Category Archives: History

Will it be a White Christmas this year?

Will it be a white Christmas this year? It’s the question most forecasters get asked year after year as the big day looms less than a month away.

The snow probably won't arrive until after Christmas this year
The snow probably won’t arrive until after Christmas this year

It always fascinates me why Christmas and snow are so closely associated with each other when the odds, especially in London, are so stacked against it happening.

Perhaps it is the Christmas card scenes of Dickensian winters that get people yearning for the white stuff. Indeed, the image of snow covered cobbled streets can probably be blamed on Charles Dickens. The backdrop of A Christmas Carol, and a host of other books, were written when winters, and Yuletide, were generally much colder than they are now. Perhaps it was also the cold Decembers, which came during notably cold years as he was coming of age, that sowed the seed of his impressions of life in London. The Central England Temperature (CET)  for December 1829 and 1830 were 1.4C and 1.8C respectively. To give you perspective the average mean temperature for the Wanstead region in December is 5.6C. Of course we had a taste of what a Dickensian December was like three years ago in 2010 when the average mean temperature was 1.5C. Though bear in mind the mean for 2010 was 10.5C – way above the 8.2C and 8.7C mean temps of 1829 and 1830!

Christmas toys of yesteryear also took every opportunity to perpetuate the snow myth
Christmas toys of yesteryear also took every opportunity to perpetuate the snow myth

But back to this Christmas… First of all, what do we mean by a white Christmas? The definition 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. Interestingly, the Met Office uses weather observations from Gravesend-Broadness, some 12 miles away, to show current conditions in Wanstead. A lot, however, could be said by us weather anoraks about the different microclimates between here and south of the Thames.

Technically, there has not been a white Christmas in Wanstead for over 30 years. In 2010, we could still see the Christmas card Victorian snow scene in small patches of our gardens, but these were leftovers of a previous dump, so it doesn’t count. 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 most typical Wanstead Christmas day weather is mild and dry, although it has rained on 12 of the last 33 Christmas days.

So why does it often snow either side of Christmas but not on the actual day? For Wanstead, Christmas is at the beginning of the period when it’s likely to snow. Looking at climate history, wintry weather is more likely between January and March than December.

iced anemOn average, snow or sleet falls in the UK 5 days in December, compared with 7.6 days in January, 6.8 days in February and 6 days in March. White Christmases were more frequent in the 18th and 19th centuries, even more so before the change of calendar in 1752, which effectively brought Christmas back by 12 days. Climate change has also brought higher average temperatures over land and sea and this generally reduces the chances of a white Christmas.

For snow to fall we need moisture in the atmosphere. Snowflakes start their lives as ice crystals thousands of feet up, and when these tiny ice crystals collide they stick together in clouds to become snowflakes. If enough ice crystals stick together, they’ll become heavy enough to fall to the ground.

Precipitation falls as snow when the air temperature is below 2°C. It is a myth that it needs to be below zero to snow. In fact, in this country, the heaviest snowfalls tend to occur when the air temperature is between zero and 2°C. The falling snow does begin to melt as soon as the temperature rises above freezing, but as the melting process begins, the air around the snowflake is cooled. If the temperature is warmer than 2 °C then the snowflake will melt and fall as sleet rather than snow, and if it’s warmer still, it will be rain.

It sounds a simple combination, but getting precipitation on the days when there are temperatures low enough for snow are few and far between.

temple snowChristmas day in Wanstead, on the balance of probability and from previous patterns, is most likely to be a green and mostly cloudy but dry one. Some brightness is possible with temperature peaking at around 10°C. You can read my full methodology on why I think this may happen here.

Though my attempt to find the probability of a White Christmas effectively rules one out, there is still an outside chance that one could happen.

At this time of year the UK can effectively become a battleground between cold polar continental air to the north or east and moisture-laden mild tropical maritime air to the south and west. Where these air masses meet, snow is possible, but a lot depends on which air mass wins the battle. When battleground situations occur, in one location it can be snowing, but just 20 miles or so down the road it can be raining. This is because there is a fine line between the boundary of the warm and cold air.

There's nothing like an open coal fire. It's even better when it is cold enough outside to have one
There’s nothing like an open coal fire. It’s even better when it is cold enough outside to have one

In years gone by, Wanstead and the surrounding area has often ended up in the cold air mass or the warm air mass. In these situations dry and mild or dry and cold weather is often the result. Of course, in a cold air mass situation there is always the chance of showery activity of the North Sea. The weather so far this winter has not been anything out of the ordinary, so I’m afraid there is nothing to suggest a white Christmas is likely.

If it does turn very cold on December 24, pray for clouds to appear and we could be in with a chance. But at the end of the day we still need that vital combination of temperature and moisture. Snow, like Christmas in that sense, requires some magic.

81 years ago: Wanstead Flats Bonfire Night

Wanstead Flats has put on some spectacular Guy Fawkes’ nights over the years. I didn’t realise quite how many years until I stumbled upon this old British Pathe clip which shows nurses at Wanstead Children’s Home building a huge bonfire for the children in 1934.

The footage shows the nurses struggling to get the Guy atop the bonfire, using numerous ladders, while the children, including 12 sat in an old perambulator, look on. I don’t have the stats for what the day was weatherwise but that November was dryer than average.

'To Go Up in Smoke' is available to buy from British Pathe http://www.britishpathe.com/video/to-go-up-in-smoke/query/Guy
‘To Go Up in Smoke’ is available to buy from British Pathe http://www.britishpathe.com/video/to-go-up-in-smoke/query/Guy

The Aldersbrooke Childrens Home for Waifs & Strays is still there in Brading Crescent on the Aldersbrook Estate, although the five lodges have been converted to flats.

The former Aldersbrook Children's Home is still there in Brading Crescent but has been converted to flats
The former Aldersbrook Children’s Home is still there in Brading Crescent but has been converted to flats

A bit of history…

In 1907, the West Ham Guardians purchased the Aldersbrook site. In 1911, five receiving homes were completed. The homes were called lodges and were: Elizabeth Fry Joseph Lister, Tom Hood, Edward North Buxton and William Morris

In 1913, a workshop, for training of the older boys and girls was opened. Skills learnt were in tailoring, carpentry, laundry work and needlework, under skilled industrial trainers.

In 1930, on the 1st April, the ownership of Aldersbrook homes and the leases of the Scattered Homes, were under the 1929 Local Government Act, and by agreement with the Essex County Council and the West Ham Corporation, vested in the East Ham Corporation who are required to continue to receive destitute children from the Essex County Council and West Ham, formally comprised in the West Ham Union area.

On 27th May 1933, the Aldersbrook Children’s Homes new nursery was opened. The County Borough of East Ham owned it. Alderman T.W.Burden, Chairman of the Public Assistance Committee, opened it. The Mayor of East Ham, Alderman G.H.Manser J.P, proposed a vote of thanks, which was seconded by Alderman C.W.Brading J.P, and supported by Alderman Mrs Taylor (East Ham) and Councillor G.Doherty, of West Ham. After the official opening, the older children (14 to 16 years old) of the homes put on the play “David Garrick”.

The superintendent of the home was W.T.P. Steele, and the matron was E.M.Steele. S.R.N. The building was described as being divided into three sections – ground floor, babies under twelve months and toddlers one to three years, first floor staff. Accommodation is given for ninety infants under three years. Wards are provided for these age groups were newly admitted children will be housed for three weeks before being sent to the general rooms. Two ranges of isolation rooms are also provided where “suspects” can be nursed to reduce the risk of infection. The south end of the building is allotted to the youngest or cot babies and comprising of long dormitory with sun rooms at the end, designed to catch the winter sun.

The programme went on to describe the building as being the most modern of children’s institutions. The building has a veranda at the front. The first floor has 21 separate staff bedrooms. The building had an oil fired heating system and flooring with fire resistant Terazzo material whilst the children’s play room and dormitories are protected by rubber flooring. The lighting and power points are controlled by locking device to prevent the children switching them on and off. The building was built by Messrs Hammond & Barr Ltd Chelsea.

The Nursery is now gone and the Aldersbrook estate covers the area, although the recreation Hall, the lodges (See photo) and the porters lodge are still there.