Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The King’s Cross Story by Peter Darley. Review by LH Member Laurence Scales

71DGRy7bKQLI come to know the King’s Cross area from association with the London Canal Museum. Visits to the railway lands on foot were long confined to a bend of the Regent’s Canal. Cement dust in the eye and sounds of pile drivers were all the senses could grasp of the transformation of a vast region beyond blank hoardings. Old maps told of expanses of urban land lost to long dead trade.

The wilderness of gas holders and derelict coal yards between King’s Cross station and St Pancras is yet something to be missed. It is now a destination for cultural happenings other than spraying tags on walls and fly tipping. There is a new architectural showpiece in the repurposed coal drops and a north south axis for flaneurs. So, a new book about this area is timely. Peter Darley, known from the Camden Railway Heritage Trust and his writing about the equivalent hinterland north of Euston, has authored a very attractive one, packed with fascinating photographs and local artists’ evocative renditions of brick, bent iron and weeds. There are many old maps too but I found myself seeking clearer versions on-line.

E1 Gasholder Triplets, 1997, taken from Goods Way

The Gasholder Triplets in 1997, taken from Goods Way, Angela Inglis (courtesy of Rob Inglis).

8.2 Credit to Pope-Parkhouse Archive copy

The York Road entrance to the goods yard, c1900” (courtesy of Pope/Parkhouse archive).

4.2 BW192-3-2-2-28-137

Granary Warehouse showing two barges entering the Granary via the central tunnels, and horse-drawn carts lined up against the southern wall to receive sacks of grain via chutes, ILN 28 May 1853 (courtesy of Canal and River Trust).

This is really several different books in one. First, the railway station with attendant sheds was a world of its own, with only whistles and smoke escaping. Darley provides plenty of detail for the railway enthusiast. Then there is another world of the carmen and horses swarming around the goods yard at all hours with their coal and grain sacks, herring and potatoes. Included is an account of Jack Atcheler’s knacker’s yard adjacent. The industrial archaeologist is shown horse ramps and hydraulic capstans. As you grab sushi from Waitrose you can learn what manner of trade you might have encountered under that awning years before.

There too are the lost years of planning wrangles, the nature park and Google. This is a rich record and souvenir, not a flowing narrative. In the flip of a page we turn from Streetwalkers to Freightliner Operations. There is so much going on in the area, part now of the Knowledge Quarter, that it cannot all find a home even in Darley’s comprehensive book. I missed mention of the skip garden, inspiring community project and welcome antidote to Prêt partout.

Next time I am in the British Library reading room I shall reflect on the fact that I sit on old Somers Town goods yard. And what may take me to ferret in the library is Darley’s intriguing reference to the unloading in 1937, in another goods yard, of a putrefied whale.


The King’s Cross Story by Peter Darley, Softback, 215 pages, lavishly illustrated, The History Press, £20.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

A guest review by LH member Laurence Scales, of the new Channel 5 series. 

Feeling a bit lost at present on Saturday nights without a Swedish murder to mull over I turned to Channel 5 and its series, ‘How the Victorians Built Britain’, fronted by Michael Buerk The viewer is invited to bask in the glow of beautifully restored steam engines, magnificent dams and tiled Turkish baths. Land of Hope and Glory is playing in my head even if you cannot hear it. Yes, Victorians were wonderful in many ways. We should all know, of course, that they were frightful in many others. Victorian novelist Thomas Hughes invented ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and we are definitely wearing them here.

It may be that a few more things have been restored to their original glory today, but I doubt that otherwise this series would stand much comparison with a repeat of Adam Hart-Davis’s ‘What the Victorians Did for Us’ on the BBC in 2000. (His book is still obtainable.) This Channel 5 series is too sugary and ought to be paired with the health warning of another BBC series, from 2013, ‘Hidden Killers: The Victorian Home’, not just because it adds healthy roughage to the factual diet but because it gives perspective: mistakes were made in the process of building our world.

I knew that I would find myself shouting at the screen. But I did not shout myself hoarse. Michael Buerk is filmed interviewing bona fide experts but these wise heads are topped and tailed with some careless talk. It was said last week that Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers swept all that human ordure away to be treated in east London. Bazalgette did nothing of the sort. He just poured the noxious waste into the river there. He could do nothing else until treatment was invented. This week it was power stations. The first large scale power station was in Newcastle, apparently. (And they did not mean William Armstrong’s personal hydro electric generator at Cragside.) I wondered where they got that idea from. I checked. It turns out that Newcastle had the first power station with turbo alternators. You can easily change a fact into fallacy by losing a few words at the end of a sentence!

The production is easy on the eye and might serve to tempt people out to visit their local heritage and find out more. (As a part of that local heritage, I hope so!) Whatever the evils of the more sanctimonious or avaricious Victorians, the great thing is that their cavernous cisterns, mighty pistons and vaulting viaducts now belong to all of us, whether we were born in Somalia or Stevenage.

Laurence Scales

Read Full Post »

This article, by London Historians member Laurence Scales, first appeared in our monthly members’ newsletter from April 2018. 

I recently had my hand on some squares of black silk lace, made by young girls of Bridgenorth in 1774, the residents of a workhouse. This was over fifty years before Sir Edwin Chadwick’s ‘reforms’ and some workhouses were enlightened. Training girls to make lace could save them from destitution.

WP_20180108_10_51_06_Pro)500

Black Silk Lace, 1774.

A few months ago I was invited by the Historian in Residence at the Royal Society of Arts (Royal since 1908), to help catalogue some papers. I cannot claim that they are new discoveries, just that they are little seen. No one has had the time to make the list, until now. So, once a week I commute into the 18th century to make more accessible for future researchers this stash of cultural heritage.

The RSA started in Rawthmell’s coffee house, Covent Garden, in 1754. Since 1774 it has lived in a fine Adam building nearby, now awkwardly equipped with lifts and network cables, and with one or two steps scattered in odd places as if to catch the unwary. The RSA, full name the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (n.b. it has not much to do with art), is not to be confused with the famous scientific Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, nor the Royal Academy of Arts, nor yet the Royal Institution. Dr Johnson was a member of the Society of Arts, as was Benjamin Franklin, William Wilberforce and Karl Marx – and a few other members will make an appearance shortly.

Turnip rooted cabbages, starting a forest from acorns, new recipes for manures, hats made of wood shavings to rival those from Leghorn, cobalt glazes, carrot marmalade, medicinal rhubarb, whale harpoons, and zebra wood from the Mosquito Shore – these all became a focus for the Society of Arts in its first 50 years. It was a period just before progress began to be clearly identified with science, so prizes were awarded for enlightened and patriotic efforts to fill particular wants or shortages in agriculture, colonies and trade, manufacture, chemistry, mechanics and ‘polite arts’. ‘Art’ used to cover all the other things in the list, not just drawing and sculpture. There were also bounties awarded for unsolicited worthy efforts such as lace making at Bridgenorth.

RSA_500

The ‘Great Room’ of the RSA as depicted c.1810. It remains, complete with allegorical paintings by Sir James Barry.

I see some intriguing items in a day – mostly letters, but sometimes there is drawing, or an ear of wheat, or a square of black silk lace – an exhibition in microcosm, in fact. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a later initiative by this Society, by the way.

WP_20180122_16_16_19_Pro_500

Drawing included with a letter about harpoons, presumably just for the joy of it, in 1777.

It may seem I have found a rather out-of-the-way interest at the RSA. Not so. That recipe for carrot marmalade was eventually copied to Captain Cook at Deptford to try out for a long voyage and avoid scurvy. But it turned out that he did not like it and watered his crew with pine beer instead.

Yoke_500

A Simple Diagram, Georgian Style. Yoke for Ploughing with Oxen Instead of Horses.

And who cares about acorns? Well, the Royal Navy did for a start. And people needed firewood. And then there was new interest in smelting. By 1775 England was going bald. Over 50 years or so the RSA prompted the planting of 50 million trees. (It is believed that the great storm of 1987 only toppled 15 million trees.) While deforestation was one concern, others were already starting to worry about pollution and occupational diseases, and to come up with remedies.

Those awarding the prizes at the Society often did not see the thing they were rewarding. It was a strangely egalitarian society in the sense that the Earl of Winterton, for example, to be considered for his medal had to get his illiterate farm hand (‘X, his mark’) to sign a certificate attesting to the fact that he really did plant all those acorns that the Earl claimed. Sometimes it was the other way round, the farm hand invented something and had to get his boss to testify to its efficacy – the fumigating bellows for example, against ravening caterpillars, tried out in the royal gardens at Kew.

Correspondence about manure and rhubarb criss-crossed the land, long before the penny post. The postal service was very good, even if the best address someone could give was the wagon stopping outside the Bear and Ragged Staff at Smithfield – or at the Artichoke, Radcliffe Highway.

Another member or fellow of the Society was John Howard, the first person ever to be described as a philanthropist. The Howard League for Penal Reform is a name you hear in the news sometimes. But he did not found it. It is named in his honour. John Howard was a landowner of Bedfordshire, interested in new strains of wheat. ‘I often eat some good puddings made of that Turkey wheat,’ he said in a letter to the Society in 1772.

In 1773, when he was aged 52, he suddenly began an obsessive round of visits to hundreds of prisons. Having been appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire he took the job sufficiently seriously (unlike some) that he visited his local jail, and was horrified to find that the only pay received by the jailer had to be found by the prisoners. And many of the prisoners were there because of their debts! It was the same everywhere else in England. Howard then devoted himself to improving prisons for the next 17 years until he died of typhus, from poking his nose into a prison in the Ukraine. Holland produced the best prisons, but at least Britain produced John Howard.

His modest Bloomsbury home rightly wears a blue plaque, the heritage scheme started by the Society in 1866. That scheme has now landed with English Heritage, and imitators. The RSA starts things and then hands them on.

Did the Society find a space for women? Yes. An intriguing 18th century correspondent was Ann Williams, post mistress of Gravesend who hatched silkworms in her dead letter pigeon hole, and reared them in a hatbox, sometimes referring to her little creepy crawlies as ‘reptiles’ with the imprecision of the time. The Society awarded her 20 guineas (equivalent to several thousand pounds today). She wrote, ‘I shall ever think it the happiest period of my life.’

The RSA continues good work. I risk sounding like a commercial. But my real point is that I always come away from the RSA with a feeling of optimism about what people are capable of, even those who are not superhuman. Georgian life was a hard grind, and often cut short. Here was a bunch of rich Georgians rewarding a bunch of usually less well-off people for doing something outside their usual toil, public spirited, worthwhile, perhaps risky, often something as little as planting experimentally a few rows of medicinal rhubarb. Not selling it, mind – just planting it to see if it would grow, for a better future. That spirit is real cultural heritage.

WP_20171127_14_31_55_Pro_500

Another happy ending, from 1768.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in offbeat historical walking tours focusing on intriguing and amusing tales of discovery, invention and intelligence. He is a volunteer working at the Royal Institution for which he has devised walking tours, and also guides walks and tunnel tours for the London Canal Museum. Welcoming residents and visitors who want to look beyond the main London attractions he reveals a wealth of lesser known historic sites and offers a double-take on some famous ones.
Please contact Laurence via his web site.

Read Full Post »

sopwithhawkerplanes

Sopwith Camel, Hawker Hurricane, Hawker Hunter, Sea Harrier.

As a small contribution to #RAF100, I’d like to remember in particular a man who – while never in the RAF himself – did build tens of thousands of their warplanes. Boy, did he build them. That man was Sir Thomas Sopwith (1888 – 1989). Remembered mainly for the aeroplane that bore his name – the Camel – Sopwith also gave us many other famous fighter planes, including the Hurricane, the Hawker Hunter and, believe it or not, he was also involved in the Sea Harrier, some 60 years after World War One. In other words, he was building aircraft from barely ten years after the Wright brothers up to a model which is still in use by the US Marines today, over a century of in-service fighter planes. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that Sopwith himself lived to be 101.

ts200

Thomas Sopwith c1911

Thomas Sopwith, a Londoner, was born in Kensington in 1888. Although his father died in a shooting accident when Sopwith was a boy, he left the family well-off. In his twenties, young Tom enthusiastically embraced the pursuits of adventurers of his standing: ballooning, motor racing, ocean yachting and flying. He was the 31st British pilot to gain his licence. He was also fiercely competitive, competing in and winning speed and endurance competitions. By 1914 he was building aircraft from a small factory in Kingston in addition to running his flying school since 1912. By the end of the war the Sopwith Aviation Company had manufactured 18,000 warplanes in dozens of variants, but most famously the Camel, nemesis of Baron von Richthofen.

He subsequently in the early 1920s started a new company with his Australian collaborator and test pilot, the appropriately named Harry Hawker. Unfortunately Hawker died soon afterwards in a flying accident but Sopwith took the company forward from its HQ at Brooklands, designing the Hurricane unprompted and before the government realised the looming need for such a fighter. Until 1963, under Sopwith’s leadership, 26,800 aircraft of fifty-two different types flowed from the production lines of Hawkers and its associated companies.

Sopwith remained on the board of the Hawker Siddeley Group until 1988. Knighted in 1953, Sir Thomas Sopwith’s biggest regret was failing to win the America’s Cup in 1934. What a life!


Thomas Sopwith on Wikipedia.
Thomas Sopwith Documentary (1984) on YouTube (30 mins: marvellous!).

Read Full Post »

A guest post by LH Member Ross MacFarlane. First published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2014.

As incidents of Victorian London go, “The Great Stink” of June 1858 must be one of the most familiar: the merest mention of the words brings to mind cartoons of filthy water (such as the one shown, below) and, most famous of all, the disruption of debates in the Houses of Commons due to the stench wafting in from the river.

But away from Westminster, what was the experience like for other Londoners? Was the Great Stink as bad downriver as it was in Parliament? Here’s a description of Rotherhithe from June 1858, sweltering in the summer heat:

Rotherhithe, in common with all other Metropolitan riverside parishes, has suffered considerable inconvenience during the just elapsed month from the stenches arising from the filthy state of the Thames water. Perhaps in the annals of mankind such a thing was never before known, as that the whole stream of a large river for a distance of seven or eight miles should be in a state of putrid fermentation. The cause of the putrescency, and of the blackish-green colour of the water, is admitted by all to be the hot weather acting upon the ninety millions of gallons of sewage which discharge themselves daily into the Thames. Now, by sewage, must be understood, not merely house and land drainage, but also drainage from bone-boilers, soap-boilers, chemical works, breweries, and above all from gas factories, the last, the most filthy of all, and the most likely to cause corruption of the water. Should any person doubt this assertion, let him compare the foul black and stinking liquid of a sewer which passes by a gas work, with that of a sewer which receives only house and land drainage…

moh01

If you were any doubt about the effect of such proximity to the Thames during this period, this writer leaves you with little doubt how trying life was:
“It is quite impossible to calculate the consequences of such a moving mass of decomposition as the river at present offers to our senses…”

The author of this graphic account was not a noted author nor a campaigning journalist but Dr William Murdoch, then Medical Officer of Health for Rotherhithe, and his account of the summer stench of 1858 comes from his Report on the health of the area he submitted to the Parish of Rotherhithe for that year. It’s also one of the many accounts of life in London revealed through the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project, London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972.

Launched in late 2013, London’s Pulse brings together more than 5500 annual reports from Medical Officers of Health (MoHs) covering the City of London, 32 present-day London boroughs, their predecessors, as well reports from the London County Council and the Port of London.

The reports have been photographed cover-to-cover and turned into text using Optical Character Recognition. Along with the full text, around 275 000 tables have been extracted from the reports as individual files (downloadable as text, HTML, XML and CSV). All this data – as well as images of each page of every report – can be downloaded, freely, from London’s Pulse.

The website also includes contextualising essays from Dr Becky Taylor of Birkbeck and a detailed timeline, placing the reports amongst the forest of legislation which altered the responsibilities of MoHs.

Briefly summarised by Dr Andrea Tanner, MoHs duties – as required by law – “were to inspect and report from time to time on the sanitary condition of their district, to enquire into the existence of disease and into increases in the death rate, to explain the likely causes of disease in their area and to recommend measures to counteract ill-health”.

moh02

As such, analysing MoH reports allows us firstly to trace responses to the major infectious diseases of the 19th century, showing how disease outbreaks could quickly spread but yet, over time, how rates of morality gradually fell across the capital and such maladies as typhoid, smallpox and diphtheria gradually retreated from our streets.

At the same time, the responsibilities of MoHs increased: from their introduction following legislation in the 1840s and 1850s, the scope of their attention widened: from homes, to factories, to ports, to schools; to bakehouses, to dairies and to slaughterhouses – all would come under the gaze of the MoH and their growing staff of sanitation officials, school nurses and environmental officials. The amount of access obtained by the MoH and their staff to these differing kinds of properties illustrates why these reports tell us so much about the lives (and deaths) of previous generations of Londoners.

As such, the reports show just how much information can nominally come under the heading of “medical”: these reports have been used in the past for studies on such wildly differing topics as food and food safety; maternity and child welfare; health promotion; housing; pollution; manufacturing; shops and offices; sanitation; social care; civil liberties; demography; engineering and meteorological conditions. With the greater amount of access provided by London’s Pulse, we hope even more research topics may be added to this list – to take two examples, the London Sound Survey website has started to use the website to uncover what these reports can tell us about London’s attitude towards noise and the Municipal Dreams blog has incorporated data from London’s Pulse into its detailed accounts of the activities of municipal reformers.

As strong as these reports are as evidence, there are of course just one source on London’s health from the 19th century onwards. Given the local level these reports operate on, much supporting material for them can be found at London’s local studies libraries and archives and to promote London’s Pulse and flag up such material, the Wellcome Library held events earlier this year in association with local libraries and archives in Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Chelsea, Southwark and Camden.

Preparing for these events only emphasised the breadth of London life observed by the MoHs. To take the context of London’s response to the First World War, through London’s Pulse you can see illustrations of how manufacture was affected, the effects of the housing shortage, attacks by Zeppelins and even discussion over whether gunfire on the Western Front was behind the increase in rainfall in south East England in 1915 and 1916…

But at the heart of the reports on London’s Pulse are the responses by MoHs and their staff to the health of their local populations. What comes through most of all from the reports is the MoHs attention to detail: their diligent reporting and statistical accounting of the well-being of their local area. Whether it’s in their intense detection into the exact site of a disease outbreak or even in risking injury when illegal traders respond angrily to their investigation of adulterated foodstuffs; MoHs and their staff respond to the challenges they face with a stoic sense of duty. With London’s Pulse we can look at London life through their eyes and see the problems these relatively unsung figures responded to and how they helped alter our city for the better.


London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health Reports, 1848-1972 


Ross MacFarlane
Ross MacFarlane is Research Development Lead at Wellcome Collection, where he is heavily involved in promoting the Wellcome’s library collections. He has researched, lectured and written on such topics as the history of early recorded sound, freak shows and notions of urban folklore in Edwardian London. He has led guided walks around London on the occult past of Bloomsbury and on the intersection of medicine, science and trade in Greenwich and Deptford. As an archivist, he has worked at a number of London institutions including King’s College, Tate Britain, the Royal Society and the Reform Club. Whilst doing so he has handled a mermaid, discovered a lost alchemy manuscript written by Isaac Newton and found out almost too much about Henry Wellcome.

Read Full Post »

A guest post by London Historians member Roger Williams.

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 08.50.45Regulars at The London Historians’ monthly meetups in the Hoop and Grapes will be familiar with Shepherd Neame’s Whitstable Bay. The beer is dispensed from the barrel, and the label on the pump handle describes it as a being from ‘The Faversham Steam Brewery’. This name was first used to mark the acquisition in the late 18th century of a five-horse-power steam engine, which made the brewery one of the first outside London to join the Industrial Revolution. The engine was supplied by the Birmingham pioneering manufactory of Matthew Boulton and James Watt whose portraits are on the £50 note. This is the last note to be transformed into polymer, and there is even speculation that this note is so unused — or, perhaps, only used for drug dealing and money laundering — that it may disappear altogether.  It would be a shame if Boulton and Watt slipped back into history, for these are the men who drove the Industrial Revolution and brought Britain incredible wealth.

Their headquarters was the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, in a district named, like London’s West End quarter, after a hunting cry. But you don’t have to go that far to appreciate their work, and the first stop must be the London Museum of Water and Steam at Kew, where one glance at the monster Boulton & Watt beam engine gives an immediate sense of what giants of industry these two men were.  Steam engines were designed initially by the likes of Newcomen and Trevithick to pump water from Cornish mines. By 1800 80 percent of the world’s coal was mined in Britain,  and today 75 per cent of electricity in use in Britain is provided by steam. Built in 1820, the year after Watt’s death, for the waterworks at Chelsea, this machine was moved to Kew in 1840. It is the oldest known working waterworks beam engine in the world, and it still gets fired up. Watching the leviathan 15-ton beam ease into graceful action is a vision of the hand-wrought world of man at its height.

WattWorkshop_500
James Watt’s workshop at his house in Handsworth, near Soho, was a popular place to visit during and even after his lifetime. In 1924, more than a century after his death, his house was due to be demolished so  the Science Museum organised the transplantation of the workshop to South Kensington.  It is still there, behind glass, a glorified shed, which has the oldest circular saw in the world, musical instruments and devices to copy sculpture, early 3D printing machines, which occupied Watt in the last years of his life.
The Science Museum’s Engine Hall also preserves Old Bess, one of the world’s oldest surviving beam engines, built in 1777 and used at the Soho manufactory. Buyers might be shown around Old Bess and could purchase the parts and assemble their machines for themselves in situ, with the help of a manual. David & Charles published a reprint some time ago, and it included the use of olive or ‘Spanish’ oil for lubrication. Soho engineers were sometimes sent out to help build or mend machines. It was this idea that gave me the idea to write Burning Barcelona, an historical novel based on solid fact, that imagined an engine erector installing the first steam engine in Spain for Josep Bonaplata’s textile mill in Barcelona, only for it to be attacked by the mob.

As a result of the novel, I gave a paper at Birmingham University in 2009 at the Matthew Boulton Bicentenary Conference*, which helped to bring the coin and ‘toy’ manufacturer (at his own expense he gave every man serving at Trafalgar a medal) into modern consciousness. I was subsequently invited to Westminster Abbey when a memorial to Boulton ‘Pioneer of the Industrial Revolution’ was installed in the floor of St Paul’s chapel.

Fire_at_Albion_Mill_-_Microcosm_of_London_(1808-1811),_35_-_BL
Boulton and Watt built the giant Albion flour mills by Blackfriars bridge, which spectacularly burnt down in 1791, five years after it was installed, The Whitbread brewery in Chiswell Street near the Barbican, also had one of Watt’s first rotative steam engines, built in around the same year, which operated for more than a century. The brewery closed in 1976 and has become a Grade II listed venue with a James Watt Room, while the engine, transported to The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, is still going strong.

James Watt spent much of his life fighting copyright infringements. In London one of his biggest rivals was Henry Maudslay, who built the first beam engine for the Kew Bridge works in 1838. The company’s main erecting shop was in Lambeth where it ran a training school for a whole generation of engineers. Maudslay was a pioneer of machine tool technology, and he specialised in marine engines, providing the power for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, launched at Millwall in 1854.

If the £50 note does get issued in polymer form, perhaps Henry Maudslay could take the place of Boulton & Watt.
———————-

London Museum of Water & Steam, Kew, www.waterandsteam.org.uk

* Matthew Boulton & James Watt: Empowering the World, paper from the Bicentenary Conference, can be seen on https://boultonwattpaper.blogspot.co.uk
Burning Barcelona on Amazon: https://goo.gl/5jQ2dR


London Historian member Roger Williams is a London-born journalist and former travel guide editor. His fiction is based on historical events that have caught his imagination (Burning Barcelona, Lunch With Elizabeth David, Hotel Bristol Stories). A tourist at home, he is constantly drawn to the Thames, and his books on London include Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries, The Temples of London, Father Thames and London’s Lost Global Giant – in search of the East India Company. Other London books are The Royal Albert Hall: a masterpiece for the 21st century, London Top 10, The Most Amazing Places to Visit in London and Royal London.

 

Read Full Post »

A guest post by LH member Nigel Pickford. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter from March 2014.

Detailed recording of temperatures, wind speeds, precipitation, and atmospheric pressure only really starts from the 1850s onwards (1). So, if you want to know what the weather was like in London 350 years ago you have just two possible approaches. There is retrospective science in the form of dendroclimatology (2). The limitation of this is that it’s very broad brush. It’s not going to tell you whether it was raining on Sunday, 12 February 1682, for instance, the day that Mr Thynn was gunned down in the street. But this was the level of detail that I needed to know about when writing my new book, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn. The alternative is to study the literary and artistic ephemera of the day in the shape of contemporary diaries, letters, travel journals, early broadsheets, ships logs, paintings, astronomical almanacs and so on.

One thing was quickly evident. The winters were a lot colder than they are now. The end of the seventeenth century experienced a sharp spike of chilliness during what was anyway a cool period that had already been going on for several hundred years, a period now known as the little ice age (3). There is plenty of personal anecdote to support this. For a start the River Thames was in the habit of freezing right across, a freak weather occurrence which was quick to be commercially exploited in the form of the famous frost fairs. There was sledging, skating, coach racing, bull baiting, pop up shops, and roasting of oxen, as well as ‘ puppet places and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places’, to quote John Evelyn’s rather coy phrase. (4)

Thomas_Wyke_Thames_frost_fair_500

River Thames Frost Fair, 1683, by Thomas Wyke.

It wasn’t just the frequency of sub-zero temperatures that made the London weather experience very different from what it is today. The ‘Metropolis’, as it had recently come to be called, was also a lot more susceptible to noxious fogs. One tends to associate the trademark London smog with the Victorian period, partly because of the marvellously atmospheric descriptions in Dickens’s novels. But the roots of London’s industrial pollution problems go back to the seventeenth century when smog was probably even more pernicious and ubiquitous than it was in Dickens’s time. John Evelyn’s fascinating little book Fumifugium, published in 1661 (5), describes the effect of the growing use of sea coal on London’s micro climate. He refers to ‘that Hellish and dismall Cloud of Sea Coal’ which caused Londoners ‘to breathe nothing but an impure and thick mist accompanied with a fulginous and filthy vapour’ and which caused the inhabitants to suffer from, ‘Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions’. He blamed all the ‘Brewers, Diers, Lime Burners, Salt and Sope Boylers’ who belched forth a ‘cloud of sulphure’ from their ‘sooty jaws’. Evelyn was a founding father of the environmental movement and his suggested solution was to move all the polluting industries to an area East of Greenwich which would be downwind from the main centres of habitation. He was also keen on the idea of planting a ring of sweet smelling trees and shrubs right around the periphery of London, a sort of early green belt. Fumifugium was dedicated to Charles II, who received Evelyn’s ideas with enthusiasm and did nothing about them.

A fascination with daily weather was just as much a preoccupation with seventeenth century Londoners as it is with its modern inhabitants. Food supplies depended on a good harvest, transport was even more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate and, of course, it affected everyone’s general sense of wellbeing. Even the Duke of York (the future James II) typifies that unchanging tendency to moan about the elements when he writes to his niece about not being able to get out for his usual morning walk ‘as for the weather it is the same with you, that it is with us, only it keeps us prisoners, for there is no sturing out farther than the little Parke, the waters being still so much out and the ways so durty, that I have not been able to go further, and this day has been so very rainy that I have not been able to walke abroad at all but a little in the morning early upon the terrasse’. (7)

There may have been no meteorological office but weather forecasting was still a thriving business left largely to the professional astrologers and almanac writers. One of the more interesting and lesser known works in this genre is John Gadbury’s Nauticum astrologicum: or, The astrological seaman…unto which is added a Diary of the weather for XXI years together, exactly observed in London. (8) Gadbury had a client base of merchants and shipowners who need to know whether it was a propitious weather moment to launch a new boat or start on a new voyage. Astrology was very much on the defensive towards the end of the seventeenth century against accusations of being little more than necromancy and Gadbury was anxious to prove to his readers that his work was commensurate with the strictest scientific standards of the age being full of ‘New and Real Observations or Experiments to credit his opinions’.

NPG D30383; John Gadbury after Unknown artist

John Gadbury, unknown artist. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Part of the point of the weather diary which extended from November 1668 to December 1689 was to validate his astrological predictions. So, the studious reader can apparently discern from his daily record that ‘the sun in Leo, generally brings along with it, parching hot air; and in Aries dry but lofty winds; in Pisces much moisture.’ or again ‘we have a fall of wet upon every New or Full moon.’ The actual daily entries are more down to earth. On 7 November 1681, for instance, the day of Lady Bette’s sudden flight from London, he notes, ‘close air, great wind East.’ That East wind was all important. It could result in the boat she hoped to escape in being trapped in the river for days if not weeks. She can’t have consulted him.

Notes:

  1. The Meteorology Office was established in 1854 with its main purpose to help predict storm and avoid shipwreck.
  2. The study of tree rings to establish changes of weather pattern.
  3. The little ice age is now thought to have lasted roughly from around 1400 to 1800.
  4. The Diary of John Evelyn, Ed. E.S. de Beer, 6 vols (Oxford 1955).
  5. Quotations are taken from the 1976 reprint published by Rota, Exeter.
  6. This idea was developed in the works of Samuel Hartlib and John Beale, contemporaries of John Evelyn.
  7. Windsor April 30th 1682, from Some Familiar Letters of Charles II and James Duke of York ed. Harold Arthur, Viscount Dillon (1902).
  8. The astrological seaman was thought to have been written in the last decade of the seventeenth century but was not published until 1710. Gadbury died in 1704.

 


Nigel Pickford is an author and historian whose book Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn was published by Orion Books in 2014. He is also a specialist maritime historian who has made documentaries for Channel 4 and published books with Dorling Kindersley and National Geographic. He is a Member of London Historians.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »