26 November 1703: The original ‘Great Storm’ sweeps across Britain

Great storm in the Downs by Frederick Whymper
Thousands were lost at sea

In recent years, we’ve seen a fair few big storms in Britain. The ‘Great Storm’ of 1987 is perhaps the most memorable. But we’ve seen nothing that matches the original Great Storm that raged in November 1703.

The wind had been getting up for a while, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. This is Britain, after all. It gets windy. But by the 26th, thing were getting serious.

Gusts hit 140 mph in the English Channel. One ship was blown from Cornwall to the Isle of Wight. Another, waiting off the coast of Kent and intending to sail for Lisbon, was blown all the way to Norway. The Eddystone lighthouse off Plymouth was washed away – and with it, its designer, Henry Winstanley.

In all an estimated 8,000 people lost their lives at sea.

Over a hundred people died in London, where 2,000 chimneys were blown down. Across the country, 800 houses were razed to the ground. The Bishop of Bath and Wells was “found with his brains dashed out” and his wife “smothered in bed” as the palace’s chimney collapsed.

The storm finally abated on 2 December. The great wind was attributed to God’s wrath, as a result of the “crying sins of this nation”. 19 January 1704 was proclaimed a national day of fasting, and the storm was used as a cautionary tale in sermons for decades to come.

But out of all the devastation a perhaps surprising legacy was born – one of the first real pieces of modern journalism.

Daniel Defoe, not long released from the pillory, advertised for witnesses to send in their accounts. In 1704, he published The Storm, or, a Collection of the most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happened in the late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land in 1704, in which he recounts his own experiences and those of correspondents from around the country

He described the devastation in London, as roof tiles lay strewn around the streets: “the quantity is incredible; and the houses were so universally stript, that all the tiles in fifty miles round would be able to repair but a small part of it.”

He also describes the predictable economic effect, as the laws of supply and demand swung into stark operation. The “sudden rise of the price of tiles; which rose from 21 shillings per thousand to £6 for plain tiles; and from 50 shillings per thousand for pantiles, to £10”.