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20th May 1729

Defeating oft the labours of the year
The sultry South collects a potent blast

On the 12th of May in the year 1729, a period of fine weather began in east Sussex. Richard Budgen, residing in Frant, near Tunbridge Wells, was keeping a daily record of the weather. By the 18th of May it had become very warm and sultry, and the next day was even hotter. There was light rain on the morning of the 20th, but by afternoon it was once again hot, with a southerly wind. At 5 p.m. a haze appeared in the south and crept slowly up the sky until it reached the zenith two hours later. Thunder was heard at eight as two storms passed by towards the north.

About nine, Budgen came out and looked towards the southeast. He saw what seemed to be an opening in the clouds, at a distance of about twenty miles. The opening was filled, to use his own words, with "unintermitting Coruscations, together with such dreadful darting and breaking forth of liquid Fire, at every flash of Lightning, as perhaps has not been seen in this Climate for many Ages."

At about the same time, as a terrific thunderstorm combined with evening to produce an almost total darkness, a waterspout came ashore near Bexhill. It had probably formed in Pevensey Bay or even further out in the Channel, for destruction began immediately the waterspout touched land and became a tornado. Where the tornado reached the ground it was about 150 yards wide, and it moved towards the northeast at 36 miles an hour. The storm was whirling about its axis at a much greater speed. Richard Budgen later estimated this rotational velocity to be nearly a mile a minute at the edge of the whirl. Towards the centre it must have been far faster.

Map of the 1729 Sussex Tornado

Thomas Holland's house, about a mile from the sea, was the first to feel the impact of the storm. His roof was torn off, a barn and hovel wrecked and timber scattered 400 yards across Bexhill Down. Further on a tree was carried over a hedge and dropped 150 yards away. John Philcock's house at Sidley Green was also unroofed. The entire house was driven by the shock two inches northward, as was seen where an outbuilding once joined it on the south side. Part of a cheesepress was carried for 200 yards. William Gybson, on the east side of the track about 100 yards away, lost two rafters.

As the tornado passed through Engrim Wood its width increased to 300 yards. Every tree in its path went down instantly. One hundred and fifty oaks were snapped, torn up, shattered and hurled in all directions. Cole Wood and Heniker Wood, next in the storm's path, suffered the same fate. Buckhold (Buckholt?) was next. The farmhouse lost its chimneys and a pigsty lost its walls, with the gable-ends and the thatched roof left intact. Debris from a wrecked barn was dropped a quarter mile away.

The tornado moved through open country for a mile or so until it struck Ralph Norton's house, demolishing the upper floor and a chimney-stack, together with a barn, an office, a coach-house with walls two feet thick, and every tree in a large orchard. In the Fore Wood, a stretch of timber nearly a mile wide beyond Norton's house, every tree was helpless before it. The largest and stoutest trees went down almost without resistance, whereas man-made structures stood up to the attack more solidly. Sir Thomas Webster's house lost only chimneys and tiling, along with all windows and doors burst out. By this time the tornado's vortex was filled with dirt, stones, branches and leaves, and this 'horrid Mixture', together with ash from kitchen and brew-house fires, was sprayed over the house in an instant.

Beyond Loose the tornado depoled a hop-garden and entered Sir Thomas' Bothurst woods, emerging about ninety seconds later. It left behind thirteen or fourteen hundred trees slaughtered in a swathe a mile long and sometimes half a mile wide. At Marlly (Marley?) a strong barn was wrecked, while the farmhouse 50 yards westward was unharmed. Another swathe of total ruin was carved through Petley Woods, then the tornado passed over open land, tearing up hedges and plastering them with earth.

At Sedlescombe fourteen houses and barns were damaged or destroyed. William Wallis' house was wrecked by the impact of a large apple tree, complete with earth about its roots, which was plucked from a neighbour's orchard and carried over three hedges. Wallis "had the Misfortune to have his Thigh broke in the Fall."

The tornado wreaked its usual havoc in some intervening woodland before reaching Great Saunders. Once more chimneys and barns went down, and two hundred yards of a brick wall only three feet high. Near Great Saunders another house and barn were wrecked, and a woman, "with the Fright and some Hurt received by the Fall of the House, is dangerously ill."

More woods fell to the tornado beyond Great Saunders. At Horsford it smashed Henry Bishop's barns and, passing into his woodlands, destroyed all in its path. Not content with uprooting every tree, the whirlwind tore up great masses of earth to cover trunks, boughs and leaves. In the next field a barn seemed to explode, with timber hurled north and west up to 400 yards' distance.

Thomas Holman's house lost its roofs and chimney, but "a Man in Bed slept out the Storm, and knew not the Conveniency he had for Star-gazing, till awaken'd by the rest of the Family." At Colliers Green a house was unroofed, a barn wrecked, and two dung-carts carried off. All that was found of the latter were some fragments scattered in nearby fields. As the windows of the house blew in, a tenant and his wife were hurled to the floor, and a child sitting in a chair was lifted complete with chair and dropped in a fireplace. Gravel from the road and broken glass from the windows were driven into furniture "like Shot discharged from a Fowling-piece."

The tornado swept on, its power seemingly inexhaustible, destroying trees and barns, unroofing houses and lopping chimneys. John Lade's house at Sempstead had its windows shattered and tiles stripped. Yet another barn went down in his grounds. In his woodlands 400 trees were damaged. 136 of these were torn up by the roots or shattered into pieces.

After this demonstration the tornado's strength began to fail. It passed over the Newingden (Newenden?) Level and the River Rother with scarcely a mark to show its passage. At Rolvenden in Kent, about three miles from the Rother, it had recovered sufficiently to disorder the thatch of a few buildings. Two miles further northeast, in the parish of Benenden, there was another outburst of violence. Once again trees were torn from the earth and barns were thrown down in a path five miles long, until, just after crossing the Medway's east branch, the tornado finally expired under the ridge of Kentish hills.

To its victims the whirlwind must have seemed a nightmare of chaos, a few instants of roaring turmoil followed by the transformation of familiar landscapes into vistas of tangled ruin. But the storm was an organised force, and even its destruction showed pattern; a pattern that revealed the form of the destroyer.

Richard Budgen, who came from Frant to investigate, was interested in the storm's cause and nature as well as what it had done. It soon became evident that no-one had actually seen the tornado. When it came ashore at Bexhill just before 9 p.m., darkness had already fallen. At Battle, something compared to "a prodigious Smoak rolling from a Lime-kiln" was observed. At Ewhurst a glow was seen in the clouds. As the storm passed this light became so strong that it "far exceeded any of the preceding Flashes of Lightning."

The tornado's path of destruction, twelve miles long and on average 380 yards wide, provided more information as to its shape. Here were buildings rent apart, with others nearby untouched. Circular lanes were cut in woodland, with trees twisted off near their bases and carried over fields and hedges. That the storm had a circular motion, contra Solem or anticlockwise, was evident from the way in which objects on the west side of its path had been carried south while on the east side they were carried north. The track of the tornado, or 'hurricane', as Budgen called it, increased in breadth as it ascended hills, and he concluded that "the Body of the Hurricane was like a Truncate-Cone inverted; which…may be found a necessary Form, not only for Hurricanes, but all kinds of Spouts and Whirlwinds."

What caused the 'hurricane'? Some philosophers believed that such storms were the result of a "Flatus, or…kind of Perspiration from the Bowels of the Earth." Budgen disagreed. He considered the cause to be the conflict of opposing winds. Before the 12th of May, 1729, there had been a long period of 'cold, dense' northerly winds. Then, for two days, a slow, soft breeze from the south had prevailed, followed by a west wind for a day, then a southeast wind for another two days, then once more a warm west breeze. For the three days preceding the tornado, the wind had been southerly. The dense northern air had acted as a barrier, and the alternation of west and east winds brought together "a vast Quantity of Vapours, and Exhalations of various Qualities". Had the wind then turned northerly, these exhalations would have been swept away into the rarefied southern air; but the south wind held the conflicting airs together, while adding "Sulphureous Vapours from hotter Climates;" the conflict was "discharged in a Hurricane" until the equilibrium of the atmosphere was restored.

Once formed, what gave the 'hurricane' its power? Richard Budgen suggested that the tornado both caused and was energised by lightning. A lightning stroke rarefied the air around it, upon which the circumadjacent atmosphere rushed inward from every side in an attempt to restore the equilibrium. Air outside the whirlwind was also drawn towards it, but "because the outward Verges being environed by the exquisitely swift Motion of the Wind, will not easily be broke through," the descending vapours were heaped together until they caused a 'violent Vibration' which immediately burst out in another bolt of lightning. He imagined the whirlwind to be at its most powerful instantly after a lightning flash, spinning like the eddies behind a hand passed through water, running down until revitalised by another stroke of lightning.

Budgen usually refers to the storm as 'a Spout or Hurricane.' However, twice he calls it a 'Tornado', and this is one of the first occasions in which the word is used in its modern sense.

On the 4th of November, 1729, a whirlwind struck the village of Barford St. Martin, near Salisbury in Wiltshire. Houses were unroofed and trees blown down.

This is taken from
An Account of the Passage of the Hurricane…May 20th, 1729, a 'scarce pamphlet', published in London, by Richard Budgen. Thanks to Mike Rowe of TORRO for sending me a copy. The Barford St. Martin tornado is from Records of the Seasons, Prices and Phenomena in the British Isles, by T. H. Baker, 1853

(Below) Richard Budgen’s map of the Sussex Tornado.


This is believed to be the earliest known and the first printed map of a tornado track. (Maps may have been drawn of the tracks of a French tornado in 1680 and an Italian tornado in 1686, but they do not seem to have survived.) The wavy line below the map shows the contour of the ground traversed by the tornado. Note that Budgen has straightened out the track so as to fit it into a strip.

Thanks to Mr. Mat Budgen (a descendant of Richard) for finding and sending the map.