Surviving Mother Nature's Tests - Reviews


Books – Family Tree, October 2018 issue

Karen Clare, Assistant Editor, reviews a new book offering insight into how climate change, disease and natural disasters impacted on the lives of our British ancestors in centuries past

This hugely informative book by Canadian geologist, family historian and blogger, Wayne Shepheard, examines in detail how climate change and other phenomena, from volcanic eruptions and major storms, to drought and killer epidemics, affected and shaped the lives of our ancestors. The book describes the different natural phenomena and time periods in which they occurred, explaining how our forebears survived the formidable tests thrown at our planet with all her might by Mother Nature. With a focus on the British Isles, readers with roots in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales will find especially fruitful case studies of disasters ranging from the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age to The Great Gale of 1824 (which wreaked havoc from

Cornwall to Sussex), right up to the North Sea flood of 31 January 1953. This tragic event enveloped my own family; my mum, her four siblings and my grandparents survived by dashing to the first floor of their King’s Lynn home as flood waters from The Wash rushed in and up the stairs behind them, but lost many possessions. As well as being a geologist the author is an Online Parish Clerk for four parishes in Devon, and his genealogical insight shines through. With family history data gleaned from archival sources, such as newspapers, he pinpoints moments in the past when it must surely have seemed to our ancestors that they faced the full wrath of Mother Nature.

There are many facts to absorb, including information about how such historical events changed farming, communities, living conditions, economies, politics and social systems, as our ancestors adapted to altered situations and environments.

This is a book with science at its core and family history at its heart. The scientific facts and statistics are clear, well explained and easy for the lay researcher to grasp. Crucially, it invites us to explore the lives of the generations that came before in the context of their changing environment, whether gradually, like climate change, or catastrophically, such as floods, flu or famine. We are the products of their efforts to survive and this interesting book should inspire us to consider their stories in a fresh new light.

Anglo-Celtic Connections blog post 30 May 2018

Review by John Reid
Blogger, Genealogist

We are all products of the challenges successfully faced by our ancestors. Whether they were natural, the topic of this book, man-made like war and willful neglect, or often a combination, we only exist because of the web of thousands upon thousands of forebears making up our family tree who came through the adversities they faced.

The heart of the book is two major chapters delving into specific examples of how climate and other natural phenomena have impacted society which comprise more than half of Surviving Mother Nature's Tests textThe focus is on the British Isles and especially England.

"Slowly Developing Events" are described as affecting wide areas and thousands of people, often for periods extending over many years and to which "people almost always adapt well."

"Rapidly-Developing Incidents" of storms and floods, earthquakes and epidemics are more localized in space and time, and more likely to hit the headlines.

It's a rough division by time. Was the multi-year localized Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century really something people adapted to? How about the global 1918-19 influenza pandemic in the same rapidly developing incident category as a local lightening strike and tornado? Nature doesn't rigidly respect these categorizations set up to aid understanding.

Wherever in the British Isles your ancestry is from you'll likely find new information about conditions in your region, county or even town. I was delighted to find my home town of Great Yarmouth included with five entries in the index.

The earlier chapters set the stage. The introduction explains the book's ambition for the family historian, that readers "gain knowledge about how such processes (natural events) significantly affected individuals and communities during the past several centuries." Although the emphasis is on climate change mention is also made of earthquakes and landslides.

There follows a chapter on "The Parameters of Climate Change"—the most technical with diagrams, graphs and even an equation covering how we know about past climate and the factors that influence it. There's good information on Ice Ages and the Milankovitch Theory and other natural phenomena that have influenced climate epochs over the millennia.

There is one problem with the chapter, the statement, referencing a study nearly 20 years old, that "high CO2 levels actually lag temperature increases, by from 400 to 1,000 years, indicating that high concentration of the gas is a consequence of temperature change not a cause." While the first part of the statement is correct based on Antarctic ice cores the conclusion is not.

Through epochs and millennia atmospheric CO2 concentrations changed in response to its natural exchange between the oceans, biosphere and atmosphere. A warm ocean can hold less CO2 so warming due to other causes means CO2 release from the oceans, with a lag, with the resulting increased greenhouse effect reinforcing the warming. Emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel carbon combustion, a third to a half of which is absorbed by the oceans, lead directly to enhanced greenhouse warming.

In a 1963 speech to the US National Academy of Sciences US President Kennedy noted that we can now “irrevocably alter our physical and biological environment on a global scale.” Sadly fifty years later we still see denial of human influence.

The book's author Wayne Shepheard, a professional geologist who serves as an online parish clerk, was previously editor for two family history society journals, and who blogs at, has done a considerable service by drawing his interests together in this book. It will open eyes and add perspective on the many ways changes in the natural environment may have affected our ancestor's lives. The thorough table of contents, references and index are hallmarks of the care with which the book was prepared.

Genealogists’ Magazine (Journal of the Society of Genealogists)

Review by Gwyneth Wilkie

Wayne Shepheard is a geologist who worked in the oil and gas industries. He is also a Pharos graduate and the online parish clerk for four Devon parishes. This book brings together his profound understanding of natural phenomena and his interest in genealogical records. His focus is upon Europe and the British Isles in particular because their written records go back many centuries and can be combined with physical evidence of past perturbations and climate change.

The first 42 pages are devoted to explaining the parameters of climate change before moving on to an overall description of the Holocene Period, the current geological epoch which began approximately 11,650 years ago.

We then move on to the last millennium, taking in the Mediaeval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, which continued up to the nineteenth century. Areas which we know as moorland were once cultivated up to 1,500 feet above sea level. The author considers the impact of climate on farming methods and how these combined with other factors affecting population and life-styles such as enclosure and industrialisation. He suggests that the development of new technologies can be seen as part of a
response to harsher environmental conditions. Slowly developing events and their impact on our ancestors are then analysed, with the aid of numerous maps. The silting-up of estuaries, erosion, drought (especially the Long Drought of 1887-1910), famine and volcanic eruptions are described, with written records being brought in to show how food prices rose and rates of baptism dropped.

Rapidly developing events include storms, floods, earthquakes and landslides, diseases and epidemics and can be more precisely linked to particular dates and places. All may not just affect rates of mortality and births, but trigger migration too. Tax records show that officials attempting to collect the lay subsidy for Tilgarsley in 1359 went away empty-handed: nobody had lived there since the Black Death. Witness accounts can be combined with evidence from rent rolls and parish registers to build up a picture of the impact of natural events. This section of the book is rich in everything from woodcuts to charts which illustrate what happened and the consequences which followed. Again, Shepheard looks for signs of society fighting back and notes how epidemics of cholera brought about systemic improvements in public health. A closer look is then taken at records of three parishes in Devon, Shropshire and Kent, giving rise to some particularly interesting charts.

Each chapter has its own summary. The final summary argues that the events which affected the British Isles could also have been seen around the globe. Climate change is on-going. If the results nowadays seem more dire, it is often because increases in population entail increases in the number of people affected. Genealogists who want to understand the interplay between our
ancestors and the world they lived in are urged to look beyond the records which are familiar to us.

Appropriately, the next item references the rich array of sources, both print and digital, used by the author. The index, in conjunction with the detailed list of contents, should enable the reader to locate rapidly any subject of interest.

One unfortunate typo (p 155) gives the date of An Act Touching Marriages as 1853, but the context should make clear that it passed into law in 1653. One potentially useful source not mentioned are the Annual Reports of the Registrar General, which regularly comment on factors affecting mortality statistics, such as disease and unseasonal extremes of weather and/or temperature. Those figures seem to come from the Greenwich Observatory.

The book is not readily available in this country but can be obtained by contacting the publishers in Australia, Unlock the Past, or by emailing the author in Canada via

Who will want to read this unusual book? Anyone with any interest at all in climate and the natural world will find it very rewarding. Anyone who does read it is likely to find themselves eyeing up tax records, maps and parish records with new interest.

Gwyneth Wilkie

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