By Neil Rees (Note the banner image above is from 1910 not 1881 by George Ward)
January 2021 marks the 140th anniversary of the worst blizzard in recent British history.
In mid January 1881 there was bitterly cold weather throughout Wales and southern England below the Humber. On the evening of Friday, January 14, temperatures reached minus 1° Fahrenheit (-18ºC) in South Bucks. During Saturday 15 to Monday 17 there were heavy frosts, and water froze. On Saturday, January 15 there were thousands of skaters on the London lakes. There were also skaters on the River Chess and Skottowes Pond in Chesham, on the Grand Union Canal and the Thames at Marlow. The frost continued during Sunday, followed by a thaw. Then on Sunday night there was a bitter east wind. All through the night of Monday, January 17, and into the early morning of Tuesday, a violent gale blew, varying from north-east to south-east, which could be heard roaring amongst houses during the night. Then on Tuesday morning it seemed a little brighter, but between 9 and 10 in the morning it began to snow. It was sleet around Wycombe, but around Thame it was fine like powder, and it settled on the cold ground. By noon, scarcely a person ventured out. Then a hurricane came from the north-east, which pushed the snow into drifts many feet deep. Some people who had left their houses earlier, came home and found themselves unable to get back in because their house was blocked by a snowdrift. About four o’clock the storm was almost blinding and the wind came in great gusts. By nightfall the drifts had become formidable, and in some places caused ridges up to 12 feet deep. By nightfall the wind grew worse, and the snow continued to fall until nearly midnight. By Wednesday morning the weather eased and people were armed with shovels, spades, and brooms, and cleared paths in the snow. However the snowstorm started again until late in the evening. Any paths which had been cleared were snowed over again. The weather eased Wednesday evening, but then on Thursday the snow fell again until midday followed by a thaw.
Those who ventured out were encrusted with a mask of ice. The snow forced its way through the smallest cracks. Many sheep, cattle and horses perished in the snow. Some large trees broke down or lost branches under the weight of snow. Some barns and houses were blown in completely. Sometimes tiles and slates, chimney pots and even whole stacks were knocked off, and sometimes fell through rooves. In some towns Relief Committees made arrangements for the distribution of coal, bread and soup to the poor.
Sadly the heavy snow caused many accidents, such as broken bones, and some people to freeze to death who were caught and were unable to get home in time. A poor woman called Mrs Barker whose husband was ill in bed, went on Tuesday to walk to Amersham Common to buy some bread. She started to come back at 6 p.m. but got stuck in the snowdrift and was found frozen to death on Wednesday morning. On Thursday morning a coachman, was found in Piper’s Wood near Hyde Heath. He was walking along, slipped and broke his leg and was unable to reach home. He was alive when found, but died soon afterwards. On Wednesday, Stephen Spicer was found in Penn Wood near Amersham having fallen or been blown to the ground, and died from exposure.
The weather brought travel in southern England to a standstill. Communication stopped, no mail was delivered, and only the telegraph remained operational. Chesham was practically cut off by snow. Main roads were blocked by snow and were impassable. Lanes were filled to above the tops of the hedges, and villages could only be reached by horseback over the fields. Men and boys were employed clearing the roads. Carts and waggons were used to take the snow and dump it in the river. For the first time since railways began, the railway network came to a stop. Trains which were travelling during the storm were sometimes rescued with a second locomotive. Many trains were embedded for hours before they could be freed. Trains were fixed with snowploughs, and the LNWR line was cleared up to Tring, but some trains were abandoned. On some lines passengers spent the night in the train before being rescued. On Tuesday the London to Wendover stagecoach could not get out of London. It left Holborn but the snow was so thick around Uxbridge, that the stagecoach driver George Seeley had to abandon it at Hayes, and passengers were led to West Drayton station (see BFP Nostalgia December 20, 2020). There was no Metropolitan Railway in Bucks in 1881, and Chesham was connected to the railway by a horse-drawn omnibus from Berkhampstead Station, which normally arrived at 7:45pm, but on this Tuesday, did not arrive until 10pm, and even then only had one passenger. Six horses had to be sent from Chesham to drag it out of the snow. On Wednesday the omnibus started as usual leaving at 7:45 a.m. but on reaching Nashleigh Hill was unable to get up the hill, and turned round and came back to Chesham, but did not get back until 2 p.m. Regular traffic on the main roads did not resume until Friday afternoon.
At the time, the oldest inhabitants could not remember anything as severe in all their lives. The frost was said to be the worst since 1861, but the snow was the worst since the 1770s. Conditions were described as Arctic or Siberian. Such was the unusual weather than the northern lights were widely seen across Bucks about 7 p.m. on January 31, and as far south as London. The 1881 Blizzard became a benchmark for comparing later blizzards. The severe on March 9, 1891; January 29, 1897; February 13, 1900 and Christmas 1927. These were all described with phrases like “one of the worst blizzards since 1881”.