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Monday, 18 June 2018

Funny Weather For The Time of Year! - What Your Ancestors' Weather Diaries Might Tell You About Them

‘The Thermometer in the Vestibule’ – Your Ancestors' Weather Diaries

The British weather always provides a talking point and we Brits are more than usually excited at the moment because we are experiencing an unexpected  - and very welcome - heatwave. Perhaps you are keeping a record in photographs or on social media of these glorious days ? 
Your ancestors were equally interested in the machinations of the weather and how wind, rain and sunshine affected so many aspects of their lives. Before the foundation of the Meteorological Office in 1854 (and sometimes thereafter when the network of weather stations was still very small), many people kept detailed daily diaries in which they recorded not only the general aspect of the weather but also matters such as the temperature, rainfall and atmospheric pressure. And many people kept a close record of the weather in more ordinary diaries, letters and other communications too.

Weather Vane, Skipton Church, North Yorkshire. Weather vanes or ‘anemometers’ which measure wind speed and direction were first invented in the mid fifteenth century.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to dismiss references to the weather in our ancestor’s writings as of little interest. But, the fact that such entries were kept so copiously reminds us that the weather obviously held even more importance for our ancestors than it does for us today. With few official sources of meteorological information, a weather diary could be very useful in predicting likely conditions from one year to the next. More people in the past worked on the land and bad weather inevitably meant poor harvests and consequently the very real fear that less food would be available. A period of aridity or too much rain might have led to the ruination of crops and consequent rises in local food prices. Concerns in diaries about extremely cold weather at Christmastime were very real; vulnerable family members or neighbours might be considered at real risk at these times since low temperatures inevitably brought higher rates of mortality.

And, the weather will have circumscribed your ancestor’s life in many other ways too even if the exact connections are not made explicit in the diary. Heavy rain or snow, for instance, might have made roads impenetrable on foot or by horses preventing visits to family or business trips – where today no such interruption to ordinary life would occur. As Rachel Anne Ketton, of Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk put it in her diary on Monday 1st February 1869, ‘A very windy mild morning which turned to rain in the afternoon and prevented John meeting Mr Motts at Kelling as had been agreed,’ and her diaries go on to record many other occasions when plans were thwarted or had to be altered because of the weather.
Rain: How much did the weather shape your ancestor’s daily life and character?

Credit: Girl’s Own Paper, Vol VIII, No. 378, March 26, 1887.

Scientific Leanings or Religious Beliefs

For some diarists, detailing the patterns of the weather was primarily a matter of scientific endeavour. It was an exercise which gave them a reason to experiment with fledgling measuring devices such as thermometers (temperature), barometers (air pressure), hygrometers (air moisture levels) and anemometers (wind speed). Samuel Milford, an Exeter banker, for example, kept diaries from 1775, and these are believed to be some of the earliest consistently to record temperature and pressure. Another early weather diarist was pharmacist Luke Howard (1772-?) who, in 1802, used his observations of the weather to create a system for naming different cloud shapes (the basics of which were cirrus, cumulus and stratus). And a third scientifically-inclined weather diarist was Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1857) who created the Beaufort scale (a measure for describing wind intensity based on observed sea conditions). For women, keeping a weather diary could be one way of exercising scientific skills in a world in which they were effectively barred from working as professional scientists.  
A Wheel or Banjo Barometer made between 1825 and 1850 by Barnasconi, Leeds. Early barometers used mercury. Aneroid or fluidless barometers were in invented in 1843. 
Credit: Kept in the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Wikimedia Commons.

Whilst many weather diarists saw the world through a scientific lens, however, others believed the weather to be fundamentally attributable to Divine powers. In the diaries of these writers, terrible storms were put down to God’s wrath, and beautiful summer days attributed to His pleasure. An anonymous diarist in Sheffield in 1843 recorded how a drunk was struck blind by a thunderbolt in a local hostelry during a particularly bad storm and put this down to its being a  punishment for his blasphemy (

Social history

A weather event might have been considered particularly worthy of note by an ancestor in a diary if it co-incided with an event of national importance such as the coronation of a monarch, for example.  And weather also contributed to the success or failure of many local events and activities, such as parades, fetes, harvests, competitions, and church outings. You can potentially corroborate your ancestors’ accounts of the weather both in the metropolis and in the locality by looking at newspapers covering the same area at the same time. Many of these give a daily forecast as a matter of course. (See the fee-paying site for digitised copies of many national and local papers)   The Meteorological Office has also provided some useful online fact sheets which give detail about the weather on certain key dates in history such as the day the Titanic set sail and the days of Royal Weddings, which make useful comparison pieces to personal diaries (
The Modbury Weather Diaries (1788-1867) were kept first by John Andrews Snr between 1788 and 1822 and then by John Andrews Junior between 1831 and 1868. Weather diarists led less mobile – and less distracted -  lives than we do today, a fact which allowed them more easily to take temperature and pressure readings every day (at exactly the same time and in exactly the same place, sometimes twice a day and sometimes more often) and also to record a whole myriad of other weather-related issues such as daily rainfall levels, the varying times of sunrise and sunset, and the ‘ages’ of the moon.

Credit: Image used with the permission of the National Meteorological Library and Archive..Weather Diaries 1825 - 1867

A good example of a diary which intertwines comments on the weather with the social history of a local area is that by William Bulkeley of Anglesey  (1691-1760)

Gentleman William Bulkeley lived in Brynddu, Llanfechell on Anglesey, North Wales. There are two extant volumes of his diaries. The first covering the years from 1734-1743, and the second covering 1747-1760. A third missing volume would have bridged the gap between the two. Bulkeley always included comments on the weather alongside his accounts of activity in his neighbourhood such as markets and fairs, football matches and events relevant to his work as a squire of LLanfechell and as a Justice of the Peace. Bulkeley’s diary can now be viewed  at the University of Bangor North Wales.  

Gardens and Homes

The study of recurring plant and animal behaviour in relation to the seasons is known as phenology – and this pseudo-science is very much to the forefront in some weather diaries. In the so-called ‘Cobham diaries,’ (1825-1867), Miss Caroline Molesworth, for example, included special columns of text (labelled ‘Observations Relating to Animals’ and Observations Relating to Plants’) in which she recorded noteworthy aspects of life in her garden. On April 20th 1841, for example, she wrote, ‘Nightingales heard at night’ and ‘Cuckoos heard,’ and in the same month, she mentions, ‘gnats,’ ‘frogs croaking’ and  ‘a gold cover of crocuses’). There are other entries which show her knowledge of scientific and botanical terms, ‘Tremella Mesenterica’ and ‘Helleboreus Lividus,’ for example, are used rather than the more colloquial ‘Witches’ Butter’ (a yellow fungus) and ‘Christmas Rose.’ These are the moments at which the sounds, smells and sights of Moleworth’s world really come to life. Such diaries have enabled garden historians to see at what time seasonal crops such as potatoes and strawberries were ready to be harvested in years gone by, and at what times in particular years in the past certain birds or animals first made an appearance.
Page from the Cobham Weather Diaries kept by Miss Caroline Molesworth between 1825 and 1867. The diary is organised into ruled columns one of which delightfully records the temperature on the ‘thermometer in the vestibule’, a detail which gives an unexpected insight into the furnishing of a rural domestic interior in the Victorian era.

Credit: Image used with the permission of the National Meteorological Library and Archive.

More surprisingly, comments on the weather in diaries often give detail about the domestic interiors of our ancestors’ worlds – spaces which would otherwise have been lost to history. As well as mentioning ‘the thermometer in the vestibule,’ Caroline Molesworth remarks on the growing severity of the weather in January 1841 by commenting first that the windows are ‘dewed outside’, then ‘dewed inside,’ then  ‘iced,’ and then that ‘the water is frozen in [the] bedroom and in the dog’s pan in the vestibule’ reminding us of a world without the luxuries of central heating, double glazing, or piped water in upstairs rooms. 

Character and Mental State

Our ancestors’ diaries show how they were constantly called upon to display great fortitude in their battles against the elements. The Rev. Kilvert’s diary entry for Sunday 13th February 1870, for example, comments that the day was so cold that he  ‘went to Bettws in the afternoon wrapped in two waistcoast, two coats, a  muffler and a mackintosh, and was not at all too warm… when I got to the Chapel my beard, moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could barely open my mouth and my beard was frozen on to my mackintosh.’ Worse still, he had to baptise a baby in a font in which ice was floating!

If you are particularly lucky, an account of the weather might also have been used by an ancestor to illuminate an aspect of his or her interior life and feelings. Grey or wet days, for example, were sometimes lengthily recorded to emphasise the diarist’s own grief after a bereavement, thunderstorms mentioned to reflect his or her inner torment or anger at a failed love affair or thwarted scheme, and sunny weather to accentuate pleasant aspects of life such as falling in love or having a child. Rachel Anne Ketton is most voluble on the storms outside when her (surely hypochondriac?) husband is suffering from terrible toothache or a pain in his leg! Equally weather details might be used in poignant contrast to the diarist’s own emotions.   

In whatever way it mentions rain, snow and sunshine, any family diary that frequently describes the vagaries of the weather must remind us that, for our ancestors,  such matters were not merely an incidental backdrop to lives, rather they determined the entire quality of those lives in ways that we have almost forgotten.

NB: The Milford, Howard, Beaufort, Cobham and Modbury diaries mentioned above are held at the National Meteorological Archive, Devon

This article first appeared in Discover Your Ancestors Online Magazine

Useful books and websites

Alistair Dawson, So Fair and Foul a Day: A History of Scotland’s Weather and Climate, Birlinn, 2009.

A. Martin, Scotland’s Weather: An Anthology, National Museums of Scotland, 1995.

Patrick Nobbs, The Story of the British and Their Weather: From Frost Fairs to Indian Summers, Amberley Publishing, 2016.

Paul Simons, Since Records Began: The Highs and Lows of Britain’s Weather, Collins 2008

The Met Office, The MET Office Book of the British Weather, David and Charles, 2010. Meteorological Office Digital Library and Archive Traditional weather observation in the UK

Devon Heritage Centre and National Meteorological Archive

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