Extreme weather isn’t so unusual – it just depends how far back you remember

Hail in summer - not so rare. @SCRainey2997/Twitter

Hail, heavy rain, lightning and flash flooding – not necessarily typical summer weather in southeast England. But the recent unexpected deluge saw homes evacuated, stations flooded, and road and rail services interrupted. According to the Met Office, more than half the monthly average total rainfall fell in just an hour.

In Hove, Brighton and Worthing, the storm kicked off with a particularly heavy hailstorm leaving many waking up to positively wintry scenes. Such unexpected weather, described as “extreme” in nature, has prompted many to declare that freak weather events are becoming more common and more damaging. But is this really the case?

The Met Office is an important source of information on the history of weather extremes. Its national weather records can help put current events into an historical context. However, while it can be difficult to make sense of historical meteorological information, the records held at city and county record offices, libraries and archives can provide a human dimension, transforming meteorological data into stories of people and communities.

Those in Sussex affected by the storm used Twitter to share reactions and experiences, whereas in the past letters, diaries, newspapers and official documents recorded the effects of extreme weather. With this documentary archive stretching back hundreds of years we can investigate how one event was described in relation to another, and whether and why they were judged to be unusual or extreme.

The records of Leicestershire County Quarter Sessions document the huge community response to a “dreadful storm of hail” on July 28 1814. A committee was formed to collect subscriptions to provide relief for those who had suffered losses from the storm. From the committee’s papers we know that William Collishaw of Birstall lost a quantity of the fruit from his orchards in the storm, and that John Blockley lost wheat, potatoes, onions and peas to the value of £106.

The same storm is also recorded in the diary of Peter Pegge-Burnell of Winkburn Hall, Nottingham:

Dull close morn betwixt one & two, loud thunder, some lightg & heavy showers – about six in the afternoon came on the most dreadful hailstorm I ever beheld – a number of hailstones pointd and as large as my thumb end – or first joint – sometime after a continuation of some hours of vivid flashing & constant thunder, a deluge of heavey rain followed – the damage by this horrid storms to my corn, hay, garden & windows is very considerable – thank God no lives lost as I have heard.

Joseph Woolley, a framework knitter and stocking maker from Nottingham, recorded a hailstorm in his diary entry for August 11, 1809 in which he notes “hail stones seven inches long,” breaking windows in a number of houses at Beeston Rylands.

Records from the Edgbaston Estate papers include a letter from a tenant, E. Whigg, to his landlord’s agent Charles Yates informing him that the severe hailstorm of August 1846 “completely destroyed the windows in the front of our house” and suggesting a change in design (a suggestion rejected by his Landlord).

On July 25, 1900 the Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph reported on a “terrible hailstorm in Northampton”, when “those of the bigness of the thin-shelled English walnut were the average but hail-stones as big as hens’ eggs were in abundance”.

So extreme summer hailstorms are not without historical precedent in the UK, as recorded in descriptions found in diaries, letters, official documents and newspapers. With many accounts of the same event, it’s possible to build a picture of how people responded. It’s also possible to build up a picture of how certain events enter a community’s cultural memory – the extremely cold and snowy winter of 1947, the extreme heat of the summer of 1976, and the extreme floods of 2007 – while others are quickly forgotten.

In a letter to Lord Manvers dated February 14, 1795, William Sanday at Holme Pierrepont in describing a flood in Nottingham refers back to an earlier flood:

We have had a most dreadful flood upon the River Trent; it was 3 feet one inch higher than the Midsummer flood, which happened between 50 & 60 years ago; this was ascertained from a mark then made, and which still remains.

Like many accounts of extreme weather events, William Harwood’s diary entry for February 11, 1795 refers directly to flood memory, “SW wind fine day, the largest flood upon the Trent ever remembered.”

Different ways of recording the past transmit information and awareness of extreme weather across generations, beyond the memory of individual lives. Being aware of extreme events that have occurred in the past can help people comprehend the problems of risk and uncertainty in the face of extreme weather events now and in the future.

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