‘As it was seen from a tall chimney’, the 1858 eclipse

Total solar eclipse from Cape Tribulation, Queensland

Did you see the eclipse today (March 20th, 2015)? Or was it obscured by cloud?

In Victorian Birmingham, the eclipse of 1858 was observed through cloud and what we would now describe as ‘smog’. Smoke pollution, more often associated with the large factory towns of the North, was also a significant problem in Birmingham from early in the nineteenth century. It had been highlighted as a feature of the town by Mr. Pickwick (in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, serialised in 1836), describing the volumes of dense smoke issuing heavily forth from high toppling chimneys, blackening and obscuring everything around’. The town’s various authorities had taken some measures against the ‘nuisance’, introducing bye-laws and very occasional prosecutions of the most persistent perpetrators. But they seemed reluctant to interfere in local business and the pollution prevailed through much of the century.

The extract here is taken from a letter to the editor of The Birmingham Daily Post, of March 16th, 1858. The writer gives a vibrant representation of the eclipse as it was seen in the smoky skies of the town.

As it was seen from a tall chimney
To the Editor of the Daily Post

Sir,- you will doubtless duly report in yours of tomorrow, all the phenomena of the eclipse as seen from Heyford, for which purpose you left your Post for a few hours yesterday. Being in the country, of course, you saw all the “yellow tinges”, the “olive twilights”, the “descent of the sky”; …the closing of the horizon, the birds going to roost…”the flowers closing their petals”, as also noting the “waving lines of light and shade”, so graphically described in Saturday’s Journal. Now, surely, you will have no objection to publishing what was seen of the eclipse from a chimney-top in the centre of the “toy shop”.  Imagine, then, your correspondent, eager in the pursuit of knowledge and under the combined difficulties of a cloudy day and the combined smoke of 200 observatories, 200 evidences of wasteful carelessness…The scents of Cologne are without number, equally so are the colours belched forth from the lungs of the Steam Horses of Birmingham. 

The writer went on to explain that he had gone to look for evidence of the eclipse at 11:40 am, but that there was no sign of the ‘Old Sol’. He looked again at 12:35 pm, and this time did catch sight of a partially obscured sun before his view was obscured once more, perhaps partly as a result of the cloudy weather, but he continued:

It was evident that the light of the day was being interfered with by some extraordinary proceeding, and the diminution of light became sensibly greater until about one o’clock when it may be supposed that what was olive twilight at Heyford, in Birmingham became somewhat of a dirty pease soup colour, enveloping spires, factory chimneys and the dwellings of inhabitants, within a circle of some ten miles, with a strange, unearthly gleam. Just at the moment of greatest obscuration a couple of crows flew over the top of my observatory. Doubtless they will say they were labouring under a delusion, and were “going to roost”. Pigeons, however, and other domestic fowls, being up in astronomy, were not taken aback and indulged themselves in courting. 

The author, indulging the reader in some classic poetic verse, continues the  tale of the eclipse before relating some local revelry at the reappearance of ‘Old Sol’,

In mine ears still rings the joyous shout with which the great solar luminary was hailed by a group of factory boys, unjacketed and glad doubtless that their old friend of bright days and summer weather had got so well out of his difficulties.  Until thirty minutes to two o’clock the gradual disappearance of the shadow was very marked and increase of light was distinctly and palpably apparent. From this period all observation was at an end, owing to the clouds which obscured the whole horizon, rendering further observation impossible. 

The author signed off by suggesting that this may be the only account received by the newspaper from such a smoky locality as that from the top of a Tall Chimney.

Birmingham’s nineteenth-century newspapers are available by subscription through the British Newspaper Archives and also on the fourth floor of the Library of Birmingham FREE OF CHARGE. Please support our local archives, currently under threat of council cut-backs. 

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2 thoughts on “‘As it was seen from a tall chimney’, the 1858 eclipse

  1. Thanks for the interesting find. The eclipse seems to have been a let down over most of the country!

    It is hard to imagine what the atmosphere would have been like in those days, even remembering the pea soupers before smokeless

    Here is a link to a picture of Aston Hall taken by my late uncle in a fog during the 1960s….


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