Two hundred years ago this October the extremely rare phenomenon of lying snow in October was recorded in London.
A likely plunge of Arctic air on the 21st saw rain turn to snow which lay nearly 8cm deep by the morning and remained for nearly a week.
The month started dry and warm. On the 1st Luke Howard recorded 75°F at his laboratory in Stratford. The warmth remained into the second week with 77°F recorded on the 10th, 11th and 12th.
The wind swung into the north on the 18th and with it arrived the first hoar frosts that were cold enough to kill garden plants.
On the 21st the cold air further dug in and with it rain that turned to sleet. Howard said: “It began to snow about noon falling in very large flakes thick and rapidly for an hour and covering the ground. Some rain followed.
“In the evening the wind rose and it blew hard in the night from NNW. At midnight came a second heavy fall of snow which continued till 6am and though at first much of it melted it lay in the morning a full three inches deep.”
Howard adds that the surroundings ‘took on appearance of mid winter with the single exception of the foliage still remaining on the trees which mingled with an enormous burden of snow presented a very singular and grotesque appearance’.
The weight of the snow was also enough to break off large limbs from fruit trees.
The snow was still lying on the 23rd and, probably caught out by the earliness of the polar plunge, swallows were seen at Stamford Hill. On the 24th a very white frost was observed with a low of 31°F recorded at Tottenham.
More wintry weather followed in November, December and January.
Could snow fall here again in October? The probability is very low but it is not impossible, given the right synoptic conditions. Recent cases of notably positive and negative anomalies following in quick succession somewhat mirror the weather of Howard’s day.
During a miserably cold and wet stroll around the golf course in Wanstead Park I happened upon the remains of Wanstead House – basically a deep excavation where the basement and kitchens once were.
As a freezing cold mixture of rain, sleet and snow fell, gradually thawing the remnants of last night’s snow, I wondered what the weather was like when this magnificent building last stood. Luke Howard’s entry in The Climate of London revealed that the weather on this day 200 years ago was remarkably similar.
Wanstead House around 1819 just before its destruction
February 1st 2019
As I stood and tried to imagine what the house must have looked like it occurred to me that 200 years is a mere blip in time in the history of the Earth. People come and go, buildings rise and fall but the weather goes on and on.
* There’s a fascinating extract on Wanstead from James Dugdale’s The New
British Traveller (1819) that you can find here.
** This video clip shows the site where Wanstead House once stood.
The tow paths along the river Lea have provided generations of Londoners a place to escape – the route coming into its own following the legacy of London 2012 and the creation of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
It also provided a means for Luke Howard’s commute to work when he moved his family from Plaistow to Tottenham in 1812.
Seven years earlier Howard set up his pharmaceutical laboratory on the banks of the Lea in the area where Bow flyover now stands. From this vantage point, as the factory produced chemicals including quinine, Howard kept a meticulous record of the atmosphere later publishing results in The Climate of London, among the first texts to discuss urban meteorology.
Development in the region was in its infancy and it would be years before the river banks became covered by factories and warehouses, these now fast making way for luxury flats and restaurants.
I’ve often wondered what his journey to and from the factory was like so on Tuesday, tempted out by cloudless skies and a warm 23C I grabbed my bike and headed to the Olympic Park. Despite numerous visits I still got lost in the myriad paths in the park, turning into dead ends and finding myself on the ‘wrong side’ of canals.
Anyone familiar with Bow Flyover will know it’s not the most inspiring place; it probably represents the low point of the way north.
It was at this point in 1809 that Howard noted that the river had swelled to a width beyond a mile wide. Five years later Howard also noted how the Lea had become choked with ice following a bitterly cold winter, the year the last Thames’ Frost Fair was held.
As you ride north the familiar sites of the Olympic Park hove into view on the right while, if you look left, beyond the cacophony of the A12, the old Bryant & May match factory can be seen. Opened in 1861 the factory, which was one of the first east London renewal projects to feature luxury flats, is yet another landmark that simply wasn’t there in Howard’s time.
Just after Old Ford locks is a canal that turns left. This ‘cut’, called the Hertford union canal or Duckett’s canal, was in the process of being dug when in July 1829 lightning during a thunderstorm killed three workers. Howard, in one of many weather-based accounts in the The Climate of London, takes up the story:
A tremendous storm of thunder and lightning broke upon the metropolis about 1 o’clock on Saturday morning. The sky had been lighted up the whole evening by vivid electrical flashes and so late as half past twelve the stars were visible when a dark cloud suddenly arose and in a few minutes one of toe heaviest showers of rain and hail ever witnessed fell in torrents from its bosom.
Peals of thunder soon followed and continued rolling with scarcely any intermission for upwards of two hours accompanied with awful bursts of lightning; the residents of Bow, Stratford and Bromley were thrown into the greatest consternation by the violence of the storm, one poor fellow lost his life and two others have been so severely injured that but faint hopes are entertained of their recovery.
The three sufferers Sullivan, Salter and Fitzpatrick were engaged in excavating a canal, at present constructing by Sir George Duckett at Old Ford, and were at half past two o’clock diligently employed in their work when the storm commenced. Sullivan was at once struck lifeless and Fitzpatrick and Salter were so seriously injured as to make it necessary to procure immediate medical attendance.
Fitzpatrick was removed to his lodgings at Bow where he was attended by Dr Fairhead who on examining his person found that his left side had been most seriously injured and that there was reason to believe his intestines had suffered severely from the shock. The damage which Salter sustained has not been of so serious a nature.
Deaths caused by lightning were a much more common occurrence in the 19th century, mostly because so many people worked outside and the dangers of this natural phenomenon were not well document. The thunderstorm in July 1829 was particularly severe, as Howard continues:
During the continuance of the lightning on Friday evening a man who was employed in pumping in Bethnal Green fields which the late heavy rains have flooded was struck by a sudden flash which caused his instantaneous death.
The clothes exhibited a singular appearance being literally torn to atoms and every part of the metal in his buttons had the appearance of having been fused. The body itself showed no traces of the electric fluid with the exception of a slight mark on the forehead.
As you cycle on the factories / flats gradually thin out until you reach Lea Bridge Road when Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes become visible on the right. The big skies probably the same as they were during the 19th century. On reaching Tottenham Hale it is time to leave the river and turn left toward the town centre.
A total of 6 miles later brings you to Howard’s family home, 7 Bruce Grove. It still stands but, despite having a blue plaque, is in a terrible state of repair – internal walls have collapsed and the roof is clearly porous. The owners have a plan to turn the building into flats but nothing has happened in years. A petition to save the building was set up a while ago but this, too, seems to have had little impact.
Howard and his family divided their time between here and Ackworth, Yorkshire. I’ve known about 7 Bruce Grove for years but I didn’t realise just how long the garden was, stretching back hundreds of feet.. It was here that Howard also kept a weather station and was the venue for his account of the partial solar eclipse in 1820.
There is precious little left of the original garden, it being overgrown with bramble, nettles and alder. I did notice a tall money puzzle tree which I wonder once had pride of place in one of the borders.
Because of the dense undergrowth and it being behind a large wall there is precious little you can see but I wonder if there is any evidence of Howard’s meteorological enclosure somewhere in the garden?
It would be a fitting tribute Luke Howard if any future development would allow the provision of a weather station somewhere on the property.
It is 194 years ago this week that the River Lea burst its banks in the Stratford area leading to an ‘inland sea’ forming on nearby marshland.
Days of heavy rain that started on the 12th sent the water rising to record levels, the height was 2.5 inches higher than the devastating flood of 1809.
Luke Howard, in an entry in The Climate of London, had measured nearly three inches (74mm) of rain by the 16th and was expecting a flood:
“Towards evening the waters rose suddenly in the Lea and passing over all the banks of the level soon filled the marshes and in the course of the night rose to an unprecedented height being two inches and a half higher than in the flood of 1809.
The houses in the marshes south of the road were filled nearly to the chamber floors and some of the inmates removed with great difficulty. The flood remained stationary for nearly 24 hours. On the 17th in the afternoon it began very gradually to subside and on the 18th in the morning was much abated; the marshes still presenting the appearance of a sea the tops of the trees appearing in places only.”
Though there are no reanalysis charts from the time Howard’s daily entries state that pressure was low with the wind in the north-east, a classic pattern where depressions can move along the Channel before getting ‘stuck’ in the North Sea. A similar pattern with an almost identical amount of rain caused severe flooding in June 1903.
There was some 96mm of rain recorded during May 1824, locally the 11th wettest back to 1797. There have been wetter Mays since but, thanks to massive investment in the River Lea Navigation , prompted by more devastating floods in 1947, widespread flooding is a thing of the past.
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.
Sketched 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.
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 November2nd, 11th and 19th. On the20th 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 Gazetteas “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.
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
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.
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.
Fog on November 1st 2015 was thick enough to see the annual firework display on Wanstead Flats cancelled.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.”
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.
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.
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.
Modern 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.
To many who walk down Bruce Grove, Tottenham, number 7 probably just looks like yet another old Georgian building under threat from development.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.