November 18, 2014, by Georgina

‘Foaming rivers of snow’ and lost sovereigns: sampling William Parsons’ diaries

In the previous blog post, Lucy highlighted the value of diaries in our extreme weather research and pointed to the richness of these sources, whether they were produced specifically as weather diaries or as more general records of everyday events and activities in which weather features. In both cases, compilation demanded quite a particular kind of motivation. Historian Jan Golinski has drawn attention in his work, for example, to the discipline and dedication of weather diarists. The maintenance of a weather journal required perseverance and there was a sense of obligation to record, though this was often a ‘tiresome’ custom when instruments had to be read several times a day (Golinski, 2007:80).Weather diarists can thus be seen to have been governed by a form of self-imposed discipline. Yet keeping a diary of any kind can also be considered in a sense ‘a reassuring practice of repeated ritual’ (Golinski, 2007: 98), helping people to form and frame their personal identities and enabling day to day issues and activities to be committed to record.

Great resources in Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special  Collections:

A few weeks ago, Sarah Colborne at the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections alerted us to a particularly rich set of diaries maintained by a Nottingham based solicitor, William Parsons, in the nineteenth century. They were probably never intended to be read as a record of weather, and as such fall into the second category of diaries noted above, but they have nevertheless revealed some fascinating accounts of extreme weather events.

Born in 1809, William along with his brother followed his father Samuel into the legal profession, establishing the firm of Parsons and Sons which operated from various bass in Nottingham City Centre. William produced eight diaries between 1830 and 1871 and though I have only looked at a selection of these volumes so far, they provide a fascinating and richly detailed insight into the day to day activities of this Victorian gentleman and his family. Alongside notes on his business dealings, court cases, family affairs and local and national politics, comments on outings with his friends and drinking partners, William documented quite a few instances of extreme weather and its implications. These include his accounts of a very cold period at the start of 1838 which witnessed the freezing of the River Trent. His diary for January 20th 1838 notes:

“the frost continues extremely severe . Took a walk to the Trent this afternoon which is now frozen completely over and I slided [sic] upon it just above the bridge. …The atmosphere was too dense and rhymy to take much of a survey as I could not see even across but shall visit it tomorrow again it being of rare occurrence to be frozen. . The snow continues upon the ground about six inches deep. My hands are very severely chopped that I am now writing in kid gloves”.

Despite the cold, it seems, the diary was maintained!

The “very novel and curious appearance” of the frozen river is described in some detail by Parsons who continues:

“and in that state frozen appeared like a frothy, foaming river of snow….many people were crossing on the ice. I walked down to the bridge and crossed the river just above it where numbers were also winding their way through projecting masses of snow covered ice affording some idea of an Alpine journey.. The river was more rough and picturesque in this part than in any other.”

Although it seems this was the first complete freezing of the river that Parsons himself had witnessed, he knew the event was not unprecedented:

“It is 24 years since we had so severe a frost as to freeze the Trent over that time. 1814 the first I believe continued 16 weeks. The Trent and Thames were then so frozen that a fair was held and oxen, sheep and pigs were roasted whole upon the latter river. The frost has now only continued about 12 days but with greater severity than is remembered with any person with whom I have conversed . May thousands from Nottingham went to see the Trent today.”


An ‘unusually proficient’ novice?

While thaws and flooding followed, renewed freezing conditions in February 1838 provided this Nottingham gentleman with an incentive to engage with his new passion- ice skating. He admits through his diary that he actively “pursued the pleasure at the expense of business,” and clearly not one for false modesty, acknowledges that he was “unusually proficient” despite only taking up the sport while the freeze was on.

There were many suitable places to skate during this fierce winter and his experiments with different frozen water bodies are documented in detail, providing us with insight into scale of the freeze across different parts of Nottinghamshire as a result. One place that was particularly popular for Parsons and his circle of friends was the ‘pond’ belonging to William Lowe at Highfields Estate, now of course better known as the location of the University of Nottingham’s main campus. Parsons was acquainted with Lowe’s son Alfred Hurst Lowe whose own son, Edward J Lowe, born at Highfields in 1825, would later gain a prominent reputation as an astronomer, meteorologist, botanist, and scientist and maintained a register of weather at his family home, form 1840 to 1857- a source that we are also including in our project work! Linking on from Lucy’s thoughts in the previous blog post one might in fact question whether young Edward’s interest in weather observation may in fact have been triggered by the snow and ice of 1838 and the series of weather events that followed.

Some of these events were recorded by Parsons throughout the following eighteen months. They include a storm of Jan 7th 1839, which he describes as “the most tempestuous and windy I ever remember in my life. I found some slates were blown off my father’s news house at Blidworth, but Nottingham Park this morning there was scarcely a house which I did not observe had received some damage, windows broken, roofs injured or chimneys blown down and the destruction in the town cannot fail to have been very serious indeed. The barometer was at its true point “stormy”.

Also charted is an unusual snowfall on Tuesday 14th May 1839 “a very cold day for the season and we had a heavy storm or two of snow. Dined at one and went out again in the afternoon, but it snowed so fast that we soon after gave it up”. The same event was recorded by one of the other Nottingham based diarists of whom we have already written, Elizabeth Nutt Harwood, who took advantage of the unusual event to engage in a snowball fight with her servants.

Parson also regularly records flood events not least because of the impact inundations had for his garden plot, which was adjacent to the River Leen, a tributary of the Trent. “A large flood in the Meadows and down and up the Trent in consequence of the late heavy rains” on Thursday 1st August 1839 and further flooding the next day when the “the waters [were] out very extensively”, led Parsons to note “the flood must I think be greater than has been for many years. Several fishpond gardens inundated”. His diary entries indicate that he monitored water levels quite closely not least because of his concern over his garden vegetables and it is perhaps not so surprising that he has his own embankments built to protect his plot and adds “by raising mine at both ends last year and building a wall next to the Leen I have escaped”.


Nights spent in riot

In the search for weather related references, it is difficult not to be distracted by Parsons’ commentaries on a host of other issues both personal and general. Thus, one follows him on his quest to retrieve a sovereign he presented to his wife as a gift on their fourth wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, Mrs Parsons had, it seems, mistaken the sovereign for a shilling with which she paid the “washerwoman”, Mrs Scott. The sovereign was long gone by the time Mrs Parsons realises her mistake and William attempts to track it down.

It is also clear from the diary entries that Parsons enjoyed a tipple…and rather too often. Encouraged by a close group of often inebriated friends, he regularly consumed “as much alcohol as was necessary to dethrone Reason from her seat and place myself on a level with all other irrational animals” (March 29th 1839). After one particularly riotous ‘binge’ over three days leading up to 10th April 1839, Parsons notes with some degree of shame how this was “Time worse than wasted, money spent, health injured, myself debased! Oh if memory will recur to the past let these days of drunken, senseless riot be remembered only as incitements to a resolution which I think day made to become rigid teetotaller”. His resolution was successfully challenged on multiple occasions and the remorse shown in his comments after such “drunken senseless riot” reveal the diary’s function as a kind of conduit for confession.

Parsons’ diary is not a weather diary in the quotidian sense. It is a record of life events, work, play and politics. Yet his volumes look set to reveal incredibly valuable information on the way in which this Victorian gentleman conceptualised and articulated extreme weather and its place in everyday life. I remain intrigued by what I’ll discover in the remaining volumes ….


Golinsiki, J (2007) British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment. University of Chicago Press

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