Mr and Mrs Andrews, about 1750 by Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) The National Gallery, London
I know we’re all talking about the weather here in England, it’s our obsession, after-all, but we’ve been having exceptional meteorological conditions since December and now we’re told that we’ve had the heaviest rainfall for 250 years. Well, I tended to think of 18th Century England as a sunny, idyllic place. I imagine a great Gainsborough painting – especially thinking of the famous portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews sitting comfortably out of doors on a summer’s day. Looking at it again I look at those black clouds and wonder why I hadn’t noticed them before. Mr and Mrs Andrews, in around 1750, look comfortable enough in their silk clothes but, if they don’t get indoors soon, they’re going to get soaked by torrential rain. Gainsborough is probably making a social comment here but he’s also reflecting the fact that between 1751 – 1760 English summers were the wettest in a record that began in 1697. There were 10 wet summers in a row. 1751 was a notably wet year, at least in South-East England. There was a wet March, a wet first two-thirds of May and severe thunderstorms and flooding in November. So when I look at the weather records for the last half of the 18th. Century, I see what our weathermen mean when they keep referring back to those records of 250 years ago.
The Shipwreck, 1772, by Claude Joseph Vernet ( 1714 – 1789)
On the 26th February 1751, a severe gale affected most of the southern half of the country and destroyed a number of ships in the Thames. On the 20th July 1752, a whirlwind ‘associated with a thunderstorm’ lifted two boats several feet out of the Thames at Vauxhall and ‘smashed one of them to pieces on the river bank’. There was then a ‘cool, damp summer’. On the 22nd March 1753 Whitehall was flooded in another storm and on the 7th October 1756 a major cyclonic storm, almost a tornado, affected most of Britain and much of Northern Europe.
The Wreck of a Transport Ship, c.1810 by J. M. W Turner (1775 – 1851)
English weather was even worse in the 1760s. Between the years 1763 – 1772 England experienced another series of wet summers. In 1762 there was a ‘great flood’ in the Thames valley and the summer of 1763 was very wet across England & Wales but in Scotland there was a ‘great drought.’ In 1763 the river Thames flooded and on the 18th June 1764 there were severe thunderstorms when lightning destroyed several churches and a naval ship. 7th June 1768 marked the beginning of the wettest part of a record wet summer in England and it rained on at least 36 days out of the next 44.
In September 1768 there was heavy rain at Bruton, Somerset leading to the severe flooding of numerous houses, the destruction of the town bridge and demolition of walls throughout Bruton. In December that year, the London-Exeter coach was carried away by a flood on the Thames near Staines with the loss of all 6 passengers and four horses.
Travellers beneath a storm, 1791 by Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821)
The run of bad weather was still not over. There were storms and floods over most of Southern England in August 1770. Severe thunderstorms broke out in west Cornwall extending across much of Cornwall, Devon and the West of England and a ‘great flood’ occurred at Lynmouth in North Devon. November 1770 was the second wettest November on record and in Worcester, on the River Severn, there was a ‘very great flood.’ In 1771 there was a wet summer and in November 1771 heavy rains flooded the rivers Tyne, Wear and Tees, washing away most of the bridges and on the 12th March 1774 Henley Bridge was destroyed by flood waters. This flood was the highest on record at Teddington, and more generally the worst flood of the 18th century along the Thames Valley.
A Wooded Landscape with Peasants in a Horse-Drawn Cart Travelling Down a Flooded Road by Jan Siberechts (1627 -1703)
In the years 1775 – 1784 there was another series of wet summers but at least, the records tell us, the summers were also warm but there was worse to come. In January and February 1776, severe cold weather affected much of Europe. The Thames was frozen for some time. There was a widespread severe frost and thick snow for a large part of the month. There was a prolonged cold spell over the country with temperatures dropping to around -11 degrees Fahrenheit in Maidstone, Kent. The month overall was almost as cold as the record cold English January of 1963.
The Skating Minister, 1796, by Henry Raeburn (1756 – 1823) National Gallery of Scotland.
We should remember that weather systems do come in cycles but we shouldn’t think this this disproves the reality of global warming in our own century but before you get too depressed about our chances this winter here in England, eventually that run of bad weather did come to an end 250 years ago. 1778 – 1800 were sunny dry years and the months of January – March 1779 were exceptionally dry and warm.
The Triumph of Beauty, 1800, by Edward Dayes (1763 – 1804),
So don’t despair, it won’t be long, if the 18th Century pattern is repeated, we’ll soon all be out there basking in the sunshine.
Sleeping Endymion, 1757, by Nicolas-Guy Brenet (1728 – 1792), Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts
My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
It is now available as a paperback or on Kindle (go to your region’s Amazon site for Kindle orders)
You can order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing: