Tag Archives: Climate

Can a thief be trusted to record the temperature?

George Edwards Peacock, meteorological observer at the New South Wales Government’s South Head weather station between 1841 and 1856, had arrived in Sydney as a convict in May 1837. (See the entry for 28/3/2011.) His trial, conviction and transportation were undoubtedly traumatic for a family that had reason to look upon itself as highly respectable.

George’s father, Daniel Mitford Peacock, had been a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a first-class degree in mathematics in 1791. Not only was he among that élite group of students, called ‘Wranglers’, but he was ‘senior Wrangler,’ having gained the highest marks in the examination. Accordingly he was one of the two recipients in that year of Smith’s Prize, awarded for excellence in mathematics and natural philosophy (physics).

A biographical note in a dictionary published in 1816 (with reference to 1814) records that Daniel had the degree of M.A., was a Fellow of Trinity College, was ‘one of the preachers at Whitehall,’ and was the author of Considerations on the Structure of the House of Commons (1794) and a Pamphlet against the Conductors of the Critical Review. His other works include The Principles of Civil Obedience, Laid down by Locke and Paley, Analyzed and Confronted with the Doctrine of Scripture, in a Sermon, Preached before the Judges of the Assizes at Durham, July 26, 1815; and Remarks on the Essentials of a Free Government, and on the Genuine Constitution of the British House of Commons, in Answer to the Theories of Modern Reformers, Cambridge, 1817, a work based on Montesquieu’s L’esprit des Loix. In these two works the author, Rev. D.M. Peacock, is stated to be (with some variation of wording) Rector of Great Stainton (or Staynton), Durham, Vicar of Sedbergh, Yorkshire, and formerly Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Two years later appeared his treatise on A Comparative View of the Principles of the Fluxional and Differential Calculus, Cambridge, 1819.

Rev. Daniel Mitford Peacock became rector of the Parish of Stainton in 1812. He purchased part of the estate at Great Stainton from the Marquess of Londonderry in 1823. In 1835 he sold it to John Lord Eldon, who had acquired the rest of the estate from the Marquess of Londonderry in 1826.

Mathematical ability ran in the family. We find Mitford Peacock (1800-1828), Daniel’s eldest son, of Bene’t College, Cambridge, as ‘second Wrangler’ and recipient of Dr. Smith’s Prize in 1822. Mitford became a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, gained his M.A. (year uncertain), and took holy orders, but died young, at Hastings on 20 May 1828. His epitaph records him as ‘Elder son of the Rev. D.M. Peacock Rector of / Great Stainton in the County of Durham.’ He died in ‘the 28th year of his age.’ ‘Christian meekness, and humility, purity and modesty, / Truth and sincerity, uncompromising integrity, active benevolence, and a tenderness for the feelings of others / Bespoke the blessed influence of religion in his heart / throughout life; he died in single reliance on the / Merits and Meditation of the Redeemer our / Lord Jesus Christ.’

It was against this background of intellectual and ecclesiastical eminence and respectability that George Edwards Peacock fell. In 1835 he used a power of attorney to appropriate money belonging to his brother Rev. Edwards Peacock (1804-1895). Accused and found guilty, he was fortunate to escape a death sentence, which was commuted to transportation. As a convict in New South Wales he was fortunate again in gaining honourable and steady employment as a meteorological observer and compiler at the South Head weather station in Sydney. After the weather station closed in 1856 he became clerk to a prominent solicitor, Montagu Consett Stephen, son of Chief Justice Sir Alfred Stephen. But in November of that year he was charged with stealing over 200 pounds from the funds of the solicitor. He disappeared and (it has been shown) escaped to England, where he lived under another family surname, Cust, until his death at York in 1873.

Are we to understand that such a man, shown to have been conspicuously deceitful in matters of money and personal trust, was nevertheless unwaveringly reliable in being on hand, four times a day, day after day, over a period of fifteen years, to observe and record with fastidious care, perhaps through an inherited capacity for mathematical precision, details of temperature and air pressure, dew point, rainfall, wind direction and strength, and general features of the weather, on which official, public and scientific judgments could be confidently based?

Daniel Mitford Peacock, Justice of the Peace: Accounts and Papers, vol. 7: Relating to Courts of Law; Juries; Elections; &c.: Session: 4 February – 20 August 1836, 1836, Justices of Peace [List of Persons Appointed to Act as Justices of the Peace, in England and Wales], County of York, North Riding, at p. 83; biography: A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland, London, Colburn, 1816, p. 265; rector of Stainton: Durham Diocesan Records, Letters testimonial (admissions), letter of 19/2/1812, to Stainton-le-Street rectory; British History Online, Parish of Stainton; estate at Great Stainton: British History Online, Stainton. Mitford Peacock, second Wrangler: The New Monthly Magazine, 1/3/1822, Varieties, at p. 113; death: The Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 98, June 1828, Obituary, Clergy Deceased, at p. 571; epitaph: St Helens, Ore, Monumental Inscriptions, 25/07/2004, Bedford Memorial Program, Memorial Inscriptions for Old Parish of St Helens, Ore, in the County of East Sussex. Col Fullagar, ‘The Life and Disappearance of George Edwards Peacock’, Bonhams & Goodman, Auction News 4.2, October 2008, p. 7 [pdf].

Rain at Hunter’s River and not a blade of grass at Bathurst

On 17 February 1827 the Monitor newspaper in Sydney published a letter to the editor which referred to current weather conditions:

Cattle are dying in many parts of the Country through the drought, and the Hawkesbury Maize crop is ruined. There is, however, a plenty of it at Hunter’s River, where the rains have fallen (so I am informed) in great profusion. There is not a blade of grass at Bathurst and the case is much the same in many parts of Argyle.

The letter was dated Clydsdale [sic], 12 February 1827, and signed ‘R. M. T.’ The last initial suggests a relative of Charles Tompson, who bought Clydesdale Farm near Windsor in 1819 and was still in possession at the time of this letter. He had arrived in Sydney in 1804, having been transported for seven years. He acquired land in various parts of the colony, including (I understand) a property at Bathurst also given the name Clydesdale. In the present context ‘Clydsdale’ no doubt refers to his estate at South Creek near Windsor. The letter-writer (a son of Charles?), in mentioning the four regions of the Hawkesbury, Hunter’s River, Bathurst and Argyle, is likely to have had specific properties in mind. Charles had a number of sons, among them Charles jr., a poet; I have not identified R.M.T. The county of Argyle lay to the south-west of Sydney and centred on the township of Goulburn.

In his Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, John Dunmore Lang comments (p. 209) on the regional variability of climatic conditions in the colony, in a passage which has in view the same drought to which the letter-writer was referring:

Calamitous as it was, however, the drought was only partial, whole districts having either entirely or in great measure escaped its influence. It was much less felt, for instance, in the county of Argyle, to the southward and westward, than in the lowlands or earlier settled districts of the colony. In the lower parts of the settlement of Hunter’s River, or on what the Americans would call the sea-board, it was by no means so severe as at a greater distance from the coast: and in Illawarra, an extensive and highly fertile district about fifty miles to the southward of Port Jackson, the few settlers who had cultivated grain in any quantity never lost a crop. Such also was the case at the settlements of Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay, to the northward; and at Patrick’s Plains, a tract of fertile land on Hunter’s River, naturally destitute of timber, where the crop was nearly all destroyed in the year 1828, a good crop was reaped in the first year of the drought.

Letter to the editor: The Monitor 17/2/1827, p. 5. Note Adele Whitmore (comp.), Descendants of Charles Tompson: Australian Family Tree and Album, 4 vols., South Penrith NSW, A.M. Whitmore, 1987. John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875, p. 209. Baker’s Australian County Atlas includes a map of the County of Argyle, accessible online.

Beware the Ides of March

On 27 February 1823 the Sydney Gazette expressed a mixture of gratitude and foreboding:

The rains, with which we have been visited during the past week, have been extremely beneficial to the garden and to the field. The face of nature speedily assumed a grateful appearance, and the poor beasts even have had occasion to rejoice. From experience, however, we think it a duty to put the settler in mind of next month, for the “ides of March” approach.

The reference to the Ides of March seems to mean that there will be an inevitable development in the weather and it will come irrespective of the strength of one’s hopes and fears. Was the writer suggesting that by the middle of March there might be either too little rain or too much?

On 18 March 1824 the Sydney Gazette reported an alteration in the weather from dry to wet:

The recent rain has been productive of vast benefit to the drooping garden and perishing field. With the exception of a few showers at the commencement, this month has been marked as one of the most inclement for heat and drought, up to the 15th. Every year, as well as each revolving season, fully assures the Colonists that there is nothing more uncertain than the Australian weather—while it must be allowed, as well as generally acknowledged, that this uncertainty does not at all diminish the proverbial salubrity of our clime. As we have had but little rain since July, water has been scarce in town; but then it should be gratefully remembered what a providential supply Black-wattle Swamp furnishes in the most dry season.

In that year at least the Ides of March were associated with a welcome change.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 27/2/1823, p. 2; ibid. 18/3/1824, p. 2.

Weather and prophecy

After a long drought in the last months of 1821 and the beginning of 1822, the Sydney Gazette was able to report on 15 February 1822 that, ‘Rain has come at last.’ (See the entry ‘Droughts and flooding rains’ of 1/3/2011.)

A week later the newspaper reported:

The long-looked for and much desired weather, which is showery and also pleasant, still continues. Prophets (those of the calculating and predicting cast} are not to be found in every generation, and were never eminently notorious for numerical strength, yet it would seem that Australia may boast of some such antiquated mortal, by occasionally prying into the arcana of the Colonial Kalendar.

The somewhat cryptic reference to prophecy appears to be a qualified commendation of weather information found in the almanac which had been published annually in Sydney for quite a few years.

George Howe (1769-1821), publisher and printer of the Sydney Gazette, had produced the New South Wales Pocket Almanack and Colonial Remembrancer for the year 1806, the first almanac published in Australia. This effort was not repeated for 1807 because of lack of paper, but he reinvigorated the concept in 1808 under the title New South Wales Pocket Almanack, a publication which continued to appear annually for fourteen years, until the year of Howe’s death, 1821. His son Robert Howe (1795-1829), who had grown up with the Sydney Gazette, took over the newspaper and the almanac, and issued the Australasian Pocket Almanack for five years from 1822 to 1826, and the Australasian Almanack for 1827.

These almanacs contained a wide range of materials for reference, including weather information and other advice useful for farmers and gardeners. On the question of prophecy, an article on ‘Australasian Almanacks’ in volume 4 of The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, published in London, observed that the Australasian Pocket Almanacks of 1822 and 1823, in contrast with English almanacks, have ‘no prophetic warnings about war or weather; but in each month “the usual state of the weather” is given, which to us, appears a much more rational method’ (pp. 406-408, at p. 406).

It was perhaps at least partly on the basis of information in the almanacs of George and Robert Howe that the Sydney Gazette was able to counsel patience among its readers when the weather was difficult for protracted periods.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 15/2/1822, p. 2; ibid. 22 February 1822, p. 2. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 49 vols., London, J. Limbird and others, 1822-1849 (there is a list with links to Google reproductions on the University of Pennsylvania website); vol. 4 was published in 1824. J.V. Byrnes, ‘Howe, George (1769-1821)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 557-559, and online (includes a section on the life of George’s son Robert Howe, who was born in 1795 and drowned in 1829).

Droughts and flooding rains

On 8 February 1822 the Sydney Gazette reported that, ‘The present month of February makes the fourth month of continued drought this season.’ This indicates drought from October 1821, through November, December and January and into the first week of February.

It was driving people to distraction. The newspaper noted that ‘a professional Gentleman’ in Sydney had recently tried to dig for water to save a few choice plants and had found the earth twenty feet down ‘in as heated a state as that within only a few inches of the surface.’

The wheat harvest was ‘safely in’ but the maize was ‘in a terrible condition.’ Around Windsor the maize appeared to be healthy but was mostly stalks and leaves, with ‘hardly any cob.’ The most optimistic prediction was that, if plenty of rain came, about half the originally expected crop would result. The writer counsels patience:

To make up, however, for this apparent calamity, the next month’s rainy visitation, which is pretty certain, may be providentially instrumental in producing abundance from the forest or stubble crops. We must not too readily give place to despondency, after having been so signally blessed with such a luxuriant harvest.

Within the week there was cause for celebration. The next issue of the Sydney Gazette, dated 15 February, announced the glad tidings to a public already very much aware of the event:

Rain has come at last, and though there is not much occasion to render that public which is generally known, still it should be remembered that it calls forth from our hearts the liveliest gratitude towards that gracious Being, who so promptly attends to, and effectually relieves, our wants.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 8/2/1822, p. 3; ibid. 15/2/1822, p. 2.

Pure luck and pure water

Mr Alex Johnston, senior member of the firm of railway contractors Johnston and Co., was necessarily a man of energy and resourcefulness. In May 1886 the Queanbeyan Age had occasion to report on two unusual incidents in his career, which incidentally throw light on the challenges of travel in New South Wales in the 1880s, progress in railway construction, and the difficulties of an exasperating climate.

The first incident concerned his recent adventures in trying to get from Sydney to Queanbeyan for an urgent meeting which he could hardly afford to miss. He had started off from Redfern in a sleeping car, expecting to be woken to get off at Goulburn, from where he needed to take a different train for the following stage of his journey. Next morning he awoke to find himself out at Bowning, the other side of Yass, some distance from Goulburn. Fortunately an up-train was about to go through, and he was able to signal this down and return to Goulburn. At that point his good fortune continued: a goods train was about to leave for Bungendore, which was on the way to Queanbeyan, carrying materials to be used by his own company in railway construction. From Bungendore the firm’s ballast engine took him to the Molonglo River, six miles from Queanbeyan, and he was able to travel the rest of the distance by buggy and arrive in good time for his meeting.

If that experience was heart-stopping, the other incident was distinctly odd. The countryside around Queanbeyan was extremely parched. The Queanbeyan River was almost dry. The water had ceased to flow and in the vicinity of Queanbeyan the river was a bed of mud and rubbish. People were getting their water from dirty puddles. Mr Johnston came to the rescue in a curious way. The piers of the new railway bridge were hollow, and were found to contain an ‘inexhaustible supply’ of pure water. How this could be, the article does not explain. Presumably excavations had tapped into an underground water-source. If people were willing to use this water, Mr Johnston was willing to instal a temporary pump for their benefit. The newspaper comments: ‘This generous act of Mr. Johnston’s is worthy of public commendation and gratitude.’

The praise for Mr Johnston was no doubt genuine. Two months later we find him being praised very fulsomely, at a farewell party for some of his staff, for his qualities as an employer and for his public-spiritedness.

Another month went by and the newspaper was reporting heavy rains in the area and significant catches of fish in the river. By December of that year the Molonglo River, into which the Queanbeyan River flows, was above the high flood marks. At Queanbeyan a man attempting to cross the flooded river on horse-back was swept away a considerable distance and had to be rescued.

Two incidents: Queanbeyan Age 18/5/1886, p. 2. Farewell party: Queanbeyan Age 29/7/1886, p. 2. Rain and fish: Queanbeyan Age 10/8/1886, p. 2;  2/9/1886, p. 2. Horse and rider: Queanbeyan Age 9/12/1886, p. 2.

The Molonglo River flows into the Murrumbidgee River on the western edge of Canberra.