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befel in the dreadful Tempest on Saturday morning, November 27 last) no History either forreign or domestick can parallel. . . This greater Calamity appears as a Goliah to those of lesser and dwarfish Disasters that have happen'd in former times to England.'
While there is ample evidence to show that the Great Storm was of an altogether exceptional character, there are good grounds for believing that it was not quite so destructive as was pictured by De Foe and his correspondents, who in numbers of instances attached undue importance to the most trilling casualties. We have it on De Foe's authority that between Execution Dock and Limehouse only four ships rode out the storm, and that he himself saw 'few less than 700 sail of ships, some of them very great ones, between Shadwel and Limehouse inclusive,' which the wind had driven into one another, ‘and laid them so upon one another as it were in lieaps,' the whole description being intended to show that the destruction was incalculably great. Yet from other sources we have it that by the end of the month, that is, within two or three days, * The Merchant Ships in the River that were run aground in the late storm are for the most part got off again without any considerable damage in their rigging, and we do not hear of any that were lost on this side of Black Wall.' De Foe admits having been misled by several accounts 'which at first were too easily credited and put in print,' but which bad to be suppressed on receipt of more trustworthy communications. From the particulars on which he relied he calculated that we have not lost less than 150 sail of vessels of all sorts by the storm' at sea. Tindal, however, in his “Parliamentary History,' Vol. VI. 1702-1714, referring to the effects of the storm, states, 'Few merchant-men were lost, such as were driven to sea were safe, some few only were overset.'
However, these discrepancies notwithstanding, the fact remains that the wind blew with tremendous force on this occasion, as will presently be shown from independent and trustworthy
The gale occurred when the circumstances were most favourable to bringing about a maximum of destruction. Not only did the meteor sweep across the most populous counties in the southern half of the kingdom, but, as mischance would have it, an enormous number—many hundreds of ships were then arriving, or had in the preceding two or three days arrived, on our south-western, southern, and eastern coasts from foreign countries, and from the Tyne. Men-of-war and the merchantmen they
convoyed from the West Indies, Virginia, Mediterranean, and Russia, crowded the Channel, the Downs, the Thames, the Humber, and the sea off Harwich, Yarmouth, and Scarborough. They reached home almost simultaneously, just in time to be caugh: by the tempest which destroyed so many of them.
Out of the dozens of letters in De Foe's book, nearly the whole are confined to the relation of local casualties, only about a sixth of the writers thinking it necessary to state from what quarter the wind blew and the hours during which the hurricane was at its height. Yet, in the absence of precise data, it was conjectured by De Foe that the storm had originated in America, possibly in Florida and Virginia, and, crossing the Atlantic, ‘it carried a true Line clear over the Continent of Europe, travers'd England, France, Germany, the Baltick Sea, and passing the Northern Continent of Sweedland, Finland, Muscovy, and part of Tartary, must at last lose it self in the vast Northern Ocean, where Man never came, and Ship never sail'd ... and in this Circle of Fury it might find its end not far off from where it had its Beginning, the Fierceness of the Motion perhaps not arriving at a Period till having pass'd the Pole, it reached again the Northern Parts of America.' This is a most creditable first attempt at laying down the path of a cyclonic disturbance, the author having no other data in support of the conjecture than a vague statement about a tempest having been felt on the American coast a few days before the British Isles were affected.
As the very general accounts received by De Foe refer more especially to the casualties than to the movement of the storm as a body, it was thought probable that there must still be in existence a good deal of information to which De Foe had no access, original documents which it is certain he had not seen.
For many years meteorological observations had been registered in various parts of England, and it seems to have been the practice of the observers to forward the records at intervals to the Royal Society, but unfortunately that learned body did not realise that the documents would be of any value to future generations, and so we find amongst other periods which the Council thought 'no use now to retain,' the wind and weather records of the several observers for the year 1703 and the beginning of 1704, destroyed, on the ground that they had become 'useless.'
Under these circumstances the chief sources of information have been the log-books of the English men-of-war which escaped
destruction, the old documents being preserved at the Public Record Office. On looking through several hundreds of volumes, it was an agreeable surprise to discover the logs of no less than 136 ships of the Navy Royal containing weather information for November, 1703, within the Basin of the North Atlantic. But the distribution of the ships when the storm reached our shores was disappointing: 117 were in home waters and on the Dutch coast, the great majority of them having already come to an anchor. The last to arrive on our shores were the Guernsey and the Oxford, convoying the Virginia Fleet of traders, and they were overtaken by the gale when within a day's sail of Scilly. Westward of Ireland, therefore, the ocean was perfectly clear of shipping, and consequently the march of the storm across the Atlantic cannot be definitely decided.
It will have been observed that De Foe describes the gale as the longest in duration.' He was, however, referring to the very boisterous weather which had prevailed for many days prior to November 26. The wind and weather entries in the logs have been discussed for each day from November 14 to 30, and they afford abundant testimony to the tempestuous character of the weather out at sea and round our shores almost incessantly during the second half of the month, but it would be impossible within the space at command to enter into any precise details relating to the period. All that can be attempted here is a brief summary of the leading features which marked the days preceding the arrival of the storm on the 26th.
The Virginia Fleet had crossed the Banks of Newfoundland by the 14th, when strong westerly gales, with rainy, dirty weather, was being experienced. During the remainder of the passage home, the 17th and 24th were the only moderately quiet days, most of the time being characterised by strong gales to very hard storms, the wind repeatedly veering from S. to W. and N.W. as each gale system passed the ships. Great seas were running, several thunderstorms occurred, and rain was frequent and heavy. On the American coast the only gale recorded was on the 22nd, probably the one to which De Foe alluded—they felt upon that Coast an unusual Tempest a few days before the fatal 27th of November.' The Gosport, riding off Long Island, had the wind at W.N.W.— a very hard gale with abundance of snow and rain ;' and the Centurion, at Nantaskett, had hard gales at N.W., with snow and very cold, raw weather. This disturbance, which would
seem to have come from the neighbourhood of the American Lakes, passed out into the Atlantic, and all that can now be said of it is that the atmospheric conditions over the ocean, according to the experience of the Virginia Fleet, being exceedingly unsettled, it is highly probable that it crossed to our side later ; but there is very little to guide us as to whether it was this particular meteor which formed the Great Storm.
Round the British Isles gale after gale arrived from off the Atlantic. A hard N.W. gale was passing away across the North Sea on the 14th. Next day it was 'blowing exceedingly hard' from S.W. On the 16th we find it blowing extreem hard.' There was 'a mighty tempest of wind in which the sea broke very violent on us' on the 17th. The following day another disturbance came along, so that Milford had 'a very great storm;' off Flamborough Head it was 'blowing prodigious hard,' and between the Tyne and Sunderland it was an extraordinary hard storm. This continued into the 19th ; at 2 A.M., off Grimsby, it blew a mear storm,' the height of the gale being eight hours later. There was a temporary cessation of violent winds on the 20th, that day's disturbance bringing very wet weather, but only moderate or light breezes. An extensive system reached the north-western coasts on the 21st, but it passed eastward without occasioning heavy weather over England. Next morning the winds were again backing into S. and S.E., and increasing to & hard gale by evening, the system extending southwards to the Spanish coast. On the 23rd the English coasts had a southeasterly, the Irish coasts a hard south-westerly, and the Bay of Biscay a hard westerly gale. This passed away in the night, and a brief interval of comparatively quiet weather prevailed next day.
Judging by the records on the Dreadnought going west in latitude 29° N., the gale which left America on the 22nd was a very extensive one, for the wind, after having been easterly, now went into S.W., and on the 25th was blowing fresh to strong, with rain, in about 45o W., the centre of the disturbance at this time being, at a very rough estimate, in 45° N., 35° to 40° W.
On the 24th, however, the Virginia Fleet, then in 49° N., 22° W. (the positions are only approximate, for there was no method known for finding longitude accurately in those days), had every indication that a disturbance was nearing from the westward, and by the morning of the 25th (Thursday), the wind on our coasts was backing into S.W. and S., increasing in force
and blowing very hard in the course of the day. The Cornish coast had 'excessive hard gales and rain ;' several ships making for the English Channel felt the full force of the storm. At Spithead it blew extreame hard in squalls ;' at Boston wind blew extremely hard at W.S.W.;' and at Kinsale, Milford, Kingroad, Rye and other ports, similar experiences were recorded, with rain very generally, hail and lightning at Yarmouth, and a thunderstorm with hail at Helvoetsluis, Holland. These boisterous conditions lasted through the greater part of the night, and then came a lull, the final one before the howling storm fiend was let loose in a wind system totally distinct from any of those of the preceding days.
While gales of so much severity were thus crossing the country nearly every day for a fortnight, it seems that there were remarkably few shipping casualties, many vessels being out at sea. The most important accident was the loss of H.M.S. York, of sixty guns, at anchor on the Shipwash, where she went to pieces in the gale on the night of the 22nd, four lives being lost out of the 235 on board.
In dealing with the great storm itself, it will be necessary to enter more fully into the details than was desirable in the foregoing description of the unstable conditions which led up to it, and as the hurricane came from the Atlantic the information will be followed from west to east.
By projecting the wind directions on a chart, it is seen that the area of the storm was very extensive, a vast cyclone whose influence was felt far and wide. The Tyne and Copenhagen are the most northern points at which observations are available, and the centre of the storm-field travelled east or north-east, well to the northward of these localities, while the gale raged with more or less fury southwards to the Mediterranean, its maximum energy being exhibited over that part of England south of a line drawn from Cardigan to Scarborough.
On the morning of Friday, 26th, the heavy gale of the previous night was leaving the east coast for the North Sea, but already the wind had backed into S.W. over Ireland, the south of England, and the sea west of Land's End, and was quickly assuming the character of a severe gale. From the records at Towneley, Lancashire, and Upminster, Essex, the barometer had commenced to give way in those districts before midday, and fell rapidly until about midnight, then rising as the storm kept on its course.