Christmas in Victorian London is often portrayed as very cold and snowy – picture perfect images of Yuletides past always scream out at us every year we open a box of Christmas cards.
But a look back through the meteorological records of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich reveals a very different reality.
The 1840s and 1850s, decades where most Christmas traditions marked today began, were often very mild, wet and windy – indeed before 2015 the warmest Christmas Day maximum temperature at Greenwich occurred in 1852 when the mercury reached 13.3C.
Like modern times, however, there were exceptions and 1840 was very cold – the record for Christmas Day mentions “trees coated with rime (ice) 3/8 inch thick”!
The following 20 years saw Christmas morning much milder – well over half had maxima of 6C or higher. In 1843, the year Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol and the public sent their first Christmas cards, the temperature reached a balmy 10.1C – though dense fog probably made it feel at least a bit more seasonal.
Four years later in 1847, the year the capital’s Tom Smith invented the Christmas cracker, things were a bit colder – a high of 4.2C and overcast with rain late evening. The following year an image of Victoria and Albert celebrating with their family around a Christmas tree appeared in the Illustrated London News. Like many things Royal down the years it really captured the public’s imagination of taking a spruce or similar evergreen into their living rooms and decorating it every Yuletide.
Christmas two years later, in 1849, was at least cold enough for something wintry to fall. London, however, was still coming to terms with its worst-ever cholera outbreak. With around 14,000 deaths from the disease Christmas was probably not a high priority that winter.
When Good King Wenceslas was first included in Carols for Christmas-Tide in 1853 the day was cold but there was still no “deep, crisp and even” snow or “rude wind’s wild lament”. The day stayed calm and clear.
Though the period either side of December 25th began to be marked with cold, snowy spells it would be another 11 years before London experienced its first official white Christmas in 1864. Sleet, which fell at the end of a 4-day cold spell, probably added to the drama of swimmers taking part in the first Christmas Day swim in the Serpentine, Hyde Park. With a high temperature of just 1.4C it’s quite feasible the few who braved it probably had to break the ice before they took the plunge.
Five years later London experienced another white Christmas with snow falling in a north-easterly breeze – the start of a four-day cold spell.
The joint-coldest Christmas Day on record followed in 1870 with a mean temperature of -7.2C. The building of the Royal Albert Hall was scheduled to be completed by December 25th but it was not until March 29th 1871 that it was officially opened by Queen Victoria.
The remainder of Victoria’s reign was marked with far more white Christmases, a period where nearly two-thirds of Decembers were marked with extended cold, snowy spells. Fog and frost were also frequent.
With a new century and new monarch Christmas-time turned milder and London would have to wait until close to the end of Edward VII’s reign in 1909 to see a ‘white Christmas’ – a poor affair with just a bit a sleet mixed in with the rain late morning. Many probably failed to notice it but it still counts as a white Christmas according to modern bookie’s standards.
Four of the 26 Christmas Days of George V’s reign were white but the mean temperatures suggest they were all marginal affairs – the core cold weather happening either before or after the 25th. Of note also is the dominance of south-westerlies that brought mild and wet weather – nine out of ten Christmas Days in the 1920s saw rain falling – far in excess of the average for rain on Christmas Day which is 47 per cent.
Just one Christmas was white during George VI’s reign, a ‘good covering of snow’ was recorded by observers at Greenwich in 1938 – the snow falling at the end of a 7-day cold spell.
Sunshine was not a dominant feature of Christmas Day prior to Queen Elizabeth II coming to the throne – the average total in Greenwich from 1877 to 1951 was just under 0.8hrs. Yet the average sunshine total for Christmas Day for the first four years of Elizabeth’s reign jumped to 5.2 hours. The 6.5 hours on Christmas Day 1952 is a record that still stands today! It is remarkable that this record was set just over a fortnight after the Great Smog contributed to the deaths of 4,000 people though other studies put the figure at 12,000 people.
White Christmas Days that followed included 1957 (showery sleet), 1964, 1968 (sleet), and 1970.
Christmas Day 1976 was the last time snow actually fell on Christmas Day in this area though, officially, the last white Christmas was 1996 when a few sleety flakes fell in the early morning.
Christmas Days since then have been mostly mild affairs in London. Of course we had a taste of what a Dickensian Christmas Day was like four years ago when the mean temperature for the day was -1.9C. There were still small patches of snow in our gardens but these were leftovers from a previous dump, so it doesn’t count as a white Christmas. Frustratingly, there has been snow on several Boxing Days in Wanstead (1995 and 1996) and in the weeks running up to Christmas, but not on Christmas day itself.
The warmest Christmas Day in this area occurred in 2015 when a maximum of 15.2C was recorded. Warm air sourced from off the west coast of Africa sent dew points soaring, the minimum on Christmas Day night into Boxing Day did not fall below 13.5C, another record.
It is surprising how varied the weather can be on Christmas Day – we always think that Yuletide in the ‘Olden Days’ was a cold affair but a look back to 1840 reveals there were times when it was just as mild as it has been in recent years.
* Statistics for every Christmas Day since 1840 can be found here.
** The definition of a white Christmas used most widely – notably by the bookies – is for a single snowflake, even if it lands in the midst of heavy rain, to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December at a specified location recognised by the Met Office.
*** In the past 170-odd years there has only been 19 white Christmases: in 1864 (sleet), 1869, 1876, 1878, 1884, 1895, 1909 (sleet), 1916, 1919, 1925, 1927, 1938, 1956, 1957 (sleet), 1964, 1968 (sleet), 1970, 1976, 1996 (sleet)