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Tavistock’s Nineteenth Century Weather Records

Visitors to Tavistock Museum enter through the ground floor of Court Gate cottage, which used to be the librarian’s accommodation for the Tavistock Subscription Library. The main display areas for the museum are now housed upstairs in the rooms over the old Gatehouse to Tavistock Abbey, known as Court Gate. From 1832 to 1964, these rooms were the reading room and library room (still with the original fitted bookshelves) of the Tavistock Subscription Library. The library had moved in 1831 to the Court Gate accommodation, provided by the 6th Duke of Bedford, John Russell. The library rooms were then connected through a door from the reading room to the adjoining living accommodation of the librarian.

William Merrifield took up the librarian’s post in 1841, and lived in the cottage until his retirement in 1871. Besides being a librarian and teacher William Merrifield was also an accomplished photographer of Tavistock people and events. In 1859 he acquired a camera which took pairs of images which appeared three dimensional when seen through a stereoscopic viewer. He made a collection of these images for members of the subscription library to borrow.

During the thirty years that he occupied Court Gate cottage, with his wife Ann, their five sons, a daughter and a lodger, he was interested in meteorology and collected weather records. These included temperature, pressure, wind direction, rainfall and general weather observations. The hand written records in their ledgers are now on display in the library room of Tavistock museum.

Traces of William Merrifield’s early weather recording instruments can be seen in the library room of the Tavistock museum, and include a rain gauge beside the window and a compass dial on the ceiling. The compass is connected by a rod to the weather vane, set above the crown of the roof to avoid turbulence from the surrounding buildings. It still responds to the wind direction. The rainfall gauge, however, may have been inaccurate, due to its location. The temperature recordings may also have been affected by the surrounding buildings.

In 1889 Mr Westington was the librarian and responsible for the daily weather records. A letter appeared in the Tavistock Gazette on January 16th of that year, from Mr Williams, the local medical officer. Mr Williams pointed out that the library rain gauge always underestimated the actual annual rainfall for Tavistock by five to ten inches per year, due to its height and position in relation to the surrounding buildings. The exact location of the rain gauge funnel at that time is not known, but was described as being twenty feet above the ground.

Mr Williams compared the readings between 1885 to 1888 collected by the Tavistock Subscription Library with the rainfall estimated by Mr Gibson at the Devon and Cornwall Bank then at 8 West Street. Mr Williams suggested that the Tavistock Subscription Library rain gauge should be relocated to the area in front of the then police station, so that accurate records could be obtained. Mr Williams also went on to point out that the recorded temperatures would be affected by radiation and the lead on the roofs of the surrounding buildings. He concluded that the records, which had been collected twice daily by the librarians, were in fact inaccurate. However, the librarian, Mr Westington and his successor from 1895, a Mr John Quick, continued to collect the weather records until 1920.

In the Nineteenth century meteorology was a relatively new science of great interest to ship owners. The weather vane and rain gauge on the Court Gate building were installed when the new roof was completed by Foulston in the late 1820s. Weather recording was just being set up at that time, and the limitations of the location of recording instruments was not well understood.

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