Pleasure and Pain in a Town Cloaked in Snow

Susan Payne

Ice skaters on Castle Meads, in Hertford with St Andrew's Church in the background. Possibly taken in the early 1880s (HALS ref: DE/X1025/2/39/113)
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

Late in the evening on Monday 17th January 1881, a low-pressure atmospheric system developed in the English Channel. The resulting easterly wind was said not to take “the trouble to go round you, but sharper than a razor’s blade, [pierced] one’s very bones with its bitter chill.”1 After days of intense frosts over a large swath of England and Wales, a snow storm unprecedented in living memory gripped the land.

In Hertford, serve cold at the beginning of the month had frozen the shallower water of the meads, inviting many residents to enjoy the unlooked-for opportunity of skating. On Tuesday morning snow started to fall in blinding showers and continued for the next 30 hours; everyone disappeared into their homes.

The shops which closed their doors on Monday, mostly stayed closed for the rest of the week. Pavements that were cleared of snow were blocked again within a couple of hours. Carriages had difficulty navigating the roads as the snow swept from the paths turned into drifts blown up by the wind. Both the town’s railway lines were affected and even river traffic on the Lea had difficulty navigating the icy waters.

Those working outside or away from home were immediately thrown out of employment. No fresh supplies of bread or other food could be delivered, and the price of coal soared.

Travelling by Foot

A correspondent for the Hertfordshire Mercury reported that urgent business on Wednesday 19th required travelling on foot into the countryside. He left Hertford at 10:30 am, passing by Horns Mill and through Bayfordbury Park. Inches of snow became several feet when blown into drifts. He found inhabitants in Bayford unable to open their doors for the weight of snow.

Having got as far as Newgate Street village, he turned for home via Essendon. The way became dangerous as well as tiring. He arrived home about 8pm: a journey that should have taken five hours had taken ten.

However, the account ends “although the walk was at times disagreeable, the sight of the country covered with its beautiful covering amply repaid the inconvenience, and taking all things into consideration I may say I greatly enjoyed my walk.”1

The Town’s Response

Still the snow was causing real distress, particularly to the poor. On the evening of Saturday 22nd the mayor called a meeting to consider the best means of providing relief during the severe weather. About thirty of the town’s leading professional men and tradesmen gathered to discuss the alternatives before deciding to appoint parochial committees to collect subscriptions and organise relief. A subscription was started that night and received the sum of £44.2

A hundred working men set to work removing snow using horse carts to dispose of the snow to a deep, disused gravel quarry by the side of the railway on the Gas Works Road. Disruptions in water supply were assuaged with standpipes in the streets.

The town’s tradesman and charities setup soup kitchens and supplied large quantities of meat. By Saturday 29th the parochial charities had distributed 340 4lb loaves.

At last, the weather relented on Wednesday 26th as the temperature rose leading to a cold, but welcome thaw. It started to rain that evening and the week ended in dense fog.

Across England & Wales about 100 fatalities were reported of people caught outside in snow drifts and unable to find shelter.3 In Hertford the worst report injuries were the broken bones from falls on the ice. By the end of the month, the worst had passed and a rare aurora was seen across the UK.


1 ‘Snow storm’ from Hertfordshire Mercury, 22/01/1881, pg. 3

2 ‘The recent storm’ from Hertfordshire Mercury, 29/01/1881, pg. 3

3 ‘Blizzard of January 1881’ from Wikipedia, seen March 2023.



This page was added on 24/03/2024.

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