Climate change makes future weather conditions unpredictable but the worst known storm ever to hit the Wimbledon area so far started 309 years ago on Friday, 26 November 1703 when the whole of southern England was struck by a tempest that lasted until the following Wednesday, 1 December.
Chimney stacks, large pieces of stone and masses of roof tiles flew about with such force that few people dared leave home. A few miles away, Westminster Abbey lost its lead roofing and Queen Anne had to shelter in a cellar at St James’s Palace as the chimneys collapsed along with part of the roof.
Of those people who did venture out, more than 100 were killed and many injured by the flying debris. The Thames flooded and thousands of cattle and sheep were drowned. The small Wimbledon population of the time – numbered in hundreds rather than thousands – was lucky to be on land where shelter was at least possible.
The greatest losses came at sea where more than 8000 merchant seamen were drowned and another 1500 or more sailors in the Royal Navy, which lost 13 warships. As the force hit the Thames, some 700 ships were heaped together by the wind in the Pool of London on the east side of the capital.
Further away in the country, the Eddystone Lighthouse off the Devon coast was destroyed, killing six occupants including its builder, Henry Winstanley. Soon afterwards the crew of the Royal Navy brig Winchelsea died as the ship ran on to the darkened rocks nearby.
The storm was the first national weather disaster to be reported by the newly emerging newspaper industry. Although no local press reports survive for the Wimbledon area itself, special editions appeared elsewhere with details of the damage and lives lost. The Government declared 19 January 1704 a day of fasting, announcing that it called for “the deepest and most solemn humiliation of our people”.
In the following July, Daniel Defoe produced his book The Storm, writing: “No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it.”
No less than 85 years later in 1788, the Reverend Joseph Stennet wrote a sermon on the storm, describing it as “one of the most considerable tempests recorded in history since the General Deluge” with the air “full of meteors and fiery vapours”.
By comparison, the great storm of 15–16 October 1987, worst in our own living memory and the strongest since 1703, killed just 18 people in England and another four across the English Channel in France. However it did destroy some 15 million trees throughout the southern half of the country, including many in Wimbledon’s parks and nearby woodlands.
Back in 1703, some 4000 oak trees were lost in the New Forest alone and other woodlands throughout the southern half of England were decimated. There is no record of the numbers lost locally at that time.
In view of the time gap since 1703, the 1987 storm was not expected to be repeated for a few centuries. In fact another with comparable intensity followed three years later in January 1990. Meterologists cannot predict how strong future storms will be.
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