Climate Change in 1859

Earlier in the year, we were enjoying a lengthy bout of sunny weather in Britain, with predictions of the summer turning into a prolonged heatwave, like the memorable year of 1976. Record-breaking temperatures are often reported with triumph by newspapers, as if this is a good thing. Then later on came the inevitable floods and high winds, leading to much misery.


Sunshine and showers in Devon in the summer of 2019

Such changeable weather is duly attributed to climate change, and yet the evidence for climate change comes from trends in weather, not from one-off weather events, which have always happened. The frequently used term ‘since records began’ is also misleading, because unofficial meteorological information has been compiled for more than 2½ centuries, especially where weather played such a critical factor in everyday life. Ships’ logs are full of such notes, as are many early diaries, while local and national newspapers have long been obsessed by the weather.

July 1859

The following report could so easily have been for the present day, but was published under the heading of ‘Our English Climate in 1859’ in The Leisure Hour, a Victorian magazine. It is actually a report of the weather in July 1859 – over 160 years ago:

‘The heat of this month [July] is stated by the Greenwich authorities to have been unequalled during the period over which trustworthy records extend (about 100 years). In Scotland it was not so great, but in the south of England, Ireland, and even as far as Spain, this excessive heat prevailed. A large number of cattle died from coup de soleil, or sunstroke, and our readers will doubtless remember that the newspapers mentioned several cases in which human life was sacrificed to the same cause. From the 16th to the 22nd, the country was visited by very violent hail-storms. The destruction was great in all parts, though fortunately not often to what it was at Wakefield, where “in the houses, conservatories, and stables of four gentlemen, the large number of 150,000 squares of glass were broken by the hail on the 18th.”’