Peldon and the Great Colchester Earthquake of 1884

The Great Colchester Earthquake of 1884

Much has been written on the Great Colchester Earthquake which happened at 9.18 on the morning of 22nd April 1884 centred on the villages of Abberton, Peldon and Wivenhoe but felt much further afield. We continue to be fascinated by those early photographs of ruined buildings and the newspaper line drawings of homes and architectural details showing the damage.

Earthquakes are not that unusual in the British Isles but it is estimated that since authentic records have been kept there have been only about six earthquakes which may have equalled or exceeded that experienced in Peldon. We have to go back over 400 years - to 28th December 1480 - to find an earthquake in East Anglia with as much impact, following which The Rev Francis Blomefield wrote in his History Of Norfolk 'buildings [were]thrown down and much damage. A very great earthquake'. This was felt throughout England.

Closer to home, a parish record written by Robert Dickman, Minister of St Peter's Church, Colchester, relates that masons on the 'uppermost scaffolding' on St Peter's Church reported 'the steeple parted so wide in the midst that they could have put their hand into the crack or cleft and immediately closed up close again without any damage to the workmen (who expected all would have fallen down) or to the steeple itself. Most of the houses here and elsewhere shook and part of a chimney fell down on North Hill; and very many who were sensible of it were taken at the same time with a giddiness in their head for some short time'. This was 8th September 1692

The 1884 Earthquake

The Report on the East Anglian Earthquake by Raphael Meldola for the Essex Field Club published the year following the Great Colchester Earthquake of 1884 gives a meticulous contemporary account of the earthquake's effects (it can be accessed on-line). Meldola details earthquakes that caused structural damage from as early as AD 103. He goes on to study the geology of the Abberton, Peldon and Wivenhoe area, meteorological conditions, length of shock, and the extent of its damage and disturbance; he issued detailed questionnaires to the population and examined notes, letters and newspaper cuttings sent in. In all 109 letters from Essex were written to him about the effects of this earthquake.

The tremor was reported as being felt as far away as Ostend to the East, Somerset to the West, The Isle of Wight to the South and Altrincham near Manchester to the North. With the benefit of the more modern Richter Scale (developed in the 1930s) we know it was rated as being 4.6 on the scale (estimates made by the British Geological Survey) although some reports say 5.1.

There were accounts of an earlier, lesser tremor on 18th February 1884 when a slight shock accompanied by a loud noise was felt at the West Mersea Coastguard station. Mr Hugh Green, who was a surgeon living at Strood Villa (now Pyefleet House) informed the Mersea vicar, the Rev T R Musselwhite, 'of this circumstance on the same day it happened'. But the scale of the earthquake of 22nd April 1884 was to eclipse anything that had preceded it.

Here in Peldon we have two eye-witness accounts lodged at the Essex Records Office,

that of the school teacher......

SCHOOL LOG BOOK

April 22nd 'The school assembled at the usual time this morning but at 20 minutes past 9 there was a terrible earthquake which shook the school very much and also frightened the children. We got out of school and sent them home until the chimneys could be taken down and loose bricks taken away.

Log Book 1867 - 1891 E/ML36/1 Essex Records Office

The school re-opened on 28th April.

......and that of the vicar

Peldon - Wednesday the 23rd April 1884 Yesterday - April 22nd at 9.13.o'clock (a.m.) there was in this and several of the adjoining Parishes - and in Colchester - a shock of earthquake - such as - it is believed was never before known in any part of the kingdom. The Church was shaken to its centre - Several large stones were thrown down from the old tower - three of the lamps suspended from the roof and one of those placed at the entrance to the chancel - were flung to some distance - the walls of the Church were rent in sundry points - and the Chancel, which had been newly roofed and put into perfect order only a few weeks previously was unroofed and utterly defaced. The School House was also much shaken - its walls were rent and rendered unsafe - the Rectory was greatly damaged - two of the large chimneys fell - one of them on the flat roof of the new dining room. The foundation was - it is feared- much shaken - and it has been deemed unsafe to remain indoors.

Saturday 26th April 1884 I have been round the Parish - scarcely a house escaped - several are roofless - and otherwise rendered uninhabitable - but happily no one was killed - either here or in any other of the villages to which the earthquake extended. Poor old Passfield was so frightened - that he has taken to his bed, and it is expected he will never leave it. Mrs Chas King was severely hurt by the falling of bricks on her head - but this was the extent of personal injury - for which we devoutly thank God. The Rector had a very narrow escape.

The Rev. Carter Hall

Some Record of the Parish Of Peldon Rev C R Harrison 1867
D/P287/28/6 Essex Records Office

He was to write
'My poor Church and Rectory have suffered so severely from the Earthquake that I am induced to appeal to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to ask if they will afford me any help in so great an emergency' Published in the Parish News of Peldon and the Wigboroughs in April 1974 on the 90th anniversary

Casualties and Near Misses

It would seem that John Passfield did indeed take to his bed and never left it. He was about 82 at the time of the earthquake and had lived in Peldon working as an agricultural worker and subsequently as a grocer with his wife. His death is recorded as being registered between April and June 1884.

Mrs Charles King was Susannah born in Langenhoe around 1852 married to Charles Henry King, born in Peldon around 1857. A report from the Essex Standard tells us

'she was engaged in setting plants in her garden when she was stunned by a falling brick, and as she was clinging to some paling for some support she was struck on the back by some further considerable quantity of falling debris. It was at first thought she was much injured but she was soon seen by Mr Hugh Green, surgeon, and it was found that her case was not so serious as was at first supposed. Her home, however, was most seriously shaken and dilapidated'

Susannah clearly recovered from her injury and both she and her husband lived to a good age, dying in 1935, a week apart. They are buried in Peldon Churchyard.

The doctor referred to above, Mr Hugh Green, had his surgery in the house that is now known as Pyefleet House (formerly Strood Villa) close to the Strood. He was another who had a narrow escape.

'The building was... without exaggeration wrecked...The consulting room which Mr Green had fortunately left only a few seconds before the shock was destroyed by the fall of one of the chimney stacks' The Report on the East Anglian Earthquake by Raphael Meldola

Strood Villa from a magic lantern slide taken soon after the earthquake

The Rev Carter Hall's rather cryptic 'The Rector had a very narrow escape' is explained by Peter Haining in The Great Colchester Earthquake. The Rector had been in his upstairs study when the chimney stacks fell through the rectory roof, rendering all the upstairs rooms uninhabitable.

Another report in the Essex Weekly News refers to PC Nicholls whose cottage

'has been much knocked about, and he himself had a narrow escape from death. He was stooping for some wood when the crash came, and the materials of the chimney fell within a few inches of his head'

Although there were casualties, it is thought just one baby girl died under the rubble in Rowhedge but perhaps one could attribute John Passfield's early death to the trauma of the earthquake. It is believed a stroke victim, Emily Leggett Betts, in Wivenhoe had a further stroke and also died as a result.

Another eye-witness account from Peldon appears as a footnote in The Great English Earthquake.

I learned of one further narrow escape as I was completing this book from an actual eye-witness, ninety-one year old Mr Charles Nice, who was just a year old at the time. He was living in the White House [Sampton Wick on Lower Road] and was sitting in a high chair in front of the fire when the earthquake occurred. Bricks fell down the chimney and covered him with soot from head to foot. It also caused the front door lintel of the house to go lopsided and this remained untouched until 1941/2 when the owners at that time decided to straight it as they felt it might detract from the selling value of the house. But according to Mr Crisp's daughter, Mrs M Carter 'when my father told them the earthquake had caused it, they were very sorry they had not left it as it was!'

And yet another eye-witness account is written on the back of a framed mirror kept in Mersea Museum.

This mirror is a part of one that was shaken from a mantelshelf and broken at Home Farm Peldon, Essex at the time of the great earthquake April 22nd 1884 the house being shaken from its foundations, chimneys thrown to the ground and widespread damage took place, this piece of glass was framed as it was broken by the earthquake in remembrance of so great and terrible event. Signed by me Elijah Woods occupant of Home Farm 26/6/84

[the 1881 census has Elijah Woods at Pond Farm, Peldon, aged 44]

Meldola's visit to Peldon

'proceeding in a south-westerly direction [from Abberton] along the road to Peldon, all the houses and cottages were noticed to have lost their chimneys. These buildings which skirt Peet Tye Common are Peet Tye Place, Pantiles, Peet Tye Farm, Rolls Farm and others. Some of the chimneys were new and of good workmanship'

It is his opinion on passing through Abberton that 'old brick-built houses had generally suffered more severely than wooden structures' and in Peldon he judges the cottages were 'old and shaky'.

In Peldon 'the damage here was considerable, this village having suffered more than any of the places hitherto mentioned' [Layer de la Haye, Layer Breton, Layer Marney, Langenhoe and Abberton]. 'Every house and cottage sustained more or less injury, some of the buildings having been rendered temporarily uninhabitable'.

The main axis of the disturbance extends on each side of a line about 5 miles in length having a direction NE and SW from Wivenhoe to Peldon. Along this axis the greatest intensity was manifest as shown by the large percentage of dislodged chimneys, dismantled roofs etc and more especially by the fracturing of solid masonry.

It was this solid masonry that was the undoing of the church, St Mary's in Peldon. Together with Langenhoe Church, where the damage was devastating, churches in Peldon, Abberton, Wivenhoe, Layer Breton and Layer Marney suffered greater or lesser damage.

A full account of the damage suffered by Peldon was reported in the Essex Chronicle

The village of Peldon is in a bad condition. The stone battlements on top of the church tower were shaken, and hurled some onto the roof of the nave and others into the churchyard. The massive stone tower is also rent literally from top to bottom, and now stands a considerable distance out of the perpendicular. The village school is considerably damaged, the roof being entirely spoilt, and some of the outside walls rent to the roof. The rectory has also severely suffered. Pete Hall sustained a similar fate. The smaller houses, mostly built of lath and plaster, with tiled roofs, are complete wrecks. Peldon Rose Inn is almost entirely demolished; one side of the house and two rooms were shaken to the ground, leaving the interior walls bare. A large stack of chimneys fell into the roof, crashing through the ceiling into the room below. A bystander says the whole house appeared to upheave, and the middle of the roof to open, when the mass of falling bricks and chimney pots tumbled into the interior. The village presents a devastated and dilapidated condition. When the shock was felt everyone rushed out of doors and Mrs King in so doing sustained a cut on the head by a stone from the roof. The scene in this parish is spoken of by eye-witnesses as having been painful in the extreme - women and children rushed out of their houses in the greatest terror and alarm, many of them shrieking, while men were also startled and were unable for some time to understand or realise what had happened. How many of the poor people whose houses have thus been wrecked are to find shelter for themselves and their families for some little time it is impossible to say. In scarcely any of the houses are the upper rooms tenantable, while owing to the chimneys having fallen and interfered with the arrangements of the lower rooms, it is impossible to light fires.

It is a remarkable fact in regard to the effect of the shock at Peldon, that a similar, though slighter shock occurred exactly two months ago. On that occasion several of the residents of the district were roused from their slumbers about half-past one in the morning by a subterranean rumbling and an oscillation of the buildings. A daughter of the rector of Peldon, the Rev Carter Hall, was one of those who experienced the shock on the occasion mentioned, and she has described it as of the same character as the shock felt there on Tuesday, although of a much slighter nature. An extent of country about two miles in length seems to have been the only area in which this disturbance was noticed. It is estimated that the destruction to house property alone in this district will amount to over £6,000. As illustrating the peculiarity of the wave in its effect on buildings, it may be noted that a house in Peldon was moved upon its foundation for a space of six inches, not literally but as if it had been taken and partially turned round. Essex Chronicle Friday 28th April 1884

It would seem that the vast majority of the damage throughout the area was caused by the chimneys falling in.

On the eastern side of the village, Pete Tye Hall and Moor Farm were both damaged considerably. Moor farm suffered the most, the tremor being strong enough to move a piano out from the wall.

The aftermath

The 22nd April was a lovely spring day but in the period following the earthquake the villagers' misery was compounded by almost continuous and torrential rain.

Mr Buchanan, an MP from Edinburgh travelling round the villages to inspect the damage said 'it was most melancholy to see the plight of the inhabitants, their cottages roofless affording no protection against the drenching rain.' The Report on the East Anglian Earthquake by Raphael Meldola

In May the Rev Carter Hall reports

May 1884 The Mansion House fund collected for the relief of the sufferers and the repairs of Church and school houses - thrown down as otherwise inferred - has amounted to a sum sufficient for nearly all the purposes for which it has been raised. The cost of restoration on the Church is estimated at £550 and the repairs on the school at £50 and these costs the sub-committee for the disposal of the funds have undertaken to defray. Some Record of the Parish Of Peldon Rev C R Harrison 1867

In all, Peldon (with a population of 458 in 1881) had 72 buildings repaired, 21 owners received contributions for the repairs and the village received about £9000 from the Mansion House fund. A few houses belonging to the wealthier villagers were repaired at their own cost.

It was reported in The Essex Farmers, a book by A E Fairhead, about his family, a branch of which lived at Brick House Farm, Peldon, that the farm was sufficiently damaged to necessitate them moving out temporarily while it was repaired. William Golden Fairhead's son Stanley was born the month after the earthquake at Abberton Cottage, Layer de la Haye. It's not known how long they were there. According to the British Listed Buildings Register, the red brick cladding on Brick House Farm dates to 1885 from when the repairs were made.

Such a major event will provide a talking point in the affected villages for generations and those who lived through it all had a story to tell.

Mr Simpson has vivid memories of the 1884 earthquake. 'There wasn't a chimney standing' he said, and he went on to tell me how when he reached the doctor's surgery with an injured man the surgery was so badly damaged that the man could not receive treatment and had to be taken to the Rector's, where his wound was dressed. 'Bricklayers came from as far afield as Wales' said Mr Simpson as he continued to talk of the work of the restoration. Cyril R Jeffries in 1935 or 1936 talking to Mr Golden Simpson for the Essex County Standard.

A final word from the vicar

1886 The works were subsequently commenced - the school house was effectively completed - but the Church took many months - it was re-opened on the first Sunday in January 1885 when collections were made in aid of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Carter Hall Rector

Some Record of the Parish Of Peldon Rev C R Harrison 1867
D/P287/28/6 Essex Records Office

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

Thanks to
Report on the East Anglian Earthquake Raphael Meldola
The Great English Earthquake Peter Haining
Essex County Standard

The report on the East Anglian Earthquake of 22 April 1884 by Raphael Meldola and William White is available online at
archive.org/details/reportsoneastan00fegoog.

Author: Elaine Barker
ID: PH01_EQK


This item is part of the Mersea Island Museum Collection. The information is accurate as far as is known, but the Museum does not accept responsibility for errors.