"The darkness, chill and silence are still with me";Project;Geography

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker finds that memories of the 1927 total eclipse are still vivid.

Mona was 19 when she witnessed the eclipse of the Sun. The event had been much talked about on the radio and she recalls that she and her younger brothers and sisters were very excited. They gathered outside their home in the village of Wraxall, north Somerset, early on that June morning in 1927. "We got a bucket of water," she says. "The BBC told us it was a good idea to use it as a mirror instead of looking straight at the sun.

"I remember very clearly the two discs of the Sun and Moon synchronising in the reflection. It never became absolutely dark, but the most impressive thing was the eerie green light and the cold. It was so comforting when the Sun began to come back, and the warmth, and the birds began to sing."

Today, Mona Macmillan is 91 and is very much looking forward to her second solar eclipse on August 11. Meanwhile, reminiscences like hers are proving a valuable resource for eclipse watchers - and potentially for schools.

Myths and legends about eclipses are as rich and diverse as the cultures that gave rise to them. According to Bryan Brewer, an author on the subject, the earliest record of a solar eclipse was in ancient China, where beliefs held that it was the Sun being devoured by an invisible dragon. Some peoples believed the event to be an omen of impending disaster.

In the Dark Ages, when eclipses were little understood, the historian Roger of Wendover told of a total eclipse on the morning of May 14, 1230, when it became so dark that labourers left their work and went back to bed.

Professor John Parkinson, of Sheffield Hallam University, and his wife, Jan, a physicist, have been studying solar eclipses for 20 years. They have collected some marvellous recollections of the 1927 event.

"Seeing an eclipse through other people's eyes really fascinates me," he says. "It's how people react to what I would call a very primeval event. It's also what they notice. Some of those memories have been stored away in people's heads for more than 70 years - the accuracy is amazing. They tell us a lot about what things were like in 1927."

The path of totality is the name given to the shadow that is cast on the Earth by the Moon moving between it and the Sun. In the 1927 eclipse, it was a narrow band running diagonally across the country from Snowdonia to Hartlepool. Despite the lack of sophisticated communications, people flocked there. Special trains were laid on from London. And those outside the area still witnessed an amazing spectacle: in both Plymouth and Glasgow, the eclipse was 96.6 per cent visible.

Apart from newspapers and radio, schools seem to have played a vital role in disseminating information about the eclipse. Many parents in 1927 would have found out about it from their children.

Aubrey Nettleship, who was 10 at the time, says: "I have always been grateful to an enthusiastic teacher and an equally enthusiastic mother for making it possible for me to view the eclipse." But others remember that their schools overdid it. Joan Castleton, then 13, recalls: "For ages before the eclipse we had endless drawings on the blackboard and had to write essays about what was to happen. We were sated with it and weren't as keen as we should have been to see it."

But the eeriness of the event stayed in many minds. "The memory of the darkness, the chill and the silence is still with me 72 years later," says Joan Salter. And Mrs G B Barker says: "The darkness and cold were enough to make me think how terrifying such an event must seem to primitive people."

Another account, that of Penelope Haseltine, who was eight, describes how "as the shadow of the moon appeared in the far distance and came rushing to engulf us, I was appalled. What I felt was sheer, unreasoning terror." But Ruth Lambert's recollection is quite different: "We witnessed the most amazing sight ever, the corona blazing, shooting huge shafts of brilliant gold into the sky. Absolutely fabulous."

Not everyone, however, was concerned with the eclipse itself. Mr J A Richards, then 16, remembers the attendant festivities: "On the evening of the event the market was a scene of excitement, the fair in full swing and the ox roasting, everyone having a happy time. Beer 3d a pint."

For details of eclipse investigation packs by Professor Parkinson and his colleagues , call Ken Mannion on 0114 225 4880 or e-mail k.mannion@shu.ac.uk

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