Weatherwatch: 16 February 2009

Paul Brown: Vast numbers of people owned skates in the 19th century because every winter there were opportunities to use them

Vast numbers of people owned their own skates in the 19th century because every winter there were opportunities to use them. In the countryside water meadows were flooded to make safe rinks and people paid landowners a penny to skate on them. But even by Victorian standards February 1855 was exceptional. The average temperature for the whole month recorded at Greenwich in London remained below freezing, at -1.2C, and -4.3C at night.

This led to the spectacle of hundreds of skaters passing through the quarter-mile long tunnel on the Grand Union Canal from Regent's Park to Paddington. Massive icicles hung down from the roof and people whistled and screeched to imitate express trains. There were fears for the safety of this weight of people in the middle of a tunnel that would not normally freeze. On February 18 the police were deployed to stop the fun but as the Illustrated London News reported, the authorities relented the following day and the amusement continued without mishap. The magazine carried a drawing of people skating and walking their dogs on the frozen Thames.

For those who earned their living on the rivers and in the harbours of Britain this weather meant serious hardship. River traffic in London was stopped, putting 50,000 out of work. Coastal docks were also affected, for example Sheerness in Kent was iced up, making movement of craft impossible and in Liverpool 15,000 dockers were laid off.

Contributor

Paul Brown

The GuardianTramp

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