Tuesday 26 June 2018

Natural Disasters and Their Effects on the Lives of our Ancestors

This blog post was originally written for the The Pharos Blog, sponsored by Pharos Teaching & Tutoring Limited. It was published on 10 April 2014. Some of the information was used in my book, Surviving Mother Nature’s Tests. I thought it appropriate to reproduce it again as I have been posting about natural phenomena, major storms being one such type of event.

I have already posted about a couple of other deadly storms (1950 Appalachian Storm and some deadly hail storms). There are a few other examples that I will comment on in later posts as they had significant impact on people and communities.

The lives and livelihoods of our ancestors were controlled or affected as much by natural conditions and events as by political and societal constraints. In many cases the latter were strongly influenced by the former. Natural phenomena directly affected the environment in which people lived and worked affecting both the physical health as well as the economic well-being of people.

Every generation has stories about living through the worst weather or natural disaster to befall mankind! And yet each generation only repeats similar stories told by previous generations. Today, through instant, world-wide communication technologies, we can see the results of major natural disasters and how they affect people locally, regionally and globally. Reports of the devastation caused by these events are readily available on television, in newspapers and, especially, on the internet, almost as they happen.

In past centuries, there is no doubt that similar disasters caused significant death and destruction, often over wide geographic areas and across broad socio-economic groups of people:
  • Storms, floods, earthquakes and disease all had immediate impacts on people and communities.
  • Volcanic activity, erosion of coastal margins, infilling of estuaries, drought and famine all affected living conditions and economies lasting from several months to several years.
  • Gradual changes related to climate change occurred over hundreds of years and had much longer-term effects on the environment and human habitats.
In the study of the history of families and the communities in which they lived, it is instructive to consider how people were affected by, or reacted to conditions we have witnessed in more recent situations. Would your great-great-grandparents have been forced to give up their farm if they were flooded out? Would your carpenter ancestor have moved to a location where there was a great deal of work available to repair the damage caused by a major windstorm? Did any of your ancestors lose their lives when tragedy struck in the form of a natural disaster?

Major storms – one example of natural events – have inevitably resulted in significant mayhem. As a maritime nation, Britain has had its share of such events coming ashore from both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.

A much-written about storm, called The Great Storm, struck the south of England and parts of Europe bordering the English Channel on 26 November 1703 (7 December 1703 on the Gregorian calendar, already in use in continental Europe but not introduced to Britain until 1752). The Great Storm occurred during the height (or depth) of the Little Ice Age (1350-1850), a period of much cooler global temperatures and extremes of weather conditions.
Title page of The Storm by Daniel Defoe

(Used with permission of the British Library)

The storm was part of a massive counter-clockwise, very deep, low pressure trough that moved across the region, from west to east, affecting areas as far north as Birmingham and Norwich. Some of the devastation dealt to the country over the space of just a few hours included the following:
  • Wind gusts possibly topping 120 mph at the peak of the storm, levelling almost everything in its path
  • Over 700 ships wrecked while docked or at anchor in harbours around southern England and while still at sea, with an estimated death toll of up to 10,000 sailors
  • Thirteen Royal Navy warships sunk, with the loss of over 1,500 lives; many others severely damaged
  • Over 120 lives lost, and hundreds more injured on land across England and Wales
  • Significant damage in towns and cities – in London over 2,000 chimney stacks blown down, demolishing parts of the houses to which they had been attached
  • Tens of thousands of head of cattle and sheep lost on farms along the storm’s path
  • Major parts of forests levelled
  • Areas around major estuaries impacted by floods from storm surges, in many cases more dangerous than the accompanying winds
  • Severe disruption to local economies just emerging from decades of recession, the effects of which felt for years afterward
  • Mercantile shipping, involving fleets serving major cities like London and the export markets, disrupted for many years until replacement ships could be put to sea
  • Immediate inflation of prices in foodstuffs and other goods – building materials in particular
  • On the plus side, work multiplied for tradesmen such as carpenters, masons and plumbers, the latter being expert in the installation of lead sheet roofing

Losses during the storm have been estimated at about £6 million, representing about 5% of the total value of the building stock in England and Wales at the time – a very significant proportion! The potential loss for such a storm if it were to strike today might be well in excess of £10 billion.

Could it happen again? There have been other, major storms which battered Britain, causing significant property loss and numerous deaths – in October 1987 as an example. Modern improvements to sea defenses around harbours and estuaries, beach stabilization methods, inland flood control measures, early storm warning systems and rapid response of disaster teams all have aided in preventing the same levels of devastation as occurred during The Great Storm of 1703, however.

Was your family impacted by The Great Storm of 1703 or from other types of events? I am compiling examples of natural disasters and their impact on people and communities in past centuries. If any readers have such stories of events that affected their own ancestors, I would very much like to hear about them.


Brayne, Martin. (2002). The Greatest Storm. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing.

Defoe, Daniel. (1704). 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. Downloaded through University of Adelaide website 30 March 2014 under Creative Commons License from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/defoe/daniel/storm/complete.html  

Lamb, Hubert & Knud Frydendaho. (1991). Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.