January 19, 2015, by Georgina

Cold weather records: reflections from the bus stop

As I was waiting for the campus hopper this morning my fingers were steadily growing numb. The texts and emails I sent from my mobile were even more laden with errors and typos than normal, as button pressing became increasingly challenging. It was most definitely cold. There is no snow on the ground here in Nottingham- yet- but we’ve been lucky in that respect (or unlucky, depending on whether you love or loathe the white stuff) given the weather’s antics in recent weeks elsewhere in the country. But as night time temperatures plummeted to minus 12 ̊C in parts of the UK and following what is being reported as the coldest morning in three years, there was considerable media coverage of the cold weather today, with various record breaking temperatures being discussed. As I waited for my bus, my thoughts turned to what our own research has to reveal about previous ‘cold snaps’.

In our previous blogs we have already referred to a number of well documented periods of extreme, prolonged cold across the UK including the ‘great freeze’ of the 1740s, when John Harrison compiled his reports of boiling punch freezing in 8 minutes in February of that year (Derbyshire Records Office D2912/10), and when daredevil Robert Cadman dramatically fell to his death on the frozen River Severn.

Weather facts

For those of you who enjoy extreme weather facts (who doesn’t?), you may already know that 1740 in fact registers as the coldest year on record according to the Central England Temperature Series, (CET) – the longest continuous instrumental surface temperature series available, dating back to 1659, based directly on thermometer readings drawn from various sites forming an approximately triangular area, enclosed by Bristol, Lancashire and London (Manley, 1974). According to the CET, however, the coldest winter (defined December through to February inclusive) took place in 1683-4. Gordon Manley, who assembled the CET series, charted some of the causes and manifestations of this so called ‘Long Frost’, which became famous for the length of time that snow lay on the ground (Manley, 1975). In our own archival research we are identifying key accounts to help investigate this period of extreme cold, such as that of Joseph Woolley of Clifton whose ‘Book of memorandums’ notes within its printed matter that the ‘great frost held for 13 weeks’ (Nottinghamshire Archives DD/311/2).

Based on the same CET series, however, the coldest January took place in 1795 when average temperatures for the month reached no higher than -3.1 ̊C (26.4 F). Our archival materials are particularly rich for this period of cold weather. Derbyshire based farmer and estate manager William Gould’s almost daily diary compiled between 1783 and 1795 includes regular references to the weather around at the start of 1795, as this selection from his diary reveals:

  • “Thu 1st Jan: the year enters with a very severe frost
  • Mon 5th Jan: Mr Wragg and Mr Harker came over from Mansfield to skate, they were a good deal disappointed from a thaw having taken place and water on the ice
  • Monday 19th Jan: several heavy snow storms fell which has increased the quantity to a deep snow
  • Tuesday 20th Jan: more heavy snow, storms have kept falling at various times of the day which keeps me close confined at home
  • Wed 21st Jan: The day continues the same as yesterday, the snow is now about 20 inches deep on a level
  • Thurs 29th Jan: this morning was very cold and I did not go out
  • Tuesday 3rd Feb: The very snowy morning prevented Mr Heaton from coming up
  • Wed 4th Feb: this morning is very boisterous and snow falls very plentifully which is now increased to a great depth” (University of Nottingham, Manuscripts and Special Collections M736).

The farming journal of Norfolk based Randall Burroughes(1794-1799), similarly charts some of the implications:

  • “Dec 27 1794 – During this week the frost continued very severe so much so that… the men employed in furrowing down old hedgerows found the greatest difficulty in penetrating the ground with pick axes… Hitherto the horses had been shoed in the usual manner not prepared for the frost.
  • Jan 12 1795 – The frosty weather still continuing… The very slippery conditions of the roads compelled me to order the turnip, horses & the head team to be ruff shoed… On Saturday night the grey mare & shales colt were brought from Hockhams to the barn yard on account of the snow. The frost continued this week with encreas’d severity. My barometer being down as low as 28 upon the average… A great deal of snow fell upon Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday” (Norfolk Record Office, MC 216).

This was a testing time. Food scarcities and riots are documented and the hardships of the winter of 1795 entered popular narratives too, as the following lines from Hannah More’s (1817) “The Honest Miller of Gloucestershire” illustrate:

“Who forgets the frost of ninety five?

The was all dismal scarce and dear

And no poor man could thrive.”

After the freeze, the thaw

Worse was to follow, for after the cold and snow came the thaw. Newspaper reports from Feb 20th 1795 reveal the scale of the damage –

“The very rapid thaw which has succeeded the severe frost has been attended by calamitous effects. All those parts of the Country which are in the neighbourhood of rivers have been deluged, numbers of bridges swept down and the lives of men and cattle lost. The public roads have been inundated as to be rendered in many counties impassable and the regular communications between different places have been for days impeded. Reports are given of the Severn flooding at Worcester, Stourport, Bewdley, Shrewsbury, the Trent at Burton, Shardlow, and floods at Derby, Newmarket, Cambridge, Peterborough, Kingston (Surrey), Newport Pagnell, Reading, Nottingham, Manchester.” (Leicester and Rutland Records Office, DE4828/Box 3).


Of course, thankfully, so far this winter snow cover for most of us has been relatively short-lived. Nevertheless, the present cold snap has meant that the weather has yet again come into media and popular focus. As I write, the evening temperatures are starting to fall well below zero again. Yet I feel extremely fortunate that the only hardships this 21st century academic has had to face on a cold (but beautifully sunny) Nottinghamshire morning can be rectified with a good pair of gloves. And my bus came on time.


Posted in Project themesWeather extremesweather observers