The Meteorological Diary of William Cary of the Strand
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 16 JANUARY 2024
One of the more curious items to be found in that vast cabinet of curiosities, the Gentleman’s Magazine, is the statistical material printed at the end of every issue up until June 1868, when the magazine became to all intents and purposes a literary publication. These statistics included the prices of stocks and shares and of essential commodities — corn, coal and the like — and the bill of mortality. If readers wanted to find out how many people had been born or died in a given month, or what they would have to pay for a hundredweight of tallow, they would go to the end pages of the Magazine.
For a little over eighty-three years the magazine printed a particularly interesting statistical item, which was the ‘meteorological diary’ of William Cary. The diary recorded for every day of a given period the temperature in Fahrenheit at eight in the morning, noon, and eleven at night. In addition, and again for every day, there would be a barometer reading in inches of mercury, followed by a brief description of what the weather had been. ‘Fine’, ‘fair’, ‘gloomy’, ‘snow’ — nothing was beyond the verbal dexterity of the Magazine’s diarist.
The measurements were made, presumably, at Mr Cary’s premises, which were briefly at 272 and then at 182 and then at 277 — again, briefly — and finally at 181 Strand. Given the Strand’s central location, they are a useful guide to general weather conditions in the metropolis, and, if the data is read vertically, it is possible to discern patterns of weather. For example, we can see at a glance that in January 1811 the temperature in London was below zero for ten consecutive days. Not surprisingly, the Thames froze over.
Making his mark
William Cary was born in 1759, that is to say over a hundred years before the last of his meteorological diaries was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine! Was he blessed with remarkable longevity, or has something gone wrong with the dates? Neither, for the explanation, which is in fact very simple, lies elsewhere, and I will return to it in due course. He came from Corsley in Wiltshire, where his father was a prominent maltster, but at the age of thirteen or fourteen he embarked on a seven-year apprenticeship in London under Jesse Ramsden, a manufacturer of measuring instruments and optical devices.
By the time he was thirty, Cary was in business on his own account, steadily building a reputation for work of the highest standard. Among his clients were a number of distinguished scientists. In 1791 he built a special type of telescope for Francis Wollaston, a renowned amateur astronomer and father of the remarkable William Hyde Wollaston. Then in 1810, at the behest of Sir Joseph Banks, he delivered a deep sea thermometer to the arctic explorer William Scoresby, who would make the significant discovery that polar water was warmer at great depths than at the surface. Much later, in 1820, he made a large theodolite for the surveyor George Everest, whose name was given, rather controversially, to the mountain that was initially known simply as Peak B or Peak XV.
A particularly high-profile client was the observatory in Moscow, for which Cary constructed a transit-instrument in 1805. This was really nothing more than a small telescope, but it was able to determine the position of stars with extreme precision. When Moscow was occupied by the French in 1812, Napoleon, whose interest in the sciences was profound, placed a preservation order on Cary’s instrument. One wonders what they would have made of it if news of this unexpected honour had ever got back to the Strand.
The brothers Cary
Another of William’s important connections was his neighbour in the Strand, namely the second of his three older brothers, John, who was a mapmaker and engraver. John Cary is familiar to London historians as the creator of Cary’s New & Accurate Plan of LONDON and WESTMINSTER etc. and Cary’s New Plan of London and its Vicinity, which were first published in 1787 and 1820 respectively and reissued many times thereafter. Both are beautiful examples of the cartographer’s art, and they can be found at this link.
But John Cary’s output was not limited to maps of the metropolis, and his publications included geological views of England and Wales, plans of docks and canals, atlases, and maps of countries in almost every part of the world. He also published such curious items as A Portraiture of the Heavens, a slim folio volume comprising ten double-page plates of star maps with a short text by Francis Wollaston.
Mapping the tracks
As well as occupying neighbouring premises in the Strand, the Cary brothers collaborated on the design and manufacture of globes, both terrestrial and celestial. Advertisements for the globes appeared in their atlases, and the following example, from the road-book that was published as Cary’s New Itinerary in 1798, was clearly written by a craftsman — the cartographer rather than the instrument-maker — who took enormous and justified pride in his work:
J. Cary respectfully informs his Friends that he has just completed a Pair of New Twelve Inch Globes, in the Execution of which the utmost Pains have been taken; & he humbly presumes that some Improvements will be found to have followed his Exertions. The Celestial is laid down by Mr Gilpin of the Royal Society, & late Assistant to Dr Maskelyne; & the Stars are calculated to the Year 1800: the Terrestrial exhibits the different Tracks of Capt. Cook, & other Circumnavigators, which are laid down from authentic Documents etc.
Two better than one
William Cary’s meteorological diary made its debut in the Gentleman’s Magazine in January 1786. Curiously, he had company, for his was only one of two diaries that were printed on the same page. The other diary, which had no name attached to it, had already been appearing in the magazine before the arrival of Cary’s, and would continue to accompany it for some time. So why two? Was one not enough?
The answer is that the diaries were essentially different. Whereas one, namely Cary’s, recorded recent weather, the other looked back to the previous year. The reader was able to compare two sets of data, one for January 1786 and the other for February 1785. And the same pattern of current and historical records was repeated in other issues of the magazine.
A striking feature of the historical diary is its emphasis on verbal descriptions of the weather. Along with the ‘hard’ data — barometer and thermometer readings, wind direction, inches of rain — there are delightful impressions of conditions. In 1785, for example, the weather in February varied between ‘lowering and blustering’ and ‘strong wind, and excessive sharp, bright & cloudless’.
All nature observed
Even more charming are the ‘observations’ appended to the anonymous diary. These cast an appreciative eye over all nature. They are quaint and often quite beautiful. Those for the same February, set out as footnotes to the data for specific days, are as follows:
1Late frost hath done more damage in the garden than the severe weather in December.—2Hedge-sparrow (motacilla modularis), and chaffinch (fringilla coelebs), sing.—3Blackbird (turdus merula) sings.—4Therm. 19 at 11 P.M.—5Freezes strongly within door; Therm. 20 at 11 P.M. Halo round moon.—6Halo round moon. Therm. 23 at 11 P.M.—7Snow from the south. Air so highly electric that loaf-sugar strikes fire.—8Evergreens and garden-plants unhurt on the top of Norwood, much injured in many places below.—9Frost penetrates into houses.—Therm. 25 at 2 P.M. Sea-gulls hawking over the fields.
If Cary’s descriptions are less poetic, they are still a fitting addition to the meteorological data. And in their own rather blunt way they are capable of telling an interesting story. Take for example the period from 31 December 1866 to 17 January 1867, when the weather was either ‘foggy’ or ‘cloudy’ or both on ten out of eighteen days. What on the page of the Gentleman’s Magazine was merely a statistic was in reality a fog of such duration and such impenetrability that the Illustrated London News, in its issue for 12 January, devoted a fair amount of space to it.
The pernicious atmosphere
On that day the fog itself was ‘an honest kind of aqueous vapour’, but it had joined forces with smoke rising up from the polluted city to produce a particularly unpleasant ‘dingy drab-yellow’ smog flavoured with ‘all the sulphates and phosphates of nastiness’:
It is hopeless to escape this visitation by staying at home; the fog will find its way down the bed-room chimneys, or penetrate between the window-frames, and fill the house with its detestable odours hours before the earliest domestic is awake. But the man or woman who, in such baneful weather, is obliged to walk the streets must encounter a host of plagues and perils … Blinded, and choked, and poisoned, as they are, by the pernicious atmosphere which offends every bodily sense at once, and stupefies every faculty of the mind, the miserable crowd of passengers incur the risk every minute of being knocked down and crippled, or crushed to death by the jostling carriages, whose drivers, as well as the horses, are lost in frantic bewilderment, and know not which way to turn.
Nor was it only journalists who brought Cary’s statistics to life, for extremes of London weather made good subjects for artists and illustrators. Gustave Doré’s images of a fog-bound city leap to mind, but other examples abound.
A melancholy spectacle
But even in the life of this somewhat obscure meteorologist there was drama. For at five o’clock on the morning of 17 January 1820 a fire broke out in the Strand. Of course, we know what the weather was because Cary published the details in the Gentleman’s Magazine. It was a cloudy day and the thermometer read only 32 °F — freezing point — at nine in the morning. An unhelpful wind was blowing from the south west.
The fire started at the corner of Norfolk Street and Strand, where Thomas Ker, a boot and shoemaker, lived next door to the Carys at no. 180. Possibly the cause was a gas leak. Although the firemen were able to prevent the flames spreading along Norfolk Street, they could not contain its progress along the Strand, and before long no. 181 was adding to ‘the melancholy grandeur’ of the fire. Then Ker’s roof collapsed with a tremendous crash.
Soon no. 182 was ablaze as well and at half-past ten ‘the fronts of these houses were precipitated into the Strand’. By now a crowd had gathered, but luckily no one was injured by falling masonry. The destruction of property was immense, and poor Ker was particularly unfortunate, for not only was this the third fire he had suffered in the last four years, but he was not insured.
After the fire
As a result of the fire Thomas Ker moved a few doors further down to no. 174. John Cary, however, abandoned the Strand. He relocated his business at 86 St James’s Street, opposite the western end of Pall Mall.
But William stayed in the Strand. For a time he was at no. 277 while the two fire-damaged premises were rebuilt. He took over both, although the directories continued to give his address as 182 Strand. He remained there until his death in 1825.
When he died he was sixty-six years of age. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Abbots in Kensington, and the following year his widow, Elizabeth, joined him there. She was seventy-one. They had no children, but William, in his will, had left money to his three brothers and to a Mrs Penelope White and her three children amounting to £4,100. Sadly, he had left Elizabeth £500 a year for life. The residue was left to his siblings and two sons of John.
His name lives on
John Cary died in 1835, aged eighty-one, and was buried in the same churchyard in Kensington as William and Elizabeth. His sons, George and another John, took on their uncle’s business, although they chose not to rebrand it. So from 1825 ‘William Cary’ was a family firm, and even when the business changed hands, in 1854, the name was preserved. The new owner, who had worked with both brothers, advertised himself as ‘Henry Gould, (late Wm. Cary), optician’.
But William’s name continued to be attached to the meteorological diary in the Gentleman’s Magazine right up until 1868, when, as we have seen, the magazine changed direction and dispensed with records of London’s weather. No more thermometer or barometer readings. No more ‘fair’, foggy’, ‘sun’ or ‘sleet’. But at least now we can see how our meteorologist survived to the age of a hundred and eight!
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