Talking about the weather is a cliché, but it is something we do a great deal of in the UK. When we aren’t lamenting the passing of yet another disappointing summer, we are discussing the impact – locally and globally – of climate change and the unpredictable weather patterns it seems to cause. Coastal towns and cities really feel the force of adverse conditions, and Brighton is no exception: storms, floods, tidal waves and avalanches all feature in its history. What’s more, the churning waves, salty winds and changing skies are a constant reminder of the power of the elements and the damage they can cause.
The ‘hurricane’ of October 1987 provides the most dramatic of recent memories. Unheralded by forecasters, the great storm swept across the Atlantic and hit the Sussex coast in the middle of the night. Gale force winds reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour, bringing down power lines, raising roofs, battering buildings and overturning cars. Across Brighton, mature trees were uprooted, including many of the majestic elms that had been saved from the ravages of Dutch elm disease. The Royal Pavilion, undergoing repairs at the time, was also seriously damaged. Its protective plastic sheeting was torn to shreds, scaffolding displaced and, worst of all, the tip of one of the building’s minarets, weighing two tonnes, crashed through the roof of the recently restored Music Room. Describing the impact of the storm on Brighton in his book Hurricane Force, writer George Hill noted that, ‘the whole town shook as if in the grip of an earthquake.’
Old newspapers, which can be viewed on microfilm at Brighton History Centre, offer a fascinating record of storms that have visited Brighton in the past. In June 1910, The Evening Argus described a thunderstorm lasting several hours that was accompanied by ‘electric flashes’ of lightning: ‘Every few seconds, the sky was illumined by a purply flame that shot across and left behind it black darkness, and with the darkness there came a thunderclap that seemed to shake the earth.’ Even allowing for some poetic licence, this was clearly no ordinary storm – a villa near Withdean was struck by lightning and subsequently destroyed by fire, while a farm near Race Hill also went up in flames.
Sixty years earlier, in July 1850, The Brighton Herald published a story about a violent storm that flooded Pool Valley with nearly six feet of water. Torrential rain swept down the narrow streets of the Old Town and, despite the best efforts of their occupants, many buildings were wrecked. According to the newspaper report, ‘The surface water poured into houses through the doors and windows, vainly closed to keep it out, while the drains beneath burst…and shot their contents like a jet into kitchens and cellars.’
Another extraordinary incident took place in the summer of 1929, when early evening bathers were overwhelmed by a tidal wave sweeping on to Brighton’s beaches. News reports describe ‘dull and heavy-looking clouds [that] crept over the sky,’ followed by a wave that ‘dashed with incredible speed over the sands.’ Deckchairs were swamped, boats capsized and swimmers were tossed around like corks bobbing on water. ‘The actual wave was bad enough,’ commented a boatman at the time, ‘but the backwash, which seemed to be boiling, was terrific. The whole beach roared, and this, mingled with the cries of terrified people, was heartrending.’
An Island in the Snow
Winter, of course, is when we expect severe weather conditions; it’s also when we often hope for a decent cold snap and a flurry of snow. What we tend to forget is just how destructive true winter weather can be. One of the greatest local tragedies occurred in December 1836, when Brighton and surrounding areas were covered with a thick blanket of snow. Strong winds formed deep drifts, one of which built up above a row of cottages in Lewes, at the edge of the Downs. Residents were urged to leave their homes because of the risk of avalanche, but some refused to do so. When the snow eventually came crashing down, 15 people were buried in their homes. Six were saved, five of them children, but the others either suffocated or were crushed to death.
Brighton has endured other memorably cold winters, including 1881, when gales and blizzards brought the place to a standstill. Shops and businesses were closed, and trains were stuck in deep snowdrifts. Quite simply, people stayed at home. As a report in The Argus pointed out, ‘to take down the shutters and open the doors would be to run the risk of the snowy hurricane invading and burying the place.’ In 1929, Brighton experienced what was romantically described as an ‘Arctic visitation’. Fountains and boating pools turned to ice – to the delight of skaters – as did the lake in Queen’s Park. Even the sea was affected. ‘The wash…that broke over the Banjo Groyne and the large groynes at Black Rock froze hard during the night, and early on Tuesday morning the warm sunshine made these groynes glisten like two huge solid blocks of ice.’
More recently, the winter of 1962-63 entered the history books as one of the coldest on record. Temperatures remained below freezing for 27 days, closing schools and prompting headlines such as ‘Sussex slides to a snow standstill’. On New Year’s Eve, The Argus reported that Brighton had become ‘an island in the snow’ – all routes out of the town were blocked by the heaviest fall of snow in living memory. Great news for skiers, who were in action in Preston, Moulsecoomb and Hollingbury Parks, but not so good for the elderly or those in need of medical care. As Christopher Horlock, author of Brighton In The Sixties, explains, ‘power cuts added to the misery of the big freeze and at one point…candles were used to light wards in the Royal Sussex County Hospital.’ Still dreaming of a white Christmas? Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for.
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre