1816 – the year without a summer

186 summer

If you thought last summer was bad, Ann Lee points out that it was even worse the year that Brixton Windmill was built!

Last summer, as a volunteer guide at Brixton Windmill, I found myself exchanging horror stories about the dreadful weather as our group made our way round the building, clinging onto our umbrellas for dear life. It was a relief for all of us to finish the external tour and get inside!

Perhaps it was a fitting reminder of the year the windmill was built – 1816, ‘the year without a summer’.

On 12 April 1815, Mount Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, blew apart almost without warning, having been dormant for several centuries. It was the most powerful eruption in recorded history, and its effects caused global devastation.

A million and a half tons of dust spewed out into the upper atmosphere. Vegetation in the nearby islands withered away and tens of thousands of people died, but it didn’t end there.

A year after the eruption, the temperature in the northern hemisphere plummeted during the summer months as a dark cloud covered the sun. From Europe to the north-eastern coast of the United States, crops failed and livestock perished.

Darkness and Frankenstein

In his poem ‘Darkness’, written in the same year, Lord Byron gives a graphic evocation of the resulting gloom: “The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars/ Did wander darkling in the eternal space,/ Rayless and pathless, and the icy Earth/ Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air./Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day ….”

Later that summer, staying at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva with a group of friends, Mary Godwin (the future Mary Shelley) escaped from the cold and darkness outdoors and sat by the fire listening to Shelley and Byron discussing matters of life and death.

The general gloom of the weather, together with the conversation, must have influenced her dreams that night, as it was then that she had the nightmare that led to the creation of Frankenstein.

Riots and Corn Laws

‘The year without a summer’ seems like a brave time to build a windmill, but reminds us of the vital importance of wheat as the staple food of the populace. There was widespread famine following the crop failures of 1816 – perhaps the worst of the 19th century – but harvest failures and the resulting unrest were by no means uncommon.

One of the worst followed the long, cold winter of 1794, and in April 1795 things came to a head when a group of 400 militiamen camped near Brighton staged a mutiny, seizing flour and other food to give to the poor and starving people of Sussex.

With an eye on events in revolutionary France, the authorities put down the rebellion with extreme ruthlessness, forcing two of the ‘ringleaders’ to kneel on their coffins and watch their comrades being flogged before being shot themselves.

Twenty years later things had not much improved, and were not helped by the introduction of the new Corn Law, which effectively prevented cheaper grain coming in from abroad.

The final end of the French revolutionary wars in 1815 failed to bring a return to prosperity, and the high price of staple food was a factor in the famous Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when a large crowd, which had gathered for a peaceful rally to hear the charismatic ‘Orator’ Hunt talk about economic failure and the need for social and parliamentary reform, was viciously attacked by mounted militia.

Weather, wheat and windmills are all bound up in the dramatic history of the early 19th century, with many echoes in our own time, and make a fascinating background to the story of Ashby’s Mill.

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