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How naming storms helps raise awareness of their impending arrival

Recent storms have been battering the towns and villages along the east coast, including Staithes, seen here Picture: Alastair Smith
Recent storms have been battering the towns and villages along the east coast, including Staithes, seen here Picture: Alastair Smith

AS we wish November goodbye, we are well into storm season which started in this part of the world on September 1. At the time of writing, we have had four so far, starting with Agnes in late September, followed by Babet in mid-late October, then Ciarán in early November, and most recently Debi in mid-November.

The part of the world where a storm originates is the one which has the privilege of naming it and in the US, they have been doing that since the 1950s. Our storms have only been given names since 2015, the idea being to raise awareness of their impending arrival, making it easier for us to be prepared. Originally, the Met Office asked the public for suggestions but now, more often than not, it is the various weather services that choose. Here in the UK, the Met Office collaborates with the Irish weather service, Met Éireann, and the Dutch KMNI agency to come up with them. Norway, Sweden and Denmark collaborate in a separate north European group, while southern countries such as Portugal, Spain and France, join forces to name storms originating there.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Recent storms have been battering the towns and villages along the east coast, including Staithes, seen here Picture: Alastair Smith
Darlington and Stockton Times: Recent storms have been battering the towns and villages along the east coast, including Staithes, seen here Picture: Alastair Smith

Records of storms began in 1766, but it is one that occurred before that in November 1703 that has the reputation as the worst this country has ever known. The south coast was the worst hit, and one of the most famous accounts of the disaster was published by Daniel Defoe, who released his book "The Storm" in 1704. Defoe, most famous to us for writing Robinson Crusoe in 1719, was already well known as a political satirist and commentator. Having lived through the storm, he not only wanted to document it, but was keen to hear the stories of others who had been affected.

He placed an advert in the London Gazette asking for eyewitnesses to get in touch. He had an enthusiastic response, and subsequently included about 60 of the stories in his book, which he describes as follows: "A collection of the most remarkable casualties and disasters which happened in the late dreadful tempest both by sea and land."

The book has since been credited as being the first substantial work of modern journalism, even though it is criticised for sensationalism and exaggeration. But Defoe, just like the tabloid editors of today, understood that attention-grabbing headlines and promises of gory first-hand accounts were what would entice readers to part with their money. "No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thoughts conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it," he declared.

When describing coastal towns, such as Portsmouth, after the storm, he says they "looked as if the the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces". He also describes the lead on the roofs of churches and public buildings being "rolled up like a roll of parchment and blown in some places clear off the building."

Defoe’s enthusiasm for telling the real story coincided with a growth in the public’s appetite for current, up-to-date news, rather than the tedious lengthy ramblings of the partisan editors that they were used to. Although newspapers were being produced a couple of times a week, it was on March 11, 1702 that the first ever daily paper hit the streets. The single-sheet Daily Courant featured two columns of foreign news on the front, with paid advertisements on the back.

The editor, an E. Mallet, stated that he "would not take it upon himself to give any comments or conjectures of his own, but will relate only matter of fact, supposing other people to have sense enough to make reflections for themselves". In other words, the paper vowed to be free from bias.

But who was this mysterious E. Mallet with such an enlightened, sensible approach to sharing news? It was in fact a woman called Elizabeth Mallet, who hid behind a male persona for fear of ridicule and censorship.

At the bottom of Ludgate Hill in London, just before it turns into Fleet Street, there is a blue plaque fixed to a wall which states: "In a house near this site was published in 1702 The Daily Courant First London Daily Newspaper".

Isn’t it about time that Elizabeth Mallet, a clearly enterprising woman way ahead of her time, had her name added to that plaque, or indeed, a plaque all of her own?

Contact me via my webpage at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.