Second Supplement to Paper on Earthquakes in Devonshire (1887)

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Author(s): Parfitt. Edward; Year published: 1887; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 547-554
Topic(s): earthquakes and geology; Location(s): 

Full title: “Second Supplement to Paper on Earthquakes in Devonshire from the Earliest Records to the Present Time

By Edward Parfitt. (Read at Plympton, July, 1887.)

In Mr. T. J. Northy’s popular History of Exeter, page 27, is the following paragraph: “According to our authority [an old manuscript in the Bodleian Library], in the middle of a certain night, in the year 1080, a terrible and unaccustomed noise, with lightning and thunder, came suddenly with a motion of the earth, and caused great ruin of houses. The inhabitants were stricken with fear, for they thought it was a judgment of God come upon them.”

I am in some doubt as to this date, as Mr. Mallett, in his chronological list of Earthquakes, does not give one for this part of the world in the year above quoted; but he does give one for the year 1081 – March 27th, first hour of the night. This shock was felt throughout all England, and was accompanied by subterranean noises. His authorities for this are Mathew Paris and Mathew of Westminster.

In 1089 there was a severe earthquake felt all over England, recorded by Mr. Mallett,* and I am inclined to believe that this is the one mentioned by Mr. Northy, and that either the figure nine had lost its tail in the manuscript, or in the printing of the book, and so looks like an 0.

* Brit, Assoc. Report, 1852, p. 22.

As a further contribution to the chronicling of Earthquakes in Devonshire, I may mention that I have been favoured by one of our members, Mr. Standerwick, with his experience of the shock on Monday, the 25th June, 1883, as noted by him at the time. Mr. Standerwick’s house is situated on the south side of Caistor Rock, Dartmoor, at an elevation of 1150 feet above sea-level The shock was experienced by the household and by the farm-labourers near by. It occurred at 1.45 p.m. Mr. Standerwick says:

“All in the house were terribly alarmed, and the dog barked furiously. There were two distinct shocks, and we thought then was an interval between each shock of about half a minute, the last being the most violent. Our walls shook, and the windows rattled. It was said to have lasted ten seconds, but to us it seemed much longer. The farm-labourers, whose cottages are not more than 250 yards away from our house, were at dinner at the time; they told me they ran out of doors frightened, and wondering what the noise and trembling could be. One of them suggested that it was the ‘Chagford traction-engine coming’, and that was our first impression; but only for a moment; for we realised almost at the same time the dreadful feeling that it was an earthquake. We stood wondering for a moment what to do, whether to run out of the house or to remain. While thus hesitating what to do the noise and trembling subsided, leaving our house and ourselves uninjured. We felt a slight shock about eleven o’clock the night before, and could not imagine what it could be. My wife compared the noise to a heavily-laden waggon passing across our newtake; but it being Sunday night it could not be that at that time of night, for there is no road.”

Of the shock which was experienced in January, 1886, which seems to have been delivered in its greatest force near Dartmouth, and the waves of which extended over a considerable area, I have collected the following from the papers, and from friends resident on or near the spot. First I shall notice the collective evidence as it appeared in the Western Morning News of January 5th, 1886, entitled, “Earthquake shock in the South Hams.” The writer says:

“What was undoubtedly a shock of earthquake, and a rather severe one, passed over the district of the South Hams yesterday morning at about twenty minutes past ten o’clock. It was felt very generally all along the route between Dartmouth and Kingsbridge, as well as at other places lying more inland. Just after having Dartmouth the driver of an omnibus, which runs daily to and from Kingsbridge, had a rather alarming experience as of an oscillation of the ground, which lasted some seconds, and on arriving at Stoke Fleming what he thought at the time must have been imagination was fully confirmed, persons standing about in alarmed groups. Mrs. Fox, who keeps a grocer’s shop at Stoke Fleming, states that her house verily ‘rocked’. In the ‘Green Dragon’ public-house, kept by Mr. Martin, the shock caused a quantity of plaster to fall from the ceiling. At Strete the oscillation was similarly felt. Mr. Wallace, postmaster of that village, asserted that he had just come from Eastdown, in the parish of Blackawton, where he had been in the course of his duties as letter-carrier, and the shock was very distinctly felt there and several miles inland. The phenomenon appears, however, to have been more severe at Torcross than any other part, the inhabitants being thrown into a great state of alarm. The occupants of the ‘Fisherman’s Arms’, which house stands on the beach, were so frightened that they one and all rushed out of the house, thinking, as they said, that the building was going to fall.

“Mr. W. Vickery, of the ‘Torcross Hotel’, gives several indications of the severity of the shock. In fact, it appears to have been felt by almost everyone in the village. At Stokenham, Chillington, and Frogmore there was a unanimous confirmation of the oscillation and shaking experienced in the other villages, but in a less degree. It reached even as far as Kingsbridge, where it was most distinctly felt. At all the places mentioned the report of the time of the shock being felt agree to two or three minutes.

“A further confirmation has been given by persons who were on the road at the time, some walking, and others driving or riding, in some cases several miles apart.”

The correspondent of the Western Times gives a very meagre account of the phenomenon. He says:

“About 10.30 yesterday morning [January 4th] a severe shock similar to that of an earthquake was felt at Dartmouth, preceded and followed by a rumbling noise, which lasted for a few seconds. It was felt in various parts of the town, especially in the centre – Lower Street, the Quay, and Drake Street. Nothing has yet transpired to account for the phenomenon.”

Mr. A. Brent writes to the Times, January 7th, p. 6, as follows:

“Sir, – It may be worthy of notice, as showing the direction of the wave with reference to the earthquake in Devonshire on Monday morning last, that at Bromley, in Kent, about twenty minutes past ten a.m., I experienced a most unpleasant sensation as if the ground were moving from under me, which I felt convinced was caused by the shock of an earthquake.”

In a letter from Mr. T. Beedle, of Southwood, Tiverton, to the editor of the Tiverton Gazette, dated January 7th, 1886, this gentleman writes as follows:

“Sir, – On my return home on the evening of Monday last, Mrs. Beedle told me she had heard that day, about 1.30 p.m., a tremendous rumbling sound, as if a heavy carriage was rapidly approaching the house, and a terrier (dog) rushed out barking, as she does when there is an arrival. The alarm, however, proved to be false, and was on reflection put down to an earthquake, but not again thought of until the papers of the following day announced that shocks had been felt on the same day, but at a different hour, in some parts of South Devon.

“I do not hear, however, that the shock was noticed in this neighbourhood, nor indeed anywhere in North Devon, except in the instance I have mentioned, and this seems remarkably singular.”

I now come to the most valuable portion of this communication. It is from a gentleman residing on the spot, at Montague Villa, Ridge Hill, Dartmouth, E. Wenman Martin, Esq. This gentleman, in answer to a letter of mine, writes:

“Dear Sir, – Both before and since receiving your letter of the 8th instant, I have been and am making enquiries concerning the earthquake which was felt more or less from Plympton to Berry Head, along the coast. … In this particular instance the earthquake was most felt by those under cover and indoors, more than those in the fields and on the roads; and again those in positions nearest the south coast, more than those farther inland; also those in houses on the tops of some of the hills, more than those in the valleys. And those on the south-eastern and southern slopes of some of the hills, in nearly every instance, felt it with more or less violence and distinctness; whilst those on the northern and western slopes hardly felt it at all.

“I will now try and describe the sensations and sounds I myself experienced in this house, which is built on the rock on one of the eastern slopes of the hill in the valley of the river Dart; it is also on the top of a ridge, which slopes away both north and south. This house is about four hundred yards from the river, and about eighty feet above the water. I was sitting on a chair at the time facing west, with my head bent down, in the act of lacing my boots. All was perfectly quiet. The front door of the house was open, which faces south, and leads into the garden; the south and west doors were also open. Suddenly there burst upon my ears a great sound, as if the servants were dragging and bumping one of the tables across the drawing-room upstairs, overhead where I was sitting. This made the chair as well as the room quiver. The table seemed to be dragged and bumped across the room from north-west to south-east. Then followed a crashing sound, as of breaking stones or rocks a long way off. This sound changed to one as if a two-wheeled cart fall of stones had been tilted backwards into the road some way up the hill. Then followed a long loud sustained roar, which resounded among the hills both on this and on the Kingswear side of the river, not like thunder, because the roar was sustained, and had no inequalities of sound in it as thunder has. This hoarse, angry roar seemed to me to pass from west to east, right across to the other side of the river Dart. The sound lasted from two to four seconds. I only felt the great quivering sensation, as near as I can judge, about two seconds. Had these oscillations continued they must have brought down the ceilings, which they did in some houses.

“The time that this occurred was as near 10.19 a.m. as possible.

“A large-sized spring clock, let into the eastern face of a wall of a ground-floor room in the old Swannaton turnpike-house, was stopped by the earthquake. The pendulum of this clock swings north and south. The house is about 583 feet above the top of the outer Warfleet Rock, and the ground on which the house stands was much shaken.

“A servant, who was upstairs at Montague Villa, says she felt the room quiver very much, and heard the noise, which she thought came from below, and compared it to a heavy cart passing down the Ridge Hill Road, which is very steep, and slopes towards the river. In several houses crockery and other things on shelves were set rattling, and in some places were shaken down.”

A north-west wind was blowing the sea out of Start Bay, which is almost always comparatively smooth; but during the earthquake it became (so my correspondent was informed) suddenly covered with foam, which extended as far out as could be seen. This was observed by several persons who were on the shore at the time, and especially by the coastguard at Blackpool, whose house is on the eastern slope of the hill at the sea end of Blackpool Vale. He says that he felt the vibration very distinctly, and he thinks that it lasted about five seconds. He also heard a violent rattling sound, followed by a roar. The sea in the bay he observed was before the shock comparatively smooth, but directly after it the waves rose, and the sea was covered with foam all over the bay as far as he could see. There was rather a strong north-west wind blowing at the time the earthquake occurred, and the sky was completely overcast with foggy grey clouds, and with a drizzly rain. No change of cloud or atmospheric disturbance was observed at the time.

Mr. Trent, who farms Redlass Farm, situated on the coast between Stokefleming and Dartmouth, distinctly saw and felt the grass field in which he was at the time quiver under him; and the water in the gutters, which was before smooth, was covered with little wavelets. He also heard sounds such as have already been described.

Mr. P. Williams, the superintendent of the works on Berry Head Fort, in answer to a letter I addressed to him, writes:

“The shock of earthquake you mention was felt here on January 4th, at about 10.30 a.m., by myself, my son, and daughter. We were in the house at the time, and felt the ground tremble under us, and heard a sound as of a very heavy waggon coming in at the gate of the fort, making the windows rattle. The shock came from the south-west. The men at work in the quarries, and Mrs. Williams, who was in an outhouse at the back, felt nothing of it. She was probably moving about at the time, which would perhaps account for her not feeling it.”

Mr. William Elliot, residing at Dutton, who keeps a number of horses, heard sounds which he could not understand; but it struck him that some of his horses in the stable had fallen down, and his house shook so much that the things on the chimneypiece rattled together, and nearly fell off. Some workmen, repairing lead piping connected with a large cistern of water, observed the water, which was before quite smooth, suddenly become agitated, and covered with wavelets, and it was soon covered with air bubbles coming up from the bottom. These men describe the noise that they heard at the time as that of thunder.

In a note from Mr. William Vickery, Torcross Hotel, in answer to questions put to him by myself, he says that “only a slight rumbling sound was heard at this end of the village; but at the north end, at the ‘Fisherman’s Arms’, the house trembled very much, and the glass and earthenware rattled so much that the females were frightened, and rushed out on the beach.” Mr. Vickery adds that “he saw in one of the newspapers a report that the shock or trembling lasted about two minutes.” This is a mistake, for it did not last more than about a few seconds.

John Christopher, of the police force, Dartmouth, on duty opposite the Castle Hotel at 1.15 on the morning of the earthquake, says there was a violent quivering of the pavement and a leaping of the water and the boats thereon in the boat-float in the vicinity of the railway pontoon, also a violent rattling of the shutters of houses, accompanied by a heavy rumbling noise. The large heavy door closing the street-end of the Butterwalk swung open.

This is all the direct evidence I have been able to collect on this (to us in England) alarming phenomenon. Perhaps the most remarkable part of it is the small area that these shocks or tremblings cover, or are confined to. It would seem to be strong evidence that they are something like an electric discharge, probably from some considerable depth. Whatever cause can be assigned for them they appear to be more or less of a local character. At the same time there are some (as is too well known) that extend over very large areas, and are very destructive. I presume that the deeper down the shock is delivered, and the greater the density and structure of the rock, the less we should feel it at the surface, and the smaller the area it would cover. The shock we now have under consideration would appear, from the amount of severity, to have been delivered at the Dartmouth end of Start Bay, and probably at the base of the Devonian system, and where it in all probability rests on the granite. The area over which it spread, or was felt in Devonshire, extended from Berry Head to Start Point, about fifteen miles in a straight line, where it was most felt on the shore, to Plympton, about twenty miles in a south-westerly direction; but if we are to consider the wavy motion of the ground as experienced by Mr. Brent at Bromley, in Kent, at the same hour as that recorded for the shock at Dartmouth, we must admit this shock to have covered a very large area. At the same time it appears remarkable that no disturbance, either trembling or otherwise, should have been felt in the intermediate distance between Berry Head and Bromley. I cannot help thinking, that although the time for both, in Kent and in Devon, coincided within ten minutes, they were probably distinct, or that they may have been connected at some great depth, and that the discharge (for so I regard it) got divided and delivered as two shocks instead of one.

The rumbling sound heard near Tiverton on January 4th, if this is to be ascribed to seismic action, must have been quite distinct and apart from the Dartmouth disturbance, as it occurred three hours later in diurnal time; viz., 1 p.m.

Summary of the previous remarks as to the “time” at the various places, and the extreme distances at which the shock was felt. The time at Dartmouth was 10.19 a.m.; Berry Head 10.30 – the difference between Dartmouth time and that recorded from Berry Head must be, I presume, in the watch or clock being so much slower – and at Bromley, in Kent, 10.20. The Tiverton rumbling sound may have been caused by a secondary movement, as it occurred at a later period of the day; namely, 1.30 p.m. The clock at the gate-house at Swannaton, the pendulum of which swings in a north and south direction, stopped from the effects of the movement of the house, and this would indicate that the wave was in an opposite direction, or from east to west. And the extreme distance at which it was felt would be from Dartmouth to Plympton, about 22 miles, and from Dartmouth to Bromley, in Kent, about 185 miles, in a direct line across country.

Other writings by Edward Parfitt