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Earthquake in England

Found in John Thomas's Earthquake in England (Unbelievable but True) -published by Blackwood's in 1938, this press cutting from the late 1970s from an unnamed newspaper.

Quakes can be our worry, too. Peter J. Smith

At 9.18 on the mining of April 22, 1884, Dr Alexander Wallace and his family were in their garden looking across at the roofs and spires of the town near by. Suddenly, with a roll of sound like "passing wagons", the buildings began to sway and chimneys crashed to the ground in clouds of dust. Dr Wallace saw his house rise and fall and heard ornaments hitting the floor. He felt sick and shaken, but the fence he grasped for support was rocking too. Less than six seconds later it was all over.

What Dr Wallace and his family had experienced was an earthquake. But they were not visiting Japan, California, the Mediterranean or any other of the world's known belts of destructive earthquakes. This was Colchester, Essex, where such things were unheard of.

In the town itself more than 400 buildings were damaged... the brunt of the damage was taken by villages closer to the shock centre to the east and south-east of Colchester. At Peldon, for example, no house or cottage escaped and 70 percent of chimney stacks were thrown down. Nobody was killed, but within an area of about 150 square miles more than 1200 buildings required repair.

The Colchester earthquake of 1884 was the most destructive ever known in Britain and was felt as far away as Exeter in the west and beyond York in the north. But it was not the first British earthquake; nor, contrary to popular belief, are such events uncommon.

The late Dr. Charles Davison, who spent much of his life studying historical records of British earthquakes and trying to distinguish fact from fancy, concluded that the first clearly documented shock occurred just 1000 years ago in AD974 when according to Symeon of Durham, "a great earthquake took place over all England". 

Since earthquakes have been known to take place at an average rate of more than 120 a century, although this is certainly a gross underestimate. In the earlier periods a relatively small and poorly educated population meant that only the larger shocks in the more densely populated areas were observed and reported. The result is that only 98 earthquakes were recorded up to the middle of the eighteenth century, and most of these were described only very briefly by chroniclers.

Thus, for example, did Stow report that in 1133 "an earthquake was felt, so that it was thought that the earth woulde have sunke under the feete of men, with such a terrible sound, as was horrible to heare". Likewise Holinshed who says that "on the mondaie in the week before Easter [1185], chanced a sore earthquake through all the parts of this land, such a one as the like had not beene heard of in England sithens the beginning of the world. For stones that laie couched fast in the earth, were removed out of their places, stone houses were overthrown, and the great church of Lincolne was rent from the top downwards."

But from the eighteenth century onwards such brief, general descriptions from historians began to give way to longer, more detailed reports from scientists, largely as a result of the spectacular events of 1750. In that year, the "year of earthquakes" as Dr William Stukeley was to call it, four large shocks occurred in centres of population - two in London, one in Chichester and one in Northampton. The London earthquakes in particular generated such alarm that members of the Royal Society were compelled to take a serious scientific interest in the phenomenon, since when the recording and reporting of earthquakes has gradually improved.

By world standards, of course, British earthquakes are small; the energy released in Colchester in 1884 was several hundred times less than that released in San Francisco in 1906. Californians, Japanese and Sicilians could be forgiven for regarding the British effort as derisory.

For some curious reason known only to nature, the larger British earthquake and the larger British town seem not to have collided during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Certainly there is no modern counterpart of the unfortunate Hereford which was hit by 20 earthquakes between 1853 and 1924, including two (in 1863 and 1896) almost as powerful as the Colchester shock. The history of Colchester is sufficient to prove, however, that British earthquakes can be more than mere harmless curiosities. 

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