On this day in history : 27th December 1836 – The deadliest avalanche to be recorded in the United Kingdom occurs – not in Scotland or Wales, as would be expected – but in the South East of England….

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Oil painting in the Anne of Cleves House Museum

The West Sussex market town of Lewes is situated in a gap within the South Downs, on the River Ouse…. It is surrounded by hills – including to the east Cliffe Hill, rising to 164 metres above sea level….

At the foot of Cliffe Hill lies South Street….and at the time upon which lay ‘Boulder Row’ – a row of workers’ cottages – or ‘poor houses’, owned by South Malling Parish….

The winter of 1836-37 was very severe throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, with heavy snow and freezing temperatures, accompanied by gale force winds…. It had started snowing in the Southeast on Christmas Eve and was particularly heavy over the South Downs…. The snow persisted for the whole of the Christmas period – along with strong winds, which caused snowdrifts – some over 10ft high…. A huge snowdrift, reported as being over 20ft deep, formed on the top of Cliffe Hill, with an overhanging ledge – or ‘cornice’ – at the cliff edge….

Worried passers-by informed the inhabitants of Boulder Row and advised them to leave their homes…. But for reasons only known to them the residents chose to stay….most likely they had no other place to go in the sub-zero temperatures…. Even when on the 26th of December a large mass of snow fell from the cliff top on to a timber yard below – destroying it – they refused to leave….

The inevitable happened at 10.45 am on Tuesday the 27th of December…. The cornice collapsed – causing an avalanche of snow to crash towards Boulder Row beneath…. Witnesses reported that the cottages appeared to be struck at the base by the avalanche – which then broke above them like a huge white wave, completely burying them….

A rescue operation lasting several hours was mounted by the townsfolk…. Seven survivors were pulled from the snow and wreckage – and taken to the local workhouse for treatment…. Among them was a two-year-old child, Fanny Boakes; the white dress she wore that day can be seen in the Anne of Cleves House Museum, in Lewes…. A further eight people lost their lives, having died from suffocation or hypothermia….

The victims were buried in an unmarked, communal paupers grave in South Malling Parish Churchyard…. A fund was set up by the townsfolk to raise money for the families of those killed – and also for a memorial plaque – which is situated on the north wall of the church….

Where the Boulder Row cottages once stood a public house can now be found…. Built in 1840 ‘The Snowdrop Inn’ was named in commemoration of the disaster….

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The Snowdrop Inn, showing the cliff behind

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