And We Think Our Weather Is Chaotic, But What About 1821-22?

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Last night in Wenlock it was all howling wind and battering raindrops on the roof lights. Then this morning the gusts were positively whistling through the tiniest gap in the closed bathroom window. Shivery indeed. Yet the onset of this 40 mile per hour small gale was yesterday described by the weatherfolk  as ‘brisk’. A bit of an understatement methinks. But however one describes it, this current bout of wild and changeable weather now makes the week of lunch-in-the-garden back in March seem a long time ago. (Did it even happen?) And on top of that, it’s definitely curtailing gardening pursuits.

On the other hand, being confined indoors yesterday led to an interesting internet discovery of a wild-weather nature, this courtesy of the very fabulous Derbyshire Record Office which holds archive riches relating to Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, he whose 1845 expedition to chart the Northwest Passage, tragically foundered in the ice. Among the treasure trove of documents listed in the archive is the transcription of an 1822 letter written in the May of that year by Franklin’s first wife, poet Eleanor Anne Porden. Franklin is away in the Arctic while Eleanor is writing from London, and filling him in on the dramatic events of England’s weather during 1821-1822.

For someone who is used to forever hearing how our weather is set to become ever more chaotic, I found it fascinating to learn how very chaotic it already was in 1821 when Britain was emerging from the Little Ice Age (c. medieval period – 1850). Eleanor’s letter in fact makes reference to the last of the Thames’ Frost Fairs held in 1814.

A view of the river Thames: 1814

The Last Frost Fair of 1814 copyright Museum of London

Between 1600 and 1814 the Thames would freeze for up to 2 months creating an astonishing  venue for all manner of events and entertainment.

*

But first she broaches the weather topic by telling John Franklin that though matters may be peaceable in other domains, ‘the elements are in sad confusion.’

She goes on to say:

I should think that the mean temperature of last year was pretty nearly what it ought to be, but the seasons were all mixed together, and not well mixed neither; we had neither Spring nor Autumn, Winter nor Summer. Only two nights greeted us with the agreeable novelty of a frost, and the consequence was that a friend of ours saw the armies of two rival confectioners fighting for the thin cake of ice on a pond behind his house. As for snow, I think you had best bring a little home in a bottle, to shew as a curiosity to those who may have forgotten its colour.

Then she moves on to the storms ‘such as I never remember’ following one after another for three months:

Trees were torn up, and houses blown down, and from the coasts the accounts were dreadful- three Indiamen* were lost in sight of land.

* ships of the British East India Company

Next came the Christmas Thames’ floods in London’s Westminster and Vauxhall

forcing numbers of inhabitants to take refuge in the upper rooms of their houses, till they could be carried away in boats. At Staines it is said that the water was rushing in torrents through every house, and parts of Windsor were in similar condition.

She quips that people who usually travelled up to London for the Christmas season had abandoned their plans, not wishing to embark on a sea voyage in order to achieve that objective.

And then follows an account of the most bizarre event of all:

To complete my catalogue of marvels, in less than three months after, a strong south wind so drove back the waters of the Thames, that aided by a neap tide the channel was left nearly dry, and it was crost on foot between London and Blackfriars bridges, almost in the spot where an ox had been roasted whole on the ice just 8 years before…I understand that the tide afterwards flowed with unusual force for 3 days, and it has been thought that the extraordinary shape of the river must have been connected with some volcanic phenomenon.

And finally she concludes with mention of London’s May weather:

this week we were shivering over a fire, and now the thermometer is at 81⁰ in the shade.

You can read the whole lively letter HERE

Meanwhile, planting still curtailed, I shall cultivate a state of reduced grumpiness about Shropshire’s changeable elements. I am anyway much amused by Eleanor’s suggestion that Sir John Franklin should return home with a bottle of snow to remind the general populace what this unfamiliar substance looks like. The more things change, eh…

37 thoughts on “And We Think Our Weather Is Chaotic, But What About 1821-22?

    1. I’m still trying to imagine the River Thames ‘running out’ as it were. The letter goes on to tell of a chap being able to recover his sunk boat from the mud, and finding proof it had been sabotaged.

  1. Thanks for sharing this – and The Indiaman boats getting caught in the storms showed how awful things were.
    Also –
    We had some high winds here and your mention of the window crack reminded me I had to fully shut an upstairs window because it howled last week!

    1. I love the small but so vivid details in the letter. Also the confectioners’ men scrabbling over the winter’s small offering of ice – doubtless needed for making ice creams and sherbets for the hifalutin’ folk.

  2. Frost Fair, and that circumstance with the Thames, is such an odd and delightful idea innit? It reminds me of an instrumental piece by the band XTC called Frost Circus. And yesterday I was reading an article about one of my favorite American bands (called Pavement) in which they talked about Chrissie Hynde, recording once in the UK and her coming to meet them. She heard the sound of Americans in the studio and came running. Anyhow sorry for the diversion but thought you might appreciate. 😀

    1. Love to have any diversion from you, Bill. And yes, Frost Fairs – just brimming with fantastical possibilities. And Frost Circus/and other variants not least. I often think of your visit whenever I give G’s Chrissie Hynde photo a real good look. Also just taken some slices of Elizabeth David’s chocolate cake (that I dished up to you) out of the freezer. More connections – frozen and festive; good memories and good cheer 🙂

  3. Really fascinating post, thank you. Having crossed the Thames near Blackfriars daily for many years for work I find it just incredible to hear accounts of people walking across in the riverbed! It’s fast and deep there. Remarkable 👍

  4. I’m really behind on post reading today but I’m so glad I got back far enough to read this. It was fascinating. I think people sometimes confuse weather and climate. The former changes and is often cyclical while the latter is much less mobile. Hopefully the thought police won’t read this comment and decided I’m not at all woke (which, I’m proud to say, I definitely am not!). 🙂 Enjoy the weekend, Tish.

    janet

    1. Thanks for those thoughts, Janet. When I was doing my prehistory degree course aeons ago, I was much impressed by the discovery that in one of the much warmer interglacials there were once hippos, rhinos, mammoth sized elephants living along the Thames Estuary, all hunted by our Neanderthal kin who had returned to England after the passing of a particularly brutal glacial period.

      Happy weekend to you too 🙂

  5. I didn’t know this until I read your blog. Interestingly, England seems to have had higher temperature fluctuation during the little ice age than the global average (1.25 Celsius in England compared to something like 0.3 Celsius on average). That seems to agree with the consensus that 1.5 Celsius global warming now will be much more in many parts of the world. Already in early March this year, Antarctica went through a 40 Celsius higher-than-normal heat wave.

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