Just weeks before the Great Storm struck the south of England, on November 24, 1703, Henry Winstanley, creator of the Eddystone lighthouse, is reported to have said that he wished he could be on the reef in the greatest storm that ever blew under the face of heaven so he would see what effect it would have on his building.
He did not have to wait long. Winstanley was carrying out repairs on the structure when the tempest struck. The "perfect hurricane" that raged across the country for days destroyed the lighthouse as it reached its full might on the 27th of November. According to An Exact relation of the late dreadful tempest, an account published in 1704, "Winstaneley, the Inventer, with two more" was "thrown into the Sea."
The storm killed at least 8 000 people, including a fifth of the sailors in the British Navy, engaged at the time in helping Spain fend off the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. The wind, reported to have reached speeds of up to 120 miles per hour, felled 4 000 oak trees in the New Forest and rolled up the lead roof of Westminster Abbey like parchment.
Daniel Foe, whom we know as Daniel Defoe (some speculate that he added the "De" prefix to make his name sound more aristocratic) recorded his recollections of the events in The Storm, or, a Collection of the most remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land. His descriptions of the Great Storm are often credited with providing a foundation for both journalistic writing and the novel. Although many who witnessed the destruction (Defoe reported that coastal towns like Portsmouth "looked as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces") believed that the tempest was an Act of God, a "Monument to the Anger of Heaven", Defoe's account was based on eyewitness accounts solicited from all over the country by means of advertisements in the London Gazette. Defoe, who himself narrowly escaped being hit by a falling chimney, a common cause of death during the storm, insisted: "No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it".
In The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote to Carter, Jenny McKay describes Defoe's The Storm as a "pioneering example of the human-interest story, a record of narrow escapes and loss of life." As an example she quotes his record of the death of the Bishop of Wells, as witnessed by the Bishop's servant. It reads: "…by the Fall of two Chimney Stacks, which fell on the Roof, and drove it in upon my Lord’s Bed, forced it quite through the next Flower [floor] down in the Hall, and buried them both in the Rubbish: and ‘tis suppos’d my Lord was getting up, for he was found some Distance from my Lady who was found in her Bed."
Illustration: Winstanley's Lighthouse at the Eddystone, after Henry Roberts' 1761 engraving, c. 1860