Jul 192022

I was interested in Richard Hall’s diary entry for 17 July 1797 – in other words 225 years ago.

It reads:

Very early this morning a tremendous storm of Lightning, Thunder and great rain – was particularly dreadful in London. The Lightning and Thunder very awful. What a Mercy to be preserved! The Newspaper says “of the dreadful flashes of lightning and the awful peals of thunder that prevailed, no adequate description can possibly be given”

Richard goes on to say that the storm was felt far and wide and that the poor-houses at Yateley in Hampshire were badly damaged. “Two women were struck down by the lightning, but providentially neither of them received any material injury.”

They must be a hardy lot in Yateley – I only know of the place because Flora Thompson, author of the trilogy of novels ‘Lark Rise to Candelford’, lived and  and worked in the Yateley Post Office, back in the early 1900’s.

225 years ago, as now, the weather was a constant topic of conversation,  with each weather pattern more alarming and more extreme than the one which went before…..

Feb 092021

The news this week is all about how cold it is, how the ‘Beast from the East’ is hitting travel on roads across the country – but just to put it in perspective, in 1814 the temperature had fallen below freezing overnight on 27 December 1813 – and stayed below zero every night until 7 February. That meant five whole weeks of it being perishing cold, and  for the first four days of February a Frost Fair was held on the River Thames between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge.

The Lewis Walpole Library site at Yale University has a number of interesting images of the fair.

The scene shows the boats frozen solid on the banks of the river and the people queuing to get onto the ice via what was called the New City Road. There are numerous booths, known delightfully as Fuddling Tents, where people could sit and sip gin – and get befuddled. There were skittles matches, swings and spectator sports. I like it because on the top right hand corner, just alongside St Magnus the Martyr Church and in front of the Monument marking the seat of the Great Fire of London, stands  what I will describe as my family home:

The red arrow marks the building  then known as One London Bridge, built by my ancestor Richard Hall fifty years earlier. When Richard had died in 1801 the building had passed to his son Francis. Good to see that Uncle Francis had lit a fire, judging from the smoke belching forth from the chimney. Below the arrow you can make out the water wheels which would have been frozen solid – normally they thumped away for several hours either side of high tide, pumping water to the wealthier houses in the neighbourhood.

The second print shows more of the fuddling tents and gives some idea of the colourful fairground-type of atmosphere, with people slipping and sliding (and in cases falling through the ice).

Finally, the Lewis Walpole site gives us Gambols on the River Thames February 1814. More tents – selling Gin and Gingerbread, more slipping and sliding, more fun on the ice.

There was dancing, there was nine pin bowling – and even the chance to marvel at an elephant led across the river near Blackfriars Bridge. There were printing presses churning out ephemera marking the occasion. And then, on 5 February the thaw started – rapidly. Several people were drowned, all evidence of the Frost Fair  thawed and was washed away, and while we may moan about the Beast from the East it is hard to see that the Frost Fair will ever make a re-appearance. Nowadays the river flows faster – the arches of the current London Bridge no longer slow the flow, while the construction of the Embankment means that the water occupies a narrower channel and therefore runs faster.


Oct 222020

Today it rained. And then rained some more. All day. But by happy coincidence I came across  a splendid print by George Cruikshank, dating from 1820, entitled ‘Very Unpleasant Weather – Raining Cats and Dogs and Pitchforks’ and suddenly I feel more cheerful.

I hadn’t heard of raining pitchforks before, but apparently it is one of those idioms which date back centuries. I am told that the French have an equivalent (‘Il pleut des hallebardes’) and the Germans (‘Es regnet Heugabeln’). And of course we also have stair rods which can rain down on us….

The phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’ apparently  referred at one stage to pole-cats. Wikipedia gives us the phrase ‘It shall rain dogs and polecats’ as emanating from the pen of one Richard  Brome, in 1652. A year earlier a poet called Henry Vaughan wrote in his collection of poems ‘Olor Iscanus’ that a roof was secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.”

One suggestion is that really heavy rain on thatched roofs would wash out the carcasses of old animals which had sneaked into the eaves in search of a quiet place to die. Another suggests a link to a poem entitled ‘A description of a city shower’ written by Jonathan Swift in 1710. Describing the rain flushing out all the detritus from the kennel (in other words, the channel which ran down the centre of the road) the poem ends with these stanzas:

Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
Swift obviously liked the link between heavy rain and dead pets, and used the expression in his 1738 Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, in which one of his characters fears that it will “rain cats and dogs.”
    A description of the Cruikshank print, which was re-released in 1835, appears on the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College site. It gives us this explanation:
‘A heavy slanting downpour composed of cats, dogs, and pitchforks descends on a road filled with pedestrians. An old apple-woman and a porter with a chest inscribed “Glass – keep this side upward” have been thrown to the ground. Pitchforks transfix a kneeling dustman; another pierces the umbrella of a person on which a dog is also seated. A man is pinned to the ground; his wooden leg impales a cat. A barrow-woman shouting “Cats meat, dogs meat!” is beset by dogs and cats. A coach numbered “2072,” with a burlesque coat of arms (a cat and dog for supporters, a cat for a crest) contains two dandies; the roof is covered with animals and pierced by pitchforks. There is a background of houses and landscape; a placard on which a coach and four is depicted is inscribed “Cheap Safe & Expeditious Travelling – Pig & Whistle to the Cow & Snuffers – Winchester Hants.”
    As for George Cruikshank he was born in 1792 into a family of illustrators and caricaturists. He went on to become known as ‘the modern Hogarth’ and drew the pictures to illustrate Dickens’s ‘Sketches by Boz’ (1836) and ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838). He was in every sense prolific – he not only married twice but had eleven children by his mistress Adelaide Attree, who had at one stage worked in the Cruikshank household as a servant. Presumably that was not known to the proprietors of Punch Magazine, who wrote an obituary for the old dog when he died in 1878: “There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.”
   Meanwhile, it’s nice to know that here in the UK we have been complaining about the weather (too wet, too cold, too hot, too much of it …. whatever) for hundreds of years. Long may it continue.
Dec 312018

To mark the end of the year, a snippet repeated from Richard’s diary for 1790:aa2

I have not come across a record of the disaster – although the century seems to have been marked by a number of catastrophic drownings in the canals around Amsterdam, often linked to fog. The Gallery of Natural Phenomena refers to a general disaster on  14th December 1783

“Holland – Fog. Fatal accidents, Amsterdam; coaches fell into canals”

and presumably this was repeated at the end of the century. Meanwhile Richard did love his entries about extreme weather – it must have rounded off his year nicely! What is sad is to see that people are still drowning in considerable numbers in the Dutch capital – though probably this was as a result of drink rather than fog. Fifty one deaths by drowning occurred in the three years, between 2009 and 2011, only one of them as a result of crime… presumably the other fifty were accidents, or suicide. Since that date an average of 400 people a year have fallen into the Amsterdam canals – with  an average of 18 deaths occurring in every year. But for 230 to perish in a single night of dense fog, as in 1790, was truly tragic.

Post Script:   Since this wasoriginally  published I received corroboration of the events of 31st December 1790 from the ever-so-helpful Baldwin Hamey, who does a fascinating blog called London Details here. He referred me to this engraving. The caption apparently reads “In the heavy fog several people and a coach have gone into the water. Torches produce more light to see.”

It appears on this Dutch site  and copyright belongs to Amsterdam City Archives. Thanks Baldwin!


Sep 262018

228 years ago my ancestor Richard Hall noted that following the passing of the Duke of Cumberland, there was a period of mourning at Court which was to last six weeks. The entry echoes the way that my ancestor always referred to the monarch as “good” King George. He clearly approved of the King, sympathised with him over his bouts of illnesses, and previously had remarked whenever there were signs of recovery.

DoC 001 I am not quite clear why the period of general mourning was delayed, since Prince  Henry, Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn, actually shuffled off this mortal coil on 18 September. Perhaps it took a week for anyone to notice…. the Prince was the son of Prince Frederick, and was 44 at the date of his death. I like the man because of his colourful affairs. When caught in flagrante with the wife of Lord Grosvenor he was sued for damages in crim. con. and ended up having to touch up his brother (the King) for ten thousand pounds, plus costs of three thousand pounds. Lawyers, even then, didn’t come cheap!

On the debit side, he helped popularise Brighton by introducing the Prince of Wales to the delights of sea bathing and general carousing, away from the court of George III. I don’t think I can forgive him for that, because Brighton has been a nightmare for motorists ever since…

What else was happening to ancestor Richard Hall on This Day in History? Well, in 1780 it was “a fine day, very warm”, but Richard omits saying what he did with his time so he may well have been sitting around with his feet up, catching the late autumn rays! The following year was positively hectic, as he caught the Oxford Stage and got there,  in safety, in time for a spot of Supper. It was a fine day mind you, but “very Cold”. In 1782 it was the night of the Harvest Supper (“pretty fine day, mild”). The following year was “a delightful fine day” spent taking tea with Mr Freeman, dining with Mrs Snooke,and attending a sermon taken from Jeremiah  2, part 31. Things hadn’t improved by the following year when it was ” very wet in the morning, after, part dull, fine-ish with some rain in the evening.” So, nothing exceptional  ever happened on 26 September, and then to cap it all, Richard would have had to close his shop just because the Duke had popped his clogs….

It is however interesting to compare and contrast what Richard had to say, with the comments made by his brother-in-law William Snooke. Richard always wrote about the weather, whereas William never once tells us if it raining or shining. Instead, he busied himself on 26 September 1775 saying that he”went afield and had a syllabub instead of Tea”. That day he also mended the stucco, and paid two shillings to Thomas Reynolds for half a hundred crayfish which he had “had some time ago” and forgotten to pay for! The year before that he had attended Burford Fair, while “Mrs Dunn and Mrs Roper went to Cirencester in a chaise a little after 8 o’clock”. He appears to have had a full house that night, because he notes that  “Mr Willis and Mr Whiting also supp’d, and slept in our house in one bed”. (Mind you, I can still remember  the family putting up people in a shared bed, usually end to end!).

Good old William: he always jotted down if he had a memorably fine  meal, and on this day 1768 he “din’d on a Gammon of Bacon, Apple Dumplings and Fillet of Veal”. It must have put him in a good mood, because he promptly gave his wife a present of five guineas, paid one shilling and sixpence for a hare, and “gave an old man at Mr Freeman’s one shilling.”

Somehow I get the impression that William always enjoyed 26 September (and every other day of the year come to that) rather more than Richard did!

Feb 152018

Image courtesy of the Royal Museums, Greenwich.

Today I am delighted to offer a guest post to freelance writer Lucy Lawrence. She has many years experience across a variety of sectors, having made the move to freelancing from a stressful corporate job – and loves the work-life balance it offers her. She gamely accepted my challenge to let me have an article about the Great Storm of 1703 – because she has a particular interest in modern technology and how it can help the modern world keep itself informed about the sort of extreme weather conditions which caused such devastating damage back in 1703. Back then, Queen Anne described the storm as “a Calamity so Dreadful and Astonishing, that the like hath not been Seen or Felt, in the Memory of any Person Living in this Our Kingdom.” If only back then they had the benefit of Weather Station Advisor!

Over to you, Lucy:

The front page of Defoe’s book The Storm

Of the Great Storm of 1703 Daniel Defoe wrote: “No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it”. Indeed it is one of the worst storms recorded in British History, and the 1700s was no stranger to terrifying storms. Defoe’s book “The Storm” has been a valuable historical account of the disaster, helping us to understand what the storm was really like for those that had lived through it.

For almost two weeks before the story took hold, Britain was battered by strong winds, but from 26th November to 7th December, this had developed into an extra-tropical cyclone that caused incredible damage and loss of life. It was documented that there were 4,000 trees blown down in the New Forest alone. In London, it was reported that 2,000 chimney stacks collapsed – the knock-on effect would have been huge, considering that all homes were heated by fire, and it was the start of winter.

The Somerset Levels, particularly in the area down towards Bridgwater and Yeovil, suffered from catastrophic flooding – hundreds of people died. There were also thousands of cattle, sheep and other livestock that were killed in the floods. Most incredible of all was the destruction of 400 windmills in the area. There were accounts of the sails going round with such speed and force that they burst into flames.

The first Eddystone Lighthouse

Off the coast of Plymouth the first Eddystone Lighthouse, constructed of wood to the designs of Henry Winstanley, was destroyed and Winstanley himself was among six people drowned. Meanwhile on the Goodwin Sands the destruction of ships seeking shelter was catastrophic, with ship after ship being sunk. Towns such as Portsmouth, on the South Coast, were described by Defoe as looking  “as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces.”

The Royal Navy took a terrible battering, losing thirteen ships including its entire Channel Squadron. The ships HMS Northumberland, HMS Restoration, and HMS Mary amongst others were destroyed. There were also 30 merchant ships lost in the storm, together with their crew. It is estimated that the storm resulted in the loss of between 8,000 and 15,000 lives.


In 1703 there was no warning system to tell others of the dramatic fall in barometric pressure that happened before the storm – a sure indicator that it was unwise to set sail. In a disaster situation, the key to saving lives and trying to prevent as much damage as possible is communication. Emergency radio and weather radio is invaluable around the world to spread the news about incoming bad weather. These types of radio work without the use of the internet, or a television signal. In terms of the losses at sea, this would have been a game changer.


Following the storm, the public and government reaction was very different to how it would have been today. It was generally considered that the storm was an act of God who was “crying at the sins of a nation.” As a result of this, the 19th January 1704 was declared by the government to be a day of fasting to atone for these sins. In Daniel Defoe’s book, he said that the sovereign fleet had been destroyed as a punishment for their unsuccessful performance during the War of Spanish Succession. Would this kind of comments be made today?

The Great Storm of 1703 was an enormous tragedy, with great loss of life and livelihood. However, it wasn’t for another 150 years that weather forecasting emerged as a science.


Thanks Lucy – and if anyone is interested in finding out more about the work of NOAA (the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) or the Weather Station Advisor which aims to help weather enthusiasts choose not only the best but the most suitable weather instruments for their particular needs, do follow the link to their site here. After all, as Lucy says, according to Time Magazine 2017 was the worst hurricane season ever and 2018 is unlikely to be any better. For my part I have just returned from seeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands. It  really was a reminder of the terrifying power of Mother Nature – and of how lucky we are that nowadays we get an effective ‘early warning’ of the sort of storms which caused so much damage 300 years ago.  

NASA image of Hurricane Irma

Road Town, Tortola – next to the Yacht Marina built by my brother 40 years ago….

Life’s a beach …. Cane Garden Bay, BVI, has re-opened, but it is still recovering.

Jan 122016

Skaiting-dandies, shewing ofOK, so I have done Gillray and I have done Rowlandson: how about the lesser mortals who caricatured those intrepid skaters (or even, skaiters)? Again courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library, here is “Skaiting Dandies Shewing Off” drawn by Charles William and believed to have been published by Thomas Tegg in 1818. [As a complete aside, some time when I have nothing better to do I must look up when “shew” became “show”. I can just about remember a sign on the top of a double-decker bus (in the 1950’s) with a sign saying “Tickets must be shewn” but it was already archaic and seemed very strange – which is why I remember it to this day].

While The Ladies are wrapped up warm, a number of dandified males end up making complete asses of themselves, colliding into each others arms. A man in a topper is lacing on his skates while his friend is already executing something vaguely resembling a plie – no doubt to impress the watching females. The colliding males are saying “On Lord, how they are laughing at us!” Another man with splendid side burns remarks “What are you at there! You will put my wig out of Buckle” which garners the response “Pon my honor Sir, I beg pardon! You must thank the ladies” as they sink into a firm if unintended embrace.

Pleasing pastimeThe second caricature is entitled “Pleasing Pastime, or a Christmas Quadrille”. The man about to crash head-first through a hole in the ice grabs desperately at the skate of one of the men, causing him to lose balance. The other hand grabs the tail of the jacket of another man, who in turn flings out a hand and grabs the nose of a fourth intrepid skater. All four are destined for an icy bath…

It was published in 1826 by Thomas McLean and is described as being drawn by ‘A Frost’ (presumably Jack’s brother!). It gives a good idea of how the skate was tied onto the shoe, with three straps.

skateAnd finally, an altogether more elegant gentleman, drawn by M Egerton for print-maker Henry Pyall in 1825, and published by J Brooker. It is entitled  simply “Skate”. Mind you, if I saw the supercilious  blighter coming towards me I would try and knock his hat off. Rather like smug cyclists who ride their bikes with their hands in their pockets, as if to say “How clever I am – look, no hands!” Definitely deserve to be taken down a peg or two…

winterOK so it wasn’t ‘finally’. I end with an earlier style of engraving, actually dating from 1794 from publishers Robert Laurie and James Whittle. In a way it is much closer to the mezzotints produced by Carington Bowles  in the previous decade and shows a naval gentleman accompanying his girlfriend to a spot where they can observe the skaters. She may well be wrapped up warm with her cape and muff and ever-so-elegant hat, but her expression suggests that she would rather have stayed indoors. I like the costume worn by the little girl, playing with her dog.

Ah well, enough of ice and snow. Back to the warmth of a coal fire…

Jan 102016

As a follow-up to the post a couple of days ago featuring Gillray’s skating-themed etchings, I thought a Rowlandson would be appropriate. Except that it was actually made some years earlier than the Gillray, so I suppose it is a prequel rather than a follow-up…..

Cold Broth and  Calamity Rowlandson 1792It is called  “Cold broth and Calamity” and appears on the ever-useful Lewis Walpole site. Thomas Rowlandson drew the scene of various figures falling through the ice in 1792, and in that original form it appears on the British Museum site. It was published by S W Fores the same year, and it re-surfaced again as a published print in 1800.

Trying to match up the fallen skaters with their skates is not easy, but there are two figures in the foreground with three pairs of skates waving in the air. Beyond them two skaters come to the surface. In the background a parson is about to take a tumble, while his companion loses his wig and hat. There is even a tent pitched on the ice, and a small group of onlookers have gathered to observe the  icy scene.

Rowlandson used a pen with coloured inks to draw the picture, and it was  then used in subsequent satirical engravings. Ackermann included it in  1808 in his series ‘Miseries of human life’ but by that time a large woman was shown joining the parson as he is about to take a tumble, and an equally large woman joined the group of onlookers, horrified at the scene of  impending disaster unfolding before them.

It brings back vague memories of being at boarding school sixty years ago, near Petersfield in Hampshire, where a gang of us pushed an old car onto the ice and then had to scarper like mad when the ice began to crack. I imagine the car is still there at the bottom of the lake, rusting away….

Apr 102015

a volcanoToday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the explosion of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now, Indonesia) – an  event which caused catastrophic damage not just in the Far  East, but to weather patterns throughout the globe. It led to what has been termed ‘the year without a summer’; to countless deaths and starvation; to crop failures world-wide   – and to the most glorious sunsets, inspiring artists like Turner to experiment with ever-bolder use of colours to try and capture Nature’s glory.

Sir Stamford Raffles

Sir Stamford Raffles

The first sign that a catastrophic event was about to unfold was on 5 April 1815, when thunderous explosions were heard upwards of eight hundred miles away. They were noted by Sir Stamford Raffles (the man who went on to found Singapore, and who gave his name to Raffles Hotel) and apparently  five days later ‘a sound like distant gunfire’ was detected on Sumatra, some sixteen hundred miles away. This incredible noise was followed by a massive explosion, estimated as being four times more powerful than Krakatoa, as Mount Tambora blew itself to pieces. Ash, rock, pumice and a pyroclastic flow swept down to the sea on all sides of the mountain , killing tens of thousands of islanders. A tsunami followed, causing more devastation, destroying homes and crops, and resulting in mass starvation throughout the Dutch East Indies.

What the explosion also did was to pump thousands of tons of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, where the jet stream dispersed the gas over all parts of the globe. Fogs were commonplace, and snow fell in unseasonable times of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, as temperatures plunged. In India the monsoon pattern was disrupted not just that year, but for the three following years. Again, this led to crop failures, starvation, and innumerable deaths from lung disease.

This global phenomenon was called all sorts of different things at the time – from  ‘the year without a summer’  to ‘the Poverty Year’, ‘The Summer that never was’ and the rather evocative ‘Eighteen hundred and Froze to Death.’ In Europe, the drop in temperatures led to the failure of wheat and potato harvests. Mass starvation followed, with the worst famine of the whole of the nineteenth century. Food riots broke out, grain stores were looted – and beggars filled the streets. Widespread flooding followed the heavy rainfalls produced by the abnormal climatic conditions, leading in turn to typhoid and cholera outbreaks spread by contaminated water.

For several decades the dust in the atmosphere gave rise to splendidly-coloured sunsets, captured by Turner throughout the 1820’s and 1830’s, as in these two:

J.M.W. Turner's 'Sunset over a Lake'

J.M.W. Turner’s ‘Sunset over a Lake’

Turner 's 'Sunset' from 1830-5

Turner ‘s ‘Sunset’ from 1830-5

(The picture at the start of this blog of the volcano erupting is actually of Vesuvius, by Joseph Wright of Derby, not of Mt Tambora; but then, Wright never saw Vesuvius erupting (it was dormant when he visited it) so I am using his imaginary view to represent Tambora. It appears courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California).

Jul 152013

Richard Hall was fascinated by extreme weather conditions and loved writing down tittle-tattle from around the country. I like the description of the storm which happened off Lerwick in 1797:



In case your eyesight isn’t up to deciphering the spidery scrawl:

“Letter from Lerwick, a town in Scotland, July 15, 1797.

A boat with six men from there, ling fishing,  was overtaken with a storm of lightning & thunder – the boat’s shrouds were burnt, the mast and part of the boat shivered to pieces – the men’s stockings were burnt within their boots, their underjackets and flanel shirts totally burnt, but their skins, boots and outside jackets not hurt. One of them had a watch in his pocket, which was melted and destroyed. All of them were providentially saved, but stunned & in a state of stupefaction for some time after they were taken ashore.”

Two days later a horrendous storm struck London: “Very early in the morning a tremendous storm of Lightning and Thunder and great rain. Was particularly dreadful in London. The Lightning & Thunder very awful – what a Mercy to be preserved! The Newspaper says ‘of the dreadful flashes of Lightning & the awful peals of Thunder that prevailed no adequate description can possibly be given’