April Create: The Forgotten Great Storm of 1978

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MMF may have slept through the Great Storm of 1987 and merely witnessed the destruction afterwards, but the storm of nine years earlier is another story.

I remember Kent's 'Great Storm' of Wednesday 11th January 1978. This is was a storm-surge that has largely been forgotten by many except those who were there.

On that Wednesday evening I was volunteering at a youth club in Cliftonville, an area North-East of Margate, situated on top of a chalk cliff. By 20.30 the weather outside had become very unpleasant, with the ceramic facia tiles around the outside of the building being ripped off and debris flying around as the wind battered the cliff and blew down Zion Place.

It was felt that the weather was such that it was best if we evacuated the building and send everyone home. This was done fairly quickly and without a great deal of fuss or excitement. By 21.00 I was heading home. But I was now in a quandary. Did I cycle the 5 miles to Ramsgate (as the crow flies) or take the train?

Judging by the strength of the wind I didn't fancy cycling, especially with the strong gusts, although the wind would have largely been behind me, so I decided to head for Margate railway station. This was not as straightforward as I first thought as it entailed cycling into the strengthening wind to reach Fort Hill, a fairly steep road following the contour of the cliff levelling out at the clock tower adjacent to Margate harbour. This was followed by a 400 yard (360m) ride along Margate's amusement 'Golden Mile' to get to the station.

As I left the youth club on my bike, I could see a white box van trying to drive along the road to reach Fort Hill, but kept being stopped by the force of the wind, on occasion being pushed backwards. I struggled myself, making little progress. I had to give up cycling and walked, head bowed into the gale-force tempestuous winds. Once onto Fort Hill the gradient assisted my descent but I could see advertising hoardings being blown cartwheel style, up the hill, along with assorted detritus, much of dubious origin.

On reaching the Clocktower, there was around 6" (30cm) of choppy sea water/rainfall on the road, and spume and spray being blown over the sea wall as well as waves breaking over. By now, I was using the bicycle as a walking frame. As I neared the Station the bricks forming the facade of Dreamland amusement arcade were being flung into the nearside pavement and road. I think I could envisage what it was like to be hailed by mortars.

I opted to continue on the sea side of the road, hoping to avoid the breaking waves but more importantly the hail of masonry and tiles flying from the surrounding buildings. I did eventually reach Margate station around 21.45, a journey that would usually take 10 minutes to cycle.

A train from London pulled into the station at around 22.00 and I climbed on, bike and all. The train attempted to leave the station but on trying to get past the cover of the station, was halted by the wind. The driver decided to reverse the train around 100 yards (90m) into the station to get enough momentum to leave the station.

The bizarre nature of the evening hadn't run its course. When I reached Ramsgate, who's station is on the town's outskirts, around a mile (1.5km) from the town centre, the wind was much less than in Margate, and cycling into Ramsgate was a breeze . Well, not Ramsgate, as such, as I lived on the outskirts of Ramsgate to the South-West, so was unaware of how Ramsgate seafront was being unaffected until the following day.

Which was when I realised the full toll of the storm.

Both Margate and Herne Bay piers were made inoperable by the combined storm and sea surge and had to be closed to the public. Not that they could be accessed as the sections linking the pier head to the land had largely been washed away or mangled to such an extent they were impassable. Margate's Lido had been destroyed, with the deck-chairs being broken and resembling Matchsticks. Ramsgate harbour's East Pier had a number of 2.5 ton (2540kg) granite blocks ripped from the wall and lost in the sea, while the road surface was also destroyed. I understand few of the blocks were found, and new sections had to be fabricated.

Scavengers, including my Father, poured onto Margate beach over the next two days, purloining the wood that had formed Margate Pier's decking and been washed ashore, being good-quality and well-seasoned mahogany. This was despite the Police and Council providing a token presence to prevent looting. I was informed later that it was deemed cheaper, and easier, to let locals remove the booty than to pay Council employees to remove and dispose of the storm wrack. My Mother benefitted from quality, built-in kitchen units, and my Father had extra wood left over for quite a number of other projects.

On the Thursday I found that the sand that was being blown off Margate beach had blown through my genuine Royal Navy greatcoat and into my back. It took ages to get the coat clean and sand free, while my back took a number of attempts to remove.

Certainly an evening I will not forget. I have the pictorial souvenir, as well as a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings to remind me of that 'Great Storm' now for many, largely on the scrapheap of remembered storms. Why? Because it didn't affect London or its suburbs, I guess. I understand that the East coast suffered worse with a number of other piers being badly damaged or destroyed. Luckily due to improved storm defences following the fatal storm surge of 1953, the devastation was minimised, much as it was with the surge of December 6th, 2013.

The End of the Pier?

Margate pier (actually known as Margate jetty) refused to die. It is listed as 'The least successful Pier demolition'. Possibly ever. The superstructure and walkway were the first to be disposed of, with the lifeboat house being removed later. The jetty head had to be reached by boat. Carefully, due to underwater and overhead hazards.

The first attempt to remove the 34 legs and other ironwork, a year after the jetty was largely destroyed, was by a demolition expert. This did no more than send a huge gout of water hundreds of feet into the air. The second fared little better, sending a rivet flying over the coast road, through the window of a pub and wedging itself into the wall opposite. The jetty was largely unscathed by these actions.

For safety reasons, the next two explosions were carried out at midnight, doing little apart from waking the townsfolk of Margate. A curfew was then imposed, with further detonations doing little damage to the pier except for a slight list to the Lifeboat house. More attempts were undertaken, this time to destroy each of the legs one at a time, rather than try to destroy the jetty in one go. Even the Royal Engineers were called in to assist in the task. I am led to believe that the legs had to finally be cut off at beach level, using cutting equipment. Today the Turner Contemporary Gallery looks out over the final remains of the jetty, with buoys pointing out the underwater hazards to shipping.

So even today, Margate jetty still remains, a testimony to Victorian Engineering. They certainly built piers to last then.

This was not the first time the jetty had been damaged. The jetty was built in 1857, completed in 1875 and extended in 1893 and 1900. It had a previous brush with partial demolition, when a drifting vessel collided with the central section of the pier in 1877, destroying it and stranding 50 people overnight, until a rescue could be attempted the following day.

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