|MERSEA ISLAND WRECKED
"On the morning of 22nd April 1884, the unthinkable happened. A major earthquake struck the British Isles. In under a minute almost the entire length and breadth of England had been shaken by a violent tremor which devastated the county of Essex - its epicentre - and caused damage and panic as far north as Altrincham, Cheshire, and to the south was registered across the English Channel in Boulogne and Calais.
"The event was a stunning blow to Victorian England, the heart of the great British Empire. Consequently, the authorities and the national press played down its extent and damage. Based on contemporary reports, personal statements and exhaustive research, this is a dramatic and exciting reconstruction of the event."
The above is an extract from "The Great English Earthquake" written by Peter Haining. The book was shown to me recently and sparked further interest about the local impact of this event. Some of the descriptions of what happened would certainly have been etched in memory and passed on to generations to come. Imagine being told some of these memories by a revered grandparent who went through it - maybe enhanced in the telling!
A more detailed report from 1885 from the Essex Field Club includes personal experiences and sketches of some of the damage.
Reporting on the damage in Mersea, it states "The damage here was by no means so great as at Abberton and Peldon, and the first published reports from this neighbourhood were somewhat exaggerated" --- nothing new there then!
For many, however, the earth DID move for them. There are several reports of a "wave" appearing to travel from north east to south west of the island, accompanied by a loud rumbling sound, which lasted a few seconds. A man hoeing a field felt a twisting motion of the earth and had the hoe jerked up in his hand. On the slightly higher hinterland, the ground groaned and moved under the stresses of the earthquake, then suddenly split and opened in several places. These cracks and fissures ran like quicksilver through the fields and gardens alike, some extending for over a hundred yards, others being little more than a few feet long. Most opened only a few inches, but one or two gaped "like the very jaws of hell", as one eyewitness described.
At Cross Farm a small crack opened, from which two little fresh water streamlets spouted forth and trickled down towards the house for eight or nine hours, where they formed a pond and then ceased to flow.
At the row of coastguard cottages (formerly in Churchfields) the shock was severely felt, but no damage was done, although water in the yard well was rendered turbid by the disturbance and did not become clear for some days afterwards.
Sailors were closely questioned as to the occurrence of any tidal phenomenon linked to the earthquake, but no unusual wave disturbance was observed, although the shock was felt strongly by boats in the estuary. Those close to the island heard a loud rumbling sound before a huge wave swept across their bows, driving most of the boats backwards in the sea and capsizing several dinghies. Vessels that were anchored were buffeted against their moorings. Several suffered damage to their hulls, and at least three men were tipped overboard.
There is an ancient photograph in the Mersea Island Museum files which shows six men sitting either side of a "fissure" which opened up from St Peter's Well and along the slope south of Coast Road for about 200 to 300 yards. The fissure was originally reported to have been "more than two yards in depth and wide enough to insert a fist". However, by the time the fissure was officially inspected, the crack was almost obliterated. Had the shock been stronger, a landslip might have occurred towards the sea. It was reported that "the water of the well, which usually runs out of the cistern in a clear and gentle stream, was jerked forcibly out by the shock and afterwards ran turbid with suspended matter for about two hours, after which is resumed its original clearness".
As far as damage is concerned, the wooden houses and newer brick houses had generally withstood the earthquake well, the injury being chiefly confined to the older buildings. Chimneys were either thrown down or dislocated at the base and twisted at Orleans Cottage, West Mersea Hall, Brick House, and also cottages near Barrow Farm.
At the White Hart a clock in the bar stopped at 9.18 and glasses standing on a table were tilted off.
The National School and the schoolmaster's house were much damaged. School was being carried on at the time, and about 140 children were in the room when one of the chimneys broke through the roof. Fortunately the brickwork fell to the side of the room away from the benches occupied by the scholars. A panic was caused, but the schoolmaster (Mr Thorpe) had the presence of mind to check the rush outside, and none of the pupils was injured. The clock in the schoolroom stopped at 9.15, being three minutes slow. By one of those strange coincidences, Mr Thorpe had actually carried out a fire drill the previous day, and although the younger children panicked, it was still fresh enough in the minds of the older pupils for them to put the drill into effect with complete success.
A telegram from the occupants of two cottages at West Mersea to their landlord, a Mr Sales of Galleywood, near Chelmsford, speaks more graphically than a thousand words: BOTH COTTAGES WRECKED. WE ARE OUT IN THE STREETS. WHAT SHALL WE DO? CAN YOU COME?
Today, we might ask ourselves "Could it happen again?"
Both books quoted in this feature can be seen in the museum.
Published as Museum Piece in Mersea Courier 30 December 2010.