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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Science and Nature

Earthquake in England - 6th October 1863

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Transcript from original newspaper article: -
Earthquake in England - 1863We have had an Earthquake. The men of science all tell us that we have every right to expect earthquakes. This country lies, as a correspondent observes, on the great volcanic belt. We are only a few links in the chain that binds Hecla to Vesuvius, Aetna, and the original volcano in the Lipari Islands. There runs under us a huge crack in the earth’s crust, - who knows how deep or how wide? A few flimsy depositary strata have fallen in and joined the edges of the abyss, and here and there the masses below have been thrust out by the closer packing of the earth’s contents, and who knows what enormous voids, what huge quantities of imprisoned gas, what seas of molten metal, there may be only a few miles below this fair surface? There are chroniclers who count up, we read, 255 earthquakes, of which 139 were in Scotland, and the rest in Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Wales, and the South Coast of this island. There was a violent one in Perthshire in 1839. Some twenty years earlier, on a Sunday morning, the congregations in our Midland Counties were shaken in their pews and saw the plaster fall. On February 8, 1750, London was seriously terrified; it felt a worse shock on the 8th of the following month, and became so nervous that when a fanatic foretold its destruction on the 8th of April the inhabitants took to the fields till the supposed day of vengeance was over. These isles showed a very near connexion with Portugal when its capital and a good many other cities were half destroyed, five years after the above-mentioned panic. A vast wave rolled into Kinsale, and even Loch Lomond rose two or three feet. But the geologists tell us that there are probably many earthquakes which we do not feel, and that there are proved to be regular subsidences and elevations of the neighbouring continent, proving the operation of forces from which anything might be expected. Then we are further told that electricity, and even a particular state of atmosphere, may produce an earthquake. But if a small earthquake, even an imperceptible one, why not an earthquake to destroy a metropolis? But, for all this, it does so happen that these isles may be considered exempt from the visitation. The earth-wave has been faint, and only a feeble echo of some distant shock. So we found a law on the fact, and conclude that earthquakes are meant for other countries. They are intended to warn and punish the wild and fiery populations of semi-tropical cities; they speak to the superstitions generations that demand a sign and will only be taught by portents; they are the thunderings and quakings of Sinai. When cities abandon themselves to revelry, and are driven by terror-stricken conscience to the altar, then, while the lights are burning, a cloud of incense is rising, and every knee is bended, the walls totter and gape, and down falls the ponderous vault upon a thousand sinners. Here, in these cooler climes, with more reasonable temperaments, and under a purer faith, it is hoped that we do not need this awful language. The ALMIGHTY footfall is soft here, even in the earthquake and the storm. A good many of our people may still think so, for it was not everywhere, nor was it everybody that was waked by the earthquake of Tuesday, October 6. More than half the nation has to accept in on the testimony of the rest. Yet many felt it that will never forget the feeling; and many even heard it that will carry the “awful” sound in the ear to their dying day. Almost everywhere, strange to say, it suggested “the thief in the night,” the rude inroad of the burglar. In some places it even did damage. It upset furniture and broke crockery. It displaced bricks, and even revealed a crack in a wall. We should not be surprised to hear of more serious damage. But if this much, why not more?

The earthquake appears to have been felt over a great part of England, whatever the geological formation. People are not much surprised to hear of a shock or a tremor in the neighbourhood of coal, and even perhaps of granite. Wherever the pitman and the miner go they find inflammable gases. Where, too, the water comes up half boiling, or impregnated with sulphur, one cannot but feel there must be a nearer communication with that fiery interior whereof geologists calmly discourse. But with certain differences, somewhat in conformity with these popular impressions, this earthquake has moved the whole island. BRITANNIA’S fabled rock has been shaken from its basis. Be it only an inch or two, the ocean throne has been tilted up. We may feel the terror of the “purple tyrants” who pray as they crouch before the Divinity of Fortune, ne pede proruat stantem columnam. In the “black country,” indeed, and throughout the Midland and West Midland counties, the earthquake appears to have been felt the most. At Birmingham walls were seen to move, and people rose from their beds to see what damage had been done, for though the rumbling, grating sound is compared to that of a passing wagon or train, it was known at once to be something more. At Edgbaston successive shocks were plainly felt, houses were shaken to their foundations, “a dreadful rattle” was rather felt than heard, and people woke one another to ask the meaning. Everything around was violently agitated. At Wolverhampton everything in the houses vibrated to the external agitation. The houses cracked and groaned as it the timbers had been strained. The policemen on duty saw the walls vibrate, heard everything rattle about them, and were witnesses to the universal terror of the roused sleepers. From near Stourbridge we are told that a house quivered from top to bottom, the silver rattled, the furniture shivered, and it seemed as if there had been an explosion under the cellars. In South Staffordshire and East Worcester doors were burst open, crockery and furniture broken, clocks stopped, and whole populations bought out of their beds. At Cheltenham, a great distance from that neighbourhood, a deep rumbling noise was heard, the heaviest furniture was shaken, the fire-irons rattled, heavy stone walls were heard to strain and crack, and the boys at the College were each under the impression that the rest were engaged in making the greatest possible disturbance. The earthquake appears to have extended with equal force to Bristol, to Taunton, to Exeter, to Swansea, and many miles out at sea. In the metropolis, where we all repose on a deep bed of clay, where our houses are well built, and where we are so accustomed to noises, shocks, and tremors that we are almost startled to find it calm and quiet, a large proportion of us felt a sort of chock and shiver, and the feeling of being upheaved, followed by a sense of oppression; but very few of us could trust our own sensations, and be sure it was something out of the usual course.

The variety of sensations and the degrees of violence, if there should appear to have been a difference in different localities, may possibly be owing to the variations of geological condition rather than to the distance from any supposed centre. We believe that stone carries and communicated the earth-wave, as it is called, more strongly and truly than softer or more mixed strata. There are, however, condition under which these strange and fearful waves are said to meet, to escape, and sometimes to aggravate one another. Thus far there is nothing to distinguish this from the general class of earthquakes, or which it is seldom possible to do more than conjecture the centre, and always impossible even to conjecture the particular cause. A very slight alteration in the regions below would be sufficient. Were an igneous vein that had remained for ages in a state of increasing tension to cool at last so as to crack, and gape by a few inches, that would probably be sufficient to make all the disturbance on the surface which England has just experienced. A sudden explosion, a fall, a shifting of materials that had never settle completely since the beginning, would do the same. It would, however, be idle to allay the terrors of the nervous by the plea that the most tremendous agitation may be produced by a very slight cause. That consideration goes to show that a hundred cities may in a moment become the graves of their inhabitants from some little terrestrial incident, quite infinitesimal compared with this vast and beautiful sphere that we live in. We will leave to our readers the moral reflections which so fearful an event is certainly calculated to suggest. There are means, utterly beyond our ken and our computation, for below our feet, by which cities may be subverted, populations suddenly cut off, and empires ruined. This is a thought which, in its personal application, is familiar enough. Perhaps it is not so familiar in its larger and its national bearing. We see, after off, a great Empire, that had threatened to predominate over all mankind, suddenly broken up by moral agencies and shattered into no one knows how many fragments. We are safe fro that fate, at least so we deem ourselves, for never were we so united. But there are other weapons of destruction in the arsenal of the OMNIPOTENT. Who can say what strange trial of shaking, or upheaving, sinking, dividing, or drying up, may await us? We know by science these isles have gone through many a strange metamorphosis, and science cannot assure us that there are none more to come.