This post is part of an occasional series on antiquarian, topographer and dissenter Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725).
It’s been a little wet in the south of England this winter, as some of you may have noticed. Storm has followed storm, houses have been flooded, villages cut off, and here in the south west the railway at Dawlish washed away. This has precipitated a deluge of news stories dragging out all sorts of beloved clichés as the media bandwagon has careered on its merry way. Predictably a political row about the causes of flooding has erupted where Conservatives have blamed Labour for previous policy mistakes and Labour have accused the government of ignoring climate change. But the storms have proven to be a delightfully flexible concept, allowing for commentary on all sorts of social issues, including: the storm blitz spirit, the storms and austerity, the storms and the royal family, the storms and the proposed high speed rail link, the storms and the under-equipped army, and my personal favourite, the storms and the mysterious case of the python that was battered to death in the night-time.
Perhaps more interestingly, the storms have also prompted some writing on historic bad weather and its consequences – I am sure I am not the only early modern historian who was delighted to see a seventeenth century woodcut on the front page of the Guardian’s website on February 12. We were also offered some timely musings on Daniel Defoe’s The Storm, his memorial to the hurricane that pummelled northern Europe in 1703, and this blog on eighteenth-century ‘climate change advocates’ provided some interesting historical context.
All of which made me more sensitive to the weather described by Ralph Thoresby in his diary and memoir. For it seems that late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century England was no less prone to a bout of extreme weather, which Thoresby noted on numerous occasions.
For example, on 19 January 1678 he wrote:
I cannot omit to insert, that on Thursday night, about two or three o’clock, there was a most terrible storm of rain, hail, and violent winds, accompanied with such dreadful thunder and lightning, that some started up half distracted, thinking it to be the day of judgment; it was indeed the most formidable, unparallelled tempest that ever I knew; the wind blustering and beating great hailstones with such force against the windows and walls as did awaken very hard sleepers with fear.
Of course, since weatherman Michael Fish infamously reassured BBC viewers in 1987 that there was no hurricane on the way just before the worst storm to hit the UK in centuries, the MET office has improved its warning system. People are now much less likely to be taken by surprise when bad weather arrives, in contrast to the ‘hard sleepers’ who awoke to the cacophony of this storm in full tilt, no doubt exaggerating the impression it made on those that experienced it.
January storms were evidently quite commonplace, and generally the winter weather could prove very troublesome, particularly for travellers. In 1709 Thoresby was constrained by business to make a winter journey from Leeds to London when his progress was severely hampered by the weather. Some years later, he wrote in his memoir:
begun our journey the 27 Dec: & though we found the way very bad in some places yet I was supported above my natural temper … we stood in the utmost need of divine assistance being this day in imminent danger in passing Trent. the common roads being impassable we ferryed over not the river only but the meadows & hedges – all being overflown that it seemed like an arm of the Sea for a mile together, in one place there being a very high causeway above which it was deep to the sadle skirts. our guide advanced to the utmost caution it being inevitable ruin if we fell to either side, he was forced to plumb the way every step, but our mercyfull God preserved us.
Thoresby’s description of the water as ‘an arm of the Sea for a mile together… deep to the sadle skirts’ is strikingly reminiscent of current new stories and aerial footage of the sodden Somerset levels. Conditions on this journey did not improve and Thoresby and his companion were forced to delay for a week at an inn, being unable to find a local guide to take them further:
The next day proved tempestuous with another danger that we got with of a fall, but landed with out damage but we could reach only to Stamford, & which was worse were forced to ly by til Munday the week after, there being no travelling by road, waggon or horse, the very neighbouring people could not come to the market to buy or sell corn.
Eventually the travellers were able to leave the inn, but their progress was tortuously slow. In contrast to 2014, when the winter temperatures have generally been warmer than average, it is apparent that cold weather compounded the difficulties for Thoresby and his companions:
…being near 20 in company we ventured on the Monday but the guide we hired durst adventure no further than one mile, we got another, who conducted us by inaccesible ways… the snow being higher than the hedges in the lanes, at long run we got through mercy to our Journeys end, though at Enfield had the mishap to be plunged belly deep by the breaking of the Ice, that the water ran in not only at my boot tops, but my pockets, to the spoiling of my papers, but borrowing dry stockings & breeches at Mr Foxcrofts, found no inconvenience. blessed be God of my mercys.
In his diary Thoresby noted that after he finally arrived in London, he had attended a meeting of the Royal Society at Gresham College on January 12, where:
letters received from foreign parts, as well as several parts of England were read, that gave a dismal account of this storm, which seems to have been universal as to those parts of Europe, and was found by the registers kept of the thermometer, &c. to be three degrees colder than the noted frost in 1683-4.
The following diary entry also suggests that most people would not attempt to travel long distances in such conditions:
Jan 4: very severe travelling, especially about Royston (where the people came running out of their houses to stare upon us with amazement)
And that bad winter weather could sometimes be so commonplace as to barely warrant a mention:
Dec 14, 15, 1722: Nothing remarkable at home, but a flood, wherein a child drowned and a soldier hardly escaped. Transcribed an indulgence for a wavering Romanist.
Metereological conditions might cause more pause for thought when they were unseasonable and disruptive, as on 13 April 1713, when Thoresby recorded in his diary
a severe snow, would be accounted a stormy day at Christmas, so that the shops were shut up; long icicles at the eves of houses.
Much worse was the terrible rain on 22 May 1722, which was so powerful that it destroyed buildings and disturbed the repose of the dead:
Read and wrote till eleven; after abroad, inquisitive after the astonishing effects of the thunder-shower last Friday, in the vicinage of Halifax, where it took down part of Ripponden Chapel, bore down two mills, and several houses and bridges, about twenty persons said to be drowned; corpses washed out of graves, &c.
Disruption to mortuary practices continues to be a particularly disturbing effect of extreme weather, as this recent article attests. My last bit of evidence suggests that Ralph Thoresby’s interest in the weather has more significance than a mere fascinating glimpse into the past:
July 13 1703: Drank but little, the Spa-well having been flooded yesternight with the thunder-shower, which yet reached not so far as Alderman Ivison’s, where they made hay in their shirts all day, yet was so violent here that in less than an hour’s time Sheeps-car-beck rose a yard and a half in perpendicular height.
This thunder-shower was ordered by Providence, for the detection of a murderer, John Brown, alias Clement Foster, who had fled from the North, where he had slain an exciseman, and skulked at Runder’s upon the Moor, into whose house the violence of the storm forced Mr. Routh, the stapler, who overheard the fellow say he was brother to such-a-one, Mrs. Brown, in the North. he [Routh] came the next morning to read the Gazette at Leeds, where Mr. Routh got him apprehended, for that such-a-one’s brother had slain a man, and was fled. he denied all, but being sent to Newcastle Assizes, it was proved upon him, and he was executed for it: it is said he died penitent.
Despite our conception of the weather as a ‘natural’ phenomena, humans are prone to assuming that our own actions can influence it, particularly when it comes to more extreme climactic events. In the case of John Brown the moor-skulker, Thoresby reports in a matter of fact way that a recent thunder shower was a providential event, sent by God to bring to light the whereabouts of the murderer. Such beliefs were widely held in post-Reformation England, and they were entirely orthodox: most contemporaries would share Thoresby’s conviction that Brown’s actions were the probable cause of the bad weather. In twenty-first century Britian, there are apparently still some people who view weather events through a providential lens – see for example ex-UKIP politician David Silvester, who blamed recent flooding on the government’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage:
The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.
Yet Silvester was rapidly denounced and expelled from his party, indicating that widespread consensus has certainly shifted when it comes to both equal rights and the causes of meteorological events. But that is not to say that human agency in this area has disappeared, rather that it now focuses around scientific rather than religious causation: the issues of climate change and government environmental policy as opposed to sinful behaviour and divine intervention.
The Guardian image is taken from Anon, A true Report of certaine wonderfull overflowings of Waters, now lately in Summerset-shire, Norfolke, and other places of England (London, 1607), STC (2nd ed.) 22915.
The woodcut here is taken from Anon, Lamentable newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales (London, 1607), STC (2nd ed.) 18021. The image was also cropped and reused in several other publications of the time.
George Vertue, Engraving of Gresham College in the City of London, looking east at the front onto Old Broad Street, 1740.
Extracts from Thoresby’s memoir are all taken from: ‘Autobiography of Ralph Thoresby 1711-1714’, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Archive, MS26.
Most surviving volumes of Thoresby’s diary are in the Yorkshire Archaeological Society Archive, MS21-25. The extracts here are from the abridged published version: J. Hunter (ed.), The Diary of Ralph Thoresby, F.R.S, author of the topography of Leeds, 2 vols (London, 1830).