December 11, 2014, by Lucy
Extreme weather events in focus: White Christmases
Following the first snowfall of the year on Sunday,and the arrival of a ‘weather bomb’ in northern parts of the UK , in my final blog of 2014 I thought I would explore some wintry weather of Decembers past.
The TEMPEST database is now up and running and we have been busily entering the data that we have collected from the archives over the past year. We are also now able to conduct simple searches of the data in the system and this facility has been very helpful in identifying material to include in this post. A search for ‘snow’ returned 562 records so in the interests of time and in getting accounts of ‘extremely’ white Christmases I have chosen instead to concentrate on accounts of ‘heavy snow’ (the search, undertaken on 8th December returned 219 event records) and then to pull out those occurring on or around the 25th December in any year.
In a previous post by Georgina for the University of Nottingham’s 2011 Advent Calendar, she explored how, ‘when people talk about the weather – particularly in regard to Christmas time – they draw upon ‘recollections’ that are tinged with nostalgia and are not always accurate… Exceptionally severe winters, for example, often claim priority in people’s memories as idealised stereotypes of seasonal conditions.’ Professor Mike Hulme has similarly suggested that ‘the expectation of a white Christmas in the UK is culturally perpetuated by the imagery and expectation reiterated every festive season, yet the likelihood of snow at Yuletide in most parts of England is now less than one in 10 years.’
With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to see how many extremely white Christmases we have detailed in the database (those with ‘heavy snow’). The answer (using the ‘heavy snow’ search detailed above)… is just 16.
The records of ‘extremely’ white Christmases
Our accounts don’t just detail the snow, but also the impacts that heavy snowfall has had at particular times, in particular places and for different people. They also often include references to memories of earlier snows at Christmas, be they personal recollections or community or national memories of UK winters.
The two earliest accounts are taken from the Old Bolingbroke Parish Register:
A remarkable storm on xtmass 1708/9 in w’ch it snow 12 days together almost incessantly.
Christmas 1715. We had a very great snow almost as great as one as had been known in the memory of man and with a violent frost of about 10 weeks duration. In this storm several persons perished upon the roads, two men were left betwixt here & Boston in the Fenns. [Lincolnshire Archive,OLD BOLINGBROKE PAR/1/2. Also available online]
The next account in our chronology, from 1738-9, is a collection of weather notes, and conveniently refers back to both the 1708 and 1715 winters and also illustrates the suffering that snow (and associated low temperatures) could bring:
1739 – This winter was extremely cold & sharp, a deep snow fell about Christmas day & laid ‘till March & when it broke up was a prodigious flood, it exceeded the coldest days in the sharp winters in 1708 & 1715 & continued so long that had not the poor in this city [Norwich] & other places been generously relieved by the wealthy many must have perished. [Norfolk Record Office, MC 64/11]
And our next, from the diary of Matthew Flinders, from 1783-4, in turn refers back to 1739, and also makes reference to the suffering of the poor:
1784 – Long continued frost – I have to note the intense coldness of the weather, the frost has continued 8 weeks & still likely to stay – with frequent severe winds and much snow. On Th, Feb 12 the air was intensely cold, I put a half pint glass of water in the air in 15 minutes… in one hour a pound weight. The poor are much distressed, tis generally allowed the weather is severer than in the great frost 39-40. Feb 13. [Lincolnshire Archives, FLINDERS 1]
The extreme snowy weather of Christmas 1783 was also noted by John Eyston in a letter to his employer Francis Fortescue Turvile that details the impacts of heavy snowfall on the house and estate:
Sir, We had a little before Xmas last one of the heaviest fall of Snows here that was almost ever Remembered which was accompanied with a very severe Frost & High Winds that made it get in such Drifts in some Places that many of the shrubs were totally covered and some of them almost Bent double… the Snow Broak in at several parts of the Roof of the House & particularly that part of the Roof which lies over or near to the best Bedchamber… Welford 25th Jany 1784 [Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office, DG39/708]
And by John Thistleton in his diary:
25th Dec 1783– great hoare frost, dark & cold, wind low at E, at night blew hard at NE with snow
26th Dec – frost & snow all day, wind blew at NE, very cold [Lincolnshire Archives, MON 31/92]
1783 was the first of a series of white Christmases in the 1780s recorded by Thistleton:
24th Dec 1785 – frosty morning, cloudy and cold wind, fresh NE, ground covered with snow, a cloudy cold day wind NE, some small hail
25th Dec – Wind E. a great snowfall all day… snow continued in the night
26th Dec – wind fresh at E, snow continued most part of the day, at night very deep
25th Dec 1786 – bright, calm & frosty, evening overcast, wind blew at NE and a great snow fell in the night
26th Dec – wind southerly, frosty & snow most part of the day… snow in the night
23rd Dec 1787 – wind NE, frost & snow, which fell in the night and keeps increasing with many falls mixed with small hail
24th Dec – wind NE, great falls of hail & snow with frost
25th Dec – wind NW great snow and thaw all day long (continued all night)
24th Dec 1788 – pleasant thaw wind NW
26th Dec – a great snow fell wind at N… (a great fall of snow in the night)
27th Dec – a great fall of snow, wind N, sharp frost… the snow very deep
28th Dec – wind N, severe frost, great falls of snow which increases every hour in depth [Lincolnshire Archives, MON 31/92]
There are two white Christmases from the 1790s recorded in the materials we’ve gathered so far. 1791, as recorded by John Wescob Emmerton in a letter to his brother, reveals the isolation that snow could bring:
Thrumpton Jan’y 4th 1792. Dear Brother… We have had extremely severe weather here the last month, I think I never remember so much snow in these parts before – The flood has been already twice in my cellar- I have spent four or five weeks quite alone, Mr Wickliffe being in Berkshire; and the Major shy of me on account of his dispute with the Erewash Canal Company… [Nottinghamshire Archives, DD/SY/168/xiv]
And 1794, as recorded by Matthew Flinders, an event that was followed by great flooding as the snow melted:
Uncommon severe winter 1794-95. This has been the severest winter in these climates known in living memory… the snow began at Xmas Eve – and continued with intervals most of the time. I think I may say more has fallen than in the last 7 years together and several times more on the ground, than has been since the great snow in 1767 when it was a yard deep on the level… very great damage has been done on the breaking up of the frost by the floods – numbers of bridges being broke down, and large tracts of land overflowed – no such flooded known since the memorable year 1764. Great injury done to the farmers – much sowed wheat destroyed & the poor much distressed – tho’ there were very liberal subscriptions in many towns. This added to the distress occasioned by the War – has given the times an alarming aspect w’ch I hope God in his good time will remove. [Lincolnshire Archives, FLINDERS 2]
There is then quite a jump to 1860 when Augustus Sutton, Rector of West Tofts church records the following in his Sunday Book:
25th Dec 1860– deep snow and very extreme frost
The cold of xmas morning this year is said to have been greater than ever was known in England being 15 degs below zero [Norfolk Record Office, PD 55/30]
Ten years later Caroline Upcher recorded the snow of Christmas 1870 in her diary:
24th Dec 1870 – beautiful bright day, much snow on the ground and frost
26th – snow deep
30th – snow coming down perpetually! [Norfolk Record Office, UPC 165]
William Peatman, a coal porter in Lincolnshire records further white Christmases of the 1870s:
Dec 25th 1876 – We have had a great deal of snow it began on Sat night the 23rd it snowed all night it was not really fair all day on the 24th, today it ‘as been the same this afternoon it comes rather faster this morning
Dec 26th – Tuesday it is very cold today – it as frose very sharp all day it as frozen the drink in our bottles.
Dec 27th – there ‘as been a great deal of snow and rain in the night it thawed fast all day.
Dec 28th – at Grantham we have had largest flood last night in the memory of man Mr J Basker ‘as never known it to be so high [Lincolnshire Archives, MISC DON 1104]
This snowfall was also noted in an anonymous diary from Lincolnshire:
24th Dec 1876 – day heavy fall of snow from early morning
25th Dec – day very cold the snow remaining
26th Dec – day dull and frosty, ground covered with snow [LA, BRA/1584/4]
Returning to Peatman, Christmas 1878:
Dec 24th 1878 – very sharp again last night and as frose very sharp alday it ‘as been fearful cold.
Christmas day last night was the sharpest frost we have has this frost it was fearful cold it froze very sharp this morning 12 o’clock it ‘as been a dull day no sun it is now 7 o’clock pm it snows a little, the wind seem south west.
Dec 26th – there was a heavyish fall of snow last night it as rained most of today making it very wet underfoot the snow as wasted but little it as frose most of the day [Lincolnshire Archives, MISC DON 1104]
Which is also recorded in the Service Register for Babingley Church in Norfolk:
Dec 15th 1878 – deep snow
Dec 22th – deeper snow [Norfolk Record Office, PD662/15]
And finally from Peatman, 1879:
Dec 5th – still very sharp again, a heavy fall of snow tonight more than on Monday with Monday’s snow and tonight it is a great thickness it as not thawed since Saturday Nov 29th
Dec 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 frost in the morning then thawed a little during the day but it ‘as never thawed the ice much it is a wonderful thickness the cannal beared well on the first of the month as it as beared ever since.
Dec 26th – very sharp again this morning it as froose sharp alday it ‘as been bitter cold (there are thousands on the cannal skateing as it is bank holiday [LA, MISC DON 1104]
Moving into the twentieth century, the only white Christmas record we have so far is 1950, for which we have 2 accounts, the diaries of Eric Pochin:
Dec 14th 1950 – Heavy snow again. We have started feeding the birds.
Dec 16th – Snow quite thick and roads very bad with hard frost. It is snowing heavily this evening.
Dec 29th – Snow today
Dec 30th – Heavy snow again and further falls this evening [Leicestershire, Leicester, and Rutland Record Office, 10D70/3]
And E.H. Morse of Brundall:
16th Dec – 8’’ snow, very severe gale, thunder from N, All work outside ceased
17th Dec – 4’’ snow very dull snowing intermittently
Dec – All Yarmouth roads & rail blocked from Reedham…15’’ snow Reedham. Total melted snow at Brundall 125
Still 9’’ snow on lawn on level last day of Dec after 16 days & still very cold indeed [Norfolk Record Office, MC 145/1]
A white Christmas for 2014?
As Georgina has previously explained, accounts of extreme snowy winters can go on to represent inaccurate benchmarks against which our contemporary winters are compared. As a result, each year in the run up to the ‘big day’, the media, the public and of course the bookmakers, once again turn their attention to the likelihood of a white Christmas.
Place your bets… (you can check the Met Office forecast for Christmas Day here: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/learning/snow/white-christmas)
And as usual do please get in touch to let us know which white Christmases you remember.
Merry Christmas from the Weather Extremes team!
Living in a Mediterranean city (Genoa, Northern Italy) I have never experienced a white Christmas and often late December in Genoa can be quite mild (14-15 C) and foggy (basically that kind of weather you don’t really want in Christmas!). Christmas 1999 was particularly disappointing: I remember it started raining with 4 C, and I was pretty confident that the rain would have soon turned into snow, particularly with the Northern wind (Tramontana) which started blowing in the afternoon of the 24th. A perfect white Christmas. The wind arrived and the temperature dropped down to 2 C, then 1.5, 1, 0.5 and still no signs of snow (!) The next morning the landscape was sadly grey and everything was covered in ice, which fortunately melted that same morning. A lost chance which I will never forget!
Hi Pietro, thanks for reading and for your comment too. Interesting that you remember the disappointment of Christmas 1999 so clearly. Many of the authors that I’ve featured in this post would probably have been very pleased not to see any snow!
Neil has just alerted me to this Met Office factsheet on White Christmases for those interested in finding out more: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/media/pdf/a/q/Fact_sheet_No._5.pdf