While soldiers braved freezing conditions in the trenches 100 years ago, people at home in Cork knuckled down to the coldest winter in living memory. Robert Hume investigates how they tried to keep warm.
When temperatures plummet today, it’s easy enough to turn up the central heating a degree or two in our double-glazed houses.
Microwavable slippers and heatable earmuffs are available — so are battery-heated underpants, should they take our fancy. If we must venture out, we can drive around in heated cars.
Our predecessors were less fortunate. In Ireland, as in most places in northern Europe a century ago, homes were cold in winter, especially at night.
Although gas fires were on the market, they were expensive. Most households had to make do with one fire downstairs, and mixed coal with turf to make it go further.
During the big freeze that winter, the temperature in Cork averaged only 3.3 degrees centigrade in December 1916, falling to 2.4 degrees in January 1917, when gales brought over a foot of snow. City retailers had plenty of advice on how to cope...
“Think about your underwear now… don’t wait until you catch cold”, warns one shopkeeper in the forerunner of this newspaper, The Cork Examiner.
That meant a woollen vest with long sleeves, woollen pants, and fleece-lined knickers. Gerald Barry at 77 Patrick Street has made a “speciality” of warm underwear for ladies.
Few people at this time had any qualms in recommending furs. The Queen’s Old Castle, 85-89 Grand Parade (today’s Argos and Dealz stores) offers coats in real Russian pony skin, silver musquash, and “electric seal”, which was rabbit fur clipped and dyed to imitate sealskin.
In Patrick Street, the London House sells necklets and wraps made from squirrel, beaver and fox fur. Fleece waistcoats, stoles and muffs in blue and black wolf, bear, and skunk are available from Robertson, Ledlie Ferguson & Co in the Munster Arcade.
“You need have no fear of the cold weather if you procure an Irish frieze overcoat”, proclaims O’Gorman’s, the gents’ outfitters across the river in King Street. Although its name might suggest otherwise, this long trench coat, made from tough woollen fibres, will keep you very warm.
Coats need to be waterproof as well as warm. Incessant cannon fire at the Front is bringing all this rain. But fear not: Power Bros in Winthrop Street can offer gentlemen wonderfully-named “Peltinvain” rainproof overcoats; for the ladies about town, JW Elvery & Co stocks oilskin coats and leather shell undercoats.
The first cars are now on the road, but most of them have no roofs. “Car mufflers” are therefore a necessity, as every enterprising outfitter will tell you.
A pair of luxury reindeer gloves from Alexander Grant will make someone a wonderful Christmas present, even if they do not keep your hands especially warm.
A century ago, householders weren’t bothered about insulating lofts: their priority was dealing with draughts in the main rooms.
This is where a visit to The Cork Furniture Stores can pay off. Its thick rugs will stop cold air rising through floorboards; and heavy, lined, curtains will cover gaps around your windows, and stop draughts coming in under your front door. A draught screen in the hallway, available at John Perry & Sons, Patrick Street, will help prevent cold air reaching your precious heated room. Another screen placed around your bed will make it less chilly at night.
A pair of long johns, several thick army blankets from JW Dowden, and a padded quilt, will make a good start.
And a traditional nightcap, like Scrooge wore.
You’ll also need something to heat the bed.
Stone hot water bottles are just the job: they stay warm all night, and some even have a place to rest your feet on.
A cup of OXO between meals, announces one advert, “builds up strength to resist climatic changes”, and “will fortify against catching cold from exposure”.
But reach for the Bovril in the most “treacherous weather”.
Another must: lashings of steaming hot toddy.
Make it from fine Midleton whiskey, honey, lemon, cinnamon and cloves. For best results use a toddy kettle, available from the London House, complete with stand and spirit lamp, for only 27/6.
Consider heading north to Bray, Co Wicklow, where it is several degrees warmer. With its lovely walks and mountain drives, it’s “the ideal winter resort”.
Or stay in Cork and take a trip to Alf Jacob’s Turkish Baths along South Mall. “Those who can stand it can breathe a temperature of from 250 to 300 degrees,” reads their advert. Now that will warm you up good and proper!
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