Britain's Worst Natural Disasters

#1 The Black Death (Bubonic Plague)

Perhaps the single most famous natural disaster in human history, the Bubonic Plague was a medieval pandemic responsible for wiping out approximately 50% of the total human population. Originating in Asia, it was spread throughout the rest of the world via tradeships and envoys. Upon reaching Britain’s shores, it took merely a matter of months before it had spread across the entirety of England, Scotland and Wales, washing through the isles like a wave of death and destruction. The conditions for the plague to devastate the country were perfect: much of the population lived in poverty, owing to poor economic conditions caused by war and poor harvests; doctors were clueless as to how to treat the disease, and the numerous trade routes carried the plague from one town to the next. In the first instance of the Bubonic Plague in England, a figure of deaths around 40-60% of the entire population is widely accepted. The second instance of the plague, occurring just over a decade later in 1361-62, caused the death of around 20% of the population. Many outlandish methods were used by doctors in order to try and treat the plague, such as bloodletting (the act of drawing blood from a human in the belief that it would expunge the disease), forced vomiting, and even cutting up a pigeon and rubbing it over the infected body! Clergymen fought at the frontline of the disease, and were known to have brought many comforts to the ill and suffering, blankets, food, and drink. Ultimately, however, it was not enough, and the devastating social and economic impact of the plague solidifies its position as one of Britain’s worst natural disasters.

#2 The Sweating Sickness

The Sweating Sickness appeared in Britain during the Tudor and early Elizabethan eras, causing five devastating outbreaks in its lifespan. The disease, in Latin known as the “Sudor Anglicus,” or otherwise the “English Sweat,” was a contagious epidemic that killed many thousands of people during its time, including the famous Richard III, a controversial English king and the protagonist of one of William Shakespeare’s history plays. Symptoms were said to start with a cold phase, during which the victim would feel intense shivers, followed by an even more intense hot phase, including migraines, dizziness, and severe muscle pains. The sickness struck suddenly and without any warning, and killed quickly too - lasting about one day before either recovery or death. In some parishes, the death toll estimate for the sickness is recorded at around 50%. While the mysterious disease fails to hold a candle to the devastation wrought by the Black Death several centuries prior, it earns a place in this list for its unique and mysterious origins, as well as with the effectiveness with which the disease struck compared to other epidemic outbreaks of the time, confusing many of the historical community to this day - who have still not reached a consensus on what exactly it was!

#3 The Year Without a Summer

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora is the most powerful volcanic eruption recorded in human history, almost instantly causing the deaths of around 10,000 people. You might be wondering why it is placed in this list - after all, Mount Tambora is in Indonesia, which is quite the distance from the British Isles! However, what is particularly striking about this eruption, and the reason that it has a place on this list, is the fact that it had a worldwide impact. The ash expunged from the volcano as a result of the eruption spread across the entire world, significantly lowering global temperatures in a period of brief, but intense, climate change. This became known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’ in Britain as, indeed, the year following was that of a harsh, seemingly never-ending winter in which crops perished and many thousands died. Basic food supplies became a scarce commodity, causing a sharp increase in prices that many of the working population could not afford, and those who were ordinarily able to grow their own had of course been unable to due to the recent change in climate. This led to a major famine across the British Isles. Many tens of thousands across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland died directly to starvation. To further complicate matters, major typhus epidemics precipitated by the large-scale crop failure and the famine across the Isles caused the deaths of a further 60,000 people.

#4 The North Sea flood of 1953

The North Sea flood caused widespread property damage and around 1400 fatalities in Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium. It was one of the worst recorded peacetime disasters of the 20th century, with an exceptionally high death toll. Precipitated by a major cyclone originating from the European mainland, the sheer scale and impact of the flooding was completely unprecedented for its time, taking the United Kingdom - quite literally - by storm. The flood devastated the shoddy, poorly maintained sea defences of the southern coast, causing large-scale flooding which breached the sea walls of over 1,600 kilometers of coastline. The waters washed over the seaward face of the country, reaching roughly 4 miles inland and to a depth of 1.8 meters. In response, the British government ordered the evacuation of tens of thousands of people around the coast. However, despite this attempt at managing the destruction caused by the great flooding, over 24,000 properties were damaged, 40,000 livestock was killed and over 300 people died in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex: a totally unmitigated disaster. In the aftermath, a military operation was immediately mobilised by the government in order to scour the devastated coastal areas for survivors, as well as to repair and reconstruct the sea defences that had been utterly demolished by the waves. At the peak of this military exercise, around 30,000 emergency workers were operating: making it the largest military operation in peacetime during the 20th century. New systems were established in order to combat the potential threat of future storms, such as a flood warning system and more structurally effective coastal defences.

#5 The Spanish Flu of 1918-20

The 1918-20 Influenza pandemic is commonly known as the Spanish Flu, as that was the country in which it was first reported appearing. It is the deadliest global pandemic in modern history, causing the deaths of a record 50-100 million people - more than the First World War which had occurred just shortly prior. To this day, what exactly caused the pandemic is not well understood by medical experts and historians alike. Many theorise that it was the poor conditions in the trenches of World War One that led to the outbreak and swift spread of the disease across Europe and then onto the rest of the world, whereas others claim this was not the case. Whatever the origin, it is undeniable that the virus was exceptionally deadly, and is estimated to have effect around 500 million people - approximately ⅓ of the world population at that time. The impact of the disease was compounded by the terrible wartime conditions that saw a mass movement of troops, overcrowded trenches and hospitals as well as the deliberate suppression of information regarding the viruses by wartime governments in order to avoid panic and keep public attention shifted towards the war. The first recorded wave of the pandemic was fairly mild - many were made sick, however the majority recovered after several days and fatalities were comparatively low. Further recorded waves were far more devastating, with the second wave occurring just a few months after the first, this one much more deadlier than the last. Ordinarily healthy people who contracted the virus were reported to have died within hours of displaying the symptoms, which included heavy coughing, fever, and suffocation from a build-up of fluid in the lungs. One group of people particularly vulnerable to the disease were World War One servicemen, who made up a sizable bulk of the victims. Usually, in a pandemic, those of the younger generations were typically more resistant to the outbreak of disease. However, the Spanish Flu did not discriminate, as represented by the total death toll count recorded once it had subsided. In the summer of 1919, when the virus seemed to have finally died out, a staggering number of around 228,000 people had died in Britain, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in its history.

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