Stormy Weather

Ahead of our St Swithin’s (Swithun) day tale ‘a weather tragedy in three blogs’, which begins this Wednesday, we take a look at tales of extreme weather in Brighton.

Great Storm at Brighton 1850
Great Storm at Brighton 1850

Hoping for a long, hot summer? Brighton has had its fair share over the years but, looking back through the local papers, it seems some years are more memorable for violent storms than they are for warm, sunny weather.

In July 1850, for example, the town was in the grip of a heatwave. Temperatures reached 80 degrees in the shade and, according to newspaper reports, there was no hint of a breeze. On the evening of Wednesday 17th July, the sky darkened, the town was suddenly enveloped in mist and there was a loud clap of thunder. This was compared to ‘the exploding of a bomb, which seemed to shake the town to its foundations.’ The storm that followed was described as the worst to have occurred here in 50 years.

Rain fell for only an hour or so but, during that time, parts of the town were inundated. At one property in Castle Square, ‘everything in the room was set floating, even a cradle in which a child was sleeping and a large batch of newly baked bread, some of which went sailing down the street.’ Pool Valley was the worst affected area, with water pouring into houses from the street, reaching depths of five or six feet; in some cases, drains also burst, causing a further influx of water from below. The Brighton Herald described in graphic detail the damage caused to homes and businesses, concluding that ‘the thunder ceased to roll over the town shortly before eight; but the lightning was visible over the sea all night.’

Stormy Day at Brighton
Stormy Day at Brighton

In 1911, Brighton enjoyed another scorching summer, with even higher temperatures than 1850, and greater humidity. On July 29th, a particularly oppressive day, the Brighton Gazette reported that, ‘It is no exaggeration to say that people were absolutely prostrated.’ Towards the end of the afternoon, clouds gathered on the horizon and suddenly, a whirlwind swept through the streets, followed by a deluge of rain that seemed to turn roads into rivers. The storm was vividly described in the next edition of the Herald, dated 5 August: ‘Trees rocked as if they were likely to be uprooted. Rooms facing south with open windows became a whirling confusion of curtains and imported paper and leaves. Vases and ornaments went crashing to the floor… Hail hammered down on roofs and windows; the rain poured down in torrents.’ Then came the proverbial calm after the storm.

On this occasion, the damage was minimal and it seems that most people were hugely relieved by the break in the weather. The following day, the sun shone, the air was fresh and the people returned to the piers and promenade.

Perhaps the most terrifying incident occurred on 20 July 1929 when, in the aftermath of another electric storm, a tidal wave swept up on to Brighton beach. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, the tide was out and the beach was packed with people paddling and enjoying the sun. Until about 6.35pm, all was calm. Then, according to a report in The Argus, black clouds formed on the horizon which, ‘seemed to melt and hang down like a curtain from a black streak suspended some hundreds of feet in the sky.’ Next came the wave, a wall of water up to ten feet high, which curled back at an even greater height. Witnesses observed that ‘the back wash was terrific; no one could stand against it and it swept people up the beach like corks.’ Boats capsized, people were thrown off their feet and, in some cases, dragged back out to sea. A second wave was followed by a sudden downpour, causing chaotic scenes as visitors fled. Another observer commented that, ‘the whole beach roared and this, mingled with the cries of the terrified people, was heartrending.’

There were no fatalities in Brighton, but visitors to other south-coast resorts were not so lucky: a Mrs Pollard, who had travelled to Hastings for the day from her home in Woking, was flung from a fishing boat and drowned.

Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre

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