Natural Disasters and Their Effect on the Lives of our Ancestors

This is a Guest Post by Wayne Shepheard

The lives and livelihoods of our ancestors were controlled or affected as much by natural conditions and events as by political and societal constraints. In many cases the latter were strongly influenced by the former. Natural phenomena directly affected the environment in which people lived and worked affecting both the physical health as well as the economic well-being of people.

Every generation has stories about living through the worst weather or natural disaster to befall mankind! And yet each generation only repeats similar stories told by previous generations. Today, through instant, world-wide communication technologies, we can see the results of major natural disasters and how they affect people locally, regionally and globally. Reports of the devastation caused by these events are readily available on television, in newspapers and, especially, on the internet, almost as they happen.

In past centuries, there is no doubt that similar disasters caused significant death and destruction, often over wide geographic areas and across broad socio-economic groups of people:

  • Storms, floods, earthquakes and disease all had immediate impacts on people and communities.
  • Volcanic activity, erosion of coastal margins, infilling of estuaries, drought and famine all affected living conditions and economies lasting from several months to several years.
  • Gradual changes related to climate change occurred over hundreds of years and had much longer-term effects on the environment and human habitats.

In the study of the history of families and the communities in which they lived, it is instructive to consider how people were affected by, or reacted to conditions we have witnessed in more recent situations. Would your great-great-grandparents have been forced to give up their farm if they were flooded out? Would your carpenter ancestor have moved to a location where there was a great deal of work available to repair the damage caused by a major windstorm? Did any of your ancestors lose their lives when tragedy struck in the form of a natural disaster?

Major storms – one example of natural events – have inevitably resulted in significant mayhem. As a maritime nation, Britain has had its share of such events coming ashore from both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.

A much-written about storm, called The Great Storm, struck the south of England and parts of Europe bordering the English Channel on 26 November 1703 (7 December 1703 on the Gregorian calendar, already in use in continental Europe but not introduced to Britain until 1752). The Great Storm occurred during the height (or depth) of the Little Ice Age (1350-1850), a period of much cooler global temperatures and extremes of weather conditions.

Image

Picture used with permission, copyright British Library

The storm was part of a massive counter-clockwise, very deep, low pressure trough that moved across the region, from west to east, affecting areas as far north as Birmingham and Norwich. Some of the devastation dealt to the country over the space of just a few hours included the following:

  • Wind gusts possibly topping 120 mph at the peak of the storm, levelling almost everything in its path
  • Over 700 ships wrecked while docked or at anchor in harbours around southern England and while still at sea, with an estimated death toll of up to 10,000 sailors
  • Thirteen Royal Navy warships sunk, with the loss of over 1,500 lives; many others severely damaged
  • Over 120 lives lost, and hundreds more injured on land across England and Wales
  • Significant damage in towns and cities – in London over 2,000 chimney stacks blown down, demolishing parts of the houses to which they had been attached
  • Tens of thousands of head of cattle and sheep lost on farms along the storm’s path
  • Major parts of forests levelled
  • Areas around major estuaries impacted by floods from storm surges, in many cases more dangerous than the accompanying winds
  • Severe disruption to local economies just emerging from decades of recession, the effects of which felt for years afterward
  • Mercantile shipping, involving fleets serving major cities like London and the export markets, disrupted for many years until replacement ships could be put to sea
  • Immediate inflation of prices in foodstuffs and other goods – building materials in particular
  • On the plus side, work multiplied for tradesmen such as carpenters, masons and plumbers, the latter being expert in the installation of lead sheet roofing

Losses during the storm have been estimated at about £6 million, representing about 5% of the total value of the building stock in England and Wales at the time – a very significant proportion! The potential loss for such a storm if it were to strike today might be well in excess of £10 billion.

Could it happen again? There have been other, major storms which battered Britain, causing significant property loss and numerous deaths – in October 1987 as an example. Modern improvements to sea defenses around harbours and estuaries, beach stabilization methods, inland flood control measures, early storm warning systems and rapid response of disaster teams all have aided in preventing the same levels of devastation as occurred during The Great Storm of 1703, however.

Was your family impacted by The Great Storm of 1703 or from other types of events? I am compiling examples of natural disasters and their impact on people and communities in past centuries. If any readers have such stories of events that affected their own ancestors, I would very much like to hear about them.

References:

Brayne, Martin. (2002). The Greatest Storm. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing.

Defoe, Daniel. (1704). The Storm or, a Collection of the most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land. Downloaded through University of Adelaide website 30 March 2014 under Creative Commons License from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/defoe/daniel/storm/complete.html

Lamb, Hubert & Knud Frydendaho. (1991). Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

About the Author

Wayne is a past student of Pharos, having attained a certificate (with distinction) in the Family History Skills & Strategies (intermediate) programme. He is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne has his own blogsite, Discover Genealogy, in which he relates his experiences as a family historian. He also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.

 

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5 Responses to Natural Disasters and Their Effect on the Lives of our Ancestors

  1. Jaygen2014 says:

    An interesting subject – disasters could certainly be possible explanations for the ‘disappearance’ of an ancestor, death of children through famine, migration and bankruptcy. A few that I’ve come across that I’ve found interesting are…

    The Killer Wave (or Tsunami) of 1607 that struck the Bristol Chanel is a fascinating documentary – well worth watching on youtube for the re-enactment alone…

    The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 which affected Europe and elsewhere, could explain a bankruptcy for one of my ancestors as the following year resulted in ‘The Year Without a Summer’. Besides causing famine, it had other effects, such as accelerating the westward migration in America.

    Probably not what you’re looking for, but I found two people (a brother and sister) widowed on my family tree, but couldn’t find any death index for their marriage partners. The reason being that, at least one of them died in the shipwreck of the SS Stella – also known as the Titanic of the Channel Islands. The tragedy was partly caused by the competition that existed between two railway companies speeding to get to their destination first , and also dense fog in the channel. I hadn’t realised that those who died at sea don’t seem to be registered, even when their bodies are found later (as in this case). I found the information in newspaper reports, and by googling the date for anything that may explain their disappearance.

    • pharostutors says:

      Thanks for the Youtube upload.
      There are registers of some deaths at sea from the General Register Office (GRO). The problem is that there was no rules governing whether death at sea near the coast should be recorded by the local registrar or by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. The Marine Register Books 1837 – 1965 at the GRO record deaths at sea and may also be recorded by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen in two series, 1852 – 90 for seamen and 1854 – 90 for passengers, held at The National Archives. I used to use the Marine registers when the GRO books were at the Family Record Centre in London but I am not sure whether they are included on the civil registration indexes hosted by findmypast. I think perhaps not. However, if the jurisdiction of the Channel Islands also came into play, then they may possibly be recorded in Jersey or Guernsey? It would be interesting to know whether the GRO Marine Register can now be accessed online, or whether you would have to use the microfiche.

      • pharostutors says:

        Answering my own question, there is some information here, although it is a bit out of date referring to The National Archives (TNA) by its old name of PRO:
        http://www.mariners-l.co.uk/UKDeathsAtSea.html

      • Jaygen2014 says:

        Thank you for the link! Good point about the death being registered in Jersey – although his body was recovered at Dieppe a month later, the death of Joshua le Mare was already recorded in the news as being on the 30 Mar 1899, and the place of the accident was The Black Rock, nr. Alderney, Channel Islands…

        “On the 30th of March 1899, the steamship Stella owned by the London and South Western Railway Company, left Southampton with a number of passengers, for Guernsey and Jersey; but ran upon the Black Rock near the Casquets, and sank. Among the passengers drowned was Joshua le Mare, of the Stores’ Department of the London and North Western Railway Company”

        So, perhaps, the death was registered even without a body being recovered. On the other hand it would be worth checking in the registers you mention. To tell the truth, as this tragedy affected my blood relatives, but not my direct ancestors, I hadn’t bothered to look any further, especially as the news reports for Joshua and his wife were quite detailed. However it did affect the direct ancestor of a distant cousin (who I did the research for), so I’m sure he’d welcome the page you’ve linked to. I’ve just found another page which may be helpful at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person/bmdatseaorabroad.htm . According to this page, BMDregisters have the BT series http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk/ which is the Registry of Shipping and Seamen, 1854-1908. I’ve tried the search at bmdregisters, but no joy I’m afraid – probably the death(s) are registered in the Channel Islands as you suggest.

        Thanks for a fascinating subject Wayne,
        Jayne

  2. Thanks for that. This is certainly one outstanding example of how a natural disaster affected, in this case, hundreds of families and thousands of lives and certainly disrupted many communities for likely generations. Newspapers are a great source for information and you are quite right to look at the newsworthy events in and around an area to find out more about what was going on during the times your ancestors were going about their daily lives. Even seemingly minor natural events, much less destructive than the 1607 Bristol Channel flood, might have marked important turning points in the history of families, such as deaths, or the decisions to migrate. Please contact me through Pharos is you can provide any details about stories of specific people or places.

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