Weather, Famine, Disease, Migration and Monsters: 1816-1819




“We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America. In June, instead of 3 ¾ inches, our average of rain for that month, we only had ⅓ of an inch; in August, instead of 9 1/6 inches, our average, we had only 8/10 of an inch; and still it continues.  The summer, too, has been as cold as a moderate winter. In every State north of this there has been frost in every month of the year; in this State we had none in June and July, but those of August killed much corn over the mountains. The crop of corn through the Atlantic States will probably be less than one-third of an ordinary one, that of tobacco still less, and of mean quality.  The crop of wheat was middling in quantity, but excellent in quality.  But every species of bread grain taken together will not be sufficient for the subsistence of the inhabitants, and the exportation of flour, already begun by the indebted and the improvident, to whatsoever degree it may be carried, will be exactly so much taken from the mouths of our own citizens.  My anxieties on this subject are the greater, because I remember the deaths which the drought of 1755 in Virginia produced from the want of food.”

Thomas Jefferson writing to Albert Gallatin
September 8, 1816  (Jefferson, 1904-5)


1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ or ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’ because of severe climate abnormalities that caused temperatures to decrease resulting in social, economic, and agricultural dislocations across the entire Northern Hemisphere.  These unusual climatic abnormalities had the greatest effect on New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, Atlantic Canada, The United Kingdom, and large parts of Western Europe. The effects were also felt in parts of Asia.


Evidence suggests the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).  Tambora is just one of many volcanoes in the archipelago of Indonesia and once was a mammoth peak – almost 14,000 feet high, believed to have been silent for 5,000 years before the explosion occurred.  Then, in 1812, Tambora awoke from its slumber and small eruptions of steam and ash began to emanate from the mountain, accompanied by significant earth tremors.  This continued until 5 April, 1815, when the first great eruption occurred, generating a volcanic column over 15 miles high. This blast was heard over 600 miles away.  Five days later, on 10 April, a several colossal explosions occurred (heard almost 1600 miles away), creating columns of volcanic material that stretched up to 25 miles into the sky. Continue reading

Theatre in Colonial and Federal America

Historic Marker for the 1st Play performed in America


Last month we looked at the history and development of English theatre, beginning in the Middle Ages, and carrying up through the Regency Era.  In today’s post, we are going to look at theatre in England’s American territories during the Colonial period as well as in the early years of the American Republic.


Exactly when the first dramatic performance in America took place is impossible to say.  There are records in of a play being acted on the Eastern Shore of Virginia as early as 1665.  A play, known as “Ye Bare and ye Cubb,” was acted by three citizens of Accomac, Cornelius Watkinson, Philip Howard, and William Darby.  As soon as the report of this performance reached the King’s attorney, John Fawsett, he summoned them to court, where he subjected each of them to a rigid cross-examination.  At this session, the justices contented themselves with ordering the culprits to appear at the next meeting of the court in the costumes, which they had worn in acting the alleged play.  They were also required to bring with them for inspection a copy of the “verses, speeches, and passages” which they had performed on that occasion.  Continue reading

Richard Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s Older Brother


Richard Wellesley in his red East India Company Uniform

Richard Wellesley in his East India Company Uniform

Almost everyone knows the name of Sherlock Holmes’ older brother Mycroft, and most people probably know something about his employment.  Likewise, those who study the Georgian era, particularly the period of the Napoleonic Wars, know something about Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, one of the leading British military and political figures of the 19th century.  Famous for his adaptive defensive style of warfare that resulted in several victories against numerically superior forces while minimizing his own losses, he is regarded as one of the greatest defensive commanders of all time, and many of his tactics and battle plans are still studied in military academies around the world.

Fewer are familiar with Arthur’s older brother, Richard, who may actually be responsible for Arthur’s success.  Due to his mother’s concern for Arthur’s future, Richard asked his friend, the 4th Duke of Rutland (then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland), to consider Arthur for a commission in the army.  Soon after, on 7 March 1787, he became an ensign in the 73rd Regiment of Foot.  In October of that year, again with the Richard’s assistance, he was assigned as aide-de-camp to the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Buckingham at a salary of ten shillings a day (twice his normal pay as an ensign), thus kick starting his illustrious career. Continue reading

Theatre in Georgian England


Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth and David Garrick as Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in April 1768

Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth and David Garrick as Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in April 1768


During the Georgian Era, Great Britain’s population grew rapidly, from around five million people in 1700 to nearly nine million by 1801.  Many people left the countryside to seek out new job opportunities in nearby towns and cities.  Others arrived from further afield: from rural areas in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and from across large areas of continental Europe.  Young people were drawn to urban areas by the offer of regular and full-time employment.  The increased income that came from this steady employment allowed these new city residents to take advantage of the entertainments offered in these urban areas: the theatres, inns, and pleasure gardens, as well as the shops featuring the latest fashions.

In today’s post, we are going to look at English theatre – its roots and development over time, the social forces that shaped it, and what it was like attending the Theatre in the Georgian Era.

Medieval Drama

Between 925 and 975, theatre was “reborn” as drama reappeared in church services.  By 975, it had become a small drama within the service, often played by altar boys, used to illustrate various lessons from the Bible.  These “dramas” had little sense of history – reflecting the limited knowledge of the people, and anachronisms were quite common.  In The Second Shepherds’ Play, for instance, the stolen lamb becomes the baby Jesus, although the Shepherds had been using Christian references even before this “baby Jesus” arrived).  Comic elements appeared in plays that were otherwise quite serious, and had as their purpose to teach Biblical stories and principles to the people.  The medieval mind looked at the temporal world (Earth) as transitory; Heaven and Hell were the eternal realities. (Northern Virginia Community College, 2008)

In the 12th century, the fighters, returning from the Crusades, brought traditions from other cultures to Great Britain.  It was during this time that religious dramas began to be performed outside the church in the vernacular [native language].  In the beginning, the church had control of the drama outside of the church, but then it gradually became more controlled by secular groups.  The Guilds took over in some cities, and often certain Guilds retained control over certain plays/stories, all based in some way on the Bible or religious teachings.  For instance, the Bakers’ Guild might control the play about the Last Supper, and the Shipwrights’ Guild would do plays about the Ark. Continue reading

George Washington – Master of the Dance

The following post originally appeared on an English Country Dance blog that I used to write for.  Please enjoy this “different” view of George Washington as you celebrate President’s Day .


George Washington Looking out of a window


Barely a month before his death, George Washington penned the following letter.

Mount Vernon

12th November, 1799.

 Gentlemen—Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the assemblies in Alexandria this winter, and thank you for this mark of your attention. But, alas! our  dancing days are no more. We wish, however, all those who have a relish for so agreeable and innocent an amusement all the pleasure the season will afford them; and I am, gentlemen,

Your most obedient and obliged humble servant,

Geo. Washington (Custis, p. 366)

Our first President, known today mostly for his military and political accomplishments, was known throughout his lifetime for his accomplishments on the dance floor. The private assembly, the public ball, and the afternoon dancing party served the same role for Washington and his generation that cocktail parties, golf outings  and country clubs serve today—venues to bring the political leaders, financiers, military leaders and power brokers together under favorable and visible conditions. For most of his career, George Washington depended entirely on the inter-relations between these groups of people, socially, economically, and politically. In many cases, dancing was simply an excuse for a party and one of several activities at the event.

We have no evidence about how or when George Washington learned to dance, but it probably wasn’t from a book. His formal education, provided to him as one of ten children of an aristocratic Virginia family, ended in his early teens. He must have had instruction somewhere, especially to execute the complicated rhythms, patterns, and steps of the minuet, which he had certainly mastered by the time of the American Revolution as shown by the following accounts:

From the winter of 1777-78.

Mrs. Nathaniel Greene, the former Catherine Littlefield of Block Island, turned out to be the life of any party she attended, Kitty, as she was called, was apparently one of George Washington’s favored dancing partners. “At a Valley Forge soiree, according to historian Theodore Thayer in George Washington’s Generals, she danced with General Washington for three hours without stopping, which set a Continental Army record. General Green himself said that Kitty danced with the Commander-in-Chief for three hours without stopping, at Morristown…….Dancing, as Washington said of his gambling, was “an agreeable and innocent amusement,” a welcome relief from the time he spent in the saddle commanding the troops.” (Marvin Kitman, p. 169)


George Washington Dancing with Nellie Custis at his Mt. Vernon Home Feb 1777 by E. P Morran

George Washington Dancing with Nellie Custis at his Mt. Vernon Home Feb 1777 by E. P Morran

Apparently, Kitty Green was a favorite dancing partner of the Commander-in-Chief as we see once again in 1778.

When the camp spent a day rejoicing over the French alliance, “the celebration,” according to Thacher, “was concluded by a splendid ball opened by his Excellency General Washington, having for his partner the lady of General Knox.” Greene describes how “we had a little dance at my quarters a few evenings past. His Excellency and Mrs. Greene danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” (James Tilton in a letter to Gunning Bedford)

In 1779, as he danced a minuet with Lucy Knox, the wife of General Knox, he inspired the following tribute:

The ball was opened by his Excellency the General. When this man unbends from his station, and its weighty functions, he is even then like a philosopher, who mixes with the amusements of the world, that he may teach it what is right, or turn trifles into instruction. (Pennsylvania Packet, March, 6, 1779)

In 1781, at a victory ball in Fredericksburg, held less than a month after the Yorktown victory.

It was on this festive occasion that General Washington danced a minuet with Mrs. Willis. . . The minuet was much in vogue at that period, and was peculiarly calculated for the display of the splendid figure of the chief, and his natural grace and elegance of air and manners. The gallant Frenchmen who were present, of which fine people it may be said that dancing forms one of the elements of their existence, so much admired the American performance as to admit that a Parisian education could not have improved it. As the evening advanced, the commander-in-chief yielding to the general gayety of the scene, went down some dozen couple in the contre dance with great spirit and satisfaction (Custis, pp. 143-144)

George Washington dancing at a American Revolution Victory Ball

The Victory Ball, 1781 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris


And finally in 1783 when he went to Annapolis to resign his commission in the Army.

That night the General Assembly gave a ball at the State House, which was “beautifully illuminated” by eight pounds of candles. “A very numerous and brilliant appearance of ladies were present.” George Mann supplied supper, wine, a potent punch, and twelve packs of cards for entertainment at the ball. Congressman James Tilton of Delaware reported that the general “danced every set, that the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him. (McWilliams, p. 107)

While a great many stories about George Washington may well be legend, (chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a coin across the Potomac, etc.) it is obvious that General Washington’s legendary performance in the ballroom should certainly qualify him for the title of “Master of the Dance”.

Works Cited

Custis, G. W. (1860). Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis. New York: Derby & Jackson.

Marvin Kitman, G. W. (1970). George Washington’s Expense Account. New York: Simon & Schuster.

McWilliams, J. W. (2011). Annapolis, City on the Severn: A History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pennsylvania Packet. (1779, March 6).


©2013  Chuck Hudson

How England Got a German King – the Origin of the Georgians

Portrait of King George I of England

George I of England


On 18 September 1714, a 54-year-old German Prince, who had never set foot in the British Isles, arrived in Greenwich, England.  32 days later, without bloodshed or force of arms, he was crowned George the First, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Archtreasurer and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, and Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg.  How did this stranger come to sit on the throne of England and found the House of Hanover?  To understand the events that led to the rise of the Hanoverians, we have to look back more than 100 years before George’s arrival to the first of the Stuart Kings. Continue reading

The Flowing Bowl: Part 2


Gentlemen Socializing Around the Punch Bowl


Boy, bring a bowl of China here,
Fill it with water cool and clear:
Decanter with Jamaica right
And spoon of silver, clean and bright.

Sugar twice-fin’d in piece cut,
Kni[f]e, sieve and glass in order put,
Bring forth the fragrant fruit and then
We’re happy till the clock strikes ten.
(Franklin, 1737)

 Punch in England

With so many sailors returning from Eastern voyages with little else but the memories of drinking punch, it’s unsurprising that the docks and ports of Europe’s biggest seafaring harbors played host to the arrival of punch into European society; quickly becoming just as associated sailors, as weevils, wenches and dysentery. Continue reading