‘Hailstones as bigg as Eggs’: freak storms on 18th May, 1680

Evening all!

I hope you’ve managed to stay dry over the past few days and that you’ve dodged the spectacular pink lightning that has been illuminating the skies of late – I can only imagine what early moderns would think of that! At work today I met a man who was inadvertently struck by lightning outside York St. Mary’s in Coppergate a few years ago – apparently the General Synod was taking place in York at the time and rumours spread that St. Mary’s had offended God in some way. Which provides a neat little segue to…

‘A Ballad of the Strange and Wonderful Storm of Hail, Which fell in London on the 18th of May 1680, which hurt several men, killed many Birds, and spoiled many Trees; with other strange Accidents, the like never before known in ENGLAND’ (1680), Magdalene College, Pepys 2.137. Image courtesy of English Broadside Ballad Archive (ID 20757).

After another day of downpours it seems apt to share with you a ballad concerned with a specific bout of freak weather. That is, ‘a Strange and Wonderful Storm of Hail’ which was reported to have struck London on 18th May. It appears that this was not an isolated phenomenon: parish records from a Gloucestershire parish reported a similar event (right down to the 8-inch hailstones); a pamphlet (also printed in London in 1680) reported similar storms in Oxfordshire, at sea and further across the Channel in Blois on the same day. The latter account adopted a similarly religious tone to our ballad:

there was a terrible storm in Oxfordshire of lightning and hail, barns were burnt down, a boy was struck with thunder but recovered, reports of a Catholic Jesuit churches being destroyed in a similar storm in France, yet the Protestant church in this town remained unharmed, lightning also struck a ship and several crew members

The ballad’s urging for its audience to repent and to prepare for death is, as ever, reinforced by its tune – Fortune My Foe (renamed Aim Not Too High in this and one other Pepys ballad of a similar genre) was commonly associated with executions, unfortunate ends and atoning for sin.

There are plenty of fascinating elements to this ballad – its macabre imagery of birds having their wings torn off by giant hailstones, resurrection narrative and fantastic woodcut (featuring what appears to be a hail-drift and a man having to dig out his cow with a shovel). However, I particularly enjoy the juxtaposition of seemingly divine retribution with the localism of neighbours, friends and kin coming to the aid of the stricken hemp-dresser. Although the circumstances were extraordinary, this ballad displays the practices of good neighbourhood and kinship that were so familiar in the streets, homes and parishes of early modern England.

If you would like to hear a recording of today’s ballad and take a closer look at the original ballad sheet facsimile, head on over to the English Broadside Ballad Archive and have a listen!

Keep well, dear readers – watch out for hail.

Yours &c.,

Hannah

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