‘‘A Novel and Unusual Spectacle’’; Ice on the ‘Three Sisters’ in the Late 19th Century

A guest blog by Conor Donegan

Standing at the end of the breakwater in Dunmore East two Sundays ago, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the frost covered cliffs and the white roofs all around the village, despite the intense and bitter cold. The estuary was alive with the sound of a thousand gulls following the sprat fleet, who judging by the landings made at the harbour day after day, have enjoyed one of the best seasons in years. The multi-coloured hulls stood out strong against the intense, inky black of the water, which made me shiver just to look at it.

The vibrancy of that Winter scene got me thinking about what the Harbour would look like in even harsher conditions. Pictures of icebergs and great sheets of snow flashed through my mind. Had Waterford ever seen such scenes in times past? Suspiciously, when I got home a post appeared in the Waterford Maritime History Facebook group by Michael Butch Power detailing just such an occasion in December 1878, when the sheer force of ice almost caused the destruction of the Timbertoes bridge in the city.

I quickly disappeared down a rabbit hole in the Irish Newspaper Archives and discovered that this was by no means a unique phenomenon. The freezing of the River Suir further inland has occurred during many severe Winters in the past (at Cahir in 1903, Carrick-on-Suir in 1947 and at Fiddown Bridge in 2010, to name just a few).  However for it to freeze solid at the city quays, where the river is considerably wider and deeper, and pose a serious threat to shipping and infrastructure, is quite another thing. Three years in particular stand out; 1867, 1878 and 1881.

 January 1867 saw temperatures across Ireland plummet to -15 degrees Celsius.  The Waterford News of 18th January reported an almost total absence of native grain being produced for the markets, due to the heavy ground frost.  Icebergs floated aimlessly down the City quays and the paddle steamer Shamrock, which was in the final months of a thirty year career spent plying between Waterford and New Ross,  remained tied up for many days.  Fears were raised over the potential destruction of the Timbertoes bridge, and a ‘railway steamboat’ was commandeered to act as an ice-breaker, smashing up the larger bergs before they could damage the pillars and abutments. 

Ultimately, Timbertoes survived the barrage, but her counterpart on the Barrow was not so fortunate. Conditions in Kilkenny and Wexford seem to have been much harsher than at Waterford, with the Nore and Barrow being reported as frozen solid ‘…for sixteen miles above Ross’.  The American architect Lemuel Cox is perhaps best known for building the aforementioned Timbertoes in 1794, but he had also designed and built the bridge at New Ross in 1796   (the Waterford News article of 25th. Jan 1867 states that it was actually built by a private company in 1779, but most other sources agree on the later date).

Local opinion however seems to have been somewhat critical of Cox’s work, and the local press dismissed the bridge as having been ‘…long regarded a nuisance’ due to its shakiness.  Having been raised to allow the passage of a ship, the central drawbridge remained firmly stuck upright until it was swept away, the structure eventually giving way arch by arch due to the immense pressure of the ice floes, with only two arches remaining on the Kilkenny side and one at the Wexford end. 

A boat service remained the only way of crossing the river until a new and more substantial iron bridge was built in 1869.  In the long running port dispute between the two towns from 1215 to 1518, New Ross’ difficulty had been Waterford’s opportunity.  Such was the case again when parts of the bridge floated downriver to the City quays, where some quick-thinking coal porters lashed and secured the timbers, and used them as firewood.  Thus many a Waterford home was heated through the last days of that harsh Winter, by the remains of the New Ross bridge.

View of Lemuel Cox’s bridge at New Ross, circa 1832. Destroyed by ice floes in 1867. Source: https://eoceanic.com/sailing/harbours/16/new_ross.

December 1878 stands out as yet another extreme Winter in the south-east, one that saw a return of the mesmeric sight of icebergs on the ‘three sisters’. Despite the often clichéd view of the Victorian era as an age of joylessness and almost puritanical conservatism, it appears that people made it their mission to take advantage of the inhospitable conditions and enjoy themselves. Although he reported conditions in south Kilkenny as being akin to Siberia, the Piltown correspondent of the Munster Express, for example, focused on the great benefit that occurred to ‘…lovers of skating’ of whom there was ‘…plenty enough in this locality’.   A large, frozen pond on the demesne of Lord Bessborough attracted crowds of people from many miles around, and although the skating constituted ‘fine sport’, the correspondent was keen to deny any suggestions of impropriety or frivolousness; ‘No lady ventured out alone, but was always accompanied by a gentleman (her bachelor if you wish), who always took great care not to let her ‘come to grief’’.

While the good people of Piltown entertained themselves, things were getting far more serious downriver. Solid blocks of ice, three or four feet thick, were being hurled against all manner of objects on the river and such was their strength that the ice often cut through timber, and even iron.  A lighter moored at the City’s railway station was cut in half and sunk; another on it way upriver to Carrick-on-Suir avoided a similar fate by just ‘…half an inch of planking’. The wooden piles of Timbertoes were under severe pressure, and a large number of anchors were sunk a distance from the bridge in a bid to break up the ice, whilst heavy chains were used to secure the structure in place lest it be carried out to sea by a combination of retreating ice floes and gale force winds.  Comparisons with her New Ross cousin were inevitable, and the ‘…feeble old dilapidated’ state of Timbertoes was lamented.  Ultimately however, Spring rolled around, the ice melted and the bridge survived intact. This is all the more exceptional when you consider that in those dying days of 1878, and early 1879, the Suir was frozen solid as one gigantic sheet of ice, making it possible to walk across the river from the South Quays to Ferrybank, providing a ‘…novel and unusual spectacle’ for the citizens of Waterford.

Report from the Munster Express, 28th Dec. 1878, p. 4. Note the reference at the end where it is said such scenes were not seen in 40 years. This suggests the freeze of 1878 was even more severe and dramatic than that of 1867.

Novel and fascinating though these Arctic-like scenes may have been, for the people of Waterford and the wider region extreme weather caused real hardship and misery, compounded by the general poverty of the nation at the time. In January 1881, Ireland and Britain experienced a ‘great blizzard’, one of the most severe in recorded history, in which many snow drifts exceeded 20ft.  The Mayor of Waterford, Alderman L. A. Ryan, convened a meeting at City Hall for ‘…the purpose of creating a fund to provide coal, so badly needed in many a homestead in this penetrating and death-dealing season’. 

Employment in the city was severely impacted, though this was somewhat alleviated when the Corporation hired large numbers of labourers to help clear the snow and ice from the footpaths and roads.  Many of the local charities, including the St. Vincent de Paul, were unable to keep up with the increase in demand for their services, as many families were plunged into desperate circumstances. 

On the evening of Thursday 20th January a great sheet of ice drifted down from Carrick and once again became lodged at Timbertoes bridge.  Ever keen to avoid a repeat of the New Ross incident fourteen years earlier, the Bridge Commissioners tried to blow up the ice with dynamite, an operation performed unsuccessfully by an Edward Jacob.  More effectively, the two steam tugs Father Matthew and Suir spent the remainder of the month breaking up the ice by creating semi circles around the central arches of the bridge, thus helping to alleviate some of the pressure.  Old Timbertoes had once again survived the freezing of the Suir, though this was not universally welcomed. Whether this was due to the perceived run-down state of the structure, or its despised status as a toll bridge (a situation which did not end until it was acquired by Waterford Corporation in 1907), the Waterford News reported that it was ‘… a circumstance which some people seem to regret’.  Spring came, the ice and snow disappeared and a burden was lifted off the shoulders of the people of Waterford.

View of Timbertoes bridge, Waterford, circa 1890-1900. Built in 1794, it was replaced by Redmond Bridge in 1913. Note the immense size of the Suir at this point, five times wider than Dublin’s Liffey. The transformation of the river into one solid sheet of ice must have been quite a sight. Source: U.S. Library of Congress

Fast forward back to the present, 2021. Winter has officially ended and although the weather seems to suggest otherwise, we are in now in Spring. As a part-time retail worker, much of my conversation with customers revolves around meteorology and how cold or otherwise the day may be. Usually I’m inclined to agree with said customers that is there is a particular bite in the wind this morning, and sure isn’t it only a day for the fire? Having looked back at those extreme weather events a century and a half ago, I don’t think I’m entitled to complain about such things ever again!

Those dramatic images of icebergs floating by Adelphi Quay, or any one of the ‘Three Sisters’ frozen solid from bank to bank, are incredible to picture in one’s mind, and it is a terrible pity there doesn’t seem to have been any photographs taken to record such sights. Romantic images aside, we should not forget that these events also caused considerable hardship to people all across Waterford Harbour, be it in terms of fuel poverty, unemployment, loss of shipping or the destruction of vital bridges and other infrastructure.

The crises people faced in 1867, 1878 and 1881 are not too dissimilar from the battles we face today with Covid-19. In both cases, daily life became a stagnant, seemingly never ending malaise caused by events largely outside human control. Yet as the weather improved each time in those three years, the big freezes always ended and the omnipresent ice gradually disappeared, as this virus surely will too someday. As President Barack Obama said on his visit to this country in 2011, ‘Whatever hardships the winter may bring, springtime is always just around the corner’. That was just as true in past times as it is now in our time.

Some stills here of a frozen Suir at Fiddow in 2010 uploaded by Joe Cashin

My thanks to Conor Donegan for this fine account. Its a story I have longed to write, and I am delighted to have it featured here now for the tidesntales crew. Conor currently attends UCC, and is presently doing an MA on the History of the Irish Revolution 1912-23. He has written for the blog before on the HMS Brave Border Incident and was recently published in the 2021 Decies: ‘1917: U-boats on the Waterford Coast’ based on his BA dissertation.

Endnotes

1.  Keyes, Dermot. (2010). Mighty Suir frozen over. Munster Express. [online]. Available at: http://www.munster-express.ie/local-news/mighty-suir-frozen-over/. [Accessed on 26th Jan. 2021]

2.  Dixon, F. E. ‘Weather in Old Dublin’. Dublin Historical Record, vol. 13, no. 3/4, (1953), p.101.

3.  Waterford News, 18th Jan. 1867

4.  Doherty, Andrew, Waterford Harbour: Tides & Tales, (The History Press, Cheltenham, 2020), pp. 30, 31.

5. Waterford News, 25th Jan. 1867

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. New Ross Standard, 4th Mar. 2017

9. Waterford News, 25th Jan. 1867

10. Ibid

11.  Bassett, George Henry. (1885). Walls, Gates, and Bridges of New Ross – Wexford Guide and Directory, 1885. Library Ireland. [Online]. Available at: https://www.libraryireland.com/genealogy/bassett/wexford/walls-new-ross.php.  [Accessed on 31st Jan. 2021]

12.  McEneaney, Eamonn; Ryan, Rosemary; (Eds). Waterford Treasures. (Waterford Museum of Treasures, Waterford, 2004), p.66

13. Waterford News, 25th Jan. 1867

14. Munster Express, 21st Dec. 1878

15. Ibid

16. Munster Express, 28th Dec. 1878

17. Ibid

18. Ibid

19. Ibid

20. Ibid

21. Simons, Paul. (2021). Blizzard in 1881 left people trapped in their homes. The Times. [online]. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/blizzard-in-1881-left-people-trapped-in-their-homes-hb6dh0bzf. [Accessed on 1st Feb. 2021]

22. Waterford News, 21st Jan. 1881

23. Ibid

24. Ibid

25. Ibid

26. Manning, Cian, Waterford City: A History, (The History Press, Cheltenham, 2019), p.102

27. Ibid

28. Waterford News, 21st Jan. 1881

2 Replies to “‘‘A Novel and Unusual Spectacle’’; Ice on the ‘Three Sisters’ in the Late 19th Century”

  1. “Missed this one”
    .
    After seeing the ice on the canals in Europe this week I am not surprised to see records of our rivers freezing over. I knew about the Ross bridge being wrecked by ice.
    Water, in whatever form – so powerful

    1. Yes, I was thinking of this again after seeing skaters on the canals in Amsterdam mid week. A powerful force of nature indeed Kev.

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