Heritage: People thought freak June hailstorm was end of the world

The path of the 1897 hailstorm, taken from EE Wilde, Ingatestone and Great Essex Road (1913).

The path of the 1897 hailstorm, taken from EE Wilde, Ingatestone and Great Essex Road (1913). - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin

Thursday, June 24, 1897 was a special day in Victorian England. People were getting ready to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee - sixty years on the throne.

It was early afternoon. In a field near Epping, a Jubilee meal was laid out on tables inside a large tent. At South Weald, children gathered in the park of the local mansion - now Weald Country Park - to honour their sovereign.

A cricket team left Romford station, to play a late match at Ingatestone, into the long midsummer evening shadows.

Although the weather was "intensely hot" (temperatures were over 30 degrees Celsius), farmers were busy harvesting and making hay. There were distant rumbles of thunder, but nobody expected the tempest that followed.

Suddenly, Essex people saw an angry mushroom-shaped black cloud approaching fast. A high wind brought lashing rain, which quickly turned to hail.

Reflected heat from the baking earth had abruptly forced the cloud into higher layers of cold air, freezing the moisture which then fell as large, vicious hailstones.

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The Jubilee tent at Epping was torn to shreds, and the festive meal washed away. At South Weald, terrified children ran for shelter.

The hailstorm passed through a narrow corridor, about nine miles wide. "At Ilford and Romford, it was quite fine, but at Brentwood rain fell heavily."

North of Brentwood, the devastation was terrible. In just twenty minutes, the harvest was destroyed.

A Kelvedon Hatch farmer suffered a nervous breakdown on seeing the damage to his fields.

Birds were slaughtered by the massive hailstones - not just wild birds, but also poultry, on which poorer country people relied. Greenhouses were smashed.

The noise was terrible. Some people emerged from shelter to find chimneys blown down and buildings demolished - but they'd never heard a thing.

Ingatestone suffered terribly. Twenty four hours after the storm, there were still hailstones a foot deep in some places. One was over four inches across.

A coachman who'd tried to rescue a horse was so badly cut across his arms and chest that he looked as if he'd been in the ring with a prizefighter.

Pea-pickers near Blackmore were covered in blood.

At Margaretting, near Chelmsford, a farmer clung to the top of a haystack after his ladder was swept away. He was lucky. Most haystacks evaporated.

Hellfire religion was strong in rural Essex. Some people thought the world was ending.

The Romford cricket team arrived at Ingatestone station just as the storm passed. They crunched across the line and caught the next train home.

Chelmsford looked as if it had been "bombarded by a hostile army".

Tiptree's famous strawberry crop was pulped. But then the storm ebbed as suddenly as it had started, causing little damage when it reached Colchester.

Thousands of pounds were subscribed to relief funds, but some Essex farmers went bankrupt.

An even more localised freak weather event was the Elm Park tornado of Friday, August 26, 1960.

"Suddenly it became as black as ink," reported a local resident who'd been walking along Upper Rainham Road in the early afternoon. "There was an explosion and a tornado-like wind. Everything went up - leaves, bits of wood and slates - I have never seen anything like it."

Fifty houses in a short stretch of Rainham Road were damaged.

At one property, roof tiles were torn off, garage doors smashed in, and a 25-foot high apple tree uprooted and thrown into a neighbour's garden.

At Hornchurch Council's yard - now Havering's Central Depot - walls were blown down and shed roofs ripped off.

A stack of tiles was thrown sixty feet into the air. Debris smashed windows in nearby houses.

One woman was taken to hospital after being struck by flying masonry. She seems to have been the only local casualty.

Global temperatures are rising. Freak weather events may happen more often.