— Vol X of the 9th or Scholars’ edition of Britannica was lying open on my desk when I read last week that there would be no more print editions of the great Encyclopaedia. Back when I was trying to build a comprehensive reference library, I knew that the 9th and 11th editions of the EB should be snapped up if ever encountered. which is why the bottom row of the bookshelves built into my shed are occupied by 24 fat green volumes containing not only the sum of human knowledge in the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign but also an excellent selection of most of the illnesses that afflict old and neglected books. I rescued the set from an abandoned Dominican Priory 10 years ago. They are water-damaged and tatty and mouldy, and perfectly readable and wonderful
I had pulled out Volume X to consult an entry on HAIL which appeared in an immense essay on geology by the then President of the British Geological Survey. (It is the Scholars’ Edition because it was written by the greatest scholars of the age). Apparently hail was not well understood in the second half of the 19th Century. “When rain or aqueous vapour is cooled down in the atmosphere to the freezing point of water, it is frozen, and falls to the earth as hail or snow. The formation of hail is not yet well understood. It is chiefly in summer and during thunderstorms that hail falls. When the pellets of ice are frozen together so as to reach the ground in lumps as large as a pigeon’s egg, or larger, great damage is often done to cattle, flying birds, and vegetation. Trees have their leaves and fruit torn off, and farm crops are beaten down.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th Edn. Vol. X, p.280)
—The British Library’s Newspaper Archive contains copies of The Derby Mercury and Newcastle Courant from August 1738. Both newspapers republished London accounts of the terrible hailstorm whilst adding:
“The birds were struck dead in the air in vast numbers, and the horses took fright and run away on the road. In a word, all nature that beheld it stood shock’d and amaz’d. The storm continued about a Quarter of an hour and was felt bout a mile and a half round the place. The Hailstones being gathered up, some of them were found to measure eight or nine inches round, and to be a harder consistency than even ice itself; the inhabitants [of Uxbridge] have taken care to preserve many of them, for the satisfaction of the curious.”
Hail-damaged wheat from Transactions of the Hertfordshire Natural History Society Vol X (1901)
So the great antiquary William Gerish described the 1738 storm in his Hertfordshire Mercury’s Notes and Queries column in 1888. He added: “At Hertford all the houses on the south sides of the streets had their windows broken, and those of the churches also suffered much damage.”
Gerish’s papers are now at the Hertfordshire Archives where I went yesterday to look at the original Quarter Session records. Following the original letter, which started this trail, were sheets of estimates of the damage caused to farms across East Herts: in Bengeo, Furneux Pelham, Thundridge, Albury, Little Hadham and especially Standon.
As we know from the letter many of the smaller farmers were reduced to poverty. In Furneux Pelham, the Rayments, whose family would go on to build Rayment’s Brewery, suffered losses at Kings and Hixham Hall Farms totalling some £60. According to the parish register, George Rayment of Kings and his wife Susanna had their daughter baptised 10 days after the storm and the vicar’s account book shows that they were still able to pay their tithes that year so perhaps they suffered less than some others, but further calamites followed the hail. At the bottom of the page the Rev Wheatly has noted that he was paid 2s by George “For burying his other child” which causes the eye to wander up the page and find that five months earlier he’d had to find another 2s for the vicar services.
It’s these connections across the most mundane survivals in the archive that become powerful stories, or at least hint at stories about people who, centuries later, live on in the names of places and the memorials to an extraordinary storm.
by the hailstones and birds were killed flying in the air!
Th following account of the storm appeared in the London Magazine in July 1738
“A dreadful storm of Hail, accompanied with Wind Lightning, happen’d at Uxbridge, and about the same Times at Dunstable, Coney, &c. The Hail-stones were of so prodigious a size, and flew with such velocity, that they broke many windows, and split the Tiles on Houses, wounding divers Passengers and Horses on the Road,tearing large Branches off Trees, destroying vast Quantities of Fruit, killing Fowl, and Birds flying in the Air. Some of the Hail-Stones were found to measure 8 or 9 inches round, and to be harder than Ice itself.”
Tues 25 July 1738 London Magazine retrieved from http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015021277218;seq=366 (July 18 2012)
…and birds were seen flying in the air with fire in their mouths…”
Dated 1203, this is the earliest reference to hailstones in T.H. Baker’s classic chronology of weather in the British Isles, ‘Records of the Seasons’. The hailstones that fell in the storm of 1738 were compared to walnuts by The Gentleman’s Magazine but over the centuries chroniclers have found many way to tell us how huge hailstones were in a particular storm. My favourite has to be Holinshed’s description of hailstones “like to the rowels of spurs, two or three inches about” in August 1582. Little wonder that Shakespeare found his prose irresistible.
Here are some other descriptions:
1260 there were such hailstones that the stones were not only like peas, but of the thickness of three fingers, and in some places as thick as fifteen fingers. Moreover, as was declared upon oath, great stones were found to have fallen of such a weight that it required three men to lift them. (Flores Historiarum)
1545 as big as men’s fists (Holinshed)
1269 big enough to throw down towns (Holinshed)
1581 As big as a child’s fist of three or four years old (Aubrey)
1573 square, and six inches about (Holinshed)
1666 Turkey’s eggs (Dr. Fairfax)
1800 Hen’s Eggs (Boyle)
1754 and 1786 Pigeon Eggs (Boyle)
1644 Round as big as walnuts, and some flat as big as half-crown pieces (Lowe)
1800 Hailstones fell eleven inches in circumference, killing many hares and partridges. (Boyle)
1772 Like nutmegs (Boyle)
1584 Five inches in compass (Pigott)
1697 Hailstones of an immense size killing fowls, rooks, hares (Halley)
1788 Hailstones as large as a quart bottle (Boyle)
T. H. Baker, Records of the Seasons, Prices of Agricultural Produce and Phenomena Observed in the British Isles (London: Simpkin Marshall, 1883) Retrieved from www.archive.org (19 Feb 2012)
Met Office records date from the 1860s, so to find earlier weather reports historians first turn to The Gentleman’s Magazine. On the contents page for July 1738 we find the item “A Storm of Hail extraordinary”.
The full report is in the ‘Historical Chronicle” section under Tuesday, 25.
“About Noon a dreadful Storm of Thunder, Lightening, and Hail, happened at Dunstable, which put the whole Town in the utmost Consternation. A House opposite to the Sign of the Sugar Loaf was fir’d and shatter’d to pieces by the Lightening; the People were apprehensive of the Fire spreading throughout the Town, and brought forth the Engine but no farther Damage was done: except the shattering a great many Windows by the Hail-stones, which were as big as Walnuts. At Uxbridge the Hail-stones being bigger, wounded several People, and broke not only the Windows, but the Tiles of the Houses, and tore off the Branches of Trees. This storm was felt also at Watford, Bushy, St Albans, and places adjacent in Hertfordshire. Between three and four a-Clock in the Afternoon, they had a like Storm of Hail, about Bungay, in Suffolk, preceded by an uncommon Clap of Thunder. The Windows of the Churches were shatter’d, the Corn laid flat, Turkeys and other Poultry kill’d in great Numbers.”
The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 8 (July 1738), 379 retrieved from http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ilej/ 18 February 2012
‘As big as walnuts’ eh? Tomorrow I’ll try to find some even bigger hailstones.
The Hertfordshire folklorist Doris Jones-Baker read the calendar of Quarter Sessions for 1738 (see below) and in her Old Hertfordshire Calendar she quotes from it under the heading THE GREAT STORM OF 25 JULY 1738. Among other things, 25th July was the Feast of both St James the Great and St Christopher. After the Reformation, St James’ day was known as Begging Day which, sadly, is rather apt when you consider the condition to which many farmers and agricultural labourers were reduced by the storm. On the facing page Ms Baker includes several old charms against thunder and lightning which would have come in handy in 1738.
Among these we find:
“A House Leek growing on the roof would prevent cottage or farm from being fired by ‘thun’er bolts an’ lightnin”…
Others took refuge under feather beds, or in them, and most people believed that mirrors attracted lightning, and covered them over at the approach of a storm…
The parish church bells were rung during severe storms to ‘drive away evil,’ and many bells were inscribed:
Lightning and thunder
I break assunder.”
Doris Jones-Baker, Old Hertfordshire Calender (London: Phillimore, 1974) pp.150-3
This is where it starts: an entry from the Hertford Quarter Session Rolls telling of the destruction wrought by hailstones of a “prodigious size and bigness” in July 1738.