The Great Storm of 1703

7 December or 26 November after the Julian calendar, the worst of the Great Storm of 1703, one of the worst natural disasters ever recorded in the area, hit the southern part of Great Britain.

“From Kent we have many strange Accounts of the Violence of the Storm, besides what relate to the Sea Affairs.At Whitstable, a small Village on the Mouth of the East Swale of the River Medway, we are inform'd a Boat belonging to a Hoy was taken up by the Violence of the Wind, clear off from the Water, and being bourn up in the Air, blew turning continually over and over in its progressive Motion, till it lodg'd against a rising Ground, above 50 Rod from the Water; in the passage it struck a Man, who was in the way, and broke his Knee to pieces.We content our selves with relating only the Fact, and giving Assurances of the Truth of what we Relate, we leave the needful Remarks on such Things to another place.At a Town near Chartham, the Lead of the Church rolled up together, and blown off from the Church above 20 Rod distance, and being taken up afterwards, and weigh'd it, appear'd to weigh above 2600 weight.At Brenchly in the Western Parts of Kent, the Spire of the Steeple which was of an extraordinary hight was overturn'd; the particulars whereof you have in the following Letter, from the Minister of the place.“ (Daniel Defoe, “The Storm”)

J.M.W. Turner’s “Dutch Boats in a Gale” from 1801

Journalism was still in its infancy when the catastrophe descended upon the North Sea region, however, the leading English newspapers reacted quite like their successors would generations later. They asked their readers for personal accounts. The 44-years old merchant and pamphleteer Daniel Defoe, dismissed only just from Newgate Prison where he was incarcerated for seditious libel, collected them and wrote his first book, not quite a bestseller but the stepping stone to a world-class literary career for one of the founders of the English novel. And, of course, besides noting odd details, like what became later known as the Bernoulli effect, in this case smaller house getting untiled in the backyard of more massive buildings, Defoe would not hide his own views. The Great Storm had reduced the Royal Navy by one fifth at one go without enemy contact, more 1,500 officers and crew drowned and the author thought the total loss of 9 ships-of-the-line and smaller vessels as God’s punishment for their poor performance in the first year of the War of the Spanish Succession.

A contemporary imagination of the Great Storm

At sea, 10,000 lives were lost, the West Country was literally flooded, hundreds of people drowned with 15,000 sheep, whole forests uprooted, 4,000 oaks alone in the New Forest, 400 windmills destroyed, steeples and chimneys tumbled, roofs broken apart, Queen Anne had to hide in the cellars of St James Palace from falling masonry, in short: a human and economical catastrophe, and the landscape was “the very Picture of Desolation, that it lookt as if an Enemy had Sackt it“ as Defoe recorded the situation. The preparations one could take against a disaster of these proportions in the early 1700s were limited and especially the people living in the interior away from the coasts were caught completely unaware when the storm hit them with wind speeds of more than 80 mph and its hardly surprising that more people than Defoe saw the Great Storm as God’s judgement and the catastrophe was a topic in sermons well into the 19th century.

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