the Empire looked for all the world like a deserted village.’
It pictures the ‘desolate impression of the deserted Strand,’ and a ‘solitary inhabitant of Trafalgar Square,’ namely a street-sweeper, charged with ‘blazing a trail through the snow.’
Elsewhere in the country time seemed to stand still after the heavy snowfall. The Dundee Courier pictures two pedestrians chatting in the main street of Kinnesswood, Kinross, with the caption ‘No Need to Hurry – Thanks to Snow.’
Meanwhile villages in Kent also faced the ‘Great Snow-up,’ as the Aberdeen Press and Journal dubbed it. On the 2 January 1928 the newspaper pictures a path being dug to a Kentish village ‘with which there had been no communication since Christmas.’
Others made the most of the snow, from children on their sledges in Banff (Aberdeen Press and Journal), whilst according to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph ‘The polar bears in the Zoological Gardens felt quite at home.’
1932-1933 – Winter’s Good Turn
Winter was to return with vengeance during 1932 to 1933. But this was to provide a silver-lining to some during the hard days of the Great Depression. The Leeds Mercury in February 1933 reports on ‘Winter’s Good Turn:’
…the heavy snowfall has provided work for many unemployed in clearing the roads. Here are some from Market Weighton at work on Arras Hill, on the Hull-York road, where the drifts were six feet in places.
And the snow also brought with it merriment, the Leeds Mercury picturing ‘a jolly party in the snow-covered rounds of Castle Howard’ and sledgers at Roundhay Park, Leeds. Also out in the snow were students from Leeds College of Art.
But the heavy snow also created a huge amount of damage, as the Illustrated London News reports. Yorkshire and South Wales had suffered especially from it, with the ‘extensive interruption of telegraph and telephone services:’
In South Wales hundreds of poles were broken down, and in some places the roads were littered with fallen wires.
Livestock too had to be rescued, with lambs being dug out in the snow in Kent, Wales and Yorkshire.
1947 – Bring in the Flamethrowers
In 1947 Britain faced another severe winter, which The Sphere in March 1947 dubbed as ‘the great freeze-up, the most serious in Britain for a hundred years.’
The Illustrated London News, meanwhile, reports on the ‘icy weather and the blizzards of snow’ which had plagued the country, resulting in drifts of up to 20 feet in Kent where ‘many villages were cut off for considerable periods.’
The village of Stalisfield was marooned for six days, the snow threatening to overwhelm ‘a roadside signpost’ on its outskirts. Meanwhile, the former highest station in England, Barras, between Kirkby Stephen East and Barnard Castle, was completely covered by the snow, with only the ‘tip of the a platform lamppost visible,’ as the Illustrated London News reports.
And for some who had seen many such winters, enough was enough. And even the children, to whom snow usually brought merriment, had likewise had enough. The Fifeshire Advertiser reports how the ‘youngsters with their sledges seemed to have had their fair share of winter’s white carpet, and were indoors sheltering.’
It was time to bring in the big guns to clear the snow – flamethrowers.
It is likely that flamethrowers, handled by Army experts, will be rushed to blocked roads and railway tracks within the next 24 hours. All other methods of moving 15 to 20ft. snow-drifts that have become virtual ice packs have failed.
The biggest need of the country was to keep the coal supply moving, with some of the country’s supply being moved along the canals. But the canals were frozen over too, with ‘long strings of barges’ clogging up the waterways, as the Illustrated London News reports.
Something had to be done. But flamethrowers were not the solution, as The Sphere reveals:
The first experiments were made with flamethrowers, and they proved a disastrous failure, burning up the sleepers and doing a great deal of damage to installations along the line.
Instead, the authorities elected to clear blocked railway lines with jets:
The gas turbines, acting like giant blow-lamps, eat their way through the snow. As the truck advances down the line, lumps of snow are hurled skyward and the permanent-way is once more ready for traffic.
This proved less damaging than the flamethrowers, and was indeed necessary, as Welsh towns were cut off for days, ‘paralysing industry.’ As The Sphere relates, Brynmawr was completely isolated by the extreme snow, dependent on ‘the arrival of army lorries which brought bread and other supplies’ to the main square.
Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine these extreme weather conditions hitting Britain. And our Archive provides a unique glimpse at snowbound Britain, through its photographs and its reports.
We hoped you enjoyed this foray through Britain’s extreme winter weather – look out for more snow themed posts throughout the month of December!