On the night of Friday 21st to Saturday 22nd December 1894 the north of Ireland was battered by a ferocious storm. It left many homeless, many businesses damaged and cost several people their lives.
“Last night a storm of wind and rain of fearful violence burst over Belfast and the north of Ireland, inflicting injury on property of all descriptions, and, sadder still, causing loss of life”Belfast Telegraph 22nd December 1894
The gale began around 11pm on the Friday night of 21st December accompanied by heavy rain. It reached its peak between 6:00am and 7:30am the following morning. The storm was devastating. Not many slept that night, many were afraid to stay in their own homes and sought shelter in local churches.
The McAuley family of 26 Alfred Street in the town centre, were very worried for their safety as the walls of their 16-year-old house seemed to tremble. All 10 family members took shelter in nearby St Malachy’s Presbytery. They were no sooner settled in the priest’s house, than they heard a tremendous noise. The gable wall of their house had collapsed and the roof was swaying up and down “as if on hinges”. Later the adult members of the family ventured into the storm to try to salvage some of their possessions. Ordinary folk at this time could not afford to take out insurance.
When the morning of 22nd dawned the extent of the devastation became apparent. Belfast had suffered widespread damage from the Ormeau Road to the Belmont Road to the Antrim Road.
Few, if any neighbourhoods remained unscathed. City centre shops and businesses were unable to open and folk looked with dismay at the remains of their homes. The telephone and telegram communications systems were disconnected.
“The telephone system throughout was completely disorganised, wires flying about in all directions in a number of the principal thoroughfares. The postal telegraph are in a similar condition, and there was a considerable delay in the transmission of messages”Irish News 24th December 1894
In the commercial heart of the city many premises were damaged. The windows of Robinson and Cleaver’s store were broken by falling slates and merchandise was scattered all over Donegall Place.
On the corner outside Robinson and Cleaver’s a large lamp post was nearly bent right over.
“Messrs Robinson & Cleaver’s palatial establishment had one of its big windows blown in, and such was the malignity of the wind that it made a fair attempt to clear the stock from that department, several pieces of silk goods being whirled away and carried to some distance”Northern Whig 24th December 1894
On Royal Avenue the plate glass windows of Warnocks were blown out and John Turtle’s restaurant was completely wrecked. In Great Victoria Street, Bruce Street and Hope Street the chimneys had been blown down wholesale. While in Donegall Street, firemen had a tricky job dismantling a large quantity of lead that was hanging precariously off the building belonging to Messrs Murphy and Orr. The dome and the roof of the Free Library also suffered greatly.
Throughout the city hoardings were swept away and broken up into matchsticks. Chimneys toppled and flying slates caused dangerous conditions. The Belmont Road was impassable due to the wreckage strewn everywhere.
Many factories and manufacturing businesses were also affected. Messrs Francis Ritchie & Sons lost half a chimney and the Soho Foundry in Townsend Street was considerably damaged. The West End Delph Store at 95 Divis Street, lost its front windows and a large quantity of glass and chinaware were smashed.
Bernard Hughes bakery on the Springfield Road, which was greatly exposed to the storm was also badly damaged. Mr Campbell’s sawmill and building works at the Albert Bridge lost its upper floor. The roof of Messrs W & G Baird on Royal Ave was destroyed and much stock lost. Sheds and warehouses belonging to Harland and Wolff were flattened.
In North Queen Street and Crumlin Road district many properties lost their roofs. The workshop of Mr Lee in Great George’s Street was completely demolished. The Mater Infirmorum Hospital was considered to be in a dangerous state and patients were moved to other medical facilities.
The neighbourhood around Ormeau was particularly ravaged by the hurricane. The Ravenhill Road was completely blocked by four large trees that had been blown over in Ormeau Park.
On the Antrim Road to the north of the town, a shop at Cavendish Terrace, in the course of erection was blown asunder. Its chimney fell on to the neighbouring boot and shoe making business, owned by Mr Thomas Mahaffey.
McCullough’s grocery and provisions shop was also destroyed. Local residents hastened to the scene, fearful that people were trapped inside.
The police from the nearby barracks arrived promptly led by Sergeant Carnahan, thankfully there were no casualties. The nearly completed Church of the Holy Family in Newington was totally destroyed.
On the Shankill Road numerous properties lost their chimneys and roofs. The Nelson Memorial Church, still in construction stage, was wrecked. Agnes Street and the surrounding areas were covered in debris and fallen masonry.
In the Falls Road area the Methodist Church was badly damaged. A detached house on Broadway belonging to Mr Hetherington lost two chimney stacks as did St Dominic’s school and Dr McKee’s house on Mill Street.
The streets were littered with bricks, ridge tiles and spouting and many small homes destroyed.
“A large number of artizans houses in this locality were much injured, and the poorer classes there will no doubt suffer considerably from the effects of the storm”Belfast Telegraph 22nd December 1894
Ballymacarrett across the Lagan, suffered tremendously too. In Madrid Street eight small houses were completely destroyed. It is recorded that local physician Dr Bingham was quickly on the scene to aid the injured. In Templemore Ave a new house being erected by builder Mr Lindsay, was no more than a heap of bricks and mortar.
Rural areas too were badly affected by the havoc caused by the storm. Many towns, villages and farms suffered great damage. Barns and outbuildings storing grain and hay were lost leaving the residents shocked and worried for their future livelihoods.
“It would be impossible yet to ascertain fully the great damage which has been done by the storm in the country districts in the neighbourhood, but judging by the reports which have reached here throughout the day, the damage and loss sustained by farmers has been very considerable… the country presented a dismal appearance”Irish News 24th December 1894
The Penrose Villa Tragedy
The night of the storm was to wreak havoc on the Clark family of the Ormeau Road. Mr John Stevenson Clark, a linen merchant, lived at Penrose Villa with his wife Emily (nee Spindlow) and two small sons. Also in the home were a general servant/cook Ellen Addis and a young nurserymaid Selina Bunting.
John was the son of Ledlie Clark, co-founder of the Coalisland Weaving Company, established in 1865. In 1892 John and Emily had their first child, a son named Robert, at 1 Rosetta Ave. Unfortunately, the infant died when he was only 16 days old. The following year a son, Locksley, was born and in March 1894 another boy Ledlie. By this time the family had moved to Penrose Villa, on the corner of Ormeau Road and Agincourt Ave. The property had previously been owned by W M Wilson of Wilson & Strain Co., of Cromac Street.
Selina Bunting retired for the night at 10:00pm with her infant charge sleeping in a cot at the foot of her bed. However, she had a restless night as the noise of the storm kept her awake. At about 6am on the Saturday morning, the chimney stack of the house fell through the roof into the nursery where 7-month-old Ledlie and his 17-year-old nursemaid were sleeping. The force of the falling masonry smashed through the room, into the dining room below and into the basement. Selina and the baby died instantly.
In the adjoining bedroom, John and Emily were sleeping with 21-month-old Locksley. Both were injured as rubble fell into the chamber. The cook, Ellen Addis, raced into the room and began to clear the debris from the cot. Luckily the brass railings of the cot held and the baby was rescued.
The funeral for Ledlie took place on Christmas Eve. He was buried in Belfast City Cemetery (Plot A M2 275) with his baby brother Robert. Young Selina Bunting was buried in her home village of Magheralin in County Down.
The Clark’s went on to have three more sons, Jackson (11/03/1898), Seymour (02/10/1899) and another Ledlie known by his second name Maynard [15/03/1904]. A baby girl was born on 26th September 1905. The family had by this time move back to Emily’s native County Tyrone. Sadly, John Stevenson Clark died on 27th January 1907 aged 44.
At Dufferin Dock, the barque Corona, broke free from its moorings and was forced leeward where it caused considerable damage to other vessels. The American ship, Keenebac, similarly was blown astray causing damage including sinking the tugboat, Commodore.
The two-man crew of the smack Poison had a lucky escape when their boat sank as it approached Belfast harbour. The master Daniel Robinson and sailor Hugh Magilton managed to hold onto the mast until they were rescued by Seaman McAllister of the S S Parkmore.
The non-arrival of the Cross-Channel ferries caused great consternation among the folk awaiting the arrival of family and friends for the festive season. As no telegraphic communications were working, it was not known if the boats had ventured from England or Scotland. The Stranraer Steamer, for example, decided ‘caution was the better part of valour’ and remained in its Scottish berth rather than face the stormy seas.
At 2 o’clock in the afternoon the Glasgow ship, the Dromedary, due to arrive at midday, made its way into Belfast port to the great cheers of the waiting crowd. The passengers disembarked after their delayed and dangerous journey. Some had a more comfortable crossing than others
“The appearance of those who travelled steerage (the cheapest tickets) was pitiable. What, with anxiety, sickness, sleeplessness, and the manifold other ills attending a protracted and stormy voyage, they looked fit subjects for an hospital”Belfast Telegraph 22nd December 1894
It was also noted that of the cabin passengers, 46 gentlemen and 23 ladies “that the ladies were the most heroic”. In charge of the ship was Captain Davies, who had nearly 40 years’ experience on the Channel route, he remarked that he had never experienced such a terrible night before.
Several ships were delayed by the storm including the Caloric from Liverpool and the Fleetwood steamer Prince of Wales. Their captains told of being hit by the full force of the gale in the middle of the Channel and being unable to make any progress for hours.
Bangor and Holywood
At Bangor in County Down, at about 2am the Noel, a large timber vessel was driven ashore at Clifton beach. The huge waves and heavy seas made any rescue attempts exceedingly dangerous.
Eventually the coastguard, aided by a group of locals, managed to save the captain and his wife and the 13 crew.
Eight ships were lost in the harbour. An eye-witness described seeing bits of boat being caught by the wind and carried into the fields beyond the town.
The towns of Bangor and Holywood were also left without railway transport as part of the track between Tillysburn and Holywood had been washed away.
The exceptionally high tide, said to be the highest in 40 years, washed over the road and flooded many houses in Holywood. Hundreds of trees were blown down and St Mark’s Church was severely damaged.
Near the railway station at Holywood, a ship laden with grain, was washed ashore. Two of the three sailors were saved before the ship was broken up by the furious waves.
A large 3-masted schooner, Doctor, was wrecked at Ballymacormick Point on the north coast. It was smashed to pieces in five minutes and two sailors lost their lives. The survivors were washed ashore and tended to by locals.
In the small fishing port of Donaghadee several fishermen’s boats were thrown onto the shore and smashed while the larger vessel the Vigilant capsized. In addition many properties lost roofs, windows and chimneys. The streets were a mass of rubble and debris. The west face of the town clock was broken and the glass roof of the railway station destroyed. Sheds and stables were blown away.
In Lisburn it was reported that every street had been affected and it was impossible to estimate the cost of repairs. Shops, hotels and public houses had their windows smashed and the old thatched cottages were left roofless. The Methodist Church lost half its slates. The main road between Lisburn and Belfast was blocked with fallen trees. Mr T J Harvey’s boot shop in Market Square lost its top storey and the brick and mortar stables in Lairds Yards were almost totally demolished. Local factories, such as Barbour & Sons, Messrs John Sinton & Co, and Messrs Richardson Sons and Owden were all in need of repair.
Tales of the hurricane’s destructive power came from Newtownards too. The chimney of the Ulster Banking Company was blown down, taking part of the gable wall with it. The masonry crashed through the next-door roof of Mr Francis Waugh’s drapery establishment. The roofs of the Ards Bread Company and the Castle Gardens Spinning Mills also went flying. An unusual occurrence was that the hands of the Market-House clock were twisted out of shape by the strength of the wind.
In Downpatrick one of the pinnacles of Down Cathedral was blown off and the old freestone crosses of St Patrick’s Memorial Church were carried off. Private property and public buildings such as the Town Hall and the railway station were all damaged.
In the district of Knock, the local were alarmed when at 3am in the morning they heard the bells of St Columba’s Church tolling. On investigating they found the iron church building completely collapsed.
The districts round Newry, Warrenpoint and Rostrevor were similarly battered by the epic storm. Houses and businesses were damaged and a portion of the railway track was ripped up.
“Our Newry correspondent writes that the storm there on Saturday morning assumed the proportions of a regular tornado, sweeping all before it. Large trees were snapped in two like matchwood, whilst roofs, chimneys, skylights, hay and corn ricks were blown about in all directions”Irish News 24th December 1894
It was a similar story in the coastal town of Carrickfergus. Houses large and small, new and old, were devasted by the strong winds and lashing rain. Many families were left without a roof over their heads. The high tide and gale force winds smashed the waves over the road leaving rocks and boulders behind.
“Not since the year 1839 has a storm of such violence and destructiveness been felt in this district. On Saturday the town looked as if it had been under a state of siege, the streets in many places being blocked with debris that fell from houses and buildings and workmen were engaged all day in clearing it away”Northern Whig 24th December 1894
At Carrickfergus the schooner Jane broke adrift and smashed other craft to splinters. The tide was so high that it covered the pier and submerged the smaller boats.
Whitehead, Ballycarry and Islandmagee
In Whitehead, Ballycarry and Islandmagee folk were obliged to abandon their homes in their nightwear to seek shelter. Record-braking waves crashed along the shoreline.
At Whitehead a ship was swept four miles out to sea dragging its anchor behind, before it could be stopped. Other craft lost their masts and rigging.
The railway track between Slaughterford Bridge and Ballycarry Station was submerged, as was the country road from Ballycarry to Islandmagee.
The people of Islandmagee (a peninsula) were completely cut off as there was no land passage and no available boats.
The houses in Main Street, Meeting House Street, Pound Street and the adjoining lanes in the town of Larne were all unroofed. The Town Hall, Workhouse, McGarel’s Almshouse and Larne Grammar School lost their windows
Glenavy, Ballygally, Ballintoy and Ballymena
In the village of Glenavy all the thatch was torn asunder. A wooden roof 40ft by 20ft belonging to flock manufacturer H H B Watson, was blown across the dam and onto the main street.
It was during this devasting storm that Jean Park who lived in a rough dwelling on the beach near Ballygally lost her home and her life (see Ballgally Castle post). Cause of death was recorded as ‘drowning during the hurricane of 21st Dec’
The roof and steeple of the Old Church at Ballintoy were damaged. While in Ballymena many factories and mills lost their tall chimney stacks. Trees, over 100 years old, were pulled up by their roots.
The city of Armagh and surrounding region also suffered the wrath of the catastrophic storm. Trees were uprooted and nearly every house in the town was damaged.
The local Justice of the Peace, Mr Hugh Boyle, lost his home, which was situated on the Mall. The house of the Rev Millar was battered by the storm.
Two girls, who were sleeping on the top floor, narrowly escaped death when the falling roof landed on their bed and pushed it through the floor onto a lower level. One was seriously hurt, the other only had minor injuries.
The town of Cookstown suffered severe damage when the storm “burst” upon it. Nearly every street was impassable due to fallen debris and on Saturday morning it appeared like a ghost town.
“Scarcely a house in the town escaped injury of some sort, and when Saturday morning arrived the town presented a wrecked appearance”Northern Whig 24th December 1894
Thus was the town of Omagh described.
The city of Derry did not escape the wrath of the storm. Windows were shattered and roofs, chimney and walls flattened like ‘a pack of cards’. The electric street lights failed plunging the city into darkness.
Letterkenny suffered similar damage with homes left roofless and shops and business premises unfit to open.
Among the dead was a workman walking along Alexandra Dock. He was crushed to death when a section of iron railing fell on top of him.
Another man named John Allard, a joiner, was hit with falling hoarding on the Queen’s Road and was killed outright. Mr Allard was from Newcastle-upon-Tyne but was working at Harland and Wolff.
A Mrs Mary Boyle from Castlederg was returning to her farmstead when she was bodily lifted by the wind. Her head was smashed against some rocks, death was instantaneous.
On Christmas Eve the inquest was held in Mr Armstrong’s public house, Groomsport, for three men whose ship was dashed against the rocks in Bangor Bay. Dr R C Parke declared ‘death by drowning’ on the unfortunate sailors James Green, Sydney Milton and E Milton.
On 26th December a young boy of 25 Lady Street, named Joseph W Magee, died from injuries he had received during the storm. He had been struck on the head by a falling slate and although attended by Dr McDonnell, the wound was too severe for recovery to be possible.
The widespread devastation caused by the violent storm of 1894 left a trail of loss in its wake. Loss to property but more tragic still, loss of life. This would be even more keenly felt so close to the festive season.
“The havoc everywhere is terrible, and will leave many a home miserable that was looking forward to the happiness that Christmas usually brings”Belfast Newsletter 25th December 1894
While the well-off would be able to recover their material losses fairly quickly, those with no money to spare for repairs or the replacement of their meagre belongings suffered a dreadful blow. The full extent of the storm both in physical and emotional losses cannot be ever fully calculated but we can be sure it was a Christmas time not soon forgotten.
Ireland’s Great Hurricane of 1839 – “The Big Wind”
Anyone remember Robinson & Cleaver?
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