• Sryan Bruen

January 1881 severe cold spell and blizzard

January 1881 was a severely cold and snowy month in the UK & Ireland with some of the biggest snowfalls ever seen in England and the coldest temperatures over Ireland in history.

The month had a CET of -1.5c making it the joint seventh coldest January on record since 1659 up to 2018. The period 8th to 27th January 1881 had a CET of -4.4c and it was -1.5c overall as a result of the relatively mild start and mild end especially the latter period. Winter 1880-81 had a mean temperature of around 2.8c at Phoenix Park, Dublin and this made it the sixth coldest Winter on record at the station; this was solely down to what happened in January as December 1880 had been relatively mild and February was only chilly rather than bitterly cold.

Given what I've described so far, it would be a surprise to see that January 1881 started off relatively mild with a westerly flow in charge as high pressure sits to the south and low pressure to the north although the high pressure tended to be more influential blocking the lows crossing the country. It wasn't very mild by any means but this was some of the mildest weather the country had seen all month. Galway had a maximum of 10.0c on the 2nd. Other parts of Ireland and the UK had similar values during the period but somewhat lower although Londonderry had a maximum of 11.7c on the same day. It was damp and misty with this high pressure.

High pressure began to intensify over us and retrogress to Greenland by the latter part of the first week of January. This resulted in conditions becoming gradually cooler. This high had fully retrogressed by the 11th with cold air flooding in from the northeast and troughs developing in the flow which meant the air was unstable resulting in snow showers beginning to occur. It was a very similar scenario to that of late November 2010. From this point up to the 16th to 19th, it just got colder and colder with the cold weather getting more severe.

The northeasterly winds became very calm on the 16th resulting in frosts of unusual intensity with deep snow cover lying on the ground from near constant snow showers and continuous cold weather. Markree Castle, Co. Sligo got down to -19.1c on the morning of 16th January 1881 which is the lowest minimum temperature on record for any month in the Republic of Ireland to this day. Killaloe, Co. Clare recorded -13.9c. Phoenix Park had a maximum temperature of -3.1c on the 15th and -2.8c on the 16th (two of the 7 ice days that the station recorded during January 1881). Kelso, Scotland got down to -22.2c on this day whilst there was an observation of -24.4c on the same day at Blackadder, Scotland but the latter figure is disregarded from official records.

Low pressure from the Atlantic pushed to the south of the UK and Ireland driven by the southerly tracking jet stream on the 17th/18th and developed into a Channel Low. This went on to become one of the worst blizzards that England had seen in history and perhaps even THE worst. The snowfalls started on the 17th in the southwest of England and at the same time, an easterly gale became evident with snow drifting in the wind as a consequence. This continued in some places for a good 48 hours.

Meanwhile, the severe frosts continued further north over Ireland and Scotland including an observation of -30c at Blackadder (which again was disregarded due to possible non-standard exposure). Kelso recorded -26.7c on the 17th January 1881 which was the lowest temperature on record in the UK until February 1895 (which would later be equalled twice in January 1982 and December 1995).

I'll let H. Sowerby Wallis, whom contributed to Symons' Meteorological Magazine, explain the situation with his in-depth article on the snowstorm of January 1881 in the February 1881 issue of the named magazine.

After the 9th of January, snow fell daily on some portion of the British Isles and on the 12th and 13th rather heavily over the greater part of them, so that by the 17th (on which day practically none fell), there was a considerable depth on the ground over the whole of the United Kingdom, the weather having been so cold that scarcely any had melted. This depth averaged three to four inches over the greater part of England, and rather more in Wales, the N. of England and in Scotland. During the early morning of the 18th the wind, which was easterly, rapidly increased in force, and blew a strong easterly gale nearly all day, the wind falling again in the south at night, but in other parts of the country it lasted till about mid-day on the 19th. The gale was particularly severe on the east coast, but the number of wrecks and casualties all round our shores was very great; reports from many seaports stating that it was the most severe gale that had been experienced for more than 30 years. Much damage was done to roofs and a very large number of trees were blown down in the eastern counties - e.g. Lord Rendlesham reports over 1,500, most of them large ones, blown down in his estate and there were many isolated cases of structural damage in other parts of the country. In London an extremely high tide, increased by the gale, overflowed the low-lying districts on the south of the Thames, causing great distress, augmented by the extreme severity of the weather, among the poorer classes.
The gale was accompanied by a heavy and steady fall of snow over all but the north of England, which lasted through the 18th and continued, though rather lighter, till about noon on the 19th. The amount of snow deposited over the whole of the southern portion of the country was very great, and was so drifted by the fierce wind, that communication both by rail and road was entirely disorganised, and it was more than a week before the railway and postal arrangements throughout the country recovered their usual regularity and punctuality ; the interruption to business was further increased by the large number of telegraph wires which were broken by the gale or by contraction caused by the extreme cold.
Snow fell again on the 20th in the S. and S.W., very heavily in the Isle of Wight and neighbouring districts, blocking up many lines of railway that had with great difficulty been cleared from the fall of the 18th.
Among careful observers in all parts of the country where the snow fell with its full intensity, it appears to be the general opinion that to find anything like a parallel case we must go back to 1836 or to 1814 ; and it would appear that in most parts of the country, the depth in those years was greater but that the drifts were not so great. As regards the fall in the Isle of Wight and South Hampshire, it is believed to be altogether unprecedented in recent times.
One feature of the snow which appears to have been noticed nearly all over the country was its extreme fineness and dryness, and the remarkable manner in which it penetrated in large quantities through roofs, the cracks of doors and windows, and even the most minute and almost imperceptible crevices.
The loss of life in England and Wales, entirely due to the snow, was very great and probably an estimate of 100 persons would be very near the truth, and the amount of distress occasioned simply by the stoppage of the supplies of food and fuel to country districts from towns is almost incalculable.
Small birds died of starvation in vast numbers, their food being covered by the snow. At Littlehampton, in one shrubbery, more than 100 dead blackbirds and thrushes were found, and the following curious incident is reported in an Isle of Wight newspaper; "A friend of ours looking from his window (in Shanklin) on Monday, saw some larks hopping about on his lawn. Presently some rooks swooped down upon the birds, tore several to pieces, and ate them".
It is very difficult to realise the magnitude of the snowstorm and of the drifts; perhaps some of the men employed in clearing the railways had the best opportunity of doing so. Locomotive engines and trains, in spite of their size and power, were snowed up by the dozen; not merely stopped, but buried for days together, and in some cases so completely as to be quite hidden. From the Tring cutting on the L. & N. W. railway, 1,700 truck loads of snow were taken. A railway truck is about 15 ft. long, therefore 1,700 trucks would form a train nearly five miles long. A train five miles long to empty one cutting on one railway, what length of train would it require to remove the snow from all the cuttings on all the railways in England?
The loss to the country was enormous; over more than half England business was practically stopped for one day at least, and the cost of clearing not only the railways but almost all the roads in the country, is incalculable, not to mention the more or less serious suffering and discomfort. Plymouth was deprived of water for nearly a week. Public and private meetings of all kinds had to be postponed ; in short, that intercourse between man and man, on which the whole business and pleasure of life depend, was interrupted.
There was also snow on the ground over almost the whole of Scotland and Ireland, which drifted considerably, and in some cases caused delay to traffic; but it has no interest in connection with the abnormally heavy fall of the 18th and 19th over the southern portion of England, and therefore needs no further notice.

The severe frosts continued after the blizzard cleared to the east but the Atlantic broke through by the 27th with much milder conditions for the end of the month becoming established resulting in a huge thaw and flooding. Several stations recorded their monthly maximum temperatures during this period including Killaloe (on the 28th), Manchester and Barnstaple (both on the 31st), England with 11.1c.

Minimum temperatures in the UK for selected dates (the Blackadder figures are now disregarded as already stated and many others here are too for the same reason; non-standard exposures) - thanks to Kevin Bradshaw for analysing these.

13th: -18.9C at Cardigan 14th: -20C at Corwen, -19.4C at Corwen, -18C at Achonachie, Alston, Ketton and Lauder 16th: -24.4C at Blackadder. -23.3C at Stobo, -22.2C at Kelso and Corwen, -18.3C at Blackpool, -17.8C at Chester 17th: -30C at Blackadder, -26.7C at Kelso, -26.1C at Stobo, -23.3C at Melrose 18th: -26.1C at Stobo 20th: -19.4C at Cheltenham 21st: -23.3C at Haydon Bridge 24th: -23.3C at Blackadder 25th: -21.7C at Bury St Edmunds 26th: -26.7C at Blackadder

Meanwhile, here's the monthly minimum temperatures for several Irish stations taken from Symons' Meteorological Magazine.

Cork (Blackrock); -13.3c on the 15th

Waterford; -12.2c on the 17th

Killaloe; -13.9c on the 16th

Portarlington; -11.7c on the 21st

Monkstown; -11.7c on the 17th

Galway; -10.6c on the 17th

Edenfel, Co. Tyrone got down to a minimum of -19.4c on the 23rd.

Unfortunately, the only information that Met Éireann give in regards to the January 1881 snow in Ireland in their "Snowfall in Ireland" document is:

The records at the Phoenix Park, Dublin recorded remarkable snowstorms in January (O’Reilly, 1981).

It's no wonder why January 1881 was that cold going by its 500mb height anomaly reanalysis. Greenland blocking was very evident and the patterns were similar in ways to late 2010 but the below average heights were deeper in January 1881 and closer to us so there tended to be more moisture.

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