Tuesday 28 July 1761 was a dramatic day of natural phenomena for Dr William Borlase, Vicar of Ludgvan and eminent scholar of Cornish Antiquities and Natural History. Not only did he record a tsunami in Mounts Bay during the day but Ludgvan Church and the Vicarage were dramatically struck by lightning that evening. Both events are described in his letters. (Dr Borlase had already recorded the Tsunami in Mounts Bay that occurred as a result of the major earthquake in Lisbon on 1 November 1755: an account of this event is on the On This Day for that date.)
A letter written on the 17 August 1761 to Revd Charles Lyttleton, the Dean of Exeter, describes both the events starting with a description of the thunderstorm in the evening:
‘You see in the papers an account of a thunderstorm at Ludgvan: ‘tis true, and our handsome tower has much suffered, as well as our poor old church, but the account is silent as to the favourable time in which it happened. It was just upon 8.00 pm so there was neither congregation in the church nor school-boy in the tower (for there our parish school is kept). Had there been either, this storm must have been much more deplorable. The scholars’ books lying on the table were scorched, torn, and dispersed; and the lightning which broke into the church forced up the middle aisle directly to my pew, shattered it, threw down the prayer book from the desk, tore the stem of the pulpit into shivers, disjointed the body, ripped up the stairs, scattered the fragments of the canopy over the church; thence passed over Mrs Borlase’s seat bestrewing it with dust, plaster and splinters, directly east to the altar, threw down one of the tables of Commandments, riffled and ripped the wainscot and plaster-work, and made its escape through the wall under the eastern chancel window, without doing any other harm. Blessed by the Hand that so graciously timed and directed this furious blast!
On the same day about 11.00 am (that I may write you all the news from the ocean as well as the sky) Mrs Borlase* and I, taking our usual exercise on the sands below us, were alarmed with the news of a great agitation on the tide. Not half an hour before we came to the spot, a plough drawn by oxen and horses, passing not many paces from the brink of the sea upon the sands, was all of a sudden surrounded by the sea, the horses up to their middle and the oxen stood still; the driver was in danger of being drowned immediately, and when the spectators had given them up over for lost, the sea (which at this place must have risen six feet perpendicular) retired with the same precipitation, and left them all safe on a firm sand’. [a plough, as described here, is a kind of heavy cart or waggon, not a cultivator]
In the spring the following year when writing to Thomas Birch, the Secretary of the Royal Society, on the 8th March 1762 he goes into more detail of the morning thunderstorm and his experience in his study in Ludgvan Vicarage.
‘Being then writing against a southern window, the lightning and thunder was violent enough (being much more so than any I can ever remember to have met with) either to drive my chair back three feet, or else I started so much back at the light and noise, I am uncertain which: all I could recollect was, that the room at once was full of flame, and immediately not so, and that I was moved three feet from the table, how I could not tell. A little headache was the only ill consequence.’
This much more dramatic and detailed account was published two years later in 1763 by The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligence.
“On Tuesday, July 28, 1761, the day quite calm, the sky lowering and cloudy, thunder at times all day, the tide in Mount’s bay was considerably agitated. Between Penzance and Marazion, there is a level of sands, on which there is good travelling when the tide is out; but when the tide is full, the sands are covered. At 10 a.m. the driver of a plough, belonging to William Tregennin, laden with tin, for Penzance coinage, driving as usual on the then bare sands, found himself and the plough on a sudden surrounded by the sea. The horses were frightened and plunged, the oxen stood still, the driver and his boy could neither recollect how they should help the cattle or secure themselves; several people saw them at a distance, but dared not to approach; and in a few minutes when all was given up for lost, the sea retired and left them, safely to pursue their journey. Mr. B. came to Chandour, a small village in the western extremity of these sands, about 11, and found several persons standing on the shore, intent on the several extraordinary fluxes and refluxes of the tide at that time, and was informed, that the first agitation, when the plough was surprised by the sea, the water must have risen about 6 feet perpendicular. During his stay he observed the sea flowing and retreating several times, and by his watch it was 7 minutes flowing, the water rising about a foot and half, or somewhat more, and the like time nearly in retiring. About half past 11 he was obliged to more homewards, and he passed by the brim of the water, observed that the sea advanced and retired, and was not settled; but the alterations were then small, and scarcely perceptible In the more western parts of this bay, the agitations were very apparent; and, by the papers, the like agitations were felt in the harbours of Falmouth, Fowy, and Plymouth.”
* There are many portraits of Dr Borlase however he also painted and The Royal Institution of Cornwall has a delightful portrait of his wife and also one of his eldest son.
William Borlase by P A S Pool, Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, 1986
The Critical Review or Annals of Literature Vol 16 1763