Translation of Issue 54 pages 14-18, Y Tywyddiadur – sychder eithriadol 1887 yng Nghymru a thu hwnt (rhan 3)

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Y Tywyddiadur – The extreme drought of 1887 in Wales and beyond (part 3)

Outlined in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series (Natur Cymru 50 and 52) were the types of Welsh diary data found in Y Tywyddiadur (“The Weather Record”), which forms part of Llên Natur’s website. This time  DUNCAN BROWN and TWM ELIAS present diary and newspaper records which contribute evidence to the discussion regarding the long period of extreme drought and its substantial effect on Europe at the end of the 19th century.

In 1882 there began a remarkable succession of 13 arid years. The year 1887, when Queen Victoria’s jubilee was celebrated, was the driest of the 19th century. Analysis of evidence collected from journals and newspapers of the time shows the development of extreme meteorological drought (when there was no significant rainfall) that year, and the hydrological drought (reflected by the arid nature of the soil and its water table) did not cease for some years to come. This presents us with a picture of an ‘agricultural drought’ which affected crops; a ‘socio-economic drought’ which affected people’s health and work; and an ‘ecological drought’ which affected nature.

Unusual weather was experienced on the European continent in June 1887. The central provinces of Spain suffered a plague of locusts which destroyed grass and wheat crops, vines and olives, darkening the horizon at times due to their numbers (Cardigan Observer, 11 June 1887).

On 5th June there was a tremendous storm in the Figeac region of northern France where crops were destroyed by large hailstones. When people started ringing the church bells in order to clear the menacing clouds, the steeple was struck by a bolt of lightning which destroyed the church tower and roof, and killed or burnt some of the congregation who were praying there at the time (Aberystwyth Observer 11 June 1887). Three weeks later there was a large storm in the town of Toulouse in southern France, which destroyed a waterspout and led to water sweeping away a public washing house full of washerwomen, killing three in the process.

The effect of the weather on wildlife
According to the Cardigan Observer and General Advertiser, the worst fire ever seen in Wales occurred around Glyndyfrdwy, Llangollen (20th June 1887). An area measuring 4 x 2 miles of mountain was burnt. It was not thought that the combustible nature of the hills was enough reason for the fires, but blame had to be laid somewhere. Suffice to say that blame was directed towards one of the shepherds lighting his pipe in Glyndyfrdwy, rather than the fires that had been lit to celebrate the Jubilee nearby! The damage caused to the stock of rabbits and valuable young grouse on the mountain was substantial. But despite this tale of woe, a good crop of strong grouse was later seen on the moorlands of the nearby estates, according to the Cambrian News (26 August) – and to Sir Watkin’s undoubted delight!

Mid-August, it was reported that “outstanding bags of partridges reflect a real peak in the partridge population…quite exceptional in Denbigh and Merioneth (Matheson: The Partridge in Wales (in British Birds 67, 1953). That season also saw an exceptional stock of partridge across the Kingdom in general, and the bird had not been seen in such abundance for years in Cheshire, Warwickshire and Yorkshire (Cardigan Observer, 10 September 1887).

“Revellers” were blamed for a terrible fire in the Parish of Penrydd, Pembrokeshire at the beginning of August, and a revenge attack by farmers was blamed for another; “… as parishioners…were not afforded any reduction [in their rent?] during these hard times”.

In Brymbo in July the ponds dried out and the water temperature rose until the bodies of dead trout could be seen floating on the surface. But it was a particularly good period for nightingales, with five or six reports across Wales during 1887-88 of pairs providing evening entertainment for the village residents with their song.

A possible result of the drought was the appearance of a greatly feared small insect, namely the Hessian fly Mayetiola destructor, which was spotted in three locations. Farmers were strongly advised to be vigilant of their crops before it was too late to prevent them (Weekly Mail 23 July 1887). In early August, a plague of mosquitoes attacked the areas of Camberwell and Dulwich in London, seemingly taking advantage of the marshy ground and the heat to thrive. (Aberdare Times 6 August 1887).

When autumn arrived bringing with it the rain following the drought and heat, a substantial crop of mushrooms appeared – not unsurprisingly – in north Wales, as reported in Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard (16 September, 1887). “Truckloads of these esculents” were exported to London and other towns. The Welshman (16 September, 1887) reported that it was possible to fill a small hamper within ten minutes of the village of Llanybydder. A significant amount was transported by train on a daily basis.

It can take an entire year before the response of some species (especially insects) to exceptional weather conditions becomes apparent. The following year, 1888, was one of the best for an immigrant hawkmoth Hyles gallii.

In June 1888, whether as a result of the drought of 1887 or the cold spring of 1888, or a combination of both, a plague of winter caterpillar moths was seen stripping fruit trees in the apple orchard counties. In Sherwood Forest, the oak trees were completely devoid of leaves, according to the Aberdare Times, 30 June 1888, quoting the Daily News. This phenomenon was identified several times in Wales during the following century (such as 1906, 1979).

The effect of the weather on society
Not for the first time in history, people turned to the Almighty with their concerns about the weather. The Cardiff Times published a “Call for Rain” by Gowerton Crugfryn, in its edition on 23 July 1887 (this is the first and last of the four verses):

O, Dduw, dod a cawodydd [sic] – i faethu
Twf weithiau i`n meusydd
Gwywder trwy`r sychder sydd
Yn delwi gwyneb dolydd…..
Yn daer gofynwn, dyro – i`r ddaear
Addawo wlith eto,
Amodol wlaw i`w mwydo,
`Nol dy air dihidled o
O God, bring showers to nourish
Some growth in the fields
Withered through the drought
Sad faces of the meadows….
Earnestly we ask, give – the ground
Promising dew again
Steeped in rain
According to your word

According to G. Franklen (1891) (The Meteorology of 1890: Reports & Transactions, Cardiff Naturalists Society), the drought of 1887 began after Saint Swithin’s day (15th July) with a warm, sunny day and a shower in the afternoon in Cardiff. A man was killed by lightning in Monmouthshire on 23 July and his house was damaged.

According to the Weekly Mail (23 July 1887): “Reports to hand from various parts of the Principality state that the long-continued drought is being attended with serious consequences, many residents in rural districts having to walk long distances for water, while several slate mines and other works have been compelled to suspend operations.  Should the drought continue, many of the works in the Vale of Llangollen, and the industrial districts of Ruabon, will be at a standstill this week”.

On 6th July 1887, Y Gwyliedydd (Rhyl) reported on the impact on tourism and industry across the whole of Wales:

“Hundreds have been sent home from work in the Rhondda Valley due to a lack of water. Here in Rhyl, which attracts a large number of visitors each year, it is hoped that there will be enough water, with due care, to ensure a two month supply at least. And we had some light rain showers yesterday.” (Monday 5th).

The effect of the weather on the harvest
To overgeneralise would be dangerous. Whilst William Jones, Moelfre, Aberdaron started haymaking in the Hendre as early as 24th June with no complaints about his crop, William Phillips, Brynberian, Newport, Pembrokeshire noted (in English, although his first language was obviously Welsh) on 2nd July:

“The land burn up. No grass. No water”, and on 8th July: “…warm. Hot wind. South east wind. Thundering at evening and raining. We had Park twad [Parc Tywod?] hay in today. Penberglog Cart was here enough of people. The 2 Carpenter was here and they been help with the hay”

It was judged that the “… oat crop is significantly delayed across the country, and that for lack of rain, to the extent that farmers in Scotland, as the crops are not tall enough to be reaped, are sending their cattle to the oat fields to graze” although “the heat is enough to mature the corn, and to have a far earlier harvest than usual, but there’s a great lack of fruit and vegetables.” (Y Dydd, 18 August 1887).

Only the wheat and potato harvest was better than usual and a significant amount of meat, milk, butter and cheese was lost due to the drought. (Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser, 30 December 1887).

The (meteorological) drought comes to an end
According to the Weekly News, the drought came to an end with the great rainfall that started at 6 o’clock, 16th August in Cwrt-y-Vil, Penarth. Undoubtedly, great damage and loss of life was caused in several areas such as Monmouth, Chepstow, London, Wolverhampton and Plymouth. Heavy hail in Oxford destroyed the fruit crop. (Weekly Mail, 20 August 1887). The Cardiff Times, 3 September 1887 reported that “ night an unusually heavy thunder-storm prevailed over North Wales, after a very close and sultry day”. The paper’s reporter noted that the “…atmospheric conditions generally would seem to warrant the assumption that the time has arrived for writing the history of one of the most memorable droughts on record”.

Looking back at the weather of 1887 and its impact – a report from Pembrokeshire
The Tenby Observer, March 1888, quoted verbatim a lengthy, learned and technical address by Pembrokeshire Naturalists’ Field Club’s Deputy President, the Reverend Clennell Wilkinson.  Typically for the time, Wilkinson was an Anglican priest and was versed in field science – he had studied the century’s driest year in detail. He noted that the drought had not been contained to that year:

Before the summer [1887] had set in the drought had taken such hold upon the land that healthy vegetation was retarded, and even now [February 1888] we are suffering from want of moisture. It is generally reported that the springs are so low that a water famine is likely to occur, worse than any we had last year.

He noted that the Jubilee year was unusually sunny with less rain than had been seen for many years. Despite the sunshine, it was not a particularly hot season, and the evenings were surprisingly cold, even in July. Wilkinson quoted data by Dr Propert from St Davids that only 25 inches (635mm) of rain fell there over the course of the year. Such a year, he stated, would be beneficial to those who study natural science. He assumed that the contrast between the heat during the day and the chill at night, which lasted until 1887, was responsible for the fact that this was the worst year on record for moths and butterflies. In contrast to many of the previous years, no examples of the Clouded Yellow butterfly Colias croceus were recorded (a regular visitor from the continent) and he notes that unfortunately no examples were recorded either that year of the rare visitor from the US, the Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus (the first ever sighting of this butterfly in Britain was recorded by a boy from Glynneath 11 years earlier), and evidently, the unusual weather had led to an expectation that others species would appear in south Wales during this year.

It is difficult to compare the number of moths in 1887 and today. There was no electricity at the time, and therefore no such thing as a light trap. For example, the Centre-barred sallow Atethmia centrago was considered a very rare moth at the time, which is in contrast to the perceptions of moth-catchers today, with their electrical light traps. Jaeger, a gentleman from London who had been staying in Saundersfoot, recorded some moths that were considered rare at the time such as the False footman Stilbia anomala (he caught over 20 on an evening towards the end of August near Roadwood, many more than had been caught previously); Square-spot dart Euxoa obelisca; Northern rustic Standfussiana lucernea; and Portland moth Actebia praecox (no records in our time in Pembrokeshire). Within Wilkinson’s own records, the first examples (at the time) of beautiful specimens of Red sword-grass Xylena vetusta  were found in Pembrokeshire.

In July of the following year, as if to bring a fitting end to an exceptional period of weather history in the 19th century, unseasonal snow fell from Wales to the Isle of Wight.

The drought of 1887 is only one example of unusual weather. Contemporary records can be valuable to model climatic changes by combining data on nature and density and the frequency of such events. The more data is available, the more reliable the results. We would therefore be very grateful for any historical and recent weather records for the Tywyddiadur database which now contains almost 100,000 records and is an increasingly valuable resource for those studying climatic trends over the last three centuries.

Duncan Brown was a nature reserve warden with the Countryside Council for Wales and before that with the Nature Conservancy Council. Since retiring he has focused on ways of looking at the natural world through local sources and through a historical perspective. He is the editor of the Llên Natur Project for Cymdeithas Edward Llwyd.

Twm Elias is involved with many environmental / community projects, including Cynefin a Chymuned and Llên Natur. He was formerly a lecturer and course organiser at Plas Tan y Bwlch, the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre.

1. Kloet, G.S., (1972) A Check List of British Insects (part 2). RES (London)