And the Ground Shook in London – 1750 “Year of Earthquakes”

Today I am sharing with you something I was very intrigued by and surprised to find about. I am talking about a series of earthquakes that took place in the UK and that in their own way had an incredible contribution to the world of modern science.

As most of you may know, the UK is not terribly well-known for seismic action, yet earthquakes do happen every now and then. Nevertheless, due to the scarcity of these events and the misunderstanding of the same they were overlooked for many years, as the collective memory of the events did not keep the notion and passed it on to future generations in a way that would be significant or memorable for those to come. Previous seismic action in the UK is known to be responsible for the partial collapse of cliffs at Dover due to a convulsion in the English Channel (1580), which interestingly enough Shakespeare references in Romeo & Juliet. But all of this would change in 1750. It was the 8th of February when at noon several witnesses report seismic movement in London. It has now been estimated by the British Geological Survey that this convulsion was of the magnitude of 2.6, but to the Londoners it felt like something else. Witness reports advise of lamps falling of in the streets, drinks spilling in taverns, and other things one would expect in this situation. It has been identified that the epicentre of this earthquake was in the area of London Bridge. Nevertheless, the incident was dismissed by the large majority of the population under the pretence that it was so incredibly unlikely that an earthquake would take place in England that it most certainly could not be the case. Therefore, the events of 8th of February were simply attributed as explosions or cannon fire…And along came March to shake things up a bit more.

Four weeks later, (4th March 1750) seismic activity was reported again, almost a month to the date, this time with the area affected increasing to five times that of the original earthquake of February. This led to the collapse of two houses in Whitechapel, several chimneys destroyed in the City of Westminster, and the very stones of Westminster Abbey suffering damages, to the point that many scared pedestrians through the building may fall down all together. In his A History of British Earthquakes, Charles Davidson advises that witness accounts report strange behaviour in animals, with cats and dogs hissing and barking for reasons unknown to their owners, horses agitated and refusing to move. So when the original March tremor happened to replicate on the 9th rumours of cataclysm started spreading across the city, panic taking over the Londoners who now believed the day of Judgement was approaching. It seems that many preachers took the opportunity – as often happens in history when a natural disaster takes place – to preach that the city of London would fall for the sins of its citizens. It must have been just chaos and madness. However, a month later the city was standing, and no more earthquakes were felt by the Londoners, and slowly but surely, things resumed to normality. The earthquakes became a weird occurrence for most of the witnesses, but that is not the end of the story.

Many intellectuals were deeply curious as to what had caused these events – funnily they did not believe cannon fire took place in the middle of London…Surprise! Philosophers in particular were interested in the phenomenon and the effect it had on people’s mentalities – we must remember this is, after all, the age of Enlightenment. But more importantly, many scholars influenced by Sir Isaac Newton took to heart the believe that this most have been founded in circumstances that ought to be explained by science. And so, the unlikely origin of seismology as a science and serious area of study takes place in the UK! Andrew Robinson has a recent study concerning two men, John Bevis and John Michell who were inspired by what happened in London in 1750 and started researching the topic individually. Bevis had a background as an astronomer, but he was also a doctor and an electric engineer. Michell, who was part of the clergy, had an interest in many scientific topics, one of which was geology. It seems both of them were interested in investigating the witness reports and news published in London using them as their primary sources to understand the nature of their study. But their research was truly grounded when 5 years later, the city of Lisbon was pretty much torn to pieces by a much greater earthquake, which caught their attention as the reports recalled aspects of what happened in London, but on a much greater scale.

…Ignorant me thought something like this probably came from somewhere in the globe constantly affected by earthquakes as the people would have had to live with it, but I guess it is true that sometimes the most unexpected of things can spark curiosity and the need for a deeper explanation. I guess the other thing to take from this is the corollary that we must not underestimate or dismiss natural phenomena due to their rarity, which given the environmental circumstances of the world we live in is certainly something worth keeping in mind…


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