Rex Needle: Morton vicar tells of violent storm which terrified villagers

Morton church as it is today
Morton church as it is today
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Each time we are beset by severe weather conditions the experts dream up the reasons why whereas fluctuating meteorological patterns have been with us since the world began.

Rain and flood are a particular hazard in the Fenland region around Bourne but no matter what the precautions we now take, nothing can lessen the impact of the weather when it seems to be out of control and so they leave milestones in our history that bear witness to these irregular events.

One such thunderstorm that occurred in the Bourne area over 200 years ago may well have gone unnoticed by later generations had it not been for the observations of a village clergyman who witnessed the tempest and then took time to write down an account that has survived to demonstrate the fear and dread in which the people regarded the extremes of weather which today are being blamed on global warming or climate change but were then thought to be the wrath of God.

On Sunday, May 4, 1800, a violent thunderstorm passed over, one so severe that no-one could remember a similar occurrence in their lifetime and we have a graphic account of what happened from the Vicar of Morton, the Rev Samuel Hopkinson, who recounted these events in his journal.

Hopkinson was a learned man, a graduate and later fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, where he obtained a Bachelor of Divinity degree, and was appointed to the living at Morton by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1795, also becoming a magistrate and a leading citizen in the fight against crime.

Although still spring, that fateful May morning had been extremely hot and by midday had become more oppressive. “The air was calm, the sky serene, all was still”, he wrote. “Cattle were observed to assemble in groups, to retire to barns and hedges, or to return home and bellowed extremely.”

For some time he watched the clouds rapidly changing in formation until they assumed a uniform blackness as the thunder rolled, the air chilled and the wind rose in ferocity as it howled down the main street. Frightened villagers fled their homes and assembled in the church as though seeking sanctuary and here Mr Hopkinson takes up the tale.

“While thus assembled”, he wrote, “our attention was suddenly arrested by a vast column of smoke which seemed to rise from the ground about a mile away, just like the fancied representation of Etna and Vesuvius. With several others I immediately ascended the steeple but no mind can comprehend, no tongue can tell, no pen can represent the scene now exhibited to the astonished sight.

“I was just in time to have a better view of the phenomenon which alarmed us and which proceeded from the sudden explosion of a large fire ball and ascended in a manner very different from what terrestrial matter is accustomed to emit. A sharp cold misty rain now began to beat on me, the clouds vaulted one over another in confused impetuosity. The edifice rocked, the wind roared, the thunder pealed, the lightning went abroad, and nature seemed struggling for her very existence.

“The fury of the storm now became excessive; the sun withdrew his shining and a partial darkness overspread the land. We could neither stand without support, see without difficulty, or hear anything except the elements of disorder. We quickly descended for safety into the church. Here was a scene the most awful and extraordinary I ever witnessed through the course of my life. It was the power of the elements as had not been displayed from the beginning of time.

“Such windows as were not well secured fell down into the nave of the church. The effects of the hail, aided by a dreadful wind, accompanied by heavy peals of thunder and flashes of lightning, upon the south and western windows I can liken to an infinite number of muskets pouring balls incessantly upon the church for the space of half an hour. The glass shivered as a shower of monstrous hail stones struck with considerable force. The confused noise occasioned by the rushing wind, by the glass and hail, by the shrieks of the women, the cries of the children, together with the dismay visible in the faces of all, was much increased by a sudden hollow explosion, not unlike a gun discharged either in a cavern or with its muzzle close to a wall. This was soon discovered to be the effect of lightning, which struck and scorched the leg of a young man who had retreated with many more under a pillar of the western entrance for safety.”

Two hours later, as the storm abated, the frightened villagers slowly emerged from the church to survey the damage but the windows in most of their homes had been shattered. The vicarage had not escaped either with 100 panes in the eight sash windows in the western front broken and a further 250 in five windows on the southern side while the greenhouse and stables had also been devastated. Nearby villages including Stainfield, Haconby, Dunsby and Rippingale, shared a similar fate with broken windows and widespread damage “as though recently rescued from the ravages of fire”.

“The cottage of the poor man, as well as the mansions of the rich, suffered in the general wreck”, wrote the vicar. “None hath escaped God’s avenging arm. Fields of wheat had been entirely swept away and the foliage ripped from hedges. Birds and poultry had been stripped of their feathers and many were picked up dead.

“Walking in the garden an hour after the storm, I found it in a state of complete desolation and nothing was left by the destructive 

Hopkinson also found several huge hailstones as large as pigeon’s eggs, some measuring five inches in circumference.

The work of clearing up the debris and repairing the damage began immediately but the storm remained a major talking point for years to come. Hopkinson continued as vicar until he died in 1838, aged 87, remembered mainly as the man who installed the church’s first clock but also for his vivid account of the violent storm that had terrified and devastated his village.

A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM.

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