I’ve seen this phrase uttered more than once over the past couple of days thanks to high temperatures and humidity. But ask anyone to define a hot day and you’ll get a different answer every time.
Growing up in the 1970s / 80s redtop newspapers would use the phrase once the mercury was nudging 80F (26.7C). But to ‘scorch’ you need sunshine, preferably at least 10 hours of it. Considering statistics from the Heathrow airport climate station in west London there have been 463 scorchers since 1959, the most recent happening on July 5th with 29.5C recorded and 13.9 hours of sunshine. There have now been 9 scorchers this year, already matching the number that were recorded in 2014 and only 3 short of last year.
But even with last month’s heatwave this year has some way to go, however, to match the amount measured in 1976 and 1995: 31 days!
I’m joking. But with the lies and half-truths spouted by both sides of the EU referendum debate it is a statement I wouldn’t be surprised to hear uttered in this last full week of campaigning before June 23.
This preposterous statement, however, got me thinking that perhaps there may be some truth that summers really were better before Britain joined the then European Economic Community with Denmark and Ireland in 1973.
But comparing the past 43 London summers with the period of summers from 1930-1972 shows that this is not the case in terms of temperature and rainfall.
Perhaps it is just our minds playing tricks on us when we think back to summers being better than what they are today, and before EU membership?
Voter turnout and the weather
Over the years it has been argued that weather can affect voter turnout and therefore the result of an election. One Dutch study states: “We find that the weather parameters indeed affect voter turnout. Election-day rainfall of roughly 25 mm (1 inch) reduces turnout by a rate of one per cent, whereas a 10-degree-Celsius increase in temperature correlates with an increase of almost one percent in overall turnout. One hundred percent sunshine corresponds to a one and a half percent greater voter turnout compared to zero sunshine.”
In June 1975 the electorate expressed significant support for EEC membership, with 67 per cent in favour on a 65 per cent turnout. Though the turnout looks low you certainly couldn’t blame the weather.
In terms of this year, with ten days to go, it is too early to say for sure what the weather will be like on June 23rd though the GFS model suggests, like 1975, it could be the start of a more settled spell of weather?
Weather forecasting and the European Union
Weather forecasts have improved immensely since the 1970s. A three-day forecast is now much more accurate than a 24-hour forecast was in the 1980s, partly thanks to the collaboration between national met agencies throughout Europe and beyond.
The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF), formed in 1975 as an intergovernmental organisation located in Reading, UK, will maintain its independence in the event of Brexit.
A spokesperson for ECMWF said: “While most of ECMWF’s member states are also members of the EU, ECMWF is structurally independent of the EU. The location of ECMWF in the UK, as well as the UK financial contributions to ECMWF and the tax arrangements between ECMWF and the UK are regulated by agreements between the ECMWF, its member states and the UK. These arrangements are entirely separate from the UK’s EU membership.”
There’s a huge amount riding on this referendum. The EU has flaws but there’s far more good comes out of it than bad. And even if the EU has too many technocrats and bureaucrats I’d rather entrust funding to them than the short-term policy making that plagues modern Westminster on both sides of the political spectrum. And that’s why I’ll be voting Remain.
Knight Dragon have already begun construction on the project, a 150-acre scheme approved 10 years ago in a more modest form but revived and expanded after the financial crisis.
The report mentions that local residents are concerned the scheme will place unbearable strain on the area’s transport links and that the size and density is out of keeping with Greenwich’s World Heritage Site of 17th to 19th-century buildings close by.
What is not mentioned is flood risk – a factor that, considering climate models, is deemed too minuscule to worry about. The proposed development satisfies this risk criteria – a report on the ‘Strategic Flood Risk Assessment’, drawn up in October 2011, mentions:
“Tidal flood risk is extensive, but at present Greenwich is fully defended against the 0.1% annual probability extreme tide level with climate change to 2107. A breach in the defences, although a low probability of occurrence, would have a high consequence, causing significant flooding of the Thamesmead, New Charlton and Greenwich Peninsula areas of the Borough.”
But is it wise to build on historic floodplain? Surely we should be looking elsewhere in London for safer sites for projects that will help ease the housing crisis.
The website floodlondon.com shares concern that developments such as these are at severe risk from a tidal surge when the Thames Flood Barrier nears the end of its working life in the middle of this century.
“Perched on the very tip of the Greenwich Peninsula, the O2 Arena finds itself ideally located on a nice sharp bend in the river where it is likely to take the full brunt of the surge as it careers into the bank, much like a racing car taking a corner too fast. The North Greenwich tube station just across the road will prove to be a great asset at this point as it funnels the water into the Jubilee Line.”
Before the Thames Barrier was built this part of the river has seen some catastrophic flooding.
In November 1875, a year that was only slightly wetter than normal, a record high tide of 8.9m was recorded at Blackwall. The figure is 1.36m (4ft 6in) higher than the greatest high tide at North Woolwich (Silvertown) this year, according to tide tables drawn up by the Port of London Authority (7.54m on March 20th).
The flood brought chaos throughout London – with this part of the river particularly badly hit. Much of the Isle of Dogs was inundated, North Woolwich Gardens were under 3ft (1m) of water while the water caused explosions at the Royal Arsenal. Elsewhere in the capital Eton College was ‘completely surrounded by water’. A correspondent for the Press Association said the damage caused on the banks of the Thames was estimated to cost £1m sterling – just over £103m at today’s prices.
Since the flood of 1953 measures, including the Thames Barrier, were put in place to stop this flooding. The Environment Agency has outlined a range of options for the future of the Thames Estuary flood defences. None are particularly cheap. As a minimum, the EA estimates that the cost of maintaining the defences until 2035 will be around £1.5 billion, with an additional £1.8 billion needed to repair and upgrade the defences until 2050. Particular bits of marshland could also be set aside to store tide waters.
The EA estimates a new barrier could cost as much as £7 billion, though that figure could go up if conditions change significantly as the climate changes.
Greenwich Peninsula and another project, City in the East, which was announced last month will need proper flood protection and planning. I wonder if planners are as willing to invest in these defences as they are at making a tidy buck developing these riverside schemes. And do our politicians have the appetite to drive the legislation through?
The problem is that if the climate change does bring greater rainfall and an unprecedented sea-level rise it is the people living in these properties that will be faced with the problem of ever-increasing costs to fight off the risk of inundation.
Tornadoes, earthquakes, heavy rainfall, abnormally low temperatures, pea-souper fogs and exploding meteors are phenomena that marked the Year Without a Summer around the world 200 years ago. But how did London fair?
When extreme weather affects Britain, such as the floods plaguing northern England and Scotland, conditions in the capital are benign by comparison.
There is not a great deal written in the press about the weather in London in 1816. So, as ever, Luke Howard’s The Climate of London, is a primary reference point.
After a wild end to 1815 that was marked with snow and lightning 1816 started dry, cold and frosty. Though cold by today’s standards January 1816 was fairly average and much warmer than the previous two when the last Thames frost fair was held.
Though the temperature reached 10C on 10th the rest of the month was marked with maxima around 6C and the odd frosty night.
Cold weather returned at the end of the month, turning severe in the second week of February. In the early hours of the 7th heavy snow, driven by gale-force north-easterly winds, brought possibly some of the worst winter weather this area has ever seen. Some 35mm of precipitation is recorded on the 8th – this would normally give at least one foot of level snow that could obviously be whipped up into huge drifts.
Luke Howard described the scene in his diary entry saying the abundance of snow “loaded the trees to their tops and weighed down the smaller shrubs to the ground.”
The snow and polar continental air also produced perfect conditions for a textbook radiative cooling night. The minimum recorded on the 10th: -20.6C has not, as far as I can tell, been repeated since.
To put that into perspective the lowest minimum of the severe winter of 1963 for this area was -12.2C recorded at Greenwich on January 21st. The coldest night I have personally recorded was -10.3C on January 12th 1987.
As often happens with severe cold snaps Howard reported on the 17th the the snow “was mostly gone but very thick ice remains on ponds”; a period of just under a week.
The cold snap saw the mean temperature for February over three degrees colder than average at 0.8C.
As well as keeping meticulous observations in Plaistow, Stratford and Tottenham, Howard always kept an eye on what was going on abroad and noted that earthquake activity was high.
On February 2nd an earthquake that ‘lasted nearly three minutes’ was felt at Lisbon. Three days later an earthquake was felt on Madeira.
“At midnight a severe shock of an earthquake was felt all over the island and the following morning at 4 o’clock another shock was felt.”
An extract of a letter from Captain Welsh of the Claudine described an event of an earthquake felt at sea on the 9th.
On the 9th of February off St Michael’s we experienced very tempestuous weather with a tremendous confused sea. The wind shifting from SW to SE and NE with constant lightning and heavy rain. On the 10th at 8.30pm, the ship then under reefed fore sail and mainstay sail, we were much alarmed by a severe shock of an earthquake which lasted four or five seconds.
Later in the month on 23rd it was reported that the snow in the Grampian hills was at its greatest depth for 20 years.
Howard reported a heavy short snowstorm in the capital on March 4th. He also mentions another earthquake on March 17th that affected the north of England in towns and cities including Doncaster, Bawtry, Blyth, Carlton, Worksop, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Mansfield, Nottingham, Lincoln and Gainsborough.
“A smart shock of an earthquake was perceptibly felt in Lincoln at about 12.50pm. The undulation appeared to be from west to east and lasted from about a minute and a half to two minutes.
“Pictures and other articles hanging on the walls were set in a swinging motion. At Newark also and the neighbouring villages the shock was distinctly felt as well as at Leicester and Loughborough.”
Snowy episodes in the capital lasted well into April. On 12th snow fell for two hours “turning the high ground of Hampstead in the distance white”.
Very high tides were reported on the 15th with “much water out in the marshes”. By the 19th it was noted that the growing season was being severely hampered by the cold weather
April 1816 was nearly 1.5C below average. Despite this, by the 21st, the first swallows began to appear.
May and June were again cold. More than twice the average rainfall in June suggests the weather in the sixth month was very disturbed.
On the 25th a tornado, strong enough to carry objects weighing 60lbs, was reported in the Edgware Road area.
At two o’clock being a still sultry day a whirlwind passed over the nursery ground of Mr Henderson in the Edgware Road which lifted seven lights from the greenhouses and carried them to the height of the highest elm trees, each of the lights weighs 50 or 60lbs at least. At the same time two garden mats were carried to an immense height so that the eye could not distinguish them.
The following day “extremely heavy and prolonged rain from 9am (26th) to 9am on 27th gave 2.95 inches”. This total of over 52mm is notably high though not a record.
Overseas, meanwhile, the weather continued to confound observers. Several inches of snow fell in Quebec on June 8th while a letter from a friend of Howard mentioned a reading of -38F that had been recorded in New Hampshire earlier in the season.
July and August were similarly cold and wet. While events in London had quietened down Howard noted that the Kendal Chronicle was reporting snow on the summit of Helvellyn on July 4th while notable gales in Scotland were affecting ships.
More earthquakes shook locations around the world including one on August 14th in Scotland that caused panic and considerable damage in Inverness. Howard quotes a letter from north of the border:
“Last night, exactly a quarter before 11 o’clock the town of Inverness and the surrounding country was fearfully shook by an earthquake. We fled to the street where we found almost every inhabitant; women and children screaming and a very considerable portion of them naked. Many fled to the fields and there remained for the greater part of the night. Chimney tops were thrown down or damaged in every quarter of the town. The Mason Lodge occupied as an hotel was rent from top to bottom, the north sulk of the chimney partly thrown down one of the coping stones weighing, I should think, from 50lb to 60lb, was thrown to the other side of the street a distance not less than 60 feet.”
Though it is known as the Year without a Summer 1816 was actually only the 8th coolest summer in the local series going back to 1797. There were also 21 wetter summers – the 250mm that fell was actually less than half the rainfall of summer 1960.
A change of month in September failed to bring a change in the weather and the mean temperature continued 2C below the average for the period. Howard mentions a 9-week tour of Europe at this time – his laboratory and climate reading duties left in the hands of his friend and partner, John Gibson.
Howard’s account of his tour explains how excessive summer rains had made life difficult from Amsterdam to Geneva.
“From the sources of the Rhine among the Alps to its embouchure in the German ocean and through a space twice or thrice as broad from east to west the whole season presented a series of storms and inundations. Not meadows and villages alone but portions of cities and large towns lay long underwater; dikes were broken, bridges blown up, the crops spoiled or carried off by torrents and the vintage ruined by the want of sun to bring out and ripen the fruit.
“While the middle of Europe was thus suffering from wet, the north for a time and to a certain extent was parched with drought and public prayers appear to have been ordered about the same time at Riga for rain and at Paris for sunshine.”
On September 16th Howard noted that a ‘dreadful’ hurricane had affected the Caribbean island of Guadalope. “Houses were levelled, plantations destroyed and the soil driven about like dust in a whirlwind.”
October 1816 was a blip during 1816 in that the mean temperature and rainfall were about average though Howard’s records reveal there were four air frosts.
By November the weather began mild but by the 6th the cold had returned with a brief snowy snap. A report from Chester said that day was almost night because of the thickness of the cloud:
“Candles or lamps were obliged to be lighted in all the houses this was succeeded by a slight shower. On Thursday successive falls of hail and rain took place. On Friday the frost was uncommonly severe and on Sunday the snow which fell was above 2ft deep in the streets.”
On the 14th reports came from France that a tempest on the night of the 11th and 12th had wrecked many ships: “winds blowing from the north then SSE”.
A solar eclipse on the 18th was followed by a sustained build in pressure from the 22nd with fog now becoming a problem in the capital.
The Evening Mail on November 27th reported that the problem was particularly acute in South London.
“The atmosphere was so darkened yesterday morning in the vicinity of the metropolis by the thick fog combined with smoke that in some parts it appeared like a cloudy night. In the neighbourhood of Walworth and Camberwell it was so completely dark that some of the coachmen driving stages were obliged to get down and lead their horses with a lantern.”
After the average October November had reverted to type and the month in London finished just over 3C cooler than average.
Pressure began to fall with the arrival of December. On the 12th reports of a meteor were made from Glasgow and Perth. The phenomena sounded spectacular:
“The meteor made its appearance in the SW in the form of a small star and gradually increased in magnitude till it reached the zenith when it subtended an angle nearly equal to that of the full moon. In shape it resembled a paper kite. After passing the zenith it again seemed to diminish in size owing no doubt to its gradually receding from the observer till its altitude was equal to about 30 miles when it exploded like a sky rocket. The report of the explosion, which is described as more tremendous than the noise of the loudest thunder, reached the ear about three minutes after the meteor vanished so that it could not be less than 40 miles distant and probably about 27 miles above the surface of the earth. From the various particulars collected its diameter must have been about 240 yards. The light which it yielded was very considerable being sufficient to render the smallest objects visible.”
Two days later the air pressure fell to its lowest point that year: 966.1mb. In the early hours of the 15th Howard wrote of an earth tremor that lasted 15 seconds.
A brief cold snap arrived on the 19th with the temperature falling to -10C on 21st – by the 26th, however, the temperature reached 10C.
Though December was relatively milder than November the month still finished 1.5C below average with 1.5 times average rain.
November 1940 was the wettest on record for this area. Over 170mm of rain fell in Greenwich, beating the previous record set over a hundred years before in 1836.
Other areas of London were even wetter: Croydon was wettest with just under 196mm while Addington recorded just under 194mm, Bromley 179mm and Regent’s Park 175mm.
Nearly a quarter of the month’s rainfall fell on the 3rd. The total of 40.8mm is a daily November record that remains to this day. Indeed, throughout the month, there were falls of more than one inch (25.4mm) somewhere in the London area on four days: 40.8mm (3rd, Greenwich), 26.7mm (4th, East Ham), 26.4mm (11th, Camden Square), 27.4mm (13th, Southgate).
In Wanstead and Woodford the inclement weather coincided with a 6-day pause in bombing incidents during the Blitz. November was a very cyclonic month that probably hampered German air operations.
Another 6-day pause in the bombing happened after November 16th. When the Luftwaffe returned on Saturday, November 23rd, it was Wanstead that bore the brunt. At 4.12pm, as light was fading on a dull, dreary afternoon, high explosive bombs caused fires at and partly demolished nos 78 and 89 New Wanstead. A minute later another bomb ruptured water and gas mains in Spratt Hall Road. At 4.30pm a further high explosive bomb fell in the High Street, killing 4 people. The raid ended at 5.16pm as a bomb fell in Fitzgerald Road though this time there were no injuries.
By now the weather was beginning to quieten down though weeks of deep depressions with associated gales and heavy rain had taken their toll – many residents reported problems of Anderson bomb shelters being constantly flooded – but it was probably the design as much as the weather that was to blame.
As pressure built in the last few days of November the first frosts of winter arrived but the bombs returned. High explosive devices fell in Woodford New Road and Bunces Lane on the 30th, fracturing a water main.
To put November 1940 into some sort of perspective the average fall for the month in this area, with regard to the 1981-2010 average, is 59mm. The closest this area has come to matching the record was 2009 when 150mm was recorded and preceded a cold winter.
The following synoptic charts are for each day of November at 7am. All courtesy of the Met Office
The media are always keen to say ‘a heatwave is on the way’ when it is more likely to just be a short spell of fine weather with temperatures a few degrees above average.
Forecasts of 30C and above see editors up and down the land reaching for their stock pics of office workers and kids enjoying ice creams in parks.
‘Hotter than the Costas’ and other hackeneyed headlines are wheeled out as photos of scantily-clad women frolicking in the sea at Brighton illustrate this amazing fact – the more ubiquitous shirtless lorry drivers on the capital’s roads never seem to make the final editions.
So how do you quantify a heatwave? Even in an average year the UK normally sees at least one spell of very warm weather that can often feel much warmer than it actually is.
Looking at data for the London area stretching back to the early 1800s there has been plenty of hot spells, including the summer of 1808 where birds reportedly ‘dropped out of the sky’ from heat exhaustion.
The term ‘heatwave’ does not appear in any publication in the British Newspaper Archive until 1867. The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on May 11th 1867 features a letter from Mr R.H. Allnatt. Writing from the British Hotel, Jersey, he states that “…the atmosphere became most oppressive. A heat-wave seems to have passed over the island, and from noon till sunset the thermometer stood in shade at 90 deg.”
The World Meteorological Organization’s description of a heatwave is “when the daily maximum temperature on more than five consecutive days exceeds the average maximum temperature by 5°C, the normal period being 1961-1990″. Though it has no official definition the UK Met Office, working with the Department of Health, provides a ‘Heat-Health Watch System’ for England which is triggered when a threshold temperature in the South East is 31°C by day and 16°C overnight for at least two consecutive days.
A mean daily temperature of 23.5°C or higher has been achieved in this area on 199 days since 1852. To qualify for the Met Office’s Heat-Health Watch System the list, which goes back 163 years, narrows. However, to make my job easier, I have narrowed the list further to 3 consecutive days where the mean has been 23.5°C or higher. Though I loathe really hot weather in my experience I can put up with it for a couple of days. It is only when it gets to the third day of hot, sleepless nights that it starts becoming unbearable.
The first heatwave that fits my parameters, and ranks 7th in the heatwave premier league, began on August 13th 1876. Obviously in those days news would have taken a while to filter through. On the front page but tucked away at the bottom of the far right column of Reynolds’s Newspaper on August 20th a report talked on “excessive heat in Norfolk”:
“The weather has been intensely hot in Norfolk, and two fatal cases of sunstroke are reported from Blofield. A similar casualty occurred at Thorndon. A spark from a Great Eastern Railway engine has fired a barley field near Wherstead, Suffolk, in consequence of the extreme drought. The damage done is estimated at £300.”
A report on the “Glorious Twelfth” in the London Daily News on Monday 14th says:
“Not a cloud obscured the burning rays of the sun, and in the middle hours of the day moving about on the moor was not unattended with danger.” The weather was the complete opposite of the previous two years where “rain fell so continuously that only the keenest of the keen ventured abroad”.
It would be another 26 years before Greenwich would see another heatwave of the same magnitude. Tucked away on page 16 of Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on Sunday 20th August 1893 a national round-up column spoke of ‘The Excessive Heat’ of the past week of that heatwave which ranks 11th in the league of heatwaves.
“A farmer, named Calvert, of Barlow, died of sunstroke on Tuesday whilst engaged in harvest work. A man named George Wight fell down in the street at Birmingham on Tuesday, and was taken to the hospital, where it was stated that he was suffering from sunstroke. The intense heat had a remarkable effect on the temperature of the sea in the Channel. A Sandwich correspondent said the water was the warmest it had been for 25 years.”
Several cases of sunstroke were recorded among soldiers from Plymouth Garrison. A regiment from West Riding were ordered off parade while some regiments took the unprecedented step of parading in shirtsleeves. An engine-driver, when running the express into Stoke station, became seriously ill and died directly after his admission to hospital. His death is attributed to the intense heat. Harvesters in Ashford, Kent, also downed tools after a fatality and several cases of sunstroke.
National newspapers of the day took a broader view of proceedings. The Daily Telegraph‘s assumption on the cause of the heatwave and prognosis of conditions was actually better than it is today.
“Not more than twice or thrice in the present century probably has heat as intense and persistent as that now registered been experienced in England. Since Saturday, when announced the formation of an anticyclone over the British islands, there has been a nearly constant and slowly progressive increase of temperature, until yesterday the maximum thermometric reading of the year so far was attained, 90 degrees in the shade being recorded at the Meteorological Office, Westminster.”
The Times on the same day remarked on how people were dealing with the intense heat:
“Such is the force of habit that the social mechanism still keeps working, though nobody really cares for anything except the heat. In the shops, in the Stock Exchange, even in Parliament, people meet and go through the form of doing business, but their langour tells its own story — that the sun has been too much for them.”
The paper describes a “great thunderstorm that had kept everyone in the south of England awake a week earlier” that was assumed to have been the end of a hot summer. But the heat built again.
“Sunday was one of the most exhausting days in human memory; and Tuesday and yesterday, at all events in London, were days to be remembered and quoted. Nothing more like a Italian scirocco has ever been felt here than the west wind which blew at midday yesterday. Very scientific thermometers, indeed, pretend that the heat was nothing exceptional, but the skin, the brain, and the temper of the average man told a different story.”
It would appear that the return of the heatwave took forecasters by surprise and the paper continues on with a familiar ‘why weren’t we warned’ tone:
“And the worst was that the forecast, to which our excellent Meteorological Office has taught us to look with so much confidence, promised quite other things. It spoke of weather unsettled, thundery, and showery later,” and in the north it promised ” westerly and varying breezes; changeable, showery, thundery, cooler. “What tricks were the barometers playing ? Was Ben Nevis having its little joke, or was the office itself suffering from sunstroke?”
The Daily Chronicle turned its editorial attentions to the “alarming” effects the heat was having on peoples’ attire
“The social effects began to operate at an early stage at Westminster, on temper as well on habiliments. They have now penetrated that last refuge of conventional respectability, the City, where the chimney-pot de rigueur has been dethroned by the straw of comfort, and the waistcoat has actually disappeared before the coloured silk scarf.”
The paper reports of people falling ill with fever in the heat, possibly caused by water supply. While the Thames, thanks to reforms by the County Council, was not smelling Glaswegians close to the Clyde were not so fortunate, the river being “overpoweringly odorous all the summer”.
“We must grin and bear it, as may. We shall grumble when the temperature falls, pretty much as we are doing now. For, Macanlay somewhere says, man is never satisfied with what he has, but is always straining after what he has not. And this is particularly true of Britons and their weather.”
Little is written of the 17th ranked 1906 heatwave that ran from August 31st to September 2nd though a diary note on page 3 of the Portsmouth Evening News on Thursday 6th September said the effect of the heat proved decidedly detrimental to education in Portsmouth. It reports:
“Not that the attendance has fallen off to any appreciable extent as result of the very trying weather, but its effect has been very marked, nevertheless, as the youngsters have proved very heavy and slack, with the result that the lot has been decidedly trying.”
The glorious summer of 1911, surprisingly, did not produce a spell that would satisfy my heatwave criteria.
The season, which produced hot weather throughout July and August, is worthy of mention, however, because August 9th saw the first occasion 100°F was recorded in London. Considering the magnitude of this milestone the media of the day seemed reluctant to go overboard with the coverage, simply reporting the facts. The day after the hottest day ever the Dundee Evening Post had some advice on attire for hot weather, including a reported sighting of Keir Hardie in a “duck suit”.
By 1923, a heatwave that placed 14th, reports were going beyond records of temperature and heat-related deaths. On July 16th a reader of the Gloucester Citizen was bemoaning the fact that visitors to London were being subjected to “heatwave profiteering”.
Ice was in short supply and only available in restaurants and cafes and the price of fruit and salad had risen “beyond reason”. The author writes:
“A Fleet Street shop, for example, lemons have suddenly risen from a modest penny to a more formidable threepence, and the explanation is: “There has been an eruption at Etna, you know”. “To point out that the present stock of lemons was received long before Etna began to make its dangerous influences felt is merely to invite a shrug of the shoulders and gesture indicating “take it or leave it.”
The London Letter column in the Hull Daily Mail on Friday 13th July mentions MP’s braving the stifling heat to hear Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s statement on European policy, and also “London The Boil”.
“The heat wave continues to keep in its fiery grip. It absolutely dominates the daily lives of our seven million population, whose habits are rapidly approximating to those much nearer the equator. Hyde Park ladies fashionably attired may be seen sitting under sunshades beneath the shadiest trees in their stockinged feet. Their shoes rest beside them on the parched grass.”
“In Fleet Street there has been a long queue, as nondescript as an old-time butter queue during the war ration period, outside a shop where ice cream wafers are sold at the rate of about two hundred a minute. Men are wearing white suits, waistcoats have vanished, straw hats are at a premium. Most of the licensed bars are doing little more than pussyfoot trade in long iced teetotal drinks. An actor appearing in SoThis is London, says that he gets home half-an-hour earlier nowadays. Though the theatre is quite well filled, the audience is too hot to applaud. So the show goes slick through.”
The column, written decades before the advent of air conditioned comfort became the norm, also gives advice on where to keep cool in the capital. Previous favourites had included the cold-storage warehouses along the riverside at Blackfriars Bridge, the Monument and Westminster’s “Byzantine” tower.
“I am quite certain the coolest place in London is in a boat under the stone bridge that spans the Serpentine. Scores of overheated Londoners seek these cool arches. There, if you can crush in, you may smoke a cigarette, in almost too chilly comfort, while London boils just outside.”
The heatwave of August 27th – 29th 1930, which ranks 15th,produced another interesting ‘London Letter’ column in the Portsmouth Evening News about too-hot cabs and heatwave profiteering: a greengrocer raising the price of lemons from 1d to 13d, despite there being crates available in storerooms!
Two years later and newspapers were reporting the ‘hottest day for a generation’. The heatwave of August 18th – 20th August 1932 saw the temperature reach 99°F (37.2°C). This heatwave ranks 9th.
“Tragedies attributable to the heatwave were reported from all parts the kingdom yesterday. From the provinces 14 heat deaths were notified. Three cases of suicide which the Paddington coroner said were attributable to the effects of the intense heat and ill health were subjects of inquests Paddington yesterday afternoon.”
The Leicester Chronicle reported cases of heat exhaustion and the curious sight of people carrying home butter in jugs while the 7.25pm and 7.30pm express trains from King’s Cross to the Western Highlands had shower baths installed in sleeping cars to help passengers cope with the heat.
The heatwave of August 6th – August 8th 1947, which ranks 18th, was sparsely reported save for the usual heat stroke casualty stories and the fact that Cheltenham recorded 11 hours of sunshine on one sweltering day.
By 1948 signs of a move away from straight reporting of heatwaves were beginning to appear. An Hour in the Heatwave, a report taken during the hot spell of July 28th – 30th, ranked 12th, was published in the Essex Newsman.
The reporter, Gilbert Saunders, gave a simple but highly readable account of people going about their daily life in the heat.
“In the stadium The other side of the river, where Chelmsford have their stadium, Ted Boxall, private builder, was getting on with a job that he started on Wednesday and hopes to finish by today. He is making a surround and small archway for the counter over which cups of tea are passed to directors and guests in the board room under the grandstand. Ted (who asked : “You’re not mistaking me for Mr. Rowe, are you?”) was surrounded with litter of Essex boarding and sawdust. He paused to wipe a hot brow, explained that he does “lots of odd jobs” for the club. Ted gets a hand from the players when its needed. Earlier this week he finished off two sets of concrete steps, one each side of the grandstand, so that fans will be able to get on the raised ground without having to scramble up the sides of a small mountain of ash and clinkers.”
“On the Corner At London Road corner, his face red from the heat but bearing the everpresent grin, Special Constable Thorn clicked and swivelled his 6ft 3in and kept the traffic moving, all unaware that the next day’s Essex Chronicle was already printing a letter suggesting that his courtesy, service, and goodwill should be rewarded with the Freedom of Chelmsford.”
“In the Newspaper Office And inside the building of the Essex Chronicle, Norman White, bespectacled family man, sat down at the side of the roaring press and took a bite at some sandwiches. The first of seven editions was streaming out. “Ought to be pretty early tonight,” he shouted above the din. “With luck we should all be away between half-past nine and ten …… “
The Aberdeen Journal, in its edition published on Friday 30th July, reported on conditions in London and how the population was coping (or not!) with the heat:
“The metropolis last night was like a large restless household—with all the lights ablaze, doors and windows thrown open, the family fretful, and endless pots of tea brewing far into this morning.
“Perhaps one in ten among the 8,000,000 of us slept after midnight. For the rest, we tossed and turned and saw out this heatwave night, when temperatures were never below 71 degrees, a variety of ways. About midnight I walked past the gaunt old Edwardian mansions in Kensington. With the exception the lights that burned from every window, the scene was reminiscent of the early days of the Blitz.
“Families trekked across the roadway in varying stages of undress to their little bits of ornamental gardens. With them went camp beds, bed linen, umbrellas, “in case,” the children, and the household pets, choose a cool open-air camping spot and feel wonderfully adventurous and spartan in the process.”
“At regular intervals the adolescent members of the squatting colonies were dispatched to the tea and coffee stalls on the corner, and perhaps for the first time in years these traders ran out of stocks. On the Kensington-Chelsea boundary, where life becomes noticeably less inhibited and on occasions less swish, a mixed group of young artists was sleeping on the pavement off Fulham Road.
“Round the next corner, where many theatrical and film stars live, several had slung hammocks on their meagre front lawns – one actually suspended between the bathroom windows of two adjacent houses. Midnight street wear for both sexes was cool if unconventional —silk pyjamas, bath robes, tennis shorts, and one in kilt and bathing costume top who could have gone straight into the arena at Lonach.”
The column goes on to describe the situation in the House of Commons where the heat had reached “almost Turkish bath intensity”.
“Some members were in natty tussore silk suitings, but this helped little, and it was many of their number who appealed to the Speaker to have more windows opened. The Speaker, panting like the rest of us, said they were all open. If they wanted more cool breezes from the Thames, members would have to smash the windows.”
More evidence of reportage became evident during the June 1952 heatwave which ranks 8th.
Peter Chambers, of the Evening Express, wrote:
“London is hot. It is going to get hotter. That merry mercury column is poking up into the eighties already. That’s what faces us at the height of a heatwave.
“Bus tyres sizzle on the melted tarmac in the streets. At office windows, the girls are pattering away at their typrewriters with damp, discouraged fingers.
“It’s a scorcher. Even the sparrows are panting.”
The reporter describes the scene at London Bridge at 9.30am: “Well, as I came over London Bridge with the 9.30 surge of sweltering suburbia, a bus conductor hopped off his traffic-jammed vehicle and grabbed a couple of ice chips off a Billingsgate lorry. One for him, one for the driver. “What I want, mate,” said the driver ungratefully, “is a ‘ole block of the freezin’ stuff – to sit on.” That is the male reaction to the heatwave.
“The female reaction is typified by the secretary in this office, who buzzes off to the ladies’ room every half-hour to atomise herself with eau de cologne. Ever since she read that fragrant publicity handout, which said “It’s not enough, girls, NOT to be hot and sticky, you’ve got to smell NICE-TO-BE-NEAR…”
The author takes a walk past Embankment and up to Trafalgar Square: “The girls are in topless frocks. Even the men have got their jackets off – a sight abhored further east, where the rigid convention of the City demands that you sweat it out in your dark worsted, regardless.”
At 1pm he finds foreigners feeding the pigeons by Nelson’s Columns and Londoners feeding themselves on bags of strawberries priced at 1/9. By 3pm he’d made it to the Serpentine Lido along with 3,000 other people. He describes at like “Margate on a Bank Holiday”.
The summer of 1959 was glorious but many cool nights saw the season fall short of my 23.5C threshold. It would be a long time before summers were nice again.
The top 6 of my league of heatwaves are all occupied by much more recent events, including 1976 and 1990, both of which are dealt with in the blog I wrote last year – 50 years of London heatwaves. The heatwave that topped them all, in terms of sheer intensity and produced the UK’s hottest day ever, happened in 2003.
I have vague memories of the weeks of sunshine in 1976 but the hot spells that stick in my mind the most are August 1990, when the UK temperature record was set in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, and August 2003 when an 8-day hot spell saw the all-time UK temperature record broken when 38.5C was reached at Brogdale, near Faversham, Kent.
In terms of length, heat and sunshine, therefore, 2003 comes out on top. Though many people will argue that 1976 is the more impressive summer that year produced two spells that satisfy my criteria, coming in second and fifth. The first heatwave saw temperatures soar above 31° C for six consecutive days from June 23. The start of the second, on July 3, saw Bjorn Borg win the first of five Wimbledon mens’ titles as he prevailed over Ilie Nastase in 35°C heat. The summer of 1995, which saw my driest-ever August with just 0.7mm of rainfall all month, comes in 3rd, with six days of mean temperatures of 23.5°C or higher.
Looking back through history it is not really surprising that 2003 comes out on top. While it was hot in London the heatwave across the Channel contributed to the death of over 70,000 people throughout Europe, France being the most affected.
Any football followers reading this will notice that my ‘premier league’ is two positions short. But with the gradual increase in temperature, particularly at night-time during heatwaves, I don’t think it will be long before these positions are filled.
A complete set of 500mb reanalysis charts have been uploaded and can be watched as a GIF movie
* There were hot spells before 1852 but I have excluded these: Luke Howard’s maxima observations from Plaistow, Stratford and Tottenham were taken under non-standard conditions and may be on the high side. I have instead focused my investigation on data recorded at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
** For some reason the data during a couple of years in the 1950s was incomplete – to fill in these gaps I used official data gathered at Kew. The data is completed up to the present day using my own observations taken since 1988.
*** As already mentioned prior to these dates data is unreliable as conditions for collection were not strictly controlled. However, there are many records of extreme heat. On Sunday, August 1, 1868, the Gloucester Journal published a report on the “Heat of previous years” detailing an account of hot spells going back to 1806. “Mr. G. J. Symons gives a number of interesting particulars in reference the heat of previous seasons in this country. We abstract the following
1806: Very hot in parts of June and July. At Plaistow the temperature was 95 degrees on June 10th, and 90 degrees or upwards on three days.
1808: Very hot from July 12th to 19th. On the 12th a thermometer in perfect shade in a window in St James’s Park was 81.5 degrees at 3pm, and on the 13th at the same hour, 94 degrees. On the same day four men and seven women were killed by sunstroke in various parts of the Midland counties, and numerous coach and other horses were also killed. On the 15th a very violent and destructive thunderstorm in Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire, and surrounding counties.
1818:July a very hot month. At Tottenham on the 24th Luke Howard registered 93 degrees at Somerset House on the same day it was 89 degrees, and in the Strand 87 degrees at noon. The mean temperature of that day at Greenwich was 79.2 degrees, which was higher than any other day between 1814 and 1863. The following paragraph appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine for September, 1818: “It is worthy of remark that the heat of the present summer has been universal. From the north to the south of Europe the heat has been greater and more lasting than for 40 years On July 24th the thermometer here (where!) was 98 degrees, which had never been reached except on July 16th, 1793. At Paris July 31st it was 93 degrees and at Philadelphia 100 degrees.” From 19th to 21st violent thunderstorms in the west of England.
1825: July remarkable, if not unique, in its constant and excessive temperature. At Stratford Luke Howard registered 90 degrees or upwards on seven days, the highest being 97 degrees on the 18th.
1826: The heat was very great. In May the thermometer reached 76 degrees, June 92, July 89, August 85. Two men were killed by sunstroke near London. The fields were as brown as the roads. After two months’ drought the rivulets were gone, and many of the wells dry. The hay crop was deficient from long drought. Country is parched, and corn in some places, though only a few inches above ground, was shooting into ear. Several hills and moors caught fire. In Worcestershire the excessive heat and drought almost wholly destroyed the pasturage, and trees were lopped to feed the cattle.
1846: July 5 was very hot, 93.3 degrees being registered at Greenwich, and 94 degrees at Clapham (94 degrees has been recorded there again in the only other instance at that station.
1852: July of this wet year was remarkably hot, the mean monthly temperature (66.6 degrees) having only been exceeded by July 1778 when it was 67 degrees; and July 1859 when it was 68.1 degrees. Tho extreme heat, however, was only 90.3 degrees at Greenwich.
1857: On June 28, 92.7 deg. was recorded at Greenwich.
1858: June was a very hot day, 94.5 degrees being reached at Greenwich.
1859: Temperatures of 92, 92.5, and 93.0 degrees were recorded at Greenwich.”
There are 2.5 times as many hot days during summer in London as there were 100 years ago – that’s the result I have found while looking at data for Greenwich going back to 1851.
Very hot conditions, where the mean daily temperature is 23.5°C or higher, as defined by the Met Office’s Heat-Health Watch System, have been achieved in this area on 199 days since 1852.
The Met Office, and other meteorological agencies, use 30-year averages to smooth any spikes of hot and cold years – so the result, in my view, is quite remarkable – even though it is just one dataset.
Looking at the data overall it can be seen that while average maxima has decreased by 1.6°C since 1881-1910, minima has increased by 2.1°C.
The decreased maxima is possibly explained by the fact that the sun shines, on average, just over an hour less than it did a century ago. The reason for this could be because of increased air pollution and aircraft contrails?
The increased minima, on the other hand, could be being caused by the fact that vast tracts of suburban front and back gardens are now paved over – along with the loss of the shade of many trees. This, and increased road and house building, acts as a huge radiator, keeping nights warmer than they would have been a century ago.
Experts would question the hybrid nature of my dataset, even though my observing sites are very close to those of Greenwich. It is a shame that many of the first climatological stations, such as Camden Square set up in the early 19th century by George Symons, are not still around as they would now offer an unquestionable insight into just how much London’s climate has warmed.
You could argue that there is no doubt that the warming in these data is man made though, perhaps, paved gardens keeping summer nights warmer would be a lot easier and cheaper to solve than fulfilling the carbon capture policies of many of the world’s governments. But that is an argument for another post.
For now, as the capital’s population continues to increase, it is vitally important that planners get the next generation of property developments right to keep the population cool when a heatwave strikes. Extreme heat severely affects public health, not least the suicide rate – a study has shown that above 18°C, each 1°C increase in mean temperature has associated with a 3.8 and 5.0% rise in suicide and violent suicide respectively. Planners cannot just leave it to energy-hungry air conditioning to bring relief – developments should incorporate plenty of shade and natural cooling in their designs to help counteract the health impacts of future heatwaves.
* There were hot spells before the period in this post but I have excluded these: Luke Howard’s maxima observations from Plaistow, Stratford and Tottenham were taken under non-standard conditions and may be on the high side.
** I have focused my investigation on data recorded at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. For some reason the data during a couple of years in the 1950s was incomplete – to fill in these gaps I used official data gathered at Kew. The data is completed up to the present day using my own observations taken since 1988.
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 five years later 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.
The Clean Air Act 1956 ironically saw the return of dull Christmas Days – though 1956 was a white Christmas with a light covering of snow and a maximum of zero Celsius.
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)
It was the summer when the ‘sea’ came to Redbridge. A record-breaking 59-hour deluge in the middle of June 1903 left vast swaths of the borough inundated. But this was no thundery downpour. All across London and the South East record rainfall rates and totals were set, many of which still stand well over a century later.
According to one local historian the fields between Wanstead Park and Ilford – as far as Uphall Road – were like an open sea and the railway track at Seven Kings resembled a shallow river.
After a dry start to the month June quickly went downhill with notable falls of rain during the second week. The main deluge arrived around noon on Saturday, June 13, and lasted until near midnight on the 15th.
The rain was caused by a depression that moved slowly across southern England, becoming stationary over the English Channel close to the Isle of Wight for 24 hours before moving north-east. It introduced a very cool NE’ly airflow – the temperature on the 14th and 15th failed to climb above 11C and on the 19th a high of just 9.2C was recorded as yet more rain fell.
Across the London area there were five days within the period 10th to 19th June when over 25mm of rain was measured in many places. The deluge added to what became the wettest summer month on record. At the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, just over 154mm fell, three times the amount of what normally falls in June in this area. Further west, Kew Observatory recorded 184mm.
The 1903 rains produced an unprecedented summer flood on the Thames. At Teddington 7335 million gallons (33,374 million litres) of water flowed over the weir on June 21st. Elsewhere the Lea Valley was one vast lake, especially around Enfield, with the Royal Gunpowder Factory inundated.
The Friday, June 19th edition of the Essex County Chronicle abounds with other tales of woe from the floods…
Barking and District: In the large area of low-lying ground between Lea Bridge, Ilford, Barking, and East Ham, houses stood in a great inland sea, which was washing over the garden fences and lapping at the lower windows. Upstairs the occupants could be seen moving about or gazing hopelessly out at the dreary waste of black waters. Boats from Barking Creek were rowing about with supplies of milk and bread, and those who wished were taken away. All along the Barking Road from East Ham scenes almost identical were witnessed, but, happily with the end of the rain, the water did not retain its level long. Past Barking and on to Rainham the roads on Tuesday were quite impassable, much of the heavy traffic which goes through Rainham towards Barking having to turn back.
Woodford and Wanstead: The inhabitants of Claybury Asylum and Woodford Bridge were cut off by 3ft of water from Woodford. The whole of the Roding Valley was in a deplorable state; sheds, trees and stock that was once alive floating in all directions. Wanstead was divided from Ilford by a great lake, but happily the total of loss in property was here very small.
Lea Bridge: The Leyton marshes were covered by one great sheet of water, Lea Bridge Road itself being quite 2ft under. Boats were to be seen plying among the tramcars.
Epping: The valleys were well-nigh impassable, especially at Thornwood and parts of Theydon Bois.
Romford: The floods reached to Romford High Street, and made the thoroughfare impassable for pedestrians. The crisis caused a heated exchange among members at a meeting of the Urban Council on Monday evening where it was agreed to allow the free use of the town fire engine for pumping water from ratepayers’ premises, provided that those who required its services paid for the labour. Cllr J. Bassett thought the residents should make their own arrangements for getting rid of the water. Cllr J.R Holliday replied: “You don’t live near the river. I should like to stick you in the middle of it. I think it is the duty of the council to protect property.”
Laindon: Here the height of the deluge was experienced between seven and eight o’clock on Sunday evening. The rain descended in apparent ropes of water, causing consternation, flooding houses, choking drains and water-troughing, cutting deep channels in roads, washing up plants and new potatoes. On Monday the water was between 3 and 4ft feet deep at Noak Hill and other bridges.
Woodford: An exciting scene took place at Woodford Bridge, where a steam circus, with its owners, was in the most precarious position. Men and women were submerged up to their armpits while extricating the caravans.
Away from the South East the weather was much dryer. Felixstowe and Yarmouth newspapers reported that Sunday had seen “delightfully sunny weather, with cool north-easterly breezes”. Lincoln, meanwhile, recorded less than an inch of rain for the whole month!
Could these rains happen again? Meteorologically, given the same synoptic set-up, it is possible. In terms of the June monthly total of rain we came close in 1997 when 133mm fell – though this was much more evenly spread throughout the month. And thanks to massive investment in local river systems since the 1950s the flooding nightmares brought by the Lea and Roding rivers should stay firmly in the past.
*You can see the full stats from Greenwich for June 1903 by clicking this link.
‘Worst-ever!’, ‘in living memory’, ‘highest on record!’, ‘unprecedented!’. These phrases, used often by newsreaders on the main networks including Sky and BBC, always set an alarm bell ringing in my head. None more so than weather stories which, with the stormy winter we’ve just had, has been happening almost daily since the middle of December.
As the winter has progressed the networks have tried to out do one another with the severity-value of a story. What starts with a reporter gingerly standing by the side of a flooded field within days changes to the reporter, donning a pair of fisherman’s waders, trawling waist-deep through a flooded Berkshire housing estate.
The media also seem to delight in rushing out Met Office data to proclaim these armageddon scenarios before the season is over and the statistics can be properly studied, absorbed and commented upon.
Last summer, I started to build a dataset for my own area – Wanstead. Using local figures from the City of London Cemetery I was able to take the daily series back to 1959. Beyond this I then sourced monthly data for Greenwich, 6 miles away, back to 1881. Using W.A.L Marshall’s A Century of London Weather and Luke Howard’s The Climate of London enabled me to take the series right back to 1797.
The series makes for interesting reading, putting this winter as 6th wettest since 1797. Scientists would say that because my series is only one dataset it cannot be regarded as a ‘catch-all’ for the country overall. But when statements like “England and Wales has had its heaviest rainfall since 1766” are put out by the media it is blatantly not true for the entire country. Just a quick look at the map shows that while parts of south and southeast England have been very wet – other parts of the country have been much less so.
But in this age of 24-hour rolling news the message to anyone who takes the headlines at face value is that this has been the wettest winter ever. You can view the winter mean temperature and rainfall stats here.