All of us Sherlock Holmes fans know that January 29, 1881 is the historic day that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson met (sure, Baring-Gould thought it was January 1, 1881, but this is one of my small nods to the BBC Sherlock fandom because in that show, it was the 29 of January. I’ve kept the 1881 year suggested by Baring-Gould but used Jan 29th as the day).
(Well, okay, there’s also some disagreement about whether the year was 1881, but look, I’m not willing to overhaul several years of effort over it…this is, after all, a pastiche of work by Sir Arthur “Continuity? Never met her” Conan Doyle.)
So anyway! What you might not know is that on January 29, 1881, London was still digging itself out from one of the worst blizzards to ever hit the southern part of England.
The snow began on January 18, 1881, and continued for about 3 days in some places. Strong winds created drifts of three feet deep even in central London, though total snow accumulation was only about 9 inches. And it was freaking cold! Historians don’t have accurate temperature measurements, but it was well below 0℃/32℉.
Trains were buried, the city was cut off. An estimated 100 people died from cold exposure and maybe another 400 in the days that followed due to bronchitis and pneumonia.
To make matters worse (because obviously Mother Nature had it in for Britain that week), the fierce winds uprooted trees in East Anglia, damaged roofs and chimneys in London, and teamed up with a high spring tide to drive the icy waters of the Thames straight into the heart of London. About 100 people drowned in their homes, and of course all that water froze and created one hell of an ice rink.
London wasn’t the only area hit, of course. In fact, many places were pummeled even worse. The Isle of Wight got nearly 3 feet of snow (not drifts, just snow). Plymouth had no water for a week because the aqueducts froze. It took 1,000 men 5 days to restore the water supply. Telegraph lines were downed, and the postal service was brought to a halt. People waited over 26 hours to be rescued off trains that got stranded. In total, about 3,000 people may have died across the UK, not to mention the similar devastation to wildlife, especially birds.
During this time, our poor Dr. Siân Watson would have been shut up in a sad little hotel during one of the worst blizzards in London history. It wasn’t until the 28th and 29th that things warmed up enough for London to start thawing out. It’s no wonder she was so eager to head out to the Criterion. I think she probably wanted to lend her medical skills to helping those affected by the storms, but my head canon is that she was still too recently an invalid herself and would not have been able to help.
And one wonders what our Miss Holmes did to occupy herself, holed up in her lonely flat on Montague St. Perhaps this is why she found her way to the Royal Free Hospital’s chemistry lab, and why it was so uncharacteristically empty—no one except necessary workers would be expected to be there at that time.
For those few days, can you imagine them feeling so cut off from the world, listening to the winds howl, feeling the ice sink into their bones, and not even knowing that in just days, their whole existence was about to change?
Next Time: On January 29 (TOMORROW!), I’m posting the first chapter from A Study In Garnet, the first book in my gender-swapped, Victorian, queer Sherlock Holmes series, Ladies of Baker Street. The full book is being serialized on Patreon, but I will be posting the first ten chapters for free. I’ve been working on it for a couple years now, and I’m so excited to finally be sharing it with you!
I’m indebted to the following sources for the above info on the London Blizzard of 1881:
Great British Weather Disasters, By Philip Eden
Wikipedia: Blizzard of January 1881
New Scientist, Jan. 10, 1963
(This is an ongoing series about the historical case for how canon Sherlock Holmes and John Watson could have been women. It is leading up to the launch of my new web novel series on Patreon, Ladies of Baker Street—a sapphic/wlw, Victorian women adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.)