180 years ago: The Flats on Fire

This month 180 years ago a huge fire consumed a large area of Wanstead Flats. Approximately one tenth of the total 335 acres of grassland was set ablaze – the cause believed to be a discarded tobacco pipe.

June was marked by some spectacular cloudscapes and sunsets. This was the view across Wanstead Flats from Centre Road looking toward Ilford on the 21st
Looking east over Wanstead Flats from Centre Road. Long Wellesley sold off a lot of the peat on the Flats to local nurseries

At first the fire was ignored – locals thought the blaze would burn itself out or that rain would damp it down. However, it continued to grow. The Bucks Herald, on August 15th 1835, reported that in a period of three weeks the Flats had become “one mass of fire” and that in many places the blaze had descended to a depth of two feet from the surface of the peaty surroundings.

Locals, in an age where the Fire Brigade was still 30 years away from being formed, sought to put out the flames themselves. A number of horse-drawn watering carts belonging to the Essex Turnpike Trust were commandeered to carry water from a pond to extinguish the flames. For the best part of nine days residents tried in vain to defeat the fire.

Mr Speering, the deputy of the Lord of the Manor, the hapless Mr Long Wellesley, was summoned to convey the desperate circumstances to the government of the day – to try and appeal for help to defeat the blaze. Some 70 men, miners and “sappers” from Woolwich, duly arrived to dig a trench 5ft wide and six to eight inches deep around the perimeter of the blaze, but it was not before much damage was done to the land that locals depended to feed their cattle and horses.

Looking at the statistics of that summer the temperature and rainfall looks fairly average – ruling out a dry spell being the catalyst of the inferno. It was suggested at the time that the fire was exacerbated by neglect of the land – the blame therefore lying ultimately at the door of Long Wellesley.

The slow reaction time by the government of the day prompted the following poem to be published in the Leeds Times:


Go, ring the alarm bell, call the Crier.

And warn the neighbours the Flats are on fire.

Not Wanstead Flats; no, duller far,

And dryer, the Flats I speak of, are,

Made, like old timber that hath the rot,

Old rages, old shavings, and what not,

To crackle and blaze with vast elation

I a brief but furious conflagaration;

But enough – what need of further words? – 

The Flats are on fire in the House of Lords!!

There’s Winchelsea “flaring up”, like a rocket,

With lush-light Clumber, low in his socket;

There’s Strangford blazing like red-hot steel, And Lyndhurst ignited from head to heel;

Cumberland makes that sort of show,

He’ll make one day in the – – -,

Whiz! goes Law, tied fast to the Duke,

Like a squib to a pedagogue’s peruque;

Wicklow and Buckingham, blessed pair!

Flash, like the Lesser and Greater Bear; – 

In short, their Lordship’s, like Dido’s pyre,

Are all just now one mass of fire!

‘Tis a sad – a terrible case no doubt;

What shall we do? Shall we put them out?

No, let them blaze away, while we

Look on with undissembled glee,

And laugh to think, like rational folk,

How soon their fire will end in smoke!

Cold front clearance over Wanstead Flats on 28th. The day saw three potent cold fronts with steep temperature falls. <5mm hail in the last and thunder heard in Woodford Green
Cold front clearance over Wanstead Flats on February 28th. The day saw three potent cold fronts with steep temperature falls. <5mm hail in the last and thunder heard in Woodford Green

Though officially the House of Commons held the reins of legislature the House of Lords still held great influence, as Lord Wellington noted that year: “The House of Lords still constitutionally possesses great power over the legislation of the country”.

The current custodians of our local parklands, City of London Corporation, would do well to take note from this story. While they are taking action in improving the care of the land it is obvious from the comments I hear while walking around the Flats and Wanstead Park that much more needs to be done.


July 2015: average, wet and dull

The title of this monthly review is probably very misleading as July was a month that blew hot and cold.

The Casella 'check' thermometer registered 35.8C on July 1st - 0.3C lower than the AWS reading, within the contraints
The Casella ‘check’ thermometer registered 35.8C on July 1st – 0.3C lower than the AWS reading, within the contraints

The start of the month began with the July all-time record being set: 36.1C. The month ended with a couple of very chilly nights: 6.9C in the early hours of 31st with a grass minimum of 4.5C. I haven’t yet been able to go through my records but, according to the Met Office, temperatures in southern England on the same night that fell to 1C represent an all-time low July record.

There were ten occasions when the maximum exceeded 25C. Mean temperature for the month was 18.6C, 0.1C above the 1981-2010 mean and the coolest July since 2012. Rainfall of 70.4mm was 162% of average though it is worth noting that three quarters of this was recorded on two days.

There were 174 hours of sunshine recorded in this area which is 91% of what we can expect to see during an average July. The wettest day occurred on the 24th with 32.4mm of rain. There were two days of thunder recorded.

IMG_3877So what has August got in store weatherwise? The models this morning (August 1st) suggest very little change in the overall pattern of things. The jet stream is still well south across the Atlantic and is likely to remain so for the forseeable future. However, because we are on the eastern side of the troughed flow across the eastern Atlantic this allows the potential for some very warm or even hot conditions to be drawn up across the UK in the coming five days and possibly beyond. However, the longer projections turns the flow more west to east across the south of the UK again returning cooler air to the SE as well in week two.

This means a continuation of changeable conditions as low pressure remains anchored in the north-west or north of the UK. Thunder could be likely.

In contrast to the models my long range method suggests that we are in for a rather cool August, about 1C below average, at 41% probability. The next highest probability is for something average at 27% probability. So an average to rather cool August works out at 68% probability.

Rainfall is uncertain. There is the same probability for dry (50% average) and very wet (175% average): 23% probability. However, the next highest probability is for average at 18%.

This grainy image shows distant lightning illuminating a cloud. The storm was centred over St Albans
This grainy image shows distant lightning illuminating a cloud. The storm was centred over St Albans on July 16th

My data for sunshine only stretches back to 1878. There is a 73% chance of a duller than average August.

My July outlook was very poor, I predicted a rather warm to warm month – but it was nothing like last year’s or the 2013 classic. My rainfall and sunshine predictions were also hopelessly out. However, it was the first month since January that my temperature forecast has been wide of the mark. It’s just weather – in that it frequently doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do.

Here follows the full weather diary for July…Full stats for the month here:http://1drv.ms/1rSfT7Y

1st: Sunny until after midday when cloud bubbled up and took edge of temperature. Hottest July day ever was set at 5pm. Breeze made it feel bearable.
2nd: Sunny start though cloud quickly built with rain at midday. Just 0.3mm fell which evaporated on impact with the hot ground.
3rd: Sunny, clear day though humidity began to build from mid afternoon with the appearance of cloud. Still sunny spells till late into the evening. Big thunderstorm from around midnight for an hour.
4th: Sunny and muggy start. Long sunny spells, hardly a cloud in the sky until later. Sunny dawn but rain arrived at 9am.
5th: Light rain to start. This cleared late morning to sunny spells. Feeling muggy.
6th: Sunny start though lots of fair weather cumulus bubbled up.
7th: Cloudy start with light patchy rain around 11.30am, clearing to sunny spells. Some rain after 9am.
8th Cloudy and blustery with rain in the air. A few showers around.
9th: Sunny with just a few clouds, low humidity. Sky completely cleared after 3pm for a gorgeous evening.
10th: Sunny start. Some cloud bubbling up as jetstream neared – lots of cirrus and then cirrocumulus forming. Turned sunnier late afternoon. Also dawned clear and sunny.
11th: Long sunny spells with just a few cirrus and cumulus at times. Feeling warm and humid. Some light rain around midnight but not amounting to much.
12th: Cloudy and comparatively cool compared with recently. Light rain at 5pm with drizzle in wind through evening. More rain at 7.30am that fell intermittently up to obs time.
13th: Light rain to start with bursts through morning to 10.45am. Further bursts of light rain into early afternoon then overcast and muggy all night. More drizzle early am.
14th: Drizzly start – this continued into late morning. Then overcast and muggy. More drizzly burst overnight into the early hours – drizzle was persistent from 8.30am to 9am.
15th: Sunny intervals after light drizzle.
16th: Bright and sunny spells tending to turn more cloudy after midday. Big electrical storm around midnight with 67 flashes per minute seen to the north-west.
17th: Light drizzle to start turned to bright spells and a pleasant summer’s day.
18th: Sunny start with cloud bubbling up late afternoon. Light rain shower at 8.30 at end of Music in Wanstead Park and again in early hours at 6am.
19th: Sunny morning tended to cloud in at midday before cold front cleared to leave sunny evening. Mackerel sky at dusk with light rain at 8.15am.
20th: Showery rain to start.
21st: Sunny start but clouds bubbled up through the day for long sunny spells. Warm with a breeze.
22nd: Sunny start, cloud bubbling up during the day with spots of rain at 5pm – heavy shower in Wanstead.
23rd: Cloudy with occasional bright spells, feeling humid.
24th: Drizzly start. rain started falling at 11am. Outbreaks of prolonged rain through the day, heaviest between 5pm and 6pm. More rain after 8pm but then a drier interlude before more rain at midnight as occluded front came back. Last tip of the gauge just before 4am.
25th: Sunny and breezy though much cooler. A pleasant evening at John’s party though. Cloudy spells overnight before rain moved in at 9am.
26th: Rain to start with heavy outbreaks up to 1pm. Further outbreaks of rain through the day and into the evening.
27th: Drizzly bursts of rain to 11am. Then dry and bright.
28th: Bright and breezy to start. A light shower in evening then cool and clear – sunny start.
29th: Bright start but cloud filling in. Burst of rain at 8.30pm then variable cloud overnight.
30th: Bright but a burst of rain just after 10am. Then mostly cloudy with a few bright breaks.
31st: Sunny start but cloud filled in.