Here in Lincolnshire in the English Midlands, we’re yet to see any real snow this winter and it’s beginning to look a little unlikely now. Certainly, we have not yet been able to build a snowman so, while we wait for a good snowfall, today we’re going to take a closer look at an engraving of a snowman built by a young boy and his friends in the eighteenth-century.
Thomas Bewick, wood engraver and natural history author, was born in 1753 in the village of Mickley in Northumberland, in a cottage known as Cherryburn. With a talent for drawing, young Thomas was apprenticed at the age of fourteen years to Ralph Beilby, a Newcastle engraver, later becoming a partner in his business.
The following two vignettes supposedly show Thomas Bewick as a child, building a giant snowman at Cherryburn. Bewick is the boy standing on the stool, putting the finishing touches to the snowman, while his childhood friend, Joe Liddell, stands behind him, shivering and with his arms crossed.
The cottage shown in the background is Cherryburn and, in the latter image, Bewick’s bedroom window, which was next to his bedhead, is visible to the right of the horse’s head. The image appeared as a tailpiece woodcut engraving at the end of British Birds, 1797. Another tailpiece in the book shows Joe Liddell out hunting in the snow.
On Wednesday the 19th October 1791, the sea off the Kentish coast ‘ran mountains high, without any apparent cause’. Ships hastily made for harbour and lucky that they did for, on the following morning, a tremendous storm hit the south-east of England, with Kent particularly suffering.
On Thursday 20th October, at half past eleven o’clock and amidst high winds, thunder, lightning, hail and rain, a bolt of lightning struck the wooden steeple of Speldhurst Church near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Some sources say that a ‘ball’ entered the shingled roof, others that lightning struck the weather vane atop the steeple. However it started, almost instantly flames and smoke could be seen.
As the fire was, so far, confined to the steeple, some people who were nearby rushed into the chancel to save the pulpit cushions, the plate and the parish chest. They did not have time to save anything else for the rain and hail stopped and the wind drove the flames on to the church which was soon engulfed in the inferno. Four hours after the lightning had struck, all that remained of the ancient and beautiful church was ruins, with the tombs and head stones which were closest to the doomed building also suffering damage. Bizarrely the font, which was still whole, had been turned upside down.
Amongst the items lost to the fire were the four bells housed in the steeple (they were melted) and the church monuments.
The monuments (one of which was very ancient, belonging to the Waller family, on a large scale, and a most curious piece of workmanship in marble) crumbled to dust.
For Speldhurst villagers William Card and Elizabeth Cole the tragedy was on a very personal level; they were due to marry in the church on the following day. Determined that the wedding should go ahead, a small space was cleared in the rubble by the chancel door and the couple were married there but, it was reported, ‘the bride’s new shoes were completely spoiled’.
It was not just Speldhurst which had suffered, although the village saw the most devastation. In Tunbridge Wells itself the hail broke windows and caused other damage, and a man shooting a mile away from Speldhurst had ‘his gun twisted out of his hand by the lightning’. The church at Rainham near Canterbury was also struck and damage was noted at Newport on the Isle of Wight due to lightning strikes as the storm spread through the south-east of the country. It desisted during Thursday afternoon (although the wind continued to blow), but overnight and into the Friday morning there were further storms.
The Waller family lived at Groombridge manor house in Speldhurst; Sir Richard Waller (who died in 1431) had custody of a French royal hostage for many years. Charles, Duke of Orléans (1394-1465) had been taken prisoner by Waller after the battle of Agincourt in 1415, and both the duke and Waller were benefactors to the church which was destroyed in 1791. The dukes arms, which had been granted to Waller to quarter with his own, were displayed in stone above the porch of the church.
A new church was built (it opened in 1805), but that was demolished in 1870 and a further church now stands on the site. The website of the current church says that ‘remarkably, a few relics of the old church survive, including the coat of arms of the Duke of Orléans over the South door, a sundial and the very weather vane which was [reputedly] struck in 1791’.
Speldhurst Church, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Struck by Lightning; British (English Naive) School; Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery
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.
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