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Keywords:

  • Great Storm;
  • mayhem;
  • devastation

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References

This article describes the development and impact of one of southeastern Britain's most violent weather events of the twentieth century: the Great Storm of 16 October 1987. It draws on material from Weather's Special issue of March 1988, but includes some new insights and photographs.

This Special issue commemorates the 25th anniversary of one of southeastern Britain's most violent weather events of the twentieth century. The first half of the issue looks at the development and impact of the storm, including how woodlands were affected – an aspect that was widely misunderstood at the time. In the second half we explore further the lessons that were learnt by meteorologists, with particular reference to what threatened to be a possible repeat last December. We also include an article on a localised historical tornado from the same time of year.

The days following the 1987 storm were uncomfortable ones for forecasters: put simply, the event was just not forecast (at least on the day – it had been signalled a few days earlier). It was, therefore, heartening to read in a Met Office Press Release dated 12 October 1988 and headed ‘The Storm of 1987 – one year on’: Extraordinary weather sequences such as those which caused last year's October storm are being overcome by the Met Office's development programme. Problem solved! (This extract appeared in the January 1989 issue of Weather, page 11).

Setting the scene

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References

October 1987 was not short of remarkable weather, and nearly always the cause was a deep, sharpening upper trough to the southwest of Britain. Very cold air plunging southeast over warm seas triggered vigorous depressions, whilst blocking high pressure over eastern Europe meant that the slowing and sharpening of the troughs gave further impetus to the depressions and also drew up some very warm, moist air in the warm sectors. This was a recipe for copious rainfall, and it was repeated several times during the month. On the night of 15/16 October it also had the effect of producing a violent storm as an already very deep depression moving northeast over Biscay deepened further over the warm sea and in response to the sharpening of its governing upper trough. The depression was a complex feature, with several small offshoots running northeast ahead of it along its warm front.

Figures 1-4 illustrate the run-up to the event. From 12 to14 October the baroclinic zone, depicted by the extensive cloud south of 50°N, is fairly smooth with little apparent development. In the 80-page Special issue that Weather published on the storm, Monk and Bader (1988) remarked that this cloud band extended from the vicinity of hurricane Floyd near Florida. Development of the storm is clearly well underway by late afternoon on the 15th (Figure 4); Monk and Bader discussed the development of the cloud head and dry wedge, both becoming apparent in this image and features known to precede intense cyclogenesis.

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Figure 1. Infra-red satellite image of the mid-Atlantic for 1701 utc on 12 October 1987. (

Courtesy University of Dundee

.)

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Figure 2. Infra-red satellite image of the mid-Atlantic for 1650 utc on 13 October 1987. (

Courtesy University of Dundee

.)

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Figure 3. Infra-red satellite image of the mid-Atlantic for 1639 utc on 14 October 1987. (

Courtesy University of Dundee

.)

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Figure 4. Infra-red satellite image of the mid-Atlantic for 1628 utc on 15 October 1987. (

Courtesy University of Dundee

.)

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A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References

A very marked temperature contrast developed across the warm front as it edged erratically into southeast England during the late afternoon of the 15th; at 1700 utc, the temperature was 16°C at Herstmonceux (East Sussex) and 9°C at Heathrow. For a while in the evening events ‘marked time’ as a ripple ran along the front, keeping the warm air just over the extreme southeast and the Channel Islands: it was windy in the warm sector, but not excessively so. By 2200 utc, the temperature was 8°C at Stansted and 17°C at Southend (both in Essex). Around this time there was a rapid fall in barometric pressure at the western end of the warm sector, over northwest France, and little change in pressure over northeast France. This was soon reflected in a marked strengthening of the wind along a track about 70km wide, which reached the Channel Islands around 0000 utc on the 16th. The central pressure of the depression at this stage was about 953mbar just north of Brest.

Amongst the less remarked-on effects of the night was the amount of dirt deposited on all surfaces as the temperature suddenly rose on the passage of the warm front, creating condensation on all surfaces – such as the outside of windows. There was at least a fair amount of dry weather in the warm sector following hours of warm-frontal rain.

By 0200 utc, the violent winds had reached all of the south coast from east Dorset to East Sussex. Winds had veered in the Channel Islands but increased further, with a mean speed of 55kn at Jersey. The -temperature was 18°C at Manston (Kent) and Herstmonceux. By 0300 utc, the -depression was over land and beginning to fill (957mbar near the Mendip hills): this was soon to have the effect of lessening the winds on its southern flank, but it was too late to save the southeast from devastation. The path of the most ferocious winds spawned earlier in the night had reached all of Sussex, Surrey and Kent, with mean speeds of up to 60kn. By 0400 utc, there were mean speeds of up to 65kn and many gusts of up to 90kn. The temperature had dropped a little, with a slight veer of the wind. Over the next couple of hours the wind continued to veer and ease slowly and the temperature to fall, as the depression moved towards northeast England. By 0600 utc the worst was over.

The combined effects of a filling depression and a quicker northnortheast movement, steered by the tremendous pressure gradient of its warm sector, produced unprecedented rises in pressure of up to 24mbar in 3 hours over southern England.

The misery was not over for those left roofless and without power in the southeast, for an area of active thunderstorms accompanied the upper trough across some of these areas in the afternoon. Then the night of 20/21 October brought over 40mm of rain to Hertfordshire and parts of west London. The month had over three times the normal rainfall for October in areas of the southeast, whilst thunder was heard on ten days in parts of East Sussex.

The foregoing remarks are based on the author's detailed study of the Met Office hourly working charts at the time. Burt and Mansfield (1988) described in considerable detail the synoptic background and -chronology of the storms, and Figures 5-7 are reproduced from their article. They noted that this was the deepest depression to be centred over England and Wales in October for at least 150 years, with the lowest reading over land being 957mbar close to Exeter at 0200 utc on the 16th. They also calculated that, southeast of a line from Southampton through London to Norwich, return periods for both the highest hourly mean and -maximum gust speed exceeded 200 years. In a later note (Anonymous, 1988), it was recorded that a gust of 100kn at Shoreham-by-Sea was regarded as the maximum observed gust in this storm.

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Figure 5. Surface analysis for 1200 utc on 15 October 1987 (

source: London Weather Centre Daily Summary

).

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Figure 6. Surface analysis for 1800 utc on 15 October 1987 (

source: London Weather Centre Daily Summary

).

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Figure 7. Surface analysis for 1200 utc on 16 October 1987, also showing the track of the depression centre as analysed separately by Burt and Mansfield (1988).

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Burt and Mansfield noted that the return period of such wind speeds was much less in our northern and western regions. It is not the strength of the winds that was so remarkable but their occurrence over southern England. We now turn to the impact of the storm on a region that, with good reason, was not equipped to cope with it, using edited extracts from the Appendix to their article.

Impacts

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References

The damage assessment presented here was gleaned primarily from the media in the days following the storm - The Times, Daily Telegraph, Today and the Daily Express were amongst those newspapers that carried extensive coverage of the storm, including many impressive photographs.

Transport

Thousands of roads and dozens of railway lines were blocked by fallen trees and debris, and much of southern England was brought to a halt for the best part of a day. At sea, conditions overnight were described as ‘murderous’: ports and harbours were closed and ships were battered as they ran for cover. Hundreds of yachts and other pleasure craft were washed away or pounded to pieces at their moorings all along the south and east coasts. Nearly 800 passengers spent the night on two stranded Sealink ferries.

On the railways, at one time there were 90 trees down along a 5km length between Haywards Heath and Balcombe (West Sussex) whilst on the roads sections of the M25 were closed due to debris on the carriageways and the M23 remained closed for two days. More than a hundred flights were cancelled from Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

Electricity and telephone services

Almost the whole of southeast England (including much of London) was without power between about 0300 and 0930 utc on 16 October: London was blacked out for the first time since the Blitz. Problems started before 0300 utc in southern England as cables began to crash into each other, trees fell onto power lines and wind-borne debris caused short-circuits, disrupting safety mechanisms. A domino effect throughout the region caused alarms to be generated at the Central Electricity Generating Board's national grid control centre in south London, and engineers were forced to disconnect supplies to safeguard substations and transformers. Power was restored to most of the capital by mid-morning, but further afield army helicopters were drafted in to aid -identification of fallen power lines and urgent warnings were put out to the public to beware of unattended live cables. Hundreds of thousands of homes were still without power on Friday night, and even two weeks later some 2000 homes were still without electricity. Telephone services were also affected but, since more of the supply lines are underground, effects were less and most lines were soon back in working order.

Effects upon the landscape

Cottages and cathedrals, city parks and country estates all suffered in the storm. Over southern England more trees were lost in one night than in a decade of Dutch Elm Disease. All over southern and eastern England, parks were devastated, forests flattened, historic gardens rendered unrecognisable and familiar landmarks disappeared. Trees that had grown up over generations were felled within a couple of hours. Kew Gardens was badly affected with one-third of its trees down: some had stood for hundreds of years. Many of the 500-plus trees brought down were of great scientific or historical interest: oaks planted by Queen Charlotte 200 years ago were felled, as was a rare black walnut planted by Queen Elizabeth in 1959. At the Royal Botanical Gardens’ second site, Wakehurst Place (East Sussex), 50% of the collection was lost. Hundreds of rare butterflies, birds and insects escaped when a large tree crashed through the roof of the London Butterfly House at Syon Park. London's Royal Parks lost, in total, some 5000 trees. A similar story of destruction was evident on the Embankment and at the Tower of London, where many plane trees were blown down. The Tower remained closed for the first full day since 1945 because of the danger from unsafe trees. Hampstead Heath was badly affected. The National Trust launched an appeal for funds to replace trees after huge losses at 11 major properties: worst hit was Scotney House in Kent where 80% of the trees in the garden were blown down. In Windsor Great Park, there was a fallen tree every 200 metres in the Long Walk.

Effects upon the population

As far as is known, 18 people lost their lives, mostly when vehicles they were travelling in hit fallen trees or when chimney stacks fell through buildings. Many millions were terrified by the combination of unexpectedly strong winds, structural damage and power failures.

The Isle of Wight was cut off from the mainland until lunchtime on the 16th, and about half of the schools on the island suffered structural damage. A 200-metre section of 98 year-old Shanklin Pier was washed away in the storm. In Hampshire a block of flats at Fareham collapsed, -trapping the -residents. All 280 schools in East Sussex were closed: more than 50 suffered severe structural damage. In Kent, Dover (Britain's busiest port) was closed for the first time ever in peacetime, and almost 90% of the county's roads and all 700 schools were shut. A row of cottages was blown down near Canterbury. The London Fire Brigade dealt with 6000 emergency calls in 24 hours – nearly twice their previous highest daily total. Commuters faced (or, in many cases, wisely chose to avoid) a difficult struggle to work, with most of the Underground out of action, buses delayed by fallen trees or dangerous buildings and few rail services. The Stock Exchange suspended trading for the first time since 1974 because of power and telephone outages and a lack of staff. All 360 schools in Suffolk were closed; 30 were damaged by falling trees. Perhaps the luckiest escape of all occurred in the southern North Sea, some 65km off the Norfolk coast. A major alert was triggered in the area after the Smit Lloyd One, a semi-submersible -diving vessel, lost all power and steering and began to endanger oil and gas rigs in the area. The 79 crew and 6 divers, 4 undergoing decompression, remained on board as rescue vessels braved mountainous seas to keep the vessel from two rigs: 40 crewmen had to be evacuated by helicopter from one.

And on the continent …

Four people were killed, and at least 15 injured, in France. At Caen, the bell tower of the famous Abbaye des Hommes (built in 1066) was blown down, crushing four cars below. Fire services were called out to attend 5300 emergencies in 18 hours in three areas on the Channel coast. Severe damage was caused to buildings in several parts of Brittany, and a number of sailing boats broke their moorings. Several ships were reported in trouble but none was lost.

Photographs

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References

The 1988 Special issue included several photographs of the damage wrought by the storm. Some of these came from the Lynn Tait Gallery,1 and the author was very pleased to discover that this still exists. We are very grateful to Lynn for permission to reproduce here several images of the effects in southeast Essex (Figures 8-14, as well as the front cover of this issue); these images may be considered representative of hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar incidents throughout the southeast.

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Figure 8. An uprooted tree on the London Road, Leigh-on-Sea. (

© 1987 The Lynn Tait Gallery

.)

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Figure 9. Damage to a taxi due to fallen church masonry, Southend. (

© 1987 The Lynn Tait Gallery

.)

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Figure 10. Havoc at Cliff Parade, Leigh-on-Sea. (

© 1987 The Lynn Tait Gallery.)

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Figure 11. Roof damage in Chalkwell Avenue, Westcliff-on-Sea. (

© 1987 The Lynn Tait Gallery

.)

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Figure 12. A shop front shattered in the London Road, Westcliff-on-Sea. (

© 1987 The Lynn Tait Gallery

.)

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Figure 13. Battered telephone kiosks outside Chalkwell Park, Westcliff-on-Sea. (

© 1987 The Lynn Tait Gallery

.)

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Figure 14. A fallen tree on the Ridgeway, Chalkwell. (

© 1987 The Lynn Tait Gallery

.)

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A personal experience

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References

Howard Lawes, who worked for Noble Denton Weather Services in London, was a member of the Editorial Board of Weather in the late 1980s. He was at home, looking forward to a peaceful night for him and his family. It did not work out like that. His -family's experiences were amongst the more dramatic, though far from unique, that night. Edited extracts of his account (Lawes, 1988) follow.

Our house in Addlestone (Surrey) stands on the edge of open land with views to the south and east. Our garden contains several mature trees including two willows and two oaks; just inside our next door neighbour's garden, and near both of our houses, stood a 150 year-old cedar tree about 35m high with two main trunks.

About 2am we were awoken by the noise of strong winds whistling around the house. The stronger winds came in waves with relatively calm periods in between and this aspect was particularly disturbing. In one stronger gust, a loud crack prompted me to get up and peer out of the window: a large bough had broken off from one of the willows. We gave up trying to sleep; we sat drinking tea downstairs in our living room and with the curtains open watched the twigs and branches cascade on to the garden illuminated by a street light. I had never seen anything like this and I was beginning to feel uneasy. After a particularly strong gust, there was a huge rumbling crash and a rushing noise; the house shook, the ceiling cracked and outside masonry was falling. We realised that the cedar tree had fallen and rushed upstairs to where our baby son was sleeping: there was a gaping hole in the wall of the bedroom and the ceiling light was blowing in the wind. He was still in his cot with only a few pieces of plaster and brick on him, crying lustily, which was reassuring. We plucked him from the cot, rushed downstairs and out of the front door, pausing only to rescue the cat, my pipe and tobacco. We clambered through a morass of branches and foliage to where a neighbour was holding a torch and we gratefully accepted his hospitality.

When the fire services arrived their floodlights revealed the extent of the damage (illustrated on the front cover of the March 1988 issue). Half of one bedroom had disappeared, and the whole of the front of the house had been knocked about two inches sideways leaving an ugly crack diagonally from top to bottom. The roof was severely damaged and the chimney had fallen into next door's garage. The other trunk of the cedar had embedded itself in our neighbour's roof but she had been able to clamber out as well. Two garages were completely demolished and five cars squashed.

Howard informed the author during the preparation of this article that we did have trouble sleeping in windy weather for some time after, but no problems now and we still live in the same house.

Thoughts on the forecasting of the event

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References

As indicated above, the severity of this storm was seriously under-forecast. A BBC Radio Kent presenter did suggest to the author a few days afterwards that this might have been a blessing in disguise, as some sensation-seekers would almost certainly have ventured out during the night to witness the unfolding drama and would have risked their lives in so doing. Conversely, what would have been the death-toll if this had been a daytime event that had not been forecast? Even given a correct forecast, it is necessary to assume that people would have stayed at home and public transport been withdrawn to limit the carnage, which would not necessarily have been the response 25 years ago but is perhaps more likely now. All things considered, given the nature of this storm and all the uncertainties (and failings) in its forecasting, its -occurrence in the early hours was extremely fortunate.

Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References

The strangest thoughts can come to you at moments of crisis. As the author boarded up a broken window at 3am that morning, the Daniel Defoe storm came to mind – an event I had no recollection of ever studying! It was not a misplaced thought, though, and the Special issue of March 1988 had two articles comparing the significance of the two storms, one by Hubert Lamb, the other by Donald Clow. Based on his studies at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, Professor Lamb concluded that the 1703 storm was greater than that of 1987. There was a broad swathe of serious structural damage about 400km wide, from northern France to cathedrals in the English Midlands and from steeples collapsed on churches near the German Baltic coast to havoc to ships and buildings in northern Jutland (Lamb, 1988). The Eddystone lighthouse off the Devon coast was demolished, the cathedral at Utrecht (Holland) was partly blown down. Lamb commented: the number of lives lost must have been very great. Even our main observers were afraid to go out of doors and had experience of buildings falling near them.

Donald Clow wrote much more about the Daniel Defoe storm – so called because Defoe gave a very detailed account of it. Edited extracts of Clow's article (Clow, 1988) follow.

Storms accompanied by extremely strong winds which occurred prior to the explosion of scientific interest in the nineteenth century are generally not well documented but this storm is the exception thanks to the data-collecting mind of Daniel Defoe. He deliberately set out in The Storm (Defoe, 1704) to provide a careful historical record for the benefit of future generations. He was determined to record nothing but what may service to assist in convincing Posterity that this was the most violent Tempest the World ever saw. Defoe placed an advertisement in The Gazette asking for accounts of the storm to be sent to him and a substantial part of the book consists of letters from his respondents, mostly from ‘Gentlemen being of Piety and Reputation’. He supplemented these by his own observations during the tempest in London and his subsequent -travels – he gave up counting the felled trees in Kent when he reached 17 000! The storm of 1703 had one thing in common with the October 1987 storm in that it was the -southern part of Britain which was affected. Defoe's reports encompass a wide variety of places from south Wales and Cornwall across to East Anglia and Lincolnshire but include nothing north of Hull. Ships had sought shelter because of earlier storms, and the loss was concentrated in river estuaries and harbours where the effect of the tempest was clearly visible; nevertheless, the loss of life was much less than might otherwise have been the case if the vessels had been caught at sea. The reports in Defoe's book repeat much the same experiences all over the whole of the southern half of Britain – widespread damage to buildings with falling chimney stacks frequently causing death and injury, haystacks blown away, lead stripped off church roofs, church spires collapsing.

Defoe estimated that about 123 people were killed in London and probably about 8000 in the country as a whole. Over 400 windmills were either overturned or burnt down when the wooden machinery overheated as the sails were forced round by the wind.

It is difficult to judge which was the more severe storm: many more buildings were blown down in 1703, but the majority of the population was poorly housed. In both storms many thousands of trees were felled but of course there were many trees around in Defoe's day. Re-reading the accounts of Defoe's book, and comparing them with the accounts of the recent storm, certainly gives the impression that the magnitudes of the two storms were probably not dissimilar.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Setting the scene
  4. A quiet evening followed by a night of mayhem
  5. Impacts
  6. Photographs
  7. A personal experience
  8. Thoughts on the forecasting of the event
  9. Seeking a historical -perspective: the ‘Daniel Defoe’ storm of 1703
  10. References
  1. 1

    The Lynn Tait Gallery is at 66 High Street, Old Leigh, Leigh-on-Sea, SS9 2EP. It has 30 collectors’ sets of postcards as well as cards and local gifts. Everything is displayed on old artefacts, including a 1949 30-foot Southend pier train. A recent project was a charity set of greetings cards for the Diamond Jubilee, which raised over £1500 for Action Medical Research. http://www.thelynntaitgallery.com