The Great Blizzard of March 1891

by Ellen Castelow

“…no such storm had visited the West of England within remembrance.” The Times, March 1891.

Between Monday 9th and Friday 13th March 1891 Cornwall, Devon and Somerset were struck by a storm so ferocious that more than 200 people and 6,000 animals died. There were snowdrifts up to 15 feet high and violent gales left dozens of ships floundering on the rocks along the Cornish coasts. Many people were trapped in the snow. Trains were buried under the drifts, trapping passengers for days. Even the telegraph system failed as poles and lines came crashing to the ground.

Train in blizzardTrain derailed near Camborne, Cornwall

The devastating storm arrived suddenly. The morning was calm, but by the afternoon an east-north-easterly wind had started to blow, increasing in strength until by nightfall it was blowing a full gale. A fine, powdery snow also began to fall during the early afternoon. The strong winds whipped up this fine snow, leading to blizzard conditions and enormous drifts.

The results were devastating as roofs collapsed under the weight of the snow, telegraph lines and poles were brought down and trains with their passengers were stranded in the deep snow drifts. Sheep and cattle died in the fierce chill; indeed virtually a whole generation of sheep were wiped out.

Snowdrifts over 11 feet deep were reported from the seaside towns of Dartmouth, Torquay and Sidmouth, while in the countryside and up on the moors, conditions were even worse. Unable to travel, people ran out of food and coal or wood for their fires. Conditions for workers trying to restore the roads and railways were extreme; some froze to death in the extreme temperatures.

Tossed by hurricane-level winds and driving snow, dozens of ships floundered off the Cornish coast. The Bay of Panama was one of these, en route from Calcutta to Dundee with 13,000 bales of jute. As the storm hit, the crew battled to save her but eventually she was driven onto rocks off the Lizard. Many were washed overboard and drowned. Others clung to the rigging where, soaked by the icy water, they froze to death. Twenty-three lives were lost in this incident alone.

By the 14th March, the strong winds had abated and the thaw had set in. However it was not until June that the last of the snow disappeared from parts of Dartmoor.

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