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.

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