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THE GREAT STORM OF 1703.
NOVEMBER 26, 27.
AN ANNIVERSARY STUDY.
NOVEMBER has for ages been popularly credited with being the most stormy month of the year on the coasts of North-Western Europe. To our Saxon forefathers it was known, not only as
Blot-monat,' the month for shedding the blood of cattle to secure å stock of provisions to meet the requirements of the rapidlyapproaching winter, but also as “Wint-monat,' because of the boisterous winds which marked the close of the Autumn.
Numerous instances of immense loss of life and destruction of property on our own and neighbouring coasts could be mentioned as having been occasioned by November storms, but there seems to be but one storm in English History which writers have agreed to consider as one of the great events of our island story. The naval and mercantile fleets of European nations have at various times suffered terribly in those awful aerial convulsions we know as tropical cyclones or typhoons, but overwhelming disasters in such far-distant regions as the West Indies, China Seas, or Samoa do not appeal to us with the same force as would similar events occurring in our midst.
On the night of November 26–27 (0.S.), 1703, the southern half of Britain was ravaged by a tempest which exhibited the worst features of the tropical cyclones. Whole forests of trees are said to have been uprooted; more than a dozen men-of-war were wrecked; 800 houses, 400 windmills, seven church steeples, and Eddystone lighthouse blown down; the lead roofing of more than a hundred churches rolled up; and houses innumerable un
so that ‘at London upon this sad occasion the wicked hucksters have raised the price of tiles, slates, and bricks to an unreasonable height, and both materials and workmen are wanting for the repair of the houses.' Thousands of lives were lost, the Navy Royal losing at least 1,500 men. Bishop Richard Kidder (Ken's successor in the See of Bath and Wells) and his wife Were killed by the collapse of a portion of the episcopal palace. Lady Penelope Nicholas, the Bishop of London's sister, was also
killed at Horsley, Sussex. Gilbert White refers to it as 'the amazing tempest' which overturned at once the vast oak tree which stood in the centre of the village of Selborne. The lowest estimate of the damage in London alone was a million sterling some computations placing it at two millions and even considerably above four millions sterling. According to · The Observator' for December 1-4, 'never was such a storm of wind, such a hurricane and tempest known in the memory of man, nor the like to be found in the Histories of England.'
Before the full extent of the destruction was known the House of Commons, on December 1, voted an address to Queen Anne
expressing the great Sense this House hath of the Calamity fallen upon the Kingdom by the late violent Storm,' promising to grant supplies for making good the serious losses of the Navy Royal. There is no other instance on record of an English storm being the occasion of national humiliation, January 19, 1703-4, being appointed a General and Public Fast, to be observed throughout the Kingdom.' The Lords went in a body to Westminster Abber, where Talbot, Bishop of Oxford, had been desired to preach, and the Commons attended a similar service in St. Margaret's Church, with Dr. Gastrell as the preacher.
It is to De Foe we are indebted for most of the information hitherto published about this frightful visitation. The author of
Robinson Crusoe' had already written an account of the condition of London during the Plague of 1665, and thinking the hurricane an equally great event, he decided to hand down to posterity such particulars as could be obtained, and made an appeal to people in all parts of the country to supply him with local details of the gale and its consequences. Some months afterwards he published a work on ‘The Storm : or, A Collection of the most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen'd in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land.' The first part of the book is made
of the theories then current as to the causes of storms, and a review of previous storms mentioned in the Scriptures and elsewhere, from a consideration of which the author arrived at the conclusion that this particular storm was 'The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the Widest in Extent of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time.'
An unknown writer describes it in much the same style, So remarkable and signal a judgment of God on this Nation (as lately
befel in the dreadful Tempest on Saturday morning, November 27 last) no History either forreign or domestick can parallel. .. This greater Calamity appears as a Goliah to those of lesser and dwarfish Disasters that have happen'd in former times to England.'
While there is ample evidence to show that the Great Storm was of an altogether exceptional character, there are good grounds for believing that it was not quite so destructive as was pictured by De Foe and his correspondents, who in numbers of instances attached undue importance to the most trifling casualties. We have it on De Foe's authority that between Execution Dock and Limehouse only four ships rode out the storm, and that he himself saw 'few less than 700 sail of ships, some of them very great ones, between Shadwel and Limehouse inclusive,' which the wind had driven into one another, 'and laid them so upon one another as it were in lieaps,' the whole description being intended to show that the destruction was incalculably great. Yet from other sources we have it that by the end of the month, that is, within two or three days, * The Merchant Ships in the River that were run aground in the late storm are for the most part got off again without any considerable damage in their rigging, and we do not hear of any that were lost on this side of Black Wall.' De Foe admits having been misled by several accounts 'which at first were too easily credited and put in print,' but which bad to be suppressed on receipt of more trustworthy communications. From the particulars on which he relied he calculated that we have not lost less than 150 sail of vessels of all sorts by the storm'at sea. Tindal, however, in his "Parliamentary History,' Vol. VI. 1702–1714, referring to the effects of the storm, states, “Few merchant-men were lost, such as were driven to sea were safe, some few only were overset.'
However, these discrepancies notwithstanding, the fact remains that the wind blew with tremendous force on this occasion, as will presently be shown from independent and trustworthy
The gale occurred when the circumstances were most favourable to bringing about a maximum of destruction. Not only did the meteor sweep across the most populous counties in the southern half of the kingdom, but, as mischance would have it, an enormous number-many hundreds—of ships were then
or had in the preceding two or three days arrived, on our south-western, southern, and eastern coasts from foreign countries, and from the Tyne. Men-of-war and the merchantmen they
convoyed from the West Indies, Virginia, Mediterranean, and Russia, crowded the Channel, the Downs, the Thames, the Humber, and the sea off Harwich, Yarmouth, and Scarborough.
They reached home almost simultaneously, just in time to be caugh: by the tempest which destroyed so many of them.
Out of the dozens of letters in De Foe's book, nearly the whole are confined to the relation of local casualties, only about a sixth of the writers thinking it necessary to state from what quarter the wind blew and the hours during which the hurricane was at its height. Yet, in the absence of precise data, it was conjectured by De Foe that the storm had originated in America, possibly in Florida and Virginia, and, crossing the Atlantic, ‘it carried a true Line clear over the Continent of Europe, travers’d England, France, Germany, the Baltick Sea, and passing the Northern Continent of Sweedland, Finland, Muscovy, and part of Tartary, must at last lose it self in the vast Northern Ocean, where Man never came, and Ship never sail'd . . . and in this Circle of Fury it might find its end not far off from where it had its Beginning, the Fierceness of the Motion perhaps not arriving at a Period till having pass'd the Pole, it reached again the Northern Parts of America. This is a most creditable first attempt at laying down the path of a cyclonic disturbance, the author having no other data in support of the conjecture than a vague statement about a tempest having been felt on the American coast a few days before the British Isles were affected.
As the very general accounts received by De Foe refer more especially to the casualties than to the movement of the storm as a body, it was thought probable that there must still be in existence a good deal of information to which De Foe had no access, original documents ich is certain he had not seen,
For many years meteorological observations had been registered in various parts of England, and it seems to have been the practice of the observers to forward the records at intervals to the Royal Society, but unfortunately that learned body did not realise that the documents would be of any value to future generations, and so we find amongst other periods which the Council thought
no use now to retain,' the wind and weather records of the several observers for the year 1703 and the beginning of 1704, destroyed, on the ground that they had become useless.'
Under these circumstances the chief sources of information have been the log-books of the English men-of-war which escaped
destruction, the old documents being preserved at the Public Record Office. On looking through several hundreds of volumes, it was an agreeable surprise to discover the logs of no less than 136 ships of the Navy Royal containing weather information for November, 1703, within the Basin of the North Atlantic. But the distribution of the ships when the storm reached our shores was disappointing : 117 were in home waters and on the Dutch coast, the great majority of them having already come to an anchor. The last to arrive on our shores were the Guernsey and the Oxford, convoying the Virginia Fleet of traders, and they were overtaken by the gale when within a day's sail of Scilly. Westward of Ireland, therefore, the ocean was perfectly clear of shipping, and consequently the march of the storm across the Atlantic cannot be definitely decided.
It will have been observed that De Foe describes the gale as “the longest in duration. He was, however, referring to the very boisterous weather which had prevailed for many days prior to November 26. The wind and weather entries in the logs have been discussed for each day from November 14 to 30, and they afford abundant testimony to the tempestuous character of the weather out at sea and round our shores almost incessantly during the second half of the month, but it would be impossible within the space at command to enter into any precise details relating to the period. All that can be attempted here is a brief summary of the leading features which marked the days preceding the arrival of the storm on the 26th.
The Virginia Fleet had crossed the Banks of Newfoundland by the 14th, when strong westerly gales, with rainy, dirty weather, was being experienced. During the remainder of the passage home, the 17th and 24th were the only moderately quiet days, most of the time being characterised by strong gales to very hard storms, the wind repeatedly veering from S. to W. and N.W. as each gale system passed the ships. Great seas were running, several thunderstorms occurred, and rain was frequent and heavy. On the American coast the only gale recorded was on the 22nd, probably the one to which De Foe alluded—they felt upon that Coast an unusual Tempest a few days before the fatal 27th of November.' The Gosport, riding off Long Island, had the wind at W.N.W.--a very hard gale with abundance of snow and rain ;' and the Centurion, at Nantaskett, had hard gales at N.W., with show and very cold, raw weather. This disturbance, which would