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"the Great Storm" - November 1703


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  • Location: Western Brecon Beacons. 1100' ASL .
  • Location: Western Brecon Beacons. 1100' ASL .

I posted this write-up a couple of years ago on UKww and think it's so good more peeps should have the opportunity of reading it :( .

The Great Storm of November 1703

By all accounts the summer of 1703 had been unusually wet. May had a ten year record breaking amount of rain, there was also heavy rainfall during July. The Summer was a humid and warm one. both October and November were very warm.

From November 12th the winds picked up and chimneys were reported broken in London along with several ships being lost off the coast. By Thursday the 25th Novemember it is said that everybody agreed that the weather had become unbearable which is when the winds intensified signalling the beginning of the great storm.

It was said that the events over the next 2 days were the worst storms every recorded. The wind was SSW and the storm affected Southern England and Wales, and continued on over France, N. Germany, Denmark, Sweden & Finland. The storm reached it's peak on Saturday ( 27th ). W Derham from Upminster recorded from Friday " the wind was SSW and high all day, and so continu'd till I was in Bed and asleep. About 12 that night the storm awaken'd me, which gradully increased till 3 that morning. And from thence till near 7 it continued in the greatest excess: and then began slowly to abate, and the mercury to rise swiftly."

It is said that hardly anyone slept in London. Nobody ventured outdoors because bicks, tiles debris flew throught the streets with deadly force. many had felt earthquakes, reported thunder & "the air was seen full of meteors and vaporous fires: and in some places both thunderings and unusual flashes of lightning to the great terror of the inhabitants" ( defoe ) . There was signs of whirlwinds / tornados in several places. In Whistable a ship was lifted out of the water and deposited 270yds from the waters edge. Defoe said that when Londoners ventured out they walked round in a daze for the next 2 days gazing at the devastation & destruction to their city.

Some estimates of damage:

between 8000 & 9000 people dead

300,000 trees broken.

400 windmills destroyed

100 churches serverly damaged

Navy ships Newcastle, Lichfields prize, suffolk & Canterbury destroyed, Vesuvius stranded.

15000 sheep lost by the river Severn.

damaged estimate then between 1 & 4 million pounds.

Queen Anne's response to the storm was to have a day of fasting and humiliation and announced the storm was a "token of divine displeasure".

Here is an extract about the Great Storm written by Laughton and Heddon in the 1920's.


BECAUSE the British Islands lie in the direct track of storms coming in from the Atlantic, there have been many great storms in English history, not a few of which have left their mark. But there is one "Great Storm," and one only, though halfhearted attempts have from time to time been made to fasten this title on other convulsions. As before the nineteenth century there was no scientific way of measuring the fury of a storm, it is only possible to judge the tempests of earlier days by the havoc which they wrought, and by the impression made by them on the minds of the men who experienced them.

Subjected to this test the Great Storm entirely justifies its title. It destroyed more property and caused the death of more people, both on land and sea, than any other known English storm. There can be no doubt that the wind blew with true hurricane force, and that it maintained its strength for an unprecedented time. It is not very uncommon for a severe winter gale-as, for example, that of January 26, 1927-to develop squalls of hurricane force; but, to judge by its results, it would seem tolerably certain that the Great Storm did some thing more than this, that in its continued violence it was a very good imitation of a West Indian hurricane or of a China Seas typhoon

Perhaps the most remarkable testimony to the wide and lasting nature of the impression made by this storm is afforded by the extraordinary success of Addison's famous comparison of Marlborough to an angel guiding the whirlwind

So when in angel by Divine command

With rising tempests shakes a guilty land

Such as of late o'er pale Britannia pass'd,

Calm and serene he drives the furious blast

And pleas'd th' Almighty's orders to perform

Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm

"The extraordinary effect," says Macaulay, -which this simile produced when it first appeared, and which to the following generation seemed inexplicable, is doubtless to be chiefly attributed to a line which most readers now regard as a feeble parenthesis" 'Such as of late o'er pale Britannia pass'd.' Addison spoke, not of a storm, but the storm. The great tempest of November 1703, the only tempest which in our latitude has equalled the rage of a tropical hurricane, has left a dreadful recollection in the minds of all men. No other tempest was ever in this country the occasion of a parliamentary address or of a public fast. Whole fleets had been cast away. Large mansions had been blown down. One prelate had been buried beneath the ruins of his palace. London and Bristol had presented the appearance of cities just sacked. Hundreds of families were still in mourning. The prostrate trunks of large trees, and the ruins of houses, still attested, in all the southern counties, the fury of the blast

There can be little doubt that this passage, and particularly the one line in it, was the making of the poem, and, incidentally, of Addison. In the fashion of that age, which seems strange to this, he was rewarded by an under-secretaryship of State; and as it seems unlikely that Addison's genius would have expanded in poverty as it did beneath the sunshine of fame and fortune, it may be held to be little, if any, exaggeration to say that it is thus to the Great Storm that we owe the Spectator.

It is easy to overestimate the force of a gale which comes after a long spell of fine weather; but the Great Storm enjoyed no such fictitious advantage. On the contrary, the weather in the neighbourhood of the English Channel had been exceptionally bad, with hardly a break, from the middle of November; a series of what we now know as "Atlantic depressions" passed over Southern England, and gale succeeded gale, some of them being so severe that had no Great Storm followed, they would themselves have been remembered from the loss they caused. The Great Storm stood, therefore, to be judged by the most severe standard.

From the few barometric observations of the storm which have been preserved, it appears that its centre must have passed roughly over Liverpool, and have moved across England in an easterly direction. Also, as often happens in such storms, the force of the wind was confined to the area lying south of the centre. Its greatest fury was experienced south of a line from the Bristol Channel to the Thames. It blew a very heavy gale farther north; but a direct comparison of the damage done in the Downs with that on the East Anglian coast seems to show that even fifty miles north of the Thames there was a distinct abatement of its violence, and Spurn Head is the most northerly point at which we hear of an exceptional wind-force.

On land the damage was widespread, and naturally there was a great degree of sameness in the reports which came in from all over the south country. The horror of the storm was increased by the fact that its most destructive period was confined to the hours of darkness, which, as it befell at the time of new moon, was absolute. The several reports, as is to be expected, give slightly discrepant accounts of the time when the greatest fury was reached, and of the wind's direction, but they confirm each other in the main. Thus we find that in the West Country the storm was at its height at or before midnight of the 26th; in London about 3 a.m. of the 27th; in the Downs perhaps an hour later; and on the coast of Holland about daylight. It would he possible from the observations made, and especially from those made on board ship, to plot the form and course of the storm with very tolerable accuracy, but the results of such a study would have little interest save for meteorologists.

After a slight break in the stormy weather of the foregoing fortnight it began to blow again in the afternoon of the 26th, and by dark was blowing a gale. The gale soon freshened to a storm, blowing with a force approaching seventy miles an hour, and so continued during the early hours of the night. Even this was such a storm as comes but rarely, and everywhere it did damage. Tiles, coping-stones, chimney-pots, and suchlike were flying about in such profusion that it was dangerous to be out of doors, and of the few that ventured some were killed in the streets. But again, the houses were so rocked by the wind that many were afraid to stay indoors, and many more dreaded going to bed. As a choice of evils most stayed within doors, and being there, no doubt most went to their beds, there to sleep or to lie quaking according to the extent of their philosophy. This state of affairs played into the hands of such rogues as were hardy enough to risk the chimney-pots. just as we have records of heartless crime accompanying the Plague and the Fire of London, so, too, it happened in the Great Storm.

'I cannot but observe here," says Defoe, "how fearless such people as are addicted to wickedness are, both of God's judgment and uncommon prodigies; which is visible in this particular, that a gang of hardened rogues assaulted a family at Poplar, in the very height of the storm, broke into the house, and robbed them: it is observable that the people cried Thieves 1 and after that cried Fire 1 in hopes to raise the neighbourhood; but such is the power of self-preservation, and such was the fear the minds of the people were possessed with, that nobody would venture out to the assistance of the distressed family, who were rifled and plundered in all the extremity of the middle of the tempest."

Perhaps there were also other "hardened rogues" of whom we do not hear, who calculated their chances equally well.

The wind blew furiously for some hours, and then, when a lull might have been expected, the whole might of the hurricane was unloosed. We hear of people everywhere starting from their beds, as though summoned to the Last judgment; and indeed their accounts of the booming of the wind, like thunder aloft, are terrible enough. At St. james's the Queen rose with her maids of honour, but though part of the palace roof was blown away, no harm befell them. At Wells the bishop's palace, modernized from an old castle, suffered heavy damage. The bishop, Dr. Kidder, had his bedroom in an old part of the building. Roused by the fall of wreckage, he huddled on his dressing-gown and made for the door; but as he did so a chimney-stack crashed through the ceiling, dashing out his brains, and burying his wife, who remained in bed, in the ruins. Similar accidents were not uncommon; but though in some cases they were fatal, in others there were remarkable, or as it seemed miraculous, escapes.

Another common experience was that the lead on the roofs of churches was either rolled up by the wind or blown away in large sheets. This was reported from all over the south country; that it bulks so largely in the accounts of damage done may be attributed to the fact that a high proportion of the correspondents who answered Defoe's appeal for information were the parish priests.

In the country, where houses stood singly, and where no doubt the majority were still built of wood, the havoc was even greater. We hear of 800 houses blown down, while barns, corn-ricks, and hay-stacks were demolished by the thousand. Church steeples, too, were blown down, one of them, at Brenchley, being reputed the highest in Kent. "This strong and noble structure by the rage of the winds was levelled with the ground, and made the sport and pastime of boys and girls, who to future ages can boast that they leap'd over such a steeple”.

But the greatest of all the damage in the countryside was to the standing trees. That shallow-rooted trees like elms should be overturned is not remarkable, especially when we remember that the season had been wet and the ground was sodden; but the wind was equal to greater feats than laying flat whole rows of elms. Great oaks and beeches were snapped off through their thick trunks, and whole orchards were destroyed. A plaintive cry came from Somerset that the loss of their apple-trees promised a shortage of cider.

Defne himself made a tour to collect data for his account of the storm, and invited correspondence from. all parts of the country. He says that he himself counted 17,000 trees down in Kent alone, then ceased counting from weariness. He records that there were twenty-five parks which lost above 4,000; and that 450 "parks and groves" lost each from 200 to 1,000 trees. The total clearly must have run into hundreds of thousands. But it may be noticed that this was not all sheer loss; for the vast amount of damage to wooden structures stood to be repaired. Houses had to be roofed or built, barns to be rebuilt, 400 windmills had been "over-set" and needed rebuilding; and then there was a prodigious amount of timber needed to make good the destruction of shipping. It may be doubted if much of the sound timber blown down in the great storm went to waste.

It is a well-known thing that a strong gale blowing in the direction of the flood tide into a narrowing channel will greatly raise the level of the water at the head of that channel. We have frequent experience of this in London, where a northerly gale at the time of spring tides raises the river to the top of its embankments, and even overflows some roads near the waterside. The Great Storm did not veer to the N.W. in time to produce this effect to its full extent in the neighbourhood of the Thames and of the Straits of Dover; but on the other side of England the furious south-west wind caused the most memorable of floods in the Severn valley. Bristol was overflowed, the water rising eight feet above the highest level recorded; at Chepstow they had long memories, and it was a question whether a great flood of 1607 had not been as high or even higher. And in these districts to the loss of house property, of ships and boats, and of other things which could suffer from flood as well as from the wind, has to be added whole crops swept away, and' many thousands of cattle drowned.

Bristol suffered at least £100,000 worth of damage. a great part of it from the flooding of cellars in which was stored the rich produce of the West Indies and America: 1,000 hogsheads of sugar, 1,500 of tobacco, are enumerated among the losses. What the whole loss in the Severn valley may have been is probably beyond recovery. "They tell us," says Defoe, "the damage done by the tide amounts to above £200,000; 15,000 sheep drown'd in one level, multitudes of cattle on all the sides, and the covering of lands with salt water is a damage cannot well be estimated." We may well leave it at that.

Some curious results followed. From the great destruction of corn-ricks men might perhaps have foreseen a shortage or dearness of bread in the ensuing winter. It fell out quite differently. By a fortunate change the season, which hitherto had been very wet, turned to dry, and for a month no appreciable rain fell. The scattered corn was therefore gathered up, practically undamaged, and threshing was put in hand at once on a large scale. This was for two reasons: both to save the cost of rebuilding the ricks, and because, owing to the great number of houses which had been unroofed, there was an unprecedented demand for straw for making thatches. Thus in some measure the storm served to repair its own devastation.

The benefit of the destruction of corn-ricks thus fell to the general public; but it was quite otherwise in the case of houses damaged in the towns. There the public suffered as might be expected, and the building trade alone was the gainer. All the tiles made by the next summer were not enough to cover the houses which had been unroofed, and it is not surprising to learn that the price of tiles rose to three or four times the normal figure. And it was a golden time for bricklayers, who-presumably by the threat of striking, though strikes were not encouraged in those days-succeeded in obtaining 5s. a day instead of the 2s. which they usually received. In the circumstances it is not remarkable that many people refused to pay these exorbitant prices, preferring to make shift as best they could, patching their houses with boards or anything else that would serve till prices fell to a more reasonable figure.

As a curious result of the storm, it was noticed in the Isle of Wight that the fine spray of the sea, blown many miles inland, had rendered the grass so salt that cattle would not cat it; and that hedges and trees showed on the ends of their twigs knobs of salt congealed. The same thing appeared in Sussex and in Kent, especially at Cranbrook, the old capital of the Weald; and this implied, when allowance was made for the direction of the wind, that the spray had been blown at least twenty-five miles. This is a regular feature of West Indian hurricanes; but it was unprecedented in England.

Several curious meteorological phenomena were observed either during the storm or at a time so near to it that the storm gained the credit of them. It is disputed whether there was thunder and lightning accompanying the wind, and there is some excuse for the doubt which existed. The booming of the wind aloft, as heard during the lulls, seems to have distinctly simulated thunder; and there was, besides, an undoubted exhibition of a most unusual nature. "Tho' 1 cannot remember," says Defoe, "to have heard it thunder, or that I saw any lightning, or heard of any that did in or near London; yet in the countries the air was seen full of meteors and vaporous fires: and in some places both thunderings and unusual flashes of lightning, to the great terror of the inhabitants." These "unusual flashes" are elsewhere described as not striking down, but running horizontally along or near to the ground. That there may have been local thunder and lightning is probable enough, for an approximate reconstruction of the storm seems to show that it pushed one "secondary"-apparently a very vicious one-in front of it, absorbing it finally somewhere over the eastern channel, and that it may have been followed by another.

The report of a water-spout seen on the afternoon of the 26th in a field in Oxfordshire also suggests the presence of an active "secondary." The Great Storm, indeed, appears to have been an amalgamation of storms.

But, as would be expected, the greatest mischief caused by the storm was done at sea. There is, for the purpose of comparison between land and sea, no certain record of the loss of life; but it is believed that on land the deaths, other than those caused by the Severn floods, were about 125, or not many more. On the other hand, it was stated that the lives lost at sea amounted to 8,000 a not unlikely figure: we have pretty exact records of the losses of the Navy, and know that they included some 1,500 lives.

There were two reasons why the losses at sea should be so heavy. Had all the ships which felt the storm been in open water the vast majority of them would in the ordinary course have ridden it out with more or less damage. It is hardly to be supposed that it was such a night as this that inspired Dibdin's mariner:

At night came on a hurricane, the sea was mountains rolling.

As Barney Buntline slued his quid and spake to Billy Bowline

A strong nor'wester's blowing, Bill: Hark, can't ye bear it roar now?

Lor' love me, how I pities them unhappy folks ashore now.

As comfortably you and I upon the deck are lying,

Lord knows what tiles and chimney-pots about their ears are flying."

The Barney Buntlines and Billy Bowlines who were at sea that night, even in well-found ships in

open water, had enough to do without lying on the deck swapping a yarn.

But when the Great Storm began there were few or no ships in the open sea. Both men-of-war and merchantmen were at home, "in port" as it was called, which might be supposed to mean in a place of security, statio benefida carinir.

Keels could trust to no place that night. Even in the Medway and the Pool of London vast damage was done; and by far the greater part of the ships were in no such land-locked waters as those. The "ports" they were in were the open roadsteads where their journeys ended, preparatory to their removal into harbour. The Spithead anchorage and that at St. Helens were full of ships, so were Yarmouth Roads, and so were the Downs. And the Downs, as often before and since, though never to so high a degree, proved themselves a wild road.

The reason for this great accumulation of shipping was that, as has already been noticed, the weather had been uniformly bad for a fortnight before November 26th. Gale had succeeded gale with hardly a break, and each gale brought ships into the roadsteads; some because they had reached their journey's end, many more, whether outward or homeward bound, because they needed shelter. Nowadays it takes some little effort to remember that in the days of sail it was dangerous to be caught by a gale in the neighbourhood of land. In the open sea a sailing-ship caught by a severe gale tucks her head under her wing, so to speak, like a sea bird, and drives away slowly before the wind; but in narrow waters, as in the English Channel for instance, she has not room to do this. To attempt it for any length of time is to run a very severe risk of being driven ashore and wrecked. Therefore in former times ships caught by a gale in narrow waters ran for shelter-not into harbour, but into the more or less sheltered bays and roadsteads, whence they could at once get to sea again when the wind came fair. Down to the very end of last, century it was no uncommon thing to see 300 or 400 merchantmen collected in the Downs; and to ace them sail thence all together on a shift of wind was a sight which will always live in the memory of those who were privileged to behold it.

Then we have the men-of-war to consider, and in respect of them, too, there was a very great difference between the present time and the past. Now men-of-war are much smaller than large merchantmen; then they were very much bigger. Now the bigger a ship is, the fitter is she to withstand winds and waves. "Billows and breezes don't bother big steamers." Then, when a ship had grown beyond a moderate size, she grew progressively weaker instead of stronger.

Yet for purposes of war it was necessary to build great ships, and because these great ships could ill brook bad weather it was the regular custom to call them into port before the winter. Thus in 1703 the fleet-it was a time of war with France-which had made a summer campaign in the Mediterranean, was recalled in the autumn, and, after a stormy passage, anchored in the Downs on November 17th. This fleet was under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who four years later lost his life in a gale far less severe than the Great Storm, and, by a curious chance, in that one of his great ships which had had the most terrible experience in 1703.

A fleet of sailing line-of-battle ships then, consisted, in almost equal proportions, of two- and three-decked ships; that is, of ships with two or three complete tiers of guns, one above the other. Obviously the three-decker was much higher out of the water than the two-decker, and was therefore a more dangerous ship in a gale, because the wind, acting on her high side, could more easily drive her out of her course. These three-deckers were known as the "great ships"; and it was an accepted belief of the period that an admiral deserved to be broke who kept the great ships out of port too late in the autumn season. Thus when Shovell brought his fleet into the Downs he immediately received orders how his ships were to be disposed of: some of the two-decked ships, and one three-decker, the Prince George, were to remain in the Downs until they could get a fair wind to take them back to Portsmouth; but Shovell himself was ordered to sail at once for the river with seven three-deckers, one two-decker, and various miscellaneous vessels. These ships wore to be laid up for the winter at Chatham.

Shovell sailed from the Downs on the 24th, and anchored at the Long Sand Head-that is, some fifteen miles at sea off Harwich. It must be remembered then, and for long afterwards, the only known ship channel into the Thames was from the east running along the Essex shore, and that ore ships bound into the river had to go as north as Harwich before turning to the southwest. This very commonly meant delay, for a wind eh was fair to bring a ship up to Harwich from English Channel was foul for her entry into the thames In such cases single ships or fleets often anchored off Harwich to wait for their fair wind. And this is what Shovell with his great ships did. As it was already blowing a gale he "struck lower yards and top-masts"--that is, took down everything removable above deck, the usual foul-weather precaution in an exposed anchorage in winter time.

As these ships were the greatest which were exposed to the storm it will be well to begin with their experience of it. Of the eight great ships, four were driven from their anchors and forced out to sea The wind was W.S.W., the night pitch-dark, and the Galloper sand was some fifteen miles to leeward We have a detailed account of the adventures of the Association, of ninety guns, flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Stafford Fairborne. She passed, entirely helpless, across the tail of the Galloper, in water deep enough for her not to strike, but so shallow as to render the sea marvellously high and uneven. At this point she suffered severe damage, and came within an ace of foundering. The sea beat in the ports of her upper deck, which were almost twenty feet above the water-line, and the mass of water that came aboard caused her to lie down on her side in a most dangerous position. To right the ship holes had to be cut in the decks, so that the water might run down into the hold, and be thence pumped out; but before they had succeeded thus in getting the water down to the bottom of the ship an immense weight of it collected on the lower gun-deck, only some three feet above the water-line had the ship been upright.

But the ship, in the first place, was not upright, and secondly, she was being flung this way and that by huge breaking seas, so that this great body of water went surging back and fore across the deck. It surged with such force that it burst the fastenings of two of the gun-ports-hinged lids opening outwards-and then the doom of the ship seemed certain. But meanwhile she had been driving over the narrow tail of the shoal, and under its lee found the sea easier; a high and dangerous sea, of course, in such a gale, but sufficiently regular to allow men to set to work. The admiral himself took charge, and under his direction the skill and courage of the crew prevailed, the ports were barred in, and almost against hope the ship was saved.

After that she drove over to the Dutch coast, an extremely dangerous one from its outlying sandbanks. But here again fortune favoured her. By daylight the wind was not only less violent, but blew from a more southerly point, which enabled her to steer up along the coast. And so she was driven to the north-eastward, till finally she anchored at the mouth of the Elbe. After setting herself somewhat to rights she weighed her anchor for the journey back to England, but another severe gale took her and drove her still farther north. In fact, so far north was she driven that it was clear that she could not get home without succour. She had lost anchors, cables, and other gear, and having just come home from abroad at the end of the campaign, she had exhausted her victuals and drink. There was thus, nothing left for it but to find a northern port in which she could refresh, and eventually she anchored at Gottenburg. Having got provisions thence, and naval stores from Copenhagen, she sailed again for home, taking with her under convoy those merchantmen which were homeward bound. It was noticed at the time that had, she remained a few days longer she would have been frozen in for the winter. In that case the cold would have killed off a large proportion of her crew, which coming from a warmweather station, and in a very sickly state withal, were as W prepared to meet it as men could well be. After a tedious passage home, delayed by further gales, the Asrodation at last reached the Medway two months after she had left the Downs. There had been great anxiety for her safety.

The other ships which were blown off had similar but less extreme experiences. They had a rough time of it in passing the Galloper; they were driven over to the Dutch coast; but they are not recorded to, have been in such imminent danger, nor were they driven so far to the northward. After some days of beating about in the North Sea in foul weather they all succeeded in returning home. It is not the least remarkable thing about the Great Storm that the three-decked ships should one and all have succeeded in weathering it. The only one which was lost was an old second-rate mooted in the Medway without a crew on board. The force of the wind broke her moorings and forced her ashore, and she was so rotten that she could not be got off again.

To account for the safety of the great ships when so many others, better fitted than they to cope with wind and sea, perished, it should be noticed that there was at their anchorage no dangerous sandbank close to leeward. The Galloper was far off, and though it was feared that the wind would set them on to it, yet it did not do so. Except for the broken water through which they passed, they were really at the mercy of the open sea, which, however furious, is kindlier than sandbanks. It is also probable that even in the fifty miles or so between the Downs and the north end of the Galloper there was an appreciable decrease in the violence of the wind; it is impossible to be certain, but it is not unlikely, that the great ships may have had this advantage also over those which were caught in the Downs.

The flood tide runs up through the Downs from about two hours before to four hours after high water. Its direction is roughly from S.S.W. to N.N.E., and its velocity is naturally increased when the wind blows, as it did on the night of November 26th, in the same direction as the tide runs in the Channel. Being new moon, it was high water in the Downs that night at a little before midnight. The general direction of the wind was south-westerly, but at the time of its greatest force it came a little more from the westward, blowing thus diagonally off the land and towards the Goodwin Sand which encloses the anchorage on the eastern side. These conditions are such as bring a tremendous sea into, the anchorage, and especially into the southern part of it where the larger ships lie. It is necessary to appreciate these local conditions in order to understand what happened in the Downs on the night of November 26th.

The Downs were full of ships that night. There were, to begin with, about 160 merchantmen sheltering there, lying probably in the northern part of the anchorage off Deal. Also there were many men-of-war. There was Rear-Admiral Basil Beaumont in the Mary, of sixty guns, commanding on that station; there were several ships of Vice-Admiral Graydon's squadron, recently returned from the West Indies; and there was Vice-Admiral John Leake in the Prince George, a three-decker of ninety guns, with the other ships of Shovell's Mediterranean fleet ordered to return to Portsmouth. The Prince George was the only three-decker in the anchorage that night, and as the night closed down dark and boisterous and the gale freshened, there can be. no doubt that more. anxiety was felt for her safety than for that of any other ship.

Fortunately she had a very good and careful captain, who took every precaution in good time. It is of some interest to notice that there is no mention of the ships in the Downs sending down their yards and top-masts, as those with Shovell did. As the Prince George did not do so, it may be decided that it was not considered advisable in that anchorage; probably because, as the sands to leeward were so close, and the passage, the Gull Stream, through them so narrow, it was thought necessary to be in a position to make sail at once in case of breaking adrift.

Leake's captain left a record of the storm, which was afterwards edited by his son, then Garter King.. of Arms. He says of it that "as it seems to have been engendered in the Downs, so it spent its utmost fury there." Of this fury, which came on about one o'clock in the morning, there can be no doubt. `That place, which the evening before appeared like a goodly forest, in two hours was reduced to a desert, hardly an object being left to cheer the sight, had the darkness of the night permitted."

About three in the morning a great seventy-gun ship, the Restoration, dragging her anchors, came down on the Prince George but by skill the ships were prevented from beating against each other, and by good fortune the anchors of the Restoration did not start those of the Prince George out of the ground, though they. damaged them. The ships rode alongside each other in this manner for half an hour, "'the longest half-hour that ever they knew, for everyminute seemed to be the last"; but at length "the invisible hand of Providence relieved them (i.e. the Prince George); the Restoration drove away, and soon after was lost with every living creature on board."

Daylight found the Prince George still riding undamaged at her anchors. Few other ships had held on, and all of those were greatly damaged, most of them having had to cut away their masts. "When it was day," says Leake, "they saw twelve sail ashore upon the Goodwin, Bunt Head, and Brake Sands, amongst whom was Admiral Beaumont in the Mary, the Stirling Castle, Northumberland, and Restoration, who were all to pieces by ten o'clock, and all the men perished, except one from the Mary and about eighty from the Stirling Castle. It was a melancholy prospect to see between two and three thousand perish in this manner, without a possibility of helping them." Of the merchantmen a few had sunk at their anchors, a few more had escaped with the loss of their masts, but by far the greater part had been driven out to sea. Of these no doubt some that lay farthest north had succeeded in running out through the Gull; most had been driven, thanks to the height of the tide, clean over the top of the Goodwins. They were small ships, as nearly all merchantmen then were, drawing only eight, ten, or perhaps at most twelve feet of water, so they went safe.

The men-of-war of the third-rate drew about eighteen feet, and there was no escape for them that way, and in such weather a ship which struck was a ship lost. There is little detail on record of the loss of the Mary and of the seventy-gun ships, both because they drove ashore in the dark, and because in the courts-martial-which were always held to inquire into the loss of any of the King's ships-it was not yet the custom to keep minutes of the evidence. We only know that the one survivor from the Mary saved his life by swimming on board the Stirling Castle, which must therefore have gone ashore close to leeward of her, and that he, doubly fortunate, was one of the eighty. survivors who were taken off from the part of the wreck which remained above water on the following day. The other ships broke up completely and all were drowned. We presumably owe to the one survivor of the Mary the knowledge that Admiral Beaumont, a young man of thirty-four, lashed himself with two other officers to a piece of the wreck. What became of them no one knows: they were never picked up.

Even from the sheltered ports and anchorages to the westward some ships were driven to sea. There was a remarkable yarn of a tin-ship-that is, a ship laden with tin-which was blown out of the Helford River in Cornwall shortly before midnight, and was beached on the Isle of Wight next morning "between two rocks," with the loss of the ship, but without the loss of a man. The contemporary account is frankly incredible, but can, by a little care, be brought within the bounds of probability. It was stated that the wind, then at N.W., blew the ship out of the river at midnight, and that she grounded on the Isle of Wight at eight the next morning, having therefore run eighty leagues in eight hours, a speed far beyond experience.

Examination of the evidence shows that to go clear of the land the ship must have started with the wind north-westerly, and that to be driven in on the Wight she must have had it, as alleged, about W.S.W. So far so good; but there is reason to believe that in Cornwall the shift of wind from N.W. to W.S.W. came long before midnight, which would mean that the ship was blown to sea probably about ten o'clock. And when she is credited with having grounded at eight the next morning we are equally at liberty to suppose that for eight we may read ten. The wind in the western channel was not as furious as in the Downs, and the tin-ship was able to set a scrap of sail; in such circumstances there can be no doubt that she drove very fast. But the distance from the Helford River to the Isle of Wight, even to St. Catherine's, is not eighty leagues (240 miles), but barely fifty leagues (150 miles). Thus from 240 miles in eight hours, a speed of thirty knots, our ship's progress is reduced to 150 miles at most in perhaps twelve hours, corresponding to a speed of about twelve knots or a little more. Even that would be a most exceptional speed in 1703, and rightly to be admired; but it was in every way an exceptional night.

We are told also that the crew of this ship owed their safety to one youngster who had been to the Isle of Wight before, and knew of a tiny creek where he could beach her, which he did "between two rocks." This part of the story may be dismissed. If the ship had not been out of command she would not have been beached so as to be lost; she would either have gone on running up Channel, till the gale had broken, or would have gone in through the Needles passage and put herself comfortably on the soft mud on the Keyhaven side of the Solent.

The Spithead anchorage, as has been noticed, was full of ships, but few of them were lost. The shelter there is far better than in the Downs, and the fury of the storm was not quite so great. From the outer anchorage at St. Helens, south of Bernbridge, the Resolution, of seventy guns, was blown from her anchors, and the Newcastle, of fifty, from Spithead. These two, driven straight before the wind, passed right over that network of dangerous shoals known as the Owers, which extend ten miles or more to seaward of Selsey Bill.

Again the height of the tide worked for salvation. Had it not been high water, or near it, they would inevitably have stuck fast on the shoals and gone to pieces, without the least prospect of a man of their crews, together amounting to some 600 or 700 men, being saved. As it was, they bumped heavily and often, but drove over into deeper water, leaky it is true, but not so leaky that they could not run in on the coast before sinking. The Newcastle beached herself near Selsey, unfortunately with the loss of near zoo men; the Resolution, being farther to seaward, was driven farther to the eastward, keeping herself afloat by hard pumping and bailing, and eventually went ashore near Pevensey without loss of life.

A very similar story was repeated in Yarmouth Roads, whence a great many merchantmen, colliers probably for the most part, were driven to sea. One man-of-war, the Reserve, of fifty guns, was overwhelmed by the sea and sank, with all her crew, at her anchors. Two more were driven on outlying sands, and were also totally lost, but most rode it out in the open. The loss of the York on the Shipwash Sand is often credited to the Great Storm, but wrongly so. The greater part of her crew was saved, which could hardly have happened had she struck on the night of the 26th, for then probably neither man nor stick of her would have been seen again. She was, in fact, wrecked in moderate but hazy weather two days after the Great Storm.

As is well known, the families of the men of the Navy who. perished, from admiral downwards, were relieved out of the public funds. It is pleasant to be able to place it on record that the initiative came from the Queen, whose proposal was that they should be considered as having lost their lives in action, and their families treated by the established scale, which was, in fact, done.

As far as the Humber the storm was very severe; we hear of many ships anchored near its mouth being blown to sea, some of which in all likelihood came to grief in the open. But there was no such exceptional loss in that quarter as to attract very particular attention in a night of such disasters. It was reported, as striking evidence of the violence of the wind at Spurn Point that night, that it fused the bars of the grate on which the coal-fire burnt which then formed the light, a thing which had never before been known to happen. But even this point was beyond the full fury of the storm, and still farther north there was no wind worth recording. An ordinary gale there may have been, but a mere summer breeze to that which raged in the south.

In the port of London the fact of the tide being high when the storm was at its fiercest did not make for safety. It gave the wind a further fetch, and deprived the ships of the shelter of the banks, with the result that anchors dragged, moorings parted, and the whole mass of ships was driven to leeward in a solid body. Owing to the horseshoe bend made by the river, everything between Ratcliff and Deptford was driven by the south-west wind into the bight of Limehouse, and the space being small and the number of ships very great, near 700 sail, they were driven into and on top of one another in heaps. One would be seen lying heeling from the shore with the bows of one ship over her waist and the stem of another on her forecastle; the bowsprits of some drove into the cabin windows of others; some lay so that the tide flowed into them before they could be righted; some so much on top of others that the undermost sank before the other was floated. Boats everywhere were crushed to pieces between the ships, masts were carried away, and a very pretty general average was made of the external carved works in which all ships of any proper pride then indulged. Such is the picture, and there can be no doubt that in harbour. as at sea, the damage was very severe.

The first lighthouse on the Eddystone was built by Winstanley, the engineer. It was long in hand, and the design was so often altered before completion that it is not very easy to be sure whether one should say that Winstanley built two lighthouses on the rock or only one. If he built two, the first was still incomplete in 1697 when it was visited by a French ship of war which carried Winstanley off a prisoner and destroyed the works. He was soon exchanged, and set to work on a new edition of his lighthouse, which was finished in 1703. It was a curious structure. The base was of masonry, twentyfour feet in diameter and rising twenty feet above the rock, but the whole of the upper structure was of timber, and of so curious an appearance with its galleries, derricks, and overhanging caves, that it has been likened to a Chinese pagoda. Men wagged their heads at it, prophesying that it would not withstand a storm; but Winstanley had complete faith in his creation, and is recorded to have said that he would wish to be in it in a gale. It so far justified his opinion that it stood through the gales of a fortnight before the fatal November 26th. Apparently it had suffered some damage, for on the 26th Winstanley, profiting by the short lull in the weather, went off to the lighthouse with a few workmen to superintend necessary repairs. The gale which sprang up prevented his return to the shore, if indeed he wished to return, and the storm that followed gave him the opportunity he is said to have desired. How or when the lighthouse went can never be known; all that is certain is that on the morning of the 27th no trace of the tower or of its occupants remained, everything above the solid base having been swept away by the storm.

To end with a peculiar consequence of the storm. in November an exchange of prisoners of war had been arranged with France, and at the time of the storm everything was ready for carrying it out. But when the storm had passed, the responsible office wrote to the Secretary of State saying that though the transports were ready, they had stopped them, for the seas were full of ships disabled by the late storm of which the said prisoners might give intelligence. The Secretary of State agreed that the office had done well, adding that the cause for the delay would soon disappear, and that they were to advise him when they thought the cartels might pass. Accordingly on December 11th, a fortnight after the storm, they wrote again, saving "that as most of the ships drove out to sea by the late storm are in port by now, either here or abroad, we think our transports detained at Dover may now go for Calais with prisoners in exchange for about 300 English who are in those parts and in great extremities"; and they added that H.R.H. Prince George, the Lord High Admiral, had ordered them to relieve those prisoners as soon as possible. Leave was given with only two days' delay, and the prisoners were freed from their uncomfortable quarters. The lot of prisoners of war was decidedly hard in those days.

All through the year of the storm it had been found difficult to find men for the Navy, and the summer campaign had been a sickly one which had cost many hundreds of lives; thus the loss of life in the ships wrecked came as a very severe disaster and caused the Admiralty great anxiety. The official papers of the time reflect this, and show us the authorities stretching an the known methods to the, utmost in order to obtain men.

It cannot be doubted that the prisoners of war whose return from France has been noticed. were not allowed to run free, but were carefully shepherded into the Navy. That was the regular practice then and for long afterwards, for they were seamen , and the State had a right to their services. But a number of other methods existed, which were only put in force in time of great emergency, and in the weeks after the storm they are found in operation. Thus the prisoners of war, especially neutrals, were promised their liberty if they would "volunteer" for the Navy. and they volunteered. In December 1703, four Danish seamen, taken in a French privateer, were entered in this way; so were two French Protestant prisoners who "did not wish to return to France." It is by no means clear that they wished to enter the English Navy and fight against their own country with halters round their necks; but they did.

As a rule convicted criminals were not entered for the fighting services, though it was common enough to allow men accused of serious offences to escape trial by "volunteering" for the Navy or Army. In this emergency men convicted both by civil and martial courts were sent into the Navy. Thus we have two seamen condemned to death for desertion, and a promising young A.B. whose life was forfeited for burglary; on December Sth we hear of four convicts at Newgate; and on March 8th following, a gaol defivery at Newgate resulted in a crop of thirteen men who, like those already mentioned, were 'Tsted into the Queen's service."

It's an ill wind that blows no one any good; and the Great Storm certainly saved a handful of rogues a hanging.

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  • Location: Edmonton Alberta(via Chelmsford, Exeter & Calgary)
  • Weather Preferences: Sunshine and 15-25c
  • Location: Edmonton Alberta(via Chelmsford, Exeter & Calgary)

just a quick note about the above very intersting read.

as a prequel to nov 1703..sept and october were very cold not very warm as u suggest with cet of 10.6 and 7.8 respectively..maybe that had something to do with the intensity of the storm that november???

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  • Location: Western Brecon Beacons. 1100' ASL .
  • Location: Western Brecon Beacons. 1100' ASL .

It's a help to hear that Cheeky Monkey....the reference you made was quoted , I wish I could back it up!!! <_< The storm must have been written about extensively in the 18th century, apart from defoe.....prob lying in some bookcases in some manor houses accross the UK ( or USA ....cause 10's of 1000's of books from the 18th century have gone there for a pitance ) . I have a bit more info on it here & will post it soon. <_<

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  • Location: Leeds/Bradford border, 185 metres above sea level, around 600 feet
  • Location: Leeds/Bradford border, 185 metres above sea level, around 600 feet

As i suspected when i was reading the first record of the event, the storm was not a hurricane and it was meerly the track of the storm which caused the damage, due to the strength of the storm, there must have been some pressty bad blizzards to the north of the storm.

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  • Location: Western Brecon Beacons. 1100' ASL .
  • Location: Western Brecon Beacons. 1100' ASL .

I havn't come across any reports of blizzards from this storm, in the UK...yet :D ......I understand that its a physical impossability for the UK to suffer a hurricane, in our present climate. There little doubt though that the 1703 storm produced "Hurricane force" winds.

Here's a synoptic chart, drawn, I think by prof. Manley, from his research and subsequent estimation of the depressions.


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  • Location: aberdeenshire scotland
  • Location: aberdeenshire scotland

if any of you have looked at the gfs for november, ther's a storm with a cp of 940 about to walz its way through greenland

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  • Location: Rossland BC Canada
  • Location: Rossland BC Canada

This account is most appreciated. Bear in mind that this storm was during the time of the Julian calendar (the Gregorian was adopted in Britain in 1752). Therefore this storm occurred around Dec 7 in terms of how we think about the seasons and months. If you're not sure about this, I checked the lunar calendar and this proves that the account is in OS dates. The new moon would have been around Dec 7, 1703 in modern time.

I like the look of Professor Manley's map, but I wonder if the low wasn't a little deeper, perhaps 948-950 mb, from the force of the wind.

Anyway, they probably blamed the storm on global warming. The CET series shows that 1703 was in the midst of a long-term period of natural warming.

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