August 15, 2014, by Georgina

Getting into the archive: John Harrison’s notebook


Meteorological phenomena were understood and comprehended differently at different points in time. In the early modern period, for example, detailed descriptions of violent storms, unusual displays of the northern lights, the shape of hailstones, or extremes of cold, heat, flooding or drought, especially in as much as such events disrupted normal everyday life, were commonly explained as ill omens and as manifestations of divine retribution for some kind of mortal sin. By the later 18th century, these superstitious readings were increasingly being regarded as a “vulgar” and subversive in the context of an increasingly scientific, rationalising discourse. From this period on there was a shift away from what is referred to as the ‘meteoric tradition’ towards one where individuals adopted more quotidian recording practices and started to assemble daily local weather records. Among the diaries and records I have been studying recently, however, are a number which are drawn from the mid 18th century, arguably a time of transition in genres of meteorological writing. One such record is that of John Harrison from the mill town of Belper, Derbyshire- the subject of my blog this week. 

The Narrative

John Harrison’s notebook, now held in the Derbyshire Records Office in Matlock, was written when he was 20 years old and represents in his own words a ‘hemerologium’, a calendar of events or, a “Book of Remarks”. He recorded his diary between 1734 and 1747 and he focuses on two key themes. First, he documents the timing, frequency and impacts of storm events and unusual atmospheric phenomena including visual phenomena, such as eclipses, comets and instances of the aurora borealis. He also undertakes precise weather observations during a period of extreme cold- a period referred to as “the great frost” or the “great freeze” which was experienced across much of northern Europe between 1739 and 1744. Throughout his narrative, Harrison also highlights examples of proverbial weather lore. The second theme through Harrison’s narrative is the conflict between Great Britain and Spain (1739 to 1748). The narrative is, therefore, one which is focused on experiences of weather events at the local level though set in temporal political context of national events and international affairs

Prodigious events (of all kinds!)

Harrison’s narrative demonstrates an intertwining of general observations on the local weather with his own personal routines. But he pays particular attention to what he himself refers to, regularly and consistently, as ‘prodigious’ meteoric events, (including events that link with Lucy’s previous blog on hail), the following being just a few examples:

“A prodigious hail storm 22 May 1739 the like never heard of (except in Cheshire) since Belper stood Some hail stones had 1,2,3,4,5, or 6 corners. Tis thought one with 6 corners was 2 inches and a quarter from nook to nook”.

“March 24 [1740] 9 o clock in the morning was tis thought a hurrycan [sic] however it was a prodigious storm of wind and hail with dismal thunder and the beginning of a hail storm and vast hail stones then it strengthened at afternoon till 3 the like not known for many years since”.

Everything, it seems, could be described as prodigious, even Harrison’s own ailments. Reflecting on events in 1736 he notes: “Had prodigious blister on my arm about 1736,” while he regularly “prodigiously” suffered from “ague”. 

‘Autopsy’ of weather impacts

Many eighteenth century meteorological writers detail their own first- hand  investigation of the specific impacts extreme weather events. Harrison seemed to be particularly interested in detailing the impacts of storms and floods. Two examples serve to illustrate this point:

May 1739: “There was much damage done 4 miles from Derby by the thunder bolt. 2 bolts fell near Sheffield the like rain never heard of in those parts since Noah’s flood. It passed from the points SW to NE, its NW side was confined at Belper Bridge End Inn and passed SE to the Broadhole. There was [sic] two small floods viz. 3 and 11 days. I believe it thundered 6 or 7 days in the month. Viz 4 I think and 5. The 14th night, the 20 days, 21, 22 and 23 it thundered …This may deserveth to be remembered while this or any other book or ever the world doth last especially the 22 day, the like may not known here”.

June 1741: “The great storm of hail, rain and thunder June 5 at 6 in the evening the like has not been known of 24 years. The stones [were] mostly round ones 2 inch half about Not like those May 22 1739 for those were all shapes. It began with thunder SW then SSE then wind followed the storm into the north then turned south again once or twice and fetched more thunder and showers the biggest we have had this year the ground was all …white over with hail which lay next day till noon. NB it was fickle weather for 4 days after”

Comets and meteors

At the time that Harrison’s diary was being compiled, the telescope had also ushered in the opportunity to view comets and meteors in detail. With this new found visibility, it is not surprising that there was widespread scientific but also popular interest in such phenomena. Harrison is no exception. His  descriptions of comets reflect an admixture of scientific and popular, local folkloric description. Of particular interest was the comet observed in Peterborough on Feb 17, 1744 and seen “with a telescope that magnified 150 times”. Harrison himself had seen the comet a few days earlier on Feb 13 “at half an hour after the sun rise”. He continues:

“the head thereof appears to be composed of a nucleus suspended in a very thick atmosphere the nucleus or head shone but with a feint light and appeared to have about two thirds of the diameter of the disk of its tail appears to be equal to about 6 diameters of the nucleus. Its motion is very slow….”

Yet Harrison he seems to be equally aware of the superstitious reading of the event, noting that:

“blazing stars threaten the world with famine, plague and wars to princes death, to kingdoms many corpses, to all as later inevitable losse, to herdsmen not to plowmen hapless seasons, to sailors slowness, to cities civil treasons. …The astrologers reckon that great wars, sickness and all manners of evil will follow….”.

Harrison’s account of such phenomena, and their popular interpretation needs to be set against the fact that England was primed for catastrophic change with the War with Spain in this period. These extraordinary phenomena may well have been considered ominous in the popular imagination at this time and Harrison certainly drew links between their becoming, in his words, “more dreadful” with the onset of the War.

Harrison’s narrative can thus be situated in a context where a nascent learned science of the atmosphere jostled with a longer standing and pervasive cosmological and folkloric weather tradition. Harrison draws on both scientific rational accounts of weather events and natural phenomena while also adhering to a more public culture of weather. As we move forward with our archival work we will no doubt encounter more records like this as well as others that fit more squarely within other genres of writing about the weather.


John Harrison’s notebook can be found in the Derbyshire Records Office, Matlock (Ref D2912/10)


Posted in Uncategorized