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7 Times Lightning Killed in Oxfordshire

It's easy to see why our ancestors feared a thunderstorm. Why did lightning strike one person but not another? Without short or long range weather forecasts, the violence and destruction caused by a sudden thunderstorm could seem like an act of judgement. Here are seven times that the terrible powers of nature ended lives in Oxfordshire. Stay safe out there people...

1. Ardington, Wantage, June 1832

The belief that lightning was could be a divine punishment can be demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in the case of Martha Warman of Hendred, who was struck and killed by lightning in June 1832. Martha was walking near Ardington in the company of two young men when the lightning struck out of a unexpectedly stormy sky, knocking the two young men to the ground and killing Martha instantly.

Wagging tongues at the time suggested that Martha had been punished for her 'immodest' behaviour (unmarried and out walking with two men, gasp!), but the finger of blame should be pointed at a more practical object, Martha's bonnet. The bonnet structure was reinforced with wire and appears to have acted as a lightning rod. One of the two men reported that the lightning struck her bonnet, before passing through her entire body, tearing her stockings and destroying her boots as the electric current left her body.

At one time a memorial bench stood on the spot where the tragedy occured, which locals would point out to girls as a warning not to copy Martha's 'immodest' behaviour. Maybe point out the lethal bonnet shop to girls instead?

Source: The Veiled Vale by Mike White (ISBN: 9781909747173, Two Rivers Press, 2016)

2. Stoke Lyne, Bicester, August 1852

Although agricultural workers caught out in the fields were particularly at risk from lightning, those who were able to find shelter were not entirely safe, as was proven on 3rd August 1852 at Stoke Lyne, near Bicester. Four farm labourers in the employment of Sir H. Peyton were sheltering in a stable during a thunderstorm when the building was hit by lightning, knocking all four men off their feet and rendering them unconscious. Three of the men came around to find themselves shaken but largely unscathed, but the fourth, John Blaby of Fritwell, was not so lucky.

His three friends found him unconscious, his clothes on fire and his whiskers and all his chest hair burned from his body. The lightning had stuck his head, burning a hole through his hat, and scorch marks showed that the lightning had exited his body via his elbow. Despite the attentions of a surgeon summoned from Bicester, John Blaby died of his injuries.

Source: A Grim Almanac of Oxfordshire by Nicola Sly (ISBN: 9780752465814, The History Press, 2013)

3. Over Norton, July 1880

On the evening of Wednesday 23rd June 1880 a thunderstorm was raging over the west Oxfordshire village of Over Norton. Thomas Jarvis was discussing the violence of the storm at the house of his neighbour George Payne when a particularly loud clap of thunder shook the house. The sound was accompanied by a bright flash of lightning that sent the pair rushing to the window. On the path outside Payne's door they saw the motionless body of another neighbour, 37-year-old loom weaver Edwin Betteridge. Betteridge was breathing but 'quite insensible' and it took the assistance of another neighbour, Thomas Jarvis, to carry Betteridge into the house. They noticed no marks on Betteridge's body but by the time a surgeon had been summoned from Chipping Norton, Betteridge had breathed his last.

The surgeon, Mr Mowbray Jackson, returned the next morning to examine the body more closely. He noted there was a 'great discolouration' reaching from Betteridge's left ear all the way down his back and legs as far as his calves. The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of death by lightning, and both the jury and witnesses donated their fees to Betteridge's widow.

Source: Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, Saturday 03 July 1880

4. Woodstock, July 1884

On 4th July 1884, Mrs Smith was bringing lunch to her husband William, who was working in his hay field near Woodstock, when the heavens opened, forcing the couple to seek shelter under an ash tree. William had been working with Thomas Gibbs, but Gibbs opted to shelter from the rain in a ditch rather than under the tree. This decision may have saved his life.

A few moments later Gibbs reported hearing a deafening crash of thunder, saw a flash of lightning and heard Mrs Smith screaming. Rushing to her aid, he found her crouched over the body of her husband who was lying face down. When the pair turned him over, it was clear that William Smith was dead.

Dr E.W. Turner later examined Smith's body and confirmed that his death had been caused by lightning strike. A scorch mark on his shoulder indicated where the lightning had entered his body, before travelling down his back and right leg. His skin was badly scorched and his clothes burned. Remarkably, considering that she was standing extremely close to her husband at the time the lightning struck him, Mrs Smith only suffered slight scorching to one hand. She survived to raise the couple's eight children alone.

Source: A Grim Almanac of Oxfordshire by Nicola Sly (ISBN: 9780752465814, The History Press, 2013)

5. Churchill, Chipping Norton, June 1886

Mark Harris was a 33-year-old shepherd from Churchill, near Chipping Norton. When a heavy storm broke overhead on Saturday 19th June 1886, Harris opted to stay out in the fields with his flock.

A passer-by noticed Harris sheltering under a tree between 3 and 4pm, but his lifeless body was later discovered near a sheep trough in the middle of the field by a young boy who raised the alarm. The boy reported the Harris's hat was off and had a hole burned through it, his hair was singed and his face was black. Harris's watch was found to have stopped at around 4pm, which was assumed to have been the time he was struck by lightning. Harris's sheepdog was found nearby and although it initially appeared to be physically unharmed, it was later discovered to have been rendered completely blind.

Harris's death left his wife and four children without any means of support. In sympathy with the family's plight, the jury at the inquest donated their fee to the widow.

Source: Oxford Times, Saturday 26th June 1886

6. Deddington, August 1877

On the afternoon of Thursday 23rd August 1877, George Whitlock and John Kilby from the village of Clifton, near Deddington were walking home from their jobs at a quarry in Duns Tew when the skies opened and a heavy thunderstorm began. According to the account given by John Kilby at the inquest, pair initially took shelter under a hedge, but when the storm showed no sign of stopping, George suggested they push on for home.

The pair were in sight of Deddington and walking up Mockley Hill when John Kilby reported that something knocked him down, stunning him. When John came to, he saw the body of George Whitlock face downwards nearby, his clothes on fire! After putting the flames out as best he could, John rolled George over and discovered his friend was not just unconscious, he was dead. George had been killed instantly when the lightning struck him. His cap was produced at the inquest and was ‘nearly burnt to pieces’.

Source: Oxford Times, Saturday 15th August 1877

7. Little Chesterton, Bicester, August 1925

On Monday 24th August 1925, Harry Warland and his wife Agnes from Cosham, Hants, were holidaying with relatives in Little Chesterton when disaster struck. Harry was walking with his brother-in-law Thomas Tuffrey when they were caught in a heavy thunderstorm about 3/4 mile from Thomas's home. The pair sheltered under an elm tree, but, having come out without coats on a warm August afternoon, were nonetheless soon very wet. Henry remarked that he was going to try another tree to see if it provided better shelter from the rain and walked to a tree six or seven yards away.

Thomas reported at the inquest that just as his brother-in-law arrived at the second tree there was a vivid flash of lightning which startled him and Thomas shouted to Henry that they should head home. When he received no reply, Thomas went over and found Henry lying on his back under the tree, gasping and but unable to speak. Thomas ran to get help, but by the time they had returned Henry was dead. The doctor who examined Henry's body reported very few signs of external injury beyond a slight burn on his chest, but noted that his watch and chain were badly burned. A verdict was returned of death by lightning.

Source: Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, Friday 18th August 1925.

Looking for tips on how to avoid the same fate as the unfortunates mentioned above? According to an article published in the Oxford University and City Herald in 1806, the safest places to be during a thunderstorm are either cowering in a cellar, napping in a hammock, or sitting on a chair that is balanced on a pile of mattresses! If you find yourself in the countryside during a storm, the article gives the confusing advice to stay 'within a few yards of a tree, but not quite near it'! Anyone following that last extremely poor piece of advice might meet the same fate as eighteen sheep who were killed near Bicester in June 1910 when the tree they were sheltering under was struck by lightning.

Finally, I couldn't finish this article without mentioning Blewburton Hill near Blewbury, which legend says is haunted by the ghost of an unnamed horseman killed by lightning. His ghost is said to be seen occasionally on stormy nights riding up the side of the hill, only to vanish as the lightning flashes!

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