This year I'm looking at some of the entries in the "The Diary of a Country Parson". This was a diary kept by an English clergyman, James Woodforde (1740-1803). Woodforde lived in Somerset and Norfork, and kept a diary for 45 years recording all kind of ordinary incidents which paint a picture of the routines and concerns of what Ian Hislop terms "the middling folk" of 18th century rural England.
One of the notable events in January 1779 was a great deal of very bad weather, and as I write this, gale force wind and rain are lashing at the windows, so once more bad weather is the norm. Diaries such as this can provide useful records to show us the weather before scientific measurements became commonplace.
No weather yet as been quite as bad as that of January 1362, where the weather destroyed much of the coastline, as well as many lives, which seems similar in its devastation to October 1987 but more extreme:
Few great weather events in British history were as devastating as the "Grote Mandrenke", the great drowning of men, which took place in mid January 1362. A huge south-westerly gale originating in the Atlantic Ocean swept across Ireland, Britain, the Low Countries, and northern Germany, causing at least 25,000 deaths. The first warning of the storm came from Ireland, where homes and buildings in Dublin were devastated by the high winds. Next to experience the brunt of the storm was southern England, where thousands of trees were blown down. Massive damage was caused to the few high buildings, notably churches, and many spires or towers were destroyed. Most famously, the wooden spire of Norwich Cathedral fell through its roof. Worse was to come. As the storm reached the North Sea, it combined with high tides to produce the phenomenon most feared by coastal communities, a storm surge. Ports all along the east coast of England, and across the North Sea in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, were destroyed, as the power of the wind and waters changed the shape of the coastline.(1)
There is a reminder both in Parson Woodforde's writings and earlier that a changeable climate is not the prerogative of our own times, and climatic change - of whatever cause - can lead to devastating consequences. Weather forecasting is only as good as its interpretation, and the example of weatherman Michael Fish, who cheerfully dismissed reports of a hurricane in 1987, shows how easily even modern forecasters can get it wrong because of the complexity and speed in which it can change. Now they tend to play safe and publicize the highest possible winds - recently (just before Christmas 2011) a Jersey forecast suggested winds like those of 1987. If they get it wrong, that is soon forgotten, but Michael Fish's forecast will be remembered for a long time, no doubt much to his chagrin.
The last entry in these extracts also features the the first mention of an umbrella by Parson Woodforde. Umbrellas did not come into general use in England before the 1780's, and Lieut.-Colonel James Wolfe, writing from Paris in 1752, mentions the people there using umbrellas for the sun and rain, and wonders that a similar practice does not obtain in England. But the man who first appeared with one in 1778 in London was jeered by the mob. They were regarded as effeminate. John Macdonald related that in 1770, he used to be greeted with the shout, "Frenchman, Frenchman! why don't you call a coach?" whenever he went out with his umbrella. It is significant that in 1787 Parson Woodforde only succumbed to having one held over his head during a frightful blizzard at a funeral.
And the first entry also features what has been called the Little Ice Age, where he skates down on the Thames.
The diary is also interesting that it features a kind of strange light, a "will of the wisp", which Woodforde hopes is not an omen of some kind, but he also rationalises it as a natural phenomena in an after note.
January - The Diary of a Country Parson
1763 JAN. 24. We skated down to Abington where we dined and for our dinners there etc. each of us pd. 2s. 6d. We were going down about an hour and half; N.B. We walked above 2 miles out of it. It is about 10 miles by water.
1767 JAN 1. I read Prayers this morning at C. Cary Church being New Year's Day. I dined, supped and spent the evening till 10 o'clock at Parsonage, and after ten I went over to Mr. Clarke's new Hospital where I spent the whole night and part of the morning till 4 o'clock a dancing, on account of Mr. James Clarke's apprenticeship being expired. A great deal of company was there indeed, viz., etc. . . . We had a very good band of musick, 2 Violins and a Base Viol. We were excessive merry and gay there indeed.
1768 JAN. 4. . . . Jack did not come home till near four in the morning. He was much in liquor and quite unhappy. The Devil has had great power over him today. O Lord, grant him strength from Thy Holy Place, to withstand him better pro futuro.
1768: JAN. 6. I read prayers this morning at C. Cary Church being Epiphany. I had a small congregation, it being excessive cold, as cold and severe weather on all accounts as in the year 1740. . . .
1771: JAN. 10. . . . Brother John was greatly astonished by a light this evening as he came thro' Orchards, a field by Ansford Church, which light seemed to follow him close behind all the way through that field, and which he could not account for. I hope it is no Omen of death in the Family. N.B. The Reflection of the snow I apprehend occasioned the light that my Brother saw.
1771: JAN. 16. . . . Extreme hard frost with a cutting wind. It was allowed by my Father and Aunt Anne this afternoon that the weather now is as severe as it was in the year 1740. . . .
1779: JAN. 1st. I breakfasted, dined, supped and slept again at home. This morning very early about 1 o'clock a most dreadful storm of wind with Hail and Snow happened here and the Wind did not quite abate till the evening. A little before 2 o'clock I got up, my bedsted rocking under me, and never in my life that I know of, did I remember the Wind so high or of so long continuance. I expected every Moment that some part or other of my House must have been blown down, but blessed be God the whole stood, only a few Tiles displaced. My Servants also perceived their Bedsteds to shake. Thanks be to God that none of my People or self were hurt. My Chancel received great damage as did my Barn. The Leads from my Chancel were almost all blown of with some Parts of the Roof. The North West Window blown in and smashed all to pieces. The East Window also damaged but not greatly. The North W: Leads on the top of the Church also, some of them blown up and ruffled, besides 2 windows injured. The Clay on the North end of my Barn blown in and the West side of the Roof the Thatch, most all blown away, leaving many holes in it. The damage sustained by me will amount I Suppose to 50 Pounds if not more. However I thank God no lives were lost that I hear of and I hope not. Mr.
Shaddlelows Barn, Michael Andrews's, with many others all blown down. Numbers of Trees torn up by the Roots in many Places. In the evening the Wind abated and was quite calm when I went to bed about 11 o'clock. Since what happened this morning, I prolonged the Letter that I designed to send to my sister Pounsett to relate what had happened here by the storm. And this evening sent it to her by Mr. Cary. A smart frost this evening. As the year begins rather unfortunate to me, hope the other Parts of it will be as propitious to me.
1783: JAN. 26 Thos. Carr dined with our Folks to day. I read Prayers and Preached this Afternoon at Weston. Mr. Custance and a Mrs. Collier, an elderly Lady, at Church. Sent old Mary Adcock at Noon -- a hot rosted Fowl, a fourpenny Loaf and a Bottle of Beer.
1787 I read Prayers and Preached this morning at Weston Church neither Mr. or Mrs. Custance at Church, nor above 20 People in all at Church -- The Weather being extremely cold and severe with much Snow on the ground and still more falling with cutting Winds. After Service I buried a Daughter of Harrisons an Infant aged only 5 Weeks -- I think that I never felt the cold more severe than when I was burying the above Infant. The Wind blowed very Strong and Snow falling all the time and the Wind almost directly in my Face, that it almost stopped my breath in reading the funeral Service at the Grave, tho' I had an Umbrella 1 held over my Head during the Time.
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