The weather in the late 17th century

Frost Fair on the frozen Thames 1683

Frost Fair on the frozen Thames 1683

What was the weather like? It’s the age old question we always ask of anyone returning from distant parts but if your journey has taken you to the 17th century it’s not so easy to answer. Detailed recording of temperatures, wind speeds, precipitation, and atmospheric pressure only really starts from the 1850s onwards[i]. But weather is important. It is, quite literally, the atmosphere of a book. Take the fog out of BLEAK HOUSE or the heat out of HEART OF DARKNESS and the story wouldn’t be the same. This is also true for historical non-fiction but here there is the added obligation to get it right.

If you want to know what the weather was like in London 350 years ago there are only two possible approaches. There is retrospective science in the form of dendroclimatology[ii]. The problem with this is that the data it provides is necessarily very broad brush. It’s not going to tell you whether it was raining on Sunday, 12 February 1682, for instance, the day that Mr Thynn was gunned down in the street. The alternative is to study the literary and artistic ephemera of the day, contemporary diaries, letters, travel journals, early broadsheets, ships logs, paintings, astronomical almanacs and so on.

One thing is for sure. The winters were a lot colder than they are now. The end of the seventeenth century experienced a sharp spike of chilliness during what was anyway a cool period that had already been going on for several hundred years, a period now known as the little ice age[iii]. There is plenty of personal anecdote to support this. For a start the River Thames was in the habit of freezing right across, a freak weather occurrence which was quick to be commercially exploited in the form of the famous frost fairs. There was sledging, skating, coach racing, bull baiting, pop up shops, and roasting of oxen, as well as ‘ puppet places and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places’, to quote John Evelyn’s rather coy phrase.[iv]

But it wasn’t just the frequency of sub-zero temperatures that made the London weather experience very different from what it is today. The ‘Metropolis’, as it had recently come to be called, was also a lot more susceptible to noxious fogs. One tends to associate the trademark London smog with the Victorian period. But the roots of London’s industrial pollution problems go back to the seventeenth century when smog was probably even more pernicious and ubiquitous than it was in Dickens’s time. John Evelyn’s fascinating little book Fumifugium, published in 1661,[v] describes the effect of the growing use of sea coal on London’s micro climate. He refers to ‘that Hellish and dismall Cloud of Sea Coal’ which caused Londoners ‘to breathe nothing but an impure and thick mist accompanied with a fulginous and filthy vapour’ and which caused the inhabitants to suffer from, ‘Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions’. He blamed all the ‘Brewers, Diers, Lime Burners, Salt and Sope Boylers’ who belched forth a ‘cloud of sulphure’ from their ‘sooty jaws’.  Evelyn was a founding father of the environmental movement and his suggested solution was to move all the polluting industries to an area East of Greenwich which would be downwind from the main centres of habitation. He was also keen on the idea of planting a ring of sweet smelling trees and shrubs right around the periphery of London, a sort of early green belt[vi]. Fumifugium was dedicated to Charles 2nd who received Evelyn’s ideas with enthusiasm and did nothing about them.

A fascination with daily weather was just as much a preoccupation with seventeenth century Londoners as it is with its modern inhabitants. Food supplies depended on a good harvest, transport was even more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate and, of course, it affected everyone’s general sense of wellbeing. Even the Duke of York (the future James 2nd) typifies that unchanging tendency to moan about the elements when he writes to his niece about not being able to get out for his usual morning walk ‘as for the weather it is the same with you, that it is with us, only it keeps us prisoners, for there is no sturing out farther than the little Parke, the waters being still so much out and the ways so durty, that I have not been able to go further, and this day has been so very rainy that I have not been able to walke abroad at all but a little in the morning early upon the terrasse’.[vii]

This kind of gossipy detail is all very fascinating but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what the weather was doing on the particular day that you most need to know about Sometimes the way the wind was blowing really did have an effect on the way events evolved. This is where the almanac writers can come in useful. There may have been no meteorological office but weather forecasting was still a thriving business left largely to professional astrologers. One of the more interesting and lesser known  is John Gadbury.

John Gadbury

John Gadbury

His ‘Nauticum astrologicum: or, The astrological seaman…unto which is added a Diary of the weather for XX1 years together, exactly observed in London’[viii] is a mine of carefully recorded weather data. Gadbury had a client base of merchants and shipowners who needed to know whether it was a propitious moment to launch a new boat or start on a voyage. Astrology was very much on the defensive towards the end of the seventeenth century battling against accusations of being little more than necromancy. Gadbury was anxious to prove to his readers that his work was commensurate with the strictest scientific standards of the age being full of ‘New and Real Observations or Experiments to credit his opinions’. Part of the point of the weather diary which extended from November 1668 to December 1689 was to validate his astrological predictions. So, the studious reader can discern from his daily record that ‘the sun in Leo, generally brings along with it, parching hot air; and in Aries dry but lofty winds; in Pisces much moisture..’ or again ‘we have a fall of wet upon every New or Full moon.’ The actual daily entries are more down to earth and from my point of view much more valuable. On 7 November 1681, for instance, the day of Lady Bette’s sudden flight from London, he notes, ‘close air, great wind East.’ That East wind was all important. If it persisted it could result in the boat she hoped to escape in being trapped in the river for days if not weeks. She can’t have consulted him.

Notes:

[i] The Meteorology Office was established in 1854 with its main purpose to help predict storm and avoid shipwreck

[ii] The study of tree rings to establish changes of weather pattern

[iii] The little ice age is now thought to have lasted roughly from around 1400 to 1800 a.d.

[iv] The Diary of John Evelyn, Ed. E.S. de Beer, 6 vols (Oxford 1955)

[v] Quotations are taken from the 1976 reprint published by Rota, Exeter

[vi] This idea was developed in the works of Samuel Hartlib and John Beale, contemporaries of John Evelyn.

[vii] Windsor April 30th 1682, from Some Familiar Letters of Charles II and James Duke of York ed. Harold Arthur, Viscount Dillon (1902)

[viii] The astrological seaman was thought to have been written in the last decade of the seventeenth century but was not published until 1710. Gadbury died in 1704.
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