Sunday, May 22, 2011

1816: The Year Without A Summer, Part I

1816 was supposed to be a good year in Regency England. After almost twenty years of warfare, 1815 had seen Napoleon's final defeat and his exile to St. Helena in the southern Atlantic.

But even as a welcome peace settled over the land, a large number of cloudy days, temperatures much colder than average and excessive rain conspired against the return of prosperity.

Early 1816 in England ranks with 1814 as one of the two coldest winters since records were first kept in 1659. In the London area, snow fell on Easter (April 14), and again on May 12. A summer peppered with notably cold periods and unusually high amounts of rain succeeded the frigid winter. On July 30, snow drifts were still on Helvellyn, the highest peak in the Helvellyn range in the Lake District, and in early September, ice formed on water in London.

The depressed temperatures prevented normal crop growth and the copious rain caused what did sprout to rot in the fields. Poor harvests had been the rule for the previous few years, and 1816's crop failure led to food shortages. This dismal year was then succeeded by the bitter winter of 1817.

Since the weather prevented the crops from growing, farm laborers were left without work. At the same time, returning soldiers swamped the country, swelling the masses of the unemployed. The Corn Laws, enacted the previous year, had set the price of grain at a high level. The intent was to protect British farmers from an onslaught of cheap foreign grain. But after successive years of abysmal harvests, British grain prices soared to heights the poor couldn't afford. Food riots broke out and food warehouses were looted. In one riot in Dundee, rioters ransacked over 100 shops and a grain store.

Disease usually accompanies famine, and 1816 was no exception. The food shortages led to the typhus epidemic of 1816-1819, responsible for the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Irish.

What produced such atrocious weather? In my next post, I'll explore the physical causes of The Year Without A Summer.

Thank you all,

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