Like many other Brits, I can be ever so slightly obsessed with the weather. In fact a Bristol Airport commissioned poll back in 2018 suggested the average British person spends the equivalent of four and a half months of their life talking about the weather. Nearly 50 per cent of those 2,000 adults surveyed said chatting about temperature, sunshine or rain is their go-to subject when making small talk.
But unlike many of my nationality, I go way beyond the current forecast. I even seek out historical information. There’s a particular reason for my historical weather curiosity though – it adds context, colour and background to my family history research.
My historical weather digging is varied. There are the mundane, everyday issues, like finding out what it was like on various ancestral wedding days. Or whether a significant local weather event provide a talking point in the communities of my ancestors. For example the 1916 lightning strike which destroyed St Paul’s Church, Hanging Heaton (no fatalities, including parish registers, thankfully).
But weather could be extraordinary, and a genuine matter of life and death. An increase in mortality rates in the parish register? Was it the result of a particular illness outbreak like smallpox or measles? Or perhaps harsh winter weather was the primary driver?
And on a more basic everyday level, in the agriculturally-dominated society of bygone years, the changing seasons and weather patterns dictated the rhythm and structure of the lives of our ancestors. Any untoward variation from the expected cycle could have a critical impact. An unusual weather event could mean the difference between a bumper harvest, available work and plentiful food; or delayed sowing, a badly reduced – or even ruined – crop, limited employment, squeezed food supplies, high prices and hunger. It could extend beyond food crops. Livestock might perish and their fodder be in short supply. Weather could therefore have a devastating impact. Drought and crop failure could change the course of lives, potentially even driving migration.
So where to find this information? Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Newspapers are an obvious source. But think beyond their weather forecasts and weather event reports. Even something as simple as a football or rugby match report, a mundane summer fete article, or the circumstances of an accident, may refer to the weather conditions. It’s a case of thinking outside the box even in an obvious source.
When thinking of weather today, the Met Office might be your go-to source. They also retain historic station data, with monthly data made available online for a selection of these long-running historic stations. The series typically range from 50 to more than 100 years in length. The 37 stations cover the length and breadth of Britain, including Armagh, Durham, Bradford, Lowestoft, Southampton, Stornaway Airport and Valley. The relevant website link can be found here.
There are several other weather-related websites. One outstanding example is Martin Rowley’s Booty Meteorological Website. This brought together historical information about the weather in Britain using multiple sources. The site no longer exists. But fear not. It has been archived, via the UK Web Archive, and is still accessible here.
There is a time-slice menu starting at 4000-100 BC and going up to 2000-2049, although the last entry is for 2012 (the site’s last update being February 2013). The information is colour key coded denoting the type of event/year, be it hot or cold, wet or dry, or stormy. There is also a companion historical menu too, which enables you to put climatological events into a historical context.
Examples of the type of entry include:
Snow-melt & rain event overtopped banks (of the River Aire) in Leeds (W. Yorkshire)….I think we can assume that snowfall during January around and above Leeds (across the Pennine headwaters of the Aire) must have been considerable. [The year 1768 is the second-wettest year in the EWP series].1
THE “ROYAL CHARTER” STORM.
The gale of 25th / 26th October 1859, which wrecked the fully rigged ship “Royal Charter” on the coast of Anglesey, drowning about 500 people (and loss of gold bullion), led to the introduction of gale warnings (in 1861) by means of hoisting of signals around the British & Irish coastlines (‘hoist North Cones’!). The ship was only one of over 200 vessels wrecked between the 21st October and 2nd November, with the loss of around 800 lives – most of these losses occurred in the ‘Royal Charter Storm’.
The Website of Pascale Bonenfant has a page on British Weather from 1700 to 1849, drawing on Martin Rowley’s information. So if you are struggling to access the Booty Meteorological Website you can see an extracted portion of it here.
The Tempest Database of Extreme Weather in the UK is a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Spanning five centuries, this contains historical accounts of weather drawn from archival materials including diaries, letters, church records, school log-books, newspaper cuttings and photographs. The research was focused on five case-study regions – Central England, Southwest England, East Anglia, Wales and Northwest Scotland, though entries do relate to places across the UK (check out the “other” locations in the place/location selector box). Even if your location is not covered, the sources do give some good ideas for ones to check out in your area of interest.
The search is flexible. Options include by case study region, place, date, document type, repository etc. Specific weather events can be searched – and this is extremely wide-ranging from the expected snow, flood, gale and heatwave events, to rainbows, comets and earthquakes. So not only do you get the famous Youlgreave weather of 1615 with its terrible and long-lasting snows, including the memorable sentence “Uppon May day in the Morning, instead of fetching in flowers, the youths brought in flakes of snow which lay about a foot deep upon the Moors and Moutaunes…” you also get the notes of the Rector of Thorpe Malsor, Northamptonshire, on the earthquake in the early hours of 6 October 1863.
Results give those all-important source reference numbers so you can check original entires rather than relying on transcripts. And the results can even be mapped.
The website can be found here.
My final suggestion is the humble parish register, but you could easily extend this to wider parish records. As seen in the Tempest Database of Extreme Weather, parish records were one of the primary sources it drew upon when gathering information.
Several people sent me some wonderful examples when I asked on Twitter, (I’ve included the link so you can read the full range).
Amongst them is a particularly memorable line summing up the bitter cold at Whittington, Shropshire in February 1776, as submitted by One-Namer and One-Placer Steve Jackson. The entry describes how “The wings of small Birds were so frozen that they fell to the ground.”
Three more from Yorkshire and one from Derbyshire show some further examples of the type of entry. I’ve illustrated the first with some follow-up research.
My ancestor Esther Hallas was buried on 13 July 1817. The parish register of Kirkburton All Hallows notes she was killed by lightning. There are no other details. But that entry led to a newspaper report with more details. The Leeds Mercury of Saturday, 19 July 1817 had the following snippet:
Yesterday se’nnight, a fatal accident took place at High Burton, near Huddersfield, during the thunder-storm on that day: The lightning struck the chimney of a house belonging to Mr Fitton, and having partially destroyed it, proceeded down the chimney, into the kitchen, and in its passage through which a servant girl was struck, and killed on the spot; the face of the clock was melted, and several panes in the window broken. Two men were also hurt by the lightning, but not dangerously
In another example, the Almondbury parish has an original entry in Latin, and alongside it a loose later English translation. Essentially it reads along the lines of:
In this year, 1614, so great a fall of snow as was not known in the memory of any living, far exceeding that in 1540 in magnitude and duration, in which many travellers as well as inhabitants of Saddleworth perished.
The entry is dated 28 January 1614/15. Investigating further, this fits in with the timing of the Youlgreave extreme weather entries of early 1615. A check of the Booty Meteorological Website shows the “Great Snow” of the winter and early spring of 1614/15 affected various parts of the country.
In another snow event, North Yorkshire County Council Record Office sent in this entry from the parish register of Thornton in Lonsdale:
March 16th 1719 is memorable for a prodigious quantity of snow falling… the storm went so high that door neighbours could not visit one another without difficulty of danger…
The final example is from Janet Braund Few, with a 1 February 1715/16 entry from Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire. This shows the further potential consequences of bad weather:
On that day there was an extreme wind. It blew the weathercock off the steeple and brake it in pieces, and a great Ash down in the Church- yard; with vast great loss to most people in their houses, some being blown downe.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of historical weather sources for family history. But hopefully these six examples give you some ideas to aid your research, providing context, colour and background to it.
1. England and Wales Precipitation series (Met Office / Hadley Centre)