Note: This essay originally appeared last January on The Air Vent. Given our current winter, it as just as prescient now as it was then, so I’m reposting it here. Thanks to Verity Jones and Charles the Moderator for bringing it to my attention – Anthony
Guest post by Tony Brown
Charles Dickens. Victorian winters. A Christmas Carol. Ice fairs on the Frozen Thames. Cold Cold Cold Cold Cold. Dickens has irrevocably moulded the climate views of generations of Anglo Saxon peoples as TV, Films and plays all promote his image of icy winters in that era. Is this view of Dickens winters correct? We take a look at his life through the prism of climate.
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth England on Feb 7th 1812.
1812 overall was a very cold year in the UK -the early part of the winter was especially bitter over Europe, marked by Napoleons retreat from Moscow, as illustrated in this painting by Adolph Northen.
“The air itself,” wrote a French colonel, “was thick with tiny icicles which sparkled in the sun but cut one’s face drawing blood.” Another Frenchman recalled that “it frequently happened that the ice would seal my eyelids shut.” Prince Wilhelm of Baden, one of Napoleon’s commanders, gave the order to march on the morning of Dec. 7, only to discover that “the last drummer boy had frozen to death.”
Napoleons’ Grand Armee of 600,000 was reduced to 200,000 by bitter weather and war, in an event of such significance that it inspired Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture whilst Leo Tolstoy put the 1812 campaign at the heart of his novel War and Peace,
Back in Britain, during 1812 the Dickens Family moved to Hawk Street, Portsmouth. And in 1813 to Southsea (adjacent) 1814: Brother Alfred born and died September.
In 1814 the River Thames froze over and the last ever frost fair was held. This was partly through changing weather conditions, but also because the nature of the river was altered when the old London Bridge was demolished and river flow increased
During that cold February in 1814 London experienced the hardest frost it had known in centuries. Though the fair lasted for only four days it was made memorable by an elephant, which was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. The print below shows how raucous some of the festivities became. The winter of 1813/14 was 4th coldest in the Central England Temperature record (which commenced 1660) at 0.43C
The first frost fair was held in 1608. The most famous -lasting several months- was in 1684 (much the coldest year in CET at -1.17C) The link below leads to a promotional poster of that event.
1815: Family move to St Pancras London as John Dickens (father) is posted back by Navy. 1816: Sister Letitia born.
1816 was known as the year without a summer, snow fell very late and the summer never recovered. The winter proceeding it was severe. A volcanic eruption (Tambora: East Indies) disrupted wind patterns and temperatures greatly, affecting depressions, which tracked further south than usual, making the UK very cold and wet for the summer and beyond. In September the Thames had frozen and snow drifts remained on hills until late July.
1817: John Dickens is posted first to Sheerness then Chatham Dockyard in Kent. Family move to Chatham. 1819: Sister Harriet born.
1819-20: Severe winter. -23c was recorded at Tunbridge Wells. This was the 21st coldest winter in CET at 1.43C 1820: Brother Frederick born.
Decadal CET average 1810-1819 8.798C. The coldest decade since 1690-1699. Charles Dickens experienced six white London Christmases in the first nine years of his life. Truly his formative years were especially cold and signified a return to the Little Ice Age conditions which had been somewhat mitigated in previous decades.
1821: Dickens begins school. 1821: Late May saw snow in London, probably the latest snowfall there until 2nd June 1975. 1822: John Dickens recalled to London. Settle at Camden Town.
In his book ‘Climate History and the Modern world’ Hubert Lamb wrote of 1821/2 (and 1845/6) ‘The warm water of the Gulf stream spread itself beyond its usual bounds to the coast of Europe.’ This winter was the 16th warmest in the CET record at 5.80C.
The overall CET for the year was 10.05C the warmest for over 40 years.
1822-23: Severe winter, ice on the Thames by late December. February 8th saw a great snowstorm in Northern England. People had to tunnel through the snow.
1823 27th coldest winter in CET at 1.53C
1823: Family moves to 4 Gower Street North. Mrs. Dickens attempts to start a school without success. 1824: Dickens sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory. Father arrested for debt and sent to Marshalsea Debtors Prison where he is joined by wife and younger children. Charles lodges with family friends and spends a terrible year working at Warren’s Blacking, a shoe polish factory.
1825: Father retires from Navy, receives an Admiralty pension and Charles is sent to school-previously he had a very limited formal education
1825: Snow fell in October in London. A very windy time, with gales doing damage.
1826: Another warm year at 10.07C mean average
1827: Family evicted for non-payment of rates. Dickens goes to work at Ellis and Blackmore’s Solicitors then Charles Molloy’s Solicitors. Birth of Brother Augustus.
1828: Father works as a reporter for the “Daily Herald” newspaper.
1828 22nd warmest ever winter at 5.73C and also marked the warmest overall year for 45 years at 10.30C
1829: Family move to 12 Norfolk Street, Fitzroy Square. Dickens works as a freelance reporter at Doctor’s Commons.
1829: A cold year at a mean average of 8.16C. Continuous frost throughout January. The summer was wet, and quite cold. Over an inch of snow fell in early October, although where isn’t certain, most likely to be London. 6 inches fell in London and the South in late November. Northerly and Easterly gales damaged ships.
Decadal CET 1820-29 9.35C-in terms of the UK a comfortable decade
1829-30: Severe winter. Continuous frost from the 23rd to 31st December, 12th to 19th January, and 31st January to 6th February. Ice on the Thames from late December to late January. Some places completely blocked. 25th December 1830 was cold, with -12c recorded in Greenwich. 1.13c was 13th coldest winter in CET.
1830: Admitted as a reader at the British Museum.
1831: Begins work as a reporter for “The Mirror of Parliament” edited by his uncle J.M. Barrow. 1832: Reporter at the “True Sun” newspaper. Illness prevents him attending auditions at Covent Garden.
1834: Becomes reporter on the “Morning Chronicle” and meets Catherine Hogarth. Takes rooms at 13 Furnival’s Inn, Holborn.
Second warmest ever winter at 6.53C which marked the start of the warmest year overall for 100 years at 10.47c
1835/6: Snowy winter in Scotland. Snow lasted well into March, with 8 or 9 feet of snow being reported in parts! This trend continued for a number of winters, with a lot of snow in Scotland. From early winter, December, to late winter, March, snow was a problem. There were considerable accumulations, becoming common throughout the winter. Snow fell widely, but mostly in the North of Scotland, where accumulations were very large, right through until April
1835: Becomes engaged to Catherine Hogarth.
1836-37 was another snowy winter in the series, with heavy falls of snow in January. Blizzards began in late February, and lasted into March. Transport was severely disrupted, and harvest damaged by harsh frosts. This series of winters was severe, and notable, especially for Scotland, but very bad elsewhere also.
October 1836, snow reached depths of 5-6 inches, very unusual.
25th December 1836, roads impassable, snow depths reached a staggering 5-15 feet in many places, and most astonishingly, drifts of 20-50 feet!
1837: Birth of first child Charles, on 6th January. Moves to 48 Doughty Street. Visits France and Belgium.
1837-38: Murphy’s winter. Patrick Murphy won fame and a small fortune from the sale of an almanac in which he predicted the severe frost of January 1838 (a 2 month frosty period set in with a light SE wind & fine day with hoar frost on the 7th (or 8th) January). 20th January saw temperatures as low as -16c in London, accepted as the coldest recorded here of the 19th century. -20 recorded at Blackheath, and -26c at Beckenham, Kent. The temperature at Greenwich was -11c at midday! The Thames froze over. 20th coldest at 1.40c
1838: Second child Mary born.
1838: Snow showers on 13th October, possibly in London and the South.
1839: Resigns editorship of “Bentley’s Miscellany”. Third child Kate born. Moves to 1 Devonshire Place, Regent’s Park.
Decadal 1830-39 9.216C.a very mixed decade with some notably cold winters but also the second warmest ever in CET, illustrating the huge variability in British winters.
1841: Fourth child Walter born. Declines an invitation to be Liberal parliamentary candidate for Reading. Granted the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh on 29th June.
1841 29th coldest winter at 1.60c
1842: Visits America plus Canada. December as a whole was the 7th warmest in CET at 7.2c.
1843 Dickens began A ChristmasCarol in October 1843, and completed the book in six weeks with the final pages written in the beginning of December while suffering from a cold, walking at night in a feverish state through the streets of London and drawing inspiration from all he saw. As the result of a feud with his publisher over the meager earnings on Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens declined a lump-sum payment for the tale, chose a percentage of the profits in hopes of making more money thereby, and published the work at his own expense. High production costs however brought him a mere £230 rather than the £1,000 he expected – and needed, as his wife was once again pregnant (wikipedia)
Dickens purpose in his characterisation was to bring back the good cheer of traditional Chrismases, a notion which had been fading for decades-in this he was assisted by the enthusiasm for the festivities shown by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
Dec 1843- the month of publication-exceptionally mild, 5th warmest in the CET record at 7.4C
Dickens would describe Scrooge in the city on a Christmas morning, watching inhabitants “scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses: whence it was a mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snowstorms” Films and Tv adaptations ever since have depicted this bitter weather which ironically didn’t happen during the year of publication!
1844: Fifth child Francis born. Breaks with previous publishers Chapman and Hall and moves to Bradbury and Evans. Lives in Genoa, Italy. 1844/5 26th coldest winter in CET at 1.50c
1845: Visits Rome with Catherine. Sixth child Alfred born. In ‘Climate history and the Modern world’ Lamb wrote of 1845/6 (and 1821/2) ‘the warm water of the Gulf stream spread itself beyond its usual bounds to the coast of Europe’
18th warmest winter in CET at 5.77c
1846: Becomes Editor of the “Daily News”. Resides in Lausanne and then Paris.
1847: Returns to London. Birth of Seventh child Sydney. Travels to Switzerland again
1847 31st coldest winter in CET at 1.70c
1848: Death of Sister Fanny 1849: Eighth child Henry born.
1849: April, great snowstorm hit Southern England. Coaches buried in drifts. Notably late snowfall.
1840-49 Decadal CET 9.03c
1850: Ninth child Dora born. Founds the Guild of Literature and Art with Bulwer-Lytton to help writers and artists who have fallen on hard times.
1851: Catherine ill and is treated at Malvern, Worcestershire where Dickens visits her. Death of Father and baby Dora. Family move to Tavistock House.
1851-53: The first of these winters saw heavy snowfall in Scotland. The North of Scotland saw the first of the heavy snow. The railway from Aberdeen to the South was badly affected, but was kept open. Blizzards caused deaths. The storms stopped near the end of January
1852: Tenth child Edward born.
1852-53 was severe particularly in February. Low temperatures and heavy snowfall lasted well into March.
1853: Holiday in Boulogne. Visits Switzerland with Wilkie Collins.
1855: Joins Administrative Reform Society. Family move to Paris from October
1856: Returns to England to live at Gad Hill Place, Chatham, Kent.
1857: Hans Christian Andersen visits Dickens at Gad’s Hill. The Danish author of fairytales such as The Ugly Duckling first visited England in June 1847. He was a guest of the Countess of Blessington, who attracted the cream of Europe’s intelligentsia to her gatherings. It was at one of these assemblies that Andersen was introduced to Dickens, whom he worshipped, calling him “the greatest writer of our time”. Dickens, who reciprocated the admiration, visited him at his lodgings the following month. Discovering that Andersen was not in, he left him a parcel containing 12 presentation copies of his books. A cordial correspondence developed between the two and Andersen returned to England for a fortnight as Dickens’s guest at Gad’s Hill in the summer of 1857. (one of the warmest in the CET record at 16.53c)
Before his arrival, Andersen had written to Dickens promising: “I shall not inconvenience you too much.” But it was an invitation that Dickens would soon regret. The Danish man of letters, a tall, gaunt and rather ungainly character, extended his visit to five weeks. Dickens dropped polite hints that he should leave, but they were, perhaps, too subtle. After he finally left, Dickens wrote on the mirror in the guestroom: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!”
Dickens subsequently based Uriah Heep on Andersen-The character is notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and general insincerity.
1858: Separates from his wife. Embarks on a provincial reading tour.
Decadal 1850-59 9.162c
1860: Katey Dickens marries Charles Collins. 1863: Charity readings at the British Embassy in Paris. Death of Walter Dickens in India.
1863 21st warmest winter at 5.73c
1865: 9th June, involved in a serious railway accident at Staplehurst, Kent with Ellen Ternan. 1867: Begins a reading tour of the U.S.A. 1868: Leaves New York for England. 1869: Reading tour broken off because of illness.
1869 /70 saw Britain’s warmest ever winter at 6.77c.
1860-69 9.30C Decadal; the second warmest decade in Dickens life
1870: January, twelve farewell readings in London. 9th March, received by Queen Victoria.
Charles Dickens dies June 9th 1870
Conclusions and Ruminations;
Dickens life demonstrates the extraordinary variability of the British winters during that era, when the coldest and warmest winters in the CET records can be juxtaposed. Generally there are few examples of constant cold winters year after year-the LIA was becoming much more sporadic than it had been several centuries earlier, when bitter cold weather appears to have been the norm. To put this era into perspective mature English people might be surprised to learn they lived through a much colder winter than Dickens ever experienced. 1962/3 at -0.33C was the third coldest in the entire CET record compared to Dickens coldest year 1814 at 0.43c, the fourth coldest in the record. (1962/3 was a bit of a one off-Dickens experienced a greater number of relatively cold winters)
HH Lamb, (in ‘Climate, History and the Modern World’), says: “Indeed, the descriptions of ‘old-fashioned’ winters for which Charles Dickens became famous in his books may owe something to the fact – exceptional for London – that of the first nine Christmases of his life, between 1812 and 1820, six were white with either frost or snow.”
(As can be seen, a White Christmas in London is a very rare event)
Lamb also points out that the decade from 1810 to 1819 was the coldest in England since the 1690s. The following table was originally published in ‘London Weather’, and updated by booty.org
Natural cycles can be clearly seen in operation as the first very cold decade of Dickens’ life was replaced by several decades of relative warmth before the climate deteriorated again after his death in 1870. There was an extraordinarily low point of 7.42C CET overall in 1879 (the third coldest year in the entire record) with the 7th coldest winter at 0.70c, followed by a cold 1880’s decade at 8.87c –the coldest since Dickens birth, signifying a return to LIA conditions.
Curiously this climatic trough in 1880 is the exact point from when GISS commenced their temperature records, a fact which has been commented on in additional articles by Tony Brown (shown in the references at the end of this article)
1870-79 CET 9.08C 1880-89 CET 8.87C
To the surprise of no one -except it appears the IPCC and National Governments- temperatures have subsequently risen from this considerable climatic trough and the 1880/89 decade of cold has not been matched since.
Additional articles on Giss records from 1880.
Three long temperature records in USA. Author: Tony Brown
This article links three long temperature records along the Hudson River in the USA. They illustrate that a start date of 1880 (Giss) misses out on the preceding warm climatic cycles and that UHI is a big factor in the increasingly urbanised temperature data sets from both Giss and Hadley/Cru
Three long temperature records from Europe. Author: Tony Brown
In examining these records from Europe the climatic variability prior to the Giss records of 1880 are again shown, demonstrating that no one should be surprised when temperature readings commencing from a trough of the Little Ice Age subsequently rise again in our own era.
References used in the Dickens article;
This very readable version of his life
(Time line with places he visited)