June 20, 2014, by Lucy
Sources in focus – Parish Registers
Parish Registers as a source of information on extreme weather
On a recent visit to The Hive, the new home of Worcestershire Archives, several of the items on my list of documents to consult were Parish Registers. Parish Registers primarily contain lists of baptisms, marriages and burials making them a popular source of information for family historians. However, in some cases, the keeper of the Register, the Parish Vicar, chose to also write about notable events in the locality, extremes of weather included.
The clergy and weather observations
It is now widely recognised that members of the clergy have long been important weather observers, and indeed of regional study and natural history more widely. Their observations could serve to raise the profile of their region as, “Local curiosities of nature reinforced regional identity and highlighted the region on the geographic and cultural maps of the country” (Jankovic, 2000). Extreme weather events and celestial phenomenon would have been viewed by many as ‘Acts of God’ throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, another reason why many Vicars would have thought it important to make a note of them in the Parish Register. It therefore appears relatively common to come across accounts of specific extreme (often unusual) weather events in Parish Registers, and I’ve collected several examples in other archival repositories that I’ve visited. However one Parish Register from The Hive stands out as a particularly rich source of information for our study – that compiled by the Reverend Lea of Droitwich St Peters. Below are just a selection of the entries which give details not only of the weather but also impacts, responses and understanding.
Register of the Parish of St Peter in Droitwich beginning in the year 1793
- January 1850 – owing to the long frost many watermen & saltmakers are out of work – The Board by permission of the Commissioners gives temporary relief – soup is given twice a week
- December 1852 – The year now ending has been a most eventful one […] we have had such storms and floods as the oldest men cannot remember, and now since the beginning of December the weather has been mild as spring
- December 25-27, 1853 – The hardest frost remembered for years. The thermometer at 8 – in the night. The Severn is frozen over at Worcester.
- February 25, 1855 – The frost has broken up at last, it was one of the longest and sharpest remembered. The Severn was frozen and sheep roasted on the Ice at Bewdley and other places
- 1864 – We have had the driest season known since 1826 – The grass fields are all […] The turnip crop has generally failed though several may recover [?] Hay has risen to 6.10 per ton –In some parts, as Sheffield and Derby they have had abundance of ruin – at Malvern the poor are obliged to buy their water
- 1868 – The winter has been unusually mild, but we have had a succession of high gales of wind, which have done much damage in places – curiously enough they have come on 7 successive Saturdays
- 1872 – This summer has been remarkable for the violence frequency and destructiveness of thunderstorms, much damage has been done to life and property. In the spring Vesuvius was in eruption, weather has been unsettled ever since – the potato disease has set in with greater violence than ever.
- 1874 – This has been the driest season I ever remember, we have had no rain to speak of since Feby (June) and are now ten inches below the average. In May we had severe frosts which damaged the fruit crops in some districts especially gooseberries and plums
- 1876 – In November and December we had the greatest rainfall ever remembered […] 10 inches in the two months
- 1879 – A year of disasters and distress – trade bad crops worse than ever was known. The season wet and sunless […] Farms are being thrown on the Landlord’s lands & farmers ruined, which is the result of 4 bad seasons, this last the worst of all. The winter of 1778-79 was the longest and hardest for many years past. The thermometer sometimes fell so low as to show 28 degrees of frost – in 79 – 80 it was also severe and […] I have not heard of more than 20 degrees of frost being registered in this district.
- 1883 – Jany and Feby were mild with torrents of rain. On March 3 a frost set in which continued here till the end of the month bringing from 5 to 18 degrees of frost. The crops this year have been better than they have been for the last few years but prices are still very low […] apples were more plentiful than they have been for many years. In the autumn there was a terrible earthquake near the Straits of Java and since that event the sunsets here have had extraordinary brilliancy, which some suppose one of its results
- 1886 – The fruit crop, especially of plums and pears was larger than ever remembered, probably owing to the hard weather having lasted till the middle of March, the breaking up without any late frosts to succeed it; every blossom of the plums seemed to have set and the trees were much broken by the weight of fruit. Owing to the abundance of crop and the badness of trade, fruit was cheaper than ever known […] given to the women of Droitwich and many of them made jam to use instead of butter for the children in the winter. In the month of May there was a very severe flood, especially in the valleys of the Severn and the Teme; it came very suddenly and as suddenly subsided again; but when at its height the waters were higher than has been known for more than 100 years; in Droitwich great damage was done though in the Vines eight families are said to have taken refuge in the upper storey; one more saved his pig by taking it up with him and a large eel was caught in High Street
- 9 January 1887 – The New Year has set in with very bad weather: on 26th Dec last there was a heavy fall of snow, and from that day to this the ground has never been free. As there have been several successive falls the roads have been dangerous and almost impassable as it has generally thawed in the day and frozen again at night. The Salt Co. has closed several of their works, owing it is said to the Cheshire people, having obtained a large order at Bristol which for years had been supplied from here: many in consequence are out of work, and the soup kitchen which had not been required for five years, has been opened again. The frost lasted on and off till the end of January, often thawing by day and freezing again at night, so that the roads were in a dangerous condition; but February has been unusually fine and dry. Feby has been the driest Feby ever known. We have had no rain at all, but cold East winds. On 26th I resigned the vicarage of St Peter where I have spent many happy years…
The role of the archivist
The Parish Registers illustrate just how reliant our search is on the work that archivists have already completed in cataloguing documents. I think we’re very fortunate in that even with just a quick scan of a document, information on the weather tends to jump out to the reader, I guess because it’s something we all have an interest in and quickly understand the context of, recognising the ‘weather words’ even when the handwriting is poor. I would never have picked out the Parish Registers detailed above to look at had the catalogue not specifically noted that they contained information on extreme weather events in Worcestershire, so I’d like here to thank the work of all the archivists and volunteers out there who help to catalogue the wealth of material in UK record offices – it’s really much appreciated!
Do you use Parish Registers in your research?
If anyone knows of any other Parish Registers containing accounts of extreme weather events then please do get in touch. These are popular sources for family history research so lots of people are looking at them every day – I hope this fact might help us to find more accounts as rich as those detailed above.
Thanks for the blog Lucy, glad you had a productive visit to Worcester.
As a category of source parish registers have been widely used by academic historians and historical geographers for demographic analysis. Notably the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure’s (CAMPOP) pioneering work reconstructed the population of England and Wales back to 1571. Work is still on-going exploring occupation structure of Britain between 1371 and 1911, as well as other aspects of demography, economic and social history and other social sciences.
In some cases parish registers can yield much more information than simply recording births, marriages and deaths (BMD). Reference is sometimes made for instance to weather extremes and local and national events. Also, they provide much information about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and are, therefore, a useful source of information for those studying extreme weather events before and after 1700.
As a source they are relatively accessible and easy to use. Parish registers are also published by societies and increasingly they are available online given their usefulness for family historians and genealogists. The weather observations recorded in parish registers are a good example of clergy or parson naturalism. Also, the description of the weather events are sometimes imbued with religious or theological connotations, or make reference to notions of memory and a culture of remembrance (for example: ‘in the Memory of any Person then living’, ‘the greatest Flood ever Known in the Memory of any Person then living’, ‘in the memory of Man’, ‘such prodigious Quantity of Water was in the Streets yt ye Oldest man Liveing never saw ye Like.’)
Below are a few examples from the counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire which I have collected:
Parish of Much Wenlock (Shropshire), ‘Upon the 16 day of June 1594 after I had lightened and thundered all night at fowr of the clocke in the morning the barn next the sum’er hall in the Abbey was found to have been set on fire by a lightening which fire by God’s help and redines and diligence of the people of the town was sone quenched.’
Parish of Much Wenlock (Shropshire), ‘June 22. Ao 1545. Thondre leyghtning Rayne & hale the Water of the brook came in the street to the Style agst the Steple & again up Sheynton Street beyond the Stone house called Bastard Hall.’ This storm and flood is recorded on the same day and year in the ‘Early Chronicles of Shrewsbury.’ It threw down the Stone Gate (the English Bridge) of Shrewsbury. W.A. Leighton, ‘Early Chronicles of Shrewsbury, 1372-1603’, Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Historical Society, 3, 2 (1880), 257.
Muckleston (Staffordshire), 8 February 1614 ‘Note that his yere there was an exceeding great snow wch fell the 18 of December in the night and continued increasing until the eleventh of March next. During the time there was a great frost the snow being dangerous by reason of the great depth.’
Muckleston (Staffordshire), 23 October 1619 ‘Note this yere was an exceding dry summer, water was very scarce the dryness began at the rod [?rood] day continuing until November the 3th having only some small showers or rather dews.’
Muckleston (Staffordshire), 11 November 1624 ‘Note that this yere we had a very dry summer & that there was great store of all manner of corn corn being at a very […] all grayne being well […] and having also a very good and dry seed tyme contying well near to Saint Andrewes Daye.’
The parish registers for Bilston, a town in the West Midlands but historically in Staffordshire, for the period 1684-1746 include several references to incidences of hail and rain, the appearance of a strange meteor, thunder and lightning.
The parish register for All Saints, Alrewas, Staffordshire from 1547 to 1747 which titles itself as the ‘Annals of Alrewas’, refers to weather extremes in the locality, but also more generally in the region and country. It refers to rain, hail, lightning and thunder, strong wind, frost and snow, as well as flooding, dry hot summers which resulted in drought conditions, and the occurrence of an earthquake. There are also references to extreme weather events in the later eighteenth century, although these are more national in their coverage. There is even an example from Worcestershire (for Lucy!):
‘A great & sudden Inundation at Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, Memorandum. On Friday April 13th 1792 An amazing great Water Spout fell from the Atmosphere, on Bromsgrove Lickey; which in a short space of time caused a great Flood in Bromsgrove town about five o’Clock in the Afternoon, and continued so Inundated until Midnight, there were 4 feet of Water in several Houses. A Team & Horses with the Driver, were near the Place on Bromsgrove Lickey at the time the Water Spout fell, but fortunately they were advancing on a rising ground and escaped any Damage.’
Your emphasis on the role of archivists and the cataloguing process is also crucial. I was directed to the Staffordshire parish registers by Staffordshire Record Office’s website: http://www.staffspasttrack.org.uk/exhibit/weather/default.htm.
Recently, I have been looking at a diary (Volume 2) of a physician Dr. Richard Wilkes at the Wellcome Library, London (MS5006). Volume 1 is held at Staffordshire Record Office (SRO 5250). His entries relating to weather events alone total forty-five pages. Yet this diary is not catalogued under the subject of weather, meteorology or climate, simply ‘diaries’ [publication type], ‘clinical medicine’ and ‘medical records.’ Given that the main interest of the Wellcome Library is history of medicine, it is understandable that the diary is indexed in this way, however, it is an interesting case in point as to how the cataloguing process can influence our ability to search for archival material.
The question for the project team and researchers more generally, is how much material is there held in archives and record offices that is not catalogued according to our specific search terms? Trying to identify parish registers which have references to extreme weather events is clearly challenging, but when you do come across one they are rich in detail, yielding information that is relevant to the research interests of the project.
James – Thank you for your thoughts on Parish Registers and for the examples from Staffordshire (and Bromsgrove – my home town). It’s good to compare between record offices/archives and to think more about the cataloguing process and how we find our material. The Worcester catalogue was clearly very helpful in the case I detailed and I feel sure that there is an enormous amount of material on extreme weather contained in Parish Registers elsewhere. I’d like to emphasise that if any readers of this blog are aware of potential sources for our project. we’d love to hear from you!