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.

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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…