A look back at the Great Blizzard of March, 1891

  • March can bring a whole host of weather-types. Photo: David Davies/PA Archive/Press Association Images

    Synoptic chart for midnight on March 10th 1891. A deepening depression, bringing heavy, persistent snow and widespread gales, drifted east across the south of Britain and through the English Channel. Source: www.wetterzentrale.de

  • A look back at the Great Blizzard of March, 1891
    07.03.2015 11:17


    The month of March is often full of meteorological surprises in the UK. As winter comes to a close and the doors of spring are flung open, all manner of weather types can affect the country. Despite some warmth in places this weekend, there have been times in past Marches when we have seen quite the opposite.

    One notable example occurred in March 1891 when a significant cold and snowy spell affected parts of the UK.

    After a fairly settled start to March in southern Britain back in 1891, cold air began to sink south across the country in a developing north or north-easterly flow. It was from the 9th of March when the weather really turned. A series of developing Atlantic depressions moved eastwards, close to or across southern Britain. These low pressure systems brought large amounts of precipitation, much of which fell as snow, thanks to the below-average temperatures residing across the country. Strong winds accompanied the snow, leading to blizzard conditions and some enormous drifts.

    Snow began to fall during the afternoon of the 9th across Devon and Cornwall, which turned heavier and steadier through the second half of the day. The depression became rather slow-moving as it deepened further in to the night of the 9th and on in to the following day. Much of southern England and the English Channel experienced gale or severe gale force easterly winds with continuous heavy snow. According to reports, the weather toppled thousands of trees, wiping out large areas of woodland. Come the 11th of March, the complex low pressure system had eased away in to the near-continent. A transient ridge of high pressure allowed for something more settled to move in for a time, bringing a little sunshine for a while. However, this was the calm before the next storm. Another Atlantic low pushed its way in from the west, bringing a fresh wave of gales and heavy snow to south-western England during the night of the 11th, in to the 12th. Thankfully, the low took more of a south-easterly track compared to the preceding depression, drifting in to Brest, north-western France rather than across the English Channel and southern England as before.

    By the 14th March, the strong winds had abated and a thaw of the snow began. Reports from the time spoke of up to 4 feet of snow in parts of the south-west and the deep ravine, Tavy Cleave by Dartmoor, had apparently filled with snow to depths of 300 feet as snow was driven in by the gales.

    The Great Blizzard, as it is often referred to, claimed the lives of over 200 people and thousands of farm animals also perished. Many people were trapped for days in the snow. Reports say that up to ten trains vanished under the drifts, trapping passengers for days before being rescued. The gales also led to the sinking of dozens of ships in the English Channel.

    Despite the thawing of snow after the event, it was not until June that the last of the snow disappeared from parts of Dartmoor.


    By: Gareth Harvey