The Great Earthquake of 1884

Destruction on the Quay and elsewhere in Wivenhoe

John Stewart and Peter Hill

Wivenhoe Earthquake 1884 West End of Quay
Wivenhoe Memories Collection

On Tuesday, 22nd April, 1884 the worst earthquake ever recorded for over 100 years was felt in Wivenhoe. Its epicentre was in the Peldon area, just south of Wiivenhoe.  It did considerable damage in Wivenhoe although, fortunately, no-one was killed.

The story of this severe event has been extensively written up in various books and journals – see here for details of them. Below is how Nick Butler recorded it in his book The Story of Wivenhoe:

It was a little after high tide. Lord Alfred Paget had just boarded his 300 ton S.S. Santa Cecilia, which was moored against the Rowhedge bank, opposite The Anchor. All at once the vessel pitched violently and a low rumbling was heard, so that her owner thought the boiler was about to blow up. He was flung against the rigging, which he grasped firmly, and thus obtained the finest possible view of the destruction as it moved swiftly along The Quay from east to west.

It was a tidal wave expressed in terms of bricks and mortar. The houses rose up, then fell back, gently and slowly pitching and tossing, like small craft acknowledging a passing liner. The roofs rippled and most of the chimney pots fell into the bedrooms beneath, while showers of tiles descended in a gigantic cloud of dust. At the east end of the town the fifty foot chimney of the gas works collapsed over eight houses owned by John Green Chamberlain. He and Isaac Blyth, another large property owner, suffered severely. At the west end, Edwin Wilkins was standing in the shipyard near the stern of the 180 ton schooner, Medora, hauled up on the slipway; he saw that vessel rear and plunge, as did other boats, though none of them fell over, while cracks appeared in his office buildings and their chimneys collapsed.

The Rev. John Baillie was in his churchyard; he saw the church tower make obeisance, first to the south east, then to the north west, while several tons of masonry fell from the battlements and with such force that pieces were deeply embedded in the ground. A huge crack appeared in the tower, from the top to the middle. (For a picture of the Church tower – click here)

The Congregational Chapel lost much of its balustrade and cornice; the centre of the ceiling fell and with it the gas chandelier. Wivenhoe Hall lost a gable on the north end and several chimneys. Rooms were filled with soot and rubble, so James Jackson temporarily moved out, as did Colonel Bowen from The Nook and George Harvey from Gothic House. Other Wivenhovians were luckier.

At Elaine Cottage, Edmund Round escaped almost unscathed. The chimney pots of the almshouses “started”, but stayed where they were. At the National School the children panicked, but the headmaster, Mr. Collins, realising what was happening, calmed them and dismissed them. The Infants’ headmistress, Eliza Jones, compared the earthquake to “a terrific rumbling noise, as if wheels were heard underground”. Not a single child was injured. Nearer to Colchester, the less the damage. Wivenhoe Park, whose owner was abroad, lost some chimney pots but was otherwise unharmed. As The Quay shook and shuddered, so a huge wave swept across the Colne. The craft afloat tossed violently and fishermen working aloft were casually shrugged off into the water.

The earthquake lasted for no longer than six or seven seconds. Boats and buildings were again motionless, and as a pall of dust rose from The Quay, so did the cries of the panic-stricken and wounded. They streamed out of their houses, fearful that this was the beginning of a more frightful disaster. The men left their nets or the shipyards and quickly returned to their homes, to rescue and comfort their wives and children, tend injuries, survey the damage and start to clear the debris.

Wivenhoe looked as if it had been shelled. Many houses were uninhabitable and their contents largely spoiled or destroyed, yet the words “wreck” and “ruin”, which appeared frequently in the press reports, were overstatements. Had the earthquake lasted a few seconds longer, the mediaeval timber frames would have been as denuded of bricks as they were of tiles. The timing was also very fortunate. Had the earthquake occurred, say, three hours earlier, several Wivenhovians would have died in their beds; instead, the townsfolk had the rest of the day in which to absorb the shock, gossip, commiserate, extemporise bedrooms on ground floors or seek sanctuary elsewhere. The weather, too, was merciful. Heavy rain or a high wind would have multiplied the damage. The east end of the town had a narrow escape. As the employees of the gas works fled the choking fumes issuing from fractured pipes, one man had the presence of mind and courage to pause and turn off the main cylinder. An explosion would have surely killed several people.

In fact, Wivenhoe claimed a single victim. Emily Betts, a spinster of forty, who lived with the Browne family at The Ropery, was in bed, recovering from a stroke. After the earthquake she had a relapse and died later that day.

Dr. Squire was kept busy for some time, bandaging up his practice. The houses were likewise bandaged, their wounds covered with tarpaulin. Most of the interim repairs had been achieved by Friday.

It is not recorded that Wivenhoe suffered any lingering physical or mental damage, though the schoolchildren were on edge for a week or so. The real damage was financial. The houses could be repaired fairly easily, but the cost was often beyond their owners’ means. Widows, especially, were hard hit.

The grandees realised this and quickly took action. A deputation of notables waited on the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House the following Saturday, with John Baillie and James Jackson representing Wivenhoe. There was oratory and an ad hoc exhibition of photographs taken by Philip Damant.

There were public meetings in London, Chelmsford and Colchester, and more speechifying. A relief fund was set up, to which Edmund Round and James Jackson gave £50, and John Baillie £20. Mr Jackson was dissatisfied with its progress; he thought that more money would have been raised if the disaster had occurred in Timbuctoo. However, by mid-June almost £10,000 had been collected. The final reference to this fund I can discover is on 2nd August. The earthquake, a nine days’ wonder, which had brought a host of sightseers to the town, was now over.

Nicholas Butler

See also:  About the fund-raising appeals to repair the damage caused by the Earthquake – click here



This page was added on 28/07/2017.

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