How's the Weather with You?...

on Tuesday, 18 December 2012. Posted in Seasons

The traditional British fascination with the weather has always been a topic of conversation, especially considering the damp summer and wet and windy weather we are experiencing at the moment!




Britain has a ‘Temperate Maritime climate’ which should give us milder winters and cooler summers compared to our cousins on the near continent. However, we can all remember bitterly cold, snowbound winters and sweltering, drought-ridden summers within our lifetimes. Extreme temperatures have not been the only problematic conditions that we have had to endure. We have had hurricanes, tornadoes, snow, hail and ice storms and floods.

Many of these natural events have been documented in different forms throughout history; examples of these may be found in our archives.

Melksham Flood

We have Wiltshire newspapers dating back to 1736, which have detailed reports on absolutely everything. Parish registers sometimes include details of any unusual natural disasters which may cause a large number of deaths and subsequent burials. Also, churchwarden accounts sometimes give details of repairs to church buildings after storm damage and also reuse of timber from fallen trees. Some clergymen wrote diaries with detailed entries and school log books also hold crucial information about how everyday life was affected by the weather. We also have visual evidence of the wrath of Mother Nature within our photographic collection, available online, of over 45,000 images.

In an amazing similarity to recent events, a great storm caused flooding in North Wiltshire in May 1932. Chippenham had flash floods and in Bishopstone part of the watercress beds were swept away, trees were washed down and property flooded. “It came like a river down the valley between the Lynchets and Folly Bank”. One resident noted that some rhubarb was riddled with hailstones “they looked as if they had received a charge from a shot-gun”.Chippenham floods 1932
The floods at Chippenham
Wiltshire News, 6th May 1932, back page

weather newspaper article
Article in the Wiltshire Gazette, 6th May 1932, p.14

One earlier but also particularly interesting weather event is described in detail in a document held in the Local Studies collection. It is titled ‘A Lecture on the Storm in Wiltshire 1859’ by G. Rowell published by The British Meteorological Society. The publication discusses an enormous tempest which hit a relatively small area of North Wiltshire from around 1.30pm on Friday 30th December 1859. The storm was also reported in detail in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette with many eye witness accounts.

Although the storm caused extensive damage there were surprisingly no fatalities.

British Meteorological Society Publication

The massive storm appeared as if from nowhere, in the region of the Bowood Estate. It travelled rapidly through the hamlets and settlements bordering the south of Calne. Due to its rural path, the storm’s destruction affected many farms and a couple of mills, from Quabb’s Farm to Ogbourne. It covered approximately 13 miles in distance and was measured at up to 400 yards wide at its broadest point. Its direction was northeast north.The weather conditions were slightly unusual for the time of year; the temperature was ‘excessively high’ for winter and the ‘air heavily charged with moisture’. The West Country had experienced heavy thunderstorms earlier in the day. Calne itself had had very heavy rain that morning but it had stopped a couple of hours before the storm.

weather storm
A diagram showing the path of the storm

A Mr J. Spencer of Bowood was one of the first people to witness the start of the storm. He stated that it had been very bright and sunny when suddenly the sky turned to ‘one dark haze’ towards the west. The storm came incredibly quickly and was preceded by a terrific roar before a freezing breeze. Large hail fell for only a minute before the heavy rain and thunder and lightning began. Some of the hailstones had circumferences of six inches and eight weighed together were exactly a pound.

Others described the storm as howling and so loud that the tearing down of trees and buildings could not be heard above it. The storm, which was most likely to have been a tornado, whipped through Rookery Park, Quemerford Villa and Mill towards Blackland Park. This is where substantial damage was caused to the landscape. The parkland took the brunt of the storm; a hundred and forty eight trees were torn out of the ground or ripped apart. Some of which were described as being of ‘great size with circumferences of 8 to 10 feet.’

Cherhill was the next place to be hit. The storm was described as “terrific” as it tore through the village, destroying barns and hay ricks. Rooftops and chimneys were completely blown off. Yatesbury befell a similar fate, with much damage to farm buildings and houses. A local farmer, Mr Tanner, saw his large cart horses flung from one end of the yard to the other. A heavy broad wheeled wagon loaded with hay was lifted up over a 15 foot high hedge and cleared a cart the other side.

The next village to be struck by the tornado was Winterbourne. Here, a workforce of half a dozen farm labourers had been working on a barn owned by Mr Eyles. The barn was completely destroyed and the men were trapped under the debris for some time before they were rescued unscathed. The Church, Old Vicarage and School at Winterbourne Monkton were all casualties amongst the rest of the wind blasted village.

After the catastrophic effects of the storm on so many people it appears to have disintegrated as it moved over the Marlborough Downs towards Ogbourne where it appeared to just lose momentum and fizzle out.

This incredible tornado was not the first to hit this area. Clyffe Pypard had seen a similar storm a few years earlier.

Of course we'd also like to say that our hearts go out to all those affected by the recent flooding all over Britain.

It just goes to show that we have always had unpredictable weather on these Isles and will continue to do so. If you delve into the archives and look at historical documents, it is not so surprising to see that our ancestors were also obsessed with talking about the weather!1998 storm wingfield
Trees along Farleigh Road, Wingfield, blown down in the gales of 1998.
Photograph taken by Len Willis, a copy of which has been deposited in our Historic Photographic and Print Collection.

Anna Ervine

Local Studies Assistant



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