The Midland Tornado of 1545

Damage caused by the Birmingham Tornado

Preamble

In the recently published book “Come wind, come weather” (Lichfield Press, 2021), Trevor James draws attention to the Midland Tornado of 1545 which caused very considerable damage along a very long storm track in Derbyshire. A description of the damage from that time is given in the Derbyshire edition of the Magna Britannia in 1817 and is reproduced below. In this short post, the nature of the storm will first be discussed and then we will make some estimates of the windspeeds that occurred, using modern damage scales. I will then address the question as to whether the event was actually a tornado, or some other type of wind storm.

The event

From the Magna Britannia.

” At Darbie the 25th daye of June 1545.

“Welbeloved sonne I recomend me unto you, gevyng you Godds blessyng & myne. Son this is to sertifie you of soche straunge newes, as that.hath of late chauns,ed in thes p’ties; that is to wytt, apon Satterday last past, being the 20th daye of this moneth, on Say’te Albons day, we had in thes p’tyes great tempest. … wether, about xi of the clok before none: & in the same tempest, The dev[ill] as we do suppose beganne in Nedewood, wch is ix myles from Da[rbie]; & there he caste downe a great substance of wood; & pulled up by the rotts: & from thens he came to Enwalle [Etwall] wher at one Mre Powret [Porte] dothe dwell, & he pulled downe ij great elmes, that there was a dossyn or xvj loode apon a piese of them; & went to the churche & pullyd up the leade, & flonge it apon a great elme that stondyth a payer of butt lenghthes from the churche, &. … it hangyd apon the bowys lyke stremars; & afte. …….. tourned. …… & the grounsells upwards & some layd bye apon. ….. heape &. ……. that was apon viij bayes long he set it a…….. gge & the. …… ro[ots] sett upwards; & he hathein the same towne lefte not past iiij or v housses hole. And from thence he came a myle a this syde, & there grewe opon Ix or iiijxx wyllowes, & apon xij or xvi he hathe brokyn in the mydds, & they were as great as a mans body: & so he lefte them lyke a yard and a half hye: And from thence he went to Langley, wch is lyke iiij myles from Darby, & there he hath pullyd downe a great p’te of the churche, & rowled up the leade & lefte it lyeing, & so went to Syr Wyllam Bassetts place in the same [towne] & all so rente it, & so pullyd a great parte of it downe wth his. …..& the wood that growethe abowte his place, & in his parke he pulled downe his pale & dryve out his deare, & pulled downe his woods, & so[me] broken in the mydds that was xvj or xx loode of wood of some one tre. And after that he went into the towne to Awstens housse of Potts & hath slayne his sonne & his ayer, & perused all the hole towne, that he hath left not past ij hole howsses in the same towne. And from thence he went to Wy’dley lane, & there a nourse satt wt ij chylderen uppon her lappe before the fyre, & there he flonge downe the sayde howse, & the woman fell forwards ap[on the] yongechyl[dren] afore the fyre, & a piese of ty’ber fell apon her. …… & so killed [her] but the chylderen were savyd, & no more hurte, [and none] of the house left standyng but the chymney, & there as the house stode, he flange a great tre, that there is viij or x lood of wood apon it. And from thence he went to Belyer [Belper] & there he hath pullyd & rent apon xl housses; & from thence he wente to Belyer [Belper] wood & he hathe pullyd downe a wonderous thyng of wood & kylled many bease; & from thens to Brege [Heage] & there hath he pulled downe the chappyl & the moste parte of the towne; & from thens to WynfeldmaJ that is the Erie of Shrowseberys [Wingfield Park], & in the parke he pulled him downe a lytell…… & from thens to Manfyld [Mansfield] in Shrewood & there I am sure he hath done [no] good, & as it is sayd he hathe donne moche hurte in Chesshire &….. shire. And as the noyse goeth of the people ther felle in some places hayle stons as great as a mans fyste, & some of them had prynts apon them lyke faces. This is trewe & no fables, there is moche more hurte done besyds, that were to moche to wryte, by the reporte of them that have sene it; and thus fare you well.”

James is persuaded that the account is genuine, not least by the mention of the damage to the chapel at Heage. The church at Heage was indeed officially a chapel (dependent upon another church) at the time and there are records elsewhere that indicate it was rebuilt after the storm. James quotes a further source (Warkworth’s Chronicle) which again suggests strong winds in Cheshire and Lancashire on that day.

The personification of the event as the “devil” is of interest and may reflect both the belief that such events were demonically rather than divinely inspired but might also refer to the name of such events – indeed even today small whirlwinds are referred to as dust-devils or something similar.

The description allows the track of the storm to be determined quite accurately, and this is shown on the map of figure below. In all the track where precise damage details are given seems to have been about 40 km long at least.

The track of the event. Purple lines indicate the boundary of Derbyshire and the purple circle is Derby itself. Red circles indicate the places where damage occurred, and green arrows indicate the storm track

Wind speeds

On the assumption that we are dealing with an tornado here, rather than another type of windstorm (see below), is it possible to obtain estimates of what the windspeeds actually were? Tornado windspeeds are usually estimated by inspecting the damage that they cause, and then using a damage classification method to determine the broad range of wind speeds that would cause that damage. Two methods are commonly used – the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale developed in the US, and the T scale developed by the Tornado Research Association TORRO. Extracts from the damage descriptors are given below.

Enhanced Fujita EF Scale

EF2         49–60m/s      Roofs torn off from well-constructed houses; foundations of frame homes shifted; mobile homes completely destroyed; large trees snapped or uprooted; light-object missiles generated; cars lifted off ground.

EF3         60-74m/s      Entire stories of well-constructed houses destroyed; severe damage to large buildings such as shopping malls; trains overturned; trees debarked; heavy cars lifted off the ground and thrown; structures with weak foundations are badly damaged.

EF4 74-89m/s Well-constructed and whole frame houses completely leveled; some frame homes may be swept away; cars and other large objects thrown and small missiles generated.

TORRO T scale

T4           52 – 61m/s           Motor cars levitated. Mobile homes airborne / destroyed; sheds airborne for considerable distances; entire roofs removed from some houses; roof timbers of stronger brick or stone houses completely exposed; gable ends torn away. Numerous trees uprooted or snapped.

T5          62- 72m/s            Heavy motor vehicles levitated; more serious building damage than for T4, yet house walls usually remaining; the oldest, weakest buildings may collapse completely.

T6           73 – 83m/s          Strongly built houses lose entire roofs and perhaps also a wall; windows broken on skyscrapers, more of the less-strong buildings collapse.

To give some context, the Birmingham Tornado of 2005 (pictured above), one of the strongest in recent years, was classified as a T5 event.

It is immediately clear that these descriptions are very subjective and the classification of damage into a particular class is not straightforward. It is perhaps less clear that each of these scales is to some extent culturally dependent. The EF scale reflects North American building and vehicle types, and the T scale reflects building and vehicle types from the UK in the 1970s when the scale was first produced. Neither reflects building practice in the 1540s and neither were there any cars to be lifted up in that period!  Nonetheless, the description of 1545 can be used within these classifications at least in an approximate way. I would thus classify the 1545 event as borderline EF2 / EF3 or borderline T4/T5. These classifications give a wind speed range around 135 mph or 60 m/s. However,  Neaden, in a study of tornado risk for the HSE, based on the above description, assigns a category of T6 to the event, giving a wind speed of at least 73m/s. This again illustrates the subjectivity of the classification.

The T scale also gives a classification based on path length

T4 2.2 to 4.6km

T5 4.7 to 9.9km

T6 10 to 21km

T7 22 to 46km

On the basis of path length Neaden again gives a T6 classification, although the length as shown in figure 1 suggests a T7 classification. My view would be that the event should properly be categorised as EF2/EF3 or T4/T5 with an unusually long path length but the subjectivity of this assessment must again be emphasised.

Was it a tornado?

The question that then needs to be addressed is whether or not the 1545 event was a tornado or some other storm type – presumably one of the usual extra-tropical cyclones that pass across the UK quite frequently. Even in such storms there are known to be smaller tracks of major damage. In the 1987 storm for example there was a swathe of extreme damage to trees in a arc a few miles wide across the south of England. This was attributed to a high-level jet of wind sweeping down to ground level – a phenomenon know as a “sting jet” because of the scorpion tail-like cloud formation with which such events are often associated. 

The points that suggest the event was a tornado are firstly the existence of a coherent storm track, albeit significantly longer than would normally be the case, and secondly the fact that the event occurred in June, when extra-tropical cyclones are uncommon but tornadoes are. On the other hand, the point that suggest the damage was due to an extra-tropical cyclone is the reference in more than one source to concurrent strong winds in Cheshire and Lancashire. Indeed, wind speeds of 60 m/s have been measured in extra-tropical cyclones in the past – for the 1987 Burns Night storm for example the peak wind speed was somewhere around this value.

Referring again to the work of Neaden, his data indicates that between 1800 and 1985 there were around 10 tornadoes with a classification of T5 or higher in Derbyshire. This indicates that one would occur on average every 20 years or so. One would expect that most of these would have path lengths of a few kilometres and thus the effects would be localised – and in a rural county like Derbyshire not much damage might be recorded.

Now, one might expect that an extra-tropical cyclone with wind speeds of the order of 60m/s would only occur in lowland Britain once every 200 to 300 years – indeed the 1987 storm was assessed as having this return period. Thus they are very rare events indeed.

A comparison of the likelihoods of a T5 tornado and an extra-tropical storm with the same windspeeds thus suggests to me that it is most likely that the 1545 event was indeed a tornado with an EF2 / EF3 or T4/T5 classification, albeit with an unusually long storm track, but also that it was quite possibly embedded in a larger extra-tropical cyclone of some strength. However, as with any other historical phenomenon of this type, absolute certainty as to its cause is of course not possible.

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