April 1884 – The great English earthquake

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Thanks to our relatively benign geology, UK earthquakes tend to be fairly low-key affairs, rarely causing more damage than the odd collapsed chimney, lost roof tile or disturbed night’s sleep.  A far cry from the devastating events that have left many dead this week in Iran.

But in April 1884 The Engineer was picking over the aftermath of  one of the UK’s biggest ever seismic events: the great English earthquake.

‘On Tuesday morning, at about twenty minutes past nine, what was evidently a severe earthquake occurred along our eastern coast,’ wrote the Engineer.

Also sometimes referred to as the Colchester earthquake, the tremors caused considerable damage throughout Essex and Suffolk and were even felt in London. According to some reports between three and five people lost their lives.

Reliant on somewhat confusing second-hand accounts of the earthquake the article expresses scepticism over “exaggerations which describe what people thought took place.” However, it does acknowledge that the event was unusually severe.  ‘At present we are not in possession of full particulars of the extent to which buildings have really been destroyed or shattered, but it seems clear that more destruction has been wrought than by any earthquake in this country since the latter end of the thirteenth century.’

It’s easy to imagine how hysterical contemporary accounts of the earthquake  may  have caused a great deal of unease throughout the UK. But The Engineer’s  tone was characteristically measured, and the article concludes by suggesting that this destructive, but rare, event, would have little impact on prevailing construction techniques. ‘Unless we in England are unfortunate enough to have our knowledge of earthquakes extended by frequent actual demonstration, we are not likely to look upon them as in any way entering into our architectural consideration.’

A week after its initial report, The Engineer sent a reporter to Essex to inspect the scene of the earthquake and gather some eye-witness accounts. It concludes that the timing of the event was fortunate. ‘If the shock had been felt at 9.20pm instead of at 9.20am , the loss of life would have been very great : and the same would have been the case if Langenhoe church [which was destroyed by tremors] for example, had fallen on a Sunday , when its possible that some thirty or forty people would have been buried beneath the ruins.’

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