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Cockermouth Post Article May 2010

An Icelandic volcano has been much in the news of late, causing so much disruption to people’s travel plans, but a far more disruptive eruption happened in June 1783 when the Icelandic Laki volcano erupted and continued doing so for seven months. 10,000 Icelanders died, and in this country there was an increased incidence of illness, particularly among outdoor workers, and many deaths were attributed to the eruption. The consequences of that eruption across Europe, in this country, and indeed this region, were dramatic. Livestock was lost and harvests affected. Extreme weather, with violent thunderstorms and hailstorms, were widely reported, together with a noxious fog hanging everywhere (caused by sulphur dioxide mixing with water vapour), that only abated in the autumn. It was widely reported that the sun sometimes took on a strange blood-red colour, and sometimes remained pale and ghostly, all of which was attributed to the volcanic haze. July 1783 saw extreme heat, followed by the extremely harsh winter of 1784.

There were other strange phenomena to make people nervous; many must have believed rumours that the end of the world was nigh. The Cumberland Pacquet of 15th July 1783 reported an ‘almost universal perturbation in nature’ with ‘All Europe shaken by some uncommon convulsions …’ The dramatic appearance of a meteor around this time (August 1783) was reported by observers the length and breadth of the country. One local observer described what was seen thus:

“Yesterday se’ennight, in the evening, about a quarter past nine o’clock, a luminous meteor made its appearance here … it made its first appearance in the North West, previous to which the sky was tinged with streaks of a red colour, something like the East in a morning before sunrise; but only a miniature representation. Its motion was regular and in a direction from North West to South East. It appeared to consist of a beautiful pellucid globe of fire, with a long tail of a red and fiery colour, gradually tapering; and the light it emitted was little inferior to that of the sun. In a few seconds it disappeared under the horizon, leaving a beautiful and splendid train behind and, in about three minutes after, a report was heard like that of two cannons being discharged, supposed to proceed from the bursting of the meteor …”

(Cumberland Pacquet 26.8.1783)

Three years after that, in August 1786, John Bragg of Whitehaven recorded details in his diary of an earthquake that was clearly felt in Cockermouth and other parts locally.

“Many ran out into the street in their night clothes in terror. The vibrations were strong enough in Whitehaven to throw three people to the ground …”

Maybe we shouldn’t complain so much about the weather!

Gloria Edwards

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