‘Inclement’ Wragge : pioneer weather forecaster

Clement Lindley Wragge (1852-1922) had an iron constitution and a ‘mop of flaming red hair and explosive temper to match’ according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.  It goes on to say that he posssessed the ‘adjectival luxuriance of a bullocky’.  He was certainly a colourful character and acquired the nickname ‘Inclement’ Wragge because of his rain forecasts.  Born in Worcestershire, England and originally trained in the law, Wragge went to sea and eventually found himself in the South Australian Surveyor General’s Department.  It was here that he began his studies of meteorology, which after a return to Britain where he established a weather station on Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, and further work in South Australia he was appointed meteorological observer in Queensland’s post and telegraph department in 1887.

Clement Wragge, ca. 1901 State Library of Queensland Negative number: 161210

Clement Wragge, ca. 1901

Within a short time he had established his bureau as ‘The Chief Weather Bureau, Brisbane’ justifying the title at length in the first issue of his substantial publication Wragge’s Australasian Weather Guide and Almanac.  Beginning:

The Chief Weather Bureau, Brisbane, maintains its title and reputation because:-

a) Brisbane, by virtue of its geographical position, is naturally fitted for the location of such an office.

b) Hitherto the observatory-staff has given its attention entirely to meteorological research, being (contrary to custom in other colonies) unhampered by astronomical, postal, telegraphic and other duties entirely foreign to meteorology.

Going on to explain the necessity of gathering weather information from all parts of Australia and beyond in order to understand Queensland’s weather and that forecasts can just as easily be made for ‘any part of Australasia and neighbouring areas of ocean as for Queensland only.’

Meteorological observatory on Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, ca. 1898 State Library of Queensland Negative number: 43968

Meteorological observatory on Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, ca. 1898

One of Wragge’s chief claims to fame is that he is the first person to introduce the systematic naming of storms and cyclones, choosing feminine names, particularly those of South Sea Islanders for which he had an abiding admiration, for tropical storms and for unpleasant southern storms often using the names of politicians who thwarted his ambitions or denied him funding.  He advocates his naming system for tropical storms in a lecture quoted in his 1901 almanac:

Special mention was made to the disturbances named ‘Eline’ and ‘Luita’, and to the fact that he was the first meteorologist to adopt the system of giving names to storms, in order that those who might experience any storm might more readily associate their experiences of the storms by reason of their names.  He was thus able to serve the public in a domestic manner.  In his general daily remarks, which were framed in a pleasant readable style in order to induce the people to take a more vital and real interest in their own Weather Bureau, he had recommended parents of infant daughters to forsake for the time the stereotyped ‘Susan’, ‘Jane’, ‘Eliza’ and ‘Anne’, and to substitute therefore the names of the tropical hurricanes, which are called by the mellifluous appellations of the soft eyed, dusky beauties of the South Sea Islands, savouring of the taro patch, the palm grove, and the coral reef.  In this he had succeeded, and when he was in the suburban trains, going to his residence from the city, people accosted him with the pleasing information that they had increases in the family, and had named their daughters ‘Eline’, ‘Luita’, ‘Leala’, &c.

Wragge’s career in Australia ultimately ended in disappointment as he was overlooked for the leadership of the new Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau for the establishment of which he had been a vocal advocate.  Wragge was still railing against unsympathetic politicians and giving their names to the most unpleasant weather when, in July 1903, lack of support forced him to close the Central Weather Bureau. He then spent most of his life on lecture tours, mainly outside Australia, until in 1910 he made New Zealand his permanent home.  He documented his travels in the Pacific in The Romance of the South Seas published in 1906 and including many photographs of the ‘soft eyed, dusky beauties’ that he was so fond of.

Cartoon of meteorologist, Clement Wragge, 1906 State Library of Queensland Negative number: 69461

Cartoon of meteorologist, Clement Wragge, 1906

This cartoon of Wragge waiting hopefully for his appointment to the Commonwealth Meteorlological Bureau shows him with a Stiger Vortex machine.  Wragge had experimented with these cloud seeding machines. On one ocassion Wragge arranged for six Stiger Vortex guns to be fired into the clouds above Charleville in the hope of breaking the drought. When informed of the failure of the experiment Wragge was in no doubt who was to blame.  ‘I could not manage to stay at Charleville until a favourable opportunity of making the experiments occurred’ he explained, ‘and, of course, if the Charleville people will not carry out my instructions, I cannot help it’.  (Information taken from Brisbane Courier, 29 September 1902, p.5)

Despite his eventual disappointments and continual battles with the authorities Clement Wragge was a significant figure in the development of modern meteorology in Australia and pioneered research into tropical cyclones.  His Almanac, published from 1898 until 1902, includes a wealth of information, not just on meteorology, but also astronomy, mining, agriculture, medicine, and postal and telegraphic information.

Meteorologist, Clement Wragge, at home in his tropical garden at Taringa, Brisbane, ca. 1902 State Library of Queensland Negative number: 69462

Meteorologist, Clement Wragge, at home in his tropical garden at Taringa, Brisbane, ca. 1902

Wragge was proud of his garden at his house in Taringa.  This is from the report of the lecture in the 1901 almanac:

A picture of his own house, the beautiful ‘Capemba’ near Brisbane, was then thrown on the screen, and Mr. Wragge showed how, by an accurate study of local climate, he made a desert smile, and how a bare, rocky ridge, apparently of the most hungry and barren soil, was turned into a tropical paradise, wherein grow the choicest palms and tropical fruits and flowering shrubs from all parts of the tropic world.

Clement Wragge’s publications in the John Oxley Library collection include:

Wragge’s Australasian almanac and weather guide for land and sea 1898-1902

Wragge : a meteorological, geographical and popular scientific gazette for the people of the southern hemisphere 1902-1903

The romance of the south seas London : Chatto & Windus, 1906

You can read previous blog posts on Tropical cyclones in Queensland and Out of the Port lecture “Cyclone Mahina” which both refer to Cyclone Mahina, one of Queensland’s most destructive cyclones, named by Clement Wragge after one of his South Sea Island beauties.