The Great Storm of 1703, 2012 edition

Having survived Hurricane Sandy with nothing more damaging than an overnight power outage, I’m reminded of yet another superstorm, the Great Storm of 1703, during the War of the Spanish Succession. Considered the most severe storm in southern British history, it spared no one – even Queen Anne was forced to flee its wrath in a cellar at St. James. (What would’ve happened to the war effort had Anne been killed then? Would the succession have passed to George as smoothly during the war?)

The Great Storm wreaked havoc at sea as well as on land. The Royal Navy’s main battle fleets had little to fear from the combined might of the Franco-Spanish navy: there were no major naval battles during the war as the French generally refused to fight a major engagement after the tactical stalemate (yet strategic loss) at the 1704 battle of Malaga, which saw fifty ships engage on each side. The lack of major combat on the open seas doesn’t, however, mean the Royal Navy didn’t suffer several significant reversals. In addition to the constant harassment of French privateers against English merchant shipping and occasionally their escorts, the Royal Navy suffered thousands of dead in each of two natural disasters – the 1703 Great Storm and the 1707 foundering of Admiral Cloudesley Shovell’s fleet on the Scilly Islands in 1707. Oh, yeah, let’s not forget Walker’s disaster off of Quebec in 1711, drowning close to a thousand more men. Yep, the Royal Navy at its finest. But fortunately for Britain and the Allies, the Indian silver fleet kept coming in, and the French privateers were deflected onto Dutch and neutral shipping as British naval efforts refocused attention on trade protection:

Royal Navy taskings during Spanish Succession, based off Hattendorf, England in the WSS.  Notes: graph not to scale across rows (only within each cell); %sol = % ships of the line.

So I thought I’d look back at English contemporaries’ immediate reaction to their own Great Storm – truth be told, I like their label better than “Sandy”, but I’ve never known a Sandy either.

The Daily Courant, England’s one and only daily at the time, reported a few ships in distress in its issue of November 27, but the first reports of the major disaster unfolding only appeared in newspapers on the 29th. Reports from Yarmouth on the 27th reported a “most dreadful storm last Night, no body knows what Ships are missing…. The Reserve to our great Surprise sunk down this Morning, and all her Men are lost. I cannot as yet give further particulars.” Another report from the same day notes that some houses and chimneys were blown down, and a pacquet-boat had been sunk. A correspondent from “Deale” noted that “we have had so violent a Storm at South West that the like has not been known in these parts in the Memory of Man,” blowing violently from 11 PM till 9 AM. It then listed 70 merchantmen missing and five men-of-war. A London account the next day (still in the 11/29 issue) noted that the “Storm of Wind” had reached London “before 2 a clock and lasted till after 6. It did so much Damage in and about this city, that we cannot undertake to give a full Account of it.” The stories were repeated in successive accounts: names of ships run aground, smaller vessels sent out to rescue their crews where possible, the flotsam of smashed pinks and lighters congregating in the eddies, chimneys and walls blown down, with some unfortunates, including “Lady Penepole Nicholas at Horsley in Sussex,” crushed underneath. (I hope her name really was Penepole and not Penelope – I’d hate for news of my death to speak of Jamal Oswald).

The English Post of 29 November similarly reported of the “blowing in a multitude of Chimnys, Houses, and tops of Houses, whereby many People were kill’d in their beds, and several Wounded: It would be almost endless to enumerate the mischief occasioned thereby in and about this City, as the blowing down of Trees at St. James’s Park, the Inns of Court, Moor-Fields, and divers other Places, abundance being torn up by the Roots, and others of a great bigness broken off in the middle…” Spires and weathercocks blown off the steeples, barges in the Thames staved to pieces, “And no doubt the damage done in the Country was very great, of which we may expect to hear dismal Accounts every day.” Some people were reported to have died of fright in their beds “without having any Wounds or other visible Causes of their Death,” while others managed to escape collapsing buildings just in the nick of time.

But faith springs eternal – “Yet it pleased God, that some Persons were almost miraculously Preserved, particularly two young Men at a Drugsters, near Cheapside, the Chamber in which they lay being broke down by the fall of a Stack of Chimnys from an House adjoining, which, with its weight, instantly broke through 2 Floors more, and carried them down in their Bed asleep to the Shop, and they were taken out from under the Rubble without any considerable harm.” That was awfully nice of God; I wonder what Penepole did to piss Him off? I guess everything happens for a reason…

An early assessment of the damage to the fleet was listed in the 3 December English Post:

Early naval damage report from the Great Storm of 1703

Despite all this damage to ship and shelter, England managed to recover – they kept calm and carried on. Already by early December orders were “issued out for finishing the Men of War on the Stocks, with all possible Expedition. And that several more will be built.” Within a few years England had replaced and exceeded its ship total, allowing it to counteract French privateering and set sail for much greater efforts later in the century.

As for the Great Storm of 2012, the most notable naval loss reported thus far is a replica of the HMS Bounty used in numerous movies. The more things change…


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