Wednesday, June 5, 2013
A Dickens of a Storm
As flaming June arrives, here is a salutary reminder that the midsummer month can also be as harsh as any in the cruellest winter. In June 1863 – 150 years ago – The Times newspaper ran the following brief story:
“THREE DEATHS FROM LIGHTNING. On Wednesday Mr WELLER, a shopkeeper in Glynde, a small village in East Sussex, accompanied by his wife and another woman, went to Brighton, about 11 miles distant, in a light cart, to transact some business. On their return in the evening they were overtaken by a severe thunderstorm that prevailed for several hours, and it is supposed that the cart was struck by the electric fluid, and the three inmates almost instantaneously killed, as their lifeless bodies were discovered at an early hour yesterday morning by a person who was returning from Glynde to Lewes.”
There are probably countless tales of tragedy such as this in national and local archives but what makes this stand out is that the storm, affecting a large area of East Sussex and Kent, coincided with one of Charles Dickens’s many late visits from his home, Gads Hill in Kent, to Brighton. He subsequently included it in one of his pieces of misery tourism. My first knowledge of it was when it was read to me by Andrew Brooke, erstwhile Sussex Sedition contributor and now resident of Somerset, as we stood in Glynde churchyard at the grave of the three victims as part of one of own misery walks a couple of years ago. Dickens, of course, brings the storm – its range, drama and tragedy – vividly to life, much more than an archival footnote ever could.
“Ranscombe Brow, a bold hill skirted by the road from Lewes to Glynde (the village of the glen), is situated about a mile and a half from Lewes, and commands, even from the road, an extensive view of the valley, both inland and seaward. The road winds through a wooded dell, and is darkened by very high and very thick hedges on both sides. Nothing can be seen except the sky. But, on issuing from between the hedges, and rounding the brow, an extensive flat landscape of pastures, watered by the Ouse, startles the view. The effect is striking, even on a fine summer afternoon, and must have been appalling in the night and the early morning of the 25th of June, when the darkness of night increased the gloom between the hedges, and when continuous lightning was enkindled all over the extensive view.
"Shortly after eleven o'clock on Wednesday night, a tradesman of Glynde, Mr. Henry Mocket Weller, aged fifty, conducted by one Mary his wife, aged forty-nine; and a young woman, Elizabeth Bingham, about thirty-five years of age; drove along this road from Lewes in a one-horse cart. Elizabeth Bingham was about to be married to Mrs Weller's brother, "after," as the local phrase describes it, "they had walked out together for ten years," and she was going to Glynde to make some preparations for her wedding. As he passed a policeman while leaving Lewes, Mr Weller said, " Good night ; it is very rough." At the Southerham tollbar-gate, Mrs Weller and Miss Bingham were alarmed, and Mr Weller was pacifying them. He was over-confident in the steadiness of his horse. Mr Weller sat on the right driving, his wife sat next him holding up an umbrella, and the bride on the left of the scat in the cart. On issuing from between the dark hedges and reaching the brow, they must have seen the whole landscape, the sky, the distant hill-tops, the pastures, the river, a-blaze with continuous lightning. I read the story of the catastrophe in the fresh marks on the spot. The horse, seized with maddening panic, had suddenly started away from the view of the lightning, wheeling the cart very sharply round, and springing up the steep embankment. The marks of the wheels and hoofs on the grass of the embankment, show that a terrible struggle ensued between horse and driver, the horse wildly plunging anywhere away from the storm, and the driver pulling the right rein to bring the horse down into the road. All three had tried to get down from the cart on the right side, together. The horse then fell over, capsizing the cart, and entangling all three under it. They were killed by the fall, the wheel, and the kicking horse…What a touch of pathos is added to the terror of these storms, when we remember their wrecked victims, the hopes they destroyed, and the homes they desolated! How are we to characterise the fool-hardiness which neglects all the known precautions against their dangers?
“More than three hours after the catastrophe at Ranscombe, a Lewes tradesman was driving home in a four-wheeled chaise. It was the darkest, coldest, most eerie hour in the morning, about half-past two o'clock. On the road at Ranscombe Brow, his horse shied. He applied the whip gently, but the horse would not advance. His son jumped down and tried to lead the horse, and then both father and son tried to lead the horse ; but he would not pass something on the road. It was very dark. They could see nothing. At last a flash of lightning showed a cart turned on the axle, and they discerned a woman lying close under it. The woman did not answer when spoken to, and they discovered she was dead. Another flash of lightning revealed another woman rather more under the cart. After procuring a lantern and assistance, and while drawing the cart away from the horse, a man was seen under the wheel. The forepart of the cart was kicked in.
“These three victims of this storm were buried in the churchyard of Glynde on the following Sunday. A long funeral procession, with about thirty couples of mourners, followed them from the village to the churchyard. The coffins, according to ancient Sussex custom, were carried on the shoulders of sixteen men, attired in long white smock-frocks, with black neckties. One large grave received all three, and they were laid down in the order in which they travelled. From a thousand to fifteen hundred persons were in the churchyard ; and a crowded congregation listened in the church, in tears, to a discourse reminding us that in the midst of life we are in death.
“This great storm left its mark at other places. At Maidstone and Herstmonceau, hailstones, or rather bits of ice, of oblong shape and broad as pennypieces, fell, breaking skylights. A policeman on duty at East Peckham was struck by lightning and seriously injured on the left side. A retriever dog was killed by his master's side at Hurstpierpoint. A poplar was shattered into splinters in the village of Kemsing. At Cuckfield, the lightning entered a cottage by the chimney, burned a small hole through the bedroom floor, passed through the sitting-room below, and left by the door, which happened to be open. At sea, four sailors were knocked down on board the Britannia collier, lying off Brighton. At Wilmington, the Eagle beerhouse was set on fire and gutted, the inmates escaping for their lives. At Spring Cottage, Fount Road, Tunbridge Wells, a man and his wife were struck in bed, the latter lying for some time insensible. None of the furniture in the room in which they were sleeping was injured, but the stone sink in the kitchen was shattered to pieces. In Ely Lane, Tunbridge Wells, the lightning struck a cottage, breaking pictures, damaging ceiling, and smashing panes of glass and a chimney mirror. A horse grazing upon the rocks at Denny Bottom either fell, being frightened, or was knocked or swept down from the rocks, and was fatally hurt. The lightning over the whole range of the storm scorched flowers, corn, especially oats and barley, although the damage was not considerable; and it positively benefited the hop bines, by debarring them of noxious insects.”