The year 1816 was the first full year of the Regency period in which the people of British Isles were able to enjoy peace. There were no ongoing conflicts in Europe, with Napoleon Bonaparte in his final exile on the faraway island of St. Helena. But the end of the war had brought widespread economic distress to Britain, which wrought great hardship on many. So did the residual effects of a powerful natural disaster which had occurred on the other side of the globe the previous year. However, there were also some significant scientific, social and cultural milestones which were achieved in this year, which did improve life in Regency England.
A glance back at the year 1816 . . .
The year began on a positive note, for it was in early January that the scientist, Sir Humphrey Davy, tested his newly perfected safety lamp in a working coal mine. The test was a success, during which Davy demonstrated that not only would his new lamp not ignite flammable gasses in the mine, it was also able to detect poisonous vapors in time to alert those in the vicinity. However, the news of this test did ignite an ongoing controversy which raged for over a year in private letters and public journals as to who actually invented this new lamp. But while the academic controversy raged on, more and more miners were able to work in greater safety in the coal mines of Britain.
Good news came for the general population in March of 1816, when Parliament abolished the income tax which had been imposed in 1803, after the Peace of Amiens broke down. At the time, those who opposed the tax believed that after the victory at Waterloo, the tax, which had been levied to finance the war effort, was no longer needed. Some of those opponents not only wanted the income tax law repealed, they also wanted all of the records associated with it destroyed. To satisfy those opponents and the general population, a set of income tax records was publicly burned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the tax court retained copies of all of those records, which were stored in the basement of the court building. British citizens would be free of any income tax for the remainder of the Regency. Income tax would not again be imposed until 1842, by Sir Robert Peel, despite the fact that, as a Conservative, he had opposed such a tax the previous year. Peel intended this new income tax to be temporary, until a growing budget deficit could be eliminated. But the income tax was never repealed and has remained in place, in one form or another, ever since 1842.
The spring of 1816 saw three significant events. Two departures from England and a royal marriage. On Monday, 22 April, Lord Byron fled England, to escape his debts and the wrath of his estranged wife, whose family had arranged a legal separation. In addition, by the spring, rumors had begun to circulate that he was involved in an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. With his marriage on the rocks, his reputation in jeopardy and his finances in tatters, he felt he had no choice but to flee his homeland. Though he assumed he would return after the scandals had subsided and his finances restored, Byron would never set foot in England again.
On a much happier note, on Thursday, 2 May, Princess Charlotte married the husband of her choice, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Though her father, the Prince Regent, had initially opposed her marriage to a man who would not take her away from England, she stood her ground, and eventually got her way. It was certainly one of the most triumphant moments of her life, and her marriage to Prince Leopold was by all accounts, very happy. The country was delighted by the marriage of the young couple and the prospect of an heir to secure the throne well into the future.
Though Beau Brummell probably enjoyed the early May celebrations of the royal wedding in London, less than a fortnight later he would be obliged to flee England forever. He was deeply in debt, but by virtue of his reputation and confident manner, he was able to maintain his lifestyle. But once the truth of his financial circumstances was made public, by a man who envied and hated him, the Beau knew his creditors would descend upon him. In all likelihood, he would be imprisoned for debt, with little hope of release. He felt he had no choice but to depart England for the Continent. On the evening of Thursday, 16 May, Brummell attended the theatre. But during the curtain call, he slipped out unseen and climbed into a borrowed coach which speedily carried him out of the city. Transferring to his own coach in Clapham Common, he traveled to Dover where he took a ship to France early the next morning. Though he could see the cliffs of Dover from the north coast of France on a clear day, he would never return to England. He died in France in 1840 and was buried there.
The eruption of the volcano, Mount Tambora, in Indonesia in April of 1815, was the cause of a second disaster across the British Isles and the Continent in the summer of 1816. There was a massive volume of ash which was spewed high into the stratosphere when the volcano erupted, and as it circled the globe, it brought a "Year Without a Summer" to much of the northern hemisphere. The airborne ash blocked quite a lot of sunlight that summer, which resulted in cooler temperatures and frequent rain storms. Many crops produced much less than usual, or failed completely. The effects were particularly intense in northern and eastern Europe, though Great Britain was not spared the detrimental effects of this radical climate change event.
Though the climatological disruption caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora decimated swaths of crops across Europe, it also had a part in the birth to two of the most iconic monsters of horror fiction of all time. In the summer of 1816, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron hosted Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont, among others, at his villa. Forced to remain indoors for long periods due to the inclement weather, they hit upon the idea of writing "ghost stories." These efforts resulted in the creation of both Frankenstein’s monster and a new, romantic vampire, the later based on Lord Byron himself.
Meanwhile, back in England, a book had been published which also cast Lord Byron in a very unflattering light. However, though it was a huge success with the public, it actually destroyed what was left of the reputation of its author. Of course the book was Glenarvon, a novel written by Lady Caroline Lamb. It was a fictionalized, but thinly veiled version of her affair with Lord Byron. In the story, the innocent young Calantha, meant to be Lady Caroline, is corrupted by the rakish Lord Ruthven, all of which leads to the ruin and ultimately the death of both characters. A number of other notable leaders of London society were also fictionalized in the book and most of them did not appreciate Caroline’s depictions of them. She was shunned by most of London society from that time on and never again retained the position she had held before her affair with Byron, despite the fact that her husband stood by her. He refused to divorce her, as his family demanded, and cared for her until her death in 1828.
In July of 1816, after much wrangling, Parliament finally voted to purchase the marble sculptures from the Parthenon which Lord Elgin had brought back from Greece. Though Richard Payne Knight had claimed they were not originals, several other prominent artists testified before Parliament that they believed the marbles were a magnificent treasure which would be a significant acquisition for the nation’s collection. In the end, Lord Elgin was paid £35,000, less than half of the amount he had requested. But by then, he was in such dire financial straits that he had little choice but to accept what was offered. The collection, which came to be known as the Elgin Marbles, were removed from Burlington House, where they had been on display. A temporary gallery was built for them on the grounds of the British Museum and they went on display there in January of 1817.
On 13 August, the city of Aberdeen experienced a powerful earthquake. It was the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Scotland and caused significant damage in the area. A less destructive upheaval took place that same month at the British Museum. For the first time in its history, the British Museum trustees and librarians turned their attention to the natural history of their own country. Since the founding of the museum, in 1753, the primary focus of the collections had been the art and natural history of other countries, the more exotic, the better. But in August of 1816, when the extensive British natural history collection assembled by George Montagu became available, both Sir Joseph Banks and William Elford Leach, strongly lobbied for its purchase. They were successful, and from that time, the British Museum not only made it a point to expand and enhance their British natural history collections, they also dedicated significant gallery space to the display of those objects. The museum trustees and staff were quite surprised by the popularity of the new gallery, assuming the public would have little interest in objects from their own country, rather than those from faraway places. This turn of events resulted in a permanent change in the collecting philosophy at the British Museum.
In the next few weeks, two of the more barbaric practices in London were dealt significant blows. In late August, the Royal Cockpit on Birdcage Walk, which had been established by King Charles II, lost its ground lease. The operators, unable to find a new location, were forced to close the cockpit and the building was demolished by the end of the year. In September, a new law, enacted by Parliament in July of 1816, went into effect. This law nearly eliminated the use of the pillory as a form of punishment. The pillory could still be used as punishment for the crimes of perjury or subornation, but not for any other offenses. Punishment by pillory was completely abolished in England and Wales in 1837.
Also in September, on the cultural front, John "Antiquity" Smith became the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Artist, author and scholar, Smith’s appointment was very beneficial for the Museum. He had a wide acquaintance among the art dealers of London, which made it possible for him to keep up with what was on offer in the city which would bolster the Museum’s collections. He was also fully qualified to curate and catalog the print collections of the British Museum. On a rather different tack, that same month saw the publication of the children’s book, Cato, or Interesting Adventures of A Dog of Sentiment. It was a sequel to the popular children’s book, Felissa, or; The Life and Opinions of a Kitten of Sentiment, which had been published in 1811. Cato proved to be just as popular as Felissa, and many children were delighted by the adventures of this young puppy as he came of age. Both stories also taught children to be kind and considerate to animals.
In early October, the Prince Regent took the painting known as The Arnolfini Portrait on speculation while he decided whether or not he would purchase it for his art collection. The fact that it had been looted from the baggage of Joseph Bonaparte was concealed, and the painting was offered to the Regent through the painter, Sir Thomas Lawrence. Though it is a major monument of world art, the Prince did not find this important work to his tasted and about eighteen month later, he returned it to Colonel Hay, its owner. Many years later, Hay sold the painting to the National Gallery, where it still hangs to this day. Also in October, the French portrait painter, Simon-Jacques Rochard, arrived in England. Rochard painted mainly miniature portraits and was particularly adept at painting flattering portraits of ladies. It was not long before he had a flourishing practice in London. As a counter-point to these artistic events, in late October, the canal between Liverpool and Leeds was completed and went into service soon thereafter.
An important medical milestone was achieved in France in November of 1816. Dr. René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laënnec invented the stethoscope. This invention had a major impact on the delivery of medical care, making it much easier, and certainly more decorous, for a doctor to examine a patient without the need to apply his ear directly to their chest. Though some doctors initially ridiculed the new instrument, because they did not understand it, within a year, the stethoscope was hailed by the wider medical community as one of the greatest advancements in the understanding and diagnosis of diseases of the chest. Many lives were saved by the use of this device, though sadly, Dr. Laënnec himself would lose his life to tuberculosis in August of 1826. The disease was diagnosed with a stethoscope.
A number of notables passed away in 1816. The national hero, Admiral, Lord Hood died on 27 January, and Adam Ferguson, the Scottish philosopher died on 22 February. July saw two significant losses in the theatre world. Dorothea Jordan, actress and mistress of the Duke of Clarence for twenty years, died on 5 July 1816. Two days later, on 7 July, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, poet, playwright and politician passed away. Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope, scientist, statesman and father of Lady Hester Stanhope, died on 15 December.
For authors, perhaps the most notable birth in 1816 was that of Charlotte Brontë, on 21 April. Sports aficionados may be interested to know that Richard Lindon was born on 30 June. He was a leather-worker who would go on to develop a number of improvements for the rugby ball.
Though the Napoleonic Wars were over, 1816 was still a turbulent year in Britain and on the Continent. There were few jobs to be had for the many returning soldiers, and the "Year Without a Summer" only exacerbated the ecomonic difficulties across much of Europe, including Britain. However, against those hardships can be set the repeal of the income tax and the near elimination of the use of punishment by pillory. The lives of coal miners were improved by the introduction of Sir Humphrey Davy’s new safety lamp, and the invention of the stethoscope held the promise of more effective and accurate diagnosis of many diseases. Two of society’s most prominent figures, Lord Byron and Beau Brummell fled England that year, and society was shocked and scandalized by the publication of Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel, Glenarvon. However, the whole country rejoiced in the marriage of the young Princess Charlotte to her Prince Leopold. With the exception of her father, who had hoped to marry her to a man who would take her away from England. The Regent was jealous and fearful of his daughter’s growing popularity with the public and would have preferred to have her removed from his realm. Sadly, less than a year after the wedding, he got his wish. There was much activity at the British Museum that year, crowned by the purchase of the Elgin Marbles for the nation. There were any number of events which a Regency Author might find of use in embellishing a Regency romance set in 1816.