1816: a year without summer

Two centuries ago, Britons had to endure biting cold and driving rain from April to August. They blamed everyone from Napoleon to Benjamin Franklin for the filthy weather but, says Robert Hume, the real culprit was far more remote...

An illustration showing a house and a woman with an umbrella

Lake Geneva, 1 June 1816. An “almost perpetual rain” confined the small group of writers to the house. The night was stormy. In the mountains lightning flashed from peak to peak. In a letter to her half sister, Mary Shelley wrote: “The lake was lit up, the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness.”

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Shelley was not the only famous writer to complain about the weather in the summer of 1816. “Oh! It rains again,” lamented Jane Austen from her home in Chawton, Hampshire on 9 July. “Such weather gives one little temptation to be out. It is really too bad, & has been for a long time, much worse than anybody can bear, & I begin to think it will never be fine again.”

The painter JMW Turner captured driving rain and red-tinged clouds in his painting Lancaster Sands, while Shelley drew inspiration from that “wet, ungenial summer” to write her classic novel, Frankenstein.

Shelley, Austen and Turner’s words and watercolour provide a glimpse of an extraordinary summer, unlike anything anyone could remember. People across the northern hemisphere shivered and sought shelter as, for month after month, they were assailed by freezing temperatures and relentless rain.

Ireland suffered no less than eight weeks of precipitation. Nationalist politician Daniel O’Connell grumbled about the “dreadful weather… There is nothing but rain and wretchedness.”

Travellers felt the full brunt of these pelting rains. In France, Lady Caroline Capel was drenched to the skin from “the torrents of rain that here follow every day”, while in Switzerland it bucketed down on 130 out of 152 days between April and August.

It was also extremely cold. Ice four inches thick was recorded in Essex at the end of August. Visiting London, John Quincy Adams was astonished to find fires lit in almost every house. “There has not been one night when a coverlet and blanket could have been thrown off with comfort,” noted the future US president in his diary.

But in his country too “teeth chattered”, as one woman visiting New Hampshire wrote. Although there were occasional mild days, the cold bit deeply. In Plymouth, Connecticut, a clockmaker still remembered many years later going to work, dressed in thick woollen clothes and an overcoat: “My hands got so cold that I was obliged to lay down my tools and put on a pair of mittens.” Vermont saw 18 inches of snowfall in June. Farmers tried to tie fleeces back on to recently shorn sheep, but most of the poor animals still froze. On the bitter night of 6/7 June, when icicles nearly a foot long were reported, the feet of an 88-year-old man froze and his toes had to be amputated.

Not without good reason did contemporaries call 1816 ‘Eighteen-Hundred-And-Froze-To-Death’.

“The whole country is in a very disastrous state,” declared The Times on 5 September 1816. Dead fish floated on the surface of ponds, scores of birds lay dead on the ground. Crops crumbled into frosty mush. Outside Maidstone, Kent, wheat and barley were ruined by hailstones “as large as nuts”; frost devastated hops in Worcester; and in Barnet, north London, the livelihoods of haymakers were destroyed by the incessant rain.

Seemingly, nowhere in Europe was spared. It was remarked in Portugal how the unusually cool weather had “evil consequences” on fruit, making it unpleasant to taste. Switzerland suffered more than any other country. Both grape and grain harvests were ruined, and thousands of peasants were forced to beg.

Across the Atlantic, no corn could be gathered in New Hampshire and people in Vermont were reduced to foraging for nettles, wild turnips and hedgehogs.

Bread prices rocketed. In Paris a loaf that had cost 16 sous in the spring quickly rose to 32. The price more than tripled in Switzerland, and hostesses asked guests to bring their own loaves to dinner parties.

Riots broke out in East Anglia in late May, when labourers armed with pitchforks and carrying banners saying “Bread or Blood” marched on Ely and held its magistrates hostage. Banging kettles and blowing horns, hundreds of protestors gathered in Guildford in October, and demolished the house of a baker whose prices, they said, were too high. It was not until November that the Corn Laws allowed cheaper foreign grain into Britain.

Some turned to emigration as a solution. Forty families from a Protestant sect in Württemberg, Germany set off for the Holy Land. During a single week more than 700 men, women and children applied to leave Ireland where potatoes had failed, wheat fields were black, and oats lay flattened by rain.

To remain was to risk catching typhus fever, which struck down more than 60,000 inhabitants between 1816 and 1819.

As cold numbed the eastern United States, many farmers headed west. Wagons piled high with household goods trundled towards milder Ohio. Among those who left Vermont for western New York state was Joseph Smith, future founder of the Mormon religion.

End of the world

The weather showed no signs of relenting, and the gloom deepened. Lord Byron composed his poem Darkness, while his fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge made a bleak reference to the “end of the World Weather”. As The Times tried reassuring readers that such prophesies were farfetched, 62-year-old Eleanor Saunders, a London servant, hanged herself in “a fit of melancholy”.

For those living in 1816, these extraordinary events were baffling and unsettling. Something had gone seriously wrong with the weather. All sorts of explanations were concocted to make sense of what was happening.

Noticing a large irregular spot on the surface of the sun, surrounded by many other spots, some contemporary astronomers claimed that they were responsible for blocking out heat. A Bologna astronomer asserted that the sun was “ill”, that it would become encrusted in sunspots and plunge the Earth into darkness. Although the greatest astronomer of the day, William Herschel, argued that sunspots were too small to harm the weather, the public remained sceptical.

Cold north-easterly winds, and large masses of ice floating in the Great Lakes were also blamed for keeping the air much cooler than normal. But a German writer put the cold down to a lack of gunpowder in the atmosphere following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, which had enabled cold air to sneak in.

Even Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, was apparently responsible. Franklin was an enthusiastic exponent of placing lightning conductor rods on buildings, so they could draw out “electrical fire” before lightning could strike. His critics argued that the rods had stopped the Earth releasing heat into the atmosphere and condemned people to perpetual winter.

The disturbance was ascribed by others to a higher being. “By the breath of God frost is given,” mused one Vermont newspaper, quoting Old Testament scripture, while the Missionary Herald magazine went further to proclaim: “God has expressed His displeasure towards the inhabitants of the Earth by withholding the ordinary rains and sunshine.”

Terrified by what seemed a looming apocalypse, people from Ghent to Gothenburg crammed into churches to pray for an improvement in the weather. In France processions were hastily organised to beg God’s forgiveness: 80 young women paraded through the streets of Paris in late July, holding lighted candles and praying for the rain to stop. But it went on and on.

When prayers failed, outlandish theories gained plausibility. English satirist William Hone found a sure culprit in the former French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte who, after returning from his exile on St Helena in 1815, had invaded the sun in revenge for his defeat at Waterloo. The sunspots were nothing but shadows created by different parts of his body.

Pirates attack

But the real culprit for the weather disturbance was not a higher being, nor was it the fault of Napoleon. Shortly before sunset on 5 April 1815, a series of explosions had shaken the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia.

Local chiefs attributed the blasts to the spirit queen Nyai Loro Kidul celebrating the marriage of one of her children. British soldiers 800 miles away on Java mistook the sounds for cannon fire from ships under attack from pirates.

Over the next few days, the explosions gradually subsided. But around seven o’clock on the evening of 10 April, Mount Tambora, their true source, erupted again. This time the explosions were much louder. Cascading lava slammed into the ocean, creating tsunamis 15-foot high. Trees were torn up; people, cattle and horses swept away; houses flattened. The village of Tambora disappeared. Showers of thick ash began to fall, and by 11 o’clock it was so black, according to one ship’s captain, that he could not see his hand even when held right up against his eye.

When the eruptions finally stopped some three months later, on 15 July 1815, around 12,000 people were dead.

Winds gradually carried Tambora’s huge cloud of sulphurous gases westward, throwing the world’s weather into chaos for the next three years. No one at the time linked a remote Indonesian volcano to the torrential rains and freezing temperatures across Europe and North America in 1816 – in fact, scientists didn’t establish a link between volcanic eruptions and climate change until the second half of the 20th century.

In recent years extreme weather has provided plenty of material for Britain’s favourite topic of conversation: sunshine to freak storms in just five minutes; hail stones as large as golf balls; floods regularly deluging towns. In the future, climate change might cause such events to be more the norm than the exception. Since an “effusive volcanic eruption” ranks highly on the current UK National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, we might also have to suffer the catastrophic effects of another year without a summer.

Dr Robert Hume is a writer and former head of history at Clarendon House Grammar School, Kent.

Toxic pea-soupers! Five extreme weather events to strike Britain

1) The Great Frost, 1683–84

The Great Frost of 1683–84 saw the Thames frozen solid to a depth of nearly two feet. Londoners made the most of it by creating a frost fair consisting of shops, taverns, coffee and chocolate sellers, and even a brothel. Other amusements included puppet shows, carriage races and bear-baiting. James Chipperfield exhibited a menagerie of performing animals on the frozen river. From the week before Christmas until early February, the frost fair was the place to be. Charles II is supposed to have enjoyed a spit-roasted ox there.

2) The Great Storm, 1703

On 26 November 1703, booming thunder terrified southern England. Houses collapsed, and 4,000 oaks were destroyed in the New Forest. At sea, shipwrecks killed a third of the navy, and the 120-foot Eddystone Lighthouse was swept away. In Whitstable, Kent, witnesses described a ship being lifted from the water and tossed 800 feet ashore by a waterspout.

At his palace in Wells, Somerset, a falling chimney stack killed Bishop Richard Kidder and his wife in their bed. The lead roofing was ripped off Westminster Abbey, and at St James’s Palace, Queen Anne was forced to spend the night sheltering in a wine cellar.

3) Avalanche in Lewes, 1836

Heavy snowfall began across south-east England on 24 December 1836 and continued over Christmas. In East Sussex, 20 feet of snow had accumulated on Cliffe Hill, Lewes, whipped up by the wind into a great ledge overhanging its western side. People were warned to leave their homes, but nobody obeyed.

At about 10.15 in the morning of 27 December snow plummeted down the steep slope towards a row of workers’ cottages, killing eight inhabitants. “The mass appeared to strike the houses first at the base, heaving them upwards, and then breaking over them like a gigantic wave,” reported The Sussex Weekly Advertiser.

4) The Great Smog, London, 1952

The mix of fog and smoke from factories and fireplaces that blanketed London on 5 December 1952 was unlike any ‘pea-souper’ the city had seen before. With no wind to disperse it, the toxic yellowy smog remained for five long days, killing more than 4,000 people. Transport was brought to a standstill. Pedestrians could not see their feet, and there were instances of some falling into the Thames. Smog seeped into buildings, and theatres closed because the audience could not see the stage. Prize cattle on show at Earls Court choked to death. Thieves had a “busy time”, commented The Guardian.

5) The drought of 1976

With perfect blue skies and record hours of sunshine, summer 1976 was a time of barbecues, dips in London fountains, and long queues for ice creams and cold drinks.

At Wimbledon ball boys fainted and 400 spectators experienced heatstroke in one day. Even Big Ben suffered metal fatigue and stopped chiming.

When reservoirs dried up, the government imposed a hosepipe ban. Householders were asked to use bathwater on their gardens, and to flush the toilet less often.

Britain appointed a minister for drought, Denis Howell, who was nicknamed minister for rain when, during his first few days in office, the heavens opened.

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This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine