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The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

The Great Quake of 1884

Stephen Arnott

For many years I used to write short factual articles for periodicals. Most were written on spec, meaning that I'd approach an editor with an idea, and if they liked it, I'd write it up as a feature and take a chance on it being accepted or not. Most of the time they were published; but a few escaped the printing press. This is one of them...

England is no stranger to earthquakes. In AD 103 a quake swallowed a town in Somersetshire “name and all”. A year after the Norman invasion a great earthquake “terrified the whole of England”, and in 1247 a “very injurious and terrible earthquake” stuck London throwing down several houses. 

Thankfully these events are rare (less than 100 notable earthquakes have been felt in the UK since records began) and the last significant quake struck on the 22nd April 1884, an event that subsequently became known as ‘The Great English Earthquake’.

The centre of the quake was Wivenhoe, a small Essex coastal village at the mouth of the Colne River, just a few miles south of Colchester. Fishing was the main trade of the village but it was also a popular retreat for weekend sailors. Once such was Lord Alfred Henry Paget who was aboard his yacht when the quake struck at 9.20 on Tuesday morning. From the deck he had a panoramic view of the destruction that unfolded.

“As I looked towards the village there was this terrible loud rumbling noise, immediately the vessel began to shake and the people around me fell like ninepins. I was flung against the rigging and, clutching for dear life, wondered if the boiler of the yacht had burst…The village was lifted apparently bodily up and, as I fell, I saw part of the church steeple, which towers over the village, sway and then topple into the mass of the devastation…The rumbling noise was almost immediately superseded by the dreadful sound of crashing masonry and the terrible cries of the people. Their shrieks rang out across the water even through all the din”.

Other ship-board yachtsmen gave similar descriptions. The following is the account of Captain Harry Harlow:

“I saw the church and all the houses in the place rocking about, some one way and some another. The only way I can describe it is that the houses looked like pleasure boats at the seaside with a ground swell on, with some of the boats rolling in on direction, and some another. The church appeared to go over several degrees to the south-east, and then back again to the north-west…The top of the tower came down with a crash, at the same time the huge chimneys of the Grosvenor Hotel also came down. Looking in all directions I saw chimneys, walls and houses coming down”.

Mr William Ham was also in a boat:

“As the [earthquake’s] wave rolled on I saw every chimney topple until the work of destruction reached the line of the church tower, and then the crashing masonry raised such clouds of dust I could see no more and I thought the whole place had collapsed”.

Needless to say the experiences of those on land were even more dramatic. On Mersea Island huge crevices opened up, the largest (150 yards long) almost swallowing an elderly fisherman. In Wivenhoe, Mrs Ham (landlady of The Anchor Inn) heard what she thought was a “traction engine under the floorboards” before being flung backwards by the shock:

 “Glasses began to tumble all around me, the beer casks rolled over with a terrible crash, and the door and windows buckled and broke out. Plaster began to fall from the ceiling all over me followed by debris, and then something struck me from behind which knocked me out”.

Luckily Mrs Ham wasn’t seriously injured, and her husband was on hand to dig her from the rubble.

The effects of the quake in nearby Colchester were no less severe. At the railway station passengers were flung from their carriages by the rolling motion of the quake. The spires of many of the town’s churches were toppled and the streets thronged as people ran from their homes and work-places. As the Essex Telegraph put it, “It is impossible to exaggerate the feeling of consternation which prevailed…women shrieked in their terror and strong men seemed utterly helpless to console them, being themselves completely unnerved and paralysed”.

It was not only the Colchester area that was effected it even provoked alarm in London. According to the Daily Mail the City was “violently shaken”. At Wimbledon the players’ balls bounced out of line, skeletons at Bart’s Hospital shook and gyrated as if “performing some mad dance” and on the Thames a three foot-high wave rushed up the river swamping several boats. The effects were also felt in Parliament. Books in the Commons Library were thrown off their shelves and officials were dispatched to the cellars to make sure no-one had attempted to blow-up the building.

Not everyone was affected by the quake, due to the vagaries of local geology some people didn’t feel it at all, an effect that resulted in some disconcerting experiences. One such was that of a young woman walking near Colchester Castle. According to the Essex Telegraph, “she experienced no sensation of the earth moving, but saw to her astonishment and consternation a cottage in Maidenburgh Street topple over and became a partial wreck without any apparent effect”.

Considering the violence of the earthquake it’s surprising that the death-toll was so low. In fact only one fatality can be directly attributed to the quake, that of a small child overcome by rubble falling down a chimney. There were, however,  a great many narrow escapes. The rector of St Leonard’s in Hyth was almost crushed by two chimney stacks that fell through the roof and plummeted into his sitting room. Mr Moore an elderly man “almost set fast with rheumatism” leapt to his feet to assist his wife and just missed being scalded by a boiling kettle hurled into his chair by falling rubble. While in Wivenhoe Hall, a young guest had just finished washing himself when two chimney stacks fell through the roof and smashed into the bath he’d vacated a few moments before.

Thankfully the quake was not the disaster it could have been. After the dust settled it was discovered that much of the damage, though widespread, was superficial. Dozens may have been injured and left homeless it was generally acknowledge that it could have been a great deal worse. As one local poet put it;

Accept our thanks for mercy shown                                  When danger came so near;                                                      Our humble homage at Thy throne                                          We pay in reverent fear.

Thanks for visiting. Please explore this site if you'd like to know more about me and my books. My latest novel is the Dark Age adventure Leofric: Land of the Franks due for release later this year.