The infamous Saxby Gale which struck the Canadian Maritimes in 1869 was named after Lieutenant Stephen Martin Saxby of the Royal Navy who wrote two letters supporting his claim that a great tide would strike somewhere in the world on 5 October 1869. Saxby, a navel engineering instructor and astronomer, based his prognostication on the thesis that the moon controls the weather as it goes through its phases. His initial letter of 25 December 1868 to the Standard of London and a follow-up reminder published in the Standard of London on 16 September 1869 are given below. Following those letters is a letter to the editors of the the Halifax Evening Express on 30 September 1869 by Frederick Allison, a Halifax, Nova Scotia meteorologist who took up Saxby's claim and added his belief that a major storm would strike Nova Scotia on this predicted date.
TO THE EDITOR
Sir, -- on the 1st June, 1863, you, in your journal, kindly permitted
me to offer a special warning as to the period between the 10th and
13th December of that year. After giving my reasons for expecting very
serious weather in that December, I said, "Now let any man tell me what
other influence can be adduced to coincide for that period so as to
increase the chance of our having the most destructive storm and the
most dangerous tide with which the earth can without miracle be
visited." Well-known and widely-known fulfillments justified this
prediction, and those results are my apology for asking permission to
acquaint the world through your columns with what threatens, not only us
in Great Britain, but all parts of the earth as about to happen in the
Some of your readers may probably be incredulous as to weather
warnings given so long an interval before an expected danger: allow me,
therefore, first to give at least one authentic instance of absolute
fulfillment (as published by me some time early in 1864).
A stranger to me, Captain Sturley, of Burnhamovery, wrote to me on 2d
November, 1863, as follows: -- "Observing your letter in the Standard
of 1st June," &c., . . . "would you still advise us to take every
precaution against this coming tide?" (I strongly renewed my advice as
to the sea walls of the Lincolnshire and Norfolk fens). On 21st
December, 1863, he again wrote: -- "the tide made its appearance much
earlier than usual -- at 7:45 (a.m. Sunday 13th), the tide was at its
highest, being a very large tide; should we have had a gale from the
northwest it would have overflowed all our banks. I think you were
perfectly justified in giving warning. I may say your warning has
induced a long neglected sea bank to be put in repair."
I need to say no more, except that on the same day (Dec.13) the dock
master of the Victoria Dock, London, found 30 feet water on the
dock sill, which enabled him to dock the largest merchant ship afloat
(The Great Republic), and also the ironclad Monitor (their being an
excessive rise of about eight feet).
I now beg leave to the state, with regard to 1869, that at seven
a.m., on October 5, the moon will be at that part of her orbit which is
nearest to the earth. Her attraction will, therefore, be at its maximum
force. At noon of the same day the moon will be on the earth's equator, a
circumstance which never occurs without mark atmospheric disturbance,
and at two p.m. of the same day lines drawn from the earth center would
cut the sun and moon in the same arc of right ascension (the moon's
attraction and the sun's attraction will therefore be acting in the same
direction); in other words, the new moon will be on the earth's equator
when in perigee, and nothing more threatening can, I say, occur without
miracle. (The earth, it is true, will not be in perihelion and by some
16 or 17 seconds of semi-diameter.)
With your permission, I will, during September next, for the safety
of mariners, briefly reminding your readers of this warning. In the
meantime there will be time for the repair of unsafe sea walls, and for
the circulation of this notice by means of your far-reaching voice,
throughout the wide world.
At the period referred to in 1863 the moon happened to be any extreme
south declination, and accordingly the greater devastation occurred in
the Southern Hemisphere (e.g. Melbourne -- vide The Times of Feb. 13 1864 -- the Cape of Good Hope &c.), but next year the two hemispheres will be affected alike.
I am quite aware that in taking this step I am allowing a sense of
social duty to outweigh personal considerations; but I accept the
consequences. -- I have, &c.,
Dec. 21 S. M. SAXBY, R.N.
The Standard London, England Friday, December 25, 1868 Issue No. 13,851
TO THE EDITOR
Sir, -- I owe every apology before again presumed in to seek a small
space in your journal, but I am afraid the general popular attribution
of the present serious gales to equinoctial causes may allow the seaman
into a dangerous feeling of security when these gales leave us.
We read long and painful lists of casualties from "fearful gales,"
"fierce jails," "frightful hurricanes," &c., at Padstow, Falmouth,
and Weymouth respectively; while a "tale of unparalleled fury" is
described as felt at Weston-super-Mare and Boulogne, &c. ; so
that passing occurrences, taken in connection with my warning of October
5 to 7, are sufficiently serious, if I have not (as some people seem to
think I have) mistaken in the period of greatest danger altogether.
I am sorry to say that they present of weather has nothing to do with
the equinox : these are not equinoctial gales; they are to come.
The mere equinoxes has only power to cause a serious disturbance when it
occurs in unison with luni-solar influences. We must remember the
present prevailing succession of gales set in a few hours before my
marked 6th to 10th inst. (we will say within bounds), more than a
fortnight before the equinox actually takes place. Equinoctial gales are
the effect of an equinox, which effect must, of course, be preceded by
the cause. As well we might expect to hear the report of a gun a
fortnight before it is fired, as to have equinoctial gales set in weeks
before the sun crosses the equator, late p.m. on the 22nd inst.
Letters to me from the coast manifest considerable anxiety as to October 5th to 7th.
It is a high responsibility, but with my strong convictions,
resulting from experience, what am I to do when asked whether I will
endeavour, as much as in me lies, to prevent loss of life and property?
Can I forget the lives I may in person have assisted to save? Can one
ever forget his experiences when, on many occasions, forming one of a
lifeboat's crew at the Goodwin?
My suggestions have been thankfully received by those whose lives
would soon be periled by disregard of warnings. Fishermen may be induced
not to sail for the Dogger Bank without every precaution; pilots and
those whose work lies in the English Channel are forewarned and will be
forearmed; and, indeed, will be better prepared for the worst if you
will kindly permit me, sir, to state again the reason why I expected
extreme bad weather in October. It is still imperfectly understood by
I discovered some years since that neither the moon nor the sun ever
crosses the earth's equator without causing atmospheric disturbance, and
especially in the winter months. The disturbance is greatly intensified
when the new moon in perigee happens at such periods.
Now, the new moon was in perigee (that is to say, the moon was at the
part of her orbit nearest to the earth and is a direct line with the
sun), on the 6th instant, thus combining three powers of attraction of
the two bodies. About 30 hours afterwards the moon crossed the equator,
and hence arose the continuation of atmospheric disturbance (as it
always does in similar cases) which often takes so long to subsided. The
consequences of this disturbance are interchanges of air currents, to
the disturbance of temperature, inducing condensation of vapor,
resulting in partial vacuums, which the rushing in of air tends to
equilibrate; hence we have in and from these, gales and showers of a
strength and quantity perfectly inestimable, except from comparisons.
Now between the two causes referred to and a third cause of
disturbance there was, I say, an interval of about 30 hours; but in
October next all three corresponding causes will occur within a space of
seven hours -- i.e. perigee on the 5th at 7 a.m., lunar equinox at
noon, and new moon at 2 p.m.. So that even from these causes alone ought
to expect in October increased disturbance; but this will furthermore
be intensified by the circumstances of the sun's being nearer to us in
October that it was on the 7th September by at least eight seconds of
parallax, or about one quarter of his whole yearly change of distance.
Therefore, one is justified in expecting (to say the least) quite as
great an atmospheric disturbance early in October as we have had since
6th inst.; and I am sorry to say the same may be expected with equal
uncertainty and intensity on the 1st to 3rd November next. The warnings
apply to all parts of the world; effects may be felt more in some places
that in others. It is painful to have to forebode evil; but better thus
than to merit self-reproach under circumstances which might lead to
permanent regrets. Could I save one life, it would be very cheaply
purchased in making better known certain laws of nature. -- I have the
honor to be Sir, your obedient servant,
Faversham, Sept. 14. S. M. Saxby, R.N.
The Standard London, England Thursday, September 16, 1869 Issue No. 14,078
"To the Editors of the Express Halifax, 30th September 1869"
My attention has been drawn to a letter of Capt. Saxby, R.N., to the
Standard of London in which a remarkable atmospheric disturbance is
predicted for the coming 5th of October, as the result of the relative
positions of the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon, on that day. It may be
remembered that a similar prediction of weather likely to occur about
the same period , based on similar reasoning, was given to the world
some months ago, by an observer in one of the West Indian Islands. Other
calculations from district sources point to like conclusions. I have
been asked my opinion with regard to these forecasts; and would thus
state it publicly, in the hope of doing some good.
I believe that a heavy gale will be encountered here on Tuesday next,
the 5th Oct., beginning perhaps on Monday night, possibly deferred as
late this Tuesday night; but between those two periods it seems
inevitable. At its greatest force the direction of the wind should be
South West; having commenced at or near South. Should Monday, the 4th,
be a warm day for the season, an additional guarantee of the coming
storm will be given. Roughly speaking, the warmer it may be on the 4th,
the more violent will be the succeeding storm. Apart from the theory of
the moon's attraction, as applied to meteorology, -- which is disbelief
by many -- the experience of any careful observer teaches him to look
for a storm at next new moon; and the state of the atmosphere, and
consequent weather lately, appears to be leading directly not only to
this blow next week, but to a succession of gales during next month.
Telegrams from points to the South West of us might give notice of the
approach of this storm, and I trust this warning will not be unheeded.
The Evening Express Halifax, Nova Scotia Friday, October 1, 1869