Wednesday 21 March 2018

The Great Storm of 1703

A few days ago, I was rummaging through a box of wills when I noticed something odd. Amongst the wills of those who died in 1703, and unusually high proportion had died aboard a ship. Closer inspection revealed that each of the thirteen Yorkshire men who died in December 1703 had died on one of five ships. Immediately my curiosity was piqued. I knew that in 1703 England had been embroiled in the War of Spanish Succession. Perhaps there been a disastrous naval battle? However, the answer turned out to be far more prosaic; not a naval battle, but bad weather.

On the afternoon of November 26th 1703[1], Daniel Defoe noticed that the mercury in his barometer had dropped unnaturally low; so low that he assumed that his children had been playing with the instrument and had damaged it. That night southern and central England was hit by an extra-tropical cyclone, unprecedented both in its ferocity and duration. Diarist John Evelyn wrote that the storm was “not to be paralleled with anything happening in our age or in any history.” In London, the damage was extensive. Lightning started fires in both Greenwich and Whitehall, while the wind was so strong that nearly 2000 chimneys were blown down and the lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey. Some, fearing that the roofs would collapse above their heads, tried to take shelter outside, only to find that roof tiles were whirling through the air. Those living near St. James’s Park also noticed that fish from the park’s lake had also been swept up by the wind and sent flying. So many roofs were damaged that there were genuinely not enough tiles in England to replace those that had been lost or broken. The damage was not restricted to London. According to Defoe, windmills across the country span so fast that the friction generated caused them to spontaneously combust. The winds in Kent were so fierce that they lifted a cow into a tree. There was also severe and prolonged flooding, especially around Bristol. The River Severn rose a full eight feet and spread mile from its bank, destroying farms and killing livestock on the way.

As is to be expected under such conditions, the seas became incredibly rough. Eddystone Lighthouse in Plymouth was completely destroyed and swept away. A boat in Kent was picked up by the wind and waves and washed 800 feet inland, while a ship on the Helford River in Cornwall was torn from its moorings and eventually washed up eight hours later in the Isle of Wight. Meanwhile, the HMS Association was blown all the way from Harwich in Suffolk to Gothenburg in Sweden. For the Royal Navy, the storm could not have come at a worse moment. They had been planning an assault on Cadiz, but strong winds in the days leading up to the storm had prevented ships from crossing the Channel. Instead, they were gathered, along with a collection of mercantile ships, at the mouth of the River Thames. Almost none of the ships sheltering here survived intact. Many were wrecked upon Goodwin Sands. As Goodwin Sands is largely uncovered at low tides, many sailors were able to climb onto the sands to await rescue. However, the ferocity of the storm meant that few rescue boats ever arrived. It’s estimated that nearly 1500 sailors were killed on Goodwin Sands alone, including the entire crews of both the HMS Northumberland and the HMS Restoration. In the Great Storm of 1703, the navy lost 13 ships and approximately one-fifth of their men.

This explains why so many of the testators in December 1703 had died aboard ship; they were all naval men who died upon Goodwin Sands. Looking at these wills more closely it becomes apparent that all thirteen were proved at the same time. Each bond is written in the same hand, with Lovell Lazenby acting as a witness to the majority of them, and each of the inventories of the deceased men’s goods has been written up by the same person. None of the men left very much. Edward Postgate and Christopher Abbott both left nothing more than one month’s back pay[2]. Both Christopher Abbott and Edward Moore’s inventories note that they did have more in “purse and apparail,” but that this too had been lost in the ship wreck. A few of the men were slightly better off. Both William Easingwold and Joseph Hunt were recorded as having owned “books and instruments,” while Robert Coats owned a chest and towels. Only three wives (Mary Thorpe, Isabell Wolfe and Ann Abbott) were named as executrixes. Both Edward Postgate and Henry Lund named their sisters as their executrixes. Six of the men left their goods in the care of their parents, while Samuel Bramman chose his “Loveing Friend Grace Baker, Widdow…or her son Lawrence if she be Dead.” As such, it seems safe to deduce that many men who joined the navy were fairly poor, unmarried, and young. They also seem to have been aware of the dangers they were facing. Samuel Bramman wrote that he made his will “considering the Dangers of the Seas and the Frailty and Uncertainty of this Transitory Life.”

Perhaps the most interesting of all of these wills is that of Lancelot Thorpe. His will, clearly written by a professional scribe, leaves just over £12 worth of goods to his wife. Yet, on the back of his will are two notes written in his own hand. The first epistle is to his wife, Mary. He starts by explaining that he “did aske <th>e ofesers [officer’s] advice” when writing his will, to make sure that everything would be made as easy as possible for Mary. He had noticed that a “great maney of our men dieth be for thay ken get thar willes wret,” and wanted to ensure that he was not in the same position. He wishes her “all <th>e Joy (and) Comefor that I have” and requests that she “doe not falle to write.” He then writes a longer note to his daughter. I’ve not been able to find her birth record, but as Mary and Lancelot had married in 1696, it’s unlikely that she was any older than six. He writes that he is “Rejoyesed boath in hart (and) seowle [soul] to heaeyer that you are seoe tendr and Dutifull to your der mother.” He reminds her of the love both he and Mary have for her, before entreating her to remain dutiful to her parents, keep good company and to look after the good of her soul. He writes: “if it plese god that you leive to be a mother of Cheildren you may find some of my words treu.” Personal messages are rare within probate files, so this hand-written note is a fortunate and very sweet survival.

The Great Storm of 1703 had a monumental impact upon the public consciousness. As with many great disasters of the day, it was believed the storm was a divine punishment, sent from God to punish England for their poor performance in the War of Spanish Succession against the Catholic Bourbons. January 19th 1704 was declared to be a national day of fasting to ask for forgiveness and mercy, and the Great Storm continued to be a common topic of sermons and homilies well into the nineteenth century. The physical effects of the storm were also felt for years after the event. The flooding round Bristol caused the land to become saturated with salt water. As a result, for years afterward the grass grown in this area had a salty taste to it, which in turn caused the animals that grazed upon it to be in poor health. One man in Somerset wrote to a local newspaper that the worst impact of the storm had been the loss of the local orchards. Thanks to their disappearance, there would be no cider the following year – a true tragedy! However, the reason this storm remained within public consciousness can also be partly put down to the fact that it coincided with the advent of English journalism. As such it was the first weather story to be reported as national news (a tradition we have continued ever since). Special broadsheet were produced and circulated across the country given details of the storm and the damage it had caused.  Similarly, in the days following the storm, Defoe put an advert out in many pamphlets and broadsheets requesting that people write to him with their own impressions and tales of the storm. These were put together into a book simply titled The Storm first published in July 1704. Surviving copies of this book is where the vast majority of current knowledge about the storm has stemmed from, and it remains a fascinating read.

As an interesting side note, the damage sustained by the navy during the Great Storm of 1703
meant that they never did attack Cadiz. Instead they changed the focus of their attack to the much smaller and less well-defended Gibraltar. The attack was successful, and Gibraltar was ceded to the British. So if you’ve ever wondered why Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, it turns out the weather is to blame.

[1] December 7th in the Gregorian calendar
[2] £1 3s.

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