Posts Tagged ‘Chilblains’

Inquiring readers: The two summers before Jane Austen’s death, cold and wet weather plagued Great Britain due to a volcanic eruption in 1815 half a world away. This article discusses the reasons for the unseasonably cold weather and its effects on the world’s population, concentrating on those who lived in Great Britain. 

Tambora-Eruption_pg14_2Tambora’s Eruption

On April 10, 1815, a volcanic eruption of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa became the worst volcanic event in the last 1,000 years. According to an article published by National Geographic, this event was a “hundred times more powerful than the 1981 Mount St. Helens blast.” It is estimated that the pyroclastic flow from the eruption killed from 10,000 to 90,000 people initially. These flows were similar to the fast-moving currents of hot gas and volcanic matter that initially killed thousands of citizens in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Tambora’s catastrophic event “injected about 100 megatons of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere,” resulting in a deadly atmospheric haze that traveled slowly around the globe. (National Geographic.)

That haze caused spectacularly colorful sunsets, influencing painters in Europe, Great Britain, and the U.S. (indeed the world over) to capture them on canvases.


Caspar David Friedrich Zwei Männer am Meer (Two Men by the Sea), 1817

The gaseous haze-inducing particles reflected only a fraction of sunlight back into the atmosphere, dimming the sun’s effects, resulting in a cooling of the world’s temperature by approximately half a degree Celsius. This change may seem fractional, but it affected the world’s climate for three years — 1815, 1816, and 1817 (the year of Austen’s death).

The effects of the eruption were devastating the world over and caused winter weather to linger into the summer months:

“In the U.S., frosts and cold weather ravaged the New England growing season, prompting cries of a “year without a summer” and a migration into western states. Plunging temperatures broke the monsoon cycle in Asia, sending India into famine and triggering a cholera epidemic of unprecedented severity.”

“Summer cold snaps and crippling rains also destroyed Chinese farmers’ rice paddies, driving many to starvation, infanticide, and even child slavery” – National Geographic

Loss of crops in the ensuing growing seasons, starved millions more. English scientist Luke Howard (1772-1864) recorded in 1816:

“Not meadows and villages alone but portions of cities and large towns lay long underwater; dikes were broken, bridges blown up, the crops spoiled or carried off by torrents and the vintage ruined by the want of sun to bring out and ripen the fruit.”

Farmer’s Magazine (1816) spoke of water overflowing river banks and carrying away cattle in the UK. The severest conditions were recorded in early February, where hard frosts and deep snow, combined with a “depressed agricultural sector” reduced formerly industrious and economically sound families to the lowest state of poverty.

Before Tambora’s eruption, England had already experienced years of cooling, harvest failure, and famine (1813-1814). The after effects of Tambora made this trend worse, resulting in incessant rainfall, cool temperatures, and bitter winds, but these shifts in climate were not the only surprises in store for the populace. In 1815, Edmund Woolterton wrote from Denton, Norfolk: “the drought has been so severe the park is short of feed …” Violent winds, more floods, drifts of snow that made roads impassable, and hard frosts greeted autumn and winter…“ The incessant spring downpours prevented crop growth and caused more widespread flooding.

Farmer’s Magazine 17 (1816) wrote of “considerable quantities of soil, filling upsoughs and ditches; and some Sheep have been lost.” Turnips and other food for livestock were severely damaged and provided scant fodder for the starving animals. In June the wheat crops failed because of the cold and rain. Hot days in the Midlands were replaced by rain events, one of which in July lasted for 6-8 weeks. Its length prevented farmers from cutting grass in pastures, which caused more hardship for them and their cattle.

Jane Austen commented about the weather in a letter to her niece Anna on June 23, 1816:

“Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain, and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “it was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been.”

While Austen’s remark seemed offhand, poverty and starvation for the poor and working classes became grim:

“The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that in Barnet on Thursday [in July 1816], a Gentleman, happening to go into the market-place, found about 140 poor people literally starving; he ordered them all to be supplied with half a quartern loaf, and to come back next morning for another. On Friday the number that applied for relief was 338, when they got the same bounty. On Saturday morning those (all strangers) who applied were 776, who each received one-third of a quartern loaf, and from the parish a quarter of a pound of cheese each …”

Due to the weather, workers had difficulty finding employment. Understanding their dire situation, money was raised so that the London Association could purchase twenty tons of red herrings. Lord Middleton donated hundreds of tons of coal, and various parishes established soup kitchens and distributed oatmeal to feed the hungry. In addition, night policing was established to address an increase in crime, such as looting.

During the spring of 1817 – the last spring in Jane Austen’s life – the weather was cold and sunless and dry. In June, the month before her death, the UK experienced a heat wave, but then the rains began again toward the end of July. They continued through September and resulted in another failed harvest. The resulting famine led to social protest and violence.

FrankensteinTwo interesting developments resulted from Tambora’s destruction. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley rented a house near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. She was only 19 years old at this time. Rainy weather kept the couple and their friends inside their houses, for, as she wrote “it proved a wet, ungenial summer … and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” One of the friends who rented lodging nearby was Lord Byron. Bored, they competed to write a ghost story and the result was Mary’s Frankenstein, a classic that endures to this day. For the full story of this book’s inception, click on this link to History.com.

The other development was the invention of the early form of the bicycle. The reason for this method of transportation was the astronomical cost of feeding horses. Karl Drais set out to invent a way of getting around without horses or beasts of burden. Made of wood, this contraption came without a brake or pedals, but it could achieve a speed of 10 miles per hour.

Dandy's perambulationsa

Forward momentum was powered by feet. Without the protection of copyright laws, Drais did not make a fortune from his invention, which was initially called the laufmaschine. The Dandy’s Perambulations, a delightful satire written in 1819 and illustrated by Robert Cruikshank, shows the misadventures of two gentlemen out for a ride on their ‘dandy horses.’ Find this 40-page booklet digitized at the Internet Archive.

Dandy's perambulations

A possible third result of Tambora might have been an increase of chilblains among the populace, a painful condition caused by cold and wet conditions. This had been a common symptom among workers and servants who labored outdoors or in drafty kitchens. My guesses are pure speculation, for I’m no scientist or epidemiologist, but I wonder if 3-4 years of prolonged cold and wet weather after Tambora’s eruption might have resulted with chilblains spreading beyond the servant class and working poor.

Housemaids, scullery maids, and laundry maids from that era were particularly susceptible to this affliction due to their unceasing household chores. Exposure to cold, especially in winter, affected fingers, toes, and ears. The treatment required rest, keeping one’s body warm, and wearing dry woolen or cotton socks. No servant, or working class person who toiled outdoors for that matter, had the luxury to strictly follow most of those steps towards a cure. They could attempt to resist scratching their skin and apply witch hazel to reduce the inflammation, but few could rest for days in a dry and warm environment to recover.

In Longbourne, author Jo Baker introduces the reader to Sarah and Holly, two young fictional housemaids who served the Bennet family under their housekeeper Mrs Hill. They performed the drudgery work – scrubbing pots and pans, washing laundry by hand with harsh soaps, and hauling buckets of cold water to scrub floors and kitchen surfaces. Their hands and often their feet were plagued by chilblains that reddened the skin and felt as if their skin was on fire. In the novel, after the militia showed up in Meryton, Sarah was expected to act as the lady’s maid to all five Bennet girls, helping them to get ready for the increase in social events. This meant aggravating the chilblains on her hands, causing more soreness and pain as she spot-cleaned gowns, ironed them, and then dressed the girls’ hair.

Plunging hands repeatedly in cold water, as laundry maids and scullery maids did, irritated their skin, causing itching, red patches, swelling and blistering. This condition also occurred on the feet of people and farmers who walked in rain or wet fields with wet socks and shoes.

winter going north

Mail coaches and stagecoaches placed ‘cheap seat’ passengers on top or outside, leaving them exposed to the elements in rain and snow. Prolonged rains as described in first-hand accounts and cold weather throughout the summer and early fall must have increased the incidences of chilblains in this population. Several decades after Jane Austen’s death, Charlotte Brontë described the winter conditions for the orphaned girls in Lowood school:

“Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there: our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet . . .” — Jane Eyre

I searched Austen’s letters in the last years of her life from 1815 to 1817 (Le Faye), but could find only the quote I previously mentioned. It is sad to think that she experienced her final winter, spring, and early summer in such cold and miserable weather. Her hope about her health from autumn 1816 to early January 1817 shone through her surviving letters, and so her optimism about her future must be our consolation.

Sources and articles

Situating 1816, the ‘year without summer’, in the UK, August 2016, Geographical Journal 182(4), Authors: Veale, Lucy and Endfield Georgina. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/306042378_Situating_1816_the_’year_without_summer’_in_the_UK

Greshko, Michael (2016) 201 Years Ago, This Volcano Caused a Climate Catastrophe: Indonesia’s Tambora eruption brought on a deadly spate of cooling—presaging the costs that come with sudden changes to climate. National Geographic. 

Blakemore, Erin, ‘Frankenstein’ Was Born During a Ghastly Vacation, History.com, March 12, 2019 (Original, March 9, 2018). Frankenstein Was Born During a Ghastly Vacation:

The Old Farmer’s Almanac: The Year Without a Summer, January 16, 2022.


Paintings in the Year Without a Summer, Zachary Hubbard, Philologia

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Stage-coach and Mail in Days of Yore,

Volume 2 (of 2), by Charles G. Harper

Laundry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laundry#/media/File:Laundry_1806.PNG 

Maid of all work https://janeaustensworld.com/2009/06/14/regency-servants-maid-of-all-work/

Winter going north https://www.gutenberg.org/files/58668/58668-h/58668-h.htm#ip_165

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