Recording the Weather in WW1 – a Norfolk connection

Past articles here on the blog have talked about the weather during World War One, most recently in February 2017. While these posts have been indulging in a personal interest  and myth busting one of our regular readers and contributers has actually found a WW1 link to both the weather and Norfolk!

John Henry Willis

Norwich Meteorologist, Naturalist, Writer, and Inventor

We are indebted to Carey Pallister of Victoria, British Columbia, a descendant of Edgar C. Willis, the younger brother of John Henry Willis and his wife, Jenny Russell Currie. Her interest in this posting has been very supportive; she has provided much useful information including a family tree, as well as invaluable family photographs expertly scanned.

John Henry Willis was raised in the golden age of late-Victorian and Edwardian amateurs; men and women who had sufficient private means to enable them to pursue full time their scientific interests and enthusiasms.

Symons’s Meteorological Magazine devoted the entire September 1912 issue to, ‘Unprecedented Rainfall in Norfolk’.

The rain which fell in Norfolk on August 26th and 27th, 1912, was altogether unprecedented for a cyclonic storm in the east of Great Britain. … The storm seems to have been central close to Norwich…

The magazine went on to note that, Mr. J. H. Willis has an observational equipment as nearly perfect as instruments can be.

He was born on February 20, 1874: his mother was a Colman; his father, a leather merchant and shoe manufacturer. He was the second of five children, and the family lived at Southwell Lodge in Ipswich Road. From 1895 until 1960, Willis maintained a daily record of meteorological observations accompanied by monthly summaries of conditions, hand-written in seven foolscap volumes*. His instruments were sited in the extensive gardens of Southwell Lodge.

* These are held in the Norfolk Record Office where they are currently being archived.


Southwell Lodge, 1905
(Source: Ordnance Survey 25” County Series, Norfolk Sheet LXIII.15)

The Willis Family, photographed in 1910 at the front entrance to Southwell Lodge
From left to right: John H. Willis; his sister, Mary Esther; his sister, Edith Lucy (Edie); and his mother, Mary Esther (née Colman)
(Source: Carey Pallister)

Although too old to serve in the First World War, Willis nevertheless played his part in maintaining the thread of everyday life in Norfolk through his weather observations. In his book, Weatherwise: England’s Weather Through The Past Thirty Years, he describes August, 1914:

…in August, as the guns of the first World War began muttering on the Western front, there drifted by, in queer contrast to events, peaceful weeks of still summer weather, almost ideal. Even to the close of the month their summer enchantment remained in full tide, with little but fleecy white clouds of high summer lazily afloat in its skies, and temperatures mainly in the seventies and eighties; and only the far throb of the guns below the horizon to trouble its stillness.

John H. Willis’ weather observations for early August 1914
Note the maximum temperatures (column 4) in the upper 60’s and 70’s F., and the long hours of sunshine (column 14) on most days.
(Source: Norfolk Record Office)

and October, 1914:

From October, and for the remainder of the year, the increasing rains grew so phenomenally heavy as to be attributed to the concussion of the guns, though somewhat unconvincingly, since drought had accompanied prior periods of gunfire no less severe.

Willis is referring here to a popular view held at the time that heavy rain was caused by gunfire across the Channel in Flanders, in much the same way that some people considered ‘bad’ weather during the 1960’s to be caused by sending rockets and satellites into space – ‘all those goings-on at Cape Canaveral’.

the beginning of 1915:

The year 1915 entered with a continuance of the deplorably excessive and almost daily rains that so heightened the hardships of the first World War’s opening months in the trenches.

September, 1915

Yet again September made cousinly amends for the weather’s misdemeanours in August, for in a twenty-day spell from September the 3rd the weather remained absolutely rainless.

So linked with events are our weather conditions that the coincidence of this fine weather spell with anticyclonic high pressure brought the Zeppelins floating buoyantly out in a series of raids, on six or seven nights in succession; and while declining air pressure then drove them back to their kennels, it ushered in also unsettled conditions, which then persisted, in the main, through the rest of the autumn, and indeed to the close of the year.

Here, Willis draws attention to the importance of atmospheric conditions in aerial warfare, which was to become only too apparent in the Second World War; during the Blitz, for S.O.E. personnel parachuted into occupied France and Belgium, and for R.A.F. night bombing raids over Europe.

the beginning of 1916

The second war winter of the first World War was at first phenomenally mild; indeed with temperatures often above 50°, and no sharper screen frost than a couple of degrees, January proved warmer than an average February or March; warmer indeed than many an April.

But the cold was unfortunately merely postponed, for while a fringe of the early warmth still tempered February’s first fortnight, on the 14th, without warning, came a sudden assault of winter with half a foot of snow. With bitter frosts up to nearly 15° [17°F, -8°C] and squalls of bewildering snow eddying on the wings of furious gales, we suffered a snowfall of over 2 feet by the close of the month, and the earth remained mantled in winter almost to the middle of March.

…in its closing week [of March] a bitter last fling of winter culminated on the evening of the 28th, with possibly the most violent blizzard to date since 1881…

April 1916

…April’s opening three weeks remained mostly moist and cool; and with air pressures rising the while to high levels, Zeppelins again floated buoyantly out with their cargoes for another long series of raids.

June 1916

…June was so starved of sunshine that it was at least reputed to be the chilliest June for a full hundred years. … The cold, moreover, was accompanied by such persistent rains as to suggest anew some connection between rainfall and the gunfire on the Western front. Yet again the theory seemed discounted by the fact that the launching of the Somme offensive in July when the gunfire reached its maximum, rainfall shrank to a third of its normal.

the beginning of 1917

After a few mild opening days there entered, early in January, like a revived Crimean winter, the terrible severe, prolonged war winter of 1917. … Not within living memory had vegetation, by the close of this winter, been so belated.

Willis is citing the evidence from his garden in Ipswich Road. He was interested in phenology, the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena. In this he was a follower of the pioneer naturalist, Robert Marsham of Stratton Strawless (1708-1797). Marsham is famed for, amongst many other achievements in a long and full life, recording 27 Indications of Spring, including events as diverse as the flowering of wood anemones, the leafing of beech, the first call of the cuckoo, and the date when rooks start to build nests. In his 2010 book, Climate and Weather, the distinguished historical climatologist, John Kington, notes:

Following the lead of Robert Marsham and John Shepheard, the meteorologist John H. Willis compiled a unique phenological record in the form of a series of photographs of the same clumps of snowdrops and daffodils, and the same branches of chestnut and beech…

Indeed, Willis photographed the same snowdrop clump every year on the 1st January, the same daffodil clump on the 1st March, and the same chestnut branch on 1st April.

Willis’ Daffodil Clump photographed on 1st March during the war years, 1914-18,
(Souce: ‘Weatherwise’)
During the cold season of early 1917 the daffodil shoots have hardly broken ground.

Summer 1917

Through most of the summer, save only in August, May’s vast flood of sunshine continued in almost full tide. By June it was mounting at times to between 14 and 15 hours a day, lifting temperatures to wholly abnormal June levels. … In July the wealth of sunshine was again renewed… In August, though temperatures still surged above normal, the month was in wide areas drenched with the dense grey blur of those fateful rains that added to the horrors of the Paschendaele offensive.

December 1917

Early in December the cold won through in earnest at last, though not until the 15th did snow appear… And in this cold setting, after an astonishing lapse of 27 years, was revived again, at long last, the half-forgotten Victorian tradition of a snowy Christmas Eve and a white Christmas Day; though its peaceful associations were incongruously broken at dusk by the glare of lightning and crash of thunder, as if in reminder of the spectre of war below the horizon.

Spring 1918

…as the storm of the World War began to reach its peak, there floated across May, in queer contrast to events, as in other war crises, a peaceful drift of still, almost ideal summer weather averaging between 8 and 9 hours a day… Through June, too, the clear-swept skies brought such floods of sunshine as kept the sunshine recorder working overtime…

Summer 1918

In July… An outstanding storm on the 17th did by repute more damage than a raid, though since all weather news and forecasts were suspended through these critical days of the war, the details of its delinquencies have remained undisclosed.

Weather forecasts were a military secret again in 1944, during the Second World War, when Weatherwise was published. The book production, too, reflects wartime conditions; printed on thin, slightly rough, brownish-coloured wartime paper, (which, nevertheless, has survived ageing rather better than many books published later).

November 1918

…on November the 4th that trail of dull weather which, since early October, had reduced our allowance of sunshine to less than an hour a day, cam at last to an end; and as those still attached to the theory that gunfire promotes rain will not with approval, a long rainless spell set in from the 11th, the very closing day of the war. So unusually clear indeed grew the skies as the guns ceased muttering, that November’s normally dark days were gilt with an unwonted abundance of sunshine…

John H. Willis, was not just a conscientious meteorologist and enthusiastic naturalist, he was also an inventor. In 1929 he patented the Willis World Clock and set up a company, J. H. Willis and Company, Norwich, to manufacture it between 1929 and 1935. It is designed to tell the time at all points on the Earth simultaneously. Instead of moving hands, it has a 10-inch dial which revolves counter-clockwise past stationary pointers representing all the time areas of the world. The dial is calibrated in 5-minute periods with a moving hand on a small dial below giving the exact minutes past the hour. The clock never needs altering on ship or aircraft.

The Willis World Clock in the Science Museum, London
(Source: 24HOURTIME.INFO for the image and the links:
https://24hourtime.info/2009/11/30/the-willis-world-clock/)

An article in Flight magazine, March 16, 1939, provides some further guidance on Willis’ invention:

The Willis world clock, which indicates not only Greenwich time but, as the dial revolves past each meridian, the exact local time everywhere in the world, has now been produced on a smaller and lighter scale for use in aircraft. In its new form the clock has been designed to fit more or less flush with the instrument panel, and should be a useful item of equipment now that transport machines are being flown through to long-distance destinations.

The operation of this clock is extremely simple, with a twenty-four-hour moving disc in the centre and a separate minute hand below. The main face of the clock is laid out in sectors, with the names of all the more important countries and cities in the world indicated by arrows, and the time for each particular place is merely read of against the appropriate arrow. The timing disc itself is clearly marked in a.m. and p.m. sections, so that, even when the twenty-four method of reading is not being used, there is no possibility of error. Those countries and cities where “summer time” arrangements are in force are printed separately in red type. For example, Great Britain and France have two positions, one at Greenwich time and one, for the summer season, on the mid-European time arrow. Needless to say, such a clock will be useful in working out E.T.A.s which are likely to be at or near nightfall, and also for timing the reception of both weather broadcasts and others required for D/ F bearings.

The world clock is obtainable from J. H. Willis and Company, Ipswich Road, Norwich, and the aircraft or small marine type, for instrument-board mounting, is priced at 137s. 0d.

It is not known how many were manufactured, but working examples of the Willis World Clock are hard to find today and can command high prices when they appear at auction.

At about the same time as he was manufacturing the World Clock, Willis wrote the Section III, The Climate of East Anglia, for A Scientific Survey of Norwich and District prepared for the Norwich meeting of the British Association in September 1935. This was a singular accolade since this highly prestigious scientific association had only once before, in 1868, met in Norwich. He begins his account by writing:

As the drive and energy of a people can now be shown largely dependent on their climate, the weather variations we experience become matters of vital concern.

The view that environmental factors, notably climate, are more important than individual decisions in the development of human societies and civilizations, is known as environmental determinism. In this, Willis was a follower of the American geographer, Ellsworth Huntington (1846-1947), whose book, Climate and Civilization, was influential at that time, although climatic factors had been used by Strabo, Plato, and Aristotle to explain why the ancient Greeks were so much more developed than societies in hotter and colder climates. Today, environmental determinism has been has been largely superseded by ideas which credit a larger role to human decisions in responding to the opportunities as well as the limitations of environment.

A Scientific Survey of Norwich and District
(Source: Climatic Research Unit, Norwich)

Whilst continuing with his meticulous daily weather observation, Willis was writing an account of the weather over a longer time span based upon his Norwich observations and which was eventually published in 1944 as Weatherwise.

The cover of ‘Weatherwise: England’s Weather Through The Past Thirty Years’
(Source: Climatic Research Unit, Norwich)

The review of Weatherwise in Issue 153 of the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, paid tribute to Willis’ amateur status:

JOHN H. WILLIS is a member of the band of amateur meteorologists who cooperate with the Meteorological Office in maintaining local records of weather according to a fixed plan day by day and year by year. The climatology of Great Britain owes much to their efforts, which are purely voluntary. It will easily be realized that to carry out such a self-imposed duty successfully, a man must be an ‘amateur’ in the literal sense of the term. Observations must be made in all weathers; they must take priority over personal convenience, they must be made punctually and they must be meticulously recorded… Here we may go further and say that the observer must have a real love of Nature, as expressed in the changes of weather. The daily reading of the instruments must not be merely a task to be done; it must be something which he loves to do, and which he approaches with a sense of adventure.

Shortly after the publication of Weatherwise, Willis was photographed in the home of his younger brother and sister-in-law at Aldeburgh, Suffolk. He is shown holding a copy of his book, and on the mantelpiece behind him there is an example of his World Clock, alongside a photograph of Agnes Currie C.B.E., Superintendent of the W.R.N.S. 1939-1945, and sister of Edgar Willis’ wife, Jenny Currie.

John Henry Willis in the sitting room of Edgar and Jenny Willis’ home at Aldeburgh c.1945
From left to right: John H. Willis; his elder sister, Mary Esther Colman Willis; his second sister, Edith Lucy Willis
(Source: Carey Pallister)

Of his later life, research in Norfolk has thus far yielded few clues, but he maintained his weather records meticulously until April 1960, and was a contributor to the Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society. In 1947 he wrote a lengthy account of the bitterly cold winter of that year.

John Henry Willis died on March 30, 1962 at the age of 88, still living at Southwell Lodge. The house was subsequently demolished, and the garden where he made his observations, monitored the appearance of snowdrops, daffodils, chestnut and beech branches was given over to development – it is now the site of City College Norwich. His observations illuminate a vital aspect of life in Norfolk during the First World War – the weather, and his writing acquaints us with some of the attitudes of the time to the war on the Western Front, less than 200 miles from Norwich. Here was a man who did not stray far from home, but as a meteorologist, naturalist, writer, and inventor, he may be accounted one of Norfolk’s finest.

As an aside to the above information

Jenny Currie, mentioned at the beginning of this piece was the great aunt of our British Columbia correspondent, Carey Pallister. Jenny Currie was born in Glasgow and during the First World War served as Secretary to Sir John Mann at the Ministry of Munitions, worked with YMCA in France, and operated the Forces library at Rouen. Carey has provided us with two photographs of Jenny working as a YMCA driver in France. Although Jenny was not from Norfolk, we would like to share the photographs as images of women at war from 1914 to 1918.

Jenny Currie, a driver for the YMCA, in France
(Source: Carey Pallister)

For more information on the role of the YMCA during the First World War, go to The Long, Long Trail website.

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