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In  the morning of April 22, 1884 the residents of the British Isles experienced something that they believed would never happen in their country - an earthquake. Many people, even today, believe that the UK never has earthquakes, indeed they are something that happens far away and to other people. Not so.  The country has seen a number of quakes stronger than 5 on the Richter Scale since 1990. The 1884 quake was even stronger. Centred on Essex, just outside Colchester, its effects were felt as far away as North Yorkshire and Exeter as well as on the continent in Belgium.

The UK is actually affected by small quakes regularly. It is far from stable.  Its geology is, after all, extensively volcanic and igneous. Granite (Lundy), marble (Purbeck) and basalt (Giant's Causeway) are all rocks that have been formed by various movements  of the land. The whole mainland is also undergoing a movement called isostatic bounce - a result of end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. The weight of ice on the north end of the landmass pushed it down into the earth's crust and it is still recovering from having that weight removed. Scotland is slowly rising but the south of England is slowly falling at the same rate.

The 1884 quake, however, was possibly the strongest on record. Actual numerical values were not assigned to earthquakes until the 1930s so it is not known what the magnitude was but it was probably somewhere between 6 and 7, given contemporary reports of the damage.  However, there is some evidence that  many  reports were "hushed-up" or at least played down. Author Peter Haining, in his book* about the disaster, says that it is possible that Victorian England, at the height of its Empire, simply would not accept that anything so "foreign" as an earthquake could possibly happen in Her majesty's heartland.

There is no doubt that the event happened, however, and that it was severe. Photographs exist of the damage caused throughout Essex. The village of Wivenhoe was almost at the epicentre of the quake. Houses along the quay on the River Colne took the brunt of the shock and most lost their roofs; the Anchor public house was wrecked. The Congregational Church in Colchester lost its steeple, the Bell Inn at Old Heath was completely destroyed and huge cracks appeared across Mersea Island. Postcards of wrecked churches, homes and pubs were produced to raise money for the restoration fund.

In fact earthquakes are common in England and the year 1750 was one of the most active on record. That year England experienced a series of earthquakes with two hitting London in the space of a month. The first, on February 8, is thought to have reached 4 on the Richter Scale and a month later, March 8, at 5.30 in the morning a scale 5 tremor hit the capital. 

Radical William Hone described the event: “It awoke people from their sleep and frightened them out of their houses. A servant maid in Charterhouse Square was thrown from her bed, and had her arm broken; bells in several steeples were struck by the chime hammers; great stones were thrown from the new spire of Westminster Abbey; dogs howled in uncommon tones; and fish jumped half a yard above the water.”

They were only two of a number of quakes that year, including Warrington in April, Spalding in August and Northampton in September.
*Haining, Peter (2002) The Great English Earthquake. Robert Hale Ltd. London.