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London’s earthquake in 1750 moved its citizens to panic and collective repentance

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, London, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

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This edited article about London originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 653 published on 20 July 1974.

C18 children at prayer, picture, image, illustration

In the eighteenth century many children were taught to believe in a God of Wrath and sang hymns full of hell-fire, by Richard Hook

It had been a good speech, full of emotion. Already the jury’s eyes were moist. At this rate, thought the young barrister, he would get an acquittal in ten minutes. He adjusted his wig and prepared for his peroration, something the Court of King’s Bench would not forget for a long time. He doubled his fist and thumped the table before him – there was a loud, rumbling noise, the walls and floor trembled and a piece of plaster dropped from the ceiling to hit him on the head. It was noon on 8th February 1750 and the outer waves of an earthquake had just reached London.

With one accord, the jury sprinted for the court-room door. The judge followed close behind with the public prosecutor hard on his heels. The barrister and his client were left alone; they exchanged glances of dismay. What would become of their case now? Then the ground trembled again and they, too, ran for their lives.

All over the city and suburbs, people thronged the streets. Pewter pots had rattled on the shelves in their kitchens; ramshackle wooden sheds had toppled in their yards; chimneys had crashed down from their roofs. London was terrified. But when, after several hours had passed, no further tremors had been felt, life returned to normal. Or something like it. To his annoyance, however, the barrister found that his case had been adjourned.

The following Sunday, the preachers made the most of the affair. Their congregations were larger than usual, expecting some sort of explanation.

The preachers were not slow to respond. The tremor, they explained, had been a sign of God’s wrath. London had become a sinful place and had received a warning. Now the people must repent and mend their ways lest worse should befall them.

Most newspapers and journals took the same line. But some were prepared to go further. The warning was not just addressed to London, they argued; it was an injunction to mankind. When so great a city shook at its foundations, could the devastation of the world be far behind? Mankind must repent.

And perhaps mankind did, for a day or two. But as a week passed . . . a fortnight . . . three weeks . . . the terror of the episode was forgotten. London and the world resumed their sinful ways.

At 5.30 in the morning, exactly four weeks after the earthquake, there came another. St. James’s Park, people swore, moved visibly. Lightning played for hours across the skies. Bells pealed discordantly in swaying steeples. And the pewter in the kitchens, neatly re-arranged, came clattering down again.

Once more, the city was gripped by terror. The Bishop of London hurried into his pulpit later in the day and gave the best sermon of his life on the subject of the perils to come. Then he sent his secretary round to a printer with a copy of the text and issued it as a pamphlet. No-one could doubt now that God was warning the city of its impending doom. Repent, rose the cry from all sides. Repent while there is still time.

Some people did not have much confidence in the city’s capacity for repentance, however, and moved out – to their country estates, to relatives in the provinces, to any village inn that was separated from the doomed metropolis by a radius of more than twenty miles. The preachers laughed scornfully. Did they really think they would escape their punishment like that? They would all be held accountable when the Day of Judgment came – and surely it could not be far off.

It wasn’t. Not, at any rate, according to a prophecy that quickly gained currency. It was in fact scheduled for the 8th April. The name of the author of the prophecy is unknown. He was apparently a member of the Horse Guards but this did not necessarily mean that he was a fighting soldier. The rank was a nominal one, held by people in many walks of life.

Whoever the prophet was, he had carefully studied the Bible and the mystic texts of medieval scholars. In his view, London was to perish according to a prophecy many centuries old. Its destruction would usher in the Millenium, the destruction of the old, corrupt world and the beginning of a new.

The prophecy spread rapidly around London. It was believed implicitly by people of all classes. And as the 8th grew nearer, the population streamed from the city, heading for safety in the countryside. Horses, carts, carriages, boats and sedan-chairs were hired or commandeered and crammed with goods and chattels. Soon the roads out of the town were blocked with a struggling mass of refugees. Only the bed-ridden and the crippled were left behind, together with a few foolhardy souls who looted the liquor shops, determined to see in the Millenium, like the New Year, as festively as possible.

The land around London was now black with people. They camped in the fields that spread where Camden and Islington now sprawl and they waited for the prophecy to be fulfilled. They waited . . . and waited . . . and the city clocks chimed the hours from midnight to mid-day on the 8th . . . and nothing happened. No tremor, no terror, no toppling towers. So they streamed back into the city again and had a late breakfast. All except a few, who insisted that the prophet might have been a few hours out and you could not be too careful in times like these. But then it started to rain and even they decided that the Last Judgment was less of a threat than a cold in the head; so they went home, too.

The prophesying guardsman was the only person to suffer. Not only was his prophecy unfulfilled but he was imprisoned for spreading false rumours. The Bishop of London fared better: he sold 40,000 copies of his pamphlet. And things turned out well for the young barrister, as well. When his case came up again, he won it and soon acquired a substantial reputation in the courts. But he never thumped a table again without glancing apprehensively at the ceiling.

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