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The Great Freeze of 1895


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.


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.


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.


Greenwich Reach – W Hudson (National Maritime Museum)

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Bow

bowroad pr

Many thanks again to Eric Pemberton for providing the following postcards, this series are of particular interest because these generally early 20th century postcards do illustrate a bygone world.

This was an area that suffered greatly from bombing in the Second World War and many of the lost churches and other large buildings were never replaced.

Bow Road was one of the main thoroughfares of East London and formed  junction in between Mile End Road and  Bow Bridge. It used to contain a number of large  buildings , places of worship, shops and entertainments.

bow rd2

It was also a well known meeting place, illustrated by this postcard where Elsie and Vic arranging to meet on Bow Road( in the same place as before).


Bow Church is the parish church of St Mary and Holy Trinity, Stratford, Bow. It is one of the oldest churches in East London,there has been a church on the same site for approximately 700 years. Although the church was bombed in the Second World War,  the bell tower was rebuilt just after the war.

bowch and glad

In front of the church is a statue by Albert Bruce Joy of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, which was paid for by the wealthy match manufacturer, Theodore H Bryant of Bryant and May in 1882.


This could be a postcard for the dining room for Coborn School and a menu for 1935


The amusing menu

brom by bow ch

Bromley by Bow was badly damaged in the war and by the building of the Blackwall Tunnel

st stevens bow

 Destroyed by bombing in the Second World war and demolished.

st stephens bow


bow andpoposick

The Poplar and Stepney Sick Asylum was built in 1869-71 at Devon’s Road in Bow, it was the centre of a scandal in 1908, when six members of the Board of Guardians were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud the ratepayers.

In 1920, the site was renamed St Andrew’s Hospital and carried on in its different guises until 2008 when all the buildings were demolished.

Other Posts you may find interesting

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – The Battle of Stepney

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Victoria Park

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Seamens Missions

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – The London Hospital

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards Poplar and East India Dock Road

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs 2

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs

Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Limehouse

George Burchett – King of the Tattooists


George ‘Professor’ Burchett – King of the Tattooists

In writing a previous post I came across the work of George Burchett who was widely acknowledged as King of the Tattooists. Now I must confess I have never seen the attraction of Tattoos but was surprised that what is seen as a modern phenomenon has a long history and the East End was home to one of the most famous Tattoo Artists.

George ‘Professor’ Burchett was born George Burchett-Davis on August 23rd 1872 in Brighton, little is known about his family but according to his ghost written memoirs he got expelled from school for tattooing his classmates and joined the navy at 13. As a deckhand on the HMS Vincent he travelled the world and practised his Tattooing skills. He then allegedly jumped ship and travelled around the world.

edith 1920

His wife Edith 1920s

How much of this colourful backstory is true is hard to say, however there is evidence that he opened a cobbler’s shop in Mile End and carried out tattooing in his spare time. He also got married in 1898 and lived in Bow with his wife Edith.

At around this time he received some training from well known English tattooists Tom Riley and Sutherland MacDonald. It is also been said he bought a tattoo machine from Riley and started tattooing full time. With a large number of sailors and dockers, Mile End and Limehouse was  probably a good area for a tattooist and there is no doubt that in the first few years of the 20th century, George began to build up his reputation as high class tattooist. In 1910 George is mentioned in a newspaper report  in a strange story about a man who dies in an accident in a lift.

A Tattooed Man

 At the inquest on July 6 on William Charles Mirza Mendo, a cellarman, who was killed in a lift accident at the Carlton Hotel, London, where he was employed, it was stated that he was tattooed all over his body. George Burchett, a tattooist, of Waterloo road, said that he had tattooed Mendo, who lodged with him, and Mendo had intended to exhibit himself. A photograph was produced of the top of Mendo’s head, where an excellent picture of King Edward had been tattooed. Other photographs showed that on the man’s back, the ‘Home of the Gods’ had been tattooed in various colours. On his chest was a ^large eagle fighting with a snake. In the centre of his forehead was a crown between the letters, ‘E.R.’ On the arms were snakes and dragons, and on the legs Japanese women in five colours. (1910)


Business must have been going well because this report mentions that he has a studio in Waterloo Road as well as his studio in Mile End. If business was good then, when the First World War started there is evidence that tattooing became really popular amongst servicemen and increasingly women. Our next newspaper report finds George’s business expanding again and he gives some insight into some of his customers.


Mr Burchett  tattooist. is one of the busiest men in London. – He has recently opened a second establishment near his original “consulting room” in the Waterloo road.,so as to be able to ornament indelibly the arms and bodies of the men of His Majesty’s forces. “I have twice as many clients now as I had before the war.” he told a “Weekly Dispatch” representative the other day. “Most of them are soldiers or sailors, but some of them are young women, who want portraits of their soldier sweethearts tattooed on their arms. “A good many soldiers bring me photographs of their girls to tattoo: but this is not always wise, because sometimes it’s a case of off with the old love, and you can’t get her off your arm.

“Very smart these.” said  Mr Burchett admiringly. “Takes only ten or fifteen minutes to have any of  them on your skin for life. It’s wonderful when yon think of it.”I draw the design on the arm, and this electric needle does the rest. The days of tattooing with an ordinary needle are over.   “Seven and sixpence gives you a nice, smart. patriotic design but, of course, if you want a portrait and perhaps two heads with an arrow through them, or something tasty like that, it costs more.” (1917)

It was around this time that George begins to be  known as the “King of the Tattooists” and begins to become sought out not only sailors and soldiers but by Royalty and the “upper classes”.

Among his customers  were King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King Frederick IX of Denmark and  George V . A large number of society women made their way to George’s studio due to his development of cosmetic tattooing  which sparked a bit of a craze.


Women are having the roses of youth tattooed in their cheeks. When this is done; delicate complexion will not fade with the passing of years. Luxuriant ‘eyebrows’ can be shaped and the soft shades which beauty cultivates drawn under the eyes. Lips, too are made shapely; but this is only one aspect of the strange life of a tattooist as revealed to a Press Association reporter by Mr G Burchett who has just tattooed a will on a man’s back.
Men, it seems also have beauty which is all too often only skin deep. They come to have red noses turned to a more becoming hue; pale faces made ‘sunburnt’ bald regions covered with silky locks. Girls will have the initials of their lovers with a posy of forget-me-nots or some other ( emblem tattooed on their legs or arm where it will not be visible. Life-like pictures of sweethearts are often tattooed on chests. An Irish Guardsman had a dotted line put around his throat with the inscription ‘Cut round dotted line.’
Two permanent ‘black eyes’ were given to an American boxer; who seemed to regard them as a badge of office. Roses were put on a sailor’s ears. Two men had respectively pictures of King Edward and King George drawn on their bald heads. Dancing girls and others were drawn all over another man. American sailors had the names of all ports they had visited written down their legs. A lady of seventy just had her nose whitened and her complexion tinted said Mr Burchett. (1929)


He was so famous, he was featured on a Cigarette card

In the 1930s George’s status as one of the most famous tattooists in the world was endorsed by appearing regularly  in newspapers, and  radio and in 1938 on a BBC Television programme.

Televised Tattoo Demonstration

1938 at the BBC

Although George considered retirement, the Second World War created a great demand for Tattoos and he was as busy as ever.

Newspapers of the time were fascinated by George’s work ,

The war has brought prosperity to tattooists In England. Initials of wife or sweetheart or mother enclosed In a heart used to be the usual formula, but this has now given place to a series of more intricate designs.
Soldiers have the initials intertwined with the badge of their regiment: sailors prefer an anchor as the frame of their initials; while airmen have them set between wings.
“But it isn’t only love-tokens that we are doing now,” said Mr  G. Burchett, who has been tattooing for 36 years. “‘It is identification marks of one sort or another. Young men just called up want to be identified on their own skin. You’d be surprised at the things I have done,” (1940)

George is busier now than he has been in 40 years of practice. He tattoos identity numbers and blood groups on servicemen. (1944)


Even after the war, business did not  allow George to slow down as he had a large number of requests from people who had been held captive by the Germans.

The girl from Auschwitz can never blot out her wartime slave memories, but the figures the Germans tattooed on her arm have gone. it was blotted out by Mr George Burchett, London tattooist. He has removed hundreds of tattooed numbers put on prisoners by Nazi gaolers.
At last the Americans and Russians liberated her, but the tattooed number still made her  a prisoner in herself. The 73-year-old George Burchett, Waterloo Road tattooist, treated her arm, saying: ‘It’ll be gone in a little more than a week. Keep it covered up.’ The girl from Auschwitz said she would gladly keep it covered up. ‘It’s nothing to pay for you.’ said George. (1948)

George carried on working up to 1953 when he died, his death was widely reported.

The king Mr Burchett decorated in his own indelible fashion, was Frederick of Denmark, who now has a fine green dragon needled all over his chest. Secrets aplenty came to this star of British tattooers. Once he inscribed a 200-word will on a man’s back. Once he worked in reverse and erased a concentration camp number from a girl refugee’s arm. Many times he applied permanent rosiness to the lips and cheeks of London’s society women. And the secrets were safe with Mr Burchett. He took them to his grave. (1953)

One secret was the identity of an unusual customer.

Who is The Tattooed Judge?

One mystery in England will probably never be solved now — the mystery of the tattooed Judge.
He was the best customer of King of Tattooers George Burchett — until the Judge’s body was so covered with designs that there was no room for more. All over from his shoulders to his feet, the judge wore an intricate pattern of roses, butterflies and dragons. One more tattoo — ‘ and the prisoners in the dock would have known  his secret. Now the identity of the Judge is never likely to be revealed. George died last week, and he took with him the name of one of his most distinguished customers. (1953)

George’s work is still highly respected today in the Tattoo world, I think that is because he was a well respected  artist who used designs from all over the world. This and his professional demeanour bought a bit of respectability to a  profession that had  more of a  ‘back street’ reputation, for these reasons alone he probably deserved his title as King of  the Tattooists.