Category: weather and climate

The Year Without a Summer: 1816

By , April 17, 2010 1:19 am

1815 represented a pretty good year for the United Kingdom. The “damn close run thing” at Waterloo had seen, finally, Napolean’s defeat. Peace had come, and the UK was on the winning side of it. Life looked good, the future looked bright.

But the next year, disaster came, and 1816 came to be known as “The Year Without a Summer”.

There were serious consequences all over the world, particularly for Northern Europe and North America. This post looks at the disaster and the consequences in this country.

Why no summer?

Map showing variation from normal temperatures in Europe in the "Year Without a Summer", 1816

Map showing variation from normal temperatures in Europe in the "Year Without a Summer", 1816

In April 1815, however, there had been a massive explosion. Mount Tambora volcano, in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), has been erupting since 1812, went bang.

38 cubic miles of pyroclastic material was ejected into the atmosphere. The ash column rose to about 140,000 feet. It was probably the largest ash explosion since the last Ice Age.

This followed four other serious volcanic events, which had taken place over the previous 4 years, so there was already a fair amount of volcanic dust and ash in the atmosphere.

In addition, solar activity had hit a periodic low point. So there was a confluence of damaging events.

The ash and dust in the atmosphere took a while to circulate, therefore there was a “summer” in 1815 (although it had been cold and wet for a few years, because of the other eruptions and the solar minima).

The vast quantities of volcanic debris in the atmosphere restricted the amount of sunlight which reached the earth’s surface, and there was a huge quantity of sulphur floating around the earth.

There is an article here, from History Magazine, about the effects of various volcanic eruptions.

The weather in England in the summer of 1816

Mount Tambora Volcano in 2006

Mount Tambora Volcano in 2006

It was cold, wet, and miserable. It snowed near London at Easter, in May and at the end of July, for example – a long way from typical weather in the south of England.It rained most days from May to September – 142 out of 153 days in the Lake District.  There were snow drifts in the Lake District in July, and ice on London ponds in September.

World-wide temperatures dropped significantly, and it was one of the coldest summers in English records (from the 16th century onwards).

Agriculture and crop failures

Crops were damaged by cold rainfall, and didn’t grow properly because of a lack of sun. Many crops rotted in the fields before they could be harvested, and more rotted after harvesting, because it was so damp.

In western England, Wales and Ireland, there were near-total crop failures in some areas.  Farm labourers found themselves out of work in large numbers, and added to the soldiers who had been demobbed after the end of the Napleonic Wars.

Social consequences of the year without a summer

Chichester Canal by J M W Turner

Chichester Canal by J M W Turner

All hell broke loose, not surprisingly.  Unemployment rose sharply, and famine threatened. The price of basic food stuffs soared, and many people went very hungry. Disease and infection rose, because of malnutrition and the wet conditions.

Riots and disturbances occurred all over the country. In one riot, over 100 food shops were broken into and ransacked, and the Luddite movement, which had been suppressed by 1813, re-gained power – in one attack on a factory in Loughbrough, over £6,000 worth of machinery was broken.

Mary Shelley, on holiday with friends in Switzerland, took advantage of the foul weather to write Frankenstein.  And the wonderful sunsets inspired artists, including Turner.

The Frost Fairs: the frozen River Thames in London

By , January 10, 2010 3:43 am

The Frozen Thames in London – an Introduction

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

Between 1400 AD and 1814, the last time it happened, the River Thames in London froze over 26 times. And when it froze solidly, Londoners made the most of it, and the “Frost Fairs” developed.

The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold.

It was also the time known as the “Little Ice Age”, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800 or so.

The huge, medieval bridge, with houses and shops above the numerous archways, is shown in the background of the woodcut to the right of this text, depicted during the Frost Fair of 1683.

The text accompanying the woodcut says:
An Exact and lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the variety of Showes and Humours on the ICE of the River of THAMES by LONDON  During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare of the Reigne of his sacred Maj King Charles the 2nd

The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower.

The Frozen Thames in the 16th century

The Thames froze over several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall, next to Westminster, to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. Greenwich was one of Henry’s favourite palaces; he married there more than once, and his daughter Elizabeth I was born there later in 1536.

In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, and boys and men played football on the ice.It was said of this winter:

On the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.

On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people.

The development of Frost Fairs into full-blown parties

The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608.  It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair  in 1683/1684

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair in 1683/1684

The “Long Freeze” or “Great Freeze” of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began 6 weeks before Christmas, and lasted into February.

Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river.

A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and “chair-pushing” events were also set up.

A pamphlet published about the Long Frost included this passage:

A whole street of booths, contiguous to each other, was built from the Temple Stairs to the barge-house in Southwark, which were inhabited by traders of all sorts, which usually frequent fairs and markets, as those who deal in earthenwares, brass, copper, tin, and iron, toys and trifles; and besides these, printers, bakers, cooks, butchers, barbers, coffee-men, and others, who were so frequented by the innumerable concourse of all degrees and qualities, that, by their own confession, they never met elsewhere the same advantages, every one being willing to say they did lay out such and such money on the river of Thames.

John Evelyn, a diarist, said that:

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water

The mug shown in the picture to the right of this text is tiny, less than 2.5 inches high. Engraved on the base are the words, “Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4″.

It is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington.

It is astonishing that something so small and delicate lasted to be put in a museum!

The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair.

Not only rivers, but huge chunks of the North Sea, froze during the terrible cold of the winter, and in France, an estimated 500,000 people died of starvation and malnutrition later in the year. There is a fascinating article from the New Scientist about this winter, called 1709: The year Europe froze.

A London paper said:

The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town; thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water that now lie congealed into ice.

On Thursday a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, printing presses are kept on the ice.

The last River Thames Frost Fair

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814.

The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid – an elephant was led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice.

Hoardes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week.

Writing 20 years later, Charles Mackay said of the 1814 fair:

Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost.

The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day.

Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north.

Since 1814

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

There has, of course, been ice on the River Thames since 1814 – what has not happened since then is the absolute freezing of the water, thick enough to allow lots of activity to take place on the ice.

The photograph to the right of this text shows ice in 1895, with the newly-constructed Tower Bridge in the background.

It looks pretty uneven, and not much fun to walk on!

St. Swithin and predicting English weather in the summer

By , July 19, 2009 4:00 am

English summer weather and the legend of St. Swithin’s Day

England, it is sometimes said, doesn’t have climate,  it has weather. There is quite a lot of truth in this – while it is obviously colder and darker in the winter than in the summer, on any given day it could be bright and sunny in December, or grey and pouring with rain in August.

So over the years, a large number of myths, legends and signs have been said to foretell what the weather will be.

There is an old legend, trotted out  every year, that the summer’s weather can be predicted by observing what happens on St. Swithin’s saint’s day, 15th July.

Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about St. Swithin in the 12th century

Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about St. Swithin in the 12th century

If it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, the tradition says, it will rain every day for the next 40 days.

Not great news for London, as it rained pretty heavily on 15th July this year. Oh, and it’s rained every day since, so far!

A traditional version of the weather forecasting properties of St. Swithin’s Day says:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain na mair

In the 18th century, John Gay recorded the ancient tradition thus:

Now if on Swithun’s feast the welkin lours
And every penthouse streams with hasty showers,
Twice twenty days shall clouds their fleeces drain
And wash the pavement with incessant rain.

A plan of Winchester Cathedral from 1911 - St. Swithin was Bishop of Winchester

A plan of Winchester Cathedral from 1911 - St. Swithin was Bishop of Winchester

Who was St. Swithin / St. Swithun / St. Swithhun?

St. Swithin (the most common spelling) was an Anglo-Saxon, and was bishop of Winchester from 852 AD until he died in 862.

In 9th century records, not a lot is said about him. He was one of the two main advisors of Egbert, King of Wessex. He signed a few charters which are still extant, and his death was reported in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, and that’s about it.

There are a lot more sources about him from the 10th century, but how much they actually knew and how much was just more or less made up is anyone’s guess!

Winchester Cathedral is still dedicated in part to him – to the Holy Trinity, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Swithin.

How the legend came about

William of Malmesbury, an 11th and 12th century historian, wrote about St. Swithin in his 1125 book Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of  English Bishops). William said that, when dying, St. Swithin said, “ubi et pedibus praetereuntium et stillicidiis ex alto rorantibus esset obnoxius”, or that he should be buried outside the Catherdral, where passers-by  could walk and raindrops fall on him. This indicates that the rain-forecasting potential of the saint was already know by the 12th century.

In the 10th century, over 100 years after his death, St. Swithin’s body was “translated”,  or moved. Most of his body was buried in a new shrine to him in Winchester Cathedral, but later his head went to Canterbury, and an arm to Peterborough Abbey.

It is supposed to have rained heavily on the date of the translation of St. Swithin’s relics, and the legend may originate from this.


Any truth in this saying?

Malmesbury Abbey, where William of Malmesbury was a monk

Malmesbury Abbey, where William of Malmesbury was a monk

To some extent, yes. Obviously, it’s not the case that the 15th July sets out the weather for the next 40 days for sure.

But there is a pattern whereby the weather in mid-July sets the stage for what is to follow.

The jet-stream’s position, for example, greatly affects British weather in the summer, and its position is often fixed by mid-July for several weeks thereafter.

So the weather for a week either side of St. Swithin’s Day is indeed a general indication of what the rest of the summer’s weather may be like.


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