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The Great Gale of 1824

Luke Mouland recounts the tragic events of one early morning of nature's fury

A much milder storm than the Great Gale of 1824 photographed at Portland in November 2009 nonetheless brought a police presence to monitor the waves' effect on the coastal defences (photo: Alan Holiday)

‘We have rarely had a more melancholy duty to perform than the recital of the tremendous effects of the gale of Monday night last’, recorded the Western Flying Post, on 29 November 1824. ‘A tempest teeming with more frightful terrors is scarcely within the memory of man.’
Such began the account of the great storm that had unleashed its untold fury upon the Dorset coastline some days previously, striking fear into the hearts of the local inhabitants and leaving a scene of destruction and misery in its wake. Stretching from Lyme Regis to Christchurch, and in many other towns and villages throughout the rest of the county, the tempest left its brutal mark upon the landscape. However, nowhere felt the immense strength of the storm more severely than the settlements in and around Weymouth and Portland.
It was on the evening of 22 November that the wind began to blow with considerable violence, the force of which was likened to a West Indian hurricane by one naval officer stationed in Portland at the time. Many remarked that the sheer noise of the gale alone was remarkable, and in great roars and gusts it occasioned significant damage to countless properties and structures across the county. At Dorchester, the winds proved particularly dreadful, toppling chimneys and lifting the tiles from roofs with considerable ease. Indeed, it was here that the highly respected Rev. Henry Richman and his wife were instantaneously killed in their bed by the falling of a heavy chimney stack. Their deaths were deeply lamented throughout the town for some time afterwards.

The London trader Unity being driven ashore at Lyme Regis during the Great Gale. The Cobb is visible about three-quarters of the way up the image in the centre; the blobs in the rigging of the ship are an exhausted second seaman and the cabin boy, who both had to be cut from the rigging (Lyme Regis Museum)

As the evening wore on and the gales showed no sign of abating, anomalies in the tidal level were noticed by the customs officer at Lyme Regis. Here, the waters appeared to be rapidly rising when they should have in fact been remaining low. By 3.00 the following morning – some five hours before the usual high tide – the sea level had risen approximately a metre or so higher than was expected and it soon became apparent that this was set to continue. Similar irregularities were recorded at various places along the south coast, producing a worrying omen of what was to come.
By about 4.00, the increasingly turbulent waves had completely overcome the quays at Weymouth, whilst the majority of the properties lining the seafront and much of the lower part of the town
had already been flooded by the deluge. The pier at the entrance of the harbour also sustained considerable damage, whilst boats and vessels were carried into the streets by the waves, where they drifted helplessly.
An account written five years later is not lacking in drama: ‘The morning of the 23rd of November, 1824, Melcombe was nearly swept from the face of the earth by a tremendous and terrific hurricane, the wind howled in yelling gusts, the sea roared in a most horrible and frightful manner, the elements of strife mingled in appalling collision, and nature seemed determined to stamp upon the scene, the fiat [command] of an invisible and omnipotent power… The sea broke over the narrows in a strong and dreadful current, two individuals who were at that moment crossing the spot were swept away “and the end of anguish knew,” whole rows of houses that fronted the foaming, raging, billows, were completely inundated; the pride of Melcombe, its beautiful esplanade, was nearly all demolished, the stone posts and chains, (which amount now [1829] to 336 stone posts, and 4620 feet of iron chain,) were rent up and entirely broken, the piers (over which the surges rolled in an awful and sublime manner) also were demolished, vessels, boats, and small craft, were either driven into the centre of the town, sunk, destroyed, or carried out to sea. The danger in which the front of the town stood, was appalling, the whole of the roads and streets were covered with the rolling billows, driving impetuously masses of sand and stone, boats were observed floating in close approximation with vehicles of various descriptions, such a scene of devastation and ruin were never remembered to have been observed before; orders were speedily issued for the reparation of the town, the walls were erected in a more secure manner, and soon the scene of destruction was followed by one of perfect security.’
The damage to the esplanade is now recorded by a plaque on the seaward wall of the Tourist Information Centre, which reads: ‘ESPLANADE DESTROYED BY A TEMPEST NOVEMBER 23RD 1824. REBUILT BY R. VINING BUILDER APRIL 23RD 1825′.
By about 5.00 or 6.00 of 23 November 1824, the waves had breached the shingle defences of Chesil Beach and had thundered in a rapid surge into the cove beyond. An account by the parish clerk of Fleet describes how the inhabitants of that village looked on – in a state of some amazement, as the waves rushed up the valley ‘as quick as a horse could gallop’ – before fleeing for their lives to the nearby village of Chickerell. On returning in safety some time later, they found that several properties had been carried away by the deluge and that the nave of their parish church had been completely demolished. A new church was later built to serve the local inhabitants, with the stark remains of the former building standing as a solemn and somewhat chilling reminder, even to this day.

Two of the seven elements to the history of the Old Church at Fleet are to do with the Great Gale of 1824

Meanwhile, the sea had also breached the bank at Chiswell, where violent torrents rushed into the small fishing community beyond and untold fury was unleashed. One resident wrote that ‘such a scene of desolation and misery as is now before my eyes, no tongue nor pen can do justice to.’ In all, some eighty houses at Chiswell were completely destroyed by the waves in less than half an hour, whilst countless other buildings sustained considerable damage and almost thirty of the inhabitants perished amidst the turmoil. Many residents remained trapped under the ruins of their former homes, as others were dangerously wounded in their courageous endeavours to rescue friends and relatives from death. The torrent here was so great that the Ebenezer, a 90-ton sloop, was carried straight over the bank and washed into the street. This was later relaunched into Portland Harbour through the admirable efforts of the islanders.
It was also at Chiswell that the Colville, a West Indiaman of approximately 400 tons burden, was wrecked in the bay on its outward journey. The crew, which totalled sixteen men, under the command of Captain Wilson, all perished aboard the vessel. On recognising his fate, one of the crew members (Thomas Gosling, of London) set about tearing off a piece of his shirt, on which he wrote his name and address. This he tied around his neck, as a means of assisting with the identification of his body. These men were eventually picked up and buried at Portland.
Meanwhile, disaster also occurred at Ferrybridge, which proved particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the storm. Until 1839, this was a notoriously treacherous crossing between Portland and the mainland, where people and animals alike were ferried across the gap in small boats. Here, the ferry house was ripped apart by the fury of the waves, whilst Richard Best, the ferryman with over thirty years’ experience, was drowned in his struggles to rescue a stranded horse. It was noted by Rev. Chamberlaine, the rector of Wyke Regis, that the storm eroded the banks of the crossing to at least four times their former width and the sand bar used as an alternative crossing over to Wyke Regis had all but disappeared.
By midday, the storm had thankfully abated. Local inhabitants could finally begin to come to terms with the terrible events they had witnessed, though the bodies of those who had fallen victim to the storm continued to wash up on the shores of Weymouth and Portland for weeks afterwards. The burial registers of Portland serve as a poignant testament to this and several entries record the interments of these unfortunate souls. In one instance, a Portland man, his wife and several children were all buried together; they were all killed in the storm.
A meeting was held at Portland on 27 November, at which the impact of the storm was considered and the full cost of the damage determined. It was estimated that the loss of the distressed inhabitants amounted to roughly £15,000 in total (about £2.8 million in today’s money). The local fishermen, who accounted for the majority of the island’s population, had lost their boats, the tools of their trade, and in many cases, their homes and furniture, too. Many had been left in a state of destitution, and to make the situation worse still, it was some time before relief supplies could be brought from the mainland, due to the destruction of the crossing at Ferrybridge. To assist those in need, a subscription aid was opened at the Weymouth post office and great attempts were made by the Benevolent Society of Weymouth to alleviate the distressed of Portland and Fleet, as they gradually attempted to rebuilt their homes and communities.
Whilst those who lived along Dorset’s coastline were well acquainted with the perils of the sea and most were used to the severe storms, which could arise from it, it might be said that nothing has equalled the events of November 1824, either before or since. It is not surprising then that its horrors have continued to live on in Dorset folklore, having been dubbed ‘The Great Gale’.