Marking the bicentenary of 1816, the ‘year without summer’, in the UK

By Lucy Veale and Georgina Endfield, University of Nottingham, UK 

Etheridge, Francis; Stonehenge, 2 May 1816

‘Stonehenge, 2 May 1816’ by Francis Etheridge. Collection of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes.

As many people in the UK have been enjoying a brief heat wave, they have also been remembering past summers, as this year marks 40 years since the summer of 1976 – perhaps the ‘UK’s best ever summer’.  Beyond living memory, this summer also marks the bicentenary of the ‘year without summer’. The summer of 1816 is famous for having been cold, wet and generally miserable in the UK (the July of that year being the coldest on record), and much worse in parts of Europe and North America. The bad weather of that summer has been associated with the eruption of Mount Tambora, Indonesia, in April 1815, the largest known volcanic eruption in recorded. An estimated 72,000 people in Indonesia lost their lives because of the eruption, either directly or through linked famine and disease. Longer term and further afield, the huge volume of sulphur that was injected into the atmosphere changed global climate over the succeeding years (Oppenheimer, 2003).

Volcano weather

The 200-year anniversary of the eruption has renewed scholarly and popular interest in the climatic consequences of eruptions and so-called super eruptions. Two centuries on, there is still much to learn about Tambora, particularly its effects on global climate and local weather, and associated consequences for human health and wellbeing.

As part of a broader project on the history of extreme weather in the UK, we have been considering what impact the eruption had on the weather of the UK, and in turn, the impact of that weather on the people who lived through it. In our paper, recently published in The Geographical Journal, we draw on diaries, correspondence, and other unpublished documents to revisit the weather of the summer of 1816, and the 1810s more broadly. All of our accounts are geographically referenced, and have allowed us to begin to trace the impacts of the cold and wet weather around the country. Our reconstruction demonstrates the importance of studying global phenomena at the local level, and of situating the summer of 1816 within wider weather and cultural contexts. The 1810s were a very cool decade with multiple localised extreme weather events, and the bad weather coincided a particularly challenging time of cultural upheaval following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.

Summer 1816 in the UK

At the end of July 1816, continuous rains set in for 6 to 8 weeks. ‘On 31 July [in Norfolk] the rain descended in such torrents as to prostrate the heavy crops in many places, & by the violent effects of a water spout, acres of turnips were washed away, & in some villages the ditches & lanes were so full of water that boats might have been rowed in them’ (Matchett, 1822: 146). Abbot Upcher in Sheringham, Norfolk, reflected later, ‘During this year there was no summer whatsoever. Incessant rains during June, July & August, and tremendous gales’ (Norfolk Record Office, UPC 155).

Weather observers in 1816 were also clearly aware of human distress across the country. At Tissington, Derbyshire, bailiff James Hardy suggested that if not for the kindness of Sir Henry Fitzherbert, ‘more than two thirds of the Tissington labourers would want relief at this time’ (Derbyshire Record Office, D239/M/E/4535), whilst Reverend William Alderson feared the winter would produce ‘disturbances throu’out the country’ (Derbyshire Record Office, D239/M/F/8395). Discussion in the Farmer’s Magazine centred on farmers’ inability to pay rents, and many landlords were unwilling to offer abatement. W. Palethorpe of Kirton in Holland included a postscript to his letter to his landlord that ‘we have had extreme bad weather for the harvest and most shocking complaints of poverty’ (Nottinghamshire Archives, DD/1461/212).

Contextualising the ‘year without summer’

It is very difficult to discriminate between weather effects linked to volcanic events, and the natural variability of the climate. Disentangling the event-related socio-economic and ecological implications from ongoing changes in the historical record is no less problematic. Our sources help us to explore the anatomy of general crisis in this period and points to 1816 being a difficult year for many people across the UK. The material suggests that extreme weather recorded in the in the spring, summer and autumn months of 1816 conditions may have been ‘truly exceptional’ and ‘of a degree for which it is reasonable to invoke an external forcing mechanism’ (Sadler and Grattan, 1999: 187).

Although some parts of the UK have enjoyed further sunshine this week, and hope to enjoy more, some it seems can’t wait for autumn! Good riddance to summer, a thoroughly un-British season .

About the authors: Lucy is a Research Fellow and Georgina is Professor of Environmental History. They are both working on the AHRC funded project ‘Spaces of experience and horizons of expectation’: Extreme weather in the UK, past, present and future, and are based in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham.

60-world2 BBC Radio 4 High Explosive: The Tambora Story  Fri 3 Arpil 2015.

60-world2 Groskop V 2016 Was the summer of 1976 the best Britain ever had? The Guardian July 2016

60-world2 Hambling D 2016 The outlook:perceptual freezing darkness The Guardian July 2016. 

books_icon Matchett J 1822 The Norfolk and Norwich Remembrancer and Vade-Mecus 2nd edition Matchett and Stevenson, Norwich

60-world2 Mitchell T 2016 Good riddance to summer, a thoroughly un-British season The Guardian 2016

books_icon Oppenheimer, C. 2003. Climatic, environmental and human consequences of the largest known historical eruption: Tambora volcano (Indonesia) 1815. 27: 230-259 doi: 10.1191/0309133303pp379ra

books_icon Sadler J P and Grattan J P 1999 Volcanoes as agents of past environmental change Global and Planetary Change 21 181-96 doi:10.1016/S0921-8181(99)00014-4

books_iconVeale, L. and Endfield, G. 2016. Situating 1816, the ‘year without summer’, in the UK. The Geographical Journal doi: 10.1111/geoj.12191

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