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Gregory Hardiman update 3: August 2022

Nothing new under the sun: extreme weather in Britain in the 1820s

I don’t know about you, but today I am mightily relieved to be sitting by an open window, looking out at a cloudy sky and feeling a cool breeze.  For we in Cambridge (eastern England – we’re in the middle of that sticking-out bump on the side of the country) have just endured a heatwave.  The heat built over several days until earlier this week we had two days when the temperature went above 40 degrees (that 104 degrees, if you prefer Fahrenheit).  We’re not built for it – not our houses and not us – and of course my mind has turned to weather for Sam and Gregory.  So what was the weather like in England in the 1820s?

Thankfully there are records.  Amateur meteorology was a favoured pastime for the idle rich, who could take measurements on their estates.  (Yes, the technology was available.  Quick history pinched from Wikipedia: In 1714 German/Polish/Dutch scientist and inventor Daniel Fahrenheit invented a reliable mercury thermometer and in 1724 he proposed a temperature scale.  In 1742 Swedish astronomer and physicist Anders Celsius proposed a scale with zero at the boiling point and 100 degrees at the freezing point of water – although the Celsius scale now has them the other way around.)  And plenty of ordinary people in England kept weather diaries, or recorded the day’s weather in their journals – pleasingly, the stereotype of the weather-obsessed Englishman/woman is actually true.  By collating these, researchers have been able to build up a clear picture of climate and specific weather incidents in earlier centuries – handy for climate modelling, and a great resource for the historical novelist keen on getting those details right.  You can read here about the collection of private weather diaries that form part of the National Meteorological Archive.

But back to the 1820s and Sam and Martha and Gregory.  Starting with 1824 (the year of “Fatal Forgery”, and the year that Gregory returns to England after many years away – and no, I’m not going to tell you where he’s been, you’ll have to wait to read the book), we find that it was a notably wet year, with London recording 50% more rainfall than average.  On the evening of Monday 22 November there was a fierce and damaging storm along the south coast, likened by a naval officer stationed in Dorset to “a West Indian hurricane”.  In 1825 (“The Man in the Canary Waistcoat”, and Gregory’s appointment as a university constable) they had the driest July on record at the time and the heat to go with it: at Somerset House in London they recorded a sequence of nine days when the temperature climbed above 27 degrees, peaking at 32 degrees on 19 July.  Pity our poor constables in their woollen coats, thick trousers and heavy boots – plus a ceremonial horse cape for Gregory.  To cool them down, snow fell in the capital on 20 and 21 October.  This was the overture to a harsh winter, with the Thames containing chunks of ice and nearly freezing over at Deptford in January 1826 (“Worm in the Blossom”).  Both that summer and the summer of 1827 (“Portraits of Pretence”) were notably warm and dry.  1828 (“Faith, Hope and Trickery”) was simply “a wet year”.  But 1829 (“Heir Apparent” and “Notes of Change”) was a busy year – there was, as they say, lots of weather.  There was continuous frost in London from 16 to 24 January, with ice on the river.  From June to September there was 85% more rain than average, leading to severe flooding in Scotland – in August, homes and bridges were swept away and the coastline was actually altered by the volume of water flowing to the sea from the rivers.  Down south, an inch of snow fell on London on 7 October, lying for a while, and six inches fell there on 23 November.  Many ships were lost off the coast of Scotland in gales on 14 October and 25 November.  To cap it off there was a very severe winter everywhere: the Thames at Greenwich was blocked by ice from 3 to 10 February 1830.

Not for one second am I saying that extreme weather is nothing new and we don’t need to concern ourselves with climate change: you can see from the above that a heatwave of only 32 degrees would have been considered abnormal and noteworthy by Sam and Gregory, while we had 40 degrees and more.  But remember that most people in those days had very few clothes (and certainly not a nice selection of light summer dresses or shirts), limited washing facilities (for themselves or their clothes), no access to running water and no refrigeration.  It must have been ghastly.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736), scientist and inventor of the first temperature scale
A 1982 Swedish stamp honouring astronomer and physicist Anders Celsius (1701-1744)
A barograph clock for recording changes in atmospheric pressure – this important example from 1766 was bought by the Science Museum in London in July 2016
A drawing showing the Frost Fair that took place when the Thames froze over in the winter of 1814 – this was the last time the river froze sufficiently for such a fair to take place
Obviously from much later (it’s a photo…) but the fellow on the right is a university constable like Gregory, and he's wearing the heavy cape I mentioned, with the tails (for covering the horse's rump while riding) draped over his arm
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