Luke Howard‘s Climate of London volumes provide a plethora of interesting facts and figures about the atmosphere during a time when few reliable records of London weather were made.
Over a period of just over 20 years he mentions the aurora borealis being sighted somewhere in Britain 15 times.
The first, on March 3rd 1807, describes the phenomenon.
The whole hemisphere very red for some time after sunset which we ascribed to the reflection of light from elevated cirri. Our Manchester correspondent, however, states the same phenomenon at the same time as an Aurora Borealis. Additional communications decisive of this point will be acceptable. The phenomenon was repeated on the 21st which with the preceding and following night was windy.
Seven years later, on April 14th 1814, proceedings were described thus.
Aurora Borealis of late years a very unfrequent visitant in these parts appeared last night with no great degree of splendour but with the usual characteristic marks of this phenomenon. About 11pm when my attention was first called to it there was a body of white light in part intercepted by clouds extending at a moderate elevation from the N to the NW with a short broad streamer rising from each extremity. After this it became an arch composed of similar vertical masses of fibrous light which moved along in succession preserving their polarity and curved arrangement. One large streamer in particular went rapidly through nearly the whole length of the arch from W to E. Some of these masses were rather brilliant and one exhibited colours. After some cessation and a repetition of this appearance carried more towards E and W the light settled in the N and grew fainter in which situation at midnight I ceased to observe it
Further mention is made on 8th February 1817 and later that year, on 26th October, another account.
A little before 8pm I observed from the neighbourhood of Lowestoft, Suffolk, a distinct commencement of Aurora Borealis in the north in white streamers ascending to a considerable elevation which after a minute or two became converted into a still light the latter remaining for an hour or two after was at length obscured by clouds.
And the same year, as shown in the book.
More sightings were recorded on 12th and 17th October 1819 and 14th December of the same year. Also 31st July 1821.
Six years later, on 18th january 1827, an account of the Northern Lights in Epping Forest was noted.
The final case of the aurora of London was made on 25th September 1827.
Further records were noted on 15th September 1828 in Glasgow and 11th December 1830 at Ackworth, Yorkshire
The synoptic pattern on Sunday, April 5th, was very similar to the pattern on Tuesday, April 5th 1892.
With so few planes in the sky because of the coronavirus lockdown it offered an ideal opportunity to compare temperatures and sunshine totals between now and then.
Sunday dawned sunny and clear and stayed that way until dusk, some 11 hours of sunshine recorded, exactly the same as 1892!
The temperature in Wanstead reached 22.3C, 0.9C cooler than what was recorded at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1892. This maximum was reached after an overnight minima of 5.3C, the same as the 41.5F recorded at Greenwich all those years ago.
Looking further afield, and at the spell over 3 days…
The erratic onset of spring in some years often presents that problem of what to wear every morning. During the current warm spell I’ve seen all manner of attire on the school run; everything from T-shirt and shorts to full winter regalia topped off with hat and gloves.
The position of the sun is now bringing in to range the season when the gap in temperature between day and night can be at its greatest.
On Saturday (23/2), virtually unbroken sunshine and ‘thick’ air saw the temperature in Wanstead peak at 16.1C before clear conditions overnight saw the minimum plunge to just 0.2C. The gap of 15.9C represents the fourth highest diurnal temperature range for February in this area back to 1959.
Looking at the year as a whole the greatest range is 20.8C with the months of May and June the most likely to see the condition.
The long range weather models are causing much excitement on various forums with one run predicting an anomaly of +16C on Sunday, July 29th.
Such an anomaly would see temperatures exceed 40C in London, unprecedented looking back at records to 1841; the highest temperature recorded in the UK was 38.5C at Brogdale, near Faversham, Kent, in Augut 2003.
Though it is improbable it is not impossible. Back in April conditions allowed the temperature to rocket to a monthly record of 29.1C, a positive anomaly of 15.5C!
A repeat of similar synoptic conditions would be needed – these would obviously be helped by the record meteorological drought conditions this area is currently experiencing.
Because reliable thermometer records of heatwaves only go back as far as 1840 it is impossible to quantify whether 40C has ever been exceeded in the UK prior to then.
However, accounts of the heatwave of July 1808 suggest parts of England may have come close. Far removed from images of freezing Georgian winters and miserable summers the July of 205 years ago was among the warmest ever. The monthly mean for July 1808, according to the Central England Temperature series, was 18.4C – the 6th hottest July since the beginning of the series in 1659.
Luke Howard, the ‘father of meteorology’ who at the time lived in Plaistow, referred to the heatwave in his diary on July 13th: “Temperature at 9am 84F. The intense heat of the maximum lasted nearly three hours till about 4pm. At 6pm the temperature was 90F.” Another entry mentions a reading taken nearby. “Another at Plashet, a mile and a half eastward, indicated 96F as the maximum under the shade of a house.”
While Howard’s methods of measuring the temperature ran short of modern standards, his thermometer was hung under a laurel bush, the values still give a valid insight into the heatwave.
Tales of the heatwave, which particularly affected east and north-east England, can be seen in letters sent to local newspapers around the country. Many describe labourers dying from heat exhaustion while working in fields. Farm animals and horses suffered a similar fate.
One letter from Hull, published in the Coventry Mercury, said: “At Sigglesthorne, the honey in some beehives melted, ran out upon the ground, and most of the bees drowned in it. At Sutton, a lamb and a dog belonging to the Rev Mr Croft of Rowley, expired in the heat; and several birds dropped down dead, while flying over the streets of this town.”
Of course it is impossible to know about the health of people and animals that died but that birds dropped out the sky suggests extreme heat.
A thunderstorm on July 27th has ended a dry spell that lasted nearly 7 weeks in east London. As storms go it was a fairly tame affair, just 1.3mm fell, the first rain in 47 days, 20 hours and 14 mins.
There are many descriptions of drought but the one I am using here, for sheer simplicity of comparison back to 1871, is the definition used up until the 1990s; that is 15 consecutive days with less than 0.25mm (0.01 inches) rain on any one day.
Meteorological droughts occur in most years though obviously ones that occur in summer are far more noticeable than those in winter. Since 1871 there have been 35 calendar years where no drought has taken place.
The longest drought before this one in 2018, probably not surprising for those who remember it, occurred during the long hot summer of 1976. The fact that summer came on top of a very dry winter, rainfall that season was about a third of what was recorded here last winter, meant that water supplies were in a much worse state, with hosepipe bans common.
Other drought years to feature include 1959, which saw the 3rd sunniest summer on record, 1929 and 1995, a summer which saw one of the hottest heatwaves on record.
For the stats I’ve used local rainfall figures back to 1959 and then stats used at Kew to 1871.
Looking at the results more closely I’ve divided them into their meteorological seasons.
Recent weather patterns have seen much high pressure to our north keeping us dry and mostly sunny but, aside from June, protected from humid Spanish plumes.
A look at local east London stats shows that half of the last 10 July months have been warmer than average while only two have been much drier than average.
I’ve put together a few top 10s of stats for Wanstead, St James’s Park and Heathrow for the month of July.
Some national UK July values according to TORRO
Hottest: 19th 2006: 36.5C at Wisley, Surrey.
Coldest: 15th 1977: -2.5C at Lagganlia, Highland.
Wettest: 18th 1955: 279.4.8mm at Martinstown Dorset.
In terms of climatology July maxima, considering the 1981-2010 average, shows a fairly steady increase through the month, though around the 17th there is often a dip before a warm end. This would reflect the July heatwave singularity which occurs every year at 80 per cent probability.
The average rainfall graphic shows that downpour amounts are fairly random from year to year. The driest days are the 1st and the 25th.
A look at local east London stats shows that six of the last 10 Junes have been warmer than average while half have been much drier than average.
I’ve put together a few top 10s of stats for Wanstead, St James’s Park and Heathrow for the month of June.
Probably most notable from the below values is that recent Junes have been devoid of extreme cool temperatures and rainfall.
Snow has been known to fall in June, in 1975.
Rain is usually most frequent in the last week of the month.
The 10 driest Junes were:
Some UK May values according to TORRO
Hottest: 29th 1957: 35.6C at Camden Square, London. Also Southampton 28th 1976
Coldest: 9th 1955: -5.6C at Dalwhinnie, Highland. Also June 1st and 3rd 1962: Santon Downham, Norfolk
Wettest: 28th 1917: 242.8mm at Bruton, Somerset
In terms of climatology June maxima, considering the 1981-2010 average, shows a gradual increase through the month, though around the 19th to the 21st there is often a dip before a warm end. This would reflect the June Monsoon which occurs every year at 77 per cent probability.
The average rainfall graphic reflects this, showing a four-day wetter spell after the 20th.
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.
It is 194 years ago this week that the River Lea burst its banks in the Stratford area leading to an ‘inland sea’ forming on nearby marshland.
Days of heavy rain that started on the 12th sent the water rising to record levels, the height was 2.5 inches higher than the devastating flood of 1809.
Luke Howard, in an entry in The Climate of London, had measured nearly three inches (74mm) of rain by the 16th and was expecting a flood:
“Towards evening the waters rose suddenly in the Lea and passing over all the banks of the level soon filled the marshes and in the course of the night rose to an unprecedented height being two inches and a half higher than in the flood of 1809.
The houses in the marshes south of the road were filled nearly to the chamber floors and some of the inmates removed with great difficulty. The flood remained stationary for nearly 24 hours. On the 17th in the afternoon it began very gradually to subside and on the 18th in the morning was much abated; the marshes still presenting the appearance of a sea the tops of the trees appearing in places only.”
Though there are no reanalysis charts from the time Howard’s daily entries state that pressure was low with the wind in the north-east, a classic pattern where depressions can move along the Channel before getting ‘stuck’ in the North Sea. A similar pattern with an almost identical amount of rain caused severe flooding in June 1903.
There was some 96mm of rain recorded during May 1824, locally the 11th wettest back to 1797. There have been wetter Mays since but, thanks to massive investment in the River Lea Navigation , prompted by more devastating floods in 1947, widespread flooding is a thing of the past.
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