31 January 2024

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                                             A snowy scene on the Cam in 1955, featuring the Emmanuel 3rd Boat

The recent blog featuring a photo of the Paddock after the Whitsun snowfall of 1891, prompted John Harding to recall the even more unseasonal snowstorm that swept over Cambridge in the first week of June, 1976. This event was fixed in his memory as he was due to perform in outdoor theatricals at Clare College. It was a case of ‘the show must go on’, despite the perishing cold and consequent meagre (but not, as the cast had hoped, completely non-existent) audiences.

For Cambridge students, snow and ice caused only the usual problems before the mid-nineteenth century: travel difficulties and the risk of catching chills. Once sport became a feature of student life, however, a new dimension of anxiety was born. The Emmanuel College Magazine, which began in 1889, contains annual reports from the Emma sporting clubs, many of them lamenting the effects of icy weather. In Lent Term 1898, for instance, rain and sleet blighted an athletics club fixture involving Hertford College, Oxford, and a similar competition against Brasenose in 1906 had to be cancelled altogether ‘owing to snow’.

Rowing was perhaps the sport most vulnerable to severe winter weather. The Emmanuel boat club report for Lent Term 1895 informed readers that after the Cam had frozen in early February, no rowing was possible for a ‘full fortnight’ and the bumps were subsequently cancelled. The weather in Lent Term 1910 was equally frigid, as noted in the diary of Winthrop Bell, a graduate student from Nova Scotia, who rowed in the college’s 2nd boat. He paints a vivid picture of the miseries, and in his case, dangerous consequences, of winter boating. In late January the oars were ‘frozen’ and there was ‘Ice on river – solid below Ditton’. The weather continued ‘wretched’, and in February Winthrop developed pleurisy. After having several pints of fluid drained from his lungs, a ‘rather nasty job’, he quit Cambridge on medical advice, and transferred to a German university.


                                                                   Skating on the Paddock pond, January 1926

The silver lining of sub-zero temperatures, of course, is that ice-skating becomes possible. A photo showing skaters on the Paddock pond in January 1926 would give a modern health & safety officer a conniption, as Emmanuel’s resident pair of swans (who no doubt took a dim view of the proceedings) can be seen swimming on open water near the pond outfall, an indication that the ice was not very thick. Another patch of slushy water is visible against the northern bank, with sweepers standing perilously close. The ‘severe frost’ that produced these conditions prevented any rowing practice and curtailed the Emmanuel golf club’s activities, as noted in the Magazine. A cold snap in 1942 resulted in stretches of water at the Milton sewage works freezing solid. This attracted many keen skaters, including Charles Gimingham, a first year-Nat Sci student at Emmanuel, who recorded in his diary for 17 January: ‘…grand piece of ice…hundreds of people - but room for them all. Major crisis when one’s skates heel slipped and I bust a bolt fitting it - But half hour experimentation on the bank fixed it and the rest was grand.’


                                                                          Ice on the pond, 1981-2,  © Sarah Gill

A spell of bad weather towards the end of Michaelmas Term 1980 forced the boat club crews to row during ‘blizzards’ while competing in the Clare Novices. The winter of 1981-82 was much worse, and it is very surprising that the sporting clubs’ reports in the Magazine make no mention of the prolonged snowy and icy conditions. An atmospheric photograph taken that winter by Sarah Gill (née Doole), shows several people skating, or at any rate shuffling, on the frozen Paddock pond at dusk.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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