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Those Redwoods and 1739AD

25 August 2013

The post on Giant Redwoods on August 24th included the information of a narrow growth tree ring event at 1739AD that could not be attributed to a known volcano. Now we discover that the event is also confirmed in European oak dendrochronologies 1740-42 (a three year climatic downturn). It turns out that 1740 is the coldest year on the Central England Temperature record (which goes back to 1659). It was the last major demographic crisis of the pre-industrial world. In Ireland it is estimated around 300,000 people died of starvation in those three years. The potato crop was frozen in the ground.

This caused me to wonder what was going on for them to allow their potatoes to get frozen – why were they still in the ground in December? The great frost struck in December of 1739 and again in september of 1741. In those days potatoes were grown in raised beds, and stored in potato clamps, in layers of soil and straw. This normally protected them from frost in the winter – but clearly not the very cold weather in 1739. In other words, the potatoes were useless. They could not even be used as seed potatoes for the following years crop. In spring of 1740 the rains did not come and temperatures remained low with fierce winds from the north. Drought caused livestock to die (lack of grass) and the price of wheat, oats and barley shot up. In October and November of 1740 there were blizzards in Ireland followed by heavy rain and flooding – then the cold returned (see for example the wikipedia entry or the pdf at www.clim-past.net/9/1161/2013/cp-9-1161-2013.pdf).

In the 1740s there was an agricultural crisis in England, one of those bland statements which on the surface seems to imply farms had become uneconomical and farm workers were laid off. At West Wycombe the local lord of the manor took advantage of the situation by employing the unemployed to build a new road, one that was perfectly aligned on West Wycombe Hill which is topped by the church he renovated and the Dashwood mausoleum with its golden ball. This was built to impress his influential visitors, one of which was the American, Benjamin Franklin. The road foundations were made from chalk quarried out of the hill. This involved building a tunnel rather than cutting a slice from the side of the hill. It ran underground to the bottom of the aquifer where a stream was encountered. It was all part of a Classical folly, a series of features in his pleasure gardens, and the park he had created from arable fields, to the church and the mausoleum and the underground feature (replicating the River Styx). Nowadays it is known as West Wycombe caves and you pay your £9 and walk into the interior of the hill. However, it all came about because of the 1739 event – or whatever caused the sudden plummet in temperature.

The 1740s also involved the Scottish Jacobite uprising of 1745 (and Bonnie Prince Charlie), recruiting highlanders that were hungry and angry. It ended with the debacle at Culloden in 1746 and in 1750 the lairds began the Highland clearances (many folk migrating to Canada and the US in the process). Crofting had become uneconomical. The islands and highlands were too cold and wet to grow cereals, and the crops had suffered a succession of bad seasons. In eastern Scotland, home of Baxters vegetable soups, and numerous agricultural innovations,  the climate differed. It was not as wet. They had the best of the distilleries as well. In the west people in the islands and highlands bred livestock instead of arable and a vast trade in cattle bound for the English markets developed – and those people not cleared from their land prospered in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Presumably this is why there was never another Scottish rebellion – but several in Ireland.

In 1742 Handel's 'Messiah' was first performed, in Dublin. In the same year Walpole resigned after being PM for 21 years but more interesting, in respect of the climate, is that in 1739 and throughout the 1740s, the likes of Whitfield, John and Charles Wesley, began their crusade of evangelising the poor, preaching in fields and rural locations, and we may imagine their converts included those made redundant by the agricultural crisis. They began as Anglicans but this developed, over time, into Methodism and the Baptist and Free churches (and general non-conformism in religious teaching). Across Europe there was an increase in what was known as Pietism (in the 1740s), a kind of rejection of the Enlightenment (and probably why it is rarely mentioned by secularists). At the same time Paul Hackett Fischer, in The Great Wave (Oxford University Press:1996) says there was a steep rise in commodity prices in 1739-41. There were also steep rises in 1755-8 and 1776-81, but these coincided with wars iin Europe and the practise of armies living off the land. 

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