I’m currently reading a book which contains this section on the farming conditions in Devon in the second half of the 19th century:
[I]n 1879 it simply rained without ceasing throughout the whole of the summer, turning much of the English countryside into a desperate, oozing mire. It continued to rain until the end of 1882, causing an epidemic of pleuro pneumonia and liver rot in sheep, while the crops collapsed in the fields. The middle of the decade was marked by severe droughts and catastrophic frosts. S. G. Kendall, the West Country yeoman farmer who kept a detailed diary of the weather, vividly describes the year 1879 and the following five years of appalling summers. The persistent rain that summer, he wrote, was accompanied `by a damp, dark, cold atmosphere which struck a chill almost into one’s bones, bringing ruined crops with widespread devastation in their train … We had no barley crops at all that season on heavy soil’, and the wheat ‘turned blighty and black and seemed to shrink back in a different way yet not dissimilar to the barley two months earlier’.
Another diarist, George Rope, describes the floods that summer: ’23 Aug. Began cutting tolavera – slightly sprouted as it stood – from continual rains for the last fortnight. The wettest season since 186o and similar, but not so cold – about two-thirds of the hay and clover spoiled – and a large quantity carried away by floods – on 22nd July we had the greatest flood I can ever remember.’ He goes on to describe cows drowned, houses flooded, and how people had travelled by boat from farm to farm.
At the end of 1879 Kendall wrote: ‘This dismal, wet, dark, never-to-be-forgotten year is now at an end; may the coming eighties bring with it better luck and greater good fortune.’ But 1880 was if anything worse – bad weather and disease carried away five million sheep in England; and 1881 brought fresh disasters including a blizzard lasting forty-eight hours. G. E. Mingay, who has chronicled the weather during this period in his Rural Life in Victorian England, summarizes the continued disastrous weather thus:
The following summer was wet, and 1882 had a very wet autumn so that little wheat could be sown. The summers of 1885 and 1887, by contrast, were dry, with shortages of roots for the stock … the early nineties saw fresh disasters. The great blizzard of 8-13 March 1891 brought twenty-foot snow drifts to parts of the West Country, and claimed over 200 lives on shore and at sea. The farmers suffered great losses of livestock – some sheep were blown over the cliffs into the sea – as well as devastation in orchards and woodlands. The summer of 1891 also produced a wet harvest, and 1892 and 1893 brought very severe droughts. In [the West Country] hardly any rain fell between February and July 1893, and there was almost no grass for haymaking. On the heavy land the harrow marks of April could be seen right up to harvest. Then came a most bitter and persistent frost in the winter of 1894-5, when drifts of snow from six to fourteen feet deep covered the ground for weeks.
I’m posting this mainly to counteract the view of a rather dim BBC presenter who, the other day on television, opined in the context of global warming that “the weather is definitely getting more extreme”.