Stories from the Collections: weather

PCA B/120: Brighton: rough sea at Palace Pier (23 Jun 1909)WINTERY WEATHER

We’re all obsessed with the weather aren’t we?  Will we have a white Christmas?  Will the summer holidays have good weather?  Will it flood again?  Well, our ancestors were just as concerned.  As with today’s farmers, the weather can make a huge difference to the harvest, and weather could be a matter of life and death.  So the records people left behind them often include references to weather.



The great hurricane of May 1729

Henry Phillips of Hastings kept diaries which included notes on the weather and its effects.  Being on the coast, he noted the effect of high winds on ships.  On 2 February 1825, for example, he noted a high wind which brought 5 sloops ashore and broke up one of them called The Active.

An account of this appeared in a pamphlet of the time.  It began at Bexhill and made its way east past Battle for about half an hour and then blew itself out.  It was probably actually a tornado, as it is described as pulling up trees, taking off a gate or a thatched roof but missing areas on either side.  “A hog pound and sty, covered with a roof and thatched, in a very unaccountable manner had all the middle part taken away from top to bottom, and only the two gable heads remained standing with the thatch entire…The whole quantity of timber trees blowed up by the roots and broke down upon Sir Thomas Webster’s Battle estate is computed at least to thirteen or fourteen hundred trees…[William Wallis’s house blew down] partly owing to a large apple tree brought out of a neighbour’s orchard, over three hedges, with the earth and roots about them, that fell upon his house…[At Collier’s Green] ..a child that sat in a chair at the foot of the bed was carried in his chair and set in the fire place; and the gravel stones from the highway and glass from the windows were brought in with such violence as to stick in the chairs etc like shot discharged from a fowling-piece.”

The Keep’s catalogue includes numerous references to hurricanes, including, of course, that of 1987.



The Met Office reckons that it rains an average of one day in three.  It certainly was certainly more than that in the 1820s.  Henry Phillips recorded days of rain in his diaries for 1825-1829.  If it had rained one day in three, it would have rained on 122 days.  In 1826 it rained 163 days (the lowest year) and in 1828 a massive 202 days.

Of course, the rain (not enough or too little) was and still is of great concern to farmers.  Thomas Brook of Salehurst recorded how the weather affected him at the end of the 18th century.  “1799.  The weather was very wet the most part of the summer which damaged the hay very much and the harvest very bad.  Did not cary oats till the latter end of October.  Wheat crop very thin and blighted.  Hops in some parts very good and some places very bad and sold very dear.”]



AMS 6236/4: Portfolio of photographs of the exterior and grounds of Leighside House, Lewes with a brief note on the history of the house by A M HodgkinI’m not a great lover of snow and ice, but children see it differently. A Lewes schoolboy’s diary (H T Jenner, aged 13) tells us of the weather in 1891.  It snowed in early March and drifted to 6 feet in Lewes.  He made a special visit to Kingston to see the 8 foot drifts there.  In January the lowest temperature was 17°F (15°F below freezing) according to his measurements.  The river at Barcombe had frozen over and he went skating.  He also skated on ice specially created at the swimming pool at Lewes by the Fire Brigade flooding it.

Did they have more white Christmases in the past as we all think they did?  Diaries from the 19th century do record one or two such Christmases.  Charles Wille lived in South Street in Lewes and witnessed a great disaster that struck at Christmas in 1836, and which he recorded in his diary. It started snowing on Christmas Eve and carried on throughout Christmas Day and night, causing huge drifts.  Many roads were filled to the tops of the hedges and some drifts got to 15 or 20 feet, even to 25 feet in Buxted.  Lewes was cut off for several days.  The wind had deposited a ridge of snow 15 feet thick along Cliffe Hill overlooking South Street and it was in danger of falling on Boulder Row, the houses run by the parish for the poor.  The inhabitants were advised to leave but refused to go.  The snow did fall and buried the 7 end houses.  8 of the 15 people were killed.  One boy was dug out after being buried for 6 hours.  The Snowdrop Inn commemorates the event.

“Dec 25 1836.  Very cold and snowing most of the day from NE, drifted the snow very much particularly on the edge of the hill over our yard – in the evening a great fall from the drifted snow came into the yard driving the upper saw house nearly to the front of the yard – breaking down the upper end of the shed.

“Dec 27 1836.  Between 10 and 11 in the morning a great fall of snow took place opposite Bolder Row (the parish houses) forced them down burrying in the ruins fourteen persons 8 of whom were taken out dead.

“Dec 30 1836.  Seven of the eight who perish’d in the fall of the houses were buried at Malling – about 40 relations follow’d – it was indeed a heap of sorrow and grief to the spectators.”

To end on a cheerier note, did you know that the highest monthly total on record of sunshine in Britain is 384 hours in July 1911 at Eastbourne?


Published 13th February 2015

Written by Elizabeth Hughes, County Archivist