The History of Wandsworth Common

Published 13 June 2021
Refresh this page

Sunday, 14 June 1914

Thunderstorm on Wandsworth Common kills seven. Four of the dead are small children.

"The tree under which a party of children were sheltering, at the east side of Wandsworth Common, when seven of them were struck by lightning – three fatally and two badly" (ILN)

IN JUNE 1914, LIGHTNING strikes opposite the Windmill killed a young couple, and a man and his 3-year-old daughter. Near Bolingbroke Grove, on the other side of the Common, three children died: a brother and sister aged 5 and 4, and another boy aged 3.

This appalling event was reported around the world, and even discussed in scientific journals. All the victims had been sheltering beneath trees, a fact which featured prominently in the coverage.

Dundee People's Journal – Saturday 20 June 1914

FOUR DAYS LATER, nearly 500 miles away in Scotland, the People's Journal published the most complete account I know of – minutely detailed and horribly graphic.

Here's the original article (transcribed below):

(Click on image to enlarge)




A GREAT BLACK CLOUD hung like a pall over Wandsworth Common, London, lightning zigzagged in the heavens, thunder peals were deafening, and the rain came down in a torrential spate. Under a tree were group of five children, happy in spite of the war of the elements. They were playing "Ring of the Roses," and their childish voices blended merrily in rag-time songs.

A dazzling flash of lightning played round the tree, the singing was instantly hushed, the little mites were scattered on the earth, and three of them were dead. Two rose to their feet, tottered and staggered about as if they knew not where they were.

To another tree in the Common a girl and her lover ran for shelter from the sheets of rain. In a twinkling of eye love's dream for them was cut short. The darting flame from the black sky illumined them for the fraction of a second, and the girl lay dead, one of her legs almost severed from her body. Her lover, seriously injured, lay with his arm round her waist. He was taken to hospital, lingered for a few days, and then followed his sweetheart across the bourne.

Father and Child Perish

Under the same tree a father stood with his little three-year-old daughter in his arms. The merciless flash caught them both, and they were dashed to earth dead. Others were struck, but fortunately their names are only on the injured list.

The death-roll extends to seven, and they are: Percy West (25), 3 Lindore Road, Clapham Junction; George Legg, aged 5, 20 Currie Street, Battersea; Eliza Legg, aged 3, 20 Currie Street, Battersea; Walter John Hilliard, aged 34, 18 Currie Street, Battersea; Marion Grist (23), of Steelworks Road, Wandsworth; Albert Bett (31), of 1 Chivalry Road, Battersea; Florence Bett, aged 3 1/2, his daughter.

The injured are: Henry Hilliard, 2, 13 Currie Street, Battersea; William Budd, aged 7, Road. Battersea; Emily Budd, aged 5, Winstanley Road, Battersea; Kate Munday aged 32, Steelworks Road, Wandsworth.

This is the awful record left by a thunderstorm, the death-pall of which hung for about four hours over Wandsworth Common and its vicinity, beginning about mid-day. In the forenoon all was bright, and thousands of people were enjoying the sweet June air. The thunder cloud rose slowly, and the intermittent peals were taken little notice of.

Brighter and brighter grew the flashes of the darting lightning, and louder and more frequent the thunder. Then the clouds opened, a deluge of rain came, and there was stampede from the open for the shelter of the trees, and the terrible tragedies fell quick upon one another.

Ran Under the Trees

I talked with a park-keeper, who, from his observation-box, was a witness of the tragic happenings the tree where the girl and her lover and the father and child were taking shelter along with others.

(Click on image to go to article)

Lizzie and George Legge, who were killed by lightning on Wandsworth Common. Inset – Henry Hilliard, who was injured.

There were five to eight persons in all gathered under the tree, which goes by the name of the 'Frying Pan.' Two people were passing my box, and just I cried to them to take shelter with me, my eyes were riveted on streak of lightning. It zig-zagged among the branches of the trees like a golden snake, and simultaneously most of the people, men and women, fell to the earth.

A Sight of Horror

It was sight of horror, I tell you," went on the keeper. "Of six persons struck down and unable to rise, three were dead, in some cases their features and their clothing were burned. The father was still clasping his child in his arms, his trousers were ripped up, and the child's clothes torn ribbons, both were dead. A woman who was also dead had one her boots torn from her foot, part of her clothing was also torn, and gold bracelet found close was twisted out shape.

"At another tree close by we found a man and woman both seriously injured. The woman's hat was torn to ribbons, her hair was singed, and one of her hair combs was split into three parts. It seemed miracle that she was not killed, for the shape of the tree was imprinted on her breast."

Flung against a Tree

Thomas Grimwell, who was one of those sheltering under the trees, told me that he was lifted off his feet and flung against a tree. I seemed to forget where I was for a time," he continued, but I pulled myself together and went to the porch of a house. There was a smell like something burning. I was wearing india-rubber on my heels, and that probably saved my life."

"I was hurled against a tree and was blinded by a flash for a time," said Constable Lawrence. I saw six children sitting under a tree, and when I recovered I noticed that they were in a huddled mass."

Percy West, who was unconscious by the side of his dead fiancee, I was told, was taken to the Hospital. Poor fellow, he revived a little and frequently inquired for the girl. He was burned on the abdomen at a spot which corresponded with a metal belt he was wearing, and on the right wrist at a point which corresponded with a glove he was wearing, and which had been torn from his hand. His right boot was cut through and his face and moustache were badly scorched. On the day following he died.

Screaming Children

Mr William Wilkins, who was struck by the flash at the tree where the three were killed, told that he was standing few feet away from the tree protecting his two little children from rain.

"The lightning" he said, "knocked me down with such force that for a short time I was in a semi-conscious state. The screaming of my children brought me to my senses. They were unhurt, but were frightened at seeing me on the ground and not taking any notice of them.

"I was considerably dazed when I got up, and I saw a man, woman, and child apparently dead under a tree close by. I had burn behind my left car; except that and the shock, together with a buzzing noise in ears which kept up for a considerable time, I was none the worse of my rather terrorising experience."

Thought the Houses Were Falling

William Budd, a boy of seven, was only slightly injured, and the wee lad, in childish language, gave me an account of his experience. "We were having games," he said, "when the rain began, and ran for the trees. We were all scared, and crept as close to the tree possible.

"Walter Hilliard and George Legge stood up on the seat, and I was sitting with my back to the tree. All at once I couldn't see anything at all. I was blinded. Then there was such a crash, I thought all the houses were falling down.

"I put my hands in front of me and I felt something fall over me. When my eyes opened I could see three of the others lying on the ground. My right leg was sore, and to ease it I tried to get down off the seat, but fell, and then I seemed to go to sleep."

[BNA: Link]

Illustrated London News – Saturday 20 June 1914

SIX DAYS AFTER THE STORM the ILN ran a macabre feature showing photographs of visitors to the very trees beneath which sheltering people had died.

Illustrated London News, 20 June 1914

(Click on image to enlarge)

Where a man, a woman, and a child were struck by lightning and killed; and another was fatally injured: the tree opposite the old "Windmill".

Deaths by lightning during the great storm in South London: the tree under which a party of children were sheltering, at the east side of Wandsworth Common, when seven of them were struck by lightning – three fatally and two badly.

After it had been struck by lightning which killed a man, a woman, and a child and injured anther fatally: the tree opposite the old "Windmill".

There was a great storm in south London on Sunday, June 14 and seven people, four of them children, were killed by lightning on Wandsworth Common; while several others were struck and injured, there and elsewhere.

A number of children were sheltering under a tree near Bolingbrook Road, on the east side of the Common, soon after 1 o'clock in the afternoon, when there was a vivid flash of lightning which struck the tree and several of the children. The unfortunate young victims were taken to Bolingbrook Hospital, where, within an hour, three of them died.

At about the same time, a tree opposite the old Windmill was struck, and, of the grown-ups and children under it, a man a woman and a child were killed and one other was fatally injured.

Further coverage included:

More to follow up:

[BNA Search: Link]

RoSPA: Advice on what to do if you're caught outdoors in an electric storm

It seemed like a good idea to add a link to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Their stats show that an event such as happened on Wandsworth Common in 1914 is extremely rare - lightning stikes the ground in Britain about 300,000 times a year, 30-60 people are struck, and on average two or three fatalities.

RoSPA: Lightning at Leisure

(Click on image to visit RoSPA website)


Hugh Betterton, 14 June 2021:

Thanks for sending this through. Particularly poignant as Albert Bett(es) and his daughter were killed; my own mother's step-father and step-sister! My mother was about 8 years old at the time and often talked about the storm, recalling - in a matter of fact way - the deaths.

Chris Van hayden, 14 June 2021:

Thanks for this. I hadn't heard this tragic story.

When I was in the Air Force, there was a septic pool at the back of the base which had a layer of weird looking cabbages floating on them. Eventually they organised groups to clear them out, including us pilots. The day after our shift a few soldiers were standing round the pond picking these things out with ropes when lightning hit the water. They all flew in the air and one died instantly.

I know another chap living next to Allfarthing School that was hit by lightning on Putney Bridge, which explains why he is so jittery.

This is so rare that we rarely think about the possibility of occurring to us!

SIGN UP for more Wandsworth Common stories.

Send me an email if you want to comment on anything you've seen or read on the site, or would like to know more, or just want to be kept in touch / Philip Boys (aka "HistoryBoys")

If you haven't done so already, don't delay, join the Friends of Wandsworth Common today.

And buy the fabulous new The Wandsworth Common Story!

(Click on image to enlarge)