The Great Storm of 1703

Today’s ‘St Jude’s Day storm’ (as the British media appear to have named it) couldn’t have been given more media coverage; before, during and after the event. Much of this has also looked back to the Great Storm of 1987, which many of us can remember. Occasionally, reporters have mentioned the lesser known storm of 1703 – the worst recorded natural disaster in southern England. I was interested to find out more about it, and the damage it caused.

The Great Storm of 1703 was a catastrophic hurricane that ripped through southern England, leaving devastation in its wake.

After weeks of gales and storms, another strong storm blew up on the night of 26th November. After two hours of winds of up to 70 mph, the full fury of the tempest was unleashed. In the early hours of 27th November, the hurricane, with winds of up to 120 mph, swept across southern England from the river Severn to the Thames and on to the East Anglian coast. It destroyed houses, churches and mills and brought floods to the Severn Estuary and the city of Bristol.

The storm coincided with an increase in English journalism, and so was one of the first weather events to be a national story. There were reports that men and animals were lifted off their feet and carried along in the air. Daniel Defoe described the storm as:

“the tempest that destroyed woods and forests all over England… No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it”

Due to lack of warning of the disaster, the Royal Navy lost 13 ships and about 1,500 seamen. It’s estimated 40 merchant vessels and at least 8,000 seamen were also lost. In the New Forest, 4,000 oak trees fell, and all of London’s 120 churches suffered some damage.

Great Storm 1703

The tempest of 1703 killed between 8000-15000 seamen and caused the loss of 13 Royal Navy ships.

We have been following the approach of the St Jude’s Day storm for a week, and people and services have had plenty of time to prepare for the event. Sadly, four people still lost their lives, but without the advanced warning, many more people would have been engaging in their usual daily routines, and undoubtedly more lives would have been lost and property damaged.

The unsuspecting population of southern England in 1703 wouldn’t have known about the storm until it was upon them. Add to that the fact that the Great Storm of 1703 was much longer and stronger, with winds up to 40 mph faster than those recorded today and lasting for many hours, and it’s no wonder that the loss of human life and damage to property was so much more severe.

The storm was interpreted as punishment from God for the ‘ungodliness of the country’ and a national day of fasting was held in January 1704. The storm was used in sermons for half a century or more after the event to remind churchgoers of the consequences of ungodliness.

See these informative articles for more details:

Who sent that message in a bottle?

I read an interesting story on the BBC news this week about a family appealing for information about the sender of a message in a bottle, found in Norway.

Message found in a bottle in Norway

Message found in a bottle in Norway

This appealed to the detective in me, so I began examining the records to see if I could solve the mystery. The sender’s name is hard to read in the photograph, but the article told us she was Loretta Brooks. If she was 12 in July 1996, she would have been born between August 1983 and July 1984. I searched the GRO births index on ancestry and found there was a birth of a Lorretta Christine Brooks in Q3 (Jul-Sep) 1983 in Reading and Wokingham. In 1996 the letter writer claims to be from London, but she may have moved in this time. states that there is still a Lorretta Brooks living in Reading today. This could be the answer.

However, taking a closer look at the letter, the name is spelt with a single ‘r’, whilst Lorretta Brooks in Reading is spelt with a double ‘rr’. Although I’m used to seeing people spell their names in a variety of ways within historical records, it would be quite uncommon for someone in the 1990s to be inconsistent in this. From the picture of the letter, it looks as though the original part of the letter with her name on has worn away, and the name Loretta has been written in on the previous line. This calls into question its accuracy.

Another question is raised by the grammar used. Although you might expect to see spelling mistakes from a 12 year old, such as her spelling ‘adress’ with one ‘d’, the grammatical errors, such as ‘please write on English’ and ‘I’m a girl on 12 years old’ suggest that perhaps the sender wasn’t Loretta from London at all, but someone using English as a second language – perhaps even from Norway itself?

I hope the children who found the bottle are able to solve their mystery one way or another. It’s every child’s dream to find a message in a bottle, and even if it only came from relatively close to their home, being able to track its history, like tracing a family history, would provide a great sense of closure to their story.

Vivid description of PC Ryeland

Sometimes in my research I find something that makes me laugh out loud, as did this extract from Charles Booth’s notebooks:

Walk with police constable W R Ryeland of the Hoxton subdivision of the G or Finsbury division of the Metropolitan Police…..

Ryeland is a man between 40-45. Has been 20 years in the police force. Always in Hoxton. Was on the GWR before joining. Brown short beard and moustache, teetotaller, pay 34/- per week. Rather over medium height. Black soft felt hat. Knows district well. Offends a little by his self-conscious righteousness but is really good, I think.

Charles Booth researched his poverty map of London in 1898-1899 by walking the beat with local police officers and learning about the type of people who lived in each street. I’m not sure what value there was to recording such detail about a police constable. Perhaps it was to help remind himself of the place when he has returned to his desk to revisit his notes and complete his maps. Or perhaps it was simply for personal amusement?

The Charles Booth online archive holds digitised versions of the notebooks. These aren’t transcribed, but if there is a Metropolitan Police Constable in your family tree, and you know which division they served with, it might be worth browsing the notebooks to see if they met Charles Booth and what he had to say about them. Hopefully your ancestor won’t ‘offend’ at all!

Adding detail to an ancestor’s occupational history

I’ve recently used the services of three occupational organisations and have been reminded of what a great job these smaller archives centres do.

I had great help and quick service from the Metropolitan Police Archives, through which I found the records for four brothers from Kent who joined the force; from the British Dental Association Museum archives, that provided a record in the first published Dental Register; and from the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, who searched their records to look for a south London shoemaker’s apprenticeship.

Without these valuable resources, these types of records would be lost to family historians, and all of the additional information that provide such colour to a family tree (such as one of the policeman brothers being dismissed after six months of service) would not be available to us.

The miserly butcher!

Mr John Taylor of Great Dunmow, Essex, butcher, recently deceased, by his industry and economy had accumulated a considerable property, the knowledge of which he was desirous of keeping from the world; and, to gratify such a propensity, he secured his money in various parts of his apparel, where some of it has lain in a state of idleness for 80 years and upwards. A few days only previous to his death, Mr Taylor, at the earnest solicitation of his friends, made a will, but even then he did not disclose the whole of his property, which already proves to amount to several thousand pounds.

Bury and Ipswich Post, Wednesday 13 April 1825

Who Do You Think You Are? Series 10

Well, it’s been an up and down kind of series, with some truly gripping programmes, and one or two (in my opinion) stories that were slow to emerge.

Here are my favourite quotes of the series so far:

Marianne Faithfull: “It’s always a thing to realise that your mother is much more than your mother, that she was a human being and a person with a real mission in life… This journey has given me truth and this is what I needed and really wanted. Much more than stories and fantasies and illusions… Your family is the ground you stand on and what has happened is that the ground has been put back. I’m very lucky, thank you.”

Sarah Millican: “I was unprepared for how protective I would feel of my ancestors and you know, family is family, dead or alive, family is family.”

Nitin Ganatra: “I’ve got some kind of treasure I can hold onto that feels like it’s mine and my family’s.”

I’m looking forward to John Simpson’s episode which rounds the season off next week.

Emberton parish registers – a true delight

Emberton Post Office

Emberton Post Office

Occasionally you come across a parish vicar who loved attention to detail. Perhaps it was because he was a vicar of the small village of Emberton in Buckinghamshire and so knew his parishioners well, but the Reverend C G Hulton recorded all sorts of useful information in his registers. And it seems his successors continued his love of detail because right through the 19th century, the Emberton baptisms and burials were recorded with a host of interesting facts about the people involved.

Baptisms included the maiden name of the mother, and sometimes their parish of origin too. Burials included details of how they died, sometimes how long they were ill for, where they were from and which area of the churchyard they were buried in.

When John Hale was buried, aged 48, on 12 November 1861, Hulton records he is buried ‘East under the oak he had planted as an acorn’.

We’re told that Hugh Booth, buried on 28 January 1874 aged 48 years, was a joiner and that ‘He died on the anniversary of his birthday’. The next entry in the register is for the burial of William Booth ‘(father of Hugh)’.

Rebecca Hale was buried on 14 February 1873 aged 84 years and in her margin is written ‘On the 14th Feb Miss Hale always gave a bun to every school child’.

The baptisms, as well as citing the mother’s maiden name and including the child’s date of birth, names the sponsor of the baptism (the godparent). It’s interesting to see how often two couples will sponsor each other’s children. It’s a great way of knowing who each family was friends with.

This level of detail is such a treat to a social historian and gives wonderful colour to the list of names and dates usually associated with parish registers. These are details it would be impossible to find during normal family history research.

Marry in May and you’ll live to rue the day

Advice on which month to marry in is given by the following rhyme:

Married when the year is new, he’ll be loving, kind and true.
When February birds do mate, You wed nor dread your fate.
If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow both you’ll know.
Marry in April when you can, Joy for Maiden and for Man.
Marry in the month of May, and you’ll surely rue the day.
Marry when June roses grow, over land and sea you’ll go.
Those who in July do wed, must labour for their daily bred.
Whoever wed in August be, many a change is sure to see
Marry in September’s shrine, your living will be rich and fine.
If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry.
If you wed in bleak November, only joys will come, remember.
When December snows fall fast, marry and true love will last.

May has been considered an unlucky month to marry in for a number of reasons. In Pagan times the start of summer was when the festival of Beltane was celebrated with outdoor orgies. This was therefore thought to be an unsuitable time to start married life. In Roman times the Feast of the Dead and the festival of the goddess of chastity both occurred in May. The advice was taken more seriously in Victorian times than it is today. Queen Victoria is thought to have forbidden her children from marrying in May.

Lent was thought an inappropriate time for a wedding as this was a time of abstinence, so in many churches the end of April was a busy time for weddings as couples wanted to avoid being married in Lent and in May.

June was considered to be a lucky month to marry in because it is named after Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage.

Telling tales

I read an article in the New York Times this week about how important it is to children to hear their family stories.

Psychological studies have shown that children are more confident if they know about their family’s background and have heard stories of hardship and success from their older relatives.

Once you start to learn about your family history, it can become very addictive. In fact, even if it’s not your own family, the stories of people of the past are a fascination to us all.

The article suggests that from a psychological point of view, the stories are an important element of feeling part of a community and allow the continutation of traditions. These allow us to feel secure in our current situation, whether that be a positive or negative state.

Certainly, if Who Do You Think You Are? is anything to go by, by learning about your own family story, you can improve your understanding of yourself. At the very least by knowing about your family’s past, you will understand certain behaviours or traditions that have been formed in your own family’s culture.

The stories that bind us was published by the New York Times on 15 March 2013.


I read this interesting snippet this week.

SIR, — In this town there is an innkeeper who rejoices in the baptismal name of “Mahershalalhashbaz” (see Isaiah 8,i). I should think this is unique. He is commonly called “Maher,” but in the parochial and other lists the full name appears.

Report says (but I will not vouch for its truth) that his father wished him to be named “Uz,” but on the clergyman remonstrating he immediately said “Then we will have the other,” and produced from his pocket a slip of paper with the longer name.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
W. E.
Dereham, Norfolk, April 8.

The Standard
(London), April 11, 1892

Snippet from British Baby Names

The man in question was Maher Tuck, who I located in the 1871 census in Dereham. He died the year after this letter was written, aged 54.

In fact the letterwriter was incorrect in his assumption that Maher Tuck’s first name was unique, as although it was a rare name, there were other Mahershalalhashbazes living at that time. The name originates in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament and is said to be the longest name in the bible.

More than most, it’s a name that required shortening, and other nicknames included Marc, Marshall and Baz.