The Heatwave of 1808

Here in Britain temperatures have been incredibly high this year, which for those who like the heat it’s been glorious, but this is nothing new. 210 years ago in July 1808 Britain also experienced high temperatures. Given the British obsession with the weather, we’ve taken a look at how the newspapers reported this unusual weather.

The Scots Magazine confirmed that the previous winter was remarkable for its duration and severity and that the summer ‘had made ample amends, not merely its genial warmth, but by maintaining a steady high temperature which we have not for many years been accustomed’.

'A Calm' by James Gillray (1810)
‘A Calm’ by James Gillray (1810). Courtesy of Princeton University Library

Reports from Brighton confirm that due to the excessive heat more and more people were visiting the resort. Their days seem to be divided into stages – dipping in the morning, sailing at noon, pony trotting and walking in the evening and the theatres and libraries at night.

Too much and too little, or, Summer clothing for 1556 & 1796
Too much and too little, or, Summer clothing for 1556 & 1796. Lewis Walpole Library

Whilst the Morning Advertiser of 21st July reported that:

despite this spell of very hot weather, the ladies did not alter their dress, for in fact, for some years past, they have had scarcely any covering to leave off!

A gentleman named Macrae, a native of Ross-Shire chose one of the hottest summers on record to walk from Vauxhall to Manchester in 69 hours.  To ensure that he kept his feet supple for the walk he kept a quantity of oil in his shoes, but due to the excessive temperatures his feet were very badly blistered, and he was extremely fatigued which he blamed on the weather rather than the exertion.

Having checked the Diary of Miss Fanny Chapman for July 1808, we can confirm that she too found the heat excessive.

The diary of Fanny Chapman

London is said to have resembled an oven, the brick walls of the houses tended to accumulate the greater effect of the heat; in the shady side of the streets, the temperature was 100 degrees or two degrees above blood heat and five degrees more than is requisite to melt bees-wax.

It seems that the Northampton coroner, Thomas Marshall, was kept busy during July, as due to the excessive temperatures there was an unusually high number of sudden deaths. There were reports that the same thing was happening in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, mainly to people who were working on the land.

The heat wave not only took its toll on humans but also on animals with between 40 and 50 post horses on the great north road being said to have:

fallen sacrifice to exposure to this extreme heat; some dropping down dead in the harness, and other expiring soon after they had completed their journey.

A harvest scene with workers loading hay on to a farm wagon by James Ward c.1800
A harvest scene with workers loading hay on to a farm wagon by James Ward c.1800. Yale Center for British Art

Crops benefitted from the dry weather allowing farmers to harvest their crops early, but the honeycomb in bee-hives melted, and apparently, honey was seen running out from the base of the hives. Butter being transported to market turned to oil before reaching its destination.

Summer Amusement at Margate, Thomas Rowlandson.
Summer Amusement at Margate, Thomas Rowlandson. Lewis Walpole Library

In Kent, the cherry garden, a beautifully romantic spot about a mile and a half from Folkestone, was the place to be seen during the summer of 1808; the favourable state of the weather drew very elegant and numerous company there in early July for dancing on a platform similar to that at The Dandelion, near Margate.

Boats at Breydon. Joseph Stannard c.1825.
Boats at Breydon. Joseph Stannard c.1825. Yale Centre for British Art

Norfolk reported of its annual Water Frolic, generally called the Narrow Waters, a waterway between Breydon and Burgh flats which was covered with boats, barges and other small craft ready to witness a race which took place at one o’clock for a silver cup. Many spectators also lined the shore, making the most of the glorious weather.

British Museum
British Museum

The 1808 heat wave lasted until the end of  July when thunderstorms and torrential rain took their revenge – so maybe we still have a few more days of it this year!

Featured Image

Shady Retreats for Summer or  The Tip of the Ton! British Museum.

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14 thoughts on “The Heatwave of 1808

      1. Thank you, I have been! I’m hoping for 1813 as it’s a year of mystery as regards the weather, I got very little out of the newspapers, and I haven’t found any diaries to cover it, there are no Gentleman’s Magazines online for the year with weather data, and limited data from Ackermann’s.

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      2. Sarah Murden

        Hmm and Fanny is no help, her diary suddenly stopped at 1812 then restarted 1837, we’re not sure as to why, maybe the pages got lost or destroyed or she simply took a break. If we spot anything useful for 1813 we’ll let you know.

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      3. how odd! ah well, such is life … I am assuming that as the newspapers reported unusual sorts of weather – I have logged every storm – the year was remarkably average. The only response to a search on heat was in the west Indies, which apparently was very hot that summer. I think the book is going to end up as 3 or 4 books thought, 1775-1800, 1800-1810, and 1811-1820 is the ambition but I have enough for a daily entry from two different places in so many years it might end up broken up more. We shall see! thanks for your support and kindness, I think I’m a bit insane.

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      4. Almost nothing until June, and then pretty spotty. September and October I have some data from Liverpool. I have about 8 dates in May, and 2 or 3 in March and April. January and February hit a blank. I have fair data from late December, as that was one of the coldest winters on record, with the last frost fair in 1814

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      5. Sarah Murden

        Hmm, we’ll see if we can find anything, but it doesnt’ seem to have been an especially exciting year does it 🙂

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  1. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 29) | www.weyerman.nl

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