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Devon County

Devonshire Rgt.

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The winter of 1890/1891 was unusually cold.  By February there had been a total of 55 days of harsh weather which was to be as nothing in comparison with the great blizzard which struck southern England on 9 March 1891. Cornwall, Devon and Somerset bore the brunt of the storm with hurricane-force winds and driving snows. Snowdrifts of 11½ feet were reported from Torquay, Sidmouth and Dartmouth while  out in the countryside and up on the moors, conditions were even worse. Over 220 people were to lose their lives between the 9th and the 13th of March when the storm at last began to abate and virtually a whole generation of sheep were wiped out.


Conditions for country people became horrendous. There were no facilities in cottages for bulk storage of food and soon, there was no flour to make bread. What scanty coal supplies there were soon ran out and it was impossible to get outside to collect wood. Worst of all were conditions for men who worked on the railways or roads. Without any of the advantages of modern protective clothing, they were expected to  battle the elements for hour after hour in what became a losing battle to keep the nation's transport system open and traffic moving.


The GWR engine "Leopard" caught in a snow drift

GWR engine "Leopard" caught in a snow drift on the Devon/Cornwall border

during the Great Storm of 1891 being relieved some three days after the derailment

© Muriel Brine


From "The Blizzard in the West" published in 1891:

"The railway authorities were very active and gangs of men were sent up from Exeter to clear the lines, but they could do little more than keep the points clear for shunting, watch the signals, and fix detonators where required, the driving snow being so blinding, and the coldness of the bitter wind so intense.


The difficulties of the neighbourhood commenced on Monday evening (9 March) at the Whiteball Tunnel, when the pilot engine, in front of the express, got off the line. Daylight came before a gang of packers sent from Taunton could effect a clearance, and instead of passing at ten o'clock on Monday night, the express only struggled into Tiverton Junction, with two engines attached, at half-past six on Tuesday morning. The Night Mail followed some hours after and managed to get through to Exeter, but after that, until Wednesday morning at eleven o'clock, no train could leave the junction.


After being snowed up for some hours at Burlescombe, the first part of the newspaper train reached Tiverton at half-past ten on Tuesday night. The train was stopped at the homes signal, and so intense was the cold that the machinery was, in a few minutes, frozen, and the train could not enter the station.


The ladies - mostly for Plymouth - who were in the train, were carried on chairs by porters and packers to the adjacent Railway Hotel, where they, and some of the male passengers, were able to obtain beds for the night. The train remained in the same position until Wednesday morning. In a siding also stood a slow train which should have reached Tiverton on Tuesday at ten in the morning but which did not get there until the afternoon. The passengers by this train were were transferred to the first down train that was got out from Tiverton on Wednesday.


The second part of the newspaper train remained at Burlescombe all Monday night. The store of provisions in the hamlet was already exhausted, and although as much as a guinea* was offered for a bed by some of the passengers, neither food nor sleeping accommodation could be obtained. A very uncomfortable night was passed in consequence, and many of the ladies suffered severely from hunger and exposure."


* Twenty-one shillings in "old" money - almost 2 weeks wages for a farm labourer of those times.


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