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The Daddy of All Storms

Central to the final climax of These Fragile Things is the Great Storm of 1987, an event I felt I could bear personal witness to. At the time, it was claimed to have been the most destructive storm since 1703, although this has since been proven otherwise.

The Great Storm of 1703 stuck so firmly in the national mind as it struck a great many ships on their return voyage from helping the King of Spain fight the French, wrecking vessels and killing 1500 seamen. 

In London, of the 700 ships docked on the Thames, all but four were broken from their moorings and thrown onto the shore, while the Queen was forced to take shelter in a cellar at St James’s Palace and the roof was torn off Westminster Abbey. 

Away from the City, prolonged flooding resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives and still more livlihoods, since sheep and cattle were left to fend for themselves. The Bishop of Wells and his wife were crushed to death when two chimneystacks fell on their bed. The diarist John Evelyn described the devastation in the south of England. “All around the South of England great oaks and elms lay on the ground; while ships were wrecked and driven ashore, the North was little affected.” We have so many reliable eye-witness accounts of the Great Storm since it coincided with the increase in journalism, and was the first weather event to be news on a national scale. Special issues were published detailing damage to property and stories of people who had been killed. Novelist Daniel Defoe 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.”

Unfortunately, other newsworthy incidents were to come. The North Sea flood, which occurred on the night of 31st January 1953 and morning of 1st February, struck the low countries, England and Scotland. The combination of a high spring tide and severe gales caused a tidal surge, overwhelming sea defences and causing extensive flooding. 1,836 deaths were recorded, including 307 people in England and19 in Scotland. This tally doesn’t include those who drowned at sea, among them 133 who were on board the MV Princess Victoria which sunk in the North Channel east of Belfast.

One of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in the UK, over 1,600 km of coastline was damaged, and flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes.The Scottish fishing village of Crovie, built on a narrow strip of Moray Firth coast, had to be abandoned as entire structures were swept into the sea. Waters surged down the East Coast into the southern North Sea, where the effects of flooding were exaggerated by the shallower waters, reaching as far as 2 miles inland in Lincolnshire.

Those living in wooden prefabricated homes in Felixstowe, Canvey Island and Jaywick were among those hit the hardest, with substantial loss of life. US airman, Reis Leming, was awarded the George Medal for his role in rescuing 27 people in the South Beach area of Hunstanton. Permanent Secretary to the Home Office, Sir Frank Newsam, who coordinated the immediate efforts to defend homes, save lives and recover after the floods; was much praised.

But January 1976 was to bring further Europe-wide devastation. The gale, which raged for three days in England, was, at the time, the most severe storm of the century. 1.5 million separate incidents of property damage were reported. Worst hit were areas from Ulster across the Irish Sea to Lancashire and down through the Midlands into East Anglia, but few counties went unscathed. Rail services in the Midlands were crippled by the collapse of overhead power cables. At Southend, a light aircraft was blown onto the railway from the ground and, to the north-west, at Manchester Ringway Airport, lighting masts were buckled by the force of the wind. In Worcester, one of the pinnacles of the main tower of the Cathedral came crashing down through the roof into the transept.  In London, The Old Vic theatre was evacuated after scaffolding collapsed. Norfolk, Kent, Surrey and Sussex all suffered extended power cuts. A spokesman for the RAC compared the country to “A giant bowling alley with trees littered like bowling pins all over the road.” In fact, half of England’s forests were flattened and an estimated 25 acres of glass and 100 acres of plastic structures were completely demolished.

In the aftermath, a new nine hundred metre sea wall was built along the Cleethorpes railway at a cost of £1m. During the construction period, which began in the summer of 1978, the area was hit by a higher surge which flooded 1000 properties. Wind speeds peaked at over 90 mph at Jodrell, testing the structure of the Lovell Telescope. Following the storm two diagonal bracing struts were added to give the telescope greater rigidity.

In 1703, the Great Storm, unprecedented in its ferocity and duration, was reckoned by the government of the day to represent God’s anger at the “crying sins of the nation.” They declared 19th January 1704 an official day of fasting, loudly calling for “the deepest and most solemn humiliation of our people.” Sitting here today, listening to the wind howl, it certainly sounds as if someone is mightily pissed off.