The Sun-Spot Panic of 1816

‘This year has been a very uncommon one. The spring was exceeding cold and backward or rather there was no spring, the summer was cold and wet, or rather we had no summer. The crop was very bad and unproductive. The harvest was very late, the crop was not well got in’

Dairy of Thomas Lucas, Stirling, Scotland, 31 December 1816

When the vulgar and uneducated Georgian masses peered at the sun, what did they see? They saw a great ball of fire which provided daylight and warmth for all, and grew the food. Civilisation would end if the sun ever went out, and fires did go out; their vague recollection of Christian end-time stories told them that the the fading of the light would be the first sign of Armageddon.

Their betters, as their name implied, knew better. The Sun was no kind of fire, although they did struggle to explain how its energy was created. It was a star which revolved around its axis every twenty-four days (actually nearer twenty-seven). Its diameter was estimated at about 880,000 according to the Manchester Mercury and other papers (867, 000 in reality). It produced both heat and light, which people strongly believed were the same thing, but had not yet proved to everybody’s satisfaction. It was about 96 million miles from earth, it was estimated, and they were wrong by only a few million. It needs to be remembered that the (rich) Georgians were scientific!

The poor’s ignorance about the sun (nor indeed the knowledge of their social superiors) did not matter until the summer of 1816. Astronomers had been watching sunspots through telescopes for two hundred years, and the average English gentleman would have been able to assuage the fears of the masses from about 1750.

Sunspots became democratic in 1816; they were so numerous that they could be seen by all everybody with a piece of coloured glass as protection, and sometimes even without it on a hazy early morning (there were lots of them in 1816, another mystery). When they looked, the poor, who struggled to eat and did not buy a spyglasses or telescopes, drew different conclusions to the rich. The great moving blanknesses on the disc would put out the sun and the end of the word was nigh. There was a particular panic on July 18, 1816, the day when an Italian prophesied the end of the world. The Italian astronomer gave a few months notice  of the sun going out, and the newspapers all printed the same scoffing refutation.

A typical letter to the newspaper. Just the beginning, mind. They went on for ever.

The scare was easy to refute. The experts had all the facts.  The Morning Post on the very day that the sun was due to go out pointed out that the two summers of 1718 and 1719 were both the hottest on record and the last time there were so many sunspots. The year 1812 was spotless, and the weather and the harvest were calamitous. Most years had sunspots, and they could be tracked across the disc; they proved that the sun revolved around its axis. The sunspots were not lakes of water, or like a hole appearing in an old suit, suggesting the whole textile was worn.  ‘It would be useless to accumulate more facts to show that the spots on the sun ought not to create any uneasiness’, sniffed every newspaper in the land.

Frederick William Herschel, with the sun on his mind

This negative knowledge of sunspots was all they had. They did not know what sunspots were; Herschel’s view that they were solar mountains, some three hundred miles high, was treated with respect; some letters to the Gentleman’s Magazine suggested they were the shadows from other stars; but they did know that they could not make the sun go out.

The poor and ignorant were condemned out of hand by every amateur gentleman astrologer with a spyglass, but there was some justification for the concerns of the masses. The weather in Europe and North America had been appalling since the beginning of the year. Thomas Lucas of Stirling noted the events in his diary;

Several spots or holes in the sun has been observed by astronomers this summer and the summer has been uncommonly rainy but it is not pretended that the great and almost incessant rains that we have had of late is on that account.

Lucas was a surgeon, an educated middle-class man who knew the world was not ending, but his diary comment flagged up a real phenomenon. Something had gone wrong with the weather. It rained all of the time, temperatures were low, and the sky was dark and the seasons were not proceeding as they normally did. It was not only bad, but unpredictable beyond the experience of anybody living.  The Leicester Journal (July 1816) commented that ‘such inclement weather is scarcely remembered by the oldest person living’.  It was also cruel; spring brought repeated thaws and freezes, killing off the harvests and killing them again when replanted.  There was a dry yellow fog in the sky, which did not recede as the day warmed up, which made the sunspots easier to see, and to blame. You did not always need a piece of coloured glass; everybody could panic now.

Nobody really knew what was happening until the 1880s; the climate change was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora a year earlier that caused a temporary lowering of the average temperature by about 1.5 percent, enough to cause a  climate catastrophe,  and is well documented. This was the ‘Year without a Summer’ in Britain and ‘Nine Hundred and Frozen to Death   in the USA’  

Chester Chronicle

The sun spots vanished in August and reappeared in September. They were even larger than those of June, and the world did not end then either. But this was definitely temporary climate change; it caused global starvation, including Britain, and increased pandemic diseases. Just imagine how bad permanent climate change would be?. Or is that ‘will be’?

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Your 1816 Stagecoach Journey, part one; before the wheels move.

Not normally as bad as this

By James Hobson (@about1816 on twitter)

It is 1816. You are going on a journey by stagecoach. What will it be like?

Firstly, consult your Travellers Oracle guidebook or consult your local paper. All stagecoaches leave early yours leaves comparatively late-7am- it is better to be there at 6.50am at the very latest. This will enable you to get a seat, which is taken on a first come- first served basis.  Some people may put a coat down to reserve a place, but you can safely ignore it in theory, but you may find it prudent to look around first to make sure the coat does not belong to somebody who might threaten you.  This rule may not apply to the seat next to the driver.

You will have booked your ticket in advance; even when the railways arrived and you could buy a ticket on the spot, they were still sold at ‘booking offices’. You will have checked in your luggage. You will have made two lists of the contents, put one in the trunk and kept one on you. If you  had  to take  any valuables on to the stagecoach , they would be hidden. Those gold-rimmed glasses you like so much?- best to leave them at home, although the highway robber had more or less been defeated by 1816; but  it is still best not to advertise your wealth to the other passengers. You do not know who they are. More of that later.

If you are ‘inside’ of a six seater stagecoach, you will choose one of the corners. This is because the carriage wall will provide a measure of extra  cushioned support, and you will be rubbing up against (and this is not a metaphor) only one person instead of two. Once established in your place and moving, nobody would take your seat.

In 1816, you single fare ‘inside’ (say, London to Manchester) would cost you 2 guineas. When you get to Manchester you might meet whole weaving families for whom this is four week’s wages. If you are paying half the price and going ‘up top’, the difference in seating is not so great. The most  favoured seat is the one next to the driver – ‘Jehu’- and some stagecoach enthusiasts actively seek out the seat so that they can speak to the driver and pretend to be driving the coach. Stagecoach nerds might try to use bribery and intimidation to get the seat. It is best to avoid it. It’s the most dangerous seat on the coach if there is an accident.

Where the classes met, and the proletarian is the master

Who will be on this coach with you? Well. Coach travel is far too expensive for most people, but that is less of a guarantee of gentility that you think.  You have no idea who will be sharing your metal box. It depends a little where you are going, and when.

Are you travelling to Brighton, Oxford or Cambridge? Expect to see more skilled artisans around Brighton in the summer, servicing the luxury industries. There will be student types going to the two great universities; some may be rebels and want on travel on top, and the quality of discourse will be higher. Or it may not.

There may be servants; mostly domestics and nannies. They will not have paid their own fare. Their masters and mistresses would have hired a private carriage and would be leaving two hours later.  Very, very few of the unaccompanied females will be of the genteel class. If they are travelling alone, their brother or father will be at the other end waiting for them.

What’s the best it could be? It could be a businessman, possible a nonconformist or Quaker, a quiet middle class family visiting relatives, a fourteen year old  boy going to his public school, and  a pious curate.

What’s the worst it could be?  A sailor on his way to, or from, Deal, Portsmouth or Dover, who will swear, threaten violence and try to avoid his fare (or all three);a fat and talkative travelling salesman in the middle seat so he can crush two people, a servant with a howling baby, and a rosy faced landlord with a  horrible cough that will be your companion all day.

Your driver and guard will be the only guaranteed members of the working class on the stagecoach. My god, they fancy themselves. You may be a vicar, businessman or large tenant farmer, but today Jehu and his assistant are in charge.  The social order is turned on his head. The driver has the local and technical knowledge to get you home in one piece. He has  the whip hand, literally and metaphorically.

They will have been drinking; but you yourself may have had a purl – a warming mixture of beer, gin, nutmeg and sugar before the journey. There was no such thing as ‘wine o clock’ in the Regency; hopefully   they will not be drunk and incapable; if they are, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it except abandon your journey.

You could bring a book or newspaper so you don’t have to talk to anybody. If you are in London, you could already have a newspaper under your arm at 7am; outside the Home Counties it would have to be yesterday’s paper. Coaches now were now better sprung and the roads around London were much better than elsewhere, but it was too cramped to read a paper.  A book would be possible, but not enjoyable.

Your coach would probably look impressive. You are part of a highly efficient industry that knows about branding and marketing. It will have an appropriate name which will not have been chosen by accident.  A major war has just been won, so expect   Nelson, Waterloo,   and Wellington, but also expect a coach that honoured the allies- the Blucher. Unlike future generations and future wars, the people did not believe they done it all on their own.  Speed is a  popular theme- it might be the Greyhound, the Comet or the Rocket, or a fast bird – Hawk , Eagle or Swallow, or just general niceness- the Hope or the Good Intent.

Now you get on board. It is an eight foot climb to the top. You will either receive no help or a crude push, but you will not be told to mind because the Quality does not go on top anyway.  At least it will be clean, which it will not be when you get off. If you are ‘inside’, you do not need a step, so you will be offered one.

Its 7 a.m now. Have you left? If the coach is full, then certainly.  It’s a busy yard, and money has been spent on advertising that stresses punctuality.  A generation earlier the timetables would have said ‘God willing’ or  d.v ( deo volente)  but people were a bit more ‘sophisticated’ now. As it clatters out of the stable yard, you will approach the arched gateway, which would have been built forty years earlier when coaches were smaller. DUCK !  

Part two of the story is here.

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Climate Change in the Regency -the terrible summer of 1816

Today there is no doubt what happened to the weather in Europe and North America in 1816- it was the worse summer weather that has been known in living  memory. In Europe it is called the Year without a summer and in the Americas, sometimes “Eighteen- hundred and froze to death”. The  cause is known too; the eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia. We now know that volcanic eruptions cause wet and cold summers and that it leads to poor harvests. It happened in the 1880s when Krakatoa erupted. The more scientific discussions around that time  identified 1816 as being the worst example of climate change caused by volcanic eruptions. The first use of the expression ” year without a summer” dates to the early 1880s too.
At the time of course, it was much harder to gain that perspective, but there are some indications that people thought 1816 was different enough to cause concern. In both the USA and Britain, panic about the weather did not start until the middle of the year. Indeed in the USA, most of the continent had experienced the mildest January and February that anybody could remember. However there was unseasonable snow in April, May was cold and June was the coldest in memory, killing recently planted crops and destroying any green living thing.
People in Britain knew about patterns in the weather, but nobody could remember conditions like this. In July 1816 the Cambridge Chronicle reported that “The oldest man living does not recollect such unseasonable weather as we have lately experienced”. This would include the dreadful summers of 1812 and 1799.Many other newspapers asked their oldest readers about the weather and got the same answer- it was never as bad as this
Newspapers were generally sceptical when their correspondents queried the “ alteration of the seasons” People naturally turned to early records to convince themselves that the extraordinary weather was within normal bounds, despite it being within nobody’s experience. It was pointed out that the summer of 1695 consisted of three sunny days only. The Perthshire Chronicle related that terrible cold summer of 1698, but even then there was not snow at the end of May. It went as far as describing 1816 as an “unnatural season”; but for most of the time, most people simply thought that they were unlucky.
Reporting the weather was commonplace and important in regency newspapers; people’s lives depended on it, but there were still many examples of weather beyond normal expectations. July was a month of snow, hail and thunder all over Britain . In that month in Cumbria, two inch hailstones smashed 700 panes of glass at Sir James Graham’s glasshouses at Netherby ; more rain than could ever be remembered fell in Glasgow. On August 5th, in the village of Fettercairn, Scotland a mere 12 miles from the German Ocean ( North Sea) there was five foot of snow, and even the oldest residents could only remember any snow up to June. Ten Children in Spilsby, Yorkshire, were blackened head to foot as torrential rain poured down the chimney, pushing out the soot. In Manchester it rained heavily for 28 days in July and did not rain in 3, which is bad, even for Manchester.
It was the same all over North Western Europe .In July 1816 Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein in Lake Geneva, the incessant rain and lightening keeping her indoors, and she wrote her famous novel about a creature being brought back to life by electric fluid ( lightening)
Newspapers remained optimistic about the wheat crop but by late August prices were spiralling out of the reach of the poor. Luckily, September was better and premature crops were left to grow in the fields. Harvests were still being brought in October ; by the 10th it looked in many parts of Britain as there was no sunlight at all.
People looked for reasons. They noticed the visible spots on the sun and believed that this was responsible- it was relevant but it was not the cause. For some it was an unexpected visitation from heaven, although there was no obvious blaming of people or sin . On the 30th August 1816, the Leicester Chronicle printed a letter using astrology to explain the poor weather, but prefaced the letter with “the present WEATHER is so much at present subject to enquiry, that we doubt not our readers may derive some amusement from this letter!”.
Prayers were held in church ,especially in July, when the rumour spread that the word was about to end dues to weather and the clearly visible sunspots. There are more details on my blogpost;

Hay and Clover were in such bad condition that they were composted into manure; they was no summer  work for haymakers. This, from the Carlisle Patriot July 1816;



The poor still suffered. A clergymen writing in the Western Daily Press ( October 1879) retold the story of the oldest residents, who remembered women and children picking tiny out pieces of wheat from the fields on St. Thomas’s day- December 21st. They were desperate.


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Who shot Edward Vyse in the head? The Corn Law Riots, 1815


In 1815 the soldiers and sailors won the war against Napoleon but the government handed the victory to the landlords. They had profited from the high price of   grain during the war blockade, and so the government passed the Corn Law to forbid the import of Wheat until it reached 80 shilling a bushel. This was a de facto ban; it meant that the aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported.  It was passed by the Commons and Lords with the building surrounded by bayonets. The poor of London rioted because they knew that, having had 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier.

The rioters were politically literate and aimed for the houses of those MPs who had actively supported the Corn Law. None of them died but their property was severely damaged. Two innocent bystanders did outside the house of Frederick John Robinson MP in Old Burlington Street. From earlier evening on a Tuesday his house was surrounded by a mob of about 60 throwing .Robinson was paying the price of introducing the Corn Bill to Parliament. However, his price was less than that of nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house and was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene.

Although this was a partisan class based piece of legislation, the rule of law meant that there would be an inquest, and an attempt to find the killer. One witness at the inquest was an Edward Howe, a messenger at the Board of Trade who asked one of the mob if he feared the soldiers shooting at them-“No, they dare not fire ball” he replied. It is clear that the rioters did not think they were living in a despotic state where the military fired at civilians.  Perhaps he also though that the firing of lethal shot was not part of the traditional choreography of the urban riot.

On the second day of the inquest a Corporal   Richard Burton gave evidence about the action of the six soldiers stationed there. The officer himself stressed that he was taking the advice of the constable, the civil power, and they both agreed to fire powder only. At eight thirty, when most of the Right Honourable member’s windows had been broken and his shutters were under attack, the soldiers opened fire, bit the balls of their cartridges so they were only producing smoke, and the young “rioters” cheered.

In this case, the cheerful rioters were wrong. About 10pm Edward Vyse, aged about 18, a navy midshipman, was shot in the head by persons unknown who were defending the Robinson house. Edward had been walking past the house, not towards it, in full uniform; there was no rioting or disturbances at that time-lots of witnessed attested to this. He had been killed instantly by a single cartridge ball from a pistol. A witness saw a soldier in the parlour wearing a foraging cap, who seemed to be responsible for the death. There were two other shots.

Corporal Burton admitted that there was at least one soldier with a foraging cap in the parlour at the time of Vyse’s death. There seemed to have been a real contradiction in evidence here; a soldier had fired under duress from the mobs attack at 8.30- but Edward Vyse had been killed at ten while he was merely passing the house, not trying to enter it. He father, a respectable artisan printer appeared as a sorrowful witness, backing up this narrative of events. The jury, clearly knowledgeable about these inquests, asked the coroner to keep the soldiers separate from Burton until the inquest continued. The Coroner regretted that he had no such power to do so.

Evidence from the Butler, James Ripley, suggested it seems that the fatal shot had not come from a military weapon but from rifles belonging to the household that had been loaded with the day before. Around 9pm an unidentified soldier had borrowed the rifle from Ripley and it was this that had been discharged into the street at about 10pm at Edward Vyse.

Corporal Burton could not offer any information about which of the six privates had fired the shot, so they we questioned individually. The witness George Ulph, private in the third regiment of Guards, was issued with 21 rounds of ball which he returned the next morning. He had not even fired shot. William Graves had returned all but one of his cartridges; he still had the balls he had bitten off in his pocket at home.

 With four soldiers left, the coroner separated those who had been nearest to the shooting from those who had been further way, and those further away were interrogated. These two could account for their ammunition, had never seen the man in the foraging cap, and were dismissed. Mathews and Herbert were clearly in the frame.

It proved impossible to prove who did the shooting. The Jury’s verdict was that Vyse was unlawfully murdered by persons unknown, and that the actions of the military were unconstitutional, as they had permission neither to enter   the house nor fire on the civilians outside.

James Ripley, the butler who provided pistols, Mathews and Herbert who were nearest the parlour and Richard Burton the corporal in charge must have breathed a sigh of guilty relief.

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