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The Great Storm of 1889

The following has been extracted from the Kent and Sussex Courier from 14th July 1889. The text has been formatted to make it easier to read in the 21st century by Mary Hughes.

GREAT STORM AT TUNBRIDGE WELLS

DAMAGE BY HAIL AND FLOOD

A storm of altogether exceptional severity raged over the town on Friday afternoon last (7th June), and caused an immense amount of damage.

It is difficult to believe that an hour's downpour, even of tropical intensity, should inundate portions of a town which has been declared to be the best paved and the best drained in the kingdom, but ever since the town has had a system of drainage it has never been so much at the mercy of volumes of storm water which literally poured about the streets, transforming the channelling at the roadside into swollen rivulets and turbid streams, then rising over the pathways, doorsteps, and area sills, and giving several low-lying parts of the town an aspect which has hitherto been exclusively enjoyed by the mother town of Tonbridge.

The storm was accompanied by a downpour of hail of unparalleled severity. It can hardly be termed as hail in the ordinary acceptation of the term, for the air was filled with globular and angular missiles of ice, varying in size from a marble to a hen's egg, and weighing from a quarter of an ounce to an ounce. Some still more extraordinary records of hailstones which were picked up and weighed have reached us, but we are content to give the average record ascertained at the Post Office by various tradesman, as well as at our own office.

A storm of such unexampled fury following a spell of unusually sunny May weather, proved beyond the resources of the town sewers, and afforded a startling contrast to the glorious weather of the morning, which had dispelled any apprehensions of the summer lightning which played about the horizon with unusual vividness the previous evening, and proved the precursor of the most disastrous storm ever known in this district.

The commonplace street gully became as active a source of danger as the river Medway occasionally is to those who live on its banks. The sewers were inadequate to carry off the tons of water which flooded the surface of our streets, and combined with the terrific fall of hail, did a very serious amount of damage within what appear to be the singularly local limits of this fragment of a storm, which has been heard of all over the country.

A north-easterly gale deluged the town for about an hour with torrents of partly congealed masses of water. Glass all over the eastern half of the town, particularly the greenhouses, suffered severely; the other portion, singularly enough, escaping, while the damage by floods was chiefly owing to the fact that in this town of hills the water inevitably collected at the base of the various gradients which exist in all directions, and in one or two instances assumed the proportions of a miniature tidal wave, carrying all before it as it rose over the streets.

DAMAGE TO THE RECREATION GROUND

By the irony of fate, the opening of the Recreation Ground which has been so long agitated for, and which was informally fixed by the Town Council for Saturday last, (8th June) was destined to be postponed in a very unceremonious manner by Dame Nature. Not only has the hail beaten down nearly every plant in the grounds, which in the morning had been gay with a profusion of bloom, but by the bursting of a sewer considerable havoc was wrought.

The main sewer runs under the recreation ground, and although it is a very capacious structure in which a man can almost stand upright it proved quite inadequate to carry off the immense volumes of water which were poured into it from all directions. The fact that this unparalleled storm succeeded a somewhat lengthy period of drought, filled the storm water with no small amount of rubbish, and this added to the difficulty of its passage.

After the storm had been raging about an hour a large iron trap covering a manhole in the upper or lake portion of the grounds was forcibly lifted with a report which is described as being like an explosion, and a column of water shot up like a fountain to the height of four or five feet, and began pouring over the path and down the slope on the railway side of the ground.

The force of this torrent of water carried with it earth, gravel, plants, shrubs, bordering, &c*, into the lake, and although Mr Awcock, the head gardener, and those working there at the time did all they could in the way of opening the various sluices notwithstanding the difficulties they experienced in getting about in such a storm, all their efforts proved in vain, as it was impossible for such an immense body of water as was spurting out of the manhole to get away as fast as it was pouring down the banks and devastating all before it.

The water in the lake rapidly rose and the island in the centre was completely submerged, only the tops of the trees standing out above the flood. The asphalt promenade around the lake and the sloping banks which surround it were also underwater to the depths of some feet, and it was some hours before it subsided.

It was found to be imperative to turn the water into the open air baths for fear another burst in the drain should occur, and this soon turned the bath into a turgid muddy condition, very different from its usual pellucid appearance. It was some hours before the water quite subsided, and at one time it rose above the platforms and landing stages round the baths and penetrated the dressing boxes.

After the water had subsided the full amount of damage was ascertained. The lake was emptied out and it was found that the shingle in its bed which gave such a pretty appearance to the shallow water had become coated with a thick sediment of mud which will entail a vast amount of labour to clean out and the same remark will apply to the baths, which it was decided the next morning should also be emptied and refilled.

This was no doubt the wisest course to adopt as the water which was holding in solution great deal of foreign matter, was very unpleasant to look at although a few of the more enthusiastic bathers did not allow it to prevent them taking a dip on the Saturday. The difference in the water within about twelve hours owing to the immense quantity of ice (from the hail) which have been dissolved in it was about 20 degrees. The Bathing Association will no doubt be the losers by having to close the bath as the process of refilling take some days.

In the Recreation Ground it may be literally said that all the flowers are done for, while the shrubs, especially the rhododendrons, which were just getting into bloom, are broken in all directions. The chief damage is where a portion of the bank and the gravel paths, near the man-hole is washed completely away and nothing but a broad deep deposit of black mud marks the course of the flood.

An immense quantity of water poured from the high level of the railway line across the entrance to the baths and into the Recreation Ground ploughing up the earth in all directions. A considerable amount of coal was washed away from the wharves**, and the dust rendered this portion of the flood which poured into the Recreation Ground about the colour and consistency of ink.

All over these grounds which a few hours previously had looked so attractive deep chasms were torn in the paths, the grass was covered in mud, or beaten down by the rush of water, and the whole of the vegetation had an appearance of dilapidation. At the lakes and waterfalls in the lower half of the ground considerable havoc was wrought, and the rustic bridge was also damaged, while the flower beds and shrubberies were beaten down in all directions. It will take a considerable time for them to recover and it is impossible that the ground can again look this season what it otherwise would have done, while the loss of plants for seeding purposes will also be a serious item.

A notice was posted on the gates that owing to the large amount of damage by the storm the opening of the grounds would be postponed for a few days, but we imagine that it will be longer than a few days before it is worth while to open the grounds under present conditions. It is no doubt owing to the substantial brick and stone work which has been put into the upper portion of the grounds for the purposes of embankment, that's still greater damage did not occur.

While the damage is undoubtedly serious the rumours which have circulated on the subject are very much exaggerated, but we are sorry the town has lost the opportunity of inspecting the successful designs of Mr Brentnall***, in this charming ground.

Notes:

  • &c is an abbreviation of etc, more commonly used before the 20th century.
  • Medway Coal Wharves were on the site of the new flats, formerly the Council depot.
  • William Brentnall (1829 – 1894) was appointed Surveyor & Waterworks Engineer to the borough of Tunbridge Wells in 1870. He was responsible for "considerably extensions to and improvements in the collecting, impounding & distributing arrangements of the waterworks." He was responsible for the "design and construction of the Grosvenor Bridge" and also "laid out the Borough Cemetery and the Corporation Recreation Grounds".
  • From his 1894 obituary found in Grace's Guide. (http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Brentnall)
  • I think William Brentnall was responsible for carrying out the designs of Robert Marnock (who was 87 when he came up with the plans, so would have been unlikely to supervise the construction work himself).

 

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