Weather? What Weather?
Many Australians are still recovering from the latest floods, bushfires, and storms. Our unforgiving climate has battered settlers since their arrival. For tens of thousands of years, indigenous Australians have wrapped their lives around the seasons.
History is alive with weather related sliding door moments. As the Spanish Armada in 1588 fled north from the English attack, their only route back to Spain was to sail around the north of Scotland, keeping well out to sea. However, they drifted close toward the western coast of Scotland, and a further series of powerful westerly wind storms drove the ships ashore. Over 5,000 men and nearly half the fleet were lost.
Torrential rain on the night of 17 June 1815 changed the course of the Battle of Waterloo. Cannon were hard to manoeuvre and less effective on boggy ground. Poor visibility due to mist, fog and gunfire in the valley led to further confusion. Napoleon and Wellington’s handling of the weather disruptions ultimately contributed to the outcome of the battle. Experts have recently attributed the unusual June weather of 1815 and the subsequent 1816 year without summer to the volcanic eruption of Tambora in Indonesia the previous April.
On the night of 6 February 1788, just as the women convicts arrived on shore, a terrifying thunderstorm wreaked havoc on the rudimentary camp at Sydney Cove. Lightning burned trees, and crashing branches killed valuable livestock. Intense rain and violent thunder only further seared the sight of the riotous behaviour of the convicts into the minds of the new arrivals.
The weather is a factor in many life choices. Questions arise during our exploration of our ancestors’ lives concerning delayed baptisms or birth registrations, quick burials, and lives lost if only a doctor had attended. We wonder about the pressures families faced that led them to leave everything that was familiar and travel half-way across the world to start again. What part did the weather play? Drought, failed crops, floods, heat, and fire may have contributed to these choices.
Not only does the weather at the time add to our knowledge of their motivations, but it can add colour to their stories. Our obsession with the weather has left vast resources for historians and genealogists.
A good place to start for Australia is the National Library of Australia Research Guide on Weather and Climate, which has records from settlers, explorers, and meteorologists, State and Federal publications, maps and charts, and ships logs.
As well as print and oral resources, Indigenous weather and climate resources include an online interactive map of weather climate and seasonal knowledge. Post-settlement historical sources include Sir Thomas Brisbane’s observations made between 1822 and 1825, which are digitised and online. The research guide also offers a portal to weather and climate data produced by the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and GeoScience Australia.
In addition, Hunter Living Histories, a project of the University of Newcastle, has collected historical weather data from the 1800s to the early 1900s (not included in regular BoM records) from rural property owners. Some of these data books are digitised and available online.
The Bureau of Meteorology historical weather observations and statistics are available for free. Select the ochre-coloured Climate Data Online Box.
There are two types of search: by text and by map. A text search by the weather station returns daily or monthly rainfall totals, as observations or statistics, downloadable as a PDF. There are varying time spans available for each station. For example, Canning Downs, on the Darling Downs near Warwick, has daily rain records from 1880.
A map search of hundreds of stations on a zoomable map returns data from a much larger set, which is also downloadable as a PDF. A search for Tarome produced a summary of daily rainfall from 1911 to the present.
Historical accumulative and average maps for varying periods are provided by the Maps – history to now link.
Most countries provide historical weather data, easily found with a Google search. The United Kingdom has hundreds of years of records. The Website of Pascal Bonenfant, a summary of British Weather from 1700 to 1849, describes its data as being collected from informal historical sources, and is “necessarily a little patchy”, but “fascinating reading.” For example, in 1703 from April to July it was “very wet”, but the entry for November 1703 gives an extensive description of the “Great Storm”.
The Met Officer Hadley Centre provides historical daily, monthly, and seasonal precipitation, the earliest from 1766, and detailed temperature observations from about 1659. In her blog PasttoPresentGenealogy, Jane Roberts suggests checking the parish registers for your area of interest. Ministers often noted serious weather events.
The Met Office Digital Library and Archive is a large resource, but a good place to start is the online resources and then choose the Browse function. Check out the Archive Treasures. The Pre-20th century results are across abroad range of time from many different sources. One example is Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort’s Weather Diaries from 1790 to 1857, while another is an account of the Dreadful Tempest of 1704.
Don’t forget the newspapers. Check out the weather on significant dates in your family’s history, or search for weather events. Trove and Papers Past NZ are available for free. Also search the state libraries for ship and station diaries, many of which are online. The State Library of Queensland returns 9 online results for “station diaries”.
It’s not only helpful to locate your ancestor in their time and place but out in the weather. Which kind of weather pressures impacted their lives? What was the weather on their wedding day? Did successive bad seasons force them off the land, onto a ship, and a new start in another land? Finding the weather data isn’t always easy, but it will be an additional rewarding insight into your ancestors’ lives.
Note: With thanks to Pauline Williams and the GSQ Writing Group for the inspiration to explore this topic further.