Category Archives: Parish Registers

The Northamptonshire Earthquake of 1750

English parish registers were sometimes used to record momentous events as well as baptisms, marriages and burials.  In 1750 the Reverend Thomas Barnett, Vicar of Rothwell in Northamptonshire, wrote a dramatic account of the earthquake which struck his church just as he was in the act of administering Holy Communion:

On Sunday Septr 30th 1750. We were terribly alarmed with a violent Shock of an Earthquake.  It was felt at this Town about half an hour past twelve at Noon.  I was at that time administering the Holy Sacrament, and was with the whole Congregation in the greatest Surprize.  Its first Approach was heard like a mighty Wind or rather the driving of many Coaches.  The Motion was from S.W. to N.E.  Its Continuance was as near as I could judge about half a Minute, and was very dreadful and awful. 

The Earth was sensibly perceived to heave under our Feet.  The Church totter’d from its Foundation, and the East Window shook most violently, as if all was coming down, and from the Roof, which we thought was falling on us, we heard dreadful Crackings three or four Times, as if great prodigious Weights were flung upon it.  In Fear and Trembling we expected instant Death, either by being crush’d under the Ruins of the Church or else that we should have been swallowed up alive; but as Almighty God directed, no Harm happen’d unto us.  They who were in the Churches or Houses were more sensibly affected and felt it most, than those who were walking.  It was felt in all the Neighbouring Towns of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire.

Rothwell, Northamptonshire

A more phlegmatic and secular account of the same event was provided by the steward to the Earl of Cardigan (whose seat was Deene Park, Northamptonshire). Like the Vicar of Rothwell, the steward compared the sound to the rumble of a heavy coach:

… The Noise that preceded the Earthquake was, for a few Seconds, like the rumbling of a Coach upon a Bridge … The Force of the Shock was chiefly, if not entirely lateral; and so considerable, as that several People, who were sitting in Chairs, catched at the Walls, Tables, and such things as stood next them, expecting they should be thrown down: Buildings of all Kinds were shaken greatly; and the Beds, Chairs, and such things as stood above-stairs were displaced, and rocked about very much: Windows were shaken as if they would have been broken; and in several Places Pewter upon Shelves in Kitchens thrown upon the Floor…. I have not heard of any Damage being done by it more than some Chimnies thrown down, but nobody hurt by them.

The Northamptonshire Earthquake followed the London Earthquakes of 8 February and 8 March 1750. These similarly caused little damage and no fatalities, but many people thought they were a sign of divine wrath.  

‘Like the sound of heavy carriages’

Five years later, English parish registers show parishioners donating money to the survivors of the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, which struck on All Saints Day 1755 and led to more than 10,000 deaths, destroying a third of the city.  According to a British merchant who survived it, the Lisbon earthquake too began with ‘a rushing noise, like the Sound of heavy Carriages, driving hard at some Distance’.


Sources

Parish Registers of Rothwell, Northamptonshire: frontispiece to ‘Rothwell Register 1708–96’ (Northamptonshire Archives, digitised by Ancestry).

Kenneth Maxwell, ‘Lisbon 1755: The First ‘Modern’ Disaster (but if modern, how is it so?); University of Oxford, https://public.mml.ox.ac.uk/files/windsor/5_maxwell.pdf.

‘Roads, and those in Tring’, Tringlocalhistory.org.uk.

‘An Account of the Earthquake Which Happen’d about a quarter before One O’Clock, on Sunday, September 30, 1750, by Mr. – Steward to the Earl of Cardigan’, Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 46, pages 721–23. JSTOR. Accessed 6 May 2024.