Canon Diggens Archive

Account of a remarkable Thunder storm.

In a letter from the Reverend Anthony Williams,
Rector of St. Keverne in Cornwall

To the Reverend William Borlase, Dei. F.R.S.

(From Philosophical Transactions 1771 (61st. Vol.) and read Feb. 7. 1771).

St. Keverne. Aug 27. 1770.

Dear Sir,

I have received your's which I must confess I ought to have answered much sooner.

For several days before the thunder-storm which fell on St. Keverne spire and church on Sunday the 18th day of February last, the wind was very hard at North and North West - accompanied with violent showers of hail, which had done some damage to the roof of the church and many houses in Churchtown.

On the Sunday morning above mentioned (the wind being at North West from 5 o'clock during almost the whole day) the wind was excessive hard and about six I saw some few faint flashes of lightening (lightning) which as the day came on, if it continued, became imperceptible.

The weather being so bad prevented a great number of people from coming to church which in all human probability was a happy circumstance, for about a quarter after eleven o'clock, while I was in the latter end of the Litany Service, we had a very fierce flash of lightning followed at a distance of four or five seconds by the loudest thunder I remember ever to have heard, but which did no damage, nor seemed in the least to disturb any of the congregation, though at the same time the roof of the church was lifting and the hail made a noise terrible to be heard.

In half a minute after this, as nearly as I can possibly guess, the whole congregation except five or six persons were at once struck out of their senses. I myself received the shock so suddenly as not to remember I either heard the thunder or saw the lightning.

The first thing that I can recollect with any degree of certainty is that I found myself in the Vicarage seat which is very near the desk, without either gown or surplice, bearing in my arms as I then thought, a dead sister, and God knows it was a miracle she was not so. I perceived a very strong sulphurous smell almost suffocating and a great heat.

At this time the confusion amongst the congregation was inconceivable, some running out of the church for safety and returning into it again (for the stones from the roof were falling on our heads both in and out of the church) some on their knees imploring the Divine assistance giving themselves up to a certain destruction and a great many in different places of the church lying quite motionless, whom I thought then to be quite dead.

In the afternoon my thoughts being a little composed (I believe for full two hours I could not be said to be rightly in my senses) I walked to the church to see what damage was done; and such a scene presented as is horrible to think of, much more to see.

The churchyard was almost full of ruins; the spire, which was about 48 feet high from the battlements of the tower, was carried off half way down and the remaining part cracked in four places, very irregularly down to the bottom. The North side of the tower from the battlements to the arch of the bell chamber window way quite out, except in the corner stones which remained firm and unmoved; the lead on the top of the tower was greatly damaged, melted in several places and as if it were rolled together.

The arch of the belfry door which was very strongly built, with a remarkable hard iron stone laid in lead, was also greatly damaged; some of the stones were cracked crossways and iust removed out of their places, others were quite hove out and the lead between the joints not only melted but loosened so that you might pick it out with your fingers.

The traces of the lightning were here discovered along the surface of the earth: the stones were thrown from the spire on the tops of many houses in the Churchtown but did no great hurt. In a gentleman's house one stone weighing 14 Ib fell through the roof into the chamber but did no further hurt than to make a hole in the roof and plaistering.

It is to be observed that the stones from the spire were scattered in all directions, as well as against the wind as with it, some of which, but not very large, were found but a little short of a quarter of a mile. The spire from the top six feet downwards was solid, through which passed an iron spike to fix the weather-cock on.

Did not the lightning first strike on this spike and was conducted through the solid part of the spire, and having not iron to conduct it any further, burst in the hollow part of the spire and threw the stones about in all directions.

It is remarkable that the spike was found in the bell-chamber and the weather-cock in the battlements, and that the bells were not in the least damaged, though a deal board that lay across the beams to which the bells were hung was split longways in two pieces.

Every seat in the church had rubbish on it, some more some less, and stones of large size, some 150 Ibs in weight, and upwards, scattered here and there amongst the congregation which damaged the seats, but did no hurt to the people though they sat in those very seats where the stones fell.

The lightning entered at the three ends of the church at West, made its way through the body of the church and went out through the three ends of the church at the East. The holes where it came in and went out are not large, neither are the walls much damaged.

The belfry window was shattered to pieces, not one whole pane I believe to be found in it. Many other windows also suffered greatly the glass and mullions being much shattered. The lightning entered also through two places in the roof, over near the singing loft, and struck upon the top a pillar just by it; the traces of it are to be seen from the top of the pillar almost to the bottom.

There were then sitting by this pillar, two young men, one in the singing loft and the other under him in the church, who were both lightly scorched; he in the loft from head to foot, and the other in the face only, but it is remarkable that his hat which hung on a nail just above him was cut in two pieces.

In the other place the lightning entered just above the desk and pulpit and fell in like manner on a pillar which stands in the Vicarage seat, but here it. was a great deal more violent and as the object of its fury was my sister I hope you will excuse my being very particular.

Upon this pillar rested a large oak seat the bottom of which was burst into six pieces and one of the pieces being a very large one was thrown from its place to a distance of about 20 ft and appeared to be: burnt and other pieces did not fall. From thence the lightning came down the pillar with great force, tore the seat into many pieces, knocked down my sister and made its way through the bottom of the seat into the earth.

She had pattens on and the wooden part of one of them was broke into 5 pieces. The holes through which the ribbon is put to tie them together were just burnt out and the ribbon found in the seat without the least damage or so much as the knot loosened. Her shoe was burnt and rent from the toe to the buckle, but the buckle which was of silver remained unhurt. Her stocking was burnt and rent in the foot just in the same manner as her shoe and scorched along to the garter and the two little holes were burnt through in the leg of it.

Her apron, petticoats etc. were burnt through and through and she had several slight burns on several parts of her body, besides two bruises on her head and breasts caused by the rubbish that fell into the seat. As she was carrying out of church she greatly complained of a deadness in her legs, which as she could not move them at all I supposed was broke.

However they were not broke only a little burnt and turned as black as ink; which by timely care, not only came to their natural colour by Tuesday noon, but could support her also to come downstairs, and excepting a hurry of spirits grew quite well that week.

Not more than ten persons out of the whole congregation were hurt and none of them to any great degree. One young fellow who was more frightened than hurt remained ill a long time but I believe he is now quite well. The lightning touched his watch in his pocket, the marks of which may be seen on the crystal and silver parts to this day.

Nobody remembers to have heard any more thunder or seen any more lightning after this, though the weather continued very stormy all that day.