Throughout our history there have been numerous storms to batter British shores. We take a look at some of those captured in literature and some that shaped weather forecasting as we know today.
Let’s start with the Great Storm of 1703, arguably the worst storm in British history and sometimes referred to as ‘The Channel Storm’. It started on 24th November and did not die down until 2nd December 1703, with winds reaching 120mph during the peak of the storm.
The impact was most catastrophically felt by mariners - the Royal Navy lost thirteen ships and over 1,500 seamen drowned; in total 8,000 lives were lost during this catastrophic event. The storm raged across London with every one of the capital’s 120 church steeples being damaged and the lead roofing blown off Westminster Abbey. The number of oak trees lost in the New Forest was 4,000.
The storm was generally thought to be an Act of God — in recognition of the ‘crying sins of this nation’, the government declared 19th 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 moralising 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’. He wrote ‘No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it.’ Coastal towns such as Portsmouth ‘looked as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces.’
The Royal Charter Storm in 1859 was considered to the most severe storm to hit the Irish Sea in the 19th century with a death toll of over 800. The storm that hit on 25/26th October takes its name from the ship, which was driven onto the east coast of Anglesey with the loss of over 450 lives.
This terrible storm inspired Robert FitzRoy to develop weather charts to allow predictions to be made, which he referred to as ‘forecasting the weather’, thus coining the term ‘weather forecast’. FitzRoy, also famous for his captaincy of HMS Beagle during Darwin’s voyage of evolution, introduced the first gale warning service in 1860 to prevent similar tragedies.
Some other notable storms include the 1848 Moray Firth fishing disaster on 19th August, one of the worst fishing disasters in Scottish maritime history. The event led to widespread improvements to harbours and significant changes to the design of fishing boats over the remainder of the 19th century. And the Eyemouth disaster of 1881 that struck the southern coast of Scotland on 14th October 1881 when 189 fishermen died, most of whom were from the village of Eyemouth. Edinburgh Evening News reported on 15th October 1881 that this was ‘a storm of extraordinary violence set in on Thursday night and raged all over the country, causing great distruction to property and loss of life. Hundreds of magnificent trees have been torn to pieces or uprooted and cast across the roads, rendering traffic impracticale.’