|The Great Storm of 1703 is arguably the
most severe storm or natural
disaster ever recorded in the southern part of Britain. It affected
southern England and the English Channel. A 120-mph (193-km/h) perfect
hurricane, it started on 24 November, and did not die down until 2
Observers at the time recorded barometric readings as low as 973 millibars (measured by William Derham in South Essex) but it has been suggested that the storm may have deepened to 950 millibars over the Midlands.
1703: The worst storm in British history
edp24.co.uk November 22, 2003
Records show that the largest concentration of ships was off the coast of Great Yarmouth where a report of the London Gazette suggested that up to 500 vessels were sheltering, in trouble, or “drove off to sea”.
Orders had also been issued from the Admiralty for vessels to search for the famous mariner Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who had already been reported missing.
Shovell, who was born at Cockthorpe in North Norfolk, was eventually found safe. He died in 1707.
Victims of the storm – inside Riddlesworth Church showing the memorial stone to Mary Fisher, ‘whose soul took her flight to heaven in ye furious hurricane’ of 1703. The full memorial is seen, below.
Not all the vessels had been sunk. Many of those blown out to sea reappeared on the coast of Denmark or Norway. Some eventually managed to struggle back across the North Sea to British ports but others were never seen again.
Mr Brayne picks up on G M Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Queen Anne, who summarises the storm as “without rival in the recorded history of our island”.
Yet, according to Trevelyan, by December 16 “England was herself again”. But the loss of property and shipping was immense.
The Navy enlisted as many carpenters and joiners as they could to rebuild the country’s fleet before enemies could take advantage of the weakened defences. Condemned men and prisoners of war were offered in an attempt to replace crews lost in the disaster. Special services were held in memory of the dead and a disaster fund was started.
London did not escape lightly either. At the height of the storm many Londoners had to choose between staying in their shaking homes or running outdoors and risk being hit by flying debris. Falling chimneys accounted for a number of casualties and every one of the 120 church steeples in the capital was damage.
It is said that Queen Anne stood at a window and watched as the acacias, limes and elms in St James’ Park were torn up with the savagery of the wind.
However, over the last three centuries, historians seem not to have picked up in detail on the storm of 1703 and, according to Martin Brayne, it is not difficult to see why.
“In the event, no great diplomatic or military consequences can be ascribed to it, it caused no social revolution and sparked no major economic crisis. It was a natural phenomenon which came and went, killed a lot of people, and caused a great deal of temporary disruption but was of no lasting significance.”
Yet 1703 still stands as a landmark in the meteorological history of the last few hundred years. But what is it that made the Great Storm of 1703 so ferocious?
Jim Bacon, managing director of Weatherquest based at the University of East Anglia in the School of Environmental Sciences, says that fierce storms moving across the British Isles throughout autumn and winter are not that unusual.
But he adds: “The 1703 storm was in a class of its own in terms of strong winds it brought with it. It was broadly comparable with the Great Storm of October 1987 and was probably formed in a similar way.”
It brought with it a prolonged period of unsettled weather, storms, gales and high seas that affected the British Isles and southern North Sea across to the coast of northern Denmark.
There was a warm front of air from a hurricane from the West Indies that had travelled along the coast of Florida and out into the Atlantic before hitting England.
This clashed with cold polar air and the scene was set for the devastation that followed. Strong winds battered the whole of the country and a North Sea surge raised tides by about eight feet, causing flooding.
There were other storms, which have lashed Norfolk over the last millennium. In 1362 part of Norwich Cathedral spire was blown down and more damage caused in 1713. Severe gales caused damage in 1897, 1908 and 1943.
It is the devastation of 1953 and 1987 that left the biggest imprint on the last century, the latter recalled after weathermen famously pooh-poohed the idea that there was a storm on the way and consequently misled the nation, giving homeowners a false sense of security.
What followed was one of the worst recorded storms, causing £1.5bn worth of damage nationally. Norfolk was left without power, hundreds of trees were blown down and wind speeds in excess of 100mph ravaged the county.
But of 1703, Mr Bacon said: “The accounts we have put it in a category of severity alongside the 1987 storm, possibly slightly worse.” He urged caution over making comparisons along the lines of casualties and damage caused.
“Nowadays, communication about the weather is so much more effective so there would not be a situation like this where the navies of the world would not be aware of what was coming.
“In 1703, other than the knowledge and experience of ship’s captains, the crews would not have known this was coming. They may have read the sky and were expecting gales but not necessarily have known it was going to be as severe was it was.
“If ships had know it was coming, they would have sought shelter sooner. There was also a huge amount of damage to infrastructure over southern Britain, damage to normal dwelling houses, civic buildings, cathedrals and churches.
“It is a case of looking at a comparison between how things were done then and how they are now; building science has advanced phenomenally and buildings now are more able to stand up to that sort of storm. Roofs then, for example, were thatched.”
With the storms that preceded the night of November 26/27, some of them could have weakened the structures that were eventually destroyed in the Great Storm.
Despite these qualifications, 1703 remains for meteorologists and historians a benchmark storm of modern times.
“It is up there with the biggest,” said Mr Bacon.
Resolution (foreground) holding station in a gale by Van de Velde the Younger
At sea, many ships (many returning from helping the King of Spain fight the French in the War of the Spanish Succession) were wrecked, including HMS Resolution at Pevensey and on the Goodwin Sands, HMS Stirling Castle, HMS Northumberland and HMS Restoration, with about 1,500 seamen killed particularly on the Goodwins. Between 8,000 - 15,000 lives were lost overall.
The first Eddystone Lighthouse was destroyed on 27 November 1703 (Old Style), killing six occupants, including its builder Henry Winstanley.
The number of oak trees lost in the New Forest alone was 4,000.
On the Thames, around 700 ships were heaped together in the Pool of London, the section downstream from London Bridge. HMS Vanguard was wrecked at Chatham. HMS Association was blown from Harwich to Gothenburg in Sweden before way could be made back to England.
In London, the lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey and Queen Anne had to shelter in a cellar at St. James's Palace to avoid collapsing chimneys and part of the roof.
There was extensive and prolonged flooding in the West Country, particularly around Bristol.
At Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was killed when two chimneystacks in the palace fell on the bishop and his wife, asleep in bed. This same storm blew in part of the great west window in Wells Cathedral.
Beliefs and response
The storm was generally thought to be reckoned to represent the anger of God — in recognition of the "crying sins of this nation", the government declared 19 January 1704 a day of fasting, saying it "loudly calls for the deepest and most solemn humiliation of our people". It remained a frequent topic of moralizing in sermons for the next half century.
The Great Storm also coincided with the increase in English journalism, and was the first weather event to be a news story on a national scale. Special issue broadsheets were produced detailing damage to property and stories of people who had been killed.
Daniel Defoe produced his first book, The Storm, published in July 1704, in response to the calamity, calling it "the tempest that destroyed woods and forests all over England". "No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it," he wrote of it. Coastal towns such as Portsmouth "looked as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces". He thought the destruction of the sovereign fleet was a punishment for their poor performance against the Catholic armies of France and Spain during the first year of the War of the Spanish Succession.
13 ships lost in the Royal Navy
The Royal Navy was badly affected, losing thirteen ships, and upwards of fifteen hundred seamen drowned.
The Restoration, a third rate, Captain Emms, 387 men, on the Goodwin Sands; not one saved.
The Northumberland, a third rate, Captain Greenway, lost on the Goodwin Sands; all her company was lost, being 220 men, including twenty-four marines.
The Stirling Castle, a third rate, Captain Johnson, on the Goodwin Sands, 70 men, of which four marine officers were saved, the rest were drowned, being 206.
The Mary, a fourth rate, Rear-admiral Beaumont, Captain Edward Hopson, on the Goodwin Sands, the captain and purser ashore; one man, whose name was Thomas Atkins, saved; the rest, to the number of 269 with the rear-admiral, drowned. The escape of this Atkins was very remarkable - He saw the rear-admiral, when the ship was breaking, get upon a piece of her quarter-deck, from which he was soon washed off; and about the same time, Atkins was tossed by a wave into the Stirling Castle, which sinking soon after, he was thrown the third man into her boat, by a wave that washed him from the wreck.
The Mortar-bomb, a fifth rate, Captain Raymond, on the Goodwin Sands; all her company lost, being 65.
The Eagle advice boat, a sixth rate, Captain Bostock, lost on the Coast of Sussex; all her company, being 45, saved.
The Resolution, a third rate, Captain Lisle, on the coast of Sussex; all her company, being 221, saved.
The Litchfield Prize, a fifth rate, Captain Chamberlain, on the coast of Sussex; all her company, being 108, saved.
The Newcastle, a fourth rate, Captain Carter, lost at Spithead. The carpenter and 39 men were saved, and the rest, being 193, drowned.
The Vesuvius fire-ship, a fifth rate, Captain Paddon, at Spithead; all her company, being 48, saved.
The Reserve, a fourth rate, Captain John Anderson, commander, lost at Yarmouth. The captain, the surgeon, the clerk, and 44 men saved; the rest of the crew drowned, being 175.
The Vanguard, a second rate, sunk in Chatham harbour, with neither, men nor guns in her.
The York, a fourth rate, Captain Smith, lost at Harwich ; all her men saved except four.
Hurricane or Tropical cyclone
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