A little over 200 years ago, the eruption of a volcano in Iceland sent a
huge toxic cloud across Western Europe. It was the greatest natural disaster
to hit modern Britain, killing many thousands - but it has been almost
forgotten by history.
"Such multitudes are indisposed by fevers in this country
that farmers have difficulty gathering their harvest, the labourers having
been almost every day carried out of the field incapable of work and many
So wrote Hertfordshire poet William Cowper in the summer of 1783.
Across the country, newspapers reported the presence of a thick smog,
and a dull sun, "coloured like it has been soaked in blood".
The cloud first reached Britain on the 22 June 1783. In his Naturalist's
Journal, Gilbert White reported:
"The peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed in this
island and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance,
unlike anything known within the memory of man."
The killer cloud lasted weeks, if not months, and engulfed much of
Western Europe - as thousands of kilometres away in Iceland, the volcano
Laki continued to erupt.
Millions of tonnes of toxic gas were carried by the prevailing winds
across Scandinavia and eventually to Britain.
The cloud contained sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid which attacked
the lungs of its victims, choking and killing men and women, rich and poor
The events are better documented in Iceland where up to a third of the
population died. Yet, incredibly, the British tragedy wrought by Laki has
been largely forgotten.
Evidence brought together by BBC Two's Timewatch series made clear the
extent of the disaster.
Panic and fear were widespread - as was death. But just how many died,
no-one knew until recently.
Dr John Grattan of Aberystwyth University, Wales, has spent a decade
scrutinising hundreds of local parish records looking for evidence of Laki's
"In Maulden (in Bedfordshire) the normal number of people who might be
expected to have died in the summer would be about four or five - and in the
summer of 1783 seventeen people die here