Tag Archives: River Lea

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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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.

7 bruce grove
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.

londonist article
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

 

 

How the cloud man inspired Constable

It has been a superb year for cloud formations and cloudscapes. Spectacular towering cumulo-nimbus and deep-red sunsets have been more frequent than average in 2014. I can’t remember a week when I haven’t aimed the camera skywards to record the latest phenomena.

Distant rain cloud looking east on Wanstead Flats
Distant rain cloud looking east on Wanstead Flats

The skies at the end of the 18th century were even more spectacular, thanks to a period of heightened volcanic activity, and captured the imagination of a boy whose work in later life would inspire one of Britain’s great landscape painters: John Constable.

Before the 19th century meteorologists thought of clouds as unique and transient and therefore unclassifiable. This changed when Luke Howard, who once lived in Plaistow, presented his Essay on the Modification of Clouds to the Askesian Society in the winter 1802/03.

The impact of the lecture was immense, and catapulted the subject of cloud formation as a serious scientific study. The cloud types: cumulus, Latin for ‘heap’; stratus, Latin for ‘layer’, and cirrus, Latin for ‘curl of hair’ are words still used today.

Although by trade Howard was a chemist, his pharmaceutical chemical factory located nearby on the banks of the River Lea, his passion was meteorology. His pioneering observations recorded in three volumes of The Climate of London provide a fascinating insight into this area’s weather all those years ago.

Following his presentation on Clouds Howard’s standing among the science community became more and more elevated. He presented seven Lectures in Meteorology in 1817. Within a year Constable, who was four years younger than Howard, made a decision to start painting six-foot landscapes which marked a significant turning point in his career. The son of a landowner Constable had a keen understanding of the weather from his time spent as an apprentice windmiller in his native Suffolk.

Historians of art and science have argued that Constable probably attended Howard’s fashionable lectures which were complemented by a number of watercolour illustrations for his classification method.

Although it could be argued that artists such as Gainsborough painted clouds decades previously it was Constable, his search for truth in painting nature leading him to Howard’s work on clouds, who took the art to another level.

Sunset on Wanstead Flats
Sunset on Wanstead Flats

The artist adapted Howard’s scientific observations of these transient phenomena with an artist’s eye. A popular method of the period was the use of the rapid oil sketch out in the field. Constable then used these sketches to help him bring to life the drama and emotional content of a scene for his larger set-piece paintings.

Constable completed and submitted to the Royal Academy The Hay Wain, arguably his best-known masterpiece, in 1821 – the same year that Howard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Many more paintings and sketches followed of landscapes around Suffolk, Hampstead Heath and Salisbury and the achievements of both men in their chosen fields continued. Howard in business and his beloved meteorology, publishing a third volume of The Climate of London in 1833 – among the first studies that recognised the urban heat island effect. His Seven Lectures were published in 1837, becoming the first textbook of meteorology. Constable died the same year but did not receive the recognition he deserved until after his death.

Constable is the focus of a new exhibition at the V&A museum that begins on Saturday, September 20.

The site where Luke Howard's Chesterton House stood in Balaam Street, Plaistow is now the West Ham ambulance depot. The property that boasted a rooftop observatory where he made many observations, has long gone though the boundary still remains.
The site where Luke Howard’s Chesterton House stood in Balaam Street, Plaistow, is now the West Ham ambulance depot. The property, which boasted a rooftop observatory where he made many observations, has long gone though the boundary still remains. It is not known if Howard and Constable ever met though the painter often visited and wrote to his sister, Martha Whalley, in East Ham, which is 2 miles west of Howard’s Plaistow residence
A selection of sketches Luke Howard used to illustrate his Clouds lecture
A selection of sketches Luke Howard used to illustrate his Clouds lecture

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When the River Lea was a mile wide

Floods in Somerset have, up to now, seemed far removed from our own back yard. But with thousands of homes by the upper parts of the River Thames now at risk of flooding I wondered how safe we were from our own rivers.

A look back through the reference books show the geography of the Roding and Lea Valleys 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 Environment Agency's Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard's comment that "the Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible"
The Environment Agency’s Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard’s comment that “the Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible”

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

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 we have had this winter. From December 1st until February 8th Howard recorded 130mm of rain, which is about 100mm less than what I have recorded this winter.

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 recorded history and an episode remarkably similar to what Howard recorded in 1809.

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Flood risk areas around the River Roding close to Wanstead are much smaller than the equivalent area in Lea Valley

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.

The sense of crisis was felt worldwide. Canada sent food parcels to stricken villages in Suffolk; the prime minister of Ontario even offered to help dish them out.

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 .

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 Environment Agency published a strategic environmental assessment in 2008, which looked at ways to maintain the flood defences in the Lea Valley.

Wanstead Flats by Scott Whitehead
The water table appears to have come to the surface on Wanstead Flats

It remains to be seen whether we will see any flooding in Redbridge – a further 40mm of rain is forecast to fall up to Saturday morning. As well as the problem of rain there is also the issue of the water table which in the past week has risen to the surface in places. Inland lakes forming on Wanstead Flats have seen the cancellation of  football fixtures and a couple of people I’ve spoken to say standing water has started to appear in their cellars

It is all too easy to blame the Environment Agency for the current flooding in Somerset and elsewhere but the meticulous planning by its forerunners brought, at least to date, an end to the widespread flooding problem in the Lea Valley.

As the government struggles to find a solution to the current problems with flooding it would do well to look to the grand schemes of the past and forget about any planned cuts to flood defences.

200 years ago: the last Thames Frost Fair

The Frost Fair of 1814 on the River Thames in London. Painting by Luke Clenell, entitled The Fair on the Thames, February 4th 1814
The Frost Fair of 1814 on the River Thames in London. Painting by Luke Clenell, entitled The Fair on the Thames, February 4th 1814

It is 200 years ago this month that London enjoyed its last frost fair.

Weeks of hard frost from the day after Boxing Day was enough to freeze the river between the old London Bridge and Blackfriars, enabling dozens of opportunist London traders to set up stalls and booths selling souvenirs, drinks and food.

Unlicensed gambling, drinking and dancing was the order of the day for those brave enough to venture on to the ice. A sheep was roasted on the ice with the public charged to look at it, and charged again for a slice of “Lapland mutton”. At one point an elephant was led across the ice at Blackfriars.

The ice was however, not very stable. Boatmen deprived of an income charged visitors a penny to cross planks to get on to the ice. They were on hand to rescue two women who fell through, although a plumber carrying lead was not so lucky.

Though changes to the flow of the Thames has vastly reduced any chance of a frost fair being repeated I’ve often wondered what the day to day climate would have to be like to freeze the Thames as it did in 1814.

Luke Howard’s Climate of London provided a starting point. His pioneering measurements of the atmosphere taken outside his laboratory by the River Lea in Stratford, though not as accurate as today’s readings, provide an excellent insight into just how cold the season was.

Winter 1813/14 and 1962/63
This line chart shows that the winters of 1813/14 and 1962/63 bore some resemblance

I was surprised to find that the stats compare well with the winter of 1962/63 – the coldest winter in recent memory. Obviously Howard’s readings would not have been as accurate as today’s – his thermometers were initially suspended in a laurel bush to shield solar radiation – but they would still have been close.

I have converted his readings  in Fahrenheit to Celsius and plotted them on a spreadsheet here. As well as records of temperature, wind, rain and moon phase Howard also included any notable weather events in his diaries from both home and abroad.

The winter of 1813/14 started mild. On December 16th he noted that “bees quit the hive in unusual numbers for the season”. During the following days up to Christmas Day wind and rain alternated with misty, occasionally frosty, mornings – probably not unlike some of the weather we experienced last month.

However, Boxing Day brought a big change: “Since the 26th we have had a succession of thick fogs with a calm air or at most a breeze from the NE. Yesterday the air cleared a little and today has been fine; a display of cirrus clouds with much red in the morning and evening sky,  the peculiar smell of electricity has been perceptible of late when the air cleared up at sunset.” Howard goes on to report that there was an eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Italy.

The beginning of January saw the mists thicken into heavy freezing fogs: “The mists which have again prevailed for several days and which have rendered travelling dangerous.”

The view across to St Paul's Cathedral from Bankside at low tide by Wanstead_meteo
The view across to St Paul’s from Bankside at low tide. Images of what it looked like this month in 1814 can be seen on the Corporation of London’s website

In those days, with cloud identification in its infancy, Howard identified the fog as stratus and noted with wonder the formation of rime frost on everyday objects: “The air has been in effect loaded with particles of freezing water such as in a higher region would have produced snow.  These attached themselves to all objects crystallizing in the most regular and beautiful manner. A blade of grass was thus converted into a pretty thick stalagmite some of the shrubs covered with spreading tufts of crystals looked as if they were in blossom while others more firmly incrusted might have passed for gigantic specimens of white coral.”

By January 5th  a “deep snow brought by an easterly wind had reduced the whole scenery to the more ordinary appearances of our winter”.  More snow followed on the 6th and piled into drifts on a strengthening NE’ly. The biting gusts presented Howard with yet another new winter phenomenon: snow rollers:  “With the temperature at the surface 33 or 34F presented an amusing phenomenon which was pointed out by my children. Instead of driving loose before the wind it was collected occasionally into a ball which rolled on, increasing till its weight stopped it. Thousands of these were to be seen lying in the fields some of them several inches in diameter”.

On the 9th Howard describes a misty morning and a snowy landscape that had a “bluish tint”. The “blueness” of the air is possibly down to the sheer cold – it was -13.3C that morning. I’ve seen something similar, a bluish hue to the air, on very cold mornings in the Alps. Howard notes that the minimum on the surface of the snow that night, the coldest of that winter, was -14.4C.

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

On the 11th a “very red” sunrise was observed . By the 12th Howard describes the Arctic scene from his laboratory: “The River Lea is now firmly frozen and the Thames so much encumbered with ice that navigation is scarcely practicable.” Howard also notes on this date that the snow in upper parts of Hampshire and “on the Hind Head” had fallen to a depth of 15 feet in places.

A slight thaw was noted on the 16th from the warmth of the earth. More snow fell on the 18th and 19th. Snow on the 20th was accompanied by a strong NE’ly. On the morning of the 21st Howard noted drifts “many feet deep”.

The 22nd to the 25th saw more outbreaks of snow before the wind swung into the SW on the 26th with snow followed by rain – the cold spell was beginning to lose its grip. Howard notes on the 29th: As the barometer began to rise the wind came round by SW to NW and blew with great violence till near morning”. Classic freeze/thaw conditions followed over the next few days before the real thaw, and the end of the frost fair, arrived on February 5th. Howard notes: “Crimson sky at sunrise hollow wind snow and sleet. 6th A gale from SW with showers of rain at evening.”

Sunset from Southwark Bridge overlooking St Paul's Cathedral by WansteadMeteoThe rest of February, and meteorological winter, appears fairly nondescript. Howard notes that on the 12th a gunpowder explosion resulting in a fire at the Custom House, 5 miles south, caused a  “shower of fragments of burnt paper”. Sharp frosts and misty mornings prevailed to end of month, Howard noting the “clear orange twilights”, probably caused by the eruptions in Italy that formed a new crater on Vesuvius. Howard mentions a letter he received from Heligoland on February 21 which had also seen intense frost that was preceded by thick fogs and heavy falls of snow. The latter was 10 and 12 feet deep – the frost lasting six weeks.

Howard wrote his own account of the frost fair…

“The Thames Frozen Over

January 15: The masses of ice and snow had accumulated in such quantities at London Bridge on the upper side yesterday that it was utterly impossible for barges or boats to pass up. During the whole of this week that part of the Thames below Windsor Bridge called Mill River has been frozen over and has been crowded with persons skaiting.

February 3: The confidence of the public in the safety of the passage over the frozen surface of the Thames was yesterday increased. All the avenues from Cheapside to the different stairs on the banks of the river were distinguished by large chalked boards announcing A safe footway over the River to Bankside and in consequence thousands of individuals were induced to go and witness so novel a spectacle and many hundreds had what we cannot help terming the fool hardiness to venture on the fragile plain and walk not alone over but from London to Blackfriars Bridge. Several booths formed of blankets and sail cloths and ornamented with streamers and various signs were also erected in the very centre of the river where the visitors could be accommodated with various luxuries. In one of the booths the entertaining spectacle of a sheep roasting was exhibited

February 7: Friday several printers brought presses and pulled off various impressions which they sold for a trifle eg Printed to commemorate a remarkably severe frost which commenced December 27, 1813, accompanied by an unusual thick fog that continued eight days and was succeeded by a tremendous fall of snow which prevented all communication with the Northern and Western Roads for several days. The Thames presented a complete field of ice between London and Blackfriars Bridges on Monday the 31st of January, 1814. A Fair is this day February 4, 1814, held and the whole space between the two Bridges covered with spectators. This field of ice was indeed a very rugged one consisting of 1 masses of drift ice of all shapes and sizes covered with snow and cemented together by the freezing of the intermediate surface. The deceitfulness of the latter caused as is too common on such occasions the loss of some lives by drowning. The following passage announcing the opening of the river soon after is worthy of preservation on account of the spirit in which it is written.

February 11: We are happy to see the lately perturbed bosom of Father Thames resume its former serenity. The busy oar is now plied with its wonted alacrity and the sons of Commerce are pursuing their avocations with redoubled energy. Cheerfulness is seated on the brow of the industrious labourer those who were reduced to receive alms as paupers again taste the sweets of that comparative independence with which labour crowns the efforts of the industrious. What a fruitful source of congratulation does this prospect afford nor can the contemplative mind dwell on the subject without feeling gratitude to that beneficent Being who in a time of such calamity opened the hearts of the benevolent to administer from their abundance to the necessities of their poorer brethren and thus add cement to the bond by which all mankind are linked together. The mischief done on the river during the late frost is greater than can be remembered by the oldest man living. Among the craft alone it is calculated to amount to upwards of 10,000 independent of the damage sustained by the cables tackle & of the shipping.”