Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora at the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia

April 1, 2015, by Lucy

Marking 200 years since the ‘super’ eruption of Tambora

5-11th April 1815

Next week I’m fortunate to be attending the International Conference on Volcanoes, Climate and Society at the University of Bern, Switzerland. The purpose of the conference is to mark 200 years since the eruption of the Tambora volcano, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, between 5-11th April 1815. The eruption is one of the largest ever known, and an estimated 72,000 people in Indonesia lost their lives because of it, 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, 1816 becoming popularly known as ‘the year without a summer’ or, in the United States, ‘eighteen hundred and froze to death’, owing to the prevailing cold and wet conditions across the northeastern USA, maritime provinces of Canada, and Europe (Oppenheimer, 2003). The conference is revisiting the event from a wide variety of perspectives, considering contemporary impacts and responses, and what more we can learn from it today, potentially also considering whether we are prepared for an eruption of similar magnitude today – a question Bill McGuire explored in a piece in The Guardian earlier this week. Next Friday I will be presenting a short paper drawing on archival materials gathered as part of the Weather Extremes project.

Accounts of the summer of 1816 from the UK documentary record

Using the search tools that Richard has developed has enabled us to pull out accounts of extreme or unusual weather from the TEMPEST database relating to the year 1816, allowing us to consider what impact the eruption of Tambora had on the weather of the UK, and in turn, the impact of that weather on the people who lived through it. As our accounts are geo-referenced, we are also able to begin to trace the geography of the impacts of the cold and wet weather around the country to see how the weather year unfolded in different places.

Our conference paper demonstrates the importance of studying global phenomena at the local level, and of situating the summer of 1816 within the wider weather and cultural contexts of the 1810s (a generally cold decade with numerous cultural, political and economic upheavals). However, in order to keep this post to a reasonable length I’m just going to share a few extracts from the archives relating specifically to the summer of 1816:

Diary of Peter Pegge-Burnell, Winkburn, Nottinghamshire (DD/CW/8c/5/35, Nottinghamshire Archives)

  • 9 June – showers in the morn afterwards very cool – from this time to the 16 – very cold & black with frequent catch frosts
  • 23 June – some most agreeable rain this morn – distant thunder yesterday
  • 30 June – morn cold, afternoon warmer & cloudy night, wind south west – this a very late season, no peas yet ready
  • 10 July – the first real summers morn – afternoon distant thunder & showers – fine growing weather at last
  • 16 July – morn do – at noon a very heavy rain came on continued some time
  • 19 July – most heavy & lasting rain first part of his day
  • 21 July – heavy clouds, some showers in the night & early next morn a world of rain fell, God have mercy on us
  • 22 July – a deal of rain early this morn, after fair till night then more rain
  • 28 July – rainy morn again Lord have mercy on us and send us some dry weather, day fair till eveng then a most uncommon heavy thunderstorm
  • 31 July – showers afternoon & night a deal of fine hay suffering? And the ground full of wet
  • Aug – this month came in as the last ended – wet and cold
  • 8 Aug – cruel wet & close – God save us what dismal weather
  • 10 Aug – a rather better hay day if some flying showers, wind high south west, eveng fine & glass rising
  • 15 Aug – morn bright, noon black & heavy clouds, past one heavy showers again, Lord have mercy of us
  • 16 Aug – fore part day very wet
  • 18 Aug – bright morn, afternoon tremendous heavy showers
  • 21 Aug – acres spoiling hay
  • 31 Aug – it began again to rain this morn about 3 o’clock & continued a dismal wet & cold day, night wind north west and very high – this was a most unseasonable month – pray God the next prove more favourable

Diary of Robert Lowe, Southwell, Nottinghamshire (DD/SK/217/20, Nottinghamshire Archives)

  • 4 June – Mr Fowler & I went down to the Trent wind to high & cold to fish N by E & E
  • 6 June – drank tea at Mrs Pigots being ? walked on the green put on my great coat being very cold indeed, N by E
  • 7 June – wind blew hard & very cold at W:N:W
  • 10 June – so very cold was at home all day, wind N:E & E
  • 19 June – a very hot day was skiving about all day
  • 20 June – very hot
  • 25 June – a very hot day
  • 26 June – rained all day which I fear will hurt the partridges
  • 18 July – rained most of the day
  • 19 July – rained most of the day
  • 20 July – very hot day no rain
  • 22 July – showery all day as it has been for 6 or 8 weeks
  • 29 July – Mr Lowe & I drank tea at Mr Maltby’s… it rained so hard in the afternoon Mr L was obliged to have the chaise
  • 31 Aug – rained all day, could not fish, we tried our guns

The diaries of Pegge-Burnell and Lowe present a picture of a very wet summer in Nottinghamshire, and suggest negative impacts on the hay harvest, and a certain level of distress among landowners. A letter from Bungay, Norfolk indicates that the wet weather extended to East Anglia:

Letter to Sir W.W. Dalling, Bungay, from E. Woolterton (MEA 3/591, Norfolk Record Office)

Sir WW Dalling

… I have not begun Hay cutting there has been so much rain almost every day for 3 weeks, is much the same at this time…

July 17th 1816

Agricultural depression

The wet weather coincided with a lengthy period of agricultural depression in the UK, and large numbers of people were in distress even before the poor harvest, with civil disturbances commonplace. The Board of Agriculture conducted a survey in February, March and April o f 1816 to assess the Agricultural State of the Kingdom.

Agricultural State of the Kingdom, 1816

Title page from Agricultural State of the Kingdom, 1816

Ely and Littleport were the site of violent riots in May of 1816. As Peacock explains, ‘the agricultural labourer was always the last to bestir himself – and when he did so it was a real indication of the deplorable conditions prevailing at the time’ (Peacock, 1965:11). The process of enclosure, the growing distance between farmer and labourer, low wages, unemployment, the decline of manufacturing industries during war, Settlement Laws that prevented mobility among labourers, changes to the Poor Relief system, and the introduction of harsher punishments for poaching are all named by Peacock as factors contributing to the riots. The weather cannot have helped, and must have been an influence on the sudden rise in prices of foodstuffs immediately prior to the riots. A number of our archival sources give an indication of the suffering among the labouring poor:

Records of the Presbyterian Church, Stourbridge, vol  IV (898/4/3/ii, Worcestershire Record Office)

Rainy season – The almost incessant rains which fell during the summer of this year and continued with little intermission during the autumnal months; produced, in addition to the distresses occasioned by the failure of employment, a great deal of calamity in the country. In the northern parts of the Kingdom, large quantities of corn were gathered in in an unripe state.

Letter from W Palethorp at Kirton, Lincolnshire to Swan (DD/1461/212, Nottinghamshire Archives)

Kirton, 11 Sept 1816

Sir, inclosd you have a draft for £128.12 which with £21.8 paid at ? for property tax (and being the last time) makes £150, which I hope you will receive ? for half a years rent due Saturday last, your obedient servt W Palethorp.

We have had extreme bad weather for the harvest and most shocking complaints of poverty.

Letter from Edward Stracey (WLS/XLVIII/30, Norfolk Record Office)

The Beach, Novr 17th 1816

Three letters from you were before me unanswered, only one excuse to invoke for this apparent neglect viz absence from home visiting my neighbours… The early severity of the season, the snow being many inches deep, has already and ? fever will cause still greater distress in the neighbourhood, a great deal of corn not yet houses and the potatoes not yet got out of the ground, potatoes being a very essential part of the food of the labouring poor, potatoes being now three times the usual price; but it is to be hoped that the potatoes may yet be gotten as thou being injured by the frost as they providentially have so rich a covering of snow to help keep them warm – the people want work, want employment, the best and most active workmen are hunting up and down the country for work. In my little way I endeavour to find work for many hands being perfectly convinced that the best charity is to employ the labourers… the mere giving money without requiring labour only encourages idleness and idleness as proverb says, is the root of all evil… Mr Stracey

The Nottingham Date Book (Sutton, 1852) recalls that on 10th December, ‘Owing to the scarcity of bread, good wheat readily realising 140s per quarter, there was much suffering and a great deficiency of employment. A public meeting on the subject was held in the Town Hall, the Mayor in the chair, at which it was resolved to enter into a subscription for the relief of the destitute, not otherwise provided for. The amount raised was 4,184l. In addition to this liberal amount, the London Association contributed twenty tons of red herrings, Lord Middleton gave three hundred tons of coal, and the parish of St Nicholas expended 500l on a separate soup establishment. The poor-rates were also excessively heavy.’ A system of night policing of the city was introducing as a result of the increase in robberies and disturbances.


Archival sources provide further evidence that summer of 1816 in the UK was excessively cold and wet, with frequent strong winds and stormy conditions, probably linked to the eruption of Tambora the previous year.

Culturally, our sources add further evidence to the fact that this was a difficult time for many people in the UK: Society was still unsettled as a result of the war years (Oppenheimer, 2003), the economy was stagnating as 400,000+ men from armed services entered labour market and the country failed to recapture European markets (Post, 1977). ‘The expenditure for poor relief rose from £5.4 million in 1815 to £7.9 in 1818, the highest figure reached under the old poor law… As on the continent, the cities and towns instituted soup kitchens and general relief programs’ (Post, 1977). We hope soon to add more accounts from other areas in the UK to our account – particularly Wales, where others have suggested conditions were particularly challenging (Oppenheimer, 2003, Post, 1977).

However, it is the weather of another year of that decade that our sources indicate lived far longer in the cultural memory in the UK – ‘the famous year 1814’ – famous for ‘the Great Frost’…

We’re really interested in the different ways that the eruption of Tambora, and the anomalous weather that followed it, is being remembered. Next week’s conference is one way, and Radio 4 are broadcasting a special programme on Friday ‘High Explosive: The Tambora Story’, others will be taking part in the Tambora marathon! Do please get in touch if you know of any other events.

Further reading

  • Oppenheimer, C. (2003) Climatic, environmental and human consequences of the largest known historical eruption: Tambora volcano (Indonesia) 1815 Progress in Physical Geography 27: 230-259
  • Post, J.D. (1977) The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World Baltimore MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Stommel, H. and Stommel, E. (1983) Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816, The Year Without a Summer Newport RA: Seven Seas Press
  • Sutton, J.F. (1852) The Date-book of Remarkable and Memorable Events Connected with Nottingham and Its Neighbourhood, 1750-1850 Simpkin and Marshall
  • Nature Geoscience April 2015


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