Great Storm Kills 10,000
The 26th of November 1703 AD
In very recent times Britain has seen the devastating effects of storms well beyond the norm: on October 15 1987 18 died in what amounted to a hurricane; we are suffering flooding with increased frequency. But the sheer duration of the Great Storm of 1703 and special circumstances which put so many ships in peril then meant that 100 or more died on land, and an estimated 10,000 at sea – perhaps even more.
The storm began on November 19, and only abated on December 2. At its peak on the night of November 26 and 27 barometric pressures plummeted to 973 millibars in Essex , though it is thought likely that in the Midlands even lower pressures were reached, perhaps below 950 millibars.
Lead was ripped from the roof of Westminster Abbey ; Queen Anne was forced to cower in cellars beneath St James’s Palace; the Bishop of Bath and Wells and his wife were crushed to death by a chimney falling on them as they slept; thousands upon thousands of trees were flattened.
And around the coast the hurricane-force winds created havoc. The Eddystone Lighthouse was undergoing alterations, its creator Henry Winstanley overseeing them: not a stick remained after the storm, Winstanley and his workers swept away with the structure. In London 700 ships were thrown together like so much firewood. Portsmouth was pounded; steeples everywhere were smashed to the ground; hundreds of windmills wrecked.
But at sea the scene became apocalyptic: the Royal Navy had many ships in open waters after engagements in the Spanish War of Succession, and 13 were lost with at least 1500 men drowned; it is possible as many as 10,000 naval personnel may have perished, around 30 per cent of the entire naval manpower, not something a country at war would wish to advertise to the enemy. Many more merchant vessels sank with far more civilian sailors lost.
But it’s an ill wind... All over Britain tillers, roofers and brickies cashed in on unprecedented demand, their rates double and treble those normally charged. And the church took the opportunity to threaten slackers with further wrath from god, whose anger the storm was taken to reflect.
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