Nostalgia: Age of tempestuous winters

Painting shows the last-ever Frost Fair on the River Thames in 1814.
Painting shows the last-ever Frost Fair on the River Thames in 1814.

Usually ignored by historians, even when it seriously affected many more people in the past than it does nowadays, was the critical factor of weather. Between about 1790 and about 1830 Scarborough and the north-east coast and country seem to have suffered exceptional extremes. In the letters, diaries, official reports, newspapers and autobiographies written during these years there are innumerable references to severe winters of prolonged low temperatures and heavy falls of snow; days of torrential rain; and frequent gales, so strong that they were sometimes called “whirlwinds”. Living through these tempestuous times you could be forgiven for believing that another ice age was on its way.

At a time when the only household heating was from open coal or wood and peat fires, when ill-fitting doors and windows let in draughts, it was then common for winter temperatures indoors to go below freezing. Chamber-pot contents froze in bedrooms; outside ponds, milk in churns and drinking water in taps, wells and troughs turned to ice. Heavy snow isolated villages for weeks. There were many reported cases of travellers dying of exposure. And these were not rare winters: throughout the 1790s and early 1800s harsh winter weather was usually accompanied by blizzards, deep snow and plunging thermometers.

Every winter the river Thames froze so hard that by January the ice was thick enough to bear the weight of booths, stalls, puppet-shows and hundreds of people. The last frost fair took place in February 1814, not because winters were warmer from then on but because the demolition of old London bridge allowed the river Thames to run more freely and swiftly.

Scarborians were relatively fortunate. Towns were always warmer than villages or farmsteads. Coal arrived from Sunderland and Newcastle whatever the weather, so that householders did not have to forage into the country for tinder wood. Inland, however, the story was different. Snow falls created huge drifts and blocked all roads over the North Riding moors and the East Riding Wolds.

In the winter of 1811, for instance, the Donkin four-horse stage waggon from Hull to Scarborough was buried fast in snow at North Burton for two days and two nights. Billy Donkin, his passengers and goods were finally dug out by the landlord of the White Swan Inn at Hunmanby.

Anyone foolish enough to attempt a crossing of moors or wolds in mid-winter was lucky to survive. In February 1784, Mr Lewis Postgate, who was on his way from Hull to Scarborough, was found near Foxholes. He had “perished through cold”. He was only 35 years old. Travelling on foot southwards towards Scarborough could be just as hazardous. A dealer in quills and his wife coming from Durham were lost on the moors between Whitby and Scarborough. All night and part of the next day they lay in the snow until discovered and rescued. Both had suffered severely from exposure and frost-bite and neither ever made a full recovery. Both of them lost their toes.

Similarly, two poor sailors making their way home from Whitby to Scarborough were overtaken by snow and cold. One survived the ordeal, but the other died after rescuers arrived.

The winter of 1823 was particularly bad. Jonathan and Hannah Huntriss left Driffield for Scarborough at 9am on February 7 with four horses. They were stuck fast at Rudston where they hired another horse and then two more at Burton Agnes. They reached Hunmanby at 6pm and had to employ 17 men to clear the snow before them. They finally reached Scarborough after an epic journey at 10 o’clock, having used nine horses altogether. They were compelled to leave the main roads, cross fields, jump hedges and mount a mud wall, “steeplechase fashion”.

After the winter snow came the Spring floods. It was the result of unprecedented inundation in the Vale of Pickering in 1799 that local landlords decided to invest heavily in what became the Muston drainage scheme.

Torrential autumnal rain at Scarborough had a devastating impact on the cliff at Driple Cotes overlooking the Spa. In October 1823 “a large quantity of earth from the Dripping Spring above down towards the spaw” collapsed. John Hogg, who was digging out material for street paving in the town, was buried alive and pronounced dead when dug out. Of the three horses he was using, two were killed outright and the third was brought out but “much injured”. Hogg’s cart was broken into pieces.

If Scarborough escaped the worst of the winters, it seems to have suffered a period of very turbulent weather. On June 24, 1823, a few weeks before the Spa cliff landslide, a “whirlwind” came up from the south leaving a trail of destruction in its path. Trees were blown down, ten bathing-houses on the South Bay sands were carried into the sea, and several ships in the harbour broke free of their moorings and crashed into defenceless coble boats. Fortunately, no person was hurt.

Less than two years later, an exceptionally high tide nearly washed out the Spa buildings. In the harbour two of Mr George Riby’s ships were carried off the stocks and Mr Mosey’s new vessel was dislodged from its frame. Much damage was done along the whole length of the foreshore beach.

On December 1, 1826, a great gale from the north-east caused havoc to shipping. About 18 sailing vessels were driven into Filey Bay, the “Prospect” of Scarborough broke into pieces near the Nab; and three ships were beached on South Bay sands. All their crews were saved.

A heavy gale struck the town on April 28, 1829. Mr John Wharton, the shipbuilder, lost all his chimneys. Three people were drowned when the “New Albion” of London was driven onto the shore south of the Spa. Nearly a year later, on January 10, 1830, two very high tides occurred at Scarborough. Mr Vickerman’s palisades at the front of his house and grounds at the foot of King Street Steps were broken down and washed away. Four houses at Whitby and eighteen at Staithes were utterly destroyed.

These were just some of the reports of shipwrecks at or near Scarborough. In most cases they were caused by storm-force north-easterly gales driving sailing ships onto sandy or rocky shores. Worst affected were the collier fleets running southwards down the coast seeking the shelter of Scarborough’s harbour. Between 1796 and 1805, 744 vessels were forced to find refuge there and 61 of them were damaged by storms.