When you think of Cornwall, it’s unlikely that aurora comes to mind. Its low latitude and often cloudy skies lends to it being a unlikely place to spend your evenings aurora watching. But a reconstruction of aurora sighting in the county over the last 200 years show more aurora than expected. Below is one of the more recent aurora’s photographed Chris Small in Bude.
Cornwall isn’t a county well known for its aurora viewing. Its low latitude, and penchant for the cloud all go against it as an aurora viewing location. So whenever a Cornish sighting is reported many will exclaim that they never knew the aurora could be observed here expecting at least you would have to travel to Scotland and beyond.
Auroras in Cornwall are an unusual event, so when three auroras occurred in 2015 in Cornwall and one known one in the previous year they were widely reported in the local newspapers. This made me question did aurora’s get reported in the past and if so how regularly and in what manner where they recorded. As there are no other local records giving a comprehensive amount of aurora sightings, newspapers reports give a good insight even if in a non scientific way. So looking back through the newspaper records is one way of seeing the frequency of the aurora in Cornwall but also a wonderful insight into how these lights have been reported over the years.
The first newspaper to be published in Cornwall was the Royal Cornwall Gazette which was published from 1801, so the search starts in 1801 and continues until around 1950. It did not take too long for the first mention of an aurora to happen. It was in the 1804 Gazette edition published on Saturday October 27th. Here it is in full
“The phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, (or Northern lights) whose appearance in this southern extremity of the kingdom is much less frequent than in it more northern parts, displayed its beauties on Monday night last to the inhabitants of this county. It made its appearance about the end of twilight, when the sky was quite clear and serene, in columns of clear light, issuing at first from a common centre, and shooting up from the horizon eastward. At twenty-five minutes after seven o’clock, one of the columns or luminous rays , had passed the Zenith, emitting in the northern sky numerous coruscations and gradually extending itself into the western horizon. Nearly at the same time, there broke out in the south-east, where before it has the appearance of a very dense black cloud, or nebulae, consisting of small clouds brilliantly illuminated and disappearing as instantaneously as the eye could catch them. On the northern limb of the western column, garnet- coloured flashes, without intermission, darted upwards from the horizon, diffusion their colour along white beams, nearly at times to the Zenith. Those appearances continued for nearly two hours, when the rays became less luminous, much broader and more dispersed, till they gradually disappeared. The weather on the two following days was serene and mild”.
It is quite a description and must have been quite a display for anyone whom had the chance to see it. Not all displays were reported in such manner though for instance the next reported display was not until 1837 where the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported a crimson hue being seen of the coast of St Ives to the North. Saying that the general appearance was both “awful as well as beautiful and grand in the extreme”. The paper returns to this display in a later issue, trying to comfort its readers saying that it had been widely reported by scientists that the aurora was most possibly due to the reflection of the red atmosphere of Mars!
As you can see there is a large reporting gap for aurora for Cornwall, with no sighting in Cornwall reported between 1804 and 1837. The Gazette during this time was still mentioning the aurora as it was sighted in other areas for instance in 1836 an extremely large display seen in London was reported. Maybe Cornwall had had a particularly cloudy time, as I said this isn’t an exact science. Even if people had reported to the paper sightings they may not have been passed onto the readers.
I would have expected sightings to have become less as there was the advancement of street lamps within the county. Even though Cornwall was home to William Murdock and the first domestic gas light in 1792, with places like Penzance introducing street lamps during the 1830’s it must be said though that there would have been little light pollution in the country at this time. In fact due to its ruralness much of the country retains dark skies to this date and is optimally a great place to view the aurora. Curiously there where no aurora sightings reported during the first and second world wars. Infact aurora reporting seems to have slowed down after 1910 with only 3 reported sightings two occurring in the late 1930’s and one in 1947.
As expected many years have no aurora sightings. And most aurora sightings happen just one or two per year. But a couple of years have far more. For instance 1859 having 5 separate reporting’s, following on from 2 late year sightings in 1858.
While 1870 stands out as having a total of 7 separate dates where sightings are reported.
Here is the list
Aurora in Cornwall or the “hairy borlus” – Cornishman 11th dec 1890
1804 sat oct 27th made an appearance on the Monday night 22nd October – detailed description of a clear display
1837 fri 7th April royal Cornwall gazette 18th feb sightings – linked it to the reflection of the red atmosphere of Mars
1841 fri 28th may royal Cornwall gazette – a meteor and a aurora seen on the 26th May by a solicitor in Truro called Mr Hockin
1841 Friday 4th June observed in Penzance – letter may 29th 1841 – saw with a massive storm
1843 fri 12th may royal Cornwall gazette – seen on Saturday night last 6th may a fine appearance.
1844 Fri 13th Dec royal cornwall gazette late Monday night an appearance of the aurora
1847 26th march fri royal Cornwall gazette a lovely description of truro sighting from previous Friday evening – by a man on horseback . The following article is about a wizard!!
1847 24th Dec royal Cornwall gazette – on Sunday night there was a splendid display
1849 2nd march royal cornwall gazette – aurora spotted on Thursday evening from 7pm.
1852 Friday 27th feb a large and brilliant aurora last Thursday night
1852 19th march fri – fine aurora spotted in Cornwall on feb 19th
1852 15th October royal cornwall gazette – on the previous Friday 8th there was a singular event spotted in liskeard could it be the northern lights???
1853 Friday 9th dec – royal cornwall gazette reports a large display on Tuesday 6th dec arching across the whole sky
1858 October 18th appeared between 7 and 8 pm published royal London gazette 18th November 1859
Also October 24th a large meteor in the same paper 1858
1858 dec 10th royal cornwall gazette – St Agnes a brilliant red display for over a hour on the previous sat evening.
1858 dec 11th lakes Falmouth packet seem late sat night – doubt many saw it due to lateness of the hour. – Also reported in Dublin
1859 25th feb royal Cornwall gazette seen in Truro on Tuesday and wed 22nd and 23rd Feb
1859 4th march royal cornwall gazette – letter about spectacular display from 23rd feb
1859 April 29th Friday event spotted in St keverne on the 28th April also reported in the Royal Cornwall Gazette.
Carrington event sept 1st -2nd cloudy???
1859 Friday 9th Sept – a brilliant aurora was seen on Sunday night – 4th ? Sept?
1859 Event in Cornwall 14th October 1859 Royal Cornwall gazette writes about last night Wednesday 12th October
1859 lakes Falmouth packet also reports the Wednesday sighting of the aurora – very detailed.
1859 21st oct royal Cornwall gazette letter about previous weeks aurora from J Jefferys in St Day
1870 7th Jan cornubian and redruth times previous sat 1at Jan sticking aurora seen, also reported about Camborne in west Britain thurs 6th jan
1870 Feb 18th Friday aurora spotted over truro from royal cornwall gazette sat 19th feb
1870 5th March lakes Falmouth packet Mr Glaisher said that the appearance of aurora by daylight witnessed on the 12th feb very rare two other instances are 24th may 1788 and 10th feb 1799.
1870 thurs 29th sept west Britain also writes about large display on the Saturday and Sunday night.
1870 fri 30th sept cornubian and redruth times – aurora spotted on Saturday and Sunday night 24th 25th September 1870 description in royal Cornwall gazette 29th July 1871 also reported in west Britain thur 29th sept.
1870 fri 28th October royal cornwall gazette – aurora seen many time over the last couple of weeks
1870 sat October 29th Falmouth packet seen on Monday and Tuesday 24th and 25th October very brilliant seen from Camborne
1870 25th Nov Friday – a large and fine aurora seen last Saturday night 19th nov – green and blue seen
1872 10th Feb sat. A fine display near truro on previous sat night – remarkable as most brilliancy was to the south west.
1873 10th May sat . Royal Cornwall Gazette – seen several time last week from Hayle
1877 (pub 1878) royal Cornwall gazette 22 feb 1878) happened on august 24th 1877 met notes from altar nun in Cornwall
1878 thurs 29th august Cornishman visible in Hayle last week on Sat and Sund. 24th / 25th august 1878
1879 Cornishman thurs 12th June – false profits and recent sightings of the aurora with the location of Jupiter in the sky.
1880 Cornishman 11th November sighting on the 10th November by crowen beacon.
1881 thurs 10th feb. on tues wed feb 1st, 2nd saw aurora to the north.
1882 fri 24th nov royal cornwall gazette spotted in Penzance by post master Mr Uren – all their circuits were pulled to zero
1883 thurs 8th March Cornishman saw aurora on Tuesday 6th march.
1894 thurs 11th Jan royal Cornwall reports last Wednesday spotted to the west of Bude
1895 thurs 21st March Cornishman was seen on the lizard on the Wednesday evening – it had an unusual fan like shape.
1897 thurs 23rd sept seen out towards st just and seen throughout the night on Saturday evening
1898 Report thurs 15th sept 1898 royal Cornwall gazette for previous Friday night can see in west Cornwall violet colours happened Friday 9th September 1898
1898 Also reported in Cornishman as being seen in st just published thur 15th sept 1898 and also the helston publication with a nice description about the height of the lights
1905 30th Nov Cornishman seen by lots of people of treriffe hill early last Wednesday evening.
1907 14th feb west Britain and Cornwall advertiser – reports annual meeting of cornwall polytechnic society – photographs of last weeks aurora was displayed by a Mr E Kitto
1907 mon 11th feb west Britain and Cornwall advertiser
Aurora seen on Saturday night between 8 and 9 pm 9th February
A beautiful display seen in Falmouth, Redruth and Padstow.
1908 2nd April thurs west Britain and cornwall a fine view from st agnes last Thursday night 27th March.
1909 magnificent view of aurora in mullion west cornwall – Thursday 21st October 1909 Cornishman seen on Monday 18th October – red glow flashing lights.
First world war 1914 – 1918 ??/?
1937 Cornishman thurs 7th October 1937 on Monday 4th October reports of aurora in the English channel above Plymouth – lasted about 30 minutes and appeared like hundreds of search lights
1938 Cornishman 27th Jan 1938 spectacle viewed by thousands visible in west Cornwall Tuesday 25th 1938 – large display reported nationwide also seen at the scilly isles
Second world war reporting gap.
1947 Thurs 25th dec 1947 Cornishman Aurora spotted last Friday 19th December near ludgvan lease
Large display as awaiting the arrival of a comet.