From the Archives: Heythrop's white Christmas

POST BY MAllen

The Great Christmas Snow, 1927

Ninety years ago this Christmas, Britain experienced one of the heaviest snowfalls recorded in the twentieth century. The huge blizzard of 1927 began on the afternoon of Christmas Day. Up to 25 feet of snow fell in parts of southern England, with six inches of snow recorded in central London. Towns and villages were completely cut off and roads in some rural areas remained unpassable for as long as three weeks. It was widely reported in the press at the time that the Salvation Army had chartered aeroplanes to drop food supplies to particularly isolated villages while the BBC issued instructions on the radio to ensure the airdrop was effective. Photographs taken in Christmas 1927 show extraordinary happenings – cars and whole locomotives buried under drifts, skis being widely used by commuters in central London and improvised ski slopes appearing all over the south of England.

At Heythrop College in Oxfordshire, preparations for Christmas in 1927 were taken very seriously. A ‘Christmas Log’ volume held in the Jesuits in Britain Archive (our ref: SE/2) contains detailed instructions and arrangements for the Christmas festivities, from a programme of cleaning to a gargantuan process of ordering supplies (around 160 people had to be catered for in 1927) and a strict timetable of activities for Christmas Day itself. The logbook includes lists of the numbers of chairs and tables available as well as a detailed diagram of table arrangements in the hall for the traditional Christmas entertainments, plays put on by the Philosophers and Theologians.

The log of the House Beadle (our ref: 24/3/4/11) and photographs contained in the album ‘Life at Heythrop College’ (our ref: 32/5/2F) give some indication of how the 1927 blizzard affected the community. The Beadle’s log, which gives a summary of daily events, records the freezing weather conditions leading up to Christmas that year, allowing plenty of opportunities for skating.

On Christmas Day itself, the Beadle noted:

Raining hard a.m.: about midday turned to snow, which fell very heavily. About 4.O an SOS came in from a motor car which had become embedded in snow half way down the drive: sent out a party & got him free. 8.O Snow so deep, the two visitors cannot get away. Tremendous gale blowing, forming big snow drifts.

The two visitors, priests from nearby Chipping Norton and Banbury, who had been invited to dinner at Heythrop Hall were unable to leave until 31st December. In the following days, the Beadle noted the worsening conditions with the surrounding roads completely blocked by drifts. On the 27th December, a few members of the community walked through the fields to Chipping Norton to fetch the post while others took toboggans to the Quiet Woman public house in search of supplies. The Beadle noted that the party returned with ‘200lbs of meat’.

Members of the community continued to receive and respond to a number of SOS calls from stranded motorists and travellers attempting to reach Heythrop. Further toboggan parties were dispatched in the following days, including on 30th December to collect the films for the much-anticipated New Year’s Eve cinema showing. In spite of the heavy snowfall, blizzard and squalls, the Christmas festivities of 1927, so meticulously planned in the Christmas logbook, seem not to have been unduly disrupted.

A thaw in temperature in the south of England in the new year caused the snow to melt rapidly. This thaw, combined with a tidal surge and heavy rain, caused the Thames to burst its banks in January 1928. The subsequent flooding in central London affected the Houses of Parliament, the Tate Gallery and the Tower of London. The entries in the log of the House Beadle revert to form at the start of the new year, returning to a brief record of events and comings and goings. It is not possible to tell from these entries whether the Christmas blizzard had any lasting ramifications on life at Old Heythrop.

If you are interested in any of the items mentioned in this post or in the holdings of the Jesuits in Britain Archives, please contact us

Sally Kent, Assistant Archivist