The Year Without a Summer

Previously I blogged about the eruption of Ilopango, a volcano in El Salvador that plunged the world into darkness, both literally and figuratively. I touched upon the year without a summer, 1816, but here I want to develop that further.

On 10 April 1815 Tambora, a three mile high volcano on the island of Sumbawa in the East Indies, erupted violently and propelled its top third high into the sky. The sound of the explosion could be heard more than 2,000 miles away and there were devastating tsunamis in the far east, but its legacy in Europe was more subtle. The finer particles from the ash cloud travelled round the stratosphere, reducing sunlight, leading to cold weather and crop failure across Europe and northern America.

“The Year Without a Summer had many impacts in Europe and North America. Crops were killed – either by frost or a lack of sunshine. This caused food to be scarce, and caused farmers who were able to grow crops to fear that they would be robbed. The lack of successful crops that summer made the food which was grown more valuable, and the price of food climbed. Because the price of oats increased, it was more expensive for people to feed their horses. Horses were the main method of transportation, so with expensive oats, the cost of travel increased.” (1)

How would this affect families in Andrew’s Kindred?

Many of the families in my ancestry depended upon coal mining, but most relied on agriculture, mainly as labourers. Clearly, the miners relied upon farming for their daily bread.

1814 and 1815 saw a sharp decline in wheat prices, from £109 9s. per imperial quarter (that is one quarter of a hundredweight or two stones, equivalent to 28 lbs or 12.7 kg) to just £65 7s. In 1816 the price rose to £78 6s. and in 1817 to £96 11s.; about 32%. This would have had a knock-on effect on the price of flour, and therefore the family’s daily bread, which was a major component of their spending. The average in the 1820s was about £59, so it seems that the poor harvest, in line with laws of supply and demand, did significantly increase the price of wheat. [At that time only wealthy people, or establishments like hotels, bought bread. Everyone else made their own.] An index of average wages (baseline 1840 = 100) shows that wages had risen quite rapidly from 1790 to 1810, to a high point of 124, but then steadily declined: 1816 117, 1820 110 and down to 100 in 1840 and 1850. (2)

The best descriptions of the impact of the Tambora dust cloud are to be found in contemporary newspapers.

Leicester Chronicle 6 Apr 1816 p3 col3


The perpetual vicissitudes of the season, joined with the distresses under which the farmers labour, have greatly retarded, indeed nearly paralyzed, the operation of agriculture. The state of the weather, both in the last and present month, has occasioned planting to be very backward, which must have a similar effect in every branch of the seed business in spring. Turnips have failed in some districts, and almost everywhere in point of quality. Sheep have suffered greatly from the severity and changeableness of the weather, and cattle keeping has been generally a business attended with difficulty; it has nevertheless been during the present season the only profitable branch to the corn farmer, and probably the saving of many from ruin, who have had the means and the resolution to pursue it with spirit.

Leicester Chronicle 8 Jun 1816 p3 col5

From the extreme lateness of the spring, and want of sun, well-grounded apprehensions are entertained for the fruit crop, and that we may again lie under the necessity of being good importing customers to our continental neighbours. All vegetation is at present so backward that nothing remains to be said on hops or other spring crops.

… both in the north and south far greater numbers of sheep and lambs than was apprehended have perished from famine and the severity of the weather. One farmer alone, near Morpeth [NE England] is reported, it is to be hoped erroneously, to have lost seven thousand sheep.

Corn seems inclined to fall with a rapidity equal to its late rise. The farmers’ stocks are not considerable, the demand for money having been so urgent, but the national stock is ample, even exclusive of foreign wheat in warehouse, which proves to be far below general calculation in quantity. … The labourers in husbandry are still in a most deplorable state of distress, in many or most parts …

Leicester Journal 26 Jul 1816

THE WEATHER – The continuance of the present very unseasonable weather has been attended with most baneful effects in various parts of the country. Such an inclement summer is scarcely remembered by the oldest person living. The hay has been so much injured by the incessant rains that the only alternative left to the proprietor is to convert it into dung for manure. The clover likewise has sustained equal damage with the hay and has been made the same use of. This unexpected visitation from heaven, added to the distress to which the country is otherwise reduced … the weather, it would seem, is not unreasonable to this country only, for we find that upon the continent it has been equally unfavourable.

Leicester Journal 9 Aug 2016 p4 col1

There are deplorable accounts from Burgundy, respecting the vineyards with which that rich province is covered. There is not the least prospect of having a vintage of fine wines; the coarser sorts have also suffered; and it is feared, that if good weather does not return, these will also entirely fail.

Leicester Chronicle 7 Sep 1816 p2 col5

The harvest still proceeds very slowly in this county, from the fickleness of the weather. On Saturday night and Sunday last we had a most tremendous gale, with a heavy fall of rain, by which many trees were shattered, and the corn in general suffered much, by being nearly all levelled to the ground, more particularly the wheat and oats; indeed, the whole country is in a disastrous state, so the little corn yet reaped is too green to be carried, and without more warmth and sunshine than we have at present can never be completely ripened, and must prove of bad sample. There is, however, a great abundance of quantity, though the quality of all agricultural produce will be defective.

Morning Post (London) 26 Nov 1816 p4 col2, quoting the Inverness Journal 17 Nov

The winter has commenced with a severity almost beyond example: frost, rain, and snow, have been incessant during the last week; and the greater proportion of corn still uncut, or in stooks, has suffered material injury.

Carlisle Patriot 11 January 1817

Agricultural Report for December. — The continuance of wet weather has rendered the sowing of the heavy land with wheat, in several districts, impracticable. … A large extent of the early sown wheats have been so long under water in the fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire as to be destroyed altogether. … Turnip and coleseed feed grows short in Norfolk and other parts of the Eastern district, and Hay is in consequence rising in price … Smithfield has been so overstocked through the month with fat beasts and sheep, at low prices, sufficient to supply the next; this having probably arisen from the necessitous state of the Grazing Countries, a shorter supply may be looked for through the spring.

These are just a few extracts from hundreds, if not thousands, of articles that tell a story of failing crops and the consequences: the price of cereals rose steeply and animal feed was in short supply, which in turn forced premature sale of some fatted beef cattle and sheep, causing a surplus and a fall in price. The prospects for the remaining cattle and sheep looked bleak. Farmers were close to ruin and with them the armies of farm hands (in census speak “Ag. Lab”.) that still worked the land. Although prices were rising the quantity was so much reduced that farm incomes were low and there was a shortage of cash to purchase seed, feed or livestock for fattening. The prospects were poor as hay and clover had been turned to compost and there was a worsening shortage of feed for livestock. Rain had flattened unripe wheat, which might be impossible to harvest. There was also a shortage of work on the land and many workers went without pay and food.

Leicester Chronicle 30 Nov 1816, p4 col3

Under “DIED”

On Saturday se’nnight, Mr W Pears of Fotheringhay. He was starved to death in the fields near Fotheringhay, on his return from Oundle market.

Morning Post 22 Jul 1816, p3 col4.

At Barnet, on Thursday, a gentleman happening to go into the market-place, found about 140 poor haymakers literally starving: he ordered them all to be supplied with half a quarten loaf, and to come back next morning for another. On Friday the number that applied for relief was 338, when they were given the same bounty.

Hard Times

There are many articles about people at the cusp of starvation the length and breadth of the land, as well as, for example, from Belgium and other parts of Europe. It appears that anyone whose employment had been agricultural labour was in dire straits and in danger of starving to death.

Hard Times, Hubert van Harkomer (1885).

Last evening I happened upon a rerun of BBC4 television’s The Victorians, a series exploring Victorian Britain through its art, including this painting. Clearly, the events of 1816 were long before Victoria’s reign, but it is easy to envisage Hard Times, by Hubert von Harkomer, being painted 70 years earlier, and at several times between.

(1) University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) Center for Science Education.

(2) Figures from The Longman Handbook to Modern British History 1714-2001.

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