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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Adkins Writing

On this day, 1863, England & Wales were shaken by 'a mysterious and alarming convulsion of nature.'

Looking west towards Wales from North Hill, Malvern, Worcestershire

Individual accounts of an earthquake affecting midland and western counties of Britain in the early hours of Tuesday, 6th October, 1863, can still be accessed in archived newspapers. Written four days after the event, they are a joy to read for the language and focus of storytelling.

From the epicentre in Golden Valley, south of Hereford, shockwaves travelled across the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Somerset and beyond. Most of England and Wales felt the earthquake to some degree. It was equivalent to 5.2 on the Richter Scale.

Looking north towards Birmingham from End Hill, across Malvern Link, Worcestershire

The Cheltenham Journal and Gloucestershire Gazette reported that 'Mr Charles Dickens, who resides at Higham by Rochester, was awakened by violent swaying of his bedstead from side to side, accompanied by a singular heaving motion. It was exactly as if some great beast had been crouching asleep under the bedstead and was shaking itself and trying to rise.'

In the same article the gazette states that 'in Worcester the resident staff at the Infirmary were much disturbed. The members of the constabulary in various parts of the county describe the night as being remarkably calm and still up to nearly half-past three, when on a sudden, the dead leaves began to fall and the birds to fly from their nests in all directions.'

Looking east across Great Malvern towards Gloucestershire

According to The Northampton Mercury, in Hereford 'the policemen on duty were in some instances, much terrified, and it is affirmed that the Infirmary, which stands on a gentle eminence over-looking the Wye, St. Nicholas Church, and other buildings, were seen distinctively to heave and throw with the motion of the earth. Near the Castle Green, large trees were also perceived as it were, in a condition of fearful agitation, and a police officer on duty in that neighbourhood was compelled to rush to the gate post to support himself, the earth throwing him backwards and forwards; while in another part of the town, two of the "gentlemen in blue" rushed into each other's arms for mutual safety and support.'

On the same page a medical correspondent for The Birmingham Post is quoted as saying: "I have seen some persons who experienced a severe shock to the nervous system somewhat analogous to that of an electric current, resulting in a feeling of anxiety, depression, and lassitude, from which they have not yet recovered."'

And 'another gentleman states that the swinging of his bed produced nausea. He adds that during the earth's motion a thrush (hanging in its cage out of doors), belonging to the next door neighbour, articulated three distinct shrill notes indicative of terror.'

Furthermore: 'the captain of a vessel reports that twenty miles from Milford Haven he felt concussion like striking upon a rock.'

The Hereford Journal reports: 'the signal lights at Malvern Station were, it is said, put out; a plate of glass in the roof was dislodged from its place and the bells at the Imperial and Belle Vue Hotels were rung.'

Looking south from North Hill towards the Worcestershire Beacon (Herefordshire beyond)

An un-named correspondent for The Hereford Journal (10 October 1863) is particular poetic about the night events. I have used the text and lifted charming descriptions of witness accounts from the people of Herefordshire, to create the following found poem.

Before much of Malvern was even a draughtsman’s plan

there was a mysterious and alarming convulsion of nature.

The moon was at the time shining brightly

in a cloudless sky, and the country covered with hoar frost.

Children awoke enquiring who was shaking their cots,

toilet furniture was jumbled together, watches were moved

as they lay on dressing tables, dogs were frightened

and numbers of persons rose from their beds.

The vicar of Stanton Lacy was wholly exempt

from any touch of it and remained in blissful ignorance

of the terror running through his parish. In Shrewsbury,

a few sprang out of their beds; others lighted candles

and made a diligent search for supposed robbers

and, after a fruitless exploration of empty cellars and garrets,

returned full of perplexity to their sleepless pillows.

At a farmhouse in Much Marcle, eggs placed on a shelf

in the kitchen were shook over the ledge or beading

placed on the edge to keep the crockery and such things

from slipping. In Ledbury, Mr Allgood, watchmaker

was amongst the aroused; he, together with his servant

got out of bed and went downstairs, thinking that the next

house had fallen in or that about two tons of cheese

stored on the first floor had fallen through, into the cellar.

In Colwall, Mr Henry King, awake when the vibration

was felt, says that his bed, which is placed with the head

and feet from north to south, was apparently lifted

up at each end alternately. A noise accompanied the shock,

similar to the reverberations from a discharge of artillery.

The animal creation seemed to share in the terror.

In Eastnor, Reverend Pulling was awoke

by the agitation of some china, glass and other articles

placed upon a marble-topped table in his bedroom,

all of which seemed to be dancing for a few seconds.

The peculiar stillness that followed the shock

was only broken by the simultaneous crowing

of the cocks at different farmhouses and cottages.

An aged hawthorn - looking towards Shropshire from North Hill

In an article on British earthquakes in 1884, The Yorkshire Post describes people's experiences of a similarly severe earthquake that had occurred in 1750: 'London was twice visited within a month by earthquakes. These brought down some chimneys, broke chinaware in shops and damaged the towers—then nearly erected—of Westminster Abbey. The belief got abroad that at the end of another month there would be a third and severer shock, and London for the time became panic-stricken. Great numbers left the city, and on the evening preceding the day of the expected earthquake, the roads out of London were crowded with vehicles. "Earthquake gowns"—warm garments to wear while sitting out of doors all night—were in great demand. "Many people," says Warpole "sat in coaches all night in Hyde Park, passing away the time with the aid of cards and candles." No earthquake came, but during that year scarcely a month passed without a shock being experienced in some quarter or other of England.'

One of the striking elements of the 1863 earthquake is that the 'country [was] covered with hoar frost' at the beginning of October, when today we can live through an entire winter and see none.

Hoar Frost (above), Rime Frost (below)

Local and national papers across Britain and beyond - including the New York Times - repeated the same lyrical accounts from witnesses and listed items of house furniture that 'danced' and 'jiggled' during the 'unearthly', 'awful' experience. Some papers dedicated a complete broadsheet to the story.

Little has changed in the views from the Malvern Hills over the last one-hundred-and-sixty years. If the surrounding counties are visited once again by an earthquake of significant magnitude, panic and modern-day tales will erupt as before in towns and villages. And images of this ancient land being shaken will circle the globe to family and friends in an instant.

The Malvern Hills: the oldest hills in England and Wales, made mainly of granite.

The found poem: first created in Jean Atkins' poetry course, 'Considered Ground'.

All images: Margaret Adkins

References: all obtained through Find My Past

The Cheltenham Journal and Gloucestershire Gazette October 10 1863 Page 8 [The Earthquake]

The Hereford Journal Saturday 10th October 1863

The Northampton Mercury, Saturday, October 10, 1863 Page5 [The Northampton Mercury]

The Yorkshire Post, Saturday May 3, 1884 Page 12 [British Earthquakes]

Links for Margaret Adkins Writing:

Margaret Adkins started writing when her nursing and midwifery career came to an end in 2015. She become a full-time student at the University of Worcester. She gained a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing & English Literature and an MRes in Theatre & Performance. Winner of the inaugural University of Worcester V. Press Prize, her debut poetry pamphlet Mingled Space is published by V. Press.


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