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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

What the Victorians Thought of Snow

With many parts of the country battling to keep calm and carry on in the face of snowy conditions, I thought it would be pertinent to see how our Victorian ancestors coped with hazardous conditions, and what they thought of the snow when it hit them by scanning some old articles and letters from The Times.

I suspect after reading a couple of these, anybody in 2010 who felt aggrieved in the last few days to have been half an hour late for work because of a delayed train will perhaps think themselves lucky that their train was not delayed by nine hours and fifteen minutes…

Onto the articles first:

“Severe Snow Storms.
One of the most severe snow storms experienced in Hampshire for many years past occurred on Wednesday, and extended in an easterly direction along the whole of the south coast. The snow commenced to fall at 1 o' clock in the afternoon, and continued without intermission until half-past 4 on Thursday morning. The train from Salisbury which is due at Bishopstoke at 7.10 was upwards of an hour behind-time, and on arriving at Bishopstoke found that the up train from Weymouth and Southampton, after waiting for some time, had proceeded without it. A special train was then despatched with the London passengers, but on reaching the incline at Micheldever-bank, about a mile and a half from Micheldever Station, the ordinary train was discovered, with a heavy goods train before it, blocked up by the snow, which at that time (9 o'clock) was between two and three feet deep.
As it was impossible to move the goods train, the engine was unhooked, and cut its way through the snow to Micheldever in order to procure assistance, guards being despatched down the line with danger signals to prevent the approach of any other train.
On the goods engine reaching MicheIdever a telegram was sent to Basingstoke, 11 miles nearer London, and two pilot engines were promptly sent down, and a number of labourers to clear the way.

In many places the snow was found to have attained a depth of nearly five feet, and as the fire-box of the leading engine became choked up every few minutes it was found requisite to dig a passage for it before any progress could be made. Ultimately, after remaining stationary for nearly six hours, the goods trucks were taken in detail to Micheldever, the services of three engines being required to drag them forward.
Many of the passengers in the train behind were exceedingly alarmed by the delay, particularly as it was known that the up-mail train was almost due. Great credit, however, is due to the guards and other officials’ connected with the company for the exertions they made and for the precautions they took to prevent any accident.
The goods train was turned into a siding at Micheldever, and the passenger train drew up at the station at half-past 1, when its half-frozen occupants were enabled to obtain refreshments and warm themselves at a roadside public house a short distance from the line.

One unfortunate traveler, a Frenchman from Southampton, was found to be so ill from the cold and alarm he had experienced that he preferred remaining at Micheldever all night to the risk of a further exposure. The train, with three engines attached to it, proceeded upon its journey at 2 o'clock, but had not gone more than three miles when the fire boxes became choked up and a further stoppage took place. From this point to Basingstoke, about eight miles, the stoppages were incessant. The snow continued to fall very heavily, and at Intervals of about 100 yards the guards and labourers were compelled to cuit a passage. The train arrived at Basingstoke at half-past 4, and remained there for about half an hour until the mail train, which was two hours behind time, passed.
The remainder of the journey was accomplished without further obstruction, and, to the astonishment of the passengers, it was found no snow whatever had fallen between Woking and London. The train, which was due at the Waterloo station at five minutes past 10 on Wednesday night, arrived there at 25 minutes past 7 on Thursday morning, being nine hours and a quarter behind time.”
-         The Times December 21st 1860

Snow Storm.
Yesterday the metropolis and the country for many miles in all directions were visited by a severe storm of wind and snow, and, although the fall was less than has been experienced on previous occasions, it was continuous, and accompanied by so much wind that in same places it drifted to a considerable depth. To guard against the effects of the snow some of the omnibus and cab drivers provided themselves with veils. It will be seen from the following reports of the state of the different railways collected from official sources that the storm was in various parts of the country very severely felt.

Upon inquiry at the London and North-Western office it was ascertained that all the trains were running with fair regularity. One train from Edinburgh was about half an hour late, but the Manchester train due at 2.45 p.m. arrived to a minute. The guards reported a severe fall of snow at Diggle, and a considerable quantity in various parts of Yorkshire. Fortunately, however, the line had only suffered to a small extent. The Great Northern Line suffered somewhat severely, and in consequence of the snow having entirely blocked up the line at Grantham the traffic was sent by the loop, which prevented delay. The cuttings where the snow had drifted were principally of stone and rock, and the company worked short trains both north and south of the obstruction, by which means the traffic was carried on with comparatively little delay.

On the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire line, which is in connection with the Great Northern, the snow began to fall on Tuesday, and blocked up the line on that day to such an extent that the 5 p.m. express from Manchester was five hours behind its time. The mails yesterday morning were between two or three hours late and the goods train proportionately suffered.
The Edinburgh express arrived at King’s-Cross on Tuesday evening two and a half hours late; but the express to Edinburgh which left King's-Cross at 8.30 p.m. on Tuesday was understood to have arrived safely. At 3.56 yesterday afternoon a telegraphic message was received at King’s-Cross, stating that the whole of the line had been cleared, consequently the traffic will go on uninterruptedly.
The Great Western lie suffered very little. The trains arrived a little behind time and the guards reported snow all along the line, but not in considerable quantities. The London and South-Western also was but slightly affected. The trains were, of course, somewhat delayed, but no stoppage of any extent was experienced. On the occasion of previous snowstorms the Eastern Counties line suffered to a very considerable extent, and in the present instance a somewhat serious interruption in the ordinary traffic has taken place.
Yesterday morning the Norwich end of the Norfolk line and various points on the Eastern Union were entirely blocked, owing to the drift of snow into the cuttings. A large number of workmen were employed to clear the line to allow the morning mail to pass on its way to London. This desired end was at length achieved; but instead of arriving a few minutes after 4 a.m., the train did not reach Bishopsgate until after 7.

The various branches suffered more or less; some were entirely blocked; and so great had been the drift on the Sudbury and Harleston branches, the former 58, and the latter 106 miles from. London that they both remained blocked yesterday afternoon and no persons were booked from Bishopsgate for the places upon them. Although the snow had very little effect upon the South Eastern line, considerable delay took place in the arrival of the French mails, caused by the gale at sea preventing the steamboats entering the harbour. The mail boat should have arrived at Dover at 8 o'clock yesterday morning; but it was not until 9 minutes to 3 yesterday afternoon that a telegraphic message was received at London Bridge, stating that the vessel had just arrived. Some of the trains were somewhat behind time; but at no point on the line was there any considerable accumulation of snow.  

The snow did not impede the traffic on the London to Brighton; but in the course of yesterday telegraphic messages were received at London Bridge from Newhaven, Stating that the steamboat (Orleans) which should have left at 8 o'clock on Tuesday morning had not, owing to the gale on the coast then started; and that the Rouen, which should under ordinary circumstances have been despatched at 8 o'clock yesterday, had for the same reason been kept in the harbour.
The boats, however, would be sent as soon as the state of the sea justified that course. The neighbourhood of Rochester and Chatham was yesterday visited with a heavy fall of snow, which lasted without intermission for about 16 hours, accompanied by a cutting north-easterly wind. The hills and all the exposed lands are covered with snow to a depth, in some places, of several feet, while many of the raeds leading in from the country are blocked up and rendered impassable.
In many of the railway cuttings on the North Kent line the snow has drifted to a great depth, rendering the passage of the engines and trains extremely difficult. There has not been such a severe snow storm in Kent for several years past.”
-         The Times, March 4th 1858

Now, as a treat, (well, a treat to me anyway – I could read these all day) some letters to the editor from disgruntled citizens with regards to snow in various years.

Will you allow me to suggest a simple method for the removal of the snow in our streets? It is to construct large iron funnels of about 4ft or 5ft in diameter at the top and narrowing down to a 4in. pipe at the bottom. Place these over the gratings at the side of the street and light a coke fire round Them. You may then fill these funnels with snow, when it will melt and run into the drains as fast as the carts could bring the snow to the spot. Any number of these iron funnels could be used.
                                           I am, &c,
                                                       ALFRED. S. CHURCHILL.
16, Rutland-gate, S.W.

The suggestion of Lord Alfred Churchill to get rid of snow by the application of heat is good, but the method he mentions would be of no use. A coke fire outside a funnel would not by any means cause the snow contained in it to melt as quickly as the carts could bring it to the spot.
The greater part of the heat would be lost by diffusion in the air. Few people but those who have studied the subject have any idea of the great absorption of heat by Snow in the act of melting. At the south-west corner of Portman square there is an apparatus at work which has recently been moved there from Cavendish square, where it was placed on the 27th ult. for the purpose of destroying large stocks of snow brought from neighbouring streets. The actual work done by it is to melt upwards of 60 cubic yards of snow per day at a cost for fuel of 6s. It would be worth while for any one interested in the question of snow removal to pay a visit to Portman square within the next few days before the banks of snow are destroyed.
               I am, Sir, Your obedient servant,
                                                                    F. LYON.
94 to 96, Harleyford road London, S.E. Jan 8

As the parish authorities seem to make no real effort to get rid of the obstruction caused by the snow, I think the public should be reminded that the vestry can be compelled to remove the snow within 24 hours after being served with a notice signed by a magistrate, the case being provided for by section 26 of the Act 5 and 6 William IV, cap. 50.
  I believe the magistrates in London require the complainant to attend in person before they will issue the required notices.
                                            I am, Sir, your obedient servant.
                                                                                   F. C. D. Smythe.
Cambridge gardens, W.

Allow me to mention another very bad consequence of throwing salt on snow - namely, that when boots and shoes become saturated with the pernicious brine it is scarcely possible to restore them to a dry and safe condition. The other day, staying in a favourite winter resort for invalids, I was grieved to see, after a snowfall, the pavements covered with this murderous freezing mixture, and I fear Professor Vernon-Harcourts letter may encourage the practice. If so, the laming of the poor dogs, mentioned by Mr Symons, may, probably not be the worst mischief done.
  Your obedient servant,
 (All above from Jan 1887)

I think it is high time to enter a vigorous protest against the slovenly and disgraceful way in which the City authorities pretend to dispose of the snow.
They seem to think that they have done all that is required of them if they liberally sprinkle salt over the footways and roadways and then leave the mixture to take care of itself. It is perhaps not generally known that salt and snow make a freezing mixture which is most unpleasant to the feet of pedestrians, and which also has a most destructive effect upon boot leather, and, in addition, tends to soften the hoofs of horses.
One would not feel so bitter upon the subject did the authorities follow up the sprinkling of the salt by promptly clearing away the filthy mess that results.
  But from my experience of the last two days in the City they seem to have no intention of doing this, and, an a ratepayer in the foremost city of the world, I shall feel grateful to you if you will find space for this protest, for I know that I am only giving voice to the very strong, feeling holding in the City amongst all who have found it necessary to walk through the streets on the last two days.
  Apart from the objectionable effects referred to, it is impossible to avoid being splashed from head to foot with this unpleasant mixture of salt and mud. It may cost rather more to employ gangs of men to remove the snow, but I feel quite confident that the rate-payers will willingly meet the very trifling additional cost that this would involve. I am sure that the men who are thrown out of work on account of this severe weather would be only too pleased to undertake the work.                     
Yours faithfully. W. P. ADAMS.
5 Queen Victoria Street, London, E.C., Jan. 8.

But the letter that probably best sums up my attitude to the snow (which brings the child out in me) is this, from a lady named Agnes Lambert, who felt compelled to stick up for the snow in this letter to The Times in 1891:

  In these days of darkness and cold people are so engrossed with the miseries of life, and flock to you in such crowds to give voice to their groans, that I feel it will be almost impossible to win attention for anything out of harmony (or should I rather say, not in full discord?) with the gamut of grievance of which during the past week or two you have sounded nearly every note, from the shrillest cry of the odium theologicum and politicum down to the deepest bass of disgust at the perversity of mankind in out-Heroding Herod - I mean out-freezing the frost and making the snow in our streets more hateful than the falseness of political foes or the casuistry of fiscal philanthropists.
  Nevertheless, it is about the loveliness of one of these hated things, of the snow itself, that I want you to let me say just one word.
  Owing, I suppose, to the absence of wind and the stillness of the upper regions of the air, more than once during the recent snowfalls, instead of the fluffy, downy, shapeless (to the ordinary eye) snowflakes usual in this country, the snow has fallen in stellar forms of infinite and indescribable beauty, so that the air was thick with them, and any one walking out might with the naked eye have seen their coat sleeves, for example, covered with exquisite snow-flowers, as Professor Tyndall happily names them in his delightful work on "The Forms of Water". Describing these beautiful crystals in, perhaps, the most fascinating section of his book, the "Architecture of Snow," Professor Tyndall says:-
  "In the Polar regions these exquisite forms were observed by Dr. Scoresby, who gave numerous drawings of them. I have observed them in midwinter filling the air, and loading the slopes of the Alps. But in England they are also to be seen, and no words of mine could convey so vivid an impression of their beauty as the annexed drawings of a few of them, executed at Greenwich by Mr. Glaisher." Now, nearly all these marvellous forms drawn by Mr. Glaisher and reproduced by Professor Tyndall, together with many others equally beautiful, might have been seen yesterday by any one, in this neighbourhood at all events, without going outside the house. They fell on every window sill; and it was not even necessary to look at them through "magic glasses" to see their six-rayed stellar outlines. But if any one took the trouble to throw up the window and look at them through a pocket lens, then, at their leisure and protected to their heart's content against the cold, they could have enjoyed a vision of loveliness such as I certainly have not the power to describe. Not only were there the individual beauties of the varied and wonderful flowers as the crystals fell singly, but also the combined and intricate, multiform beauties of those that fell in groups or clusters, producing the effect of fairy forests of ferns and flowers and trees of surpassing delicacy and grace, gleaming and white as the purest diamond.
  It would be pleasant to know that many got such enjoyment out of the detestable snow that we have all been abusing so heartily - as good as turning the tables on a universal enemy.
                                                        I am, Sir, your faithful servant.
                                                                             AGNES LAMBERT. Milford-house, Elms-road, Clapham-common, S.W.


  1. Wonderful post :)

    Funnily enough, the Fail and various commenters have been insinuating that steam engines should be brought back because one on a heritage route managed to get through the snow, whereas South-eastern trains haven't been able to.

    And so it goes full circle :)

    MsWildthyme on Twitter.

  2. How wonderful that would be!

    Though, I expect the 'greens' would have something to say about the pollution.

    I love the idea of all the labourers almost literally moving mountains to get the trains to their destinations, and slightly disgruntled and ruffled Victorian gents and ladies getting of the train with a polite cough and a frown and just getting on with it - despite being nine hours late. Where has that spirit gone?

    I'm certain most people where I work this week have got out of bed, peered out the window and thought a light dusting of snow the perfect excuse to stay at home!

  3. My street (on a steep hill) was built in the 1880/90s - I often wonder what the then inhabitants of my house would have done during times such as these. My house has nine rooms, most of them large with high ceilings. Heating them must have been an utter chore

  4. With nine rooms, I expect the chore was that of a maid! The poor woman would have gone about the rooms at dawn clearing the ashes of yesterday out and lighting the fires up for the day ahead.

    I expect they would have been quite cozy with the fire going!