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The tragedy that struck Lewes in December 1836

PUBLISHED: 15:35 20 December 2016

Tha Avalanche at Lewes 1836 attributed to Thomas Henwood

Tha Avalanche at Lewes 1836 attributed to Thomas Henwood

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An artist's documentary of a winter tragedy analysed by art historian Michael Escolme

ON 27 December 1836 tragedy struck the people of Lewes in an event that was the worst ever seen of its kind. The winter weather was exceptionally brutal across the country, with the south of England especially vulnerable to heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions. This had caused a huge build-up of snow on the side of Cliffe Hill, an imposing chalk cliff which towered above the eastern side of Lewes. Warnings were issued to local residents to leave their homes, especially those living in workers’ cottages at the foot of the hill. Perhaps because of the extreme weather, the time of year or the fact that they had nowhere else to go several families ignored the warning and stayed. Under their own weight, the snow ridges collapsed. Tons of snow and rubble flooded towards the village destroying the cottages. Despite a valiant rescue attempt which saved the lives of several residents, eight people tragically lost their lives and it remains to this day the deadliest avalanche ever to strike the British Isles.

The Snowdrop Inn now stands on the site of the lost cottages, its name a testament to those who lost their lives that fateful evening.

An evocative painting, now believed to be by local artist Thomas Henwood, commemorates the avalanche and the locals who bravely led the rescue attempts. Every inch of land is covered in thick snow. No smoke rises from the chimneys of the houses for it had been a long winter and firewood was scarce. Dark grey clouds hang ominously on the horizon; there is no sign yet of this cruel storm abating. The snowfall on the cliff appears fluid for the artist has used long sweeping brushstrokes to give a sense of the continuing remorseless movement of the snow towards the villagers. More snow may fall at any moment yet the rescuers courageously soldier on, working hard to ensure all survivors are found before hypothermia or suffocation sets in.

The Avalanche at Lewes can be seen at Anne of Cleves House in Southover High Street, Lewes BN7 1JA which is open daily.

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