The year 1750 began with a bang. January dawned with unusual sightings of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) in London, and on 1st February an unusually violent storm in Bristol made the news. Then, shortly after midday on February 8th, an earthquake rocked London. The damage was mild: no one died, and no houses fell down, but the psychological repercussions were huge. These portentous signs set the scene for predictions of armageddon; especially when exactly one month later to the day, on March 8th 1750, another earthquake hit London. With religious leaders predicting a third, more violent earthquake on April 8th, fear gripped London. What happened next?
Earthquake #1: February 8th
Shortly after midday, February 8th, Londoners felt the ground shake. The tremors were felt from Westminster Abbey in central London, out to Greenwich. The shaking was accompanied by low rumblings and distant booming. The shaking rang church bells. A chimney stack collapsed in Leadenhall Street. Furniture rattled and there was minor structural damage to property. But no one died. William Fauquier recorded the event:
On Thursday the 8th of February, 1749-50. at about half an Hour after 12, as I was sitting reading with one Elbow on the Table, on the Ground-Floor, in my House a Eltham in Kent, I felt two Shocks from East to West, which I immediately thought was an Earthquake, as I had felt something like it once at Naples; and was confirm’d in my Opinion; by my Wife’s running down-stairs frighted, and declar’d it was an Earthquake, she having felt one in the West-Indies. [%] William Fauquier
According to an account by Horace Walpole [&] some people jumped at the opportunity to make money.
A parson, who came into White’s the morning after earthquake the first, and heard bets laid on whether it was an earthquake or the blowing up of powder mills….a country quack sold pills as good against an earthquake. Horace Walpole.
In general, Londoners were unsettled, but not unduly alarmed. But all that was about to change.
Earthquake #2: March 8th
Exactly 30 days after the first, another quake occurred – this time more severe and prolonged. People began to sit up and take notice. This time the quake occurred between 5-6am, and the shaking was so severe, fearful of being crushed in their houses, people ran naked into the streets. In Charterhouse Square a woman was flung from her bed with such force she broke her arm. Dogs howled and in Piccadilly, a lady’s porcelain collection was destroyed when it crashed to the ground.
One earthquake is unusual, but two (and exactly 30 days later) was so extraordinary as to be a sign from God. Some believed this was a warning that the wickedness of Georgian London had displeased the Creator. A self-styled prophet, described at the time as a ‘mad guardsman’, ranted in the streets about the end of the world…and people listened. But he wasn’t a lone voice shouting in the wilderness. Eminent religious leaders preached the same message.
The Bishop of London, Thomas Sherlock, saw this as divine retribution against the sinful city of London and wrote an open letter to clergy saying: Give attention to all the warnings which God in his mercy affords to a sinful people…by two great shocks of an Earthquake. He cited the unnatural lewdness and constant blasphemy…which can hardly be mentioned without offending chaste ears, and that the quake was localized to London was evidence of God’s targeted displeasure. Dr. Horne, a future Dean of Canterbury, gave a fire-and-brimstone sermon saying that lives of drunkenness, debauchery, self-indulgence, idleness, and luxury had provoked the wrath of God. And when these eminent people predicted the end of the world on April 8th, with a third and final earthquake, the population listened.
Earthquake #3: April 8th
Did the population repent and lead chaste lives? Maybe – perhaps some did. But the majority took evasive action and simply left London. On the auspicious date the wealthy fled in their carriages. Horace Walpole described events in a letter to a friend and tells us how fashionable persons whether from superstitious fears or their guilty conscience sat the night out in their coaches awaiting the imminent destruction of London. It appears “earthquake gowns” were in high demand amongst the wealthy, these being garments designed to keep a lady warm overnight in the outdoors.
Many people made for open spaces such as Hyde Park, Moorfields, or Towerhill; a safe distance from collapsing buildings. Others waited in boats on the Thames, whilst others traveled further afield to Windsor or the like. Preachers gave sermons to the amassed crowds and predicted the second coming of Christ and all manner of terrible consequences for those that didn’t repent. But when dawn broke and nothing happened, the crowds simply dispersed and went back about their daily routine.
Horace Walpole made drew some wry observations on the whole episode: What will you think of Lady Catherine Pelham, Lady Frances Arundel, and Lord and Lady Galway, who go this evening to an inn ten miles out of town, where they are to play brag till four o’clock in the morning, and then come back, I suppose, to look for the bones of their husbands and families under the rubbish?
Why Did the Earthquakes Happen?
Religious leaders dismissed the theories of little philosophers (i.e. scientists) as being a natural phenomenon and preached their Armageddon sermons. Thomas Waterman, even pinned God’s disapproval down to a specific event, which was the building of the new Westminster Bridge. However, more rational minds sought a scientific explanation, and in the process, the fledgling science of seismology was born.
The Royal Society became the focus for letters and papers proposing logical explanations. By 1760, John Mitchell, a fellow of the Royal Society got close to the truth. He proposed the tremors were the result of groundwater interacting with subterranean fires to produce explosive steam, but also suggested: Shaking waves set up by shifting masses of rock miles below the surface
Charles Dickens…the Last Word on Earthquakes
And finally, earthquakes do occur in Britain but are usually mild. For those interested the Royal Geological Society has an online resource that details earthquakes around the British Isles in the last 60 days. To understand what these feel like, we have an amazing source to refer to – Charles Dickens (and this is where the 19th-century connection comes in!) He experienced an earthquake in October 1863 whilst in Kent. Let’s close with his words:
I was awakened by a violent swaying of my bedstead from side to side, accompanied by a singular heaving motion. It was exactly as if some great beast had been crouching asleep under the bedstead and were now shaking itself and try to rise. The time by my watch was twenty minutes past three and I suppose the shock to have lasted nearly a minute. The bedstead, a large iron one, standing nearly north and south, appeared to me to be the only piece of furniture in the room that was heavily shaken. Neither the doors nor the windows rattled, though they rattle enough in windy weather, this house standing alone, on high ground in the neighbourhood of two great rivers. There was no noise.
References and Sources
British Geological Society Earthquakes around the British Isles in the Last 60 Days
British Geological Society Man-made seismic activity in British Isles in the Last 60 Days
History Extra The Earthquakes that Rocked Georgian London
London Walks February 8 Earthquake!
[& ] Earthquake!
[%] The Royal Society An account of the shock of an earthquake felt Feb 8