The following is an extract from the book ‘Black Thursday: The Essex Storm of 1897’, available from the church bookstall or Megarrys Antique Shop, priced £1.50. Or by post, priced £2.00 (UK only).
Although some may have heard of the Colchester Earthquake of 1884, fewer may know about the devastating hail storm which swept Essex in 1897.
Thursday 24th June 1897 was a hot day with temperatures reaching 31C (86F) in Chelmsford by 2.00pm. In the fields of Essex, there was the prospect of a good harvest. The greenhouses of nurserymen in the Chelmsford area were filling with ripening fruit and vegetables. Labourers were out in the fields across the county, cursing the heat, hay making or pea picking.
Soon after 2.00pm the weather changed dramatically. A cold front had arrived accompanied by dark clouds “with lurid lights”. The day became known as “Black Thursday” or “the Essex tornado”.
Reginald Becket later (1901) described the scene: “Ingatestone … was the centre of the hundred square miles of Essex which was devastated in a quarter of an hour by a hailstorm on that black Midsummer Day. When I passed through it at harvest-time in that same year, the crops seemed to have been cut off a few inches above the ground, though no harvest had been reaped”.
The Mill Green area of Ingatestone bore the brunt of the storm. Mrs Wilde (1913) records, “the force of the wind was so immense that great trees bowed almost flat before it. … A stack of chimneys at Lightoaks had come down without the inmates being aware of its fall, so great was the noise of the storm”. The Times reported that all down one side of Ingatestone High Street, window fronts “were smashed to atoms”. It comments that the only cheerful men must have been glaziers.
Hailstones fell as big as hens’ eggs. At Ingatestone one, “picked up by Mr S Horsenell of Ingatestone Post-office”, measured 5½ inches (14cms) in circumference and weighed 3½ ounces (almost 100g).
“Never within living memory had so much damage been caused within so short space of time”, wrote Rev E H L Reeve of Stondon Massey (1900). “Some of the hail stones were swept up the following morning, so large and solid had they been”.
The storm tracked from west to east: from Epping, through Ongar and Chelmsford, finally dying our near Colchester.
At Quince Hall in Blackmore, the whole crop, about 22 acres, was ruined and eight chickens killed. A barn was blown over at Spriggs Farm. “A man was mowing grass at Blackmore, his horses ran away and smashed the mowing machine, one of the knives of which entered the man’s chest and arms. If the knife had caught him lower down death would have been inevitable”. Dozens of labourers were seen standing in their own gardens sobbing at the devastation that has occurred: “The case of the labourers is an exceedingly sad one”.
George Woods, of Cooksmill Green, wrote to The Essex Herald: “The workmen have no harvest, and women no gleaning, little pea-picking and all their garden fruit destroyed. Threshing machines are idle, and there will be no employment for many during the winter months. I only know of a few who have their seed corn left”.
A meeting was called at the Shire Hall in Chelmsford on the afternoon of Friday 2nd July. Over 600 people attended. Speakers included Lord Rayleigh, who presided at the meeting, and Thomas Usborne, MP for the Mid Essex Division. A Committee was formed to administer The Essex Storm Relief Fund and all eight Essex MP’s supported calls to the Lord Mayor of London to open a Fund. Over £3,000 was promised that afternoon.
The Mansion House Fund was opened by the Lord Mayor on 5th July. The Editor of The Essex Herald reflected: “We must also express a hope … that in any distribution which is made, the case of the labouring classes will be well remembered. They have been accustomed to look to the harvest as a time wherein to earn extra money for the payment of their cottage rents, for the purchase of fuel for the winter, and for setting themselves up in clothing and boots. For such as will be unable to get harvest work this autumn the outlook must be extremely dismal”.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday 6th July a spokesman said: “Competent observers have stated that the loss would not be covered by £200,000 … I do not think that the Government could safely intervene even in the most unfortunate circumstances of this particular case”.
It was decided to cancel the Ingatestone and Fryerning Horticultural Society show. Ongar was a similar casualty of the storm and “the show usually held in November may likewise be abandoned because so many chrysanthemums were ruined”. The shooting season would be badly affected by the number of killed birds.
The work of the Committee, the correspondence, visits and distribution of money is unfortunately not preserved. This would have shed light on the plight of individuals. The Essex Review reported in July 1898 that “[the Essex Tornado Relief Fund] account shows receipts amounting to £45,753.15s.4., and the sums granted in relief reached a total of £45,147.4s.4d.”.
Writing a commentary to his transcript of the Blackmore Parish Registers (1602 to 1812) in 1897, R H Browne concluded:
“I must content myself with just mentioning that this year  has been a remarkable one in several respects. The Queen’s [Diamond] Jubilee celebrations causing universal rejoicing. There is an abundant harvest both of hay and corn despite the great storm of June last, which devastated about seventy square miles in the County between Epping and Chelmsford. Large sums are being subscribed locally and at the Mansion House for the relief of the sufferers”.
The year 1897 was certainly remarkable and memorable for those who witnessed these events.
Beckett, Reginald A. Romantic Essex (Dent, 1901)
Currie, Ian; Davison, Mark; Ogley, Bob. The Essex Weather Book (Froglets Publications, 1992)
Hope-Moncriff, A R. Essex (A&C Black, 1909)
Reeve, Rev E H L. Stondon Massey (Wiles & Son, Colchester, 1900)
Wilde, Mrs E E. Ingatestone and the Great Essex Road, with Fryerning (Oxford University Press, 1913)
Essex County Chronicle. 2 July 1897
Essex Review. July 1897, July 1898
Also, thanks to Essex Record Office.