Freak storm’s fatal blow for nature

Sheffield Hurricane damage 16th February 1962'Shoreham Street side of Bramall Lane Ground
Sheffield Hurricane damage 16th February 1962'Shoreham Street side of Bramall Lane Ground
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IT was the early morning of February 16 1962, when the Firth Park home of Colin and Shirley Hill started to shake violently from the severe wind outside.

Fearing for their safety upstairs, they got out of bed and went to what they thought was the safety of their living room.

It was to be a fatal decision.

Just minutes later a chimney stack was dislodged and came crashing through the roof and first floor. It landed where Shirley was sitting, killing her almost instantly.

The 30-year-old of Firth Park Avenue became the first of four people to die in what was officially the worst peace-time disaster to hit the Sheffield during the 20th century: the Great Hurricane.

The statistics from that stormy day - the 50th anniversary of which will be next month - are still astounding.

Gusts of 96mph tore through the area destroying 98 homes and damaging nearly two-thirds of all city buildings.

In a single morning, 6,000 people were left homeless and a clean up bill of £2 million was caused.

The government was so concerned it declared Sheffield a national disaster zone.

Schools, railway lines, pylons and a 150ft Bramall Lane floodlight were all written off.

Particularly badly hit were high up communities including Heeley, Crookes and Skye Edge - where a neighbourhood of post-war prefabs were quite literally blown away.

“The damage was unbelievable,” recalled pensioner Haydn Anderson in The Star. “I remember lying in my bed and suddenly flying past my window were roof slates and tree branches. I had no idea what was happening.”

The 75-year-old, who lived in Bodmin Street, Attercliffe, at the time, added: “By about 9am it had died down and I left the house. This huge crane in Pond Street had been literally bent in two. It was extraordinary.”

Perhaps most extraordinary about the whole episode, however, was that while Sheffield battled to cope with the blasts, neighbouring Rotherham and most of Barnsley - with the exception of high-up Birdwell - enjoyed relatively pleasant mornings.

“It was absolutely freak weather,” says Adrian Middleton, co-author of Sheffield’s Weather, a tome which charts the history of the city’s elements since the 17th century. “Certainly, it’s the worst of its kind in living memory.

“The term hurricane isn’t being used lightly. Technically, that’s exactly what it was. There were 36 gusts of more than 80.5 mph recorded at the Weston Park Weather Station and that qualifies it as a hurricane.”

The cause, experts have since established, was something called lee waves - when an air flow, passing directly over a hilly district, takes on a wave-like quality. That results in air streams bouncing off each other, creating huge gusts which batter anything in their way.

Confusing it might be, but because of the topography of the region, it is something which could well happen again.

“It was highly unusual,” says geologist Adrian, who was a nine-year-old Barnsley school boy at the time.

“It wasn’t part of any pattern but it certainly could happen again. And when it does, it’s highly unlikely anyone will have been able to predict it.

“Within Sheffield’s city region limits you have everything from land which is just a few metres above sea level - like at Tinsley locks - to places like High Neb which is 458 metres up, and that can make for unusual elements.”

Back in the aftermath of 1962, the cause was less important than the clean up.

Nothing of course could be done for the dead who, along with Shirley Hill, included John ‘Jack’ Johnson, 17, of Colwall Street, Attercliffe; Ida Stabbs, 57, of Crookes; and Beryl Dickinson, 19, of Balk Farm, Bridwell. All died under falling chimney stacks.

But for those who survived, the Lord Mayor Jim Sterland immediately launched a relief fund, while the council masterminded what The Star called “a brilliant rescue operation”.

Emergency reception centres were opened in various locations including Hurlfield Secondary Boys School where 100 people were housed for the next two weeks. Volunteers, meanwhile, toiled through what was still a bleak winter to repair buildings and ensure the homeless were catered for.

Although in some cases it took more than a year for people to be rehoused, eventually everyone was.

“The damage it caused, though,” says Adrian, “it shows just how powerful nature can be.”

‘Ye greatest snow which ever fell on earth’

THE Great Sheffield Hurricane wasn’t the first freak weather event to hit Sheffield, says Adrian Middleton - and it won’t be the last.

As early as 1615, records from the area spoke of “ye greatest snow which ever fell on earth within man’s memorye”, while the white- out of 1726 was reported to have killed several people walking between Sheffield and Hathersage.

At the other extreme the summer of 1864 was so hot water was supplied to the city only on alternate days to prevent drought; and, in 1975 temperatures soared to an astonishing 30 degrees Celsius. More recently there was the severe winter of 2010, a blistering hot October in 2011 and, of course, the floods in 2007 which left 48,000 homes without power.

The cause? The area’s topography between the flatlands of Lincolnshire and the hills of the Pennines and Peak District.

“Because of that, there is something of a micro climate here,” says Adrian, co-author of Sheffield’s Weather.

The only thing we can be sure of weather wise, it seems, is we cannot be sure of anything.