G.J.Symons - The father of British Rainfall

An affable young man from Pimlico strolled into Cavendish Square on 25th March 1856, rang the bell of what appeared to be a private house, and was ushered into a small sitting-room where about a dozen gentlemen were seated around a large table.

The young man was George James Symons, barely 17 years old, and the meeting was of the British (now the Royal) Meteorological Society which had been formed six years before. This was the meeting at which the precocious Symons was elected a Fellow of the Society - a Society which he was to serve as council member for 37 years, as Secretary for 24 years, and as President twice, in 1880-81 and in its golden jubilee year in 1900. Sadly, he suffered a stroke in February 1900, died four weeks later, and was present only in spirit at the suitably muted jubilee celebration.

Symons had shown a keen interest in the natural world from a very early age, and as a boy kept a detailed weather diary. His scientific studies coalesced around meteorology, he read several papers on thunderstorms to the Society while still a teenager, and he finally gained employment under Admiral Robert FitzRoy at the newly formed Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade (the embryonic Met Office) in 1860.

Symons's interest in thunderstorms spilled over into a more general interest in the measurement of rain. When he came to look at what information was available, he was immediately struck by the lack or uniformity - in instrumentation, in the siting of gauges, and in observational practice. He took his concerns to FitzRoy, but the admiral was not much bothered about rainfall and he firmly discouraged the young Symons from pursuing his new interest during office hours. Symons was not so easily diverted, however, so he used his spare time instead, and roped in his mother as his chief assistant.

During 1860 and 1861 he wrote to all the rainfall observers he was aware of round the country informing them that he had begun the "Herculean labour of collecting the published and unpublished results" of all those observers prepared to contribute. His first volume - nothing more than a slim pamphlet, really - was entitled English Rainfall and contained the records from 168 observers, but as more and more data rolled in he republished the 1860 records along with those for 1861 under the title British Rainfall, beginning a series of annual volumes which continued until 1991.

The extended 1860 tables contained 424 records; there were 1500 by 1870, 2100 in 1880, 2800 in 1890, and by the time of Symons's death in 1900 the network of observers was 3500 strong. Thus came George James Symons to be known as the father of British rainfall.

In the spring of 2009, the BBC showed a television programme, called simply "Rain", in which I took part. During the course of filming the previous autumn, it had emerged that Symons's grave had become neglected and overgrown. At its Council meeting in April 2009 senior Fellows of the Royal Meteorological Society vowed unanimously to refurbish and rededicate the grave in Kensal Green Cemetery, helped by a kind and generous donation of slate by Mark Weir, the owner of Honister Slate Mine (one of the wettest places in England) in Cumbria.

The year 2010 was entirely appropriate for such an event, marking as it does the 150th anniversary of Symons's creation of the British Rainfall Organization, and in a nice touch the Society decided that the rededication ceremony should take place on St Swithin's Day - July 15.

© Philip Eden