FATAL STORM IN EPSOM & EWELL - OAKS DAY 1868

Lightning Strike
'Lightning Strike'
Photo by Jo Naylor via Flickr (CC Licence)

I am unqualified to comment authoritatively on storms, having slept right through the big one in 1987, waking up to see the garden half-wrecked with no idea of what had happened. However…violent storms are fairly common and Epsom seems to have had its unfair share in the past, particularly around the time of its Classic races, the Derby and the Oaks. Examples occurred in 1911 and, to a lesser extent, in 1905.

The great and fairly brief storm of May 1868 wreaked havoc across England and parts of the Continent. The weather had been extremely hot for about a fortnight and on 29 May, the day of the Oaks, it broke with a vengeance. There were two local fatalities and several people died elsewhere; the Houses of Parliament were struck by lightning and the phenomenon was reported even in Ireland. Old newspapers were just as sensational as today's tabloids, but the writing was very different. Today it would be something like 'Epsom Cops a Packet on Big Race Day', whereas, then, the headline was merely a restrained 'Storm at Epsom' or something similar. Not that the writing was at all restrained: on occasions like this journalists on local papers, who were forced to earn their bread on reporting local flower shows and routine cases of 'drunk and disorderly' at the local magistrates' court, let loose the inner descriptive powers they had been dying to employ since their educated schooldays, almost in the manner of poetry, even though they tended to get carried away in a literary flood. Reports vary concerning the exact timing of the storm, but it was roughly lunchtime.

An article in 'The Durham Chronicle' of 5 June 1868 (and other newspapers) devoted many lyrical and overblown column inches to the storm, with particular reference to our Borough. Part of it read as follows.
'The lightning struck in brilliant and irregular but brightly marked lines, now against the inky clouds, and now across the dark masses of the woods which run nearly up to the summit of the Downs. At one period of the storm …every flash of lightning was followed, indeed at times accompanied, by a sharp explosion like that of a rifled cannon, but of far heavier calibre than any that has yet been manufactured, which was only transformed into the ordinary rolling thunder when the sound had been caught up, echoed and re-echoed by the swelling slopes of the Downs, the dense masses of clouds which obscured the sky, and the hard red houses of the town of Epsom. Nor was it only the lightning and the thunder which compelled attention and aroused interest. The rain poured in torrents, and the hail literally "ran along the ground". The hailstones were of an unusually large size and as they struck the earth many of them, driven by the force of strong gusts of wind, rolled to some distance along the roads and level places. A large pond, three or four feet deep, had been formed by the damming up of the flood, and about one o'clock, when the road was at its most crowded state, a rich harvest was made by roughs, who carried pedestrians across on their shoulders; and cabs plying over the temporary ferry, demanded fabulous sums.'
The Turf correspondent of 'The Sheffield Independent' (30 May 1868) was unable to contain himself - he boiled over.
'Within the space of half an hour the rain lay in sheets upon the course, formed strong streamlets down the roads leading from the running ground, and fairly drenched those unable to find shelter. The fair votaries of the Oaks who came in open carriages presented a pitiable sight, and the damage done to finery must have been enormous, the Stand being filled with damp and bedraggled damsels as rapidly as fashionable vehicles could empty their contents at the entrances to the building.'
One columnist asserted that there was a colossal flash of lightning, so enormous that it could rarely have been seen except in the West Indies (which may have been the only genuinely overseas destination he had ever visited). Another described the rain as 'a heavy pluvial descent' and there were such phrases as 'fierce warring of the elements' and 'zigzag gleams of forked flame'. In fact, some of the reports were so over-the-top that I half-expected to read about Noah's Ark floating down the course with the racehorses going in two by two.

As I mentioned earlier, the storm did sadly claim life in our Borough and the first was that of Mr Thomas Turner, an omnibus driver, who had set off with a party from Newington Causeway (Southwark) in a horse-drawn wagonette/four-wheeled trap. The horse was very frightened by the storm and, while three of the party went into the Green Man public house for shelter and sustenance, Mr Turner and Mr Richard Drapper, a Southwark publican, stayed outside in the Reigate Road and held the animal's head, trying to calm it down. However, a sudden flash of lightning knocked all three to the ground. One newspaper wasn't into the dramatic prose fashion and merely said that the horse fell on the men, that Mr Turner died instantly and Mr Draper was rendered insensible. However, an eyewitness painted a much more vivid picture at the inquest, saying that the lightning flash was 'like the whole world being on fire'; he went on to say that it struck the horse on the head and knocked him against the wall. It struck the two men - throwing one across the road and the other under the horse. Mr Drapper's hat was flung across the field and was torn to ribbons; and part of the deceased's waistcoat was torn off, and his clothes were set on fire. The flash then went in a reverse direction and passed through the bottom of the wall. The deceased had a blue burnt mark down the throat and chest and a hole on the left breast the size of a shilling. It was like a gunshot wound. The horse was injured in the eye and on the loins.

Mr Drapper succumbed on 7 June 1868, apparently never having regained consciousness.

The Green Man c.1905
The Green Man c.1905
Image courtesy of Epsom & Ewell Local and Family History Centre

The storm lasted for around an hour and then moved on, allowing the racing to get under way, albeit slightly late. Winner of the Two Year Old Plate was Mr T V Morgan's 'Electricity', by 'Thunderbolt'. Yes, really. The Oaks itself was won by 'Formosa' and she went on to be the first winner of the Fillies' Triple Crown, comprising the 1000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger.

Linda Jackson © September, 2017