In my little area of the world, we’re enjoying something of a mini heat wave at the moment, with temperatures in this neighbourhood set to reach 27 degrees Celsius tomorrow. However, we’re also assured that, in true classic English summer style, it will all end on Tuesday in a crescendo of thunderstorms, hail, driving rain and flash floods. I’m looking forward to that, in a way, as we haven’t had a decent thunderstorm in ages.
And talking of which… On Saturday 4th June the Derby took place at Epsom, as it does at around this time every year, and the weather was pleasant, according to an account by MeteoGroup – fine, warm, rather breezy. It has not always been thus – the MeteoGroup article mentions previous Derby Days when the weather was a lot less nice – heavy snow showers in 1867, a gale in 1830, torrential rain in 1891.
And in 1911 – there was the mother of all thunderstorms.
A hundred years ago, the Epsom Derby was held on 31st May, a Wednesday. It had been a hot day, and in the late afternoon, just after the conclusion of the race, the weather broke. It rained, it hailed and it thundered, several people dying in the vicinity of the racecourse itself, under a fusilade of lightning strikes. This was no ordinary storm. A total of 15cm of hail fell to earth over the Downs, and the London Weather website tells us that 91mm of rain was recorded on this day at Banstead in Surrey.
Multiple storm centres converged on the London area, thunder shaking the houses and rain flooding into cellars and basements, also causing landslides which blocked railway lines near Merstham and Coulsdon, a few miles north and south-east of Banstead, respectively. At Sutton, a ferocious lightning storm killed or injured several people, and hailstones up to 2 inches in diameter smashed down, stripping the leaves from trees and shrubs.
Juliet Nicolson, author of The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911, takes up the story:
As the race-goers left the Epsom stands the sun was just visible through the veil of clouds, a shimmering ball of hot metal. Early that evening the stable lads taking the horses for a final gallop on the Downs heard a distant rumble, and as dusk began to settle there was a stupendous crash, followed by lightning which landed in flat white patches, irradiating rooms with a ‘ghastly illumination’. Hailstones the size of sovereigns began to fall, and rain hissed and whipped against windowpanes. Forty-five cars travelling back to London had to be abandoned between Epsom and Sutton. Four horses were killed by lightning that evening and seventeen people died, including a stable lad in a van at the course, two policemen, and Mrs Hester, a grave-digger’s wife, who had slipped out to the village churchyard to take her husband a cup of tea as he worked. She died in front of him, crushed by the graveyard wall that collapsed under the force of lightning and fell on top of her.
Now imagine if this had happened in 2011, instead… There is no doubt that such a violent and destructive thunderstorm would be held up as an example of just the sort of extreme weather event we can expect to see more of, due to man-made global warming. There would be sombre articles in the Guardian, and wise people like Bill McKibben telling us it was a perfect example of the way we are “making the Earth a more dynamic and violent place.”
Well, it might certainly look that way, to someone who was completely oblivious to the historical record.
Via the very helpful Google News function on the internet, I’m now looking at a page from a New Zealand newspaper called the Grey River Argus. It’s dated 1st June 1911, and there’s an article about the Derby Day storm, which provides a very brief but fascinating account of the event and its consequences:
A spell of tropical heat culminated in a series of thunderstorms in the Home counties. The streets in many places were flooded. The Epsom crowd returning from the races were in a sorry plight. The lightning killed two policemen, and three other racegoers. Although seven deaths are reported already, many were severely injured by lightning. Two city churches were struck. The underground railway was flooded and the system short circuited the water [sic]. There were extraordinary scenes at Bostock’s gungle [sic] at the White City. The thunder infuriated the pumas, who attacked and mauled the lady trainer. The pavilion was crowded with people escaping from the torrential rain, and there was great excitement. The trainer was rescued by the attendants using crowbars.
The article writer is referring to Bostock’s Jungle, which was a sort of travelling menagerie and wild-animal show that was popular at the time. I’m wondering what became of the lady trainer, by the way – did she survive and recover from her ordeal? What became of the pumas, for that matter?
I suppose I shall never know.
Weather expert Philip Eden quotes an even more dramatic passage found by John Bird, a local meteorologist, in a contemporary newspaper:
It would have taxed the skill of the finest word painter to describe the scene at the height of the storm. It was an inferno of water, mud, thunder, lightning and hail. Innumerable cars hors de combat, horses plunging with fright, a confusing heap of figures inextricably jumbled together in narrow roadways, half-drowned pedestrians, drenched cyclists, terrified women and children, and battalions of men helpless against the mighty powers of nature in one of here savage moods.