November 27th 2022: an unlikely gathering took place in Lordship Rec, a park in Tottenham, North London, organised by the wonderful group of people who are Tottenham Clouds. 

Luke Howard

About thirty people had joined to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of a quiet man who left a mighty legacy: Luke Howard. He was a pharmacist, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century meant someone who worked in the field of chemical experimentation, not just doling out medicines – though he did that as well. But his passion, from childhood, was observing the weather. Most especially, clouds.

His paper, On The Modification Of Clouds, was read out to a small scientific group one evening in 1802 – as a member of the Askesian Society, he had to produce a paper or pay a fine.  

Amazingly, the impact of that paper resonates still. The names he chose, Cumulus, Cirrus, Stratus and Nimbus are still the basis of cloud naming. He is recognised as the father of meteorology. He was also the only Englishman that Goethe called ‘Master’ – but that’s a digression.

On the day we gathered, the sky was dense with those endless dense white-grey clouds that seem to blot out everything. In his words: 

I relish his scolarly description of a skyscape which is basically a huge mash up of every kind of cloud there is cumulus, cirrus, stratus with nimbus thrown in just in case. There was a lot of pluviam about to effundens that afternoon, but the six of us in the photograph were more intrigued by totting up the greats: if Luke Howard is my great x 3 grandfather, and your great x 4 grandfather, what kind of cousin are we? 

Cousins and descendants – (I’m second left)

 Distant, is the only answer to that.

I wasn’t there because Luke Howard is my many greats grandfather – genes too diluted to claim any honour – but because he is a man I have come to know well. In the story I’ve been researching of Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) and his decades-long love for his cousin Sarah Godlee (1798-1866 also) Luke Howard plays a more than walk-on part. He was a luminous figure in the Quaker firmament of the early nineteenth century, but he was also a neighbour and mentor to Thomas and his brother John when they were boys. Thomas’s brother John married Luke Howard’s daughter, Elizabeth. Their stories were interwoven all through.

Elizabeth’s correspondence with her deeply unhappy younger sister Rachel gave me my first window into the world of those Quaker women born at the turn of the century. Elizabeth was someone with a gift for happiness, as her less fortunate sister knew. Elizabeth’s death at the age of 33 was one of those tragedies whose consequences ripple out beyond her own circle for decades to come. 

Elizabeth was thought to have a face too child-like for real beauty, but she had a gift for happiness

The best known image of Luke Howard shows an alert man with a far seeing gaze, appropriate for someone who spent so much of his life looking up at the sky. When he was sitting for his portrait at ‘Glovers’, Elizabeth reported :

‘It is undoubtedly now a very good likeness, but taken, we must allow, in a moment of animation which is not our dear father’s usual mood. Fancy him just roused up by some remark which takes his attention and pleases him and saying “Now, Robert, what is that? Let me hear that again?” and thou wilt have it just.’

Elizabeth used the old-fashioned ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, as did all Quakers at that time. Plain speech was important to them. But the note of asperity – ‘animation is not our dear father’s usual mood’ – speaks volumes. 

My favourite image of him, however, was sketched by Elizabeth’s eldest son, Eliot. He was seven when she died. The following summer he and his siblings went to stay with their grandparents, Luke and his wife Mariabella, at their home in Ackworth, Yorkshire. Now in semi retirement, Luke Howard was devoting his energy equally to meteorology and farming, and the children enjoyed the animals and activity. Eliot wrote – in French; they were a family that expected a lot of their children – to his father still in London recording his delight in being allowed to chop down a small tree. Note the very clearly marked wedge where the axe must fall. And is that his jacket lying on the ground behind him? Eliot continued to decorate his letters with cartoons all his life. 

 Presumably the two little girls on the left are his younger sisters, and the woman with them either their governess or their aunt. Is the second person with the stick behind their grandfather his old coachman? Luke Howard wears a top hat to observe the chopping of the tree. Maybe he was already moving away from the traditional Quaker dress for men. He was on the verge of leaving Quakers in the upheaval which was tearing the movement apart – the Beaconite controversy. Whatever tensions and unhappiness surrounded the family – and Eliot’s little brother Thomas is conspicuously absent, most probably in trouble for quarrelling – Eliot looks to be enjoying his moment of action.