diamond geezer

 Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The Great Storm - Friday 26th November 1703

Remember the Great Storm? I'm not talking about that breezy night in October 1987, nor that Vicar of Dibley episode they seem to repeat every six months, I mean The Great Storm. Exactly 300 years ago tonight, the most damaging storm ever recorded in Britain ripped through an unsuspecting population, killing over 8000 people across southern and eastern England. There were no weather forecasts in those days, no satellites watching developments over the Atlantic, just a ferocious tempest striking suddenly and without warning. No wonder so many lives were lost. In comparison the 1987 'hurricane' killed only 19 people and, as for the Vicar of Dibley, I doubt anybody's died laughing yet.

We know a lot about the 1703 storm because one man went out of his way to record the experiences of ordinary people across the country. That man was Daniel Defoe, later the author of Robinson Crusoe, and a fine reporter/journalist to boot. He tells how windmills across East Anglia spun so fast that friction ignited the timbers and many just burnt to the ground. He also chronicles terrible destruction to property, particularly church steeples, and how 15000 sheep died in floods near Bristol. The greatest number of human casualties were offshore, notably on the Goodwin Sands where four great warships were lost, killing well over a thousand seamen.

The most famous casualty of the 1703 storm was an eccentric merchant called Henry Winstanley. In 1696 he lost two of his ships on the Eddystone Rocks, 14 miles off Plymouth, and pledged to build a lighthouse there to warn other vessels of the treacherous conditions. The Eddystone Lighthouse was an engineering marvel, particularly given that it was so far offshore, and was gradually built and strengthened over a three year period. Winstanley was so proud of his final structure that he boasted he would willingly stay in his lighthouse even during the greatest storm in history. On the morning of 26th November 1703 he sailed out to Eddystone to carry out urgent maintenance before the winter set in. Unfortunately the greatest storm in history set in instead, and by the following morning only a few bent pieces of rusty iron remained. A night to remember then, at least for those who survived.

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