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Interactive version ©2006 R.J.PENHEY

The Bourne Archive


Fenland Notes and Queries. This will have been originally in the quarterly Part 1, April, or Part 2, July 1889. Edited by W.H. Bernard Saunders, F.R. Hist. Soc.

Articles 1 to 166 (April 1889 to October 1891) were re-published as Volume 1, in 1891, by Geo. C. Caster, Market Place, Peterborough.

This quarterly periodical, which later became associated with the name of W.D. Sweeting, took the form of a forum in which people sent in questions about the history, ecology and so on of the Fens and the region’s environs and others replied with some sort of answer. Some ‘answers’ seem to have been spontaneous, so qualifying as ‘notes’. Editorial notes in the form [note] are those of FNQ; those in the form [note] are those of RJP.

My thanks to the trustees of the Willoughby Memorial Library for the loan of the copy from which the following was transcribed.


22 – Storm at Bourn in 1800. – On Sunday, the 4th of May, 1800, a memorable storm passed over the Fens, but was more severely felt at Bourn than elsewhere. In that parish alone no less than £700 worth of damage was done. Mr. Samuel Hopkinson, of Morton, near Bourn, wrote two letters describing the storm and its effects in that parish, and these letters were published in the Stamford Mercury, on May 9th and 15th, 1800. The early morning, considering the season of the year, was exceedingly hot, and nearer midday it became more oppressive. The air was calm, the sky serene, all was still. Cattle were observed to assemble in groups, to retire to barns and hedges, or to return home. As another indication of the coming tempest, Mr. Hopkinson mentions that the oxen “bellowed extremely.” He then gives the following very graphic description of what occurred:-

Though sensibly impressed with these concurring signs, I was more particularly struck at the perturbed and increasing state of the clouds, from 12 to 2 p.m., rugged fragments were incessantly rising higher and larger than the preceding, assembling and uniting towards the Zenith, until, like the little one in the days of Elijah, they almost covered the face of the sky. About this time the southern horizon inclining rather towards the west, began to assume an uniform blackness. The thunder rolled and the storm howled. The air was chilled, the wind rose, and what I esteem a more certain prognostic than any other, small clouds, formed like fleeces, denser in the middle and white towards the edges, mounted with great celerity in front, and preceded the vast black tempest which was fast increasing behind. My well-disposed neighbours were already assembled in the church, for the purpose of paying their weekly adorations to the Supreme Being. Alarmed at the approaching darkness, and at the sound of the mighty wind, some ran into the porch others into the churchyard to see the approaching storm. While thus assembled, our attention was suddenly arrested by a vast column of smoke, which seemed to arise from the ground about a southern mile from the place where we stood, just like the fancied representation of Etna and Vesuvius. With several others I immediately ascended the steeple; but, here description must for ever fall short; 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 phænomenon which alarmed us below, nor do I hesitate in believing it proceeded from the sudden explosion of a large fire-ball, as the smoke was far more transparent, 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, just as delineated by the masterly hand in the tempestuous skies of Salvator Rosa. 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 any thing 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; such as I supposed, it was not the power of the elements, in the ordinary course of natural operation, sin so high a latitude at least, to have affected; such, perhaps as had not been displayed from the beginning of time, even unto this day. 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, if I may be allowed to compare small things with great, I can liken to nothing so aptly as to an infinite number of muskets pouring balls incessantly upon the church, for the space of half an hour; for the glass shivered and incorporated as it were with a shower of monstrous hail-stones, beat quite across and struck the sides of the northern aisle 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 he western entrance for safety. As soon as the tempest abated, the inhabitants, whose continuance in the church was both uncomfortable and dangerous, eagerly returned to their respective houses, the windows whereof, towards the south and south-west, were almost entirely demolished. The cottage of the poor man, as well as the mansions of the rich, suffered in the general wreck. None hath escaped God’s avenging arm. Of 121 panes in the eight sash windows in he western front of the vicarage house, only 21 were saved, which was owing to the sashes being left up.

Towards the south, of five windows with 281 panes, there were only 23 left.

Add to this, I have a small green house and stables in a very shattered condition.

The villages in the neighbourhood, especially Gunthorpe [sic], Strainfield [sic], Hacconby, Dusnby, and Rippingale, shared a similar fate, and exhibit, in appearance, houses in the metropolis, after they have been recently rescued from the ravages af  [sic]  fire, by dashing out the windows, and by seasonable exertions of the engines.

Mr. Hopkinson then writes at considerable length of the damage done to the growing crops. Some of the fields of wheat had been “entirely swept away;” the hedges had been “stript of their foliage,” having the appearance of “arriving winter.” He also tells of the injuries inflicted on birds and poultry. He picked up “a pidgeon [sic] almost stript of its feathers, and learn that many have been taken up dead.” Walking in his garden an hour after the storm, he found it in a state of “complete desolation.” And “nothing was left by the destructive blast.” He found several hailstones of an inch diameter.  One he measured very exactly, and found it to be 1½in. In length, 1in. broad, and half an inch thick. He also says he was informed that many were fond as large as pidgeon’s eggs, some measuring five inches in circumference.