The Romans always declared a public holiday after an earthquake which is quite practical considering that a fair amount of clearing up had to be done.
One of the worst earthquakes in modern times occurred on November 1, 1755, in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Portugal. With a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale it destroyed most of Lisbon and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. This earthquake was felt across England and caused considerable concern, especially after newspaper reports of the devastation reached London. One enterprising quack doctor apparently made a fortune selling ‘earthquake pills’ which guaranteed immunity from earthquakes! This earthquake halted Portugal’s growth as a nation especially in respect of its imperial expansion, but it did start the science of seismology.
We mustn’t think that earthquakes only happen abroad. So far this year, there has been a tremor that was felt in Nottinghamshire. The British Geological Survey lists 24 earthquakes in the UK during December alone.
In 1382, an earthquake felt across Kent and Sussex caused the steeple of Canterbury Cathedral to be severely damaged. On April 6, 1580, an earthquake centred in Flanders caused damage to buildings across Sussex and even woke the future James I, who was woken from his slumbers in Scotland. Two children were killed in London where many buildings were also damaged. The earthquake was blamed on the devil although the Puritans said it was God’s revenge on the new theatres being opened in the capital.
One of the strongest British earthquakes in modern times `was centred on Dogger Bank in the North Sea on June 7, 1931. There was damage to buildings across the east coast and as far south as Surrey. At Madam Tussaud’s in London the earthquake cause the head of the murderer Dr Crippen to fall off.
On Saturday, May 22, 1756, Thomas Turner, the East Hoathly shopkeeper, reported that there there had been ‘several explosions heard in the bowels of the earth’. It appears on this occasion the earthquake was centred between the parishes of Waldron and Hellingly. A few weeks later, on June 1, an earthquake was felt on the East Sussex and Kent border, centred on Ashford. It rumbled on for about a minute and caused ‘great surprize’ to the inhabitants. The tremor shook houses although there was no damage. It sounded like the retort of a cannon followed by the rumbling of a wagon from a distance.
There was an earthquake in Chichester on 30th November 1811 but no reports of injuries.
On Thursday, January 25, 1821, an earth tremor was felt at Alfriston. The press called it an ‘uncommon shock’. A tremulous motion was felt in the village as if a ‘rumbling of many carriages’ were passing.
A further earthquake was felt in West Sussex on Sunday, April 14, 1833. The tremor occurred at 8.15pm and caused several people to run outside for fear that the main beam of their cottage would break. In Horsham, a Mr Hurst reported that his hall bell had run and his caged bird had fallen off its perch! There was also reports of damage in shops when goods had fallen from shelves.
On September 18 the same year, there was a further earthquake in Sussex, this time centred on Chichester causing ‘great consternation’ to people who were attending the market. Again people ran from their homes for safety and the Brighton Gazette reported that ‘the shock was so great that the furniture was in quite a state of agitation!’ This earthquake caused one fatality in Sussex when William Marshall was killed while working at the Cocking Quarry. There was another tremor a few weeks later and on November 13 there were two more. At 3.40am the people of Chichester were woken up by a sudden crack followed by a loud rumbling noise. This time the earthquake was enough to ring church bells. About two hours later there was another quake but this one less severe. Earthquakes are rare but not unknown. The last one in Sussex happened as recently as 1864. It was only 3 on the Richter scale but its epicentre was Lewes.