Without work carried out many years ago in a garden in north Hampshire, meteorologists today would find it much harder to justify their claims of climate change, writes Barry Shurlock…


KEY devices for recording weather used throughout the world owe their designs to the efforts more than 150 years ago of a Hampshire clergyman. When meteorology was becoming a science, the Rev. Charles Higman Griffith, rector of Stratfield Turgis, studied 42 different designs of rain gauges and 10 different thermometer screens in his garden.

Amassing huge amounts of data, he showed that rainfall was most reliably recorded with the ‘Snowdon five-inch copper rain-gauge’, named after the mountain, which became the standard device for recording rainfall.

Similarly, for recording air temperatures, the work of Griffiths and others showed that the louvred Stevenson screen – a familiar feature at all weather stations, invented by the father of the writer Robert Louis – was ‘better adapted than any of the other stands.’

Hampshire Chronicle:

Griffith is virtually unknown by the general public, though his work is well recognized around the world. In a recent paper in the International Journal of Meteorology on ‘wetter winters and drier summers’ the authors acknowledged ‘the pioneering work of George J. Symons and Charles Higman Griffith who, in the 1860s, led the standardization of rain gauge design’.

It was Symons who initiated moves to record rainfall more accurately. In the early years of the ‘meteorological department’ of the Board of Trade, founded in 1854, he had joined Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy – famed as the captain of HMS Beagle, with Darwin aboard.

Hampshire Chronicle:

But whereas the admiral was mainly interested in forecasting weather for mariners, Symons wanted to respond to national fears of water shortages. Years of drought in the 1850s had sparked government concerns that there would be insufficient water to supply the burgeoning towns and cities of industrial England.

Symons therefore left the nascent Met Office and set up the British Rainfall Organisation (BRO). In the 1860s, in order to decide how best to record weather, he recruited some 150 recorders throughout the country, including Griffith, who became one of his star performers.

The recorders’ task was at exactly 9 am every day to measure the volume of rain that had fallen in the previous 24 hours. For the trials of screens for measuring air temperature the requirements were more exacting – it had to be recorded three times a day, at exactly 9 am, 3 pm and 9 pm, plus the maximum and minimum values of the day.

In 1874, largely due to Griffith’s work, the Board of Trade adopted the Stevenson screen as standard and a year later the BRO did the same for the Snowdon rain gauge.

Although since then there have been some minor changes in the construction of both, they have given ‘climate researchers …a wealth of relatively consistent long-period temperature and rainfall measurements from around the world’, according to Dr Stephen Burt, who is a visiting Fellow in the Department of Meteorology, University of Reading and a member of the British Standards Institute committee that oversees methods of recording rainfall.

Hampshire Chronicle:

In an article in Weather (May 2013), published by the Royal Meteorological Society he dubbed Griffith ‘an unsung hero of meteorology’.

His interest started more than 40 years ago when he worked in the Rainfall Branch of the Met Office. Later he moved to a house in Stratfield Mortimer – just over the Hampshire-Berkshire border and scarcely three miles from Stratfield Turgis – and sought out the rectory and garden where Griffith’s had set out his experiments. He was delighted to find that both are still there, albeit in private hands.

Commenting on the state of weather recording in the 1860s, he said: ‘At that time no one had any idea how best to measure rainfall – whether to measure it on the roof, or at ground level – in a square gauge or a round one, a white one or whatever. And there was also a weird and wonderful range of thermometer screens!

‘The pioneering work of Griffith settled much of this and is still reflected around the world, with tens of thousands of Stevenson screens and millions of Snowdon rain gauges, five inches in diameter, with a deep funnel and an accurately turned rim. They owe their design to the work of a Hampshire rector 150 years ago – today it might take a huge organisation and millions of pounds to do the same!’

The long-term data from the work of Griffith and others has shown that, despite the fears that followed drought in the 1850s, there has in the south of England been little change in annual rainfall, though drier summers are following wetter winters. In contrast, in the north of Scotland, annual rainfall has risen considerably.

Looking back, Dr Burt said that the 1860s and 1870s were very wet, then from 1890-1910 rainfall was below average, with wet periods again in the 1930s-40s and the 1960s. He explained that some aspects of meteorology have a very long history: rainfall data for Oxford run from 1767, while the ‘tipping bucket’ rain gauge, widely used for automated measurements, was invented before 1663.

Hampshire Chronicle:

The most challenging part of Griffith’s work was probably the trial of the screens, which was only completed in 1880, though by 1874 the Board of Trade had already chosen the Stevenson design. It involved a vast amount of data that even today might be hard to handle and was funded by a grant of £45 (about £6,000 today) from the Royal Society.

Although Griffith is well documented in the meteorological literature and his original records are held in Exeter in the Met Office archives, there is still one mystery that is puzzling: how exactly did he manage to record the data all at the same time for 42 different rain-gauges and later with 10 different thermometer screens three times a day?

A likely answer was given to Dr Burt by Stratfield Mortimer’s local historians, who suggested that Griffith might have run a boarding school, which would have provided him with helpers! He was certainly well educated himself, at Charterhouse School and possibly St John’s College, Cambridge (though the record is unclear). 

The idea of ‘pupil power’ is supported by the fact that census returns and parish records show that, indeed, ‘a boarding and tutorial establishment’ had been run at the rectory. Its pupils and Griffith’s five children could therefore have provided the means to run round 42 rain gauges at 9 am, and record air temperatures at three set times.

Although Griffith is well recognized by meteorologists, his work is virtually unknown to others. This may be because, in the words of an obituary notice by Symons, ‘he was a worker rather than a writer’. Certainly, his major work on screens when it appeared in print in 1880 had been written by another meteorologist, Frederic Gaster.  If Griffith, who was also a talented naturalist, had been more forthcoming with his pen he might now, as Symons suggested, be talked of in the same breath as Gilbert White.

He did in fact write one book, A History of Strathfield Saye, published in 1892 (yes, that’s how they spelt it). But it was little more than ‘vanity publishing’, prepared under the ‘personal direction and supervision of Evelyn, wife of the 2nd Duke of Wellington’, the patron of his living. It was published in London by John Murray, no doubt for a fee.

Essentially, it was little more than a compilation of a details from standard works and an opportunity to showcase Stratfield Saye House, the gift of the nation to the hero of Waterloo.

Griffith continued to record weather until a week before his death in 1896. And his wife Hannah kept up the work until 1904, when she finally gave up a routine that her husband had established 42 years before.

Sadly, he may never be fully recognized for his work on the Snowdon rain-gauge, which has long been the mainstay of rainfall recording throughout the world, especially as automation with other devices is taking over from a rector and pupils scurrying round a Hampshire garden.

For more on Hampshire, visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk and www.hantsfieldclub.org.uk.