Elizabeth Woodcock – Buried in the snow in 1799

Born December 1756 in the small village of Impington, about 3 miles from Cambridge, Elizabeth Williams married her first husband, John Sockling and shortly after this they started their family, culminating in at least five children from 1785 onwards.

However, John died whilst the children were still young, leaving  Elizabeth in need of another husband to help her raise these children, and with that Daniel Woodcock, a local farmer stepped up to the mark and the couple were married in 1796, shortly after which, their son William was born.

It was when young William was only about two years of age, in 1799, that Elizabeth found herself making news.

Wellcome Collection
Wellcome Collection

On market day, 2 February 1799, Elizabeth rode off on her horse to the market in Cambridge, purchased the goods she needed and began to ride back home with her basket of goods. The weather, as would be expected for February, was very cold, but it began to deteriorate further.

Rhodes, Joseph; Snow in the Farmyard; Leeds Museums and Galleries

It had been snowing when she had left home, but on her return journey the snow was coming down even harder, making her journey treacherous.  Suddenly there was a flash of light in the sky,  perhaps a meteor, she thought, whatever it was it startled her horse, ‘Tinker’.

She quickly dismounted and thought she should walk the horse back home rather than risk it being startled again, however, she accidentally let go of the reins and off the horse went. She tried to catch it but having a full basket of goods on her arm she simply could not catch it and had to let it go of both the horse and her basket. She finally managed to trudge through the snow until she caught up with the animal, but by this time she was cold and exhausted and had managed to lose a shoe during the chase. She sent the horse, off towards her home, in the hope that her husband would realise what had happened and come out to rescue her.

St. Andrew's church at Chesterton (Robert Edwards)
St. Andrew’s church at Chesterton (Robert Edwards)

She sat down in the field, knowing exactly where she was, but too tired to go further and she could hear the church bell of neighbouring Chesterton, ring for eight o’clock, by which time she was unfortunately completely snowed in.

The snow was about six feet perpendicular and over her head between two and three feet, completely imprisoning her. She was unable to escape from this icy prison, minus one shoe and now with her clothes frozen with ice. She sat like this all night, calmly resigned to the situation.  She remained here for a couple of days, trying to keep herself occupied, hoping, of course, that she would be found, but knowing that she was in quite a predicament as she was buried under the snow, how could anyone possibly find her?

She noticed a small part of the ‘igloo’ had a light covering of snow over it and she could just see daylight through it, so she managed to break through this using her handkerchief, but by the following day it had closed up, the next day though it stayed open. She found a small twig to which she tied her red handkerchief and pushed it through the hole, in the hope that someone would spot it.

Sure enough, people were passing close by, some gipsies, but they were busy talking to each other and didn’t hear her shouts or spot the handkerchief. She recalled watching the moon so that she could work out day and night to ascertain how long she had been there and consulted her almanack which she eventually managed to extricate from her frozen pocket.  She also had access to snuff and some brandy which she had purchased just before setting off from Cambridge. But, as the cold began to numb her hands she took off her two rings and the little money she had and put them in a box, hoping that if she was going to die, it would be possible for someone to identify her quickly from these items.

Whilst trapped, her husband and others had been out frantically searching for her but without any success, he felt sure that she must have died. She, of course, had no food, having let go of her basket earlier, but managed to survive by melting the snow and drinking it.

She remained there long enough to have heard the church bells ring on two Sundays until eventually the snow began to thaw and the hole in the snowdrift got larger, she tried to free herself, but without having eaten and being trapped in such a confined space her legs simply wouldn’t bear her weight. She knew that if help didn’t arrive soon, that she would surely die from cold and malnutrition.

Portrait of Elizabeth Woodcock; whole length, lying in bed propped-up on a pillow, leaning and looking to right, her left arm resting on duvet; wearing bonnet and gown with broad collar; original design reduced at the top; after drawing by Baldrey. 1799 British Museum
Portrait of Elizabeth Woodcock; whole length, lying in bed propped up on a pillow, leaning and looking to the right, her left arm resting on duvet; wearing bonnet and gown with broad collar; original design reduced at the top; after drawing by Baldrey. 1799. British Museum

It was on Sunday 10 February that a local farmer, Joseph Muncey was on his way back from Cambridge across the fields where Elizabeth was when he spotted her handkerchief. He peered into the hole and saw a woman sitting there, frail and breathing hard.

He immediately shouted to a nearby shepherd, John Sittle, who came over and asked if she was Elizabeth Woodcock. Elizabeth instantly recognised him and asked them to help her to get out of there.  Muncey went to find her husband, who swiftly returned with his horse, cart and blankets and they returned home.

Sadly, she didn’t really recover fully from this ordeal and died later the same year. Elizabeth was buried at the parish church on 14 July 1799, followed by her husband, Daniel just over a year later, leaving the children orphaned.

According to a newspaper of 1939, alongside her burial entry in the parish register, was a note in different handwriting, stating:

She was in a state of intoxication when she was lost and her death was accelerated (to say the least) by spirituous liquors afterwards taken – procured by the donations of numerous visitors.

Elizabeth’s former home is still there, at no. 83, Station Road, Impington and it is just possible to see a plaque to the side of the door, which bears her name.

Sources used

Chester Courant 6 August 1799

Cambridge Independent Press 10 March 1939