Ken Woodhams

Elaine Evans interviews - Ken Woodhams

Hove's weather recorder

Mr Smith eats a cooked breakfast, puts on his bowler hat and sets off to the office. At the bus-stop, if he speaks to anyone at all, he will comment on the weather. 'A bit better than yesterday, eh?' This is a foreign student's stereotypical idea of an Englishman. Well, the cooked breakfast is almost an endangered species, likewise the bowler hat, but it is fair to say that the weather is still the most useful gambit in acknowledging a stranger and almost de rigueur if passing an acquaintance in the street.

Only last week a regular visitor from Belgrade said to me, "I can see why the English talk about the weather - it's so changeable." How often do you hear people say, "I didn't know what to put on today" when it's an "all four seasons" sort of day. To regular readers of the Argus, the name Ken Woodhams became familiar over the decades for his regular weather reports, so he most definitely qualifies as a Hove resident of note. We met in his comfortable Avondale Road home, where he has lived all his life and his parents before him. How did he become interested in weather recording? Ken was educated privately at Taunton House School (in the Preston Park area but no longer in existence). The school had a weather station and it all started there.

Ken's first complete records date from 1953. In the early 50s the Hove weatherman was Guy Michell. He only recorded rainfall but when he could no longer get into the garden due to his age, Ken took over and "volunteered to the Evening Argus, as it was then called, to provide them with weather reports."

He would send a report of the temperatures and rainfall every month and also provided information over the telephone as and when requested. For example, if there had been a heavy downpour in the night, the phone would ring: "How much rain did we have last night, Ken?" and it would duly appear in the newspaper. This happy state of affairs continued unbroken for more than 50 years – what a record! – until May 05 when Ken received a letter saying that due to the need to make savings, they no longer required his services. No more daily phone calls from the Argus to get the 9am temperature.

I am sure that many people regret the axing of this interesting service to the community. To my mind his expenses were modest when weighed against his dedicated record-keeping, day after day, year in, year out. I am pleased that the Argus's decision did not put Ken off. He still maintains his records and continues to supply them, as always, on a voluntary basis to Hove Library and to the Brighton Local History Centre. No wonder he merited an entry in Judy Middleton's Encyclopaedia of Hove & Portslade (vol. 15).

The recording instruments are housed inside a Stevenson's Screen in his garden. The air passes through a louvred screen to give a shade temperature, which is automatically recorded by a radio-controlled device indoors, together with humidity, barometric pressure, date and time. Ken takes his figures from this. What happens when Ken goes on holiday? He has a thermograph which he can set to record the temperature for up to a week, and if it is wet, his daughter steps into the breach and takes the rainfall reading. Surely Ken must occasionally want to go away for more than a week, I asked. The answer was not very often, but a young man helped on these rare instances.

Ken showed me the combined weather chart for the current month, which has graphs for minimum and maximum temperatures, plus a long-term average temperature as a comparison. Have you ever given any thought to the phrase "the seasonal average"? How does the Met Office arrive at these figures? Ken tells me that they are based on the recordings from 1971 to 2000, and he uses the same system.

At the time of my visit it was a grey, showery day in March and his recording device showed an unsurprising 98% for humidity. What sort of humidity would there be on a boiling hot summer's day when everything seemed as dry as a bone? Ken referred to past records. As an example, on a day with an air temperature of 84°F (29°C) the humidity was a surprising 65%. I really hadn't expected so much moisture in the air.

To get the rainfall recording, Ken goes into the garden to check a copper cylinder set in the middle of the lawn. It has to be well away from walls and to be double-skinned to prevent evaporation. He removes the glass bottle and carefully measures the contents with more equipment kept indoors.

Coincidentally I read only yesterday that Michael Fish is still touchy if anyone mentions his cheerful dismissal in 1987 that a hurricane was on the way for Southern England. Had Ken expected it? He did notice a sharp drop in the barometer which happens with gales along the Channel, so it didn't give him any particular cause for alarm. He feels rather sorry for Michael Fish because "the weather is so fickle" that it doesn't always turn out as forecast.

I remarked on the stability in Ken's life – having lived in the same house all his life and steadfastly recording the weather for more than 50 years. He added that he had worked for Cornhill Insurance in the Claims Department in Brighton for 49 years until retirement, had sung in church choirs since being demobbed in 1947, latterly for 30 years at St George's, Kemp Town, where he is also a lay reader. We must not forget his wife June, whom he married in 1949. Ken said that some people might say that he was a stick-in-the-mud but I would say that here is a contented man, happy with his house, his wife, his job, his hobby. Not many people have such consistency in their lives. May you long keep your recordings going, Ken!

Mini Questionnaire

13 June 1923, in Hove

What do you like about your house?
Spacious, centrally situated

Where would you take a first time visitor to Hove?
Hove seafront

Favourite restaurants?
The Saltdean Carvery; The Rose & Crown, Fletching

Favourite musician:
Amadeus Mozart

Ideal holiday:

What do you consider your most satisfying achievement in life so far?
Being licensed Lay Reader for past 40 years (in C. of E.)>Any future ambitions/desires?
Continuation of above as long as I am capable!