A little over two hundred years ago, the
eruption of a volcano in Iceland sent a huge toxic cloud across
Western Europe. It was the greatest natural disaster to hit
modern Britain, killing many thousands - but it has been almost
forgotten by history.
Such multitudes are indisposed by fevers in
this country that farmers have difficulty gathering their harvest,
the labourers having been almost every day carried out of the field
incapable of work and many die.
So wrote Hertfordshire poet William Cowper in the
summer of 1783. Across the country, newspapers reported the presence
of a thick smog and a dull sun, 'coloured like it has been soaked in
blood'. The cloud first reached Britain on 22 June 1783. In his
Naturalist's Journal, Gilbert White reported:
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.
The killer cloud lasted for weeks, if not months,
and engulfed much of Western Europe as, thousands of kilometres away
in Iceland, the Laki volcano continued to erupt. Millions of tonnes
of toxic gas were carried by the prevailing winds across Scandinavia
and eventually to Britain.
The cloud contained sulphur dioxide and sulphuric
acid which attacked the lungs of its victims, choking and killing
men and women, rich and poor alike.
The events are better documented in Iceland where up
to a third of the population died. Yet incredibly the British tragedy
wrought by Laki has been largely forgotten. Evidence that was brought
together for an edition of BBC Two's Timewatch series in 2007
made clear the extent of the disaster.
Panic and fear were widespread - as was death. But
just how many died, no-one knew until recently. Dr John Grattan of
Aberystwyth University, Wales, spent a decade before this scrutinising
hundreds of local parish records in his search for evidence of Laki's
deadly effect. In Maulden in Bedfordshire, the normal number of people
who may have been expected to die in the summer would be about four or
five - and in the summer of 1783 seventeen people died there.