Luke Howard (1772 – 1864), Namer of Clouds

Portrait of Luke Howard by John Opie (Royal Meteorological Society)

All over the world, people talk about the weather. It not only affects all our daily lives but also colours our different languages. Through phrases and metaphors, we connect the weather with our moods and emotions, good fortune or bad luck or the description of personalities. For some perhaps there is ‘a cloud on the horizon’. For others ‘every cloud has a silver lining’.

For just over 200 years there has been a scientific language to describe the weather. Even the different shapes of clouds have a name. It was a very special Tottenham resident that we have to thank for this. On the 153rd anniversary of his death, we remember his story.

Early Days

Luke Howard was born in Red Cross Street, London on 28 November 1772. He went to a school run by a ‘Friend’ or Quaker near Oxford.

As a schoolboy, Luke was fascinated by the sky, clouds and the weather. One of his recollections was seeing the ‘Aurora Borealis’ in the skies. This was a rare sighting in this country of what is known as the Northern Lights. He also remembered the ‘great haze of 1783’, an event when the sun was hidden for weeks because of volcanic eruptions in Iceland. On 18 August 1783, Luke even witnessed the ‘Great Meteor’, a spectacular comet.

On regular journeys by horse and carriage to and from work, Luke Howard had time to muse on the nature and different shapes of the clouds.

He presented his first paper about the naming and classing of clouds to the Askesian Society in 1802 and it was published the following year. This paper was included in the first volume of his masterpiece The Climate of London.

Luke’s observations gave three basic classifications of cloud: Cirrus, Cumulus and Stratus, as well as names for identifying distinct cloud shapes and combinations, such as Cirro-cumulus and Cumulo-stratus.

This list was the first generally accepted system of cloud classification. Luke described how the clouds moved between these different ‘Modifications’. He was able to connect their appearance and behaviour to a range of weather conditions.

This basic system is still in use today.

Clouds and Rain over Water c.1820-40 by Joseph Mallord William Turner (Tate Collection). Howards work had a considerable influence on the arts and literature in Europe of the time.

The Weather in Tottenham

Luke moved with his young family of six children to Tottenham in 1813 to be near his mother who lived in Bruce Grove. Tottenham at this time was a fashionable out-of-town residential area. The magnificent row of Georgian houses in Bruce Grove had been built and owned by Quaker families in the area.

The Howard family lived in a new house near Tottenham Green built in 1810 by another local Quaker, William Forster. It was at this house that Luke studied the weather in his garden.

Most days Luke travelled into London on business or Friends’ work. In his absence Mariabella helped to record the weather conditions, reading the weather instruments set up by Luke in the garden.

The Howards had a daily pattern for recording their observations. All readings were recorded and entered into a log. From the Climate of London we can find out for the middle of January 1814 that the weather that winter was particularly cold. The River Lea was solid ice and the Thames was frozen too:

“First M.13. Much wind last night; very fine day; cumulus and cirrostratus. 14. Somewhat cloudy a.m. 15. overcast with cirrostratus light breeze. There being no evaporation today, the surface of the snow is a little warmer than the air. 16 Overcast, a slight thaw, from the warmth of the earth, at evening snow and frost again. 17. A clear day: Cirrus and Cirrostratus in the evening with a low Nimbus or two forming ….”

The diligent work of both Luke and Mariabella was produced over a number of years as the Climate of London. It was first published in 1818 and again in 1833.

Bruce Grove, 1893 (Bruce Castle Museum, Haringey Archive and Museum Service)
Bruce Grove, 1893 (Bruce Castle Museum, Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

Charity and Campaigning

Luke Howard was a member of the Tottenham Meeting before the family had actually moved to Tottenham. He was acknowledged as a minister of the Meeting in 1815. As well as holding offices amongst the Friends’ various Meetings, he also attended the Tottenham Vestry and was elected Overseer of the Poor within the Parish of Tottenham in 1820.

As a Quaker, Luke was committed to many campaigns and philanthropic causes. Amongst these was his work within the Anti-Slavery Movement. He was a prominent member of the Society Against Capital Punishment and the Society Against Cruelty to Animals, as well as being on the Committee of the Lancasterian School in Tottenham and on the Committee to help the Greeks in their War of Independence.

Following the 1807 Abolition Act of the British Slave Trade, the Quakers’ interest in the anti-slavery cause moved on. With his business partner William Allen, Luke was amongst the founding members of the African Institution. This group wanted to remedy the terrible effects slavery had produced. It recognised slavery had destroyed the whole basis of African society. The Institution sought to improve the lives of African people both with Christianity and education.

After the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), Luke Howard organised a collection of over £1.25 million to distribute to the poor and needy in Eastern Europe. This was an enormous sum of money at the time – the equivalent of many hundreds of millions in today’s terms. Accompanied by Josiah Forster, Luke personally took the money to help the people of Germany who were suffering appalling poverty and famine. In 1816 in honour of his services to the German people, Luke received a diamond ring from the King of Prussia and Meissen vases from the King of Saxony.

The Namer of Clouds Lived and Died Here

When Luke’s wife Mariabella died in 1852, Luke went to live with his eldest son Robert. They resided at number 7 Bruce Grove. Other family members lived nearby, including John Eliot Howard at ‘Lordsmeade’.

Luke Howard died on 21 March, 1864 and is buried with his wife in the Quakers’ Burial Ground at Winchmore Hill.

Luke Howard’s descendants went on to live in Tottenham for the remainder of the 19th century. They continued Luke’s traditions of charitable works and running the family business.

Plaque at 7 Bruce Grove

In April 2002 Luke Howard was remembered again in Tottenham as the Father of Meteorology when an English Heritage Blue Plaque was dedicated in his honour at his former home, number 7 Bruce Grove. The plaque was unveiled by the BBC weather broadcaster Michael Fish who said:

"Weather forecasters use the terms everyday. We are eternally grateful that Luke Howard came up with such an easy and straightforward way of naming the clouds."


[This text was adapted from a 2010 exhibition on Luke Howard at Bruce Castle Museum, curated by Deborah Hedgecock]


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