A quiet residential street and a local pub mark the site where eight people died via the somewhat tenuous disaster known as, “The World’s Only Avalanche to Happen at Sea Level”.
England is famed for its mildly inclement weather. However, the winter of 1836 was exceptionally severe, not only across the whole of Great Britain but also throughout Europe. The market-town of Lewes, East Sussex was met with heavy snow, gale force winds, and freezing temperatures. The inhabitants of the impoverished industrial area of South Street, Cliffe huddled in their small cottages to stay warm, often entire families sharing a single room. Unbeknownst to them, a large overhang of snow known as a cornice was gradually amassing, looming over them on Cliffe Hill.
As a prelude to the main disaster, a minor avalanche cascaded down Cliffe Hill and destroyed the local timber yard a few hundred meters to the north where the aptly named Timber Yard Lane now stands. Local men who observed this minor avalanche took it upon themselves to warn the inhabitants, in some cases attempting to drag them from their houses, but due to the sub-zero temperatures many chose to eschew the warning and stay inside for warmth.
The following day, on the morning of Tuesday, December 27th, the cornice collapsed entirely, producing an enormous avalanche that could be heard across the whole town. 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.”
The townspeople quickly mounted a rescue and succeeded in pulling seven survivors from the wreckage who were taken to the local Dickensian workhouse for treatment. However, eight other individuals were found, having perished from suffocation and hypothermia. Despite there being a church at the top of the street, as the victims lived (and died) in the parish of South Malling they had to be buried in South Malling Church, one mile further up the River Ouse. (South Malling Church is also the place where John Harvard, of Harvard University fame, married Ann Sadler in 1636.)
On the site of the demolished cottages arose The Snowdrop Inn pub; many locals believe it was named after the snowdrop flowers that were said to have been planted on the graves of those who died in the avalanche. Turns out, it was just a mildly-insensitive pun alluding to the tragedy that befell the area; those that died were too poor to afford a proper burial. Despite generous donations from the townsfolk, the victims were buried in an unmarked mass grave. All that remains is a memorial tablet on the wall inside the local church detailing those who died while a white dress worn by Fanny Boakes, a two-year old survivor of the avalanche, is on display in the nearby Anne of Cleves House museum.
Know Before You Go
The Snowdrop Inn does great food and has one of the best selections of beer in Lewes.