“Something of the Climate”: Observing the Weather in Early Nineteenth-Century Madras

… as we have now been here 6 months you will expect to hear somthing [sic] of the Climate.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, January 23, 1802

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European travellers often wrote accounts of the weather and climate, and Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds were no exceptions. Throughout their letters, the sisters not only described the climate in passing, but also provided detailed descriptions of the year’s weather patterns. As George Adamson explains, keeping “weather diaries” became a popular pastime for the middle and upper classes in the early nineteenth century. This burgeoning interest in tracking climate and weather patterns was in part due to the growth of official monitoring and recording of meteorological data, which was linked to colonial settlement (Adamson 103).

In 1875, the centralized India Meteorological Department was established. However, weather monitoring had already been taking place in Madras (present-day Chennai) for over a century. In fact, as Richard Grove points out, meteorological observations were recorded in Madras earlier than they were in contemporary Europe, with eighteenth-century missionaries often recording data. In 1776, the Scottish surgeon, William Roxburgh, arrived in Madras, and he later became in charge of the East India Company’s botanic garden (Grove 128). While in India, Roxburgh kept a detailed meteorological diary, and he published his records in 1778 with the Royal Society. Roxburgh recorded his findings from Fort St. George. The Gwillims would later live a couple of miles from the Fort.

Close up of the coast near Madras with Fort St. George in the background, Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.78.

The manner in which I keep my meteorological observations is as follows: A thermometer without doors; a barometer and thermometer within doors; the barometer and thermometer within doors are kept close together, for the sake of correcting the barometer if required. I observe them three times a day, as per diary. I also set down the direction and strength of the wind, and the state of the weather. I distinguish four degrees of strength of the wind; namely, gentle, brisk, stormy, and what we call a tufoon [typhoon] in India, which you will find marked with the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4, besides no sensible wind, which is marked with a cypher.

William Roxburgh, “XII. A meteorological diary, &c. kept at Fort St. George in the East Indies,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 68 (December 31, 1778): 180.

William Roxburgh not only recorded the winds and temperature, but he also attempted to measure the rain. However, as he complained, the rain gauge he used was “so indifferent” during the rainy season that he had trouble measuring its quantity. Roxburgh went on to describe the various tools and thermometers he used to take measurements. Interestingly, Roxburgh noted that his portable barometer was made by Ramsden. Jesse Ramsden would become Mary Symonds’ father-in-law, although he pre-deceased her marriage to his son. While in India, the Gwillims also took note of the temperature, with both Elizabeth and Mary mentioning a thermometer in their letters on various occasions. Indeed, as Mary noted, during a particular hot spell, they, like Roxburgh, took the temperature in multiple places for the sake of comparison:

For many days the last hot season the thermometer was at an hundred and three in the siting [sic] rooms and at the same time it was 130 in a Tent.

Mary Symonds to her Mother, Esther Symonds, n.d

Roxburgh was not the only European to record and publish meteorological observations from Madras at that time. In 1801, another EIC officer, James Capper, published his observations and the measurements that he took while in Madras in the 1770s. Capper was particularly interested in the winds and monsoon system. Furthermore, in 1786, William Petrie, an officer in the East India Company (EIC), established the Madras Observatory. He first built a private observatory, and then donated his instruments to the government. The EIC then built the official structure in 1792 to “[promote] the knowledge of astronomy, geography and navigation in India.” While the main focus of the observatory was on astronomy, the occupants also took meteorological recordings. In 1794, John Goldingham was appointed as the second official astronomer of the observatory. He later published his meteorological register from the observatory covering the years 1796-1825 (Allan et al 1120).

“Length of Pendulum at Madras,” in John Goldingham, Madras Observatory Papers (1827).

Compared to other cities, Madras has much more historical weather data available due in large part to the observatory records. Indeed, thanks to records like these, Rob Allan et al were able to reconstruct the mean sea-level pressure during this time. As they argue, these records can help climatologists measure and study long-term climatic patterns and fluctuations (1119). Nonetheless, although Madras has rich quantitative data, it is certainly still beneficial to supplement this data with personal diaries and correspondence. As Adamson explains, personal accounts can be essential in helping to “extend the published meteorological record” (104). Indeed, qualitative accounts like Elizabeth and Mary’s letters can help to provide environmental historians with anecdotal details on Madras’ climate in the early nineteenth century and show how foreigners reacted to and recorded the unfamiliar climate surrounding them.

The months of Nov[ember] Dec[ember] & January are what is called here the … Monsoon, that is the rainy season.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, January 23, 1802

As Vinita Damodaran and Vikram Bhatt explain, Madras can typically be divided into four seasons each governed by the wind and pressure changes related to the Monsoon system. These seasons consist of a cool dry season from mid- December to mid-February; a hot, dry season from mid-February to May; a rainy season from June to September; and a rainy season from October to mid-December. Elizabeth and Mary’s letters can help environmental historians and climatologists to discern variabilities and consistencies in these weather patterns during the years in which the sisters resided in Madras. For instance, in 1802, Elizabeth explained that from January to March, the weather was rather cool, April and May were pleasant, and from June onward, the weather was extremely hot with “land winds.” From Elizabeth’s letters, the first half of 1802 would appear to be rather mild year in comparison to Madras’ typical climate. Certainly, as Damodaran and Bhatt point out, the Gwillims were “encountering the calm after the storm.” Approximately 600,000 people had died in Madras from a devastating El Niño that occurred from 1783-1793, causing severe storms, droughts, and famine.

We have had the most severe season ever remembered & have as yet had no rains we expect the Monsoon to set in very soon. The heat of June July & August was excessive…

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, September 14, 1802

From Elizabeth’s letter, we know that the summer of 1802 was hotter than 1801. She records that the heat lasted during the monsoon period as well. As Damodaran and Bhatt point out, there was another period of drought between 1802-1804. As such, it is significant that Elizabeth wrote in March 1804 that there were only ten “hard days” of rain from November 1801 to April 1803, and one light shower. From April 1803 onwards, however, there was “seldom a week without rain.” While Elizabeth complained of the excessive rain, both she and her sister were aware of its importance in planting crops, noting it was considered “a season of plenty.”

During Seventeen months of the time I have been in India that is from the end of Nov: 1802 1801 till about April 1803 – we saw only 10 hard days of Monsoon rain & one shower in the intervening spring & that was to me the pleasantest year we have had. It was the coolest summer & the country was quite verdant ’till just before the Monsoon – since that time we have seldom been a week without rain & the monsoon lasted three months – The torrents of rain which have fallen are astonishing – one shou’d have supposed all this wou’d have cooled the earth, but on the contrary the heat has been insupportable – The two former winter seasons we were glad to shut the doors of a night & put a blanket on the bed but this year the thermometer has never been below 82 – which as far as I remember must be as hot as you ever feel it in England. – The Natives are much pleased with the season for it is a season of plenty. Rain is their wealth & their Glory.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds March 7, 1804

Through the sisters’ letters, we also know that the summer of 1804 was hotter than the previous years, with Elizabeth noting the severity of the heat:

… we have had a very severe season the heat has been beyond anything I had before felt & I may say I did not know India ‘till this season.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds August 12, 1804

However, as we learn from Mary’s letter to her mother in February 1805, the following rainy season ended up being “a remarkably pleasant season & the weather much cooler during the last two months than I have ever felt it in India.” The sisters would comment upon this “extraordinary season” on multiple occasions. As Elizabeth wrote:

The season has been so mild that the oldest inhabitant remembers nothing like it, We have had rain every evening & this hot season as we call it has been much cooler than any part of the preceeding [sic] year.

Elizabeth to Mother, no date; received in England February 28, 1806

Indeed, the temperate weather would continue throughout the year:

It has been the most extraordinary season ever remembered, we have had showers every evening; & we have had few days that were at all oppressive.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, August 24, 1805

Last year that is the summer of 1805 – was one of the most extraordinary seasons remembered here by the oldest Indians – We had continual rains & the air was so temperate all the summer months that we had as it were, three winters in succession.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, September/October 1806

As Elizabeth wrote in the fall of 1806 to her sister Hester, the winter season had been delightful to them, and they often rejoiced about it and “wrote to [their sister] upon this head frequently.” However, as Elizabeth also wrote, the summer of 1806 “passed four months of the most severe weather I ever experienced in India” with the land winds blowing with “unremitting fury.” The weather often affected Elizabeth’s health, and these winds aggravated her.

While Elizabeth and Mary may not have recorded daily weather measurements like the EIC and observatory officials, they were keen observers of their surroundings, and their reflections on the weather and climate were more than passing thoughts. Certainly, Elizabeth took measured observations, as seen with her comparisons of the Indian and English climates. Indeed, Mary and Elizabeth’s letters can be read in the context of the growing interest in weather monitoring in the early nineteenth-century.

I have heard it remarked by some people that the climate of Madras, that is of this part of the Coast, is generally very much the same as that of England, allowing for the different degrees of cold & heat – what is asserted is that we have, proportionally a cold or a hot, a wet or a dry season, as you have & they are at the same times of the year I have taken great pains to observe whether or not this observations be just, & generally I have found, by comparing your accounts with what we have felt, that this is a correct notion.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, September/October 1806

For more information: Vikram Bhatt and Vinita Damodaran, “Mosques, Gopurams, Varied Waters and Stormy Seas: Built and Natural Environments of Early Nineteenth Century Madras,” in Women, Environment and Networks of Empire, Anna Winterbottom, Victoria Dickenson, Lauren Williams and Ben Cartwright, Eds., (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming).


By Carleigh Nicholls