Heritage: The great Romford snowstorm of 1881

Raphael Park in the snow last week. Picture: Ken Mears

Raphael Park in the snow last week. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

As Havering shivered in the snow last week, historian Prof Ged Martin dug out stories of an earlier wintry storm

On Tuesday, January 18, 1881, Britain was hit by a severe blizzard. Accompanied by a “terrific gale”, the “blinding fall of snow” caused deep drifts: at Rainham, paths were cut six feet deep.

Temperatures were already freezing. A joke cricket match was played on a frozen lake at Navestock, north of Harold Hill. The slithering players were an “amusing feature of the game”.

Fortunately nobody was injured.

In 1881, only two railways served our area: the line through Hornchurch and Upminster opened four years later.

Many trains on the Liverpool Street line were cancelled. Some struggled to Brentwood (where the snow was “unusually heavy”) ninety minutes late.

But on the Fenchurch Street line, through Rainham, services stopped altogether.

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Near Tilbury, passengers were rescued from a stranded train by workmen who cut holes in the carriage roofs.

Next morning, not even the engine’s tall funnel was visible.

Exhausted and soaked from tramping across fields “many feet deep in snow”, those travellers were still lucky compared with passengers on a train “embedded” in a drift at Wennington, near Rainham.

They were trapped all night, without food or heating.

A police officer recently transferred from Grays was moving furniture to his new home in Brentwood.

The wagon “set fast at Cranham” and was abandoned.

The mail cart from Grays set out for Romford as usual on the Tuesday evening, but couldn’t get beyond Purfleet.

Next morning, the mailman removed the sacks of letters and “courageously set off on foot”. Despite falling neck deep into a snowdrift, he delivered them to Romford that evening, 24 hours late.

Although there were snowdrifts in Romford Market, most damage around the town was caused by the gale.

One of the largest and oldest oak trees in the grounds of Gidea Hall (now Raphael Park) was blown down. Flying tiles in Victoria Road smashed windows.

At the weekly Wednesday market, “hardly a dozen beasts” were offered for sale.

Romford’s stationmaster slipped on a frozen step as he was crossing the tracks, falling on to the rails as a train approached from Harold Wood.

In the nick of time, he was rescued by a porter and the manager of WH Smith’s bookstall.

There was one local tragedy, which became controversial.

Mary Cope lived at Becontree Heath, in Dagenham. Her husband was a patient in the infirmary that later became Oldchurch Hospital.

She visited him, on foot, on Tuesday, trudging back across the fields during the snowstorm.

When she did not return home, her children alerted the local policeman, who organised a search on Wednesday morning. Mary Cope was found “buried in about four feet of snow” in a field at Rush Green. She was “quite dead”.

A coroner’s inquest revealed unpleasant details. Mary had gone into Romford, perhaps to shop, before visiting her sick husband.

She’d called to a couple of pubs, taking a tot of rum and some “warm beer”. It seems landlords heated their ale to combat the low temperatures.

Returning, Mary insisted on taking a direct route across the fields from Crow Lane. She was unsteady.

A Dagenham neighbour, Louise Saltmarsh, failed to dissuade Mary, and hadn’t the strength to guide her.

Forced to abandon her friend, Louise headed for Bellhouse Farm (remembered in Bellhouse Road, north of Rush Green Road), to appeal for help.

Richard Dennis, the farm foreman, told the inquest that his clothes were wet through and frozen, he had cattle to rescue, and “no time to go and look after a drunken woman”.

But Louise insisted he’d contemptuously rebuffed her, saying: “Let the drunken bitch lay; when she’s tired she’ll get up.”

Dennis denied using such language, and claimed to be sorry he hadn’t helped.

The jurymen ruled that Mary had died from exposure, criticising Dennis as “inhuman”.

They donated their fee for expenses to the Cope family.