Snow in the Regency

Even though Christmas is still a month away, it is not too early to discuss snow, since here in New England we had "appreciable" snowfall across most of the area just before Halloween. (And if that is the last flake I see all season, it will be just fine with me.) However, the way this recent New England snowfall was handled is very different from how appreciable snowfalls were handled in old England during the Regency. Our Regency ancestors would be quite surprised, even shocked, by the time and effort we put into snow removal in the twenty-first century and even more so by people who venture outdoors while a snowstorm is in progress.

Attitudes and practices for living and dealing with snow in the Regency . . .

The climate of the United Kingdom today is relatively moderate. The British Isles do not get a lot of snow, and seldom much of it in a single storm, unlike the volume of snow which can fall in North America. Such was not the case during the Regency, when England, like the rest of Europe, was in the grip of a unique climatological pattern known as the Little Ice Age. This period of overall lower temperatures lasted for about three hundred years, beginning about 1550 and ending about 1850. Most meteorologists believe that the primary trigger for these lower temperatures was reduced solar activity, but the situation was occassionally exacerbated by powerful volcanic eruptions, such as that of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, which threw volcanic material high into the atmosphere. These small air-bourne particles partially blocked the sun, sometimes for several months, and triggered significantly increased precipitation, much of it, in winter, of the frozen variety. Therefore, English Regency winters had more frequent snowstorms, with significantly more snowfall than is typical for British winters today.

And what did our Regency ancestors do when there was a heavy snowfall? They did not, like many of us today, rush out to shovel it from the walkways and roadways in their vicinity. Many of them simply ignored it, stayed in their homes and waited for it to melt. Particularly in rural areas, people had already laid in most of the supplies they would need for the winter. The majority of farm fields were fallow, awaiting the arrival of spring for planting. The few farm animals which had not been slaughtered were usually housed in barns or sheds near the farm house, within a walk-able distance, except in the aftermath of an extremely severe storm. Over the years I have come across several letters and diary entries, written during late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century winters, which referred to activities which took place in the aftermath of a snowstorm. Not once was there any reference to "shoveling snow." But there were many references to "making paths." Based on the descriptions, it appears that most people did not move the snow, with a shovel or any other implement, rather they packed down the freshly-fallen snow to make a firm walking surface to those outbuildings to which they would need to go in order to care for their animals. There was only one brief mention in one letter which led me to believe these paths may have been made with a tool consisting of a flat board and a rope, similar to those used by folks who make crop circles. Using such a tool to pack down the snow would be faster and easier than trying to shovel the snow off the path. Country people usually had sturdy foot-wear, such as hob-nail boots, which gave them good traction when walking over packed snow, so there was no real need to shovel it aside, even if the idea had occurred to them.

Snow was not usually shoveled on large country estates, either. Instead, paths would have been made between the main house and any nearby out-buildings. However, there were occasional references which indicate that the gardens on some country estates were cleared of snow by the gardeners. In most cases, this was done to protect the valuable plantings rather than for the convenience of the family in residence. The gardeners used shovels and/or rakes to clear the snow, and hauled it away in wheelbarrows. Roadways in the country were not shoveled, as there was no need. Most stables on country estates had a sleigh or two, or they had vehicles to which runners could be fitted in place of wheels to enable them to travel easily over the snow, unless the snow fall had been extremely deep. In areas which got a lot of snow, horses, especially draft horses, were sometimes fitted with special winter shoes which gave them a better grip when travelling over a snow-packed road. And once there had been enough traffic on a road to pack the snow down firmly, even carriages could easily travel over it, because the motive power was all with horses. The carriage wheels did not need to get traction, in fact it was better that they did not, as it was easier on the horses who were drawing the vehicle. Though it was common for those who lived on country estates to pay calls on their neighbors, such visits were usually curtailed after a very heavy snowfall until the snow had melted and the roads were once again passable for the horses. Most people today would experience a severe case of cabin fever after even a day inside, but those who lived during the Regency would have taken such circumstances for granted, without excessive vexation.

Of course, snow also fell in the cities, but then, as now, there was a slight heat-island effect in large cities. So many buildings close together would trap and retain a few degrees more heat than an isolated building in the country, thus speeding the melting of the snow. For that reason, snow tended not to last as long in the cities, again, unless it had been an unusually heavy snowfall. If the snow was light, the servants of each house in the better neighborhoods would often sweep it off the front steps and the pavement out into the street. Merchants in the fashionable shopping areas would do the same. There were no laws regarding the removal of snow on one’s property during the Regency, nor did any city authority take responsibility for clearing snow from the roadways. However, after a very heavy snowstorm, in the better areas of a town, groups of men were often hired by the wealthier residents to shovel the snow off the roadways and sidewalks (pavements). Typically, these men were accompanied by a large, open horse-drawn wagon into which they would shovel the snow. When the wagon was full, it would be driven to a large open field outside the town to be dumped. In those cities which were situated on or near a river or a lake, the snow would usually be dropped into those bodies of water.

The first snowplows were introduced in the 1840s, but they did not so much clear the roads as they smoothed and flattened the snow pack. If the snow had been completely removed, sleighs would have become useless. These early plows were essentially a large wooden box about the size of a wagon with a large wooden plow blade attached to the front. These plows were horse-drawn and required teams of from four to six strong draft horses to drag the plow over the road. Snow plows were not motorized until the early twentieth century, after the introduction of the automobile. At that point, the design of the plow blade had to be changed, as it was then important to clear the snow off the road, since the motive power of the engine required good traction for the wheels to propel the vehicle forward.

When snow was shoveled in the Regency, either in town or country, the same shovels which were used for digging soil were employed for the purpose. They were typically made with iron blades and wooden handles. These shovels were fairly heavy and required a strong person to wield them. By the 1870s, many aspiring inventors were at work on designs for shovels specifically intended for snow removal. Some of them had serrated teeth to help scrape away the snow, others had sharp edges to cut the snow. One of the first patents for a shovel designed specifically for both scraping and scooping snow was filed by a woman, in 1889. The first patent for a snow shovel with a plastic blade was not filed until fifty years later, in 1939. The small, walk-behind snow blower was first introduced in the 1950s. Imagine what our Regency ancestors would have thought of one of those!

The various late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century references to snow which I have read suggest to me that most people of those times considered snow part of the natural environment, but a most powerful element, to be respected and not ignored. The idea of moving vast amounts of it, as we do today, would have utterly astonished them. They were more likely to "make paths" and walk over it than they were to expend much effort to remove it. Though the actual removal of snow from Regency city streets did occasionally occur, it was usually only in the aftermath of a very severe storm which left behind so many inches of snow that streets were completely impassable. Anyone during the Regency who suggested clearing roadways or walkways before the snow storm had fully passed, as many cities do today, would have been considered quite odd, perhaps even a candidate for Bedlam. Most people would have sought shelter as soon as a snow storm began and would have remained inside until the storm had completely passed. Snow in the Regency was the same as it is now, but their attitude toward it was very different than ours.

For the most part, Regency authors do reflect that attitude when they set scenes during a snow storm. However, there have been a few instances when the characters go on about their business outdoors while the storm continues, even though there is no pressing need. In the Regency, only someone with their attics to let would have even considered travelling during a snow storm, unless faced with some dire emergency. Snow was considered a powerful and dangerous natural force during the Regency. Right-thinking people respected that and did not willingly expose themselves to danger. So dear authors, please keep that in mind before you send one of your characters out into a snow storm without a very good reason. Also, particularly if your story is set in the country, remember that most people would not even consider shoveling snow, instead, they would have made paths over its surface. Those paths, however, could be quite slippery for someone without the proper footwear. Such a snow path might be just the place for the fashionable city-bred heroine to loose her footing and be caught up in the strong arms of the savvy country-shod hero.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Snow in the Regency

  1. And here in England last year we were advised not to sweep the path outside our houses or shovel snow because if that made it more slippery or uneven we might be liable for prosecution or being sued; so maybe we’re going back to Regency ways…. I sweep my steps because you can’t see where they are if the snow drifts at all. I wonder if the folk back then did something to their paths that we do on our property to make them easier to tread, that was so obvious they never mentioned it – we spread the ash and smaller cinders [saving the larger ones to get the fire to light more easily] from the grates and aga to improve the footing. Makes a lot of difference. Last year’s November snows caught people by surprise when in town for the afternoon, and it really showed a community spirit that when people were desperately trying to get home and were being stuck on the hill, all the students turned out of their digs to push them over the steep bit. It makes me wonder – might not there be people who WOULD set off in a snowstorm if they were afraid of being snowed up and they had stock to feed? if they’d been to market say……

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I have never seen any references in period documents to chemically treating the fallen snow in any way, though that does not mean it wasn’t done. Salt was used briefly at the end of the nineteenth century, but so many people complained that it irritated the horses hooves, damaged the runners on their sleighs and spoiled their own footwear, that in most places it was discontinued. Salt was not used on a wide scale until after the first World War, when there were beginning to be more motor vehicles on the roads than those drawn by horses. That leads me to believe that ash and cinders would not have been used on snow during the Regency. There is also the fact that ash was a source of lye, so it would not be lightly discarded, but would have been stored for other uses.

      I think you are right about people traveling in a snow storm, if they had a very good reason. Certainly caring for livestock, or one’s family, both qualify on that score. The person traveling would know they were taking a risk, but would be willing to undertake the journey for the good of others, be they human or animal. But I do not think anyone in the Regency would venture out into a snow storm if they were already safe at home. There are people here in New England who will go out into a snow storm to see a movie or go to the mall. No one in the Regency would have ventured out for such a frivolous reason unless they had a screw loose.

      Thank you for sharing the story of the students helping people in the snow storm. It is always nice to hear about people willing to help others, even strangers. 🙂

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Thank you, as always, for your posts. I’m in the middle of writing a novel set in 1816 so this is particularly timely.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad to know this article might be of some use to you. 1816 was known as the year without a summer. The volcanic particles from Mount Tambora went into the stratosphere and circled the globe for months. They cut down on the amount of sunlight to the point that in many places arcross Europe, crops failed or did very badly. That summer in England never got really warm, so you probably won’t want to let any of your characters complain about the heat. 😉

      England also got much more rain and snow than usual, though, as far as I can tell, the snow there confined itself to the winter months. In New England, where the climate is more severe, there are a number of diary accounts of snow in June! There were many people in this area who thought it was some sign from God. There were others who thought it was a portent of the end of the world. It is possible there were those in old England who felt the same. At the time, no one connected the volcanic eruption with the change in climate.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • It’s one of the reasons I picked 1816. In fact, the novel is called “Without a Summer”

        England was pretty severely affected and had widespread famine from crop failures. I got in touch with the Meteorological Office in England and they say that snow stayed on the hills in England into July. It snowed “all day” on Easter (April 14) in London and again on May 12. On September 2nd, London had a skim of ice.

        It’s a pretty nifty year!

  3. Kathryn Kane says:

    An interesting idea for a book! I never found any mention of snow in any of the English diaries or letters which I have studied. The information from the English Meteorological Office is very interesting, as that means there was snow in England even later than there was in New England that year. We can sometimes get snow on Easter here in New England, but it must have been quite a shock in England.

    From a research perspective, 1816 may be a “nifty year,” but it was harrowing, if not devastating, for those who lived through it. I hope you can find a way to give your story a happy ending. You are welcome to post back here when it is published, so readers will know when it is available. I wish you much success with your book.

    Regards,

    Kat

  4. Great post, Kat. We had a discussion touching on this in the Beau Monde not too long ago. Your post is much more detailed and very much appreciated. Thank you.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks very much! I am glad you found it useful. I think readers of Regency novels enjoy learning about how events such as snow storms were handled differently than they would be today. It helps an author add even more historical dimension to their stories.

      Regards,

      Kat

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