The Great Storm of 1703

At the beginning of the 18th century, Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, had published a short work about the most terrible tempest to have hit the British Isles in history – according to him. By all accounts it does sound rather grim.

By coincidence, a much publicised storm is brewing outside my window, in Worthing, West Sussex in the early hours of October 2013. The media has gone to town to highlight the potential danger; even the Prime Minister, David Cameron has assured the country that all emergency measures are on standby in case the lights go out the rivers flood. The wind is certainly gusty as I write this, although the wheelie bins that we are forced to keep outside the frontage of our houses for easy access to the refuse collectors have yet to topple over and cascade down the streets.

Within in living memory is the so-called hurricane of 1987, which I am sad to confess I slept through soundly and only discovered the devastation the following day. For me, one of the terrible effects of that storm was the decimation of beech trees on that for two hundred years pinpointed the iron age hill fort at Chanctonbury Ring, north of Worthing on the South Downs. There were, however, deaths, fallen trees, smashed up cars and endless damage to property. The insurance companies were caught unawares and the claims plentifold.

The Great Storm of 1703 had no such warnings and lasted a week, from Wednesday 24th November to 2nd December. The first two days the weather grew dark and foreboding and the wind gusty. It wasn’t until two o’clock of the morning, says Defoe, that the full force of the tempest hit travelling in a South West direction. It continued all night for the first night until 5am and then picked up again from three in the afternoon on Saturday.

The coastal areas suffered pretty severely and London too. Defoe talks about the systematic damage done to property; titles and bricks spread across the streets, chimney stacks collapsing in large numbers, crashing down on their own houses and their neighbours houses; how many, ignoring the warnings or the howling tulmit outside, remained in their beds and were crushed to death by the chimney stacks. The merchants boats and navy ships were hastily brought into ports and habours across the land and lashed together as best they could. Those at sea were quite literally pushed along, accelerated to the nearest shelter or if they were heading out on a voyage were forced to retreat. One report says that 700 ships were heaped together in the Pool of London, a section of the Thames just down from London Bridge. The famous bridge, Defoe says was amazingly unaffected and put forward the theory that the wind was sucked under the arches rather that smash into the sides of the buildings and houses that were at that time perched along the structure. Other houses in London didn’t get away with it quite so lightly.

The Wikipedia entry is interesting: 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, HMS Mary, and HMS Restoration, with about 1,500 seamen killed particularly on the Goodwins. Between 8,000 and 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 (John Rudyard was later contracted to build the second lighthouse on the site). The number of oak trees lost in the New Forest alone was 4,000.

It would be interesting to produce a Bald Explorer programme based on the great storm and trace the route of the wind, the damage caused and the lives affected. My interest was initially aroused when researching for a novel I am writing in which I needed a fictional Spanish Galleon to become shipwrecked on the British south coast. Although I could make up a storm, I much prefer to find some real events in history and plot my story around that – besides, it gives such wonderful material, more than my simple brain could never have dreamt up.

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