The Great Storm
- 7thDecember 1703 -
(26thNovember in the old calendar)
John Evelyn described the storm in his diary as ‘not to be paralleled with anything happening in our age or in any history almost ... every moment like Job’s messengers brings the sad tidings of this universal judgement.’ In an age when news was not even monthly, let alone 24 hours a day, broadsheets were written and sold as the population was fascinated with the events that caused so much havoc and resulted in such massive loss of life and devoured the news like never before.
Daniel Defoe, the famous writer, published a book just about this event, called, rather unimaginatively, ‘The Storm’.Fearing for his life in his own house he opened the door but noticed roof tiles being fired all over the place in the air thirty to forty yards before being driven eight inches into the ground. Sensibly the family stayed put.
Defoe did notice that more roof tiles were being blown off the lee side of the houses rather than the side facing the winds. Small buildings that were sheltered behind larger ones had their roofs taken off whereas there was less damage to houses bearing the full force of the storm. Defoe put this down to air currents which is probably correct. This phenomenon is now known as the ‘Bernoulli Effect’ after the physicist who explained it scientifically. The strong winds cause a partial vacuum on the lee side of the roof ridge that can lift it off, or suck off the tiles. It is the same principle that helps aircraft take off and keep racing cars on the track at high speeds.
Over 400 windmills were overturned or destroyed in the storm. In some cases the sails turned so fast that the friction caused the wooden wheels to overheat and catch fire burning them down. In London alone over 2000 chimney stacks collapsed, over 17,000 trees were lost in Kent and more than 4000 in the New Forest. John Evelyn himself lost over 2000 on his own estate in Surrey. Ships were blown hundreds of miles off course and Defoe, walking in London later, saw 700 ships piled up in what was known as the London Pool.
In Cambridgeshire the pinnacles on top of the King’s College chapel were blown off and the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Richard Kidder, and his wife were killed in their beds when struck by a falling chimney stack. The great west window in Wells Cathedral was also blown in. The lead on the roof of Westminster Abbey was said to have been rolled up like a piece of parchment and blown off too. 1000 seamen died on Goodwin Sands alone and the HMS Association was blown from Harwich to Gothenburg in Sweden. There was severe flooding in Bristol and thousands died from flooding on the Somerset Levels, along with thousands of sheep and cattle. The first Eddystone Lighthouse, off Plymouth, was also blown clean away with the loss of all six of those inside, including the builder and designer. Queen Anne was forced to shelter in the cellars of St. James’ Palace for safety.
The Church of England explained this ‘Act of God’ by saying that it was God’s vengeance on a sinful nation. Defoe himself claimed it was due to our lacklustre performance in the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The Government was so appalled by what had happened that they called for a national day of fasting in recognition of the sins of the nation. Hubert Lamb, writing in 1991, claims that over 10,000 seamen were drowned that night.
The millibars have been recorded as low as 973 in Essex and it is claimed that it might have been as low as the 950s. In today’s terms it would be classified as a hurricane, category 2 which says “Exteremely dangerous and will cause extensive damage”, with wind speeds up to 110mph. The highest level is 5 which is classed as “Catastrophic damage’.
Whatever the actual speeds the damage both to property and life was massive and was has been described as the worst natural disaster ever to hit southern Britain with between 8,000 and 15,000 lives lost. The 1987 hurricane, dismissed so famously by Michael Fish, uprooted more than fifteen million trees but did not incur the same level of human disaster and loss of life.