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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July 18th, 1816. The Day The Sun Didn’t Die.

The Bologna Prophecy 1816

The mood in Britain was so depressing in 1816 that the end of the world was prophesied and believed by some. The original rumour  apparently came from an Italian astronomer, from which it gets its name of the “Bologna prediction”. The anonymous Italian said  that there world would end on July 18th 1816. The sun would be extinguished and all life would be destroyed. This made a fair amount of sense to some Europeans, for whom the weather was much worse than the normal variability of the climate . It was clear by June that summer would not arrive. Sunsets had a yellow sulphurous look. Spots were clearly visible on the face of the Sun. On June 24th the sunspots were almost frighteningly clear to the naked eye, protected by a modest piece of coloured glass.

It made sense that the rapid increase in sunspots was responsible for the fall in summer temperatures. To some it made equal sense that the slow visible increase in spots would blot out the sun completely, or that the sunspots were lakes of water that would extinguish the flames. Neither was true, and the newspapers tried to argue the point with science.

It wasn’t just a cold summer; it was raining more or less every day. The Stamford Chronicle commented on July 15th that St Swithun seems to be providing rain for 40 days before, rather than after, the appointed day. This was the coldest recorded year in Western European history, before or since. The Leicester Mercury on the 26 July commented that “such inclement weather is scarcely remembered by the oldest person living”. August had massive flooding and lightening (“electric fluid”)

This was actually a period of low sunspot activity, not high; known to the climatologists as the “Dalton Minimum” The sunspots were visible due to changes in the atmosphere rather than more solar activity. This was not known at the time, but the periodic changes in sunspot activity had been noted since sunspots were first identified in 1610. Eclipses and comets could now be predicted and these terrestrial events did not mean bad things would happen. The Chester Courant warned newspapers not to be sensationalist to protect the feelings of the “weak of all descriptions in body and mind”

The appointed of day of doom arrived cold, stormy and windy, as had been the constant pattern of July. The day after, the Morning Post sniffed that “the silly prophecy has excited a greater conversation amongst the lower orders that could reasonably be expected”. The Post, reporting the next day, pointed out that the weather was sunny in the afternoon and this was more of an event more worthy of note.

The contempt of the papers had a hint of anti-Catholicism about it. The original prophecy came from Italy. The British papers reported that the people of Ghent had mistaken the trumpets of the local cavalry regiment as the arrival of the day of judgement, and had fallen to their knees in fright.

Eleanor Saunders of Kennington was a victim of the hysteria. Described by the coroner as 62, never married, and a cook, she was deeply affected by the prophecy. She retired to her room and lamented what God was planning to do, and hanged herself the Sunday before with a silk scarf, attached to the rafter of the room that she had not left for a week. The cause of death was given as mental derangement and the general tone of the coroner’s reports was sympathetic. However, some did point out that if the almighty had chosen the following Thursday to judge all humanity, committing the sin of suicide beforehand was not necessarily her best move. The Leicester Chronicle was sympathetic towards Eleanor, but was still a little sniffy about the ignorance of the vulgar multitude

“Some men differ from children in corporeal bulk only- and they frequently derive their knowledge from them” (26 July 1816)

Byron had left the country and was settled in Switzerland, where the weather was worse, and his poem of the sun going out –Darkness- was started around this time. He certainly would have known about the prediction and some critics believe that the famous poem was written in direct reaction to it.

The story had its last hurrah at the end of the month, when some argued that God meant to destroy the world based on the old style Julian calendar, which Britain had abandoned in 1752. This calendar  which was 11 days behind and therefore the sun would go out on the 29th July instead.

The Morning Post, as sympathetic as ever, simply suggested that these people should be committed to Bedlam, the Bethlehem hospital for the insane.

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