This post was first published by Croydon Advertiser on 27/07/2018.
The fascinating story of Croydon’s biggest ever earthquake
After a string of earthquakes in Surrey this year we take a look back at the biggest tremor ever to hit our town.
They are a devastating phenomenon that thankfully we rarely have to worry about in Britain.
Compared to in places like Japan, Nepal and Mexico, when an earthquake does occur in the UK they are not normally serious.
However, just a few miles down the road, Surrey has seen a remarkable seven earthquakes so far this year.
It may seem strange that none of these seemed to cause even a tremor in Croydon.
But perhaps this is unsurprising given how rare quakes have been in the borough throughout history.
The most significant earthquake Croydon has ever seen occurred some 467 years ago.
Reports from the chronicles of historian of the time John Stow and the records of the Bishop of Hereford among others state that “a great shaking of the ground took place” in the spring of 1551.
Stow stated that it took place at about noon on May 25, 1551, with the centre of Croydon being the epicentre of the quake.
According to the British Geological Survey’s honorary research associate Roger Musson, the earthquake would have been felt over a wide area.
A book which was published a few years later suggests that a court in Croydon had to be evacuated.
It adds that two judges “died a few days after” although it doesn’t make it clear if this was as a result of the earthquake.
The Reverend Daniel Lysons stated in his book The Environs of London that “it does not appear there was any great mortality”.
E.W. Bradley stated in another book entitled A Topographical History of Surrey that the earthquake was felt in several neighbouring towns.
It says that Reigate and Dorking “were terrible shaken” but that Croydon was most heavily impacted and that “kitchen utensils and other movables were thrown from their places”.
Among other earthquakes to have had their epicentres in different parts of London was the one on February 13, 1247.
John Noorthouck, writing in A New History of London, states that letters to Rome described “a terrible earthquake in London, which occasioned [an] abundance of damage by the destruction of houses”.
Two other earthquakes in 1750 took place within a month of each other. The first on February 8 is believed to have measured 2.6 on the Richter scale, while the second on March 8 was stronger at 3.1.
Dr Musson states that both earthquakes are believed to have had their epicentre around the Leadenhall Market area in the poorer east end of the city but that Westminster Abbey also received damage from the second earthquake.
Dr Musson said: “It’s not common knowledge because people are not clued up on what is in rare books I study.
“They say that many houses shook and we only know from what many educated people wrote at the time but there are a large deal of press records and coverage of the earthquakes because they were in London.
“Many more earthquakes happen in places like rural Wales but because this was in London, people studied it in a far greater manner and books were written about it.
“There is known to have been great shaking across the whole city. The first one was felt 500 square kilometres away while the bigger second one saw shaking as far as 2,000 square kilometres away and was felt in Buckinghamshire.”
Reports include one that reveals that at just after 12.30pm on February 8, 1750, Britain’s Lord Chancellor Philip Yorke was sitting in Westminster Hall when the room began to shake and that “for a moment everyone thought the great edifice was going to collapse on their heads”.
Throughout the City and Westminster, people felt their desks lurch, chairs shake, doors slam, windows rattle and crockery clatter.
In Leadenhall Street, part of a chimney fell while in Southwark, south of the Thames, a slaughterhouse with a hay-loft collapsed.
Dr Musson added: “At the time in 1750 nobody had any idea and nobody really knew it all came from 15 kilometres or so underground. Some thought the earthquake came from the atmosphere like a storm. There were many wrong ideas.”
While those quakes started a “year of earthquakes” across Britain in 1750, London hasn’t felt one of the same size since.
But why have there been so many earthquakes in Surrey this year yet none in Croydon or elsewhere in London?
Dr Musson isn’t sure, although he pointed out that the ground beneath London is mainly clay while beneath Surrey it is mostly chalk.
But he added: “There is no specific reason why there are many earthquakes in one place and not another, and I don’t think the land around [you] is any indication of where an earthquake will take place.”