6 of the most catastrophic weather events in British history

The famously changeable British weather has long been the subject of complaint and small talk. Here, Patrick Nobbs explores six of the most disastrous weather events in British history...

Engraving of frost fair on the frozen Thames, 1897. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Engraving of frost fair on the frozen Thames, 1897. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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The world’s leading climatologists all agree that our weather is becoming more severe in the current period of rapid climatic change. Yet our history, if we care to learn from it, has seen this all before. As the Northern Hemisphere descended into the coldest climatic phase since the last ice age – ‘The Little Ice Age’ – Britain’s weather became highly erratic, and sometimes truly deadly….

1) ‘De Grote Mandrenke’, 1362

On 16 January 1362, a storm of extraordinary violence wrecked many important buildings including Salisbury and Winchester cathedrals, and tore down hundreds of thousands of trees. Extremely low pressure at the heart of the storm created a devastating storm surge that raced inland along England’s eastern coastline like a tsunami.

The sea completely destroyed a major fishing port – Ravenser Odd in Holderness, Yorkshire – and so badly damaged the port of Dunwich in East Anglia that it was largely abandoned soon after. Shipping vessels of every size were sunk or driven ashore and, as the storm moved east, it obliterated parts of the Dutch coast, rupturing sea defences and even creating a permanent inland sea – de Zuider Zee.

An entire island called Strand was engulfed and washed away, as were hundreds of coastal communities, including the prosperous German port city of Rungholdt [or Rungholt]. In Denmark, hundreds of parishes were lost, and for years afterwards fields and fenland were polluted by salt.

Chroniclers of the time estimated that in excess of 100,000 lives were lost, although some modern evaluations put this figure somewhat lower. Nevertheless, climatologist Hubert Lamb estimated that this storm, combined with other contemporary gales, took 306,000 lives in Europe. This episode, combined with losses of 30–50 per cent of Britain’s population from the recent Black Death epidemics, saw the cost of labour rise dramatically. This presented the feudal structure of the era in England with its first major challenge.

2) Europe’s bitterly cold winter, 1407–8

The 1430s was a decade estimated to be as cold as the 1690s – Britain’s coldest instrumentally measured decade – with six of its 10 winters rated ‘severe’. Yet one, slightly earlier winter stands alone, head and shoulders above all others about which we know. This is the 15-week deep-freeze of 1407–8.

Early December 1407 saw a severe frost set in across much of Europe that lasted until late March. In England, trees split, birds were frozen to death in flight, and avian populations were decimated. The Thames was frozen over for the best part of three months, and it was “possible to walk dry shod across the entire river throughout the season”.

While water-bearing traffic was frozen at anchor, other forms of travel and commerce became impossible due to hard packed ice and deep snow. Far to the south, the Bosphorus froze in its entirety at Constantinople, and the lower Danube froze over completely – the only known occurrence.

Most major European rivers froze, and the Baltic Sea was unnavigable. Icebergs surged down from Iceland, clogging the North Sea and the English Channel, and it was possible to ride a horse from Denmark all the way to Norway across the deep-frozen North Sea.

In France and Italy olive trees, vines and great swathes of fruit trees were killed, and many French watermills were reported crushed by ice flows that had gathered on the rivers. This is widely accepted as the longest and possibly most severe winter of the last millennium.

Within 50 years, the start of a major climatic downturn saw the widespread abandonment of previously thriving settlements across Britain’s highlands – the remains of some of which can still be found today.

3) The Great Tudor Drought, 1540–41

After 1550, Britain and Europe’s climate cooled significantly – a fact illustrated most vividly by the continuous growth of Europe’s glaciers until the 19th century. Immediately prior to this, however, Britain and most of Europe suffered a cataclysmic two-year drought.

From February 1540 rainfall pretty much ceased; March was exceptionally warm, and April and May were hot and dry. The spring saw wells, aquifers, streams and rivers all start to dry out – between February and September, rain fell only six times in London.
Freshwater from the Thames shrank to such an unprecedented extent that seawater flowed on the tide past London Bridge, polluting the water supply. The resulting dysentery and cholera killed thousands.

On the continent, Switzerland and France saw grapes wither by July; harvests were lost, fruit died and rotted on trees that shed their leaves, and rivers and streams vanished. One Alsace farmer reported it was possible “for a man dangle his legs in the great fissures” that formed on empty riverbeds.

In Rome, not a drop of rain fell for nine months; the Rhine dried up in places, and the Seine in Paris ran dry. Unlike many of England’s drought summers, rain did not return to save the day in autumn 1540. Weak winter rains failed to replenish Europe’s thirsting water supplies, and the crisis deepened.

Winter remained unusually warm; in Bavaria in November people were still swimming in mountain lakes to keep cool. A second hot dry spring evolved into a second blistering summer in 1541. It was so hot in Britain that some forests began to die from drought.

Despair grew to desperation; parts of Europe suffered virtual desertification by July 1541. The River Trent, described in spring as a ‘runnel’, or brook, soon ran totally dry. Disease and hunger cast a great shadow over Britain, like that of a plague. Parishes across the country prayed for rains that did not come.

Livestock now died in huge numbers, with even the deepest wells now dry for months, and hay and feed impossible to find. Only in October 1541 did the weather finally relent. The following year the pendulum swung completely the other way, and 1542 was a year of widespread flooding across Britain.

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Illustration from Shepherd’s Calendar, 1597, depicting farmers with their livestock. Taken from A Short History of the English People, by John Richard Green, illustrated edition, Volume II, Macmillan and Co, London, New York, 1893. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

4) The Lewes Avalanche, 1836

A severe cold spell began on 23 December 1836, and on Christmas Eve a gale force easterly wind ushered in one of the greatest snowstorms of the 19th century, with drifting snow 10–40 ft deep in places. The London Globe reported by New Year that “not in the greatest memory of the oldest citizens has there ever been such a stopping up of the mails (mail coaches) for so many days in London which is now of the gravest concern in the minds of all commercial men”.

In the Sussex town of Lewes, immense drifts had piled up upon the chalk cliffs above the town, which the strong winds sculpted into a long cornice weighing hundreds of tons. After the blizzard it loomed over a row of small cottages below. In Britain, snowfall usually melts in heavy rain or bright sunshine when warmer air arrives. However, this feature was too heavy to melt away, and had inevitably to fall.

By 27 December, walkers on the downs saw great cracks appearing in the snow and, as the temperature crept above freezing, the cracks widened. One young man ran along the yard alongside the houses below, imploring the occupants to evacuate. All were mothers and young children reluctant to leave with nowhere to go.

Fearing the worst, the young man fled and no sooner had he left, the great cornice fell. It produced a major avalanche; snow ploughed down, bursting underneath the houses, tossing them bodily upwards, before further snow pushed over them from above. This crushed every building and buried their occupants in what eyewitnesses described as a “mound of pure white”.

All afternoon rescuers desperately fought to free a total of 15 women and children buried in the rubble. Sadly eight of them were dead, including one woman and all of her four children. There is no other known record of an avalanche that has taken place in lowland Britain.

5) The Great Tempest of 1703

In 1702, Britain and its allies declared war on France in protest at the expansionist ambitions of Louis XIV of France and his grandson Philip V of Spain. However, at the height what became known as the War of the Spanish Succession, Britain’s powerful navy was decimated by a completely unexpected foe.

On 26 November 1703, the greatest storm ever to strike the British Isles swept in. Winds were so powerful that approaching gusts “sounded like deep, booming thunder, striking terror into the hearts of all who heard them”.

The force of the wind smashed into buildings like bulldozers, and chimneys, roofs and walls were blown down, killing and injuring householders throughout southern Britain. Thousands of buildings, meanwhile, crumbled away or collapsed. Millions of trees came down, and lightning, torrential rain and tornadoes created terror on both land and sea.

A great storm surge swept up the Severn estuary, with water pushing miles inland. This resulted in great loss of property, livestock and human life: the bishop of Bath and Wells and his wife were both killed in their beds by a falling chimney.

Meanwhile at sea, the Downs area of the Kent coastline was sheltering several key naval and commercial ships in connection with the war. As the furious winds bore down, a vast swell drove everything in its path onto the Goodwin Sands. Up to 1,200 officers and crew lost their lives here, while one vessel was dragged hundreds of miles out into the North Sea, all the way to Gothenburg.

Journalist and author Daniel Defoe described the events as such that “no pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it”.

The next days bore out scenes of widespread and general devastation. The dockyard at London Pool woke to several naval vessels crushed together in to “a single great pile,” while at Chatham the HMS Vanguard was lost with all hands. On the Goodwin Sands, losses included several great Man of War vessels including the HMS Northumberland, HMS Restoration and the HMS Mary.

The navy lost some 1,500 officers and men in total – a third of its overall force at the time. What’s more, it is estimated that as many as 15,000 deaths resulted from this storm alone, most at sea. Even the queen was forced to spend the night with her staff sheltering in a wine cellar. Seeing the devastation first-hand and hearing of the severity of naval losses, early on she pledged a fund to support the families of those who had lost any man at sea, killed in service of the crown.

6) The Climate Crisis, 1815–17

On the evening of 5 April 1815, British forces thought that they heard loud bursts of cannon fire nearing their fort at Jakarta in Indonesia. In actual fact, the noise was the start of the most violent volcanic eruption in recorded history, from Mt Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, some 1,200km away.

More than 4,300m (14,100ft) high, on 10 April it finally exploded so violently that ash shot 45km into the troposphere, reducing the mountain’s height by 1,500m. As many as 60,000 died from the eruption; many died later on from starvation and disease.
The ash cloud spread across the globe carrying 160km2 of volcanic material, weighing 140 billion tonnes. The material dramatically weakened the amount of solar radiation that the earth received, while also reflecting further sunlight back out into space.

By June a reddish haze or fog was visible in much of the northern hemisphere. Vivid sunsets with dramatic glowing colours were observed as the dust refracted the light of the sun and temperatures in dropped progressively. Atmospheric conditions began to abandon their usual patterns, and spring and summer 1815 were dominated by cold, wet conditions.

Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo fell foul of weeks of rain, when the heavy cannons his troops had used so effectively before were rendered useless as they sank deep into the flooded earth.

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Napoleon’s retreat from the battle of Waterloo. Original artwork after a painting by Steuben. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By 1816, after months of global cooling, the coldest instrumentally recorded year in Britain began. The summer months were the coldest ever measured, and were relentlessly wet. In North America winter frosts persisted through spring, and snow blanketed New England on 6–7 June while Quebec was buried by more than a foot of snow.

Failed crops from 1815 meant a winter of hunger, reduced animal feed and a shrunken seed base for farmers. This spelled disaster in 1816: in many countries, famine and disease spread quickly. In France, wealthy English tourists saw what they thought were armies marching south in the summer of 1816; in fact these were starving rural poor on the move, looking for any possible means of survival in the towns.

Britain saw bread riots in many places, and some commentators expressed fears of a replica of the 1789 French Revolution in England. Lord Byron’s socialite party were trapped indoors on holiday at a Swiss lake by endless rain, thunder, lightning and autumnal temperatures. Here, Mary Shelley dreamt up the story of Frankenstein. Jane Austen, meanwhile, described the summer of 1816 as one in which “the gloom, darkness and rain was an extraordinary and dismal affair creating a boredom that was hard to countenance”.

Switzerland suffered more than almost anywhere in Europe that year, as crops were devastated by months of rain. In most European countries, the cost of every basic foodstuff rose out of the reach of the poor, and even the rich saw their household bills increase dramatically. Sulfur dioxide spread right across the planet, with the highest concentrations of sulfates measured in the Greenland ice cores for 2,000 years. By 1818, however, levels of sulfates were back to normal, and that year saw a warmer-than-average summer.

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Patrick Nobbs is the author of The Story of The British & Their Weather (Amberley Publishing, 2015).