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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Some musings on what the year without a summer [1816] meant to most people

It's the 9th of June, and this morning started cold, murky and miserable.
Now, I  know one looks at childhood through rose coloured spectacles, but I have no recollection, apart from the odd day here or there, of June being chilly enough to need a hot water bottle at night from time to time, as I have this year.
Moreover, on the sunny days this year, I've hung out washing on the line in the morning, and by five in the early evening .... it's still not dry.
Now, I'm not comparing this to the June of 1816 which was really unseasonable, owing to the eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815,  but it's been inconvenient enough to make me think about the travails of the common man in 1816, being common as dirt myself in 2016, and having to think twice about using the tumble drier because of the horrendous cost of electricity.   And at that, I have the advantage of owning a tumble drier, which Mrs. Villager of 1816 did not.   And if the washing did not get dry spread on the bushes on the village green, the common way of drying clothes then, before the invention of the clothes peg, either you didn't wash the clothes, or you wore them damp.  Drying them in front of a fire would mean having to light a fire that was hot enough and burned long enough to dry the clothes; and that meant buying fuel.  A similar dilemma to me and the tumble drier, except that  Mrs. Villager didn't have the option of running into an overdraft as so many of us can do these days.  Cash on the nail was the rule then, unless you were aristocracy.  And if Mr. Villager was engaged in the usual rural activities like raising crops and livestock, well, he was in deep financial trouble.  Crops were killed in the fields by the late May frosts, and the grass was poor for livestock.  There was a serious problem of rickets in lambs, many of which had to be culled because they were unhealthy.  Rickets is caused by a lack of vitamin D, ie, sunlight.  Possibly Master Villager himself had rickets and was unable to help his father in the fields. 
So there's precious little food, no income to speak of, the clothes can't be washed because they won't dry, and will give anyone wearing them a chill or rheumatism [and with sore throats engendered by such chills, the possibility of rheumatic fever, life threatening at worst, or at best leaving a heart murmur].  Washing personally is not fun in the cold, believe me, we had an unheated bathroom for enough years for hot running water to be luke warm by the time the bath was filled in midwinter, and washing was very much a lick and a promise, even with a fire downstairs to sit in front of!  so, we have Mr and Mrs Villager likely to decide that washing was a bad idea.
Unfortunately if Mr and Mrs Villager had used the fire on which they cooked to heat an iron to iron the seams of their unwashed clothing, they would have been able to kill the body lice which lurked there, leaping from person to person as they huddled together for warmth and spreading Typhus, also known as gaol fever.  It was called gaol fever because in gaols, people were in close proximity and rarely washed.  It happened to the army on the Peninsula as well.

So, Mr and Mrs Villager, hungry all the time, and therefore more susceptible to disease, cold all the time, and so more susceptible to disease, stressed out like mad over how they are going to pay the bills without any money for selling produce, and therefore more susceptible to disease, are almost inevitably going to succumb when Typhus strikes.

I address this issue in my Jane Austen 'Emma' sequel, 'Cousin Prudence' [to be found Here, on amazon or Here on amazon uk] as well as describing the dry fogs, and red appearance of the sun for much of the time.  Since there was a theory that the fogs were caused by the mass guns firing during the French wars, especially Waterloo, I shouldn't be surprised if many people wondered if this seemingly dying sun indicated the apocalypse. 


  1. Thanks for describing the challenges of the villagers so well, Sarah. Sometimes, with all of our modern conveniences, it is hard to fathom just how difficult it was for folks back then. Especially when dealing with extremes of weather!

  2. I'm better equipped than many people to describe life as it was. We didn't have a fridge until I was 16; we had a pantry which remained at about 6 degrees centigrade winter and summer because that was how it was designed. We've never had central heating and our main source of heat is still open fires or the closed stove. We don't have double glazing either, as my mother wouldn't hear of it, I hope to change that a few of our 28 windows at a time, in the meantime there's bubble wrap and heavy curtains. Well, ok, the Georgians didn't have bubble wrap but i do remember stuffing rags between the two sash windows in the rooms we used to stop draughts and to stop them rattling in high wind. And we use coked coal which puts out a better heat than basic coal, where you can scorch the side that is to the fire whilst the other side freezes. I can cook on the closed stove too, and apart from in Summer we used to do so. I prefer my gas stove though.

  3. I just found your blog and I'm catching up on all your posts. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to comment! I hope you enjoy.

  5. What you just wrote about your pantry is interesting, Sarah. How did the pantry stay at 6° C in the summer? My sister's in-laws used to own a cottage that was built in the days before fridges, and it diverted a stream through the basement. People used to put their milk bottles in the stream to keep them cold.

  6. We live on a road called Spring Road, and have in the foundations a hole built for a natural spring to pass through. Its seasonal, but the hole is necessary! the house is cool at the best of times, except upstairs in summer [though decent insulation has improved that!]. The pantry faces north, and had a zinc-covered window on that side, a stone floor, and apart from the short,5' wall on the north side, was entirely internal. The toilet [then only accessed from outside, though now the pantry is a shower we have the door moved inside] on one side faces north and east; the front room on the other side faces north and north west [the house bends slightly to fit the line of the road, not right angles, a conceit of the builder who built it for himself, daft cluck] and though the chimney in theory backs partly on to the pantry, there's a double wall there to insulate it. I've been under the floorboards in the crawl-space down there to deal with a mould problem when the air brick got blocked, fighting claustrophobia by taking an interest in the architectural features. Most of the chimney is backed on to the hall space outside the pantry which I've converted into a cloakroom. I suspect the large number of corridors acted too as a heat conduit. I've got two rooms out of odd corridors, a 6'x8' cloakroom and a 10' x 5' [at one end, 3' at the other] sewing room out of the corridor leading to a window and the cupboard under the stairs. I have no idea what the builder was on, but I'd like some when my knees hurt please. I can only assume that the aspect and the springs helped. Having said that, in our previous house, where I used to holiday as a child [it belonged to a relative] the pantry was massive, about 10' square, and that was cold. It, too, was totally internal apart from a small, north-facing window. It had a flour drawer and marble top for making bread on; the range in the kitchen had a bread baking oven and a rising oven built into the surround. Water was from the pump. But that pantry stayed cool. I believe that it is the arrangement of walls around such rooms, and stone flooring, making the conditions similar to caves, where the temperature does not fluctuate. In the height of summer, milk went into a bucket of water, with a soaked tea towel over the top; the evaporation of the wet tea towel drew off heat, because of the energy required in the evaporation process, something I learned to prove in physics which my predecessors knew as a matter of course without caring about the science of it.

    1. For someone like me, born and raised in So California, this was a wonderful wealth of information. Thank you!

  7. It's still bloody cold in the shower, even in the height of summer, it's tempting to put the heater on!

  8. Thanks, Jules, glad it's useful! my son lives in California so I appreciate that there are significant differences. The misery of long, cold, damp periods can't be easily imagined.