AN earthquake which hit Colchester and district in 1884 is the largest in British recorded history – but there is nothing in the town to tell people of this remarkable event, a natural occurrence which is normally associated with other parts of the world.

For Colchester, however, it was not the first experience of an earthquake. In fact, the town has witnessed more such reported incidents than anywhere else in our country.

National records kept by the British Geological Survey, dating back to one in the Midlands in 1048, indicate six earthquakes have been felt in Colchester – of which that of 1884 is the one which has been written about with photographs of damaged buildings.

This was the Colchester Earthquake which attracted considerable national attention. While there are those who are aware of this incident in our town’s long history, there are very few who know of the other five, of which the one in 1692 was second in size.

Last year a plaque was placed in the pavement outside St Peter’s Church, on the information trail from North Station to High Street, which mentioned this earthquake but annoyingly did not give the year.

Growing up in Colchester, the opinion of those who ever mentioned the 1884 earthquake was that there had been no loss of life. There is no evidence that lives were lost in the earlier ones.

However, research in the 1970s seemingly proved that at least one person was killed – a girl at Rowhedge – with circumstantial evidence to suggest there could have been up to another three.

The 1884 earthquake caused much destruction in Colchester and surrounding countryside. The top of the spire of Lion Walk Congregational Church crashed to the ground, and the Roman Catholic church in Priory Street was badly damaged. Such was the destruction in the town, and villages to the south-east, with the epicentre at Wivenhoe, there was a nationwide public appeal to help those who had been affected.

Around 1,200 buildings were damaged, some so badly, they had to be demolished, of which perhaps that of the destroyed Langenhoe church was the most dramatic photographically.

Astonishingly, so far no photographs have emerged which I have seen of Lion Walk Church minus the top of its spire which crashed to the ground.The Bell pub at Old Heath was wrecked. Carriage windows of a train at North Station were broken and the driver thrown from his cab onto the platform.

There was widespread damage in Wivenhoe and Rowhedge, and also in several villages, including Peldon, which was hit particularly hard, and on Mersea Island, where large fissures were visible for days.

I believe the restored Little Wigborough church contains the only memorial plaque to the earthquake. It is astonishing that such a major event has been airbrushed from physical history everywhere else.

The shock of the earthquake was felt throughout much of Essex and as far as Devon and Ostend in Belgium.

To get a full account, I recommend you read The Great English Earthquake by Peter Haining, which was first published in 1976 after a considerable amount of research which brought together for the first time the real story of that eventful day Tuesday, April 22, 1884…a few seconds at 9.18am, a few seconds which brought widespread fear and destruction to Victorian Colchester.

  • Next week, the 1692 earthquake.