On Tuesday 24th June 1823 the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough experienced a sudden and ferocious whirlwind. The weather had been unseasonably cold for at least a fortnight, with a bracing north to north-east wind; in fact, the whole summer that year was one of the coldest known since monthly records began to be kept in 1659. On this day, just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a thunderstorm burst from the west, but although the claps of thunder were loud enough to alarm everyone, the accompanying rainstorm was soon over and the lightning did no damage.
Ten or fifteen minutes later some people who had ventured back onto the beach were struck by the unusual appearance of the sky: storm clouds were brewing, one heading in from a south-westerly direction, with another, much lower one, scudding in from the north-east. When these two clouds met, they were described as being in:
violent agitation; an upper dense and dark stratum seemed to be pressing a lighter one down to the earth. They were then blended into one dense column, which descended to the ground . . .
The resulting whirlwind, which originated near the village of Falsgrave, sped overland over the turnpike road and, uprooting two large elm trees, passed by some bemused labourers at the waterfall below the terrace on Scarborough’s seafront, then ruined the day of a poor gardener by destroying his cabbage plants in a garden to the left before it passed onto the sands.
On the beach the whirlwind continued its mayhem by dashing a machine which contained a camera-obscura into the sea, smashing it into a hundred pieces. The sand on the beach was whipped up to a height of sixty feet, blinding a man who had decided that the bathing-machine in which he had been sheltering was no longer safe, and who had decided to make a run for it. It was as well that he had done so for the bathing-machines were now directly in the path of the whirlwind. There were reported to be around forty bathing-machines on the seafront at Scarborough in 1813; these were now tumbled over into the sea, some ending up without their wheels or roofs.
There were two piers at Scarborough, one old and ancient, the other newly built using stones from the nearby White Nabb quarry and there for the security of the harbour. People were now seen running from these piers as quickly as they could. Some vessels were moored between the two piers, and in one, where the occupants were enjoying a glass of wine in a cabin, they were alarmed by a boy rushing down from the deck, shouting:
“The bathing-machines are running into the sea, – many have turned over, and some heels-over-head”.
With that their own vessel broke its anchorage and turned over on its beam-ends ‘to no small destruction of their glasses and Falernian [wine]’. Only the pier saved it from further damage.
The whirlwind was now between the piers and heading for the harbour, the only port between the Humber and Tynemouth where ships of large burden could usually find a safe refuge from the violent easterly gales which often prevailed along the coast. It was not so safe on that day however, with the column whipping up the water and sending foam and spray to the height of a ship’s topmast – the smaller boats were tipped upside down and broke free from their moorings. At last, the column rose ‘over the battery in rapid volutions, whirled into the clouds, and disappeared‘.
Many experienced seamen thought it had been a water-spout, but it left no trace of water when it first passed over the land. The sea had been taken up by the column, but in the form of spray and foam.
From an eye-witness account of the destructive column:
It was quite perpendicular, and seemed at first to be thicker at the summit than below, resembling a trumpet. Its density was so great, that many persons thought it was the smoke of some fire on the sands; but the most compared it to the steam from a large brewhouse or steam-engine. The gyrating motion resembled a screw or the Cornu ammonis . . . the noise was very peculiar, and brought many people to their windows to see what was the matter. Some describe it as imitating the roaring of a great wind; some a crackling noise, like a house on fire; a military gentleman [said] it resembled the explosion of a mine underwater; but the majority considered it like the rumbling of heavy carriages.
No great damage seems to have been caused, and no lives were lost, but it was recorded that many small items such as baskets and umbrellas were blown away, never to be seen again.
The Monthly Magazine, or, British Register, vol. 57, 1824
York Herald, 28th June 1823
History, Directory & Gazetteer of the County of York by Edward Baines, vol. II, 1823
Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813, illustrated by twenty-one plates of humorous subjects coloured by hand from original designs made upon the spot by J. Green and etched by T. Rowlandson