The Great Blizzard. March, 1891

The first time I heard of a blizzard wiping out Mevagissey harbour I wondered if the person writing the article knew what a blizzard was?  A storm certainly, but a blizzard?  Genuine blizzards are rare in Britain, snow in Cornwall is even rarer so I was not convinced.  However I was intrigued and did a bit more digging.  Here’s an except from my book, “A History of Mevagissey.”

 

The earliest evidence we have for the harbour is around 1550 when a stone quay was built in the general location of the existing East Quay, jutting out from the Harbour Masters office towards West Quay. The area known as Old Sand, the beach in front of the museum and boat yard, is clearly where the fishing village began. The rocks behind, providing a level of protection that was then reinforced by the medieval harbour wall. This section of the harbour is known as Island Quay, and you can see in old paintings that the buildings were once accessed via a bridge. Each fisherman ran his own business, and no boat owner operated a fleet of vessels. There was no collective or dominant voice, and so it was the land owners that profited from the overall fishing industry; they clubbed together to establish and run a better infrastructure than currently existed. 1774 marked the first meeting of the Mevagissey Harbour Trust and was held in the Ship Inn. The Harbour Trust is a charity that exists to protect and promote all users and uses of the harbour; tourists, sailors, traders and fishermen all have an equal footing. 

In a relatively short period of time, Mevagissey was recognised for the port that it had become and was viewed as an important location for coastal trade by Parliament. We can see from the tariff roll for the landing of goods how prosperous the harbour was. Goods included tin, wine, tobacco, stone, figs, cider ropes, varnish, hemp, flour, earthenware and so on. 

Mevagissey was clearly a prosperous and well-known port, but its primary industry was about to emerge. The rise of the fishing industry and of one particular fish, the pilchard, catapulted Mevagissey into national and European fame.

In 1886 an Act was passed enabling the construction of the Outer Harbour, this was duly built and then washed away at vast expense on March 11th, 1891 during a rare blizzard. To destroy a newly-constructed harbour either says a lot about the construction of the harbour or the ferocity of the storm. 

The Great Blizzard, 1891. Mevagissey.
Members of the Jenkin family, possibly at or near Trewirgie House. Redruth.

However, this blizzard was a remarkable event. For five days the storm blew in from the east and battered the south of England. Large areas of Cornwall were left under snowdrifts between eight and fifteen foot high. Villages were cut off for weeks, ships were thrown onto rocks, and much property was destroyed. It is estimated that 28 large ships sunk, 200 people died as well as 6000 livestock. A passenger train was stranded in drifts for over twenty hours on the Cornish line. It was only discovered by a farmer trying to rescue his sheep.

The destruction of the Mevagissey pier and ability to man the lighthouse, was not announced until April 14th, almost a month later. In The Gazette, the UK’s Official Public Record. You would expect something as serious as the loss of a lighthouse to be reported as soon as was possible.  The fact that it took a month shows how badly the infrastructure had been effected. The country had come to a standstill. As Mevagissey is surrounded by steep hills, I imagine the villagers were cut off for days if not weeks.

There are no photos of the damage but accounts suggest that the lighthouse remained standing, just, but the harbour walls leading out to it had been washed into the outer harbour, making navigation impossible. Also no one could safely access the light to warn other shipping.  It’s hard to imagine Meva buried under snow but it happened once.

Source material:

https://archive.org/details/blizzardinwestbe00londiala/page/36

The Harbour Committee reports for the blizzard were incredible scant and simply refer to the costs required to rebuild.

The great Blizzard 1891, Mevagissey.
Snow drifts at Liskeard

 

To read more about the history of Mevagissey you can buy the book in Hurley Books or via Amazon. It’s available as a paperback, kindle or as an audiobook (UK)

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