Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Nothing new under the Sun (or clouds)

Following an exchange of tweets with @Amateur_Casual and recurring headlines on the inclement weather we are currently experiencing in the U.K. and elsewhere, I felt compelled to write a blog drawing attention to similar weather patterns experienced during the period 1739-1741. I have an ill-informed interest in protecting the environment and tend to believe warnings by those concerned with global warming, damage caused to the ozone layer by CFC’s, and the melting ice-cap. On the other hand, extreme/unusual weather trends are not new and, therefore, should not be unexpected.

Newspapers, such as the Newcastle Journal, and the York Courant carried reports on the prevailing and severe weather conditions throughout the period between January and May 1740. The website http://booty.org.uk/booty.weather/climate/1700_1749.htm reports that the winter and spring of 1739/1740 was extremely severe, when sub-zero mean temperatures were recorded for both January and February. In January gales and ice in the Thames damaged shipping and sea-ice affected other ports along the English east coast. The Thames was frozen for about eight weeks and heavy snowfall remained on the ground until March, followed by great floods when the snow and ice melted. As a result of the severe weather conditions there were reports of deaths from exposure and riots in Norwich. Snow fell in London on 16th/17th May and by the end of the month moors on the Scottish borders were reported to be too frozen for cutting peat. The prolonged and severe weather conditions caused a shortage of vegetables and led to an outbreak of scurvy. Any relief from severe weather conditions was brief and in September and November 1740 London and the east coast experienced gales which caused loss of life and much damage to shipping, ports and buildings. In between the autumn gales, October 1740 was the coldest October on record. It saw uncommonly severe night frosts and there were wide reports of snow showers and ice on many rivers in England, with ice in Kent reported to be a half-inch thick.  At the same time, 1740-1743 experienced one of the worst dry spells of the eighteenth century, with prolonged heat and drought between June and September 1741.

The severe weather conditions had a significant impact on the agricultural, coal and shipping industries. When the rivers Tyne and Thames froze it became virtually impossible to export what coal could be mined to London. On 5th February 1740 the Leeds Mercury reported on the closure of collieries in Durham and Northumberland which put many out of work and created a scarcity of coal. No ships were able to pass up the Humber because of the ice and it has been estimated that about 500 fewer ships than usual used the port at Sunderland during the spring of 1740.[1] The situation was aggravated by the fact that weather conditions on the continent were worse than in England, which created demand for exports from England and put pressure on Parliament to restrict the export of certain food products.

Throughout the worst of the winter months newspapers carried reports on charitable relief to alleviate the suffering of the labouring poor.

York Courant, 8 Jan 1740: Freezing temperatures reported in York; Coals are risen to so exorbitant a price that a Chaldron which used to be sold for 13 or 14 shillings were sold last Saturday for £1 12s; Last week by an Order from Above an embargo was laid on all ships in the river; A storm did great damage to ships, keels and small crafts in the River Tyne.

York Courant, 15 Jan 1740: Report that weather improving, although the severest frost for 50 years; ‘Sir Edward Gascoigne, bart sent last week a wagon load of coal for the poor prisoners in the castle, another to Ouse bridge gaol; and several wagon loads more for distribution to the poor of the City;
Two eminent brewers, and several other considerable citizens, have likewise given away large quantities of coals for the same purpose’.

York Courant, 22 Jan 1740: Edward Thompson MP for the district has ordered that 40 guineas be paid to the Lord mayor for distribution to the poor in this rigorous season at the discretion of the Aldermen of each ward.

York Courant, 29 Jan 1740: Sir John Lister Kaye, bart, M.P., has ordered that 40 guineas be paid to the Lord mayor for distribution to the poor in present severe frost; William Garforth, esq gave £40 to be distributed amongst the poor; Leonard Thompson gave 20 guineas; Other gentlemen also gave money.

York Courant, 5 Feb 1740: Newcastle - The river Wear near Durham is frozen over; Walter Balckett M.P. for the district has given 200 guineas for distribution to the poor; George Bowes M.P. for Durham has given £200 for distribution to the poor; The Earl of Carlise give £50 for poor of Morpeth;
George Fox of York given 10 guineas.

Leeds Mercury, 5 Feb 1740: Newcastle - report that no ships able to pass up the Humber because of the ice; Mayor and aldermen ordered 50 guineas to be given to four parishes to be distributed by the ministers to the real objects of mercy, on account of the severe weather conditions; report on the scarcity of coal, particularly in Sandgarn and the severity of the weather depriving miners of employment.
‘The Coal Owners of the Colleries of Durham and Northumberland have been at very great Expence in clearing their Waggon Ways of Snows, and still continue to employ great Numbers of poor People in that Work, who are by the Severity of the Weather deprived of following any other employment. By theses Means the labouring People in this Neighbourhood have the Happiness to enjoy the Blessing of Plenty, whilst others in several parts of this Island are (by all Accounts) starving for want of subsistence.

The readers of this blog can draw their own opinions on the ‘happiness’ of the labouring poor at this time.

York Courant, 26 Feb 1740: Report from Beverley that Charles Pelham, M.P., has proved four large oxen and £10 worth of bread to the poor house-keepers of the town ; ‘and the same was distributed amongst the most necessitious, without regard to their being freemen or otherwise’.

York Courant, 11 March 1740 : ‘the Rev Mr Clayton, rector of Wensley, in this county, killed a fat ox and distributed it amongst the poor parishioners, and also gave a considerable sum of money for their relief’.

Nevertheless, although the poor were considered objects of mercy during the worst of the severe winter weather, similar outpourings of charity could not be expected to continue for the remainder of the year and for the majority of men and women caught up in the food riots of spring 1740, their primary motivation was the fear of hunger. Sir William Williamson, High Sheriff of Durham, June 1740 (TNA, SP36/50, ff. 425-432): ‘I cannot help adding the very indifferent crop last year (for it was in all these northern parts) the severe winter following and then the lancholly prospect we have of any crop this spring, are things that greatly affect every body, but especially the labouring part of mankind’.

As so succinctly expressed on The Today programme on Radio 4 this morning: ‘climate is what we expect, weather is what we experience’.

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[1] Ashton, T.S. (1959) Economic fluctuations in England, 1700-1800, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 35.

1 comment:

  1. So where does this leave us on global warming? Do we then just shrug our shoulders and claim that the melting icecaps are beyond our control - after all this is just a new round of extreme weather conditions?
    Your comments here are insightful but lets not forget that there still might be something that we (the global community that is) can do before things get worse.
    Susan Hazan