No Cockneys were born in London at the end of the 11th century. Bow bells lay cracked and rusting in the dirt. The church of St Mary on Cheapside was in ruins. A tornado had wrecked London.
Everybody's heard of the Great Fire and the Great Plague, but London has suffered many other calamities over the years. One of the more intriguing is the Great Tornado of 1091.
This huge whirlwind struck the capital in mid-October, twisting in from the south-west. Two chroniclers of the time recorded the devastation.
According to William of Malmesbury, 'Churches and houses, enclosures and walls were left in heaps'. Huge timbers, as long as five men, were ripped from the roof of St Mary and lodged into the ground to a depth of six metres. 'It was remarkable to see how they penetrated the hard surface of the public street [presumably Cheapside], in the same arrangement as they had been placed by the craftsman's skill,' says William.
A scholar monk — either John or Florence of Worcester — tells us that 'a violent whirlwind... shuck and demolished more than six hundred houses and a great number of churches in London'. Both sources agree that just two people were killed.
The wooden version of London Bridge built by William the Conqueror may also have been destroyed. Accounts all over the internet suggest as much, though none provide a source. It may instead have fallen during a great fire, which ripped through London a year later, in 1092. This was a difficult decade for the capital.
The tornado of 1091 was not only the first ever recorded in England, it was also the most violent. From the reported damage, meteorologists have suggested wind speeds of up to 240 mph.
More recent tornados
We're unlikely to see a whirlwind of this magnitude in the capital again, although lesser tornados are reasonably common. In 1928, a short, sharp tornado cut through the West End causing extensive damage in Piccadilly and Shaftesbury Avenue. Soho was also badly hit, as this photo from the corner of Poland Street and Great Marlborough Street shows.
Then, in 1954, a still more powerful twister ripped open houses in Acton and caused extensive damage to Gunnersbury station (newsreel footage).
In 2006, a tornado swept through Kensal Green, damaging over 100 houses and injuring six people. It is the last significant whirlwind to strike the capital, but we are certain of further twisters in the future.