On November 12, 1724, I, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, lay asleep in my small room at the top of our three-story house, when, at about six in the morning, I was shocked into full wakefulness by horrible sounds: roaring, wailing, and screeching.
Confounded by such forceful clamors, I was too frightened to shift from my bed. Even so, I listened hard, trying to make sense of what was occurring. It did not help that the room in which I lay had no windows, so I could see little. Then I realized that my bed—in fact, our entire house, an old wooden structure—was shaking. The combination of darkness and dreadful sounds made everything worse.
I dared not move, in hopes that by remaining still, I might diminish both noise and quivering. Yet as if to mock me, the uproar only grew louder and more frenzied, rising to a horrifying crescendo.
Desperately wanting to see something, the better to gain intelligence as to what was occurring, I reached toward the floor where I had placed my candle and flint box the night before, only to discover they were not there. The shaking of the house was so forceful it must have tumbled them away. The next moment I heard a slapdash thumping directly overhead, as if stones were hitting our thatched roof.
Midst all this confusion, I recognized the boom of crashing waves. Even this familiar sound was no comfort: My family home in the English town of Melcombe Regis was a tenth of a mile from the sea. I should not be hearing such near water. I had to investigate.
I crept from bed, fumbled for my clothing, and despite the darkness, dressed swiftly. As I was pulling on my boots, a ghastly splintering sound erupted directly overhead. I looked up. To my astonishment, a faint light appeared as a piece of our roof peeled away like a strip of orange rind, leaving a large and jagged hole. In an instant, a torrent of frigid water poured down, drenching me. What’s more, the wailing sounds grew louder, which I now identified as wind.
Tempests often struck the Dorset coast, but in all my twelve years I had never experienced one so violent. The storm must have hit the shore at high tide—under a full moon a linking of meteorological conditions, which now and again brought flood. I truly wondered if the world was coming to an end. And, if not the entire world, surely my world seemed to be collapsing fast.
Little did I know how accurate that notion would come to pass.
At that immediate moment, however, my concern was this: I must warn my sister of the danger. Charity—for that was my beloved sister’s name¾had her room below mine. Yet, no sooner had I thought of cautioning her, then I remembered she¾six years older than I¾had thankfully gone to London two months ago to live with our uncle Tobias Cuttlewaith.
Good, I thought. She, at least, was safe.
It was only natural then that my worries turned next to my father, Mr. Gabriel Pitts—to give his whole name. A lawyer, he had his closet—which is to say his office and private room¾on the first level of our house.
Wanting to make sure he was safe, I floundered about in search of the stairs. Ineptly, I found them, and then descended with great caution through the blustery, sodden darkness. The water, coming through the torn roof, was flooding the stairway, making it slippery.
After a brief descent, during which I guessed rather than saw my location, I reached the second level, where my sister had her room. It was a little brighter than my chamber, but such powerful gusts were whipping about that I became convinced a wind had smashed the lone window in.
“Father!” I cried, but the sounds that roared about me were louder than my voice. To find him I would have to go down another flight of narrow steps. Accordingly, I gripped the banister as tightly as I could. Halfway down I began to hear sloshing sounds. That suggested that the sea was nearer than I previously thought.
“Father!” I cried again, but received no more reply than before.
Where could he be? Was he hurt? Had he drowned? Could I save him?
As close to panic as I have ever felt, I picked my way down almost to the bottom step where I perceived shimmering liquid pooling below me. Clinging to the wet banister, wondering how deep the water was, I suddenly felt a gob of water on the back of my neck. It so startled me, my fingers slipped, and I plunged headfirst into the water.
In short, I was in grave danger of drowning right in the middle of my own home.