Shaken And Stirred

Okay, so it’s been pretty damn windy over the last week or so. But back in 1750 bad wind was the last of the capital’s worries. A pair of creepy earthquakes shivered their way from Greenwich to Richmond and led to wild speculation, mass panic and predictions about the end of the world. 

The first quiver happened, Ianvisits informs me, 261 years ago (I got it wrong first time, apparently, sadly I am only as good as the info I got out of the 1811 Middlesex Survey.) It was bad enough to knock down a few of London’s less stable chimneys, shake furniture and throw pewter plates and tankards to the floor.

But it was the second that spooked folks, and not really because it was much more powerful, preceded by streaks of “strong but confused lightning darting its flashes in quick succession” first thing in a hitherto exceptionally serene morning, or because it “caused people to start from their beds and fly precipitately to the street” (it happened between 5.00am and 6.00am) It didn’t even frighten them so much that it slowly went in a wave from South to North, before returning to the centre and was accompanied by “a loud noise of rushing wind.”

No, people were freaked out because the second quake happened exactly one month after the first, on March 8th. Of course, February and March have exactly the same day-pattern in non leap-years, so it was exactly the same day of the week too. 

Even that might not have bothered them had it not been for a ‘crazy’ man called Bell. I have no idea how the servant of a Life-Guard (I am assuming the soldier variety rather than the sort that hang out in swimming pools…) managed to get listened to, let alone capture the public imagination, but somehow his ‘prediction’ that “there would be a third exactly four weeks after the second, which would lay the entire cities of London and Westminster in ruins” managed to set the metropolis on fire with gossip, rumour and terror.

For a whole month, Londoners spoke of nothing else. Houses were shored up, escape plans hatched, even wilder speculations made. The turnpikes were kept busy with the mass exodus of “alarmed fugitives” getting the hell out, to the delight of innkeepers and hostelries within a twenty mile radius of what was considered the safe zone. 

Not everyone could get out, and for those too poor or too busy to stay, the night before the predicted end of London was “a scene of the most dreadful disquietude.” Some rushed to local fields and heaths (though considering the Swiss cheese that is Blackheath, I reckon camping out there wouldn’t have been any safer than a tumbledown cottage), others took boats and sat in the middle of the Thames, where “in the most fearful suspense passed away the hours till the dawn of morning restored them to hope and confidence.”

London had not been razed to the ground. For a while, folks still had the jitters, but after a bit they started to feel a bit silly. To make themselves feel better, they sent Bell to the mad house. But even that started to feel rather OTT when they came to think about it. He was eventually freed. Seems the Life Guard didn’t really want him back – or maybe he paid-off his embarrassing servant – whatever, Bell opened a hosiers shop in Holborn, selling stockings, knitwear and random predictions to all-comers. He must have spun quite a yarn, for he was able to retire to Edgeware on it…

3 Comments to “Shaken And Stirred”

  1. IanVisits says:

    Unless I am totally wrong, I think you are talking about the 1750 earthquakes.

    Hunting around, what I suspect may have happened is that anecdotal reports of a mild tremor in London on the 31st March 1761 (actually an earthquake in Portugal that is known to have been felt in Ireland) has been confused with the earlier earthquakes in 1750 which did take place on the 8th Feb & 8th March.

    The confusion could have started due to the coincidence that the Bishop of London who wrote a very famous public letter (which the public had to pay to read) in 1750 about those earthquakes happened to die in 1761.

    Someone writing about the earthquakes and the letters may have mixed up the dates.


  2. Thanks Ian. It’s all very odd, because if it’s a mistake, it’s a very old one. I got this from an original copy of The Middlesex Survey published in 1810. It’s here in front of me now, and bold as brass – 1761.

    But whatever year, it was a good story…

  3. No mention of the Bish at all in the survey. Bet they did get it wrong…