Hello, and welcome to the public output portion (click here for audio) of my history senior research seminar. My research focused on the Weather, Politics, and Riots which broke out across Great Britain around the years 1815 to 1818. During this time a wave of civil disturbances and food riots would wash across Great Britain. Many historians attribute these disturbances to a depressed post-war economy, failing trade cycles, poor political decisions made by Parliament, and a working class transitioning from an agrarian to an industrial lifestyle. While these are all factors that led to rioting, I am adding in another. The weather of 1816 in Britain was some of the worst recorded in recent human history, with the average temperature falling 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit across the entire British Isles. The weather of 1816 is important for explaining many of the economic and agricultural failings of the latter part of the decade. Anomalous weather doesn’t just come out of nowhere, so that would be as best of place as any to start.
Britain’s awful weather of 1816 can be traced back and across the world to 1815’s Indonesia. On the small island of Sumbawa, a volcano called Mount Tambora erupted, pushing over 55 million tons of ash and sulphur in to the stratosphere. This sulphur gas stayed suspended in the stratosphere, quickly spreading out from the epicenter of the eruption. The layer of sulphur blocked the sun’s rays from entering, leading to a disastrous cooling phenomenon across the Northern Hemisphere for the following 3 years. Across India, China, North America, and Europe, temperatures dropped, crops failed, diseases spread, and famine-like conditions were observed. Coupled with a post-war economy and poor political decisions, social disturbances erupted across the nation.
22 riots were reported between 1815 and 1818 and occurred in both small agrarian communities in the East Anglia, and large cities such as London. The first riots were not a result of weather per say, but were linked with politics and agriculture nonetheless. In 1815 new regulations were added to the existing Corn Laws, which implemented a price floor of 80 shillings on domestic wholesale grain prices, and until that price was meet, foreign grain imports were halted. While this was intended as a form of protectionist policy, many in the East Anglian agrarian counties saw this as creating unnecessary inflation, and coupled with the fact that workers’ wages were not increasing in proportion to grain prices, this meant the more of workers’ weekly incomes were going towards purchasing food. On March 6, 1815, the day of the vote on new Corn Laws, thousands of people gathered outside Westminster Hall, signing petitions and threatening Ministers to vote against. Once news of the passage reached the crowd they began attacking the property of Ministers and aristocratic officials, such as the Lord Chancellor and Earl of Pembroke. The Manchester Mercury wrote on March 14 that “The dwelling of mr. Robinson, in Burlington-street, they attacked with the utmost fury, broke down the railing in front, demolished nearly the whole of the windows, and did other very considerable injury to the house.” I feel this riot as being important as it reflects the beginnings of popular workers’ riots which would come to further ravage Europe in the early 20th-century.
Following the Westminster riots, many other riots would breakout across the agrarian East Anglia the following year, in May of 1816. Some East Anglian towns saw as much as a 78% price increase for wheat between February and May 1816. Prices were high and wages were low. One of the most relevant riots took place in Downham from the 20th to 21st of May. In his studies of British food riots, Andrew Charlesworth summed up the Downham riots by stating, “the magistrates angered the labourers by only offering them on increased allowance and subsidized flour. They refused to grant the labourers’ demand of a wage of 2 [shillings] a day. . .” The people of East Anglia were not looking for temporary charities, rather what they sought were long term solutions to their personal economic woes. Following the refusal of the magistrates, the citizens rampaged through the town, destroying storefronts and houses. The crowd was dispersed by a unit of cavalrymen. 16 were arrested, with 2 being set for execution and the remaining 14 being sent to the Australian prison colony.
Unfortunately in an effort of keeping this short, I will have to end my public output here. If the discussion of how weather influenced early 19th-century British society peaked your interest please feel free to look through my citations and “Further Reading Suggestions” section for relevant material. There is plenty more to read about, such as the Spa Field Riots, the Spencean Philanthropists, and Parliament’s own reaction to the social unrest. If you are interested in my own research I will see if it permissible for me to post my full research thesis here. Also, feel free to explore the other projects on this site if my classmates did indeed post their own public output here. Thanks for listening and have a good day.
1) Post, John D. The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977.
2) Klingaman, William K., and Nicholas P. Klingaman. The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013.
3) Stevenson, John. “Food Riots in England, 1792-1818.” In Popular Protest and Public Order; Six Studies in British History, 1790-1920, edited by John Stevenson and Roland Quinault, 33-74. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1974.\
4) “Serious Riots in Westminster.” Manchester Mercury and Harrop’s General Advertiser, March 14, 1815. British Library Newpapers.
5) Charlesworth, Andrew. An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900. London: Routledge, 2017.
6) Bohstedt, John. The Politics of Provision: Food Riots, Moral Economy, and Market Transition in England, c. 1550-1850. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010.
Further Reading Suggestions
Dark Days of Georgian Britain; Rethinking the Regency by James Hobson.
Regency Revolution: The Case of Arthur Thistlewood by David Johnson.
Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World by Gillen D’Arcy Wood.