Home » Human Life » The Great Freeze of 1895

The Great Freeze of 1895

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Frozen Limehouse 1895

 Now the cold weather has arrived, the Island is exposed to the cold gusts of wind off the river. However for all the discomfort of the present, it is nothing compared with some of the major problems of the past. The Great Freeze of 1895 is a prime example .

Recently I came across the above picture of a frozen Limehouse in 1895, it seems quite picturesque to the modern viewer but the arctic conditions had tragic consequences to many people especially in the East End.
Newspapers of the time were quick to point out that the cold spell  was causing serious problems.

London, February 12. There is no abatement of the abnormally cold weather which has prevailed in northern Europe for the last week. The Upper Thames is frozen over, and huge blocks of ice breaking away from the mass are floating down, the river, causing much damage to the smaller shipping craft. Water traffic is consequently at a complete standstill. Many cases of death from cold and exposure are reported, the privation and distress in the east end of the city being particularly severe. The cold is so intense that birds are found frozen to death on the branches of the trees, and thousands are perishing. The severe weather has also directly caused considerable mortality, a number of deaths from exposure having been reported among postmen, omnibus drivers, cabmen, and labourers.

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Dr Joseph Murie 1895 (National Maritime Museum)

The cold weather stopped workers from working in the docks where ships were frozen in. If the worker did not work they did not get paid and the arctic conditions lasted so long, people were so desperate they turned to charities for help. Another newspaper visited a Salvation army in Whitechapel.

The Salvation Army food depot in Whitechapel Road, for instance, is crowded, mostly by women and children, in the afternoon. Practically all these women are working women, charwomen and so on said Commissioner Cadman, and the frost has deprived them of their work. They come here to get a half-penny or a penny meaL and we let them. That single picture in the Salvation hostel brought home most vividly the struggle for sheer existence which is going on but some figures which Mr Wynne Baxter, the coroner for East London, put at the disposal of a member of the Chronicle staff, indicate that many are falling in the struggle. His district covers that bleak portion of the metropolis running from Poplar up through Stepney, Wapping, Bow, and St George in the-East to WhitechapeL Last week he attended about sixty inquests, while in the same week last year the number was only thirty-two. The only meaning to be put on this tremendous contrast is that the frost is responsible for the doubling of the death-rate. In the coroners’ districts for North-east London and North London the number of inquests has also gone up almost as alarmingly. Have people died directly and simply from cold ? it may be asked. Many cases might be given as a melancholy answer to it, but two that have come under Mr Wynne Baxter’s attention daring the past few days may suffice. An old woman living in St. George’s- in-the- East went out in the morning to fetch some perquisites, bundles of waste paper or something else was in the habit of getting. She was found, not having got very far, seated in the street, where the cold had killed her. Perhaps that is putting the tragedy in fewer words than a medical man would, but they really represent what happened. Another old woman was found dead in bed — such a bed ! — in a two roomed house in Poplar, where she and her husband lived. She had been suffering from bronchitis, and he was lying ill in the other room. Neither room had a fireplace, and the door of one opened directly into the street. She was killed by the cold without question, and how could it be otherwise ? Such reading is not pleasant, but it is good for us all to know what is happening.

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Rotherhithe 1895 ( Southwark Library Collection)

Even fighting a fire in the London Docks was made almost impossible by the conditions.

During the late frost, after attending a fire at the London Docks, involving the-loss of some £60,000 or £80,000, those of the firemen who proceeded homeward, at 9 o’clock in the morning, along Commercial Road, presented a most remarkable appearance. In a large number of cases their helmets were frozen to their heads, and icicles nearly six inches in length hung from them and also from the men’s coats; This, however, was not surprising, considering the circumstances in which they had carried on their arduous labours. So intense was the cold, indeed, that when an engine stopped working for a few moments the water froze in the hose. As the water was thrown out of the nozzles the ice formed round the end of the metal until there were complete rings of ice several inches long on the end of the nozzles, through which the water passed. When two men held the same ‘ branch ‘ they froze together as they stood, and yet close to the fire the heat was so intense, that it was impossible to face it for any length of time. The water as it ran out on to the ground froze instantly, and the firemen soon became completely encased in sheets of ice, which froze on their uniforms, hair, and beards. The ladders  became perfect pictures, being covered with long lines of ice. The ruins of the fire presented a most picturesque appearance. Enormous icicles were hanging from the roofs, while the walls were entirely covered with a pure white frost. The hanging cranes and lamp-posts had been converted into pillars of ice, which, however, were a constant source of danger to the men employed near the scene, owing to the liability of the ice to break away and fall in large quantities. The telegraph and telephone wires which led into the ruined warehouses, but which were broken down, were also covered with thick ice and frost.

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The Frozen Thames at Greenwich: 1895. British School ( Museum of London)

It was not just Britain that suffered, the United States and Eastern Europe were badly affected. Eventually things got back to normal but the full cost both in human lives and deprivation will never be known. Extremely cold winters have caused havoc since 1895, but the scenes of massive ice floes on the Thames have never really been repeated.

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Greenwich Reach – W Hudson (National Maritime Museum)

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