British and European Extremes

TornadoArtist's impression of the Rosdalla tornado
(Credit: Chris Chatfield)
TornadoArtist's impression of the waterspouts in 1233
(Credit: Chris Chatfield)

Earliest tornado and waterspout

The earliest tornado known in the UK hit St. Mary le Bow in central London on 23rd October 1091 rated at T8?. Further details about this tornado are given under the "Most intense tornado" below.

The earliest tornado known in Europe occurred at Rosdalla, near Kilbeggan (Co. Westmeath), Ireland on 30th April 1054. Some violent squalls which may be tornadic are known from before 1000, but evidence of conclusive (or even probable) tornadoes is lacking.

The earliest-known British waterspouts (there were actually two) are also the earliest known in all of Europe; these occurred off southern England in June 1233.

Longest-track tornado

On 19th August 1881 a T3 tornado tracked from Upton to Elsham in Lincolnshire, a total distance of 32km, making this the longest on record the UK (and England).

On 31st December 2006 a T4-5 tornado tracked 30.2km from Ardmore, Co Armagh to Loanends, Co Antrim, a total distance of 30.2km. This is the longest on record for Northern Ireland.

On 27th October 1913 a T7 tornado tracked 17km from Dyffryn Dowlais to Bedlinog, Merthyr Tydfil. This is the longest on record for Wales.

On 20th January 1854 a T3 tornado in the Newton Stewart, Dumfries & Galloway area tracked a total length of 11km which is the record for Scotland.

Note there are other historical events in the database covering longer track lengths but damage is too intermittent to be recorded a single event and these were discounted in a review in the 2010s.

On the continent, the tornado with the longest reported track also happens to be the earliest-known tornado in France. It occurred overnight during the September of 1669, tracking from La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime) to Paris - a length of 400 km. This is also likely to be a minimum distance, as it is quite possible that the tornado commenced as a waterspout over the Bay of Biscay. However, the antiquity and lack of data available to TORRO raises questions as to the continuity of the track; it is perfectly possible for several individual tornadoes to have been responsible for what may have been a discontinuous track.

Widest tornado path

The widest tornado on record for the UK (and England) occurred on 7th January 1998 hitting Selsey, West Sussex. This had a maximum width of 900m where it initially made landfall as a waterspout narrowing to 600m before it moved back over the English Channel. Damage was widespread but luckily the event happened shortly before midnight. This tornado was rated T3.

The widest track on record for Wales was associated with the 27th October 1913 tornado previously mentioned for Dyffryn Dowlais to Bedlinog, Merthyr Tydfil with a maximum track width of 300m.

Likewise for Northern Ireland the record is also 300m set on 31st December 2006 by the Ardmore, Co Armagh to Loanends, Co Antrim tornado.

On 8th July 1875 Lumsden, Aberdeenshire was struck by a tornado with a maximum track width of 150m which is the record for Scotland.

Note there are other historical events in the database covering wider track widths but these were discounted in a review in the 2010s.

The widest-known tornado on the continent occurred on 3rd June 1902, at Javaugues (Haute-Loire), France. Although the path length was only 7km, it was 3,000m wide and the tornado had an intensity of T6-7. Remarkably, only one person was killed by the tornado, which occurred at 1400 GMT.

Several European countries have been affected by tornadoes with paths over 1,000m wide; some nations have been hit a number of times by such massive tornadoes.

Most intense tornado

Three tornadoes in Britain are believed to have reached T8; their antiquated nature necessitated great caution in assigning intensities, so it is possible that they may have been even stronger.

On 23rd October 1666 the most intense tornado on record for the UK (and England) passed through Welbourn, Wellingore, Navenby and Boothby Graffoe in Lincolnshire. The Welbourn tornado has been rated at T8-9 with a reported maximum track width of 200m and a track length of 5km.

Thomas Short writing in 1749 described it as "it came with such Violence and Force, that at Welbourn it levelled most of the Houses to the Ground; broke down some, and tore up other Trees by the Roots, scattering abroad much Corn and Hay. One Boy only was killed. It went on to Willingmore [Wellingore], where it overthrew some Houses, and killed two Children in them. Thence it passed on and touched the Skirts of Nanby [Navenby], and ruined a few Houses. Keeping its Course to the next Town [Boothby Graffoe], where it dashed the Church Steeple in pieces, furiously rent the Church itself, both Stone and Timber Work, left little of either standing, only the Body of the Steeple."

TornadoArtist's impression of the St. Mary le Bow tornado
(Credit: Chris Chatfield)
TornadoArtist's impression of the Montville tornado
(Credit: Chris Chatfield)
The second, also the UK’s earliest known tornado, occurred on 23rd October 1091. The church at St. Mary le Bow in central London was badly damaged, with four rafters - each 7.9 m long (converted from the reported 26 ft) - being driven into the ground (composed of heavy London Clay) with such force that only 1.2 m (converted from the reported 4 ft) protruded above the surface. Other churches in the area were demolished, as were over 600 (mostly wooden) houses. This has been rated T8? due to the difficulty in estimating an event so long ago and the damage reports having been written over 30 years after the event.

On 14th December 1810, a T7-8 tornado tracked from Old Portsmouth to Southsea Common (Hampshire) also causing immense damage - although no deaths, it is believed. Some houses were completely levelled and many others were so badly damaged that they had to be demolished; chimneys were blown down and the lead on a bank roof was "rolled up like a piece of canvas and blown from its situation".

The most intense tornado on record for Wales was the Dyffryn Dowlais to Bedlinog, Merthyr Tydfil tornado of 27th October 1913 which reached T7.

The most intense tornado on record for Scotland occurred in September 1767 at Blairgowrie, Perth & Kinross rated at T6?.

The most intense tornado on record for Northern Ireland was the 31st December 2006 Ardmore, Co Armagh to Loanends, Co Antrim tornado rated at T4-5.

The most recent T7 tornado was on 8th December 1954 which hit Gunnersbury in London. The most recent T6 tornado in the UK was on 28th July 2005 (rated T5-6) which hit Birmingham, and in the wider British Isles on 1st November 2023 in Jersey during Storm Ciarán.

Note: following a review in the 2010s the 23rd October 1091 tornado is no longer the most intense on record for the UK.

Across the continent, a number of tornadoes are believed to have reached T10 - although it is always difficult to rate violent tornadoes, especially those at the upper end of the category. Violent (T8-T11) tornadoes have occurred in many countries, although only a few nations have experienced a T10. However, two tornadoes are rated T10-11 with the upper category implying windspeeds close to the 500 km h-1 (311 mi h-1) mark. On 19th August 1845, a violent T10-11 tornado devastated Montville (Seine-et-Maritime) in France. Sources give conflicting information as this lunch-time tornado travelled 15 or 30 km, was 100 or 300 m wide and killed 70 & injured 130 or (less probable) killed 200 people.

At a similar time of day on 24th July 1930, the Treviso-Udine area (Veneto / Friuli-Venezia Giulia) of Italy was devastated by a 80 km long T10-11 tornado, which claimed 22 or 23 lives.

Most deadly tornado / waterspout

The deadliest tornado on record for the UK was the previously mentioned 27th October 1913 tornado in south Wales where a total of five deaths occurred in Abercynon and Edwardsville, Merthyr Tydfil.

Whilst there are reports of as many as 60 people being killed on 31st October 1638 by a tornado in Widdecombe, Devon there is not enough certainty to verify this event as being a tornado.

Note following a review in the 2010s the 28th December 1879 Tay Bridge collapse in which 74 people were killed on a passenger train is no longer regarded as the event with the greatest loss of life due to the speculative nature of the waterspout reports with regards to the pre-existing damage to the structure and the meteorological conditions at the time.

Great loss of life has been caused by tornadoes and waterspouts across the continent. On 23rd September 1551 (or 1556, date not reported - sources conflict), the Grand Harbour at Valetta, Malta, was hit by a waterspout which then moved to land and caused T7 damage. A shipping armada, which had assembled there and was about to go into battle, was destroyed by the waterspout killing at least 600 people. It is not known how many recovered from their injuries.

It was reported that in December 1851 two tornadoes crossed the western tip of Sicily, Italy, killing over 500 people, but details on this event are lacked by TORRO. On 9th June 1984, over 400 were killed and 213 injured when a T10 tornado hit Belyanitsky, Ivanovo and Balino in western Russia.

TornadoArtist's impression of the Valetta waterspout - tornado (Credit: Chris Chatfield)
TornadoArtist's impression of the Sicily tornadoes
(Credit: Chris Chatfield)

Largest tornado outbreak

The largest tornado outbreak in the UK is also the largest tornado outbreak known anywhere in Europe. On 23rd November 1981, 104 tornadoes were spawned by a cold front in the space of 5.25 hours. Excepting Derbyshire, every county in a triangular area from Gwynedd to Humberside to Essex was hit by at least one tornado, while Norfolk was hit by at least 13. Very fortunately most tornadoes were short-lived and also weak (the strongest was around T4) and no deaths occurred.

The second largest outbreak on record was on 20th October 1981 in an area from Somerset eastwards to Sussex and Kent. There were 29 tornadoes on this day peaking with a maximum rating of T3.

There are no known large outbreaks for either Northern Ireland or Scotland.

For further details of UK tornado extremes please refer to Rowe (2016).

Rowe, M. (2016). Tornado Extremes in the United Kingdom: The Earliest, Longest, Widest, Severest and Deadliest. In: Extreme Weather Forty Years of the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO) (ed R.K. Doe), 77-90. Wiley-Blackwell.