30 years on from The Great Storm in Hampshire

Scenes of devastation across Hampshire after the storm had passed through the county in October, 198

Scenes of devastation across Hampshire after the storm had passed through the county in October, 1987 - Credit: Archant

We were told not to worry about strong winds by TV weatherman Michael Fish, but 30 years ago this month much of Hampshire was ripped apart by The Great Storm. Peter Naldrett looks back on the devastation unleashed on that night

It uprooted 500,000 trees across the county, caused damage to thousands of homes, blew away a tennis dome in Southampton, snapped metal bolts supporting doors at a Gosport cinema and destroyed the Shanklin Pier on the Isle of Wight.

No area of Hampshire was left untouched by the storm that tore across southern England in October 1987 and those old enough to remember it will be able to recall the horror of the night and the unbelievable sights that greeted them in the morning.

The day before The Great Storm, TV weatherman Michael Fish delivered his most notorious forecast when he quipped that a woman had called the BBC to ask if there was a hurricane on the way. “Well, if you’re watching don’t worry, there isn’t…” he told the nation.

Technically, Michael Fish was correct when he delivered the forecast aided by new 1980s computer graphics; to be a hurricane, it would have had to form in the tropics and this storm didn’t. But using The Beaufort Scale that measures wind speed, this was a Force 12 event. It may not have been a hurricane, but the winds were “hurricane strength” and they caused chaos during the most severe storm for 300 years.

Across the country, 18 people died, 15 million trees were felled and insurance claims ran up to £2 billion as winds reached 120mph on October 15 and 16.

Hampshire was one of the counties most badly affected, bearing the brunt of the storm as it swept across southern England after forming in the Bay of Biscay.

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Roads across the county were closed as falling trees made travel virtually impossible and brought business to a standstill. For some the cost was far greater than being stranded at home; one man in Petersfield died when his car was crushed by a toppled tree.

Homes hit by the howling wind saw structural damage to roofs as a bare minimum, with more severe cases involving fallen chimneys and trees hitting their property. On the coast, the turbulent sea waters made easy work of smashing and wrecking small boats supposedly tied up for safety.

Even the historic naval base at Portsmouth saw vessels getting into trouble, with the gangplank of HMS Newcastle collapsing and the survey ship HMS Endurance having to set to sea in order to avoid the difficulties being posed.

Arthur Ericsson was 14-years-old at the time and passed through Hampshire en route to a family holiday in the Isle of Wight just two weeks after the storm.

He said: “We lived in the north of England and the storm wasn’t so great there, but as we approached the south coast we could not believe what we were seeing.

“There were woods where all the trees had been blown over and were laying on their side, like dominoes. The force needed to do this must have been staggering.”

The strain on the emergency services during that night and during the following days was substantial and extra staff were called in to help people affected by the storm and man the phones as thousands of calls came in.

Hospital staff were at the forefront of activity, dealing with a range of injuries – and sometimes having to cope with damage to their building. Twenty patients were evacuated from a ward at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham, where a tree threatened to fall onto the hospital. And at St Mary’s Hospital in Portsmouth, 16 patients had to be moved elsewhere when the roof collapsed.

Amber Wright, who now works as a photographer, lived in East Tisted in 1987 and remembers the morning after the storm. She said: “We tried to get to school in the morning but had to go back home due to the amount of impassable fallen trees on the road. My father worked on a farm and said there was an eerie silence that day, there weren’t even any birds singing. We had no electricity for several weeks and had to use a tractor and generator to power the milking parlour so we could milk the cows.”

The Great Storm of 1987 gave staff at the Met Office need for some serious reflection; they had failed to warn people about the biggest storm in 300 years, bringing the forecasting procedure into doubt.

Melanie Harrowsmith is the head of civil contingencies for the Met Office. She said: “The Great Storm of 1987 taught the Met Office some very valuable lessons, which we have been applying ever since. There has been a lot of discussion about the accuracy of the forecast around the 1987 storm, but the main issue was more to do with communication, rather than the forecast itself.

“As a result of the 1987 storm, we developed the National Severe Weather Warning Service, which has been running ever since. Over the years, we have developed this service and it is now based on impacts rather than specific details about the weather. This means that we warn for the potential of damage to property, possible disruption or danger to life rather than warning for wind speed etc.

“Forecast accuracy has been improving year on year and our forecasts for four days ahead are now as accurate as our forecasts for one day ahead were in 1980. With advances in technology and the growth of the digital age, we are in a much stronger position to make sure that forecasts and changes to the forecasts are communicated quickly and effectively.”

Some heavy sleepers woke in the morning after the storm without a clue what had happened, unprepared for the carnage that met their eyes. Some of them were left without electricity for weeks and it took months in some cases to get communities back on their feet.

The devastation across Hampshire and southern England saw a large amount of money invested into improving weather forecasting, including the initiation of the new National Severe Weather Warning Service.

With some weather experts believing climate change will cause more and more severe storms, it’s comforting to know that supercomputers and satellites are likely to give people more warning that they did back on that October night in 1987.


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