February 9, 1917

Ashbourne was in the grip of snow and ice – a cold snap that was showing now sign of a thaw.

“It is many years since Ashbourne experienced such a severe spell of winter as we are experiencing now, for it is a long time since Compton Brook, or to give it its proper name, the Henmore was frozen over,” the Telegraph observed,

Many rural routes were almost impassable with sharp frosts followed by snow causing hard rough road surfaces.

But conditions had been worse – the writer recalled a winter when not only was there skating on the frozen Henmore, but a sheep was roasted on it.

And skating was proving a popular distraction for those prevented from travelling far in 1917.

“During the severe weather large numbers have seized the opportunity of a little skating, a pastime which has become somewhat rare in this district. It is many years since we have had such a long spell as the present and many have dived into the innermost recesses of their household to recover once more their old favourite skates, which have lain dormant for so long.”

Some of the icy surfaces being used by skaters were: the fishpond in the park, Osmaston Manor lake, and Snelston Hall lake at Stanton, where there was a 3d charge in aid of the Ashbourne Cottage Hospital.

The hard weather was reportedly responsible for some rare visitors to the skies over Derbyshire; several sea gulls were said to have been witnessed flying over Derby, apparently driven inland by the harsh weather.

The persecution of birds of prey remains a problem across the UK, but in the early years of the last century one of 21st-century Derbyshire’s most popular birds was a rare sight indeed.

“Another rare visitor is reported to have been seen in the neighbourhood of Dovedale, this being a buzzard. The local farmers refrained from shooting it, but it was discovered lying dead, one day having apparently eaten something of a poisonous nature. Residents declare it is about twenty years since one of these birds was seen in the Dovedale District.”

The deaths of two more servicemen were reported in the columns of the Ashbourne Telegraph, those of Private Neville Massey and Rifleman Henry Hood.

Massey, the youngest son of Mr Joseph Massey of Station Street, and formerly employed by Mr J Hilton, had been reported missing in October, and officially reported to his family as killed as January drew to a close. Massey was with the 2nd Highland Light Infantry and aged just 22. He had two brothers also serving, Harold, a Driver with the Royal Field Artillery and Joseph, a Private with the Sherwood Foresters.

Hood was the grandson of Mr Henry Hood of Rose Cottage, Ashbourne. Aged just 18 he had been serving with the Rifle Brigade when he was injured on January 22, dying two days later in hospital in Amiens.

And there was a tragic death closer to home – this time of six-year-old Harrriet Harlow, daughter of Mr and Mrs James Harlow of Lumbard’s yard, Compton.

“The mother, it appears, went out to make some purchases in the morning leaving the girl with two younger children in the house. Shortly afterwards the neighbours heard her screaming and on entering the house found the poor child all in flames.”

Despite the neighbours’ best efforts to extinguish the flames and to take Harriet to the cottage hospital it was found that her wounds were ‘of a terrible nature’ and she died the same afternoon.

Alongside the brief news item the Telegraph carried a report of the inquest held on the morning of publication.

Harriet’s mother, Mary Ellen, told the coroner that she had left her daughter in the house with two other children, one aged two and the other 14 months old, whom she was nursing while their mothers were at work. She had only been out of the house for 10 minutes and when she returned she found her neighbours ministering to her daughter.

“She was quite conscious and told her mother that she was getting on a chair when her pinafore caught fire.”

She told the inquest that if she were to continue to take in nurse children she would get a fireguard.

Shorthand has always been – and still is – an essential skill for the professional reporter. In 1917 it was still taught to a non-journalistic audience, for would-be secretaries for instance, and from time to time the paper would record the names of those who had passed their exams.

And it was on the topic of shorthand that the paper ran a political ‘sketch’:

“The fountain pens of shorthand writers are always busy when Mr Lloyd George delivers a speech. But although verbatim reports are taken, in the transcription, two words used by he orator do not find a place. They are ‘Well now’ – a phrase for which the prime minister is in the habit of prefixing his sentences.”

  • My fellow researcher and former De Montfort University colleague John Dilley is conducting a similar real-time project with the Market Harborough Advertiser. Check out his Newspapers and the Great War blog


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