By Summer Strevens

WHILE the UK storm season was cranked up a notch when ‘Ex-Hurricane’ Ophelia made her presence felt last month, hopefully none of the tempests that barrel in off the Atlantic in the future will be the equal of the ‘Great Gale’ of 1824, a hurricane force wind and accompanying storm surge which devastated the Dorset coast in the November of that year.

While research indicates that the UK is on track to see an increase in storm force gales, whipped up on the whirlwind of climate change, the 1824 storm certainly left its mark, a storm that was so severe and so destructive that it has become legendary, the Western Flying Post reporting that “A tempest teeming with more frightful terrors is scarcely within the memory of man.”

In November 1824, though the weather had been fairly boisterous along the south coast, it wasn’t so unusual for that time of year. However on Monday evening, November 22, the wind had strengthened and was blowing at hurricane force from the south, and the customs officer at Lyme Regis noticed anomalies in the tidal level, which was apparently rising when it should have been low water. At 3am on the morning of Tuesday 23, five hours before high water, the level was at the Neap Tide high - in other words about 3ft or so higher than would have been expected.

Within the hour “the sea had risen to great height” and the fierceness of the waves breaking over Lyme’s Cobb destroyed about 300 feet of its length. Elsewhere, in Weymouth, the quays were entirely inundated, and ships that had been moored against the harbour wall now sailed up through the flooded streets. The grand Georgian facades of the houses along the sea-front were assaulted by the deluge of seawater, the lower floors flooded by the surging tide, while the seafront houses at Melcombe Regis fared little better, their windows rattled by the relentless pounding of the waves, and the Preston bank overcome and Lodmoor flooded.

The flood height does not seem to have been so high as it was at Fleet however; one onlooker there thought that the sea had more or less come up level with the top of the Chesil Beach, another eyewitness exclaiming “Twern’t a sea - not a bit of it - twer the great sea hisself rose up level like and come on right over the ridge and all, like nothing in this world”.

As the storm continued to rage “The lower part of the parish of Chiswell on Portland was in a moment deluged by a most tremendous wave that swallowed up the greater part of it, and upwards of 30 souls were in an instant doomed to death.” 

By 6am, the storm still unabated, a tsunami-like surge washed up the valley at East Fleet towards the Church, some way inland, and demolished the nave of Holy Trinity and swept away five houses. Travelling “as fast as a horse can gallop” and carrying all before it, on the crest of the tidal wave, driven by the hurricane force winds, was an entire haystack!

The towering seas whipped up by the “Tempest” also resulted in numerous stricken ships coming to grief along the south coast; in the turbulent waters off Dorset, three ships were wrecked off Chesil Beach, four in Weymouth Bay with a further five vessels lost off Lyme Regis. 

The ferry between the Isle of Portland and the mainland was also washed away. In the days after the storm, many bodies were washed up, and the death toll of those recovered from Chesil beach alone numbered almost one hundred souls. 

All were given Christian burial, interred in graveyards nearest to their discovery. Though most were unidentified, one passenger aboard the ill-fated Colville, fearful that his beached body would be anonymously buried, and that his wife back in London would never learn of his sad fate, tore off part of his shirt, and wrote his name and address on the sodden fabric, tying the makeshift identification around his neck.
Though coastal communities bore the brunt of the storm, inland areas also felt the impact. 

At Dorchester: “The devastating effects of the storm were felt in every quarter of the town”; houses lost their roofs, windows were smashed and chimneys blown down, and at 6am on Tuesday 23, the time of the tidal influx at Chiswell, the Reverend HJ Richman and his wife were killed, in bed, both crushed to death by the fall of a heavy stack of chimneys, unseated by the fury of the gale. An unwelcome early morning wake-up call if ever there was one!