The worst Christmas ever?

Apparently, storm Barbara is heading for the British Isles just in time for Christmas with the risk of disruption to transport and power supplies and some possible structural damage. The one thing we all share, wherever we are in the world, is our powerlessness in the face of severe weather. For our ancestors, the consequences were far more devastating.

It’s a sobering thought, but exactly 200 years ago, running up to Christmas of 1816, people were in the midst of a famine right here in Britain thanks to a volcanic explosion on the other side of the world.

In 1815, the effects of the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, Sumbawa island, Indonesia,  were felt across the world and led to devastating crop failures across the Northern hemisphere in 1816. It has been dubbed ‘the summer that never was’.

The summer of 1816 was so severely cold and wet it led to one of the worst famines of 19th century Europe. Red snow fell in Italy, Eastern parts of North America were under a cloud of volcanic fog, snow fell in Albany, New York in June, and riots broke out in Britain and Europe following the cataclysmic failure of crops.

Families in Wales are said to have traveled great distances begging for food, such was their hunger.

I may not have learned of this extraordinary disaster if I hadn’t been recently researching some unexplained deaths in my family history.

My 5 x grandparents, born in Ceredigion, both died within a month of each other in the summer of 1818. They were younger than I am now. Also, one month later, their oldest son died at the tender age of 30, in the same house. In the neighbouring house, another two relatives had died in that summer; aged 28 and 36. The obvious nagging question was why had so many died before their time and over such a short period?

Causes of death were not entered in the parish registers, so any one of many diseases such as smallpox or typhus may have been responsible. In Cardiganshire, even malaria was not uncommon in marshland areas. But looking for possible diseases led me to the historical occurrence of’the summer that never was’ in 1816.

People weakened by hunger are more susceptible to disease, and disease follows famine as surely as night follows day. In Ireland, also affected by the famine, a typhus epidemic ran from 1816 to 1819.

I will never know for sure what killed those ancestors of mine in 1818 but one thing I can be sure of is that they suffered unimaginable hardship and hunger in the two years leading up to their demise. Luckily for me, their son, my 4 x great grandfather and his wife survived and my 3 x great grandfather was born in 1820.

I’ve discovered many tragedies in my family’s past but this one has shocked and saddened me more than most. It brings home to all of us, I think, how powerless we are against the forces of nature.

We in the Western world live in an age of excess and never is this more evident than in the weeks running up to Christmas. This year more than ever following this most recent research, I am giving thanks for and appreciating how lucky we all are not to be enduring the hardships our ancestors did and which too many people across the world are enduring as I write.

In wishing a Happy Christmas to all my followers here on this blog, I particularly wish you a stress-free holiday in which you and yours do not angst over whether everything is perfect but simply enjoy and celebrate our great good fortune not to have been born in a time or place of great hardship.





Have you had your oats today?

Oats were once the main staple in the diets of rural people in upland Wales. Part of the research for my novel, Leap the Wild Water, involved finding out what the rural poor ate in the early 19th century. What I discovered was a diet dominated mainly by oats and milk. The only variations in the oats and milk diet were subtle variations in the preparation, invented no doubt to relieve the monotonous boredom of eating the same bland foodstuffs every day.

Oats were used to make oat bread, oatcakes, to thicken vegetable broths, in milk broths, and mixed with milk to make a fairly tasteless, porridge-like substance. Oatcakes seemed to have been eaten at almost every meal time. The most common recipe consisted of mixing fine oatmeal with bacon fat, boiling water and a pinch of salt. This mixture was then kneaded well. After rolling out and cutting into circles, the ‘cakes’ were then cooked on a hot baking stone placed over the fire.

Cawl llaeth was a milk broth eaten at breakfast time and very like the porridge we eat today; made with skimmed milk, oatmeal, water and salt boiled together.

An inventive variation on the oats for breakfast theme was to serve Cawl -with crushed oatcakes added; the downside of having this for breakfast meant that you would be eating the same meal at breakfast as at dinner – Cawl being the main meal of the day. Cawl is a Welsh broth, made by adding vegetables to water in which salt beef or bacon is being boiled, and then thickened with, yes, you have guessed it, oatmeal.

‘Shot’ was a common supper dish. It was basically oatcakes steeped in buttermilk.

For a little variety ‘Sopas’ was eaten at breakfast in summer time; this was made by heating buttermilk to blood temperature, then rennet was added and the mixture placed in a cloth covered bowl. This less than delightful sounding mixture was then left for several hours before being mixed and served. At least it didn’t have oatmeal in it, though it is more than likely that oatcakes were served up on the side.

Even the mid-day meal did not escape the addition of oats, as the bread served with the home-made cheese and butter would have likely been oat bread.

The mind numbing monotony of the rural Welsh diet was the direct result of there being nothing to eat which could not be grown. Thus, Cawl was made from the bacon of one’s own pig and the vegetables grown in the garden. Your cow would provide the milk to drink, and for making cheese and butter. If pudding was eaten at all it was likely to be stewed apples or whatever other fruit was in season in the garden or the wild.

Upland Wales was not a conducive climate for growing cereal crops but people had to grow a certain amount of oats, rye and barley to feed themselves and their animals. What came to be known as ‘Radnorshire’ oats was able to survive the cold and wet Welsh climate.

Though sheep were the predominant animal in upland Wales, they were not reared for meat but for their wool. However, after lambs were weaned, their milk was often added to cow’s milk to make cheese. A typical recipe for cheese was a gallon of ewe’s milk to four gallons of cow’s milk, to which rennet and salt were added. I imagine this would be similar in texture and taste to Swiss Gruyere and provided a tasty addition to an otherwise bland and monotonous diet.

The whey from cheese making was used to make ‘Gwyneb Maidd’. The whey was brought to near boiling point when fresh milk and buttermilk were added. This mixture would then curdle, at which point bread was added. I vividly remember my mother making a similar dish for us as children, liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper, which we ate before bedtime. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. My mother made all her own bread, butter and cheese on the farm where I grew up in Wales, until well into the 1960’s, by which time it ceased to be economically necessary or viable. Even now, the faintest whiff of buttermilk has the power to transport me back to my mother’s white-washed dairy.

We have such a varied diet these days; it is hard to imagine the monotony of the self-sufficient diet of earlier times. Back then, bad weather and failed crops could mean starvation to a family. We all know about the Irish famines, but Wales too suffered famines on a regular basis; though people did not die in such numbers as in Ireland because they were not so reliant on potatoes.

I have experimented with growing my own vegetables organically, as part of the research for my novel. It is time consuming and sometimes soul destroying work when the results are far less than hoped for. The past years of unusually cold, wet summers did not help.

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow     The Calling of the Raven updated book cover     Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

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