1703- The Year of England’s Great Storm

storm 1703 ships disaster

My parents waited out Hurricane Harvey from their home just north of Houston. As the flood waters rose, they watched helpless as their neighbours houses were submerged. Sitting slightly higher up, their house remained thankfully dry. From where I live, in the UK, I regularly checked in for updates.  Although they were stuck in their home until the waters receded, they were very lucky.

Listening to the drama back home and on the news I wondered about storms in Britain. No stranger to poor weather, gale force winds frequently batter the country, especially in the Autumn. Hurricanes could theoretically reach the British Isles but had that every happened?  What was Britain’s worst storm?  If you know any Brits over the age of 40 they will all harken back to the Great Storm of 1987. That night, 22 people were killed, and 15 million trees were uprooted including 6 of the 7 oak trees which gave their name to the Kentish town of Sevenoaks.  As bad as that storm was, it pales in comparison to the Great Storm of 1703.

In the weeks leading up to the 26th of November 1703 (7th of December in the Gregorian Calendar) the weather was typical for Britain in the Autumn/Winter.  In other words, it was terrible.  Strong winds and heavy rain battered the country, particularly in the south. However, on the night of the 26th, things would get much worse.

London had only recently been rebuilt after the Great Fire which destroyed most of the city less than 40 years before. Thatched roofs had been outlawed within the city limits, forcing everyone to use tiles.  Those same tiles became perfect projectiles as the storm blew them off their roofs, smashing windows as they sailed through the air.  Chimneys collapsed in their hundreds trapping and killing people in their homes. Queen Anne was forced to take refuge in the cellars of her home at St James’s Palace to hide from the tempest outside.  On the River Thames, the tide rose high and swept ships out to sea.  Others were ripped from their moorings and smashed together in large wooden heaps.

In the county of Berkshire, a tornado, described by locals as a ‘spout’, snapped an oak tree in half, crossed a road and sucking up water along the way before destroying an old barn and removing the thatch off of a nearby building. Finally, the tornado hit a man, knocking him off his feet before disappearing.  Luckily, the man wasn’t hurt, just shaken up.

Richard Kidder, Bishop of Bath & Wells wasn’t so lucky.  He and his wife were both killed when two chimneys at their home at The Bishop’s Palace in Wells, Somerset collapsed, crashing through their room and into the floor below.  The Bishop was found wearing his morning gown  some distance from the bed as if he had gotten up to check on the state of the weather when disaster struck.

The River Severn rose by 20 to 30 feet inland drowning people and livestock and driving ships onto the land.  Windmills whirled around with such force that their sails collapsed or the friction caused the mills to catch fire.

Most accounts of the event come from the clergy, therefore it is unsurprising that we know of a great many churches which were damaged. Countless church spires collapsed during the storm. St Mary’s in Fairford, Gloucestershire, well known even today for its medieval stained glass, had its Great West Window blown in.

The worst disasters happened at sea.  Sitting on a reef off the South East coast of Cornwall, was the Eddystone lighthouse.  Having undergone extensive improvements just four years earlier it stood proud as the first ever off-shore lighthouse.  On the night of the great storm, high waves swept the lighthouse away, killing all six of its occupants including its architect Henry Winstanley.

Lighthouse eddystone

Ships in distress fired their guns to each other as a cry for help, survivors told of how they could hear the cries but were powerless to help.  Unfortunately, there was no way to save them.  The force of the winds blew some ships miles off course.  There were reports of ships being blown to The Netherlands and at least one ship reaching Gothenburg in Sweden. More than forty merchant ships and thirteen Royal Navy ships were lost.

The novelist Willem Dafoe had noted that leading up to the storm, his barometer dropped as low as he’d ever seen it.  So awestruck was he by the devastation that he took it upon himself to chronicle it.  He soon advertised in local publications for people’s written accounts then compiled them into his 1704 book, The Storm.  Using his description, researchers have speculated that the storm was consistent with a Category 2 hurricane.

The death toll to this great storm is estimated to be somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 people. Without today’s forecasting methods, the country was completely unprepared.

As I write this piece, Hurricane Irma is due to reach Florida in a matter of hours.  I wish them all good luck, especially those close friends on the West coast.

To learn more about the Great Storm of 1703,  you can purchase a copy of Daniel Defoe’s The Storm or follow this link for a free audio version:               Daniel Defoe’s The Storm

Update:  Hurricane Irma passed through the Caribbean and the Florida Keys with devastating effects. By the time it hit mainland Florida, its winds had greatly reduced. Although still a serious storm, most of Florida was spared the devastation seen throughout the Caribbean and the Keys.  My close friends escaped with nothing more serious than a yard full of debris.  Many were not so lucky, Irma killed 32 people in the state of Florida alone.