24 February 2009

Humans in Nature: The Great Storm of 1703

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

"No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it." -- Daniel Defoe

The southern part of Britain was devastated by the most catastrophic storm it had experienced in five hundred years on November 26–27, 1703. Believed to be a revitalized Atlantic hurricane, the storm began as a series of gales earlier in November, and brought with it a prolonged period of unseasonably warm weather and high seas.

A warm front from the hurricane moved from the West Indies, traveled along the coast of Florida, and swept into the Atlantic prior to reaching England. The warm front collided with cold air, creating wind speeds estimated at over 120 miles per hour, and establishing conditions for a tempest that would peak during a six- to eight-hour period beginning at midnight on November 26. Although very little rain was reported, strong winds and a North Sea surge elevated tides by nearly eight feet, causing severe flooding.

There was significant loss of life. On land in England and Wales alone, collapsing roofs and chimneys killed more than one hundred and twenty people, and injured more than two hundred. Eighty more were drowned in marshland cottages surrounding the Severn Estuary.

Those at sea during the storm fared even worse. It is estimated that between eight and fifteen thousand people lost their lives along the coast and in over one hundred reported shipwrecks at sea.

Britain was at war and three fleets were assembled to aid the King of Spain against the French. By dawn, the majority of the vessels were destroyed, and fifteen hundred seamen had lost their lives. Twelve warships with thirteen hundred men were lost while still within sight of land. On the Thames, hundreds of ships were driven into each other in the Pool, the section downstream from London Bridge.

The Eddystone Lighthouse, in the direct path of the storm when the hurricane was at its most powerful, was destroyed. Its designer and builder, Henry Winstanley, was working on the structure at the time, and he was swept away with his creation.

No segment of the population was untouched. It was reported that Queen Anne stood at a window and watched as the trees in St. James's Park were violently uprooted by the force of the wind. She was forced to take refuge in a cellar when falling chimney stacks and a partial roof collapse damaged St. James Palace. The bodies of the bishop of Bath and Wells and his sister were discovered amid the ruins of their palace.

Property losses estimated at £6 million exceeded the £4 million loss suffered as a result of the Great Fire of London in 1666. In and around London alone, two thousand chimney stacks were blown down, and over a hundred church steeples in the capital were damaged. The heavy lead lining on the roof of Westminster Abbey was lifted and tossed some distance from the building.

All over southern England, streets were covered with tiles and slates. Rural village causeways and paved London roads alike were buried in slates and tiles from demolished buildings; even on hard ground they amassed to a depth of as much as eight inches. More than eight hundred houses were blown away or destroyed by the collapse of a central chimney stack. The majority of the houses left standing were partly or completely stripped of roof tiles.

Windmills, common structures at the time, were particularly vulnerable. More than four hundred windmills were destroyed. Many burned to the ground after their cloth sails rotated at such speed that friction led to fire. Millions of trees were uprooted or damaged. In the county of Kent, over a thousand barns and outhouses were destroyed. There were reports of men and animals being lifted into the air by the force of the wind. Tens of thousands of sheep and cattle were lost.

Restoration would prove to be slow and costly. The day following the storm, in one of the first recorded instances of price gouging, the price of tiles jumped from twenty-one shillings per thousand to one hundred and twenty shillings per thousand. English merchants were hard-pressed to keep a ready supply on hand; many had suffered the loss of company ships whose cargo holds had been burgeoning with goods.

The storm would remain in the collective consciousness of the British people as "The Great Storm" for many years to come.