Story Of London

Earthquakes in London

Earthquakes in London
by Bill McCann

It comes as a surprise to most people to learn that London is susceptible to earthquakes. There have been many tremors of varying strength over the centuries and these are chronicled here. The effects of two in the 14th century posed a dilemma for the bishops of the time and for archaeologists and site contractors in the late 20th century! This is the story.

Earthquakes in London

It is not generally appreciated that Britain lies in an earthquake zone. In fact, no place on earth is entirely free from the threat of earth tremors but in some areas the earth’s crust is so stable that the chances of experiencing a discernible tremor are negligible. However, even in Britain shocks do occur. In the latter half of the 20th century, for example there were a number of tremors as on January 11th 1956 when an earthquake hit the north of England and produced reports of broken crockery and pictures. There are a large number of fault lines in the north of England as shown on the map below. This was followed by another on February 10th 1957 in the midlands and again on the 25th of October 1963 when Portsmouth was hit. The worst recorded earthquake in Britain was in 1884 when 1,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed over an area of 400 square kilometres.
”On April 22, 1884, an earthquake occurred, the most serious that had happened in this country for four centuries; its intensity was about one-twentieth that of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Originating in the neighbourhood of Colchester, the subterranean disturbance made itself felt over an area estimated at about 50,000 square miles. The shock was over in ten or twenty seconds according to various accounts; but the results were of a very destructive character in Colchester and the immediate neighbourhood, the nail line of damage being between Wivenhoe and Peldon. It was felt in various directions with decreasing force. At Ipswich, and throughout Suffolk, it was perceived, and the shock extended as far as Yarmouth, Norwich, Lynn, Cambridge, Ely and Boston; to Northampton, Leicester and Wolverhampton; and even as far as Stroud, Bristol, and Street in Somertshire. It ws felt near Reading, in and around London, at Ryde, Portsmouth, near Brighton, Hastings, Dover, at Rochester, and Wesgate-on-sea. Meldola and White.

All the earthquakes of modern times are echoes of the great mountain-building (orogenesis) activity of the past when the surface of the earth was torn by violent and prolonged cataclysms. These bent and folded the rocks in the earth’s crust and gave us features such as the Himalay, Atlas and Ural mountain ranges. These folds and faults have continued to settle and move long after the period of major orogenesis and are responsible for the tremors of later times. A dramatic image of such folds are shown in the image below which shows the folds in a stratum of Purbeck stone at Stair Hole, Lulworth in Dorset. It has been said that the earthquakes of the historical period are like the final murmurs of a great storm which has passed (Stamp.)

As far as Europe is concerned, there have been three great periods of orogenesis and each has played a part in shaping the modern landscape of Britain These produced the Scottish Highlands, the Hartz mountains in Germany and the Penines and, finally the Alps. In the London region, there are a number of folding and faults which probably date from the development of the Alps. One of these, the Greenwich Fault, begins at Dulwich and follows a curving course through Greenwich to the mouth of the river Roding. It is roughly paralleled by a second fault which runs from Raynes Park, through Tooting and Peckham, to die out near Deptford. A major fault also runs from Chelmsford to Harwich. Minor folding continues to occur in these faults and the Chelmsford-Harwich fault, which passes four miles south of Colchester was undoubtedly responsible for the earthquake in 1884.
A number of earthquakes in the London region are recorded in the historical records extending back to the mediæval period. The first is recorded is mentioned by Henry Chamberlain in his History of London 1770. It occurred on the 13th February 1247 when “there happened a dreadful earthquake which threw down many of the houses in the city of London, and occasioned other considerable damage. Another in 1275 is said to have damaged many houses and churches in London.
In 1382, “On 21 May, about the ninth hour, there was a massive earthquake in England where such things are rarely felt or heard. The tremor, which brought terror to many people, was of such great force in Kent that it shook several churches and caused them to collapse. Another quake followed on 24 May, just before sunrise, but this was not as alarming as the previous one.“. And in from an entry for 1439 we hear that “On 23 November in the same year, between three and four o’cock in the afternoon, there befell a terrible storm of wind and rain, thunder and lightning, with dense smokey fog. The appalling noise was heard all over the land causing great alarm. There was an earthquake, too, shaking the ground everywhere”.

There was another on April 6th in 1580 which struck London and the South-East. The actor, Richard Tarleton, who kept an ordinary (eating house) at Pater Noster Row, noted that two men sitting on a cannon at Tower Hill were thrown off, that a number of chimneys collapsed, that the animals of the city roared and that the stall-owners of the Royal Exchange shut up their businesses for the day. The only known fatality during an earthquake in London occurred when an apprentice cobbler, Thomas Grey, was killed by falling masonry at Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street. In 1626 there was a slight tremor in the London area. On February 8th 1750 there was another slight tremor which caused minor damage and this was followed by another, stronger, tremor on March 8th.

Natural disasters and phenomena such as earthquakes were of major significance to the mediæval mind. They were inevitably seen as portents of calamity to come and evidence of God’s anger with a people or their rulers. It is not surprising therefore that all of the above earthquakes were subjected to some kind of public analysis which was accompanied by judgements dire predictions about the unfolding of events on the public and political stage. For example, the storms and earthquake of 1439 occurred during the French wars in the reign of Henry VI, the only sovereign to have been crowned in both England and France, when that unhappy king (and England) was about to lose France forever. There is no doubt but that the people of a country ridden with faction and political uncertainty would have interpreted the terrible storms and earthquake as a portent of impending disaster. Indeed the king’s madness and The War of the Roses were looming on the horizon.

In 1580, Elizabeth I was in a fierce dispute with Pope Pius V who had excommunicated her and claimed to have the power of deposing her and of putting Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The earthquake of that year was therefore judged by Catholics and Protestants alike as a signal from Heaven and the streets were daily full of pamphlets arguing for one side or the other. The earthquake of 1627 occurred on the day Charles I was crowned at Westminster. The day did not begin well. Charles’ queen, Henrietta Maria, was a Catholic and refused to attend the ceremony. There was no traditional procession from the Tower to Westminster and the populace of London were unhappy at the lack of the usual spectacle such as that at the coronation of Edward VI in 1547 shown in the image below. (These events were normally accompanied by an air of carnival, undoubtedly helped by the traditional filling of the water conduits with free wine.)

Charles had chosen to come to Westminster by river instead but the royal barge fouled the landing stage at Parliament Stairs and he had to make an undignified landing from a hastily borrowed boat. The earthquake merely served to underline the general conviction that there were evil times ahead. One wonders whether memories of these portents were stirred twenty-two years later when Civil War had ravaged he land and Charles was beheaded in Whitehall.

Such attitudes and fears did not die out with the mediæval period. For example, extraordinary scenes occurred in London in 1750. When the second tremor struck exactly one month after the first the question on every street corner was “What was going to Happen on April 8th ?” The Bishop of London mounted the pulpit of St Paul’s to declare that the earthquakes were an expression of the wrath of the Divinity at the depravity of the citizens of London. The first Westminster Bridge was nearing completion much to the anger of the watermen who argued that it would deprive them of their livelihood. They had mounted a sustained campaign of sabotage against the bridge and will, no doubt, have argued that the earthquakes and whatever calamity loomed for April were an expression of Divine support for their cause.
The Gentleman’s Magazine decided that the tremors a result of “subterranean waters cutting new courses” and “the inflammable breath of iron pyrites and substantial sulphur causing thunder and lightning when they explode in the air”. Occasions of public panic usually throw up a visionary or two and this was no exception. A shoemaker from Carnaby Market declared that he had been visited by an angel sent to him directly by God. The Deity’s message was that the world would be dissolved on April 8th. Many were convinced by him, but he was far outdone by a mad guardsman who raised the populace to such a feverpitch with his prophecies that he had to be arrested and incarcerated. Whatever was coming the Londoners did not like it and many fled the city to places like Slough. April 8th was a Sunday (of course) and on the Saturday thousands took to hills – literally – and spent the night on the slopes of Highgate, Hampstead and Islington. The Sunday passed quietly of course but the growing fear and apprehension as the 8th day of each new month approached did not subside a long time.

Of the earthquakes above, those of 1382 seem to have been the most severe, leaving large areas of Kent in ruins. But they also threw a small a small echo into the twentieth century which itself caused a small disturbance to the people directly involved, of which the author was one. To begin with, these earthquakes did not fail to agitate the minds of the people at the time. As it happens, in May 1382 a synod, called by Archbishop Courtenay of Canterbury, was assembled in London at the Black Friars priory. They were there to consider twenty-four propositions extracted from the writings of John Wyclif and which touched on the thorny subjects of the eucharist, papal jurisdiction, lordship and grace. Many thought that these writings were heretical and the objective of the synod was decide the matter once and for all and commit Wyclif to trial if his writings were deemed to contradict the teachings of the Church Fathers. On the fourth day of their deliberations the first of the earthquakes struck and the synod was forced to evacuate the building. The next days were spent in a fierce argument as to whether the implied instruction from God was or was not in favour of Wyclif’s innocence. In the end a compromise was reached in which the writings were deemed either heretical or erroneous but Wyclif himself was not named in the judgement and was not sent for trial.

The Black Friars or Dominicans first came to London in 1221 and established a house in Holborn, on the west bank of the Fleet river. In 1278, they were given the land south of Ludgate where they established their new friary. The land was bisected by the stretch of the Roman city wall between Ludgate and the Thames and this was demolished to make way (and provide materials) for the new construction. Part of the licence of 1278 specified that the friars were to replace the Roman wall with a new one enclosing their precinct. The latter was not completed until 1320 and extended westwards from Ludgate to the east bank of the Thames and thence south to the Thames.

There were many delays before the wall was completed and the Crown made a number of murage grants towards the cost of the work. One of these was specifically for the construction of a bastion on the stretch of wall between Ludgate and the Fleet. This stretch of wall survived all the major developments in the area until it was finally demolished in 1888 to allow the widening of Pilgrim Street. Another specific grant came from Edward II which expressly orderd the construction of a bastion at the southern limit of the wall for the sole use of the king.

The Black Friars disappeared in the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VII in the 16th century and the area gradually changed character. Some of the monastic buildings were demolished and others granted to courtiers as their town houses. The Blackfriars Playhouse saw representations of the works of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and the area became the haunt of actors, printers and Puritans. The area was transformed when the Fleet was finally covered over and Blackfriar’s bridge was built in 1764. The most radical change came with the arrival of the railways a century later and in 1874 a brick viaduct and an obtrusive iron bridge across Ludgate Hill carried the railway line from the south coast to Holborn Viaduct Station. This was not a popular development in its day and was deplored as “a deed to shudder at, not to see”. It is shown here as it appeared in 1881.

In 1988, the death knell of the bridge and viaduct were sounded as construction began on a major redevelopment of the fleet valley between Holborn and Blackfriars satations. That development provided the opportunity for the largest single archaeological excavation ever undertaken in the City of London and which was directed by the present author. The major discoveries of those four years of excavation will be eventually found elsewhere on this site but for the moment, we must focus on that wall which surrounded the Blackfriars precinct. More than 80m of this structure were recorded along modern Pilgrim Street and New Bridge Street. Survival was good to excellent, with a foundation width of 3m and an overall height of 3.5m in places being found. It incorporated stones from the original Roman wall demolished to make way for the friary and also stones from the mediæval St Paul’s which had been destroyed in a fire in 1087.

The stretch between Ludgate and the Fleet was particularly well preserved, but one section of it had a very large vertical crack which extended from the surviving top to the foundations. It can be seen quite clearly to the right of the archaeologist on the ladder in the illustration below. It was undoubtedly caused by the earthquakes in 1382.

The crack, however, caused a near panic amongst the health and safety officers attached to the project. As can be seen from the photographs, modern archaeology takes place in conditions which are far from idyllic and Health and safety considerations must be a major priority. The possibility of a substantial piece of masonry collapsing and causing a major accident was not to be contemplated and the decision was taken to remove this section of the wall before the archaeologists were allowed into the area. However, the wall resisted all attempts to topple it with heavy machinery over a two-day period and it was concluded that the danger of collapse was minimal after all. In the end, it went, stone by stone with the rest of this stretch in the manner shown in the last photograph.


1. Meldola, R and White, W, 1885, Report on the East Anglian Earthquake, p. 183 quoted in reference 2 page 559.
2. Woodward, H B, 1887, The Geology of England and Wales, London.
3. Monkhouse, F J, 1954, Principles of Physical Geography, University of London Press.
4. Stamp, L D, 1946, Britain’s Structure and Scenery, London. 5. Sherlock, R L, 1960, British Regional Geology: London and Thames Valley, HMSO London.