On this date in 1836, the worst avalanche in English history happened in Lewes in Sussex, on the south coast. I know that initially you want to say, “WHAT !!!! An avalanche in England – on the south coast ???? Are you kidding me?” No, I’m not. Sussex is not in the Alps, it’s true, but the avalanche happened, and 8 people died in it. Not surprisingly, it remains, to this day, the deadliest avalanche on record in the United Kingdom.
The town of Lewes (pronounced /Lewis/) is about 7 miles north of the Sussex coast, on the River Ouse in a gap in the South Downs, and is known in Sussex for its steep hills. I’ve visited Lewes a number of times on my travels in Sussex. I lived in Sussex for 5 years as a small boy, and my mother and her sister were born there. So, I go back once in a while to see old friends, and mooch about. Lewes is a picturesque town, loaded with local historic sites and good places to eat. Hills rise above the town to the east and west, with Cliffe Hill to the east rising to 538 feet (164 meters) above sea level. The hill has a precipitously sloping western edge which dominates the eastern panorama from the town. In 1836, a row of 7 flimsily constructed workers’ cottages called Boulder Row, on South Street, stood immediately at the foot of Cliffe Hill. The total number of inhabitants of Boulder Row is unknown, but contemporary reports indicate that 15 people were in the cottages when the avalanche struck.
The winter of 1836–1837 was exceptionally severe across the whole of Great Britain, with heavy snow, gale force winds and freezing temperatures being recorded in locations all around the country from the end of October 1836 until April 1837. Very heavy snowfall began across South East England, and in particular over the South Downs, on 24th December 1836, and continued unabated over the Christmas period. Strong winds at the same time created blizzard conditions, with reports of snowdrifts over 10 feet high in some areas of Lewes. Unknown to the inhabitants of the town, the accumulation of snow at the top of Cliffe Hill, driven by a particularly severe gale on Christmas night, had been forming into a large cornice overhanging its almost sheer western edge. On the evening preceding the disaster, a significant build-up of snow was observed falling from the top of the hill into a timber yard close to Boulder Row. The inhabitants were warned that they could be at risk and were advised to leave their homes until the danger had passed, but for their own reasons they chose to ignore the warning.
At 10.15 on the morning of Tuesday 27 December the cornice collapsed more extensively, producing an enormous avalanche of accumulated snow directly on to Boulder Row. The Sussex Weekly Advertiser, reporting the testimony of eyewitnesses, stated: “The mass appeared to strike the houses first at the base, heaving them upwards, and then breaking over them like a gigantic wave. There was nothing but a mound of pure white.” A rescue operation by townspeople succeeded in pulling 7 survivors from the wreckage before hypothermia or suffocation could claim them, but 8 other individuals were found dead. Their names are recorded on a commemorative tablet on the inside wall of South Malling parish church, one mile away, where their funerals and burials took place. The fatalities included people with the family names Barnden, Bridgman and Geer, while survivors included a young laborer Jeremiah Rooke, a middle-aged woman named Fanny Sherlock (or Sharlock) and a two-year-old child, Fanny Boakes, believed to be Sherlock’s granddaughter (the 1841 census records two people matching these names and ages living at the same address in South Street). In the aftermath of the tragedy, a fund was set up by prominent townspeople to provide financial assistance to the survivors and families of the deceased.
A public house called the Snowdrop Inn was built in South Street on the site once occupied by Boulder Row, and still trades under the same name today. The name is testament to the stalwart but black sense of humor of Sussex people. I’ve been to the pub a few times with an old friend from Ferring who enjoys hurtling over the South Downs in antique convertibles, and I humor him. There’s a certain macabre wonder to drinking a pint of Harvey’s (from Lewes brewery), in the location of the deadliest avalanche in UK history. The white dress being worn by Fanny Boakes when she was rescued was preserved and is now in the Anne of Cleves House museum in Lewes.
Lewes is an excellent place for good traditional Sussex cooking at its many pubs, including the Snowdrop, and puddings of all sorts are high on the list of Sussex favorites. Sussex pond pudding is a classic, and I’ve already given a recipe. Sussex bacon pudding is another favorite of mine. It’s a steamed suet pudding, but, unlike its kin, it is not meat surrounded by suet crust; instead, the bacon and suet pudding are all mixed together and steamed. It’s a treat for a snowy day.
Sussex Bacon Pudding
4 oz/125 gm all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
2 oz /50 gm shredded suet
1 onion, finely chopped
4 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
1 tsp powdered sage
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
In a large mixing bowl combine the flour, baking powder, suet, onion, bacon, sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the egg and fold all the ingredients together to make a soft dough. Add a little milk if necessary, but do not make the dough too moist.
Grease a 1 pint (600 ml) pudding basin and lay cheesecloth or greaseproof paper inside and overlapping the edges. Put the pudding mixture in the basin, and cover the top with the excess cheesecloth or greaseproof paper. Cover the top with foil, and either tuck it under the rim or secure it with string.
Place the basin in a steamer and steam for 1 ½ hours. When I don’t have a steamer I put a saucer in the bottom of a saucepan, place the basin on top, fill with water to come halfway up the side of the basin, and let the water simmer with the pot covered. Make sure to check the water level every 15 minutes or so. Keep a kettle boiling nearby in case you need to replenish your pot. Do not let the water go off the boil.
It is traditional to serve this pudding with a white parsley sauce.