On this day in 1697 - Worst British hailstorm on record wreaks havoc from Hitchin to Potton, killing shepherd lad at Offley

PUBLISHED: 11:53 15 May 2017 | UPDATED: 21:40 15 May 2017

Hailstones bouncing off the pavement. Picture: State Farm via Flickr

Hailstones bouncing off the pavement. Picture: State Farm via Flickr


If you think the weather is miserable on this wet and windy Monday morning, spare a thought for people in our area 320 years ago this very day as the Great Offley Storm hit - killing a shepherd lad and leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

The outbreak of extreme weather today in 1697 saw a young man ‘keeping sheep’ unfortunately lose his life after his eye was ripped from its socket by the killer ice – as hailstones bigger than fists fell from the heavens and smashed houses, glass and even oak trees.

The murderous ice piled up to 5ft high in Hitchin after the fatal storm began at 9am, wreaking its deadly havoc until 2pm.

And according to the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation, in its 2016 book Extreme Weather, there has been no more serious hailstorm in Britain in the last 350 years.

Sir Hans Sloane, the then-secretary of the Royal Society, received word of the storm from Hitchin apothecary Robert Taylor, who told of ‘a sharp storm of hailstones, seven and eight inches about’.

“At Offley, a lad, keeping sheep, was killed by hailstones, one of which knocked out his eye, and his body was black all over,” he added.

In another account of the day, Mr Taylor wrote that he had been in his small garden when the storm struck, and ‘before I could get out it took me to my knees’.

He wrote: “It was through my house before I could get in, which was in the space of a minute, and went through all like a sea, carrying all wooden things like boats of the water, the greatest part of the town being under this misfortune.”

Another person caught in the open was severely bruised, but recovered.

The ground was torn up, great oak trees were split and house tiles and windows were shattered to pieces, including at a manor house in Ickleford. Some 7,000 ‘quarries of glass’ were broken at Sir John Spencer’s house in Offley.

The storm swathe was at least 25km long, extending as far as Potton in Bedfordshire, where ‘two new houses were entirely levelled’ – with a rye crop to the town’s south-west both scorched by lightening and beaten down by the hail.

The hailstones at Offley were measured at 13in (34.3cm) circumference, with reports of up to 17.5in (44.5cm) – corresponding with diameter measurements of 4.3in (11cm) and 5.5in (14cm), respectively. The pieces of ice were described by Mr Taylor as ‘some oval, others round, others pointed, some flat’.

• The heaviest recorded piece of ice ever to fall weighed in at 2.25lbs, or just over 1kg, in the Goalganj district of Bangladesh in 1986.

• The largest hailstone circumference formally documented, in 2003 at Aurora, Nebraska, was a whopping 18.74in (47.6cm) around – the size of a football – with a diameter of 7in (17.8cm).

• The biggest hailstone diameter officially measured was 7.9in (20cm), in 2010 at Vivian, South Dakota – with a circumference of 18.6in (47.3cm), just short of the 2003 record at Aurora.

• The terminal velocity of hail when it strikes the ground varies. It is estimated that a hailstone around 6in diameter would make contact with the earth at a speed of around 220mph.

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