The New Year of 1893 was exceptionally cold, with ice, snow and sub-zero temperatures to contend with right across Europe. Calais was paralysed by blizzards and as far south as Marseilles, a British sailor who fell into the harbour was found hours later alive but unconscious, his clothing frozen solid around him.
In London 14 degrees of frost were recorded at Hyde Park and officials from the Ministry of Works went out each day to monitor the thickness of the ice on ponds and lakes. The public parks were thrown open for skating, with naphtha and oil lamps set up to illuminate the scene late into the evening, refreshment tents, and extra police and ‘icemen’ on hand in case of accidents. Similar scenes took place all over the country. In the Midlands, cricket teams from the villages of Saddington and Kibworth even held a special cricket match on skates; the weather provided an extra festival at the end of the Christmas season which people were keen to enjoy if they could, though the papers also reported considerable hardship in poorer districts. On 3 January The Times estimated that 30,000 people had been skating in London. ‘Viewed after dark last night from the bridge, the Serpentine looked like a country fair at night.’
That same day, 3 January 1893, in the vicarage at Thornbury in Gloucestershire, the vicar’s wife took to her bed for the birth of her fourth child. With two boys and a girl in the nursery already, plus the three resident students Rev. Hodgson took in to supplement his income and help him in the parish, a cook, a housemaid, a nurse and a general servant; also the vicar’s sister Marion and brother Charlie, the family comedian, staying over Christmas, the vicarage must have been groaning at the seams. Within two years it would be found ‘insanitary and unsuitable for the accommodation required‘ and a shiny new house would go up in its place. But for now it was home to the family and their new arrival, another boy, born there on 3 January. They named him ‘William’, for his uncle, the Rev. William Hodgson, Rector of Distington, and ‘Noel’, in honour of his snowy, Christmassy entry into the world.
3 January….. as the infant William Noel Hodgson was drawing his first breath, far away in South Africa another baby boy born to a love of words, Ronald (otherwise John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien was celebrating his first birthday. Who would have guessed, then, what the future held for either of them?