On Monday the 18th of June 1764 much of southern and eastern England was struck by a prolonged and violent thunderstorm together with torrential rain and hail with catastrophic results. It struck in the afternoon, described as a ‘Tempest of thunder and lightning . . . the claps succeeded each other incessantly for near an hour, and seemed to run into one another like the ignited flashes of the Aurora Borealis’.
Many people were killed and injured, animals in fields struck down and the crops in farmers fields flattened and destroyed, buildings caught alight and church steeples tumbled to the ground. The heavy rain caused rivers to overflow their banks and flood properties and villages; there was untold misery.
St. Bride’s Church in London’s Fleet Street was one of those affected when the storm raged between two and three o’clock in the afternoon; the steeple of the church was shattered and the falling masonry damaged several nearby houses. The total damage was estimated at 2000l. The steeple, measuring 234ft had been a later addition to the church designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the original had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London, the steeple being added between 1701-1703. The lightning strike destroyed the top 8ft of the steeple. Rayleigh parish church in Essex was similarly affected.
The Powder Mills on Hounslow Heath had a lucky escape when a tree within a few yards of one of the mills was ‘cleft asunder’ by lightning, another bolt striking one of the gibbets on the heath. At Chatham docks the Ramillies man of war was another casualty, being hit with a ‘ball of fire,’ splintering the deck and masts, only the ferocity of the rain preventing the ship from further damage by fire.
The damage caused by this June thunderstorm brought about a more widespread acceptance for the installation of lightning rods on the top of tall buildings and church steeples in imitation of the practice already widely adopted in America. Benjamin Franklin famously first experimented with lightning rods, fixing one to the roof of his house and attaching to it a wire that ran to another rod in the ground. His belief, that the lightning would strike the rod on his roof and that the electricity would pass to the rod in the ground, was correct, but the practice had not received much popularity in Britain until the June 1764 storms after which the British began to look for preventative measures. However, King George III decreed that lightning rods used in Britain should be blunt-ended not pointed.
Part of the problem was that people believed that a pointed lightning rod did not merely conduct the electricity away, but attracted the strike in the first place; one ending in a knob or blunt end being safer although Christ Church in Doncaster would disagree as in 1836 their steeple was destroyed by lightning shortly after a blunt-ended rod had been placed on the top of it!
London Evening Post, 19th, 21st and 26th June 1764