The Great Storm of 1703 was a destructive extratropical cyclone that struck central and southern England on 26th November. The Julian calendar was still used at this time, so the date would be 7th December in the Gregorian calendar, used today. Barometric readings at the time recorded pressure as low as 950 millibars (=28”Hg) in the Midlands. Tremendous damage was done at sea and on land. The Royal Navy lost 13 ships, including the entire Channel Squadron and upwards of 1,500 seamen drown. More than 40 merchant ships were also lost. The first Eddystone Lighthouse was destroyed.
Hundreds of people drowned in flooding on the Somerset levels. Thousands of sheep and cattle were lost and 400 windmills were destroyed. Queen Anne had to shelter in the cellar of St James’s Palace, London to avoid falling masonry.
Daniel Defoe’s account of the Storm
The following letters to Daniel Defoe from the South Midlands have been paraphrased to some extent from their original language. The letter from Littleton is produced to almost its full extent. For the letters concerning other locations, only the salient points have been mentioned. Defoe wrote about the storm in 1704; his work was entitled: "The Storm or a Collection of the most Remarkable Casualties and disasters which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest both by Sea and Land".
As to the villages of Littleton in Worcestershire, I can only give this information, that this violent hurricane visited us, also in its passage, to the great terror of the inhabitants, who although by the gracious Providence of God, all escaped with their lives and limbs, and the main fabric of their houses stood, though with much shaking, and some damage in the roofs of many of them. Yet, when the morning light appeared after that dismal night, they were surprised with fresh apprehensions of the dangers escaped, when they discovered the sad havoc that was made among the trees of their orchards and closes. Very many fruit trees, and many mighty elms being torn up, and one elm above 87ft, of very great bulk and ancient growth I observed, which might have defied the strength of all the men and teams in the Parish, (though assaulted in every branch with ropes and chains) was found torn up by the roots, all sound, and of vast strength and thickness. And with its fall (as was thought) by the help of the same impetuous gusts, broke off in the middle of the timber another great elm, its fellow and next neighbour.
And, that which may exercise the thoughts of the curious, some little houses and out-houses that seemed to stand in the same current, and without any visible burrow or shelter, escaped in their roofs, without any, or very little damage.
What accidents of note happened in our neighbouring Parishes, I suppose you may receive from other hands. This, I thank God, is all that I have to transmit unto you from this place, but that I am a well-wisher to your work in hand.
And your Humble Servant,
Littleton, December 20th.
(Rev’d Norris was the Minister at South Littleton Church, who was born in 1681 and died in 1715. His letter to Daniel Defoe included a quote from a prophet that the tremendous Power and Majesty, “Causeth the Vapours to ascend from the Ends of the Earth, and bringeth the Wind out of his Treasures, and as the Priest Saith, hath so done his marvellous Works, that they ought to be had in remembrance.”)
The upper part of a 15x25 ft window in the Church was entirely ruined, as was a second window of 10x15 ft. On the roof three sheets of lead were unbedded and rolled up like so much paper. Over the Church porch, a large pinnacle and two battlements were blown down. A large number of houses were damaged, with several chimneys, slate and tiles thrown down, but nobody was killed or wounded. Some of the poor, because their houses were thatched, were the greatest sufferers. Several trees and ricks of hay were blown down.
Your most obedient and humble servant,
Fairford, January 17th 1703/4
Witney and district, Oxfordshire
At Wilsnorton, three miles from Witney, the lead of the Church was rolled and great damage done. Many elms were torn up by their roots. At Helford, a rookery of elms was torn up. A barn was blown down at Cockeup and the highway was blocked by fallen great oak. At Witney, six chimney stacks were blown down, one house lost a sheet of lead and many houses were quite torn to pieces. Several hundred trees were blown down. Blessed be to God, neither man, woman nor child received any harm.
Leamington Hastings, Warwickshire
The middle aisle of the church was stripped of lead from one end to the other, with a great many sheets on the ground, rolled up like a piece of cloth. They were of at least 50 cwt. At the same time, at Marston, four miles away, a great rick of wheat was blown off from its staddles and set down, without one sheaf removed or disturbed, 20 yards away.
I am your Friend,
(The sheafs mentioned would have been tied together and placed on boards on the staddle stones, to prevent vermin infesting them. The high wind would have blown the stack off of the staddle stones rolling it like a cube until it came to rest 20 yards away).
Tewkesbury Abbey suffered no discernible damage, although the lead roof was strangely ruffled and had to be laid down, but without any great cost or trouble. Two well-grown elms, which stood before sort of alms-houses in the churchyard had a different treatment. One was broken in the trunk and fell southward whilst the other was torn up by its roots and fell northwards. Diverse chimneys were blown down causing damage to the great consternation of the inhabitants. One, rising between two chambers, fell by the bed of a gentleman and bruised part of the bed tester and furniture., but he and his wife were preserved. An outhouse, consisting of a barn, a stable and a millhouse, altogether 40ft in length, standing at the edge of town, was most considerably damaged. No one in the town was killed or notably hurt.
The Cathedral at Gloucester suffered much.
Your unknown Friend and Servant,
‘Teuxsbury’ January 12th 1703/4
What of the situation in Badsey and Wickhamford?
Further to the suggestion at the end of the letter written by Rev’d Norris of South Littleton, no reports remain of the position in surrounding parishes. The Vicar of Badsey and of Wickhamford, in plurality, in 1703 was Rev’d Charles Nixon. He had held these positions for about 25 years. Wickhamford Manor was owned by the Sandys family, but there was probably a tenant there in 1703, possibly Thomas Timbrill. There are no records of any serious damage to either church, or to Wickhamford Manor, as a result of the storm on 26th November. The Burial Registers of both parishes do not record any deaths at the time of the storm, but injuries would surely have occurred. Trees would have fallen and the thatched roofs of cottages would have been damaged or blown away.
When the hurricane of 1987 crossed the Southern counties of England, London and, lastly, East Anglia, the damage to trees and buildings was immense. Thankfully it passed during the night of 15th – 16th October and as few as 18 people were reported as being killed. The South Midlands escaped the worst of the winds. At that time, it was reported as the worst storm since that of 1703.
Tom Locke – October 2022