July 24, 2014, by Lucy

Extreme weather events in focus: “Hail as hazard”

Hailstorms as extreme weather events

Although last weekend’s storms didn’t include any hail (at least not in Nottingham), they did get me thinking more about the impacts of extreme storm events in the UK. This post is the first of a series that will focus on different types of extreme weather event, their impacts, and historical (and contemporary) responses to them.

Last week a ‘freak’ hailstorm did hit beaches in Siberia, much to the surprise of swimmers and sunbathers! You can watch a video on the Newsround website. Severe hailstorms have also hit the UK in recent years. A recent post on the Hinckley Weather Blog remembered the ‘supercell’ storm which struck Leicestershire on 28th June 2012:

  • 12.57pm. The first hail starts to fall, larger than a golf ball and spiky in appearance, falling sporadically and smashing on contact with concrete. Many of these are conglomerate stones averaging 40-60mm in width widely and 60- 80mm in South Hinckley and Burbage generally. Several stones fell larger than this with the largest known at 100mm.
  • 12.58pm. Very quickly the hail develops in to a heavy and severe fall. Hailstones smash in to smaller ice chunks on contact with hard surfaces.  Stones remain whole on contact with grassed/soil areas and make dents in the ground. Severe denting is caused to the bodywork and roofs of motor vehicles and many vehicles receive cracked, or completely smashed windscreens. Such is the intensity that there would have been risk of serious injury to anyone not sheltered (Hinckley Weather Blog).

Scary stuff!

Hail in the archive

Although not as prominent as floods and general rainstorms, I have already come across a couple of accounts of severe hailstorms in the course of my archival research. The documents illustrate how devastating hail storms could be, causing damage to valuable crops, and, in some cases also buildings.

Nottingham hail storm 11th August 1809

My first account comes from the diary of Joseph Woolley, the subject of a previous blog (DD/311/4 – Nottinghamshire Archives).

On the 11th there was ‘ail stones found at the rylands in Beeston Libersty that measured seven inches long. John Barker told William Tongue so it broak some of their windows and did some damage there was some damage done at several neighbouring towns.

Leicestershire hail storm of 28th July 1814

QS118/6 – LEICESTERSHIRE COUNTY QUARTER SESSIONS RECORDS (Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office). This bundle of papers related to claims arising out of the damage done by the storm of 28th July 1814. A committee was formed for “Relief of Sufferers from the Storm.”

Minutes of meeting..a dreadful storm of hail fell on the night of the 28th of July last and occasioned much damage to the crops growing in several parishes… those situate near the River Wreake in this Co. You may not however have had an opportunity knowing that the damage amounting to a very modest estimate amount to the sum of nearly 14,000 of which loss to the amount of 3000 has fallen upon persons who stand in need of assistance to prevent the loss from being highly injurious and in many cases totally ruinous… It was resolved that a subscription be immediately proceeded upon…circular letter… Parishes be requested… resolution be advertised in local papers..

Other documents in the file include letters from individuals (including prominent individuals like the Duke of Rutland) who wished to subscribe to the fund, as well as those wishing to make a claim upon it:

  • Loss by the late storm in the Parish of Belgrave by Nichl Merven & John Blockley, claim for wheat, barley, oats, wheat, potatoes, onions and pease £120 and £106. Loss in the parish of Birstall – wheat, pease £58
  • William Colishaw of Birstall…many of the trees in my orchards [at Birstall] were greatly injured – some completely destroyed – and large quantities of apples, peas and plums blown down and rendered unfit to be sent to market…a sum of not less than ten pounds – and I humbly submit my case to your consideration, 20th Jan 1815

The documents indicate that the fund paid compensation amounting to £1043 to those who had suffered losses.

Aylsham hail storm of 9 August 1843

MC 382/151-152 – AYLSHAM PARISH RECORDS (Norfolk Record Office). Following the hailstorm of 9 August 1843 a Storm Committee (the Aylsham hail Storm Committee) was set up to raise funds for the relief of the sufferers of the storm. The documents at Norfolk Record Office are 6 small notebooks containing lists of names of subscribers to the fund and the amounts donated.

Norfolk thunderstorm of August 1846

MS 2126/3/5/f/1846/2/52, EDGEBASTON ESTATE RECORDS (Birmingham City Archives). A letter from Mr Whig (Norfolk) to Charles Yates (Birmingham) and a reply from Charles Yates to Mr Whigg, dated 3 & 5 August, Norfolk, refer to windows in the front of a house being destroyed by a thunderstorm.

Dear Sir,
We have unfortunately had a most severe thunderstorm which has completely destroyed the windows in the front of our house. We have got Mr Middleton from ? here and he thinks they would be better proof against the weather if the diamonds were larger so that they might be let into the woodwork I have got him just to mark on a paper what he means that you may see that it does not alter the appearance of the House. If you would be kind enough to… an early answer to this you will… oblige for me in a sad state of discomforture,
Remaining yours very respectfully
E Whigg

Mr Dear Sir,
I have this moment received Mr Whigg’s letter informing me that the windows in front of your house have been completely destroyed by a thunder storm and suggesting that larger diamonds with metal frames should be employed in restoring them – Lord Calthorpe has the very strongest objection to large diamond lights – and I would therefore suggest (new windows being absolutely necessary) that the ordinary wood framing for the glass should be used, which would prevent the inconvenience you suffer from the rain beating in – and be cheaper & look better than the way proposed.
I your hope have not suffered much injury from the storm, which appears to have been general – for in this neighbourhood it was extremely violent on Saturday last… I beg my kind regards to Mrs Whigg & family
And remain my Dear Sir,
Very truly yours
Chas Yates

These examples from the archives point to two of our main areas of investigation for the project – impacts and responses. Responses could be individual responses or, as in the case of the committees detailed above, community efforts. As the third example shows, responses don’t have to be economic, but could include changing the design of the built environment so as to better withstand extreme weather events.

Extreme weather and insurance

Another possible response to extreme weather events is insurance against such events happening again. Alan Baker has previously considered how French peasants addressed the hazard of damage to crops by hailstorms, documenting the transfer from ringing church bells to ward off storms, to the use of hail cannon (on this also see Changnon and Loreena Ivens, 1981), and finally to reliance on formal insurance. Baker highlights the ‘extremely limited’ number of historical studies dealing with the risk of hail and its management and particularly the lack of research on the British context. I hope to find out more about the three hail storms I’ve detailed as my work in the archives continues and will also be looking out for evidence of how the risk of hail was managed, whether it be through church bells, fragmented farms, hail cannon, or insurance.

Hail canon

“International congress on hail shooting” by Plumandon – History repeated : Forgotten hail cannons of Europe. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:International_congress_on_hail_shooting.jpg #mediaviewer/File:International_congress_on_hail_shooting.jpg

Further reading

Baker, A. (2012) Hail as hazard: changing attitudes to crop protection against hail damage in France, 1815-1914 Agricultural History Review 60: 19-36.

Changnon, S.A. and Loreena Ivens, J (1981) History repeated. The forgotten hail cannons of Europe. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 62: 368-375.


Posted in Archive visitsProject themesWeather extremes