The tow paths along the river Lea have provided generations of Londoners a place to escape – the route coming into its own following the legacy of London 2012 and the creation of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
It also provided a means for Luke Howard’s commute to work when he moved his family from Plaistow to Tottenham in 1812.
Seven years earlier Howard set up his pharmaceutical laboratory on the banks of the Lea in the area where Bow flyover now stands. From this vantage point, as the factory produced chemicals including quinine, Howard kept a meticulous record of the atmosphere later publishing results in The Climate of London, among the first texts to discuss urban meteorology.
Development in the region was in its infancy and it would be years before the river banks became covered by factories and warehouses, these now fast making way for luxury flats and restaurants.
I’ve often wondered what his journey to and from the factory was like so on Tuesday, tempted out by cloudless skies and a warm 23C I grabbed my bike and headed to the Olympic Park. Despite numerous visits I still got lost in the myriad paths in the park, turning into dead ends and finding myself on the ‘wrong side’ of canals.
Anyone familiar with Bow Flyover will know it’s not the most inspiring place; it probably represents the low point of the way north.
It was at this point in 1809 that Howard noted that the river had swelled to a width beyond a mile wide. Five years later Howard also noted how the Lea had become choked with ice following a bitterly cold winter, the year the last Thames’ Frost Fair was held.
As you ride north the familiar sites of the Olympic Park hove into view on the right while, if you look left, beyond the cacophony of the A12, the old Bryant & May match factory can be seen. Opened in 1861 the factory, which was one of the first east London renewal projects to feature luxury flats, is yet another landmark that simply wasn’t there in Howard’s time.
Just after Old Ford locks is a canal that turns left. This ‘cut’, called the Hertford union canal or Duckett’s canal, was in the process of being dug when in July 1829 lightning during a thunderstorm killed three workers. Howard, in one of many weather-based accounts in the The Climate of London, takes up the story:
A tremendous storm of thunder and lightning broke upon the metropolis about 1 o’clock on Saturday morning. The sky had been lighted up the whole evening by vivid electrical flashes and so late as half past twelve the stars were visible when a dark cloud suddenly arose and in a few minutes one of toe heaviest showers of rain and hail ever witnessed fell in torrents from its bosom.
Peals of thunder soon followed and continued rolling with scarcely any intermission for upwards of two hours accompanied with awful bursts of lightning; the residents of Bow, Stratford and Bromley were thrown into the greatest consternation by the violence of the storm, one poor fellow lost his life and two others have been so severely injured that but faint hopes are entertained of their recovery.
The three sufferers Sullivan, Salter and Fitzpatrick were engaged in excavating a canal, at present constructing by Sir George Duckett at Old Ford, and were at half past two o’clock diligently employed in their work when the storm commenced. Sullivan was at once struck lifeless and Fitzpatrick and Salter were so seriously injured as to make it necessary to procure immediate medical attendance.
Fitzpatrick was removed to his lodgings at Bow where he was attended by Dr Fairhead who on examining his person found that his left side had been most seriously injured and that there was reason to believe his intestines had suffered severely from the shock. The damage which Salter sustained has not been of so serious a nature.
Deaths caused by lightning were a much more common occurrence in the 19th century, mostly because so many people worked outside and the dangers of this natural phenomenon were not well document. The thunderstorm in July 1829 was particularly severe, as Howard continues:
During the continuance of the lightning on Friday evening a man who was employed in pumping in Bethnal Green fields which the late heavy rains have flooded was struck by a sudden flash which caused his instantaneous death.
The clothes exhibited a singular appearance being literally torn to atoms and every part of the metal in his buttons had the appearance of having been fused. The body itself showed no traces of the electric fluid with the exception of a slight mark on the forehead.
As you cycle on the factories / flats gradually thin out until you reach Lea Bridge Road when Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes become visible on the right. The big skies probably the same as they were during the 19th century. On reaching Tottenham Hale it is time to leave the river and turn left toward the town centre.
A total of 6 miles later brings you to Howard’s family home, 7 Bruce Grove. It still stands but, despite having a blue plaque, is in a terrible state of repair – internal walls have collapsed and the roof is clearly porous. The owners have a plan to turn the building into flats but nothing has happened in years. A petition to save the building was set up a while ago but this, too, seems to have had little impact.
Howard and his family divided their time between here and Ackworth, Yorkshire. I’ve known about 7 Bruce Grove for years but I didn’t realise just how long the garden was, stretching back hundreds of feet.. It was here that Howard also kept a weather station and was the venue for his account of the partial solar eclipse in 1820.
There is precious little left of the original garden, it being overgrown with bramble, nettles and alder. I did notice a tall money puzzle tree which I wonder once had pride of place in one of the borders.
Because of the dense undergrowth and it being behind a large wall there is precious little you can see but I wonder if there is any evidence of Howard’s meteorological enclosure somewhere in the garden?
It would be a fitting tribute Luke Howard if any future development would allow the provision of a weather station somewhere on the property.