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Wednesday, 15 December 2010

'The Weatherwise are Predicting a Hard Winter': The Great Frost of 1895

With forecasters predicting a white Christmas for 2010 in the UK, and the inevitable chaos it will bring, here, we visit a particularly harsh Victorian winter, known as ‘The Great Frost.’

The winter of 1894/5 was quite severe in the UK, with plummeting temperatures, frosts and snow hitting most of the country.

December, January and February were the most wintry of months, so we examine those months here:

December 1894
December 1894 was mild for the most part and the first three weeks were dominated by Southwesterlies.It was not until the last week, when the winds veered to the northwest that colder weather arrived with frosts and snow showers to exposed areas.
18 cm of snow was reported in Norfolk at the end of the month. The average monthly temperature was 5.1°c

Snow storms raged and covered the country in a blanket of snow, as these reports from Manchester, in the north-west, and Wolverhampton, in the midlands, detail:

Snow fell in this city and neighbourhood during Tuesday night, and a severe frost, which set in at the same time, continued yesterday. The roads were frozen, and carriage traffic was consequently conducted with much difficulty. Many owners of horses appeared to have failed to profit by the warning which was given on Monday, and large numbers of animals were sent out yesterday without having their shoes ‘roughened.’
The consequences were seen in numerous falls, but we have not heard of any serious accidents. In the suburban omnibus routes the traffic was especially difficult, and it was found necessary in many cases to strengthen the teams.”

There was a great snowstorm here last night with a high wind. The snow lies from twelve to fifteen inches deep on the level, and from five to six feet deep in the drifts. A goods train when attempting to force its way into the Great Western Railway Station was overturned though the deep snowdrift. One train was four hours late. A cattle train was too late for the market. Goods traffic generally was much impeded. A flock of sheep were discovered under a drift through a small hole made by their breathing. Several collieries are stopped.”
  -  The Guardian, December 17th 1874

Not only was the snow and ice a hindrance to traffic of all kinds and responsible for the hiding of flocks of sheep, in some areas of the country it caused genuine tragedy a few days before Christmas, notably, in the north-west town of Bury, near Manchester:

“Fatal Ice Accident at Bury: An Exciting Struggle.
The huge reservoir at Bury which acts as a feeder for the Bury and Bolton Canal was yesterday afternoon the scene of a sad accident. The reservoir, on account of its enormous area, is a great centre of attraction for skaters, and yesterday afternoon there was a fair sprinkling of visitors on the ice. 
About half-past two o’clock William Porter, 20, a druggists assistant; Christopher Storor, 18 Daisyfield, who was a bookkeeper at Messrs. W. and J. Hutchinson’s Daisyfield Mill, where his father is manager; and a youth named Reuben Jackson, about 15 years old, were skating on the higher end of the reservoir, and Storer and Jackson, who were abreast some distance ahead of Porter, fell through the ice while attempting to cross an arm-like part of the reservoir.
One or two young men had passed that way earlier in the afternoon, but they did so simply and came off safe. Porter, who is cousin to Storer and lived under the same roof, gallantly went up to the help of his companions, and succeeded in hauling out the boy Jackson. 
Porter then attempted to render the same service to his cousin, when the ice gave way beneath Porter’s feet, and he was plunged into the water. A desperate struggle ensued, a rope was obtained, and one end thrown across the hole, but a moment before Storer sank for the last time.
Porter, who had already sunk twice, was lucky enough to catch the rope as he rose again to the surface, and holding it as only a drowning man can hold, he was pulled out. He was taken to an adjacent house, where restoratives were administered and he gradually recovered. The body of Storer was recovered shortly before five o’clock, near the spot where he sank.”
  -  The Guardian, December 21st 1874

The north west appeared to be bearing the brunt of the harsh weather, with Manchester appearing in the papers with regularity:

“The Weather in Manchester;-
We have been favoured with what is the fashion to call seasonable weather during the last three days. There has been a very moderate fall of snow; but the frost has been severe, and the skate makers have been in a correspondingly exhilarated frame of mind. In the busy streets of the city on Saturday and yesterday the constant traffic and the efforts of the scavenging department had almost cleared the roads of ice and snow; but in the outskirts the intensely cold wind converted the surface of the roads into sheets of smooth ice, on which carriage traffic was almost impossible. 
Scores of skaters were seen on the south side of the city on Saturday night and yesterday gaily gliding along the main roads, and as night fell the frost became keener.
We have not heard of any serious accidents. The weatherwise are predicting a “hard” winter, and so far they appear to have all the probabilities on their side.”
  -  The Guardian: December 21st 1874

Almost a hundred miles north of Manchester, an eleven year old boy named Arthur Ransome was on holiday in the Lake District during the Great Frost of 1895 when Lake Windermere, England's largest lake, froze completely across and tourists flocked to skate and sail and even ride carts and horses across the deep water.

Little Arthur would go on to become the author of the childrens’ series of books ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in which the fourth story in the series was entitled ‘Winter Holiday’ for which Ransome drew upon his memories of Windermere during the great freeze.

January 1895
After the New Year, snow showers hit most parts of the country and many places had a snow cover, Oxford had 8cm by the 6th. High pressure to the west moved across the UK and under the clear skies and with a deep snow cover, very low temperatures were recorded, with -11°c in parts of Norfolk and -18°c in parts of the Highland.
Freezing fog formed and was very slow to clear. In this fog, the maximum temperature recorded was of -5°c at Ross-on-Wye.

Milder air tried to push in from the Atlantic, resulting in a heavy snowfall across the UK with depths of snow between 8 and 15cm being widely reported.
The Atlantic air finally broke through and there was a thaw, which led to a number of areas becoming flooded. Temperatures were in double figures in the south, with Kew recording 11°c.
The northwesterlies returned on the 21st with a low over the near continent and its active cold front moved across south east England, which brought thunderstorms, snow and hail. The northerly flow lasted for a few days and conditions were severe over northern Scotland with heavy drifting snow and snowfall along with the north wind.

The average monthly temperature was 0.2°c. January 1895 is the 26th coldest ever recorded
But it wasn’t only the UK suffering with snow storms in January 1895, parts of Spain and France also ground to a halt due to the weather :

Snow Storms in Spain:
(Reuters Telegrams)
Madrid, Thursday;-
A dispatch from Cerbere, on the Franco-Spanish frontier, states that in consequence of a violent blizzard on Monday last it was impossible to dispatch trains thence in any direction for two days, and a number of travelers who arrived from Spain on Monday evening had to remain at Cerbere until Yesterday. Telegraphic communication was also interrupted for thirty-six hours. In consequence of a slight thaw a goods train from Spain was able to reach Cerbere yesterday, and it was expected that the passenger trains would arrive in the evening.

Paris, Thursday;-
Railway communication with Cerbere, at the eastern extremity of the Pyrenees is again interrupted through block. The railway officials there refuse to receive any more trains from Spain, and more than 100 goods trucks are consequently detained at Port Bou, the next station to the south. No mails have reached Cerbere from from Paris since Monday
  -  The Guardian, January 11th 1895

Back in the UK, the whole country was now gripped by the extreme and dangerous winter conditions. This piece from The Times covers the conditions of most of the country beautifully, even giving skating forecasts. The article, however, ends with the reporting of another death, reminding the reader that the weather may be beautiful and fun, but at the same time savage and dangerous.

Note also the forecasts for Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Rome, where, other than the Italian capital, there is also savage weather:

Yesterday morning was again exceedingly cold over the United Kingdom, though apparently rather less cold than the morning of Sunday.
Yesterday's map showed that a very hard frost was likely to occur over Great Britain this morning, but some prospect of a change to milder weather to follow before long was indicated by the tendency of the Atlantic high-pressure system to give way.
The weather in London was again bitterly cold yesterday, and at no period did the temperature rise above freezing-point in the exposed districts. During the early morning the thermometer fell as low as 28 deg., or 4 deg. of frost. At mid-day the temperature, as registered at the Royal Humane Society's Receiving house in Hyde Park, was 30 deg., or 2 deg. of frost. The serpentine is now covered with a sheet of ice between 1 in. and 1¼ in. in thickness. There is a quantity of snow on the surface, but underneath the ice is in good condition, and should the frost hold a few nights longer it will be fit for skating. It is not, however, deemed capable of holding any great amount of weight until the ice is 4in. in thickness.

The Long Pond is covered at the same thickness as the Serpentine, but as it is not so deep it will be thrown open as soon as the ice is 3 in. thick. Last evening it was 2in. and in parts 2¼ in. thick. The Round Pond, Kensington gardens, is entirely frozen over, but no one will be permitted on it until the ice is 3¼ in. thick, and not even then should the surface be rough. At Regent's Park the ice is over 2 in. thick, but it is covered with snow and does not promise much sport. The same may be said of St. James's Park. In no case will the ponds be thrown open to skaters until the ice is at least 3 in. thick. The ponds on Hampstead Heath were not available for skating yesterday on account of the great quantity of snow which covers the ice to a depth of nearly an inch. Should the frost hold, however, this will be swept away today, and the ponds will in all probability be thrown open tomorrow. Last evening several thousand persons skated on the ponds on Wimbledon Common. The ice is 2in. thick.
A flooded field about four acres in extent afforded excellent sport, and as night set in a miniature carnival was held, the pond being lit up with numbers of naphtha lamps placed at intervals along the banks. Both the Round and Mount Ponds on Clapham Common were yesterday frozen over to a thickness of 2¼ in., but no skating was allowed.
People Skating on the Pond in St James Park
During yesterday a large number of accidents arising from the slippery state of the streets were treated at the various London hospitals. At St. Thomas's the house surgeon reported last night that 16 patients had been treated, three of whom had sustained broken legs. At Guy's and St. Bartholomew's there were also many cases under treatment for falls. The vestries of the south of London, however, displayed exceptional alacrity yesterday in clearing the snow from the footpaths and roads. As soon as the snow was removed gravel was strewn. The men engaged in the work – some hundreds in number – were mainly of the un- employed class. Numerous sheets of water in the neighbourhood of Richmond and Teddington are now available for skating, and last night several thousand skaters enjoyed themselves on the various stretches of ice. The ponds in Bushey Park were between 2 in. and 2¼ in. thick. Skating was resumed in Windsor Home Park yesterday. Fifteen degrees of frost were registered at Peter- borough on Sunday morning, and yesterday skating was general on the flooded meadows in the valley of the Nene and in the surrounding fens.

At Farcet a lad named Arthur Whitwell, aged ten, fell through the ice in one of the dykes and was drowned before his companions could render assistance. The Peterborough Skating Association are proposing to arrange a big match, while the races arranged at Thorney and Crowland a fortnight ago will be brought off during the week.
Thirteen degrees of frost were registered in the Lincolnshire Fens yesterday. In the Spalding district, in exposed situations, the thermometer showed 20 deg. Skating was general yesterday, and Cowbit Wash is the best sheet of ice that has been seen here for many years, the surface being excellent. Snow fell heavily yesterday and in some parts of the district drifted to a considerable depth. A poor woman named Cranmer, upwards of 90 years of age, was found yesterday frozen to death in her garden at Rivenhall, near Witham, Essex.

JAN. 28:
Barometer: 30.1 in.
Thermometer: maximum, 29 deg.; minimum 23 deg.
Wind: north-west.
Snow. Snow has also fallen at Cannes, Nice, Bordeaux, and Caen.

JAN. 28:
Barometer: 29.5 in.
Thermometer maximum, 16 deg.; minimum, 10 deg,
Wind: west, light.
Weather snowy and very cold.

JAN. 28:
Barometer: 29.8 in.
Thermometer: maximum, 24.3 deg.; minimum, 16.5 deg.
Slight north wind. Snowfall.

JAN. 28:
Barometer, 29.45in.
Thermometer: maximum, 50 deg.; minimum, 33.02deg. midday, 43.8deg.
Wind north, very weak.
Weather fine.
  -  The Times, January 29th 1895

Accidents, the over-stretching of hospitals, travel chaos, floods, falls and deaths. The winter was taking its toll. Perhaps February would see an end to the harsh winter?

February 1895
A very cold easterly flowed across the UK and most of Europe in February, and there were severe frosts with minimum of -13°c at Loughborough and -15°c being recorded at Chester. 

Heavy snow showers also persisted, with Yorkshire and Lincolnshire getting the brunt. 
South Shields was severely affected by 15 hours of continuous snowfall forcing the closure of the shipyard. 

Douglas on the Isle of Man recorded 20cm of snow. As the high pressure over Scandinavia moved over the UK there came a phenomenally cold spell with exceptionally low minimum temperatures of -20°c or less being regularly recorded.

At Braemar on Feb 11th, a temperature of -27.2°c was recorded - the lowest ever UK minimum.
 Also on the 11th a temperature of -24°c at Buxton was recorded, -22.2°c at Rutland, and -12.7°c was the mean average temperature for Wakefield in Yorkshire between the 5th and the 14th.

The Frozen Thames at Rotherhithe, Feb 1895
Canals, rivers, lakes and ponds froze in the severe cold, the Manchester Ship Canal was iced over, there were ice floes in the Thames and the Thames estuary itself was impassable because of ice.
Many people died of hypothermia and of respiratory conditions, and by the end of February, the weekly death rate from pneumonia and related illnesses was 950 a week higher than the average for the period. 
Economically, there was mass unemployment as industries were closed by the conditions and coal supplies dwindled as transporting coal by canal or rail became impossible.
This concerned charity worker wrote to The Times explaining how ‘men of good character’ would help relieve the effects of the conditions.

Distress and the Long Frost:
I am desired to ask you to insert a few lines in your columns respecting the distress caused by the long continuance of the frost. The administrative committee of the society have been in constant communication with the district committees throughout London in regard to it, and, anxious as they are not to occasion premature apprehension, they think that they should now state that in their opinion the distress is considerable and is likely to increase.
In these circumstances they wish me to mention the lines upon which the society is ready to act, and is already acting in districts. They will relieve, by temporary allowance and otherwise, men of good character whose distress is due to the exceptional circumstances of the season. In cases in which men are already in receipt of relief from the guardians they will not intervene, unless they think that they can assist in some other and more effectual manner.
The idle loafing class or those brought low by drink or vice they would leave to the Poor Law. To insure that the main facts of each case are ascertained and imposture and misdirection prevented, the district committees will verify the statements of applicants, and make such inquiries as are necessary.
They have full power to provide immediate relief whenever it is required, and they will act in as close co-operation as possible with the clergy and ministers, the boards of guardians, and other agencies. In consideration of the great importance of joint action and the avoidance of ill-regulated and casual alms-giving at the present time, I would, on the society's behalf, appeal earnestly to your readers to co-operate with it in its endeavour to assist those in distress in the careful and systematic manner I have indicated.
                   I am, Sir, your obedient servant.
                                                          C. S. LOCH. Secretary.
                    Charity Organization Society, 15, Buckingham Street, Strand.
  -  The Times, February 15th 1895

As the end of February approached, the high pressure began to slip westwards and milder Atlantic air slowly encroached, seeing temperatures creep above freezing for the first time in a couple of weeks. 

On 21st February, London had its first frost free night for three weeks and maximum temperatures across the UK were finally returning to close to normal by the end of the month.

The Great Frost was over, and not a mention of climate change in sight…

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