The February 8, 1750 earthquake – that’s the stuff of the Today (February 8) in London History podcast.
This one’s dedicated to Mrs Sweetland. Poor, agitated Mrs Sweetland. The wife of a linen draper in Leadenhall Street, she dropped down dead as she was stepping into a coach to go into the country. She was of a nervous disposition. She was very overwrought. The date gives the game away. It was April 7th, 1750. Mrs Sweetland and her party – indeed, most of London – were convinced that London was going to be devastated by an earthquake on the morrow. The next day. The Sweetlands were getting out, seeking safety in the country. Mrs Sweetland was in a frenzy of panic. She stepped up to get into the coach. Her heart quaked. She dropped down dead.
Ok, let’s back up.
This one’s unexpected. And unusual. We don’t think of London being hit by earthquakes. It’s not geologically unstable. It’s not Japan. It’s not on the San Andreas fault.
But, we do get ‘em from time to time. In fact, hundreds of them over the centuries. In 1089 there was one felt throughout England. There was one severely felt at Lincoln in 1142. In 1274 the whole country was shaken. The greatest ever known took place on the 14th of November 1828. In 1580 an earthquake knocked down part of St Paul’s and the Temple church. And so on.
For the record, the word “earthquake” made its debut in the English language in 1350.
Anyway, let’s get back to Mrs Sweetland.
London had experienced a slight tremor on this day, February 8, 1750. There’d been some minor damage.
It was something that people had noticed. And talked about.
And then, sure enough, a month later to the day – March 8th – there was a bigger quake.
It was the talk of the town. And of course there were blowhards who knew what caused it. The Bishop of London said the earthquakes expressed the wrath of God at the depravity of Londoners. Thames Watermen – very angry about the new Westminster Bridge – said it must be the case that the tremors were a sign of divine disapproval of the bridge. The Gentleman’s Magazine came over all scientific. It said the tremors were caused by “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. A Carnaby Market shoemaker said God had been directly in touch with him and told him that the end of the world was nigh. A mad guardsman was all over London ranting and raving – making all kinds of wild prophecies. So much so he had to be locked up.
Anyway, the combined effect of all this was a febrile London. The gullible, superstitious and easily led were in a blind panic. They fled the city. A lot of good it would have done them if the God had in fact given the Carnaby Market shoemaker the straight goods.
Anyway, the night before April 8th, London largely emptied out. Thousands of Londoners slept on the open slopes of Highgate, Hampstead and Islington.
Nothing happened of course. But it took months for London to calm down.
And it was that hysteria that prompted the flight of the Sweetlands. And sent poor Mrs Sweetland to meet her maker before she need have done.
Two other points.
My man, Charles Dickens, experienced an earthquake. And as usual, a great writer describes the experience better than anyone else.
This was in October of 1863. Writing from his country house, Gads Hill Place, down in Kent, Dickens said, “I was awakened by a violent swaying of my bedstead from side to side, accompanied by a singular heaving motion. It was exactly as if some great beast had been crouching asleep under the bedstead and were now shaking itself and try to rise. The time by my watch was twenty minutes past three and I suppose the shock to have lasted nearly a minute. The bedstead, a large iron one, standing nearly north and south, appeared to me to be the only piece of furniture in the room that was heavily shaken. Neither the doors nor the windows rattled, though they rattle enough in windy weather, this house standing alone, on high ground in the neighbourhood of two great rivers. There ws no noise. The air was very still, and much warmer than it had been in the earlier part of the night. Although the previous afternoon had been wet, the glass had not fallen. I had mentioned my surprise at its standing near the letter ‘i’ in ‘Fair’ and having a tendency to rise. It is recorded in the second volume of the Philosophical Transactions that the glass stood high at Oxford when an earthquake was felt there in September 1683.”
What an admirable account. So clear. So calm. So collected. So considered. So vivid. That’s a fine intelligence doing its thing – that description of its being exactly like some great beast crouching asleep under his bed and shaking itself and trying to rise. It couldn’t be put better.
But let’s end with a poem.
This appeared in the Whitehall Evening Post. the April 5th to April 7th 1750 edition. In other words, the paper that came out when London’s hysteria was at a fever pitch and the mass exodus was underway.
The writer clearly was an intelligent, rational who felt nothing but contempt for his agitated, superstitious, irrational, thick as two planks compatriots.
It’s scathing, this. It’s titled: ‘A Word – to the Other Wise only. I’ll give you the first four lines and the last four..
Rise from your lurking Holes, each dastard fool.
Creep back to Town, and go to Wisdom’s School
There learn, that Heaven’s Decrees are hid in Night,
Not fram’d for Knaves or Dupes to bring to Light.
That’s how it opens.
Here’s how it ends.
Should Justice weigh, impartial, in her Scales,
As Folly triumphs, or as Sense prevails;
She’d think a Palm, to those who flinch’d not, due;
A Birchen Rod to Run-Aways, – like You.
Pretty good, eh. But the whole thing is yet another reminder that London can be febrile, that its citizenry are not always sensible, sane, phlegmatic and rational.
Good night, from London. And London Walks. See ya tomorrow.