The hurricane of 1839: Chapter 1; Introduction

Most winters, the west coast of Britain is battered by gales. Winds gusting to 100mph are not unusual on coastal headlands. Most buildings are designed to cope with such wind gusts. Technically any wind over 75mph is hurricane strength (force 12). What is less common is a storm with very severe winds that causes widespread damage. The storm that crossed south eastern England in October 1987 left a trail of felled trees and widespread destruction. One of the most severe storms was the hurricane of 1839. This felled trees and damaged houses. Its main impact on human life was to shipping, especially close to the busy port of Liverpool. There was a great loss of life at sea and the circumstances are described here.

The hurricane of 6-7 January 1839 crossed Ireland, North Wales, Liverpool and proceeded East towards Yorkshire.

A summary from Ireland: "The Night of the Big Wind" was a massive hurricane that swept over Ireland on the night of January 6th 1839. Up to 300 people died in Ireland, tens of thousands were left homeless and winds reached well over 115 miles per hour, a category 3 hurricane. 25 per cent of the houses in Dublin were destroyed and 42 ships were destroyed.

A summary from a Liverpool newspaper:

A storm the most awful, whether we consider the violence of the gale, its continuance, the amount of property damaged or destroyed, or the loss of human life with which it was attended, that has taken place in this town, perhaps in the country, for many years, commenced on Sunday night 6th January 1839, and continued with little, if any intermission, till the following afternoon. During the whole of Sunday the wind blew strongly from the south-east, and the glass fell considerably, but many vessels commanded by experienced captains, went to sea, and there was nothing to indicate the frightful storm which followed. Suddenly, the wind shifted to south-west, and, increasing rapidly, became a perfect hurricane soon after midnight. It continued to blow in this dreadful manner for many hours without a moment's cessation, sweeping down chimneys and chimney pots, tearing up slates by thousands, snapping in pieces large trees, casting down thick walls, driving vessels on shore, and spreading death and destruction on every side. In the higher parts of the town of Liverpool, the best built houses rocked and shook as the gusts rose, and, gathering strength, pressed against them. It was a sleepless night to thousands, and it was truly awful to listen to the alternate moaning and roaring of the winds, to hear the slates and bricks dashing against the pavements, and to feel the solid walls vibrate to the blast. During the whole night the crash of falling slates was incessant, and it is remarkable as it is gratifying that the night police, who were exposed to the whole fury of the storm, should have escaped without injury.

At daylight on Monday the whole town presented evidence of the elemental war which had raged during the whole night, the streets everywhere strewn with wreckage, in many places vast masses of bricks, ruins of fallen walls and chimneys, lying piled in heaps. There was not a street in the town which did not present these traces of the elemental war which had raged during the night and was still raging, scarcely a single house in the town which was not in some way injured by the storm. Passengers hurried along keeping a careful eye on the roofs above, lest some missile, bricks, slates, fragments of chimney pots should stop their progress. The shops had their windows closed throughout the day, in many instances spars were nailed across the shutters, to keep them in their places. The loss of life both on land and water was frightful, there is scarcely a part of the town in which some fatal accident did not occur.

A contemporary report estimates the wind speed at Liverpool as exceeding 100 m.p.h. Such a strong wind can cause the high tide to build up considerably, causing extensive flooding. Luckily the tides were neap (not especially high) so that this danger was not a factor. As an indication of the wind strength: salt spray from the Irish Sea was blown inland as far as Leeds.

A report from the Leeds Mercury compares fatalities across the path of the storm, for instance: Dublin (16 plus 3 drowned); Liverpool (9 plus 106 drowned); Manchester (4); Leeds (1); York (3); Hull (6).

The greatest loss of life was at sea near Liverpool, and that is what I will describe in detail, concentrating on the passenger ships that were lost: Lockwoods, Pennsylvania and St. Andrew.