Tag Archives: Luke Howard

In the tracks of Luke Howard

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.

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The river Lea near the Bow flyover is roughly where Luke Howard’s chemical factory was situated

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.

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The river is lined with canal boats, breweries, old factories, residential development and street art

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.

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Anchor and Hope: a good spot to stop for a pint

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.

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7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham.

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.

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The monkey puzzle tree

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.

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The rear of 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham

 

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Walthamstow Marshes were flooded to a depth so great that many trees briefly disappeared
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When the River Lea turned into an inland sea

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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The area around where Luke Howard’s factory once stood

 

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Walthamstow Marshes were flooded to a depth so great that many trees briefly disappeared

 

Constable’s fair view of Waterloo Bridge

A sketch of Waterloo Bridge by John Constable sold for £2.3m as auction this week.

The canvas, confirmed as the first prototype for “The Opening of Waterloo Bridge”, the celebrated work by one of Britain’s greatest landscape artists that hangs in Tate Britain. was discovered hanging in the hallway of a private home.

It is an excellent example of how Constable managed to harness the realistic detail of skies of the period, a detail that was overlooked by artists before him.

1817Sketched shortly after his 41st birthday on June 18th 1817, the scene depicts a pleasant summer afternoon, echoing that day’s meteorological observations in Luke Howard’s Climate of London: a high of 26C with light SE’ly winds, the start of a fine spell of weather.

It is thought that Constable, who in 1817 moved from his native Suffolk to London, had been greatly influenced by Howard’s work on naming the clouds a decade or so earlier. It was the same year that Howard gave his Seven Lectures In Meteorology, the subject matter of which was later published as the first meteorological textbook in 1837.

The sketch, which shows ceremonial barges leaving the shore at Whitehall to celebrate the opening of the new bridge, with St Paul’s Cathedral and the spires of Wren’s City churches visible beyond, fetched £2,289,000, far the figure it was expected to receive, between £1m and £1.5m, at Sotheby’s, on Wednesday.

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“The Opening of Waterloo Bridge seen from Whitehall Stairs, June 18 1817,” oil on canvas, by the English artist John Constable. 51.5″ X 85.83″. Courtesy of the Tate Britain, London.}} |Source=http://www.the-athenaeum.org/

 

Centuries of London fogs

November normally marks the return of those autumn staples frost and fog and this December marks the 65th anniversary of the Great Smog.

Looking back through the archives the worst fogs tend to appear throughout these two months, set off by recurring weather patterns. The usual scenario, an anticyclone centred over Switzerland and Austria, leaves our part of the UK in a light SE’ly feed off the continent. Warm air aloft traps already poor quality air at ground level, the temperature inversion gradually leading to increasing levels of pollution.

During the Georgian Regency period fog occurs numerous times in Luke Howard’s Climate of London.

November 27th 1816 : “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.” (Evening Mail)

December 31st 1817: “The fog of Wednesday (31st) seems to have been confined to the metropolis and the immediate vicinity. No further to the northward than the back of Euston Square the weather was clear and even bright. A gentleman who came to town from Enfield saw no fog till he approached London. Southward of London it extended as far as Clapham and it was rather thicker in some of the environs than in the metropolis itself. Upon an average 10ft was the distance at which objects became invisible out of doors. Within doors it was impossible to read without a candle.”

November 3rd 1820: “A very thick fog in the morning.”
And on the 18th: “An extremely thick fog which remained most of the morning. About 10am the coachmen on the road were unable to see the heads of their horses which in many instances were obliged to be led.”

In 1828 several days in November were noted for their fogginess, including 11th, 17th and 19th. The 12th had “extreme dense fog all day.”

“The fog of Wednesday (12th) has seldom been exceeded in opacity in the metropolis and its neighbourhood. It began to thicken very much about half past twelve o’clock from which time till near two the effect was most distressing making the eyes smart and almost suffocating those who were in the street, particularly asthmatic persons.

“In the city all the bankers and offices of different descriptions as well as the principal shops were obliged to have lights. To see with any distinctness further than across the street was impossible. All the narrow lanes beyond the perspective of a few yards were absolutely in a state of darkness and in the great thoroughfares the hallooing of coachmen and drivers to avoid each other seemingly issuing from the opaque mass in which they were enveloped was calculated to awaken all the caution of riders as well as of pedestrians who had to cross the streets.

“On the Thames as on land the tendency which fog has to enlarge distant objects was strikingly illustrated. The smallest vessels on their approach seemed magnified to thrice their usual dimensions. St Paul’s had a prodigious effect through the mist though neither that nor the Monument were visible above the height of the houses. This optical illusion is said to arise from the fog diminishing the brightness of objects and consequently suggesting a greater distance since while the visual angle remains the same the greater the distance the greater the real magnitude. It cleared off a little about a quarter past two but returned with all its density in the evening. (Public Ledger)

The following year 1829 saw a virtual repeat with wintry weather setting in at the end of the month. Fog was recorded on November 2nd, 11th and 19th. On the 20th the diary entry read: “hoar frost, foggy day and so thick at night as to prevent travelling,” before the weather turned colder on 24th: “a hoar frost, cloudy, a heavy fall of snow from 10pm through the night – 4 inches and upwards on the ground. 25th: a little more snow, thaw. 26th: thaw going on cloudy, very cold. 27th: very thick fog, drizzly.”

With coal being the primary source of heat and power for millions of Londoners the air during anticyclonic conditions would have been thick with acrid soot. The smell of coal in pea soupers, fogs caused by a mixture of soot, smoke and fog, is referred by a Mr Guppy in the letters page of The Times on December 5th 1837.

A London particular…
Not only was the darkness so great [in the morning] that the shops were all lighted up, but also every object in the streets, however near, was totally obscured from the view of the persons walking along. In Piccadilly the darkness was very great, and the confusion caused by the vehicles running against each other beyond description. About 9 o’clock the Hastings branch coach, which had just left the Old White Horse Cellar, while endeavouring to turn into St. James’s Street, ran into the shop window of Mr Hoby, the celebrated bootmaker, at the western corner, which it demolished with a fearful crash, breaking upwards of 40 squares of glass.

Fast forward 35 years, with the industrial revolution in full swing, a notable fog in December 1873 was described in The Medical Times and Gazette as “one of the most disastrous this generation has known,” going on to point out that “to persons with cardiac and respiratory disease it has in numerous instances proved fatal.” Some 273 people died as a result of bronchitis caused by the coal-smoke saturated fog which enveloped the city for days.

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Reanalysis charts enable us to see how an anticyclone centred over Austria allowed ideal conditions for fog to form, the worst conditions probably being on November 9th 1873

With the population of London steadily increasing, together with ever higher demand for fossil fuels, the fogs grew steadily filthier. Throughout 1892, the letters pages of The Times were filled with complaints about the increasing number of fogs which slowed the metropolis to a crawl. Most were concerned with what could be done to either end the great scourge or to at least ameliorate the worst effects of the great seasonal nuisance.

By the autumn, the governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company was becoming tired of accusations that they were not supplying enough gas during fogs and pointed out that during a particularly foggy week in November, consumers used 60 million cubic feet of gas more than in the corresponding week a year earlier. Turning to the chief complainant, he suggested that his problem lay with his fittings “over which the company has no control” and went on to accuse him of “recklessly bring[ing] a baseless charge against this company.”y

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Conditions in November 1892 prompted many to write to The Times of London to complain about the ever increasing occurence of fog

And so it went on. But it would be another 60 years before the Great Smog, in December 1952 that led to at least 4,000 deaths and 100,000 being taken ill by the smog’s effects, finally brought about a wave of action that led to the Clean Air Act in 1956. The six days of the anticyclonic conditions are shown below.

 

 

30 mile fog 1952
How the Daily Express reported the ‘pea souper’ in 1952. Absolutely no need for any hype that plagues that paper’s weather stories today!

The anticyclones that caused these horrendous smogs still happen today. Since 2013 I have recorded 10 days of fog at 9am in the autumn / early winter seasons, including one in December 2013 that prompted the iconic image of Canary Wharf poking up through the gloom below.

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Canary Wharf fog picture: Metropolitan Police helicopter takes stunning pictures of fogbound London from the sky | Metro News

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Fog on November 1st 2015 was thick enough to see the annual firework display on Wanstead Flats cancelled.

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With the advent of the Clean Air Act the often annual problem of smogs became a thing of the past though, over the past few years, pollution levels have been creeping up again. Campaign groups such as Clean Air in London seem, at last to have a handle on the seriousness of the situation and that these 19th weather patterns that brought such horrendous conditions still occur today. Indeed this table, drawn up by Xmetman, shows how common high pressure still is in winter.

It would be interesting to see how pollution today, in terms of total airborne particulates, NO2 etc, compares with pollution that Londoners had to suffer throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Christmas 1810: stormy then very cold

Earthquakes in Italy and early season snow cover in Siberia have been well documented in 2016.

They were also mentioned by Luke Howard in his publication The Climate of London in 1810.

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He also mentions winter thunderstorms over the Yuletide period, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day – the amount of rain overflowing the Thames.

24th: Very windy night with heavy rain. 25th: Wind high all day with rain frequent lightning in the evening from SE. 26th: Wind very boisterous early in the morning day fine the rain of the last three or four days being impeded in its passage to the Thames by the spring tides overflowed the banks and filled the marshes.

Within two days of this wild and wet spell, complete with strong north-westerlies, the wind swung north and then north-easterly to usher in 1811 with a 12-day cold spell.

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The conditions of the cold spell were not severe, the coldest night was -8C, it was a pretty standard cold spell for the time and one that the south-east used to experience with fair regularity in the early to mid 1980s.

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Models currently show a (fairly) narrow chance of a stormy Christmas period. It would be interesting if it were followed with a cold spell in January – just like the ones we used to get in 1980s.

* The Booty website also contains the following on that notable month…
What is thought to be Britain’s strongest tornado occurred in December 1810. A category of “T8” (on a ten-point scale) occurred on the 14th at Old Portsmouth. The TORRO website says it:  “tracked from Old Portsmouth to Southsea Common causing immense damage – although no deaths, it is believed. Some houses completely levelled and many others were so badly damaged that they had to be demolished; chimneys were blown down and the lead on a bank roof was ‘rolled up like a piece of canvas and blown from its situation’.”

The night temps fell to -20C in east London

The ‘Year Without a Summer’ of 1816 brought many extremes of weather as well as a cold, wet and depressing summer.

Stats taken by Luke Howard during the February 1816 cold snap
Stats taken by Luke Howard during Feb cold snap

During the opening months frequent cold blasts brought much wintry weather. Cold weather at the end of January turned severe during the second week of February.

In the early hours of the 7th heavy snow, driven by gale-force north-easterly winds, brought 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 within two days of the snowfall. The minimum recorded on the morning of the 10th: -20.6C has not, as far as I can tell, been repeated since.

annualTo 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.

Howard, who would have taken readings at his laboratory in Stratford and home in Tottenham, remarked on the rare occurrence of the cold and said that the thermometer had remained below 0F (-17.8C) for a number of hours: “an occasion that happened less than five times within a century – the last appearing to be 19 years previous.”

Howard’s theory of the day was that such extremes didn’t occur during long continued frosts but rather at an interval of one winter after such a season. He mentions the frost of 1794-95, which lasted 44 days, immediately before which the thermometer fell to -2F. The following year a low temperature of -6.5F was recorded. The year 1816 followed the cold winter of 1813/14 – the same pattern, so Howard was prepared for the night of February 9th 1816.

luke-howardModern climatologists tend to discount these old records by arguing that standard conditions set by the World Meteorological Organisation were not met. However, Howard backs up his findings with a very thorough explanation of how he went about measuring the record low temperature that followed a freezing day where the maximum thermometer didn’t rise above -6.7C.

“Early in the evening on trying the experiment of placing a wet finger on the iron railing it was found to adhere immediately and strongly to the iron. I exposed several thermometers in different situations.

“At 8 pm, a quicksilver thermometer with the bulb supported a little above the snow stood at 0F. At 11pm a spirit thermometer in the same position indicated -4F, the former which had a pretty large bulb had not sunk below -3F. At 7.30am the 10th a quicksilver and a spirit thermometer hung overnight about 8ft above the ground indicated respectively -3F and were evidently rising.

“The thermometer near the surface of the snow had fallen to 5F and probably lower, but at the usual height from the ground of my standard thermometer the temperature was at no time below -5F. The exposure is north and very open.”

Howard goes on to describe the following day:

“From 8am the thermometer continued to rise steadily at noon a temperature of 25F was pleasant by contrast to the feeling and it was easy to keep warm in walking without an upper coat. Even at 0F, however, the first impression of the air on the skin was not disagreeable; the dryness and stillness greatly tending to prevent that sudden abstraction of heat which is felt in moist and quickly flowing air.

“Early in the afternoon the wind changed all at once to SW some large cirri which had appeared all day passed to cirrocumulus and cirrostratus with obscurity to the south. I now confidently expected rain as had happened in former instances but was deceived and the thaw took place with a dry air for the most part and with several interruptions by night.

As often happens with severe cold snaps Howard reported on the 17th that the snow “was mostly gone but very thick ice remains on ponds”; a period of just over a week.

The cold snap saw the mean temperature for February 1816 over three degrees colder than average at 0.8C.

Such extreme temperatures are rare in the capital though not unheard of. I know that there have been cases of sub -20C readings in, for example, the Rickmansworth frost hollow and Ian Currie’s Chipstead Valley, but I have never seen anything so low in east London. Could it be repeated again? Possibly, but like 1816, the synoptics would have to be absolutely perfect for it to happen.

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Luke Howard’s old house needs saving

To many who walk down Bruce Grove, Tottenham, number 7 probably just looks like yet another old Georgian building under threat from development.

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Number 7 & 8 Bruce Grove, Tottenham

Yet, if you look closely, the blue plaque says that the Grade II listed building was once the home of Luke Howard, ‘namer of clouds’.

The once grand Georgian villa was given permission to be developed over two years ago yet the developer has so far failed to begin the conversion. The building has since fallen into an alarming state of disrepair.

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The petition is targeting 2,000 signatures

A petition has been set up to pressure the developer to take action before the fabric of the facade is lost forever.

Howard’s system of naming clouds is still in use today and his studies of the capital’s climate, using observations made at Tottenham and his former home in Plaistow, contributed immensely to our understanding of the urban heat island effect.

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The blue plaque was unveiled in April 2002 at a ceremony attended by the BBC Weather presenter Michael Fish and Luke Howard’s descendants

His diary entries, including accoubnts on inundations from the River Lea,  are also important in terms of our understanding on how severe weather in the early 19th century impacted London. He also had an influence on how Constable went about capturing the mood of a painting through careful cloud study

In terms of significance, Number 7 Bruce Grove is up there with 62, Camden Square, NW1, where George Symons pioneered the scientific study of rainfall, setting up the British Rainfall Organisation.

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Chesterton House, Balaam Street, Plaistow, was the home of Luke Howard in the early 1800s before he moved with his family to Bruce Grove in 1813.         Top pic: LB Newham

Too much of old London has already been lost. By reminding Redwing Estates of the importance of this small corner of Tottenham we might just help stop Howard’s former home going the same way as his Plaistow abode that was demolished to make way for an ambulance depot decades ago.

You can sign the petition at: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-7-bruce-grove-tottenham

 

 

From autumn to spring in December 1806

When I was writing up my winter forecast I came across an analogue that was very similar to what happened during the period November 10th to December 31st.

mean 1806 v 2015
The period November 10th – December 31st in 1806 and 2015 show some striking similarities. It is also notable that mean during 2015 was 3C higher than 1806. Is this a question of synoptics or a warming world?

 

The results showed a close similarity between the two periods, November 10th – December 31st, though the mean in 2015 was some 3C warmer than 1806. Is this a question of synoptics or is this area now 3C warmer than it was just over 200 years ago?

Rainfall was also remarkably similar: 87.7mm fell from 10/10 – 31/12, just over 5mm more than 1806.

rain 1806 v 2015
The period November 10th – December 31st in 1806 and 2015 show some striking similarities. It is also notable that mean during 2015 was 3C higher than 1806. Is this a question of synoptics or a warming world?

Luke Howard, in his first volume of The Climate of London, describes a very warm December that followed on from a warm November that fooled flora and fauna into thinking spring had begun early.

Howard’s statistics are very high: a November mean of 9.5C while December was 7.2C. CET that November was 2.3C above average while December was 3.3C above average. Considering the England Wales Precipitation series a slightly wetter than average November was followed by a very wet December – over 250% the monthly average.

“The catkins of the filberts expanded prematurely. On December 25th a hedge sparrow’s nest was taken at Doveridge, Derbyshire, with four eggs and near Warwick a green linnet’s with two eggs. It is worthy of remark that the heat was the same on December 24th as on June 24th last – on both those days the thermometer being nearly 60F.”

Howard goes on to describe how the south-west wind had “reigned for weeks” – for most of November and December before finally giving way at the turn of the year.

“The south west wind which had so long reigned yielded just at the close of the year to the north and west . Some frost ensued which, however, had not the characters of permanence being neither ushered in by driven snows nor accompanied with a dry and serene atmosphere.”

The River Lea close to where Luke Howard's laboratory stood by wanstead_meteo
The period November 10th – December 31st in 1806 and 2015 show some striking similarities. It is also notable that mean during 2015 was 3C higher than 1806. Is this a question of synoptics or a warming world?

His description is not dissimilar from what is known as a “three-day toppler” cold spell where a dominant European high briefly gives way to cold air from the north-west or north, bringing often heavy snow to Scotland and the north but just a few cooler days in the south, before the cold feed is cut off as the high re-establishes itself.

Howard also describes how the warmth affected plants.

“The effects of the late high winter temperature on vegetation must have been obvious to everyone who has seen the country. To the very close of the year the grass continued to grow, the daisies to enamel the turf and many of the inmates of our gardens native and exotic to thrive and blossom. Even hyacinth bulbs left in the open beds shot up and flowered. Ten years ago winter came on six weeks earlier and with considerable severity.”

Words that echo what’s going on this month, particularly in the south-west where I’ve heard reports of roses still in bloom and affected by greenfly whiles daffodils look like they will be out in a couple of days.

January and February 1807 were, by the standards of that time, roughly average.

1816: the year without a summer in London

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?

1816 & 2015 monthly anomalies
The monthly anomalies of the two years closely follow the same pattern between March and August

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.

annual
The highs and lows of 1816 and 2015 compared

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.

east london wind data
The dominant wind direction in 1816 was north-west

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.

1816 & 2015 monthly rainfall anomalies
1816 & 2015 compared: monthly rainfall anomalies

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”.

Chesterton House Balaam Street Plaistow C London Borough of Newham
Chesterton House, off Balaam Street, Plaistow, was the home of Luke Howard from 1806-13. The building has since been demolished

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.

annual

East London Maxima (1816 & 2015)
1816 & 2015 compared: East London maxima
minima
1816 & 2015 compared: East london minima
East London rainfall
Enter 1816 & 2015 compared: East London rainfall

 

 

 

 

 

Flood risk sandbags City in the East plan

Plans to build 200,000 homes in East London over the next 20 years should be music to the ears of anyone struggling to find a place to live in our overcrowded capital.

But unless planners are willing to spend billions on new flood defences it is possible that these new homes will be particularly at risk of flooding should rainfall levels increase with climate change.

The Environment Agency's Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard's comment that
The Environment Agency’s Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates how much of the land that is designated for development is at risk of flooding

Many of the developments mooted in London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan for a City in the East are situated on flood plain, according to the Environment Agency.

On reading through the blueprint flood risk isn’t mentioned once.

A report in the Financial Times, citing the new plan, says there is much more potential than previously thought to increase housebuilding in east London, the capital’s planning chief estimates. Sites earmarked include the Lea Valley and areas along the Thames beyond Canary Wharf.
‘Thames Riverside’, the term for an area along the north side of the Thames including Barking and Beckton, could host 27,000 homes, while areas on the opposite side of the river could hold 22,000, according to the report. There could be 52,000 more homes in Lea Valley, 30,000 on the Isle of Dogs and 15,000 in Woolwich.
Sir Edward Lister, deputy mayor for policy and planning, believes the capital’s authorities had learned from their experience with the Nine Elms regeneration area, where a statement of intent had galvanised developers.
“We just have to commit and then the developers can move in,” adding that there were “vast” amounts of underused post-industrial sites along the river in east London.
The housing plans also include commercial and industrial buildings, giving potential to create 280,000 jobs, as well as supporting infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Transport improvements, such as Crossrail and a new London Overground line, would make the developments ‘desirable’. But costs would be dwarfed by any flood defence improvements.
Previously 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 River Lea close to where Luke Howard's laboratory stood by wanstead_meteo
The River Lea close to where Luke Howard’s laboratory stood. Since it was completed in 1976, there have been no major flood events in the Lea Valley, although there have been three occasions when the river system was full virtually to its capacity: in 1987, 1993 and 2000.

More ambitiously, the government could fund a new barrier in either Tilbury in Essex or Long Reach in Kent. Such a barrier would be designed to resist the highest surge tides identified by the Met Office’s analysis of how conditions will change this century. 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.

The Agency also say the existing barrier could be converted to include locks, which could open and close more flexibly and extend the life of the defences. The EA report says a decision on a new barrier will have to be made by 2050.

It may turn out that there’s a more pressing reason to spend. The EA says 50 is the maximum number of times the barrier should close each year, and beyond that, the barrier could start to fail.

How high is the likelihood of flooding in this part of London? A look back through history shows the geography of the Lea Valley has made the area prone to inundations for hundreds of years.

The Environment Agency's Flood Map for Planning shows the flood zone risk of the area. And endorses Howard's account that the river Lea was 'a mile wide' at its peak
The Environment Agency’s Flood Map for Planning shows the flood zone risk of the area. And endorses Howard’s account that the river Lea was ‘a mile wide’ at its peak

In January 1809 the lower River Lea burst its banks in several places following a deluge that dumped two inches of rain in the space of 24 hours. The rain abruptly ended a snowy cold spell that had begun over a month before in the middle of December. From Luke Howard’s readings it is likely that up to half a metre of snow had fallen in the previous weeks in the upper parts of the surrounding countryside with only slight thawing. With the frozen ground unable to absorb any of the rapidly melting snow and rainfall the amount of water flowing downstream must have been immense. Howard takes up the story…

“The River Lea continued rising the whole of the 26th… The various channels by which it intersects this part of the country were united in one current above a mile in width which flowed with great impetuosity and did much damage.”

Howard, his chemical factory located on the banks of the river Lea close to what is now Bow flyover, wrote at length about the event, his account replacing the usual brief notes about daily weather in his book The Climate of London.

He talks of embanked pasture land being “filled to the depth of eight or nine feet” and people driven to their upper rooms relieved by boats plying under the windows.

“The Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible.” It took until February 23rd for things to return to normal.

Wanstead Flats by Scott Whitehead
Wanstead Flats: another area of east London that is traditionally flood plain

Miraculously no lives were lost in the flood and cattle “by great exertions” were saved by being kept in their stalls. Howard, saying that the flood could have been far worse, believed a neap tide, strong westerly winds urging water down the Thames and mild weather helped avert a tragedy.

Howard’s statistics of the previous months show that the second half of 1808 were wetter than average – though not especially so. And nothing like the rainfall this area recorded during the winter of 2013/14. From December 1st until February 8th 1809 Howard recorded 130mm of rain, which is about 100mm less than what was recorded during 2013/14.

This fact alone shows just how much the nature of the river has changed in the last 200-odd years thanks to spending on flood defences.

Work to improve the defences was prompted 67 years ago when similar catastrophic flooding came with the thaw that ended the severe winter of 1947, one of the coldest winters in history and an episode remarkably similar to what Howard recorded in 1809.

The Lea Valley, along with many parts of the country, saw some of its worst flooding in a generation. The river burst its banks at several points bringing misery to surrounding communities. Valleys turned into lakes in 40 counties and East Anglia’s fens were a sandbagged inland sea. More than 100,000 properties were damaged and, then as now, heroic battles were fought by the military to keep water-pumping plants and power stations dry.

A marker of that flood, together with a history of flood defences, can be found here. There is also British Pathe footage of another flood between 1910 and 1919 here .

Spillers Millennium Mill was repainted 25 years ago especially for the concert. It now provides the backdrop for the London Triathlon across from the ExCeL centre
The iconic Spillers’ Millennium Mills building has been redeveloped

The River Lea Flood Relief Channel, that flows between Ware, Herts, and Stratford, took almost three decades to complete. The channel incorporates existing watercourses, lakes and new channels. Since it was completed in 1976, there have been no major flood events in the Lea Valley, although there have been three occasions when the river system was full virtually to its capacity: in 1987, 1993 and 2000. Since its completion, the level of protection afforded by the structure has declined, so that in some areas it offers 2 per cent protection, and in some, only 5 per cent protection. The EA published a strategic environmental assessment in 2008, which looked at ways to maintain the flood defences in the Lea Valley.

In summing up its ambitions for a new development the Greater London Authority says it is trying to “overturn the historic perception of the east being seen as apart from London, rather than as a part of London”.

Jim Ward, a director of research at property consultancy Savills, said the challenge was “building something that makes people want to live and work there”, he said. “You need to build more than homes, you need to build a place.”

Boris’s record of late has not been good: an estuary airport to replace Heathrow has been dismissed as pie in the sky while his promise for a 24-hour Tube was made without first consulting unions that it was possible.

London’s safety from flooding is an altogether different proposition, both for old and new developments. Boris really needs to get London’s flood defences right before any brick is laid on these desperately-needed new developments.