The ‘year of awe’ : A guest post by Tessa Harris

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose! Today we are very pleased to invite back the brilliant and talented Tessa Harris, author of the Anatomist’s Apprentice Thomas Silkstone mystery series. Tessa’s marvelous story-telling, coupled with her conscientious research into the 18th century, make for heart-pounding reading. Today, she provides us with a guest post aDailyDose_Posterbout the “year of awe”…

…Because sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.


Year of Awe | Guest post by Tessa Harris

A deadly fog that killed both man and beast, a blood-red moon, savage thunderstorms and great meteors: no wonder most people in eastern England thought the world was about to end in 1783!

coverSince the publication of my third novel, The Devil’s Breath, in January, several readers have told me they had never heard of this eponymous phenomenon that caused so much havoc in Europe in the years 1783-4. I have a confession to make; nor had I.  Not, that is, until in April 2010 when most of Scotland and England and, indeed, much of northern Europe, found themselves at the mercy of a volcanic ash cloud. Thousands of flights were canceled, millions of air passengers were stranded and the economic fall-out was huge. I had friends who found themselves stuck in Italy for over a week longer than they planned and my husband couldn’t fulfil a business engagement in Aberdeen.

It was only when the UK press picked up on this contemporary calamity that the historical one was revealed to a mass readership, myself included. Newspaper headlines in the UK declared: How an Icelandic volcano helped spark the French Revolution and Volcanic ash cloud may have killed 10,000, which as it turned out, is a conservative estimate.

Naturally, as my particular historical interest is in this period, I was prompted to dig deeper. What I found was both fascinating and almost unbelievable. To begin, we need to go back to a cataclysmic event in the summer of 1783.  volcanic fissure in Iceland called Laki.  On June 8, 1783, a volcanic fissure in Iceland, called Laki, burst asunder, sending 122Mt of sulphur into the atmosphere. The impact on Iceland itself was disastrous, wiping out most sheep and horses and more than 20 per cent of the population. Such was the devastation that the Icelandics even invented a word for it – Moduhardindin – meaning ‘the hardship of the fog.’

What compounded matters, however, was the fact that the summer of 1783 was one of the hottest on record in Europe and the high pressure caused the wind to blow in a south-easterly direction – straight toward northern Europe.

Sores and patches appeared on the skin of animals

By June 23 the highly toxic cloud of sulphur had reached Britain. On the east coast, in Lincoln, a visitor reported: “A thick hot vapour had for several days before filled up the valley, so that both the Sun and Moon appeared like heated brick-bars.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1783.)

In Huntington, the poet William Cowper wrote of the ‘thickest fog’ he could remember. He went on: “We never see the sun but shorn of its beams, the trees are scarce discernable at a mile’s distance, he sets with the face of a hot salamander and rises with the same complexion.”

Further south, in Hampshire, the naturalist Gilbert White wrote of “The peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed in this island and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.” As the summer wore on plagues of flies irritated horses, meat was inedible a day after butchery, and milk turned sour within hours.

Soon, however, the effect of the fog across the sun meant that temperatures dropped. We know from White’s careful records that there were 28 days of continuous frost that summer!

Crops began to fail, insects died, and fruit simply fell off tees. Naturally the effect spread to livestock, whose food became in short supply. One Cambridge newspaper reported: “The grazing land, which only the day before was full of juice …did immediately after this uncommon event , look as if it had dried up by the sun, and was to walk on like hay.”

Sores and patches appeared on the skin of animals and the rural chaos led to a hike in food prices. At Halifax market, in Yorkshire, a mob gathered to force merchants to sell their wheat and oats at old prices. Moreover field workers, exposed to high concentrations of noxious gases, began to choke and die of respiratory illnesses.

Recent research has shown that before the year was out as many as 23,000 people had died from inhaling these gases or related conditions. Cambridge University researchers looked at the burial records for 404 church parishes in 39 English counties and discovered two peaks in mortality during the Laki event. In both cases, the worst affected region was the east of England. Data shows the summer of 1783 was particularly hot and that the first months of 1784 were amongst the coldest on record. The researchers believed that the mortality peaks could be partly attributed to these temperature extremes. Add to this fine, airborne particles of volcanic gases transported in the haze and you have a recipe for disaster – literally.

There is even some evidence to suggest that the Scottish poet Robert Burns was one of the thousands affected by the inhalation of sulphuric gas. In August 1784 he wrote of his “fainting fits and other alarming symptoms of pleurisy.”A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.” A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.” A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.”

By the time the fog had really taken hold, another, and even more terrifying, episode had begun. Contemporaries gave it the truly Hollywood-style epithet the year of awe or annus mirabilus.  During this period, a remarkable number of large meteors were spotted over Britain and throughout Europe. The aurora borealis was also seen very far south. These phenomena contributed to the impending sense that the ‘Day of Judgement’ was at hand.

On August 18, however, another rogue ingredient was added to this apocalyptic stew.  What became known as “the great Meteor” was an exceptionally bright meteor seen across Britain and much of northwest Europe. A letter from Whitby published in the London Chronicle spoke of “an extraordinary meteor…whose lustre almost equalled the sun.” Another observer said that the “whole horizon was illuminated; so that the smallest object might have been seen on the ground.” There are even contemporary engravings of the meteor, the most famous by Thomas Sandby of the phenomenon seen from Windsor Castle.

“an universal terror seized the whole town”

Such extraordinary events naturally prompted the less educated masses to believe that the end of the world was nigh and some ministers even fueled fears. One is reported in the Morning Post and Daily Advertiser as describing seeing “a revelation in flames, a huge beast with seven heads and ten horns.” Little wonder then, that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote in his diary that on a visit to Witney after a violent thunderstorm: ‘Those that were asleep in the town were waked and many thought the day of judgment had come….Men, women and children flocked out of their houses and kneeled down together in the streets.’

A correspondent from Devon wrote to the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser: “About three hours ago we were all struck with a panic too dreadful to be described: an universal terror seized the whole town, and most people believed the world was at an end, for that the moon was falling from heaven.”

There were those who took great delight from the experience. Take, for example, an excerpt from this letter in the Whitehall Evening Post which stated: The globe of fire that appeared on Monday night…could not, I think, have astonished or terrified any other than the ignorant part of the beholders. It was the most pleasant and beautiful phenomena ever seen, and consequently could not be terrific.”

The more ‘enlightened’ scholars of the time, however, tried to find a scientific attribution for the extraordinary events. One suggested in the London Chronicle that the August meteor may have been “occasioned by some of the vapours issuing from volcanoes upon the New Island lately sprung up in the ocean, about nine leagues to the S.W of Iceland.”

It was, however, none other than Benjamin Franklin whose 1785 essay, entitled Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures, speculated that the dry fog and cold winter might be related to Laki’s eruption. He also suggested that the fog might be due to: “the consumption by fire of some of those great burning balls or globes which we happen to meet with in our rapid course round the sun….”

So why are our history books not full of contemporary accounts of this phenomenon, of analyses and of comment? The truth is that the ‘Great Fogg’ was itself ‘clouded’ if you’ll excuse the pun, by the momentous political events of the day. King George III and his ministers were so preoccupied with the war with the American colonies that mentions of the strange weather and the effect that it had on various populations was extremely limited. Death was an everyday part of life, much more so than it is now. Most people did not question why so many were suffering coughs, sickness and debilitation. It was up to a genius like Franklin to figure out a possible scientific explanation for the momentous episode that may have changed the course of history for ever.

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