Two carriage lamps and a feeble moon

Ever wondered what people did for fun during winter in the 19th Century? Curator Henrietta uncovered just that when she delved into the archives to find out more about how the Nettlefolds spent their winter days. Expect lots of wintry fun and frolics!

It’s rare for us to get a white Christmas these days, but Margaret Nettlefold’s diary gives us a very vivid picture of conditions in December 1890: “Dec 27, Saturday. Still freezing & thick snow.”

Image of Margaret's Diary
Margaret's diary from Dec 27 1890

At this time, Margaret was an unmarried 19-year-old, and John Nettlefold was longing to marry her. He arrived that day in spectacular style, no doubt trying to impress her! Margaret describes a scene which challenges all our stereotypes about respectable Victorian girls:

“Ruthie rushed in, to say such an odd thing had happened. John Nettlefold had come up in a sledge & there was a note for me! I flung on my best things, Godfrey got on behind, John drove with me in front & off we went. We arrived at Hallfield very late for lunch. Afterwards Grace lent me an old skirt, a cap & gloves, & we went out & skated. We played hockey on the ice, & I learnt outside edge with John. Then we toboganned, and got wringing wet.”

Image of early 20th century ice skates.
Ice skates from the early 20th century

The outdoor fun continued after dinner: “Directly after dinner we got ready & went out again…we had a fine time skating. There were two blazing fires, & two carriage lamps, & a feeble moon, so it was quite light with the snow on the ground. We finished up with toboganning & tore ourselves away at 10 o’clock.”

The icy weather lasted through the month of January. Margaret describes many more skating expeditions. Her sister Nellie was studying at Cambridge University, and she too was out on the ice with painful consequences: “Jan 19, Monday. News comes that Nellie has fallen on the ice while skating at Newnham on Sunday & sprained her wrist very badly. I wonder if one of us will go & see after her. She’ll be wretchedly helpless poor child!”

Nellie Chamberlain, Margaret’s sister
Nellie Chamberlain, Margaret’s sister
Margaret riding, 1920s
Margaret riding, 1920s

Once a thaw had set in, the skating had to stop but the physical exertions certainly didn’t: “Jan 24, Saturday. It rained more or less all the afternoon, but John came up for a ride, & Ruth & I rode. No one else of the party turned up. It was the first ride for weeks – I might almost say months.”

Margaret’s account of this cold snap demonstrates that, despite long skirts and corsets, girls were still game for messing around in the snow.