On the freezing morning of Tuesday 18 January 1881, haulier Robert Thatcher bade farewell to four horse and carts. In charge of his team was 25 year-old Thomas Patience, joined by William Goddard, 19, and Thomas Daniels, 16. It was going to be a quiet day at the yard, so Robert decided to let his 11 year-old son William travel too. It would be good experience for the boy.
The job was to deliver coals to Lambourn, some 12 miles distant from Thatcher’s depot in Longcot. The party went first to Shrivenham railway station. There, they loaded up the coal before taking their cargo on. Progress was slow, and it was lunchtime before they arrived in Lambourn. With more than half the day gone they had to hurry their delivery, grab a quick lunch of bread and cheese and then return home.
All day, snow had been falling, blown about by a bitter winter breeze. With light failing, Patience decided to take a shorter route back across the Berkshire Downs. It was a fatal mistake. As they reached higher ground the snowfall became heavier until a blizzard was raging all around and they could no longer see the road. They were lost, without any means of raising the alarm.
For hours they tried to see the way ahead of them, driving the horses onwards inch by inch. The snow fell liberally in drifts, blocking their every exit. Eventually, at around ten o’clock at night they gave up and unhitched the horses from the carts, walking on beside them.
Patience took little Thatcher on his back; Daniels led the horses; Goddard, exhausted, struggled on behind. After two hours, Patience realised that the young boy lying on his shoulders was unresponsive. He stopped and cradled Thatcher, desperately trying to revive him. But the cold had taken hold of the boy’s heart, and as the snowflakes saturated Patience’s face, Robert Thatcher’s son died in his arms.
Patience realised that he had to find help or risk the death of them all. There was only one reference point: a trackway which he recognised as leading to Lord Craven’s house at Ashdown Park. For the next hour Patience trudged on alone until he found the cottage of the estate’s gamekeeper. Finally, he had a refuge.
Patience was wrapped in blankets as he recovered by the fire. His ordeal was over. But by the time a search party made it back to the Downs Goddard and three of the horses also lay dead, frozen on the ground close to Thatcher’s body. Daniels was insensible but survived.
This sad story is told in two of the inquisitions in the Wantage coroner’s archive. Some three days later, the coroner’s deputy battled through the snow to find the bodies of Thatcher and Goddard laid out in the gamekeeper’s cottage. The coroner reported that he ‘never had such a walk in all my life’.
At least he was alive. There were two young boys that did not return from being lost in the winter’s snow.