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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.

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A guest post by London Historians Member, Laurence Scales

It is said that J.M.W. Turner’s painting was influenced by the work of meteorologist Luke Howard (1772-1864) who, by classifying the clouds into species such as cirrus (fibrous) and cumulus (heaped), drew public attention to their forms.

The formative experience in Howard’s life was perhaps the Laki haze of 1783, result of a substantially greater Icelandic eruption than Eyjafjallajökull which recently grounded Europe’s aircraft. It blanketed much of the northern hemisphere and perturbed the weather for many months, bringing famine and remarkable electrical storms. Being a Quaker was for him no escape route from the dire schooling of the time which consisted mainly of Latin and flogging. He became a pharmacist. At least the Latin would come in useful for naming clouds.

Perhaps to make up for an appalling education, he became a member of a philosophical society, the Askesian, which met in the City at Plough Court. It was here that he read his influential paper ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ in 1802. Modification meant identifying different modes or states. (He had no delusion of changing the weather.) He was not the first to attempt a classification, but his was the system that stuck. He included in his observations the atmospheric conditions when each type was likely to appear, and how they were likely to transform.

He maintained his interest in meteorology and for years he kept readings of pressure, temperature, rainfall, evaporation and wind direction.  At the end of the Frost Fair of 1814 on the Thames he noted rather delightfully that:

‘We are happy to see the lately perturbed bosom of Father Thames resume its former serenity. The busy oar is now plied with its wonted alacrity, and the sons of Commerce are pursuing their avocations with re doubled energy.’

He died at Bruce Grove, Tottenham, in a house which now stands with a blue plaque, but derelict.

Unlike the great art galleries and sculptural collections it can sometimes seem that the Science Museum is lacking in humanity. But to me the objects in its collection are heavily invested with humanity. One such is Luke Howard’s own recording barometer which can be seen there beside the George III collection.

The text of ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ is here.

By Laurence Scales, www.laurenceswalks.co.uk @LWalksLondon

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The forecasters are predicting possible sleet and snow in the next week or two. Snow in March has occurred before, of course. Most famously, much of the country was deluged with the white-stuff exactly 120 years ago, in 1891, an event which became known as The Great Blizzard.

It kicked off this very day, 9 March and continued for four days, causing snow drifts in the country and havoc in the towns. Roads and railways became impassable, telephone and telegraph lines were taken out of commission. Ships were lost off the coast and and over 200 people perished across the country. Like our winter this year and in common with other severe winters, the Great Blizzard was preceded by pleasant Spring weather with everyone believing the worst was behind them. And just like today, our ancestors were incensed at the inadequate steps taken to combat the conditions.

Somebody has very helpfully scanned in contemporary news reports from the Times of 11 March 1891, here. But you’ll need your reading glasses. Here’s a flavour:

The night and day that followed are not likely to be forgotten for a long time. In London we had all the pleasant concomitants of a snow storm; no cabs or omnibuses at work for many hours, the streets first deep in muddy snow and then a pool of slush, which no man seemed even to wish to remove. … only the most miserably inadequate means were employed to clear the streets – an easy task, for the snow did not freeze – and to make them passable for the unhappy horses.

Just before Christmas, I wrote an item about notable cold London weather in times gone by, here. A bit of a throwaway item, I thought at the time, but it has been our most read blog post so far.

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