Survivor of the 1884 earthquake

The most destructive earthquake known in Britain happened at 9.18 am, on April 22nd 1884. In Colchester, it was just an ordinary bright sunlit morning. Then, in a matter of a few seconds, the townsfolk were terrorised and Colchester was brought to a standstill in a great cloud of dust. All around the district, there was chaos: collapsed chimneys and roofs, and wrecked buildings including the little church at Virley.

A rumbling sound moved quite distinctly through the ground like a low, menacing growl, and everything began to shake violently. The ground heaved in the motion of a single wave. Buildngs rose up, sank down and rose up again as the wave passed underneath.

The earthquake only lasted five to ten seconds or so. But in that brief period, whole villages were wrecked and Colchester was reduced to chaos. Hundreds of chimney-stacks crashed through roofs. Tiles and slates cascad-ed to the ground as roofs collapsed. Walls buckled and cracked. Window glass shattered. And in some places, gaping fissures opened up in the ground, some over 100 yards long.

Seconds after the event, frightened women and children rushed screaming into the streets for safety, not sure what had happened. In Colchester, some said that the gas works had blown up, others that there had been a dreadful accident in the garrison. Everybody feared considerable loss of life, but miraculously nobody was killed or seriously injured.

The epicentre was about four miles south of Colchester’s town centre, around the villages of Abberton, Peldon and Wivenhoe. The worst structural damage occurred within 20 miles or so of this area, although the earthquake was felt as far afield as Exeter, Yorkshire, and even Boulogne and Ostend on the Continental coast. Wivenhoe and Mersea Island were especially badly affected. Old, poorly-maintained properties were hit the hardest, although timber-framed houses seemed to fare better than brick buildings, even some relatively new ones. Many churches like that at Virley were badly damaged with towers, parapets and roofs partially collapsing. The most famous casualty was the top of the spire of Lion Walk Congregational Church in Colchester (below) which crashed to the ground, with some bits missing a young boy by inches.


In London, as in many places closer to the epicentre, the shock was fairly severe. The Houses of Parliament were violently shaken and a three-foot wave engulfed some boats in the Thames. Throughout much of the south-east of England, and in places as far away as Portsmouth, Birmingham, and Leicester, houses shook, windows rattled, furniture and crockery moved, church bells rang and clocks stopped. Even where the earthquake was too weak to cause any serious damage, the vibrations left many people feeling frightened and nauseous.

There are records of well over a thousand earthquakes in Britain. One in 1692 is said to have cracked the tower of St Peter’s church in Colchester, although it does not seem to have been as severe as that of 1884. Records are too incomplete and patchy to allow proper comparisons, but it seems that perhaps only six of the recorded earth-quakes in Britain (ie of 1185, 1246, 1248, 1275, 1382 and 1480) are comparable in magnitude to that of 1884. In other words, this may have been the most severe earthquake in Britain over the last 500 years.

Truth or fiction

The poor state of the building made for good reading in the novel Mehalah which was written by Reverend S Baring-Gould, rector at East Mersea between 1871 and 1881.

`….The church of timber and brick, put up anyhow on older stone foundations, had warped and cracked; the windows leaned, fungus growths sprouted about the bases of the timbers. Every rib showed in the roof as on the side of a horse led to the knackers….

….Virley Church is not much bigger than a stable that consists of two stalls and a loose box, whereof the loose box represents the chancel….

….Virley Church possessed one respect-able feature, a massive chancel-arch, but that gaped; and the pillars slouched back against the wall in the attitude of the Virley men in the village street waiting to insult women as they went by….

….The altar was a deal table, much worm-eaten….The communion rails had rotted at the bottom….The floor in the midst, before the altar, had been eaten through by rats, emerging from an old grave, and exposed below gnawed and mouldy bones a foot beneath the boards….’

None of the wooden fittings or fixtures now survive, but there is much else in this description that can be recognised today: the remains of the original stone chancel and its brick and timber replacement, the `chancel-arch… that gaped’ as testified by the iron hoops, and the outwards lean of the pillars which supported this arch. Clearly, with or without the earthquake, the days of Virley church must already have been numbered.

This project was funded by Mr and Mrs Carbutt. The work was carried out in conjunction with David Andrews of the Essex County Council and Nigel Oxley of Colchester Borough Council.

Legend of the Devil and the claw marks

Apparently a medieval lord at Salcott-cum-Virley was attempting to build himself a new manor house but was making little progress, because every night his tools and materials mysteriously disappeared. The nobleman was convinced that somebody was creeping up under cover of darkness and stealing his goods. He must have been very dim because he did not realise that he was trying to build his house on top of a deep marsh and that everything was simply sinking into it.

The lord of the manor decided that one night he would keep vigil and catch the culprit red-handed. However, instead of a thief, up strode the Devil with two dogs. The Devil took one of the nobleman’s house timbers and threw it into the darkness crying, `Where this beam doth fall, there build Barn Hall’. The chosen spot proved to be a sound one and free of the marshes, because Barn Hall stands there to this day.

In return for this favour, the Devil took it that the man owed him his soul and vowed, “Where you are buried on land or sea, there I will come to fetch you.”

The terrified man decreed that, when he died, his body was to be kept in a coffin embedded in the walls of Virley church. The idea was that he would be protected by the sanctity of the church. The plan clearly worked a treat – at least for a while – and the power of God and the church proved to be too much for the Devil, who could only claw at the walls trying in vain to claim his prize.

Today there are no obvious `claw marks’ in the ruined church or indeed anything which could have been passed off as such in the past*. Perhaps in 1884 the bones of the nobleman were shaken from their safe entombment by the earthquake and the Devil finally got his man. As for the famous claw marks, they may have crumbled to dust as parts of the church came crashing down in the earthquake – or maybe they are yet to be rediscovered in the village, hidden behind the dahlias in somebody’s rockery.

Of course, apart from anything else, we could point out that the walls of the church are clearly too narrow ever to have contained a coffin, but why ruin a good story?

The source of the legend: `The devil comes to Salcott‘ by Jenny Humphrey (Colchester Public Library).