In Snippets 38 we looked at A Country Book: for the field, the forest, and the fireside by William Howitt, published in 1859. This charming book contains one chapter per month, each focussing on country life at the relevant time of the year. We previously looked at a quote from the November chapter, and it seems appropriate to see what Howitt had to say about January, and the cold weather that it can bring. His thoughts on January include a nostalgic recollection of winters past, but recognising the hardships and the need to help one another.
It is for us to open our hearts, our hands, our store-rooms, and our wardrobes, and emulate each other in sheltering and strengthening our poorer sisters and brothers during that keen dispensation which is to issue in blessings and abundance to us all. If frosts and snows come, then let us resolve that active kindness and liberal aid to the ill-prepared shall come too. Let us pay down cheerfully our part of the price which a coming year of health and plenty will be so worthy of. With such a resolve, the most tender of us may look forward to winter without apprehension, and may even revel in the recollection of the grand old winters of years ago, when early in November the snows began to fall; when they came down first thinly dancing in minute flakes, then larger, heavier, more abundant, till the whole air was dark with them, and the earth was lost in the soft covering, and was shrouded in a wonderful stillness — when, as the season advanced, day after day, the snowy deluge still descended; the streets were filled, the gardens and shrubberies were several feet deep with snow, and it lay on the shrubs in vast masses, and covered all the roofs of houses with actual avalanches, that in the first gleam of sunshine came sweeping down, threatening to bury the passer-by beneath — when men with straw bands round their ankles were aloft on houses, shovelling down the dazzling burden, lest it should suddenly melt, and, filling spout and gutter, penetrate under the tiles into the houses — when, below, others were cutting pathways to your doors, and you had to march between huge white walls from your dwelling to the highway — when all cattle and sheep were congregated in the strawyard, in warmly-sheltered paddocks, and in still warmer stalls and stables, lest they should be smothered in the plentiful snows — when there was a noise of straw-cutting and turnip-cutting in the farm-yards, mingled with the sound of flails — when, in fact, all domestic life was gathered round the house at noon, and was doubly domesticated — when the pigeons and the fowls flew down to the bounteous barn-door, and were joined by scores of the fowls of heaven, whose “pantry-doors were locked and the key-lost” — when far and near the whole landscape lay under one white sheet, on which the black swarm of rooks and starlings looked doubly black, as a momentary clearness of sky gave you a view abroad — when the lanes and highways were full, with drifts here and there perhaps twenty feet deep, and tossed by the winds into grand or fantastic features, swelling over hedge-tops, and even over trees and rocks, and there were no snow-ploughs, as on the Continent, attended by troops of shovel-armed men, going constantly to and fro to keep all great roads clear — when, therefore, the mails were stopped, the carriers’ carts, which were anxiously looked for, bringing work and food from the towns, were also frost-bound, and there were dismal stories circulating round all firesides of travellers lost in the great drifts on the wild moorlands, and of wanderers that had perished there or in deep snow-laden woods.
Before the invention of motor vehicles, snow ploughs were wooden wedges, pulled by horses, as per the photo above from 1909. The straw tied around the ankles of the men on the rooftops, mentioned in the quote, was of course for the same purpose as a string or leather tie (incidentally, they are known as “bowyangs” in Australia), to stop things working their way up an open leg, in this case snow!
William Howitt (1792-1879) was a prolific writer, principally of non-fiction, who wrote on a variety of topics over the course of his life: religion, literature, spiritualism, travel, history. He was perhaps best known for his books on rural life.
If you enjoyed this “snippet” please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.