‘Earlier today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t’
Many will remember the immortal words of weatherman Michael Fish, whose casual dismissal of the approaching storm left the UK public completely unprepared for the weather front that was heading straight for the south coast. The worst storm in nearly 300 years saw record winds of 115mph recorded in Shoreham, 18 deaths across the country, left thousands without power, unprecedented calls to emergency services, and insurance companies facing a billion-pound bill for the clean-up. Bearing the brunt of the storm, the south coast saw severe damage to yachts and boats; in Folkestone, a cross-channel Sea Link ferry was blown aground, in Hastings, a fisherman was killed when he was hit by a beach hut, two men in Dover died when their ship sank, and Shanklin Pier on the Isle of Wight was entirely washed away.
In the course of the night, an estimated 15 million trees had come down across the country, with Sevenoaks in Kent famously losing 6 of its 7 oaks. In Sussex, ancient woodlands were entirely felled, and the landscape changed forever. At Nymans, near Haywards Heath, 80% of trees were lost, amongst them some of the rarest species and many of the earliest known imported plants in the UK. The losses were also great at Wakehurst Place, where almost half of its California Redwoods were lost, and Chanctonbury lost the majority of its beech trees that were originally planted in the 1760s to form Chanctonbury Ring atop the famous prehistoric ring fort of Chanctonbury Hill.
West Sussex County Council responded by opening a dedicated emergency 24hour hotline for any residents requiring assistance due to the effects of the storm. If you were lucky enough to still have a working phone line! In the following days, the council urged members of the public to tie old rags and ribbons around trees with potentially dangerous damaged branches (they had run out of official cones) to help identify problem trees so they could be made safe as quickly as possible. While WSCC recruited refuse collectors, whose regular routes had been disturbed, to help assist with the debris clear-up before normal service resumed during the following week, a team of 50 Gurkhas were also drafted in to Sussex from their Aldershot base to clear debris and fallen trees. Staying at the Eardley Hotel in Worthing, they assisted Seeboard with reconnecting electricity lines across the county.
The Chairman of WSCC Highways Committee, Mr Frank Keen, took to the local newspapers to thank the public for pulling together and helping the emergency services to clear roads. The Blitz spirit reappeared in full force, with locals in the north of the county clubbing together to set out with chainsaws, cutting their way along the A264, and clearing the main East Grinstead to Tunbridge Wells road.
Many of the staff here at the Record Office recall the night of the Great Storm, and the lasting devastation it wrought on the county. Searchroom Assistant Ian, who has lived in Chichester his whole life, kept a diary recording the aftermath of the storm. Although his house only lost roof tiles and fence panels, he noted the many trees and lampposts down around Chichester, including a tree that toppled a wall at the Bishop’s Palace.
Working at Britax Wingard on Kingsham Avenue at the time, when he arrived at work on the morning of Friday 16th, he recalls that the office block roof was completely gone, and the bike shed had ended up on the railway line!
Di Ladlow was living in Dorset at the time, but remembers driving back through Sussex to visit her mother in Horsham shortly afterwards. Driving along the A272 coming up through Midhurst and Easebourne, she was shocked at the swathes of woodland which had simply disappeared along the sides of the road and across the fields, leaving great gaping gaps. ‘I also remember looking up at what used to be Chanctonbury Ring and how shocking it was to see the ring of trees that had been an iconic presence throughout my childhood, just gone.’
Modern Records Assistant Andy witnessed the destruction in Worthing, where he was based at the time. He remembers the wind building up around 10pm, and by 1am, seeing the silver birch tree outside his house bent over double and touching the pavement, and watching tiles flying off neighbouring roofs & whizzing across the sky like frisbees, clattering into cars and walls as they fell. Andy recalls that ‘a work colleague had his chimney blown down right on top of his car! Complete write off and a hell of a mess. My friend’s dad, a fisherman, was on the beach most of the night with others roping boats down to secure them. Along the sea front next day there were boats in peoples gardens across the road, and Brooklands Pleasure Park had several boats marooned on its golf course. All in all it was a very loud & quite frightening night, had it hit us during the morning rush hour I shudder to think how many casualties there could have been!’
Searchroom Supervisor Susie had an extremely busy night-duty working in a local hospital, and was shocked to see the devastation outside after work. At home, the porch protecting her backdoor had totally collapsed, and 7 trees were either down or partially uprooted in her garden. There were so many apples on the ground, she couldn’t even give them all away, so stewed and froze them and seemed to eat them forever! Talking about the aftermath of the storm, Susie explains that her husband’s company produced components for road-signs, ‘so he drove us around the countryside to see which manufacturers’ signs stood up to the winds best – of course, his company was best. Driving round, we saw the hurricane’s footprint first-hand – massive root-balls, taller than us, exposed as the trees had been uprooted; overturned airplanes at Goodwood airfield; myriad trees lying lamely on the ground or tilting precariously. We had a huge bonfire in our garden that November 5th!’.
Lauren Clifton, Searchroom Archivist