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How a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 led to increased mortality in Badsey & Wickhamford

In June 1783, an Icelandic priest in a sermon said: "This past week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulphur and saltpetre all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils, and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in colour and gravel slides turned grey. All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned grey, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements.”

The priest was referring to the recent eruption of Laki, a volcano in the southern part of Iceland.  The Icelandic eruption has almost been forgotten in all but its mother country, but the consequences were extreme for the rest of Europe.    

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The eruption of Laki

On 8th June 1783, Laki began to erupt and continued to do so for the next eight months.  It poured out an estimated 42 billion tons of basalt lava and clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide compounds that contaminated the soil, leading to the death of over 50% of Iceland's livestock population, and the destruction of the vast majority of all crops. This led to a famine which then killed approximately many of the island's human population.  The lava flows also destroyed 21 villages.

But what has this to do with Badsey and Wickhamford?

The effects of the eruption in Britain and Europe

Just over two weeks after Laki began erupting, a deadly fog entered Britain.  The naturalist, Gilbert White, noted in his “Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne”:

… The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phenomena; for besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder-storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man. …..The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic … the country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun…

Gilbert White’s brother-in-law, Thomas Barker of Lyndon Hall, also commented on that strange summer.  In his “The Weather Journals of a Rutland Squire”, he reported in the middle of June 1783:  “… an uncommon haziness, the air all thick, the sun shone very red, the haze continued for a month and did not cease till Michaelmas.  The sun gave little heat, fruits did not ripen.”  Then on 18th August 1783, he noted:  “… between 9 and 10 at night, a ball of fire, seen all over England.”  A vivid picture of what our forebears must have witnessed in the summer of 1783.

Local newspapers up and down the country also reported the freak weather conditions.  A very hot summer of 1783 was followed by record-breaking cold winters of 1783-4 and 1784-5, the severest Britain had seen for 250 years.  In addition, millions of tons of toxic fumes were released, suffocating many in the process.

It has been suggested that the effects of the volcanic eruption was one of the causes of the French Revolution.  In the 1780s, France was already under social tension.  The terrible harvests and famine caused by this volcanic global cooling proved the spark that turned a series of general resentments by disunited social factions into widespread popular revolt in 1789.
It is estimated that 23,000 people died in Britain as a result of the extreme weather conditions and the toxic haze which enveloped the land.  This cloud was resident for two to three years after the eruption and led to, or accentuated, the extremes of heat and cold.  Parish records up and down the country tell the same story of increased mortality and this may be seen in the Badsey and Wickhamford registers.

Mortality in Badsey, Aldington and Wickhamford

In the decade preceding 1783, the number of burials in Badsey averaged six a year.  But in 1783 there were eight burials in the half year after 8th June, in 1784 there were 18 and in 1785 there were 32.  In a population of possibly around 300, this amounted to nearly 20% of parishioners dying in a 2½-year period.  The number of burials then declined in the following years.  One would normally have thought nothing of it, imagining that a serious disease had afflicted several people that particular year.  But it is a sobering thought when one realises that this pattern was replicated throughout the country.  Not even in this rural backwater could people hide from the toxic haze.  

The Brittain family lost four members and the Mustin, Knight and Clark families all lost three members each.  John and Elizabeth Brittain suffered the loss of four sons within an eight-week period:  Benjamin was buried on 14th September 1785, William on 3rd October, Thomas on 16th October and Robert on 11th November.

Twelve-year-old Jane Mustin, daughter of Charles and Mary Mustin, was one of the first to die, being buried on 17th July 1783.  The following year, her younger brother, 11-year-old Steven, was buried on 6th April 1784.  Then on 28th September 1784, a newborn baby, Joseph Mustin, son of their elder sister, Mary, died at just a few days old. 

One-year-old Hannah Knight was buried on 28th September 1783.  Just a week later, her 83-year-old grandfather, Samuel Knight of Aldington, was buried on 6th October 1783.  He had survived the earlier epidemic of 1727-1730 which had caused much death in the village, but this latest hazard was too much for his elderly body.  Samuel’s daughter-in-law, Ann Knight, was buried on 25th January 1784, aged 51.

Henry Clark was buried on 26th September 1784, William Clark on 11th July 1785 and Mary Clark on 5th August 1785, but their relationship to each other is unknown.

In Wickhamford, in the decade preceding 1783, the number of burials averaged three a year.  But in 1784 there were eight burials and in 1785 there were eight.  The Stanley, Maysey, Stinton, Blizard and Horsley families each lost two members.

The Reverend John Rawlins, minister of Badsey and Wickhamford for nearly 53 years, also perished and was buried on 6th November 1784.  He was aged 77, so his death may have been hastened by the difficult times which the country was facing.  The inscription on his monument in Badsey Church says:  “Here like a true and faithful Pastor he began his Labours, and here he Ended.”

We consider ourselves immune to natural disasters.  But history warns us we that should not be so complacent.

Maureen Spinks
November 2021

See also articles about other epidemics: