By John Rogers, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 16, 2007
On 7 December 1954 a severe storm over Ireland caused significant flooding and damage. It continued unabated overnight and swept along the south coast of England causing more damage, especially at Portsmouth where three inches of rain fell. There were hailstones, and a whirlwind left debris blocking Hayling Bridge. The storm path now turned northeast and approached London. Farnham was severely flooded when the River Wey burst its banks, and at Molesey the telephone exchange was struck by lightning. Many trees were uprooted in Bushy Park, and cottages damaged at Ham Common. The full force of the storm hit Richmond Hill, but this saved Richmond town centre from extensive damage.
More damage occurred at North Sheen where railway lines were blocked with debris, then several houses to the east of Kew Green were damaged. Meanwhile, the Thames rose by an unusual amount that afternoon, flooding many roads between Ham and Kew.
Now the storm crossed the Thames and became a tornado. Tornados come from thunderstorms and the turbulent winds in the storm clouds. A funnel cloud can drop down, hug the ground and become dangerous. In the wide open spaces of the American Mid-West it gains tremendous power and forms a visible twister, with nothing to stop it. Here in London the tornado picked up power whenever it crossed open ground.
Five houses were damaged in Thames Road, and others in Strand on the Green and Oxford Gardens. At the Britvic Works, just south of Gunnersbury station, the first significant injuries occurred. The roof fell in, boxes containing glass bottles were thrown around, and six people were taken to Brentford Hospital with cuts from flying glass.
The tornado next hit Gunnersbury station with its full force – and badly damaged it. The official archives at London Transport Museum give the precise time as 17.08 hours, but this is wrong and based on a newspaper error, because the Chief Fire & Ambulance Officer for Middlesex logged the first of many emergency calls at 16.40 from Acton. A violent thunderstorm was raging, and the ticket collector (George Holdaway of 27 Hazel Close, Brentford) was allowing a timid lady passenger to shelter in his collecting hut when the station was hit by a roaring wind. The hut lifted and simply blew away! The station’s iron roof collapsed and buried 15 passengers on the platform. The gallant ticket collector started digging people out of the rubble. Eight of them had to be taken to West Middlesex Hospital. Several others just outside the station were hit by flying bricks and knocked unconscious. The railway line was blocked and the station was closed for rebuilding for a long time, but the line was operating again some time the next day.
In Chiswick High Road, near the station, the roof of the Motorcraft Garage was blown off and landed on the bowling green which was opposite the station in those days. Two walls of a concrete greasing bay were demolished.
The tornado now crossed another open space (nowadays the Gunnersbury Triangle Nature Reserve) and hit hard into the Royal Standard Laundry in Bollo Lane. Four men in the boiler room had a lucky escape. They rushed out of the room just as the 80 ft high chimney collapsed and crashed through the roof. The laundry would be out of action for weeks. Boilers were destroyed, machinery smashed, water supply lines broken, much of the works flooded, and a large part of the engineering and generating rooms demolished. But nobody was injured!
The laundry claimed £6,000 damage (only £6,000?) from an insurance company, stating it was caused by lightning (for which they were covered). The insurance company claimed there was no lightning, it was wind damage (for which they were not covered!). But there was lightning. I know because I saw it.
Now the tornado was raging at its strongest, and the South Acton area almost certainly came off the worst in its entire path. ‘It was just like the blitz’ was the only way many locals could describe it. Some sort of damage occurred to nearly every house in Ivy Crescent, the southern end of Bollo Lane, Montgomery Road, Antrobus Road, Rothschild Road, Temple Road, Kingswood Road and Cunnington Street. In Rothschild Road alone, five houses and a small factory (A A Electrical Co.) were seriously damaged, and a Mr Ernest Kiddle’s car was flattened by a collapsed wall.
Certain buildings in Acton were particularly badly hit, each one being more exposed than its neighbours and especially vulnerable. In an area that consists almost entirely of terraced houses, 91 Antrobus Road is a relatively grand detached house. The entire top floor was simply blown away, and one of the side walls collapsed.
As in the blitz corner houses got more of the blast and were more vulnerable. Nos 62 and 80 Rothschild Road are corner houses and each lost one complete wall. No 60, another corner house, had the top floor almost completely destroyed. Robert Adcock, aged 69, lived at No 60 and told The Acton Gazette: ‘I was sitting upstairs when I heard rat-tat-tat at the door. I went downstairs and on the step were a young couple who wanted to shelter from the rain and wind. I told them to come in, then there was an almighty crash. All three of us rushed up the stairs – and found my living-room smashed up, and all caved in where I had been sitting’.
No 1 Kent Road, (another corner house) lost its side wall, and No 5 was badly damaged. The resident at No 5 was one of the seriously injured. Ernest Cook, aged 79, was taken to hospital where he had three separate lots of stitches in his face, cut by flying glass. Mrs Louise Allum was another serious hospital casualty, but she was extremely unlucky. She was in Church Path when the wind lifted her off her feet. She grabbed hold of some iron railings to save herself, just as a bolt of lightning struck the railings!
Now my own personal experience. I had just left school, awaiting National Service call-up. The only temorary job available was stock-room assistant at Chiswick Woolworths. I was baling up empty packing cases in the yard at the back when there was a sudden roaring sound. The wind smashed in the plate glass windows at the front of the shop, came straight through causing havoc, and sent me and the heavy baling machine flying. There was a crash of thunder and a great shower of sparks as lightning struck Belmont School. But other areas close to the tornado were untouched. I lived with my parents in Fairlawn Grove. When I got home my mother said ‘Storm, what storm?’.
The tornado lifted temporarily again, but in Southfield Road a children’s playground was destroyed, and a shelter blew away and landed on the roof of Wilkinson’s Sword factory. Many trees were blown down and blocked the railway line for 100 yds.
James Girdler’s lead factory in Mansell Road was totally wrecked. Debris from it also blocked the railway (the old branch line serving the coal depot in Chiswick High Road). One lighter moment in this disaster: police and firemen searched the rubble in the lead factory for two hours, looking for a buried nightwatchman, before somebody remembered he had not turned up for work! At 16 Birkbeck Grove, a chimney stack crashed through the roof, just missing 82 year-old Alfred Austin who was slightly injured.
Part of Acton Vale was particularly badly hit. One house in The Vale, the home of Mrs Mudge, was split in half, so badly damaged it was never rebuilt. The shop at 261 was almost totally destroyed. At 263 the top floor was demolished. At 265, Mrs Ella Hogarth had to be rescued by firemen. She was in the attic when the roof blew away, windows blew in and the door jammed. At 269, Bill Pierson said: ‘I was in an upstairs room when it began to shiver and shake. Then the roof was torn off. I have done 30 years in the army and have served in two world wars but tonight was the first time I’ve been frightened’.
At the Central Middlesex Nurses’ Training Room in Acton Vale, 35 nurses left a living room just before the whole floor collapsed. Acton Park lost many trees. All fencing along East Acton Lane blew away and the road was blocked by fallen trees.
Beyond Acton Park, the storm eased temporarily, but there was damage to houses along part of Western Avenue, in the East Acton Estate and in Muirfield. In Du Cane Road, a bus was lifted slightly into the air by a gust, or so it was said, and serious damage was caused to a shop at No 1 Erconwald Street. It was never rebuilt, and one can still see an extra wide strip of pavement where it stood. The roof blew off and a wall came down, leaving a bed hanging out of the wall like a bomb-site. Brickwork crushed a lorry and injured two men inside it who had to be rescued by RAF men from Bromyard Avenue Recruiting Centre.
Across the open spaces of Wormwood Scrubs and the Willesden Junction yards, the tornado gathered force again. The Willesden Citizen newspaper takes up the story:
‘The first indication was a terrific roaring sound! Unspecified debris blocked railway lines at Willesden Junction. Several hundred feet of advert hoardings were blown down in Scrubs Lane and Harrow Road. The roads were blocked; five people injured and taken to West Middlesex Hospital. A lorry was blown over on its side, blocking Harrow Road on the railway bridge. A signal gantry was struck by lightning at Kensal Green station, putting the line out of action between Euston, Wembley and Watford.
Then the tornado hit the residential area south of King Edward VII Park. The worst hit area was Wrottesley Road, Herbert Gardens and Doyle Gardens, where nearly every house was damaged in some way. Streets were blocked with debris and seven people taken to hospital. Three hundred houses were damaged in the area, at a cost of £30,000, and only half of them were covered by insurance.
Now another respite before the tornado struck again near Willesden Green Station. Station Parade, Walm Lane saw the worst incident in Willesden, where two tons of brickwork fell from the side of a three-storey building. Six people were treated at Willesden Hospital, mostly for cuts from flying glass.
In Blenheim Gardens, a family of six were made homeless when their top floor flat lost its walls and roof. And a chimney stack crashed through a roof at St Gabriels.
After that the tornado was finished. There was storm damage further north but nothing out of the ordinary. There was a lot of damage to property, and hospitals, ambulances, firemen and police were swamped by the demand, but remarkably nobody was killed in London, and only 30 or so people had to be detained in hospital. The thing most people remembered was the terrific noise it made. Far noisier than the recent hurricane.
That was not the end of the bad weather, however, which was widespread across England. That night 33 counties were affected by heavy snowfalls or flooding. And there was one fatal tragic accident. In Scarborough’s worst sea tragedy since 1861, five people were drowned when the lifeboat was capsized by a huge wave within sight of Scarborough Pier.
So, are tornados rare in Britain, and are they becoming more common with global warming? Apparently not. TORRO, the British Tornado Club, claims that Britain is the tornado capital of the world! Over 2,000 tornados have been reported in Britain since the early 1600s. That averages out at one every 10 weeks. But our tornados are not as strong as those in the American midwest. American tornados are rated on a scale from FO to F5. Our strongest ones, such as Birmingham 2005, rate about F2 on the US scale. Also, in this densely populated island, tornados are more likely to be seen and recorded than in sparsely populated areas.
How does London 1954 compare with Birmingham 2005? The path of destruction was seven miles in both cases. It was only 100 metres wide in Birmingham, but was more like 300 metres in West London. The severity of the damage in London measures F2 strength, the same as Birmingham, which is why TORRO are trying to get a new scale recognized which will more accurately measure the strength of British tornados. In both cases, there were no fatalities, although there could easily have been.
My talk to the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society in early 2006 ended with a warning that tornados can strike twice in the same place, and remarkably, before the year was out, it happened. On 7 December 2006, one day before the 52nd anniversary, a tornado struck Kensal Rise only 200 yds from Doyle Gardens and Herbert Gardens. This led to my appearances on BBC TV News later the same day, talking about the two events!
John Rogers is an artist, writer and local historian. He was born in Fairlawn Grove but has lived in Gunnersbury since 1963. He is the co-author of Ealing in the Images of England series published by Tempus Publishing Ltd and has also written a book on the history of the British Correspondence Chess Association.