04 05 isle of dogs 1899In 1761, William Bell, a corporal in the Household Cavalry panicked thousands of Londoners into believing that their city would be destroyed by an earthquake on April 5th. The story is documented in Charles Mackay’s ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ To explain how this happened, I need to go back a bit.

On February 8th 1761, there was an earthquake in London. It was a minor quake and only lasted a few seconds. It was felt from Greenwich to Richmond but was strongest in the East End. It was felt in the shipyards at Limehouse, and in the village of Poplar, near the Isle of Dogs, several chimneys fell.  Everything soon returned to normal but, exactly four weeks later on March 8th, there was a stronger quake. Tiles fell from houses as far away as Croydon and two houses in Whitechapel were completely destroyed. Luckily they were empty. The top of one of the piers on the north side of Westminster Abbey fell and, in the garden of Buckingham House near St James’ Park, a section of abandoned canal collapsed.

That was when William Bell got it into his head that there would be a third, even larger quake exactly four weeks after that, on April 5th. He went about the streets warning everyone about it. Most people just thought he was mad, but some began to pack up all their belongings and make plans to leave the city. As the fateful day grew closer, more people started to worry about it. Those who had scoffed saw their neighbours leaving town and panic spread. The villages surrounding the city, such as Hampstead and Islington, did pretty well out of it. They were suddenly presented with hordes of panic-stricken Londoners looking for accommodation. They could charge whatever they liked. Food suddenly became remarkably expensive too. People who didn’t make it out of the city took to the river and spent the night aboard boats. The port was crowded. They fixed their eyes on St Paul’s, on Westminster, expecting to see them fall at any moment. Nothing happened.

Some of the fugitives gave it a week before they dared go home, but most returned the next day. William Bell had, of course, lost all his credibility. Mackay tells us that he ‘tried some other prophecies, but no one was deceived by them,’ Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out what else he prophesied, but he was detained, for several months, at Bedlam lunatic asylum. It seems he spent the rest of his life quietly as a hosier at Holborn Hill. Meanwhile, Buckingham House, with it’s collapsed canal in the garden, was bought up relatively cheaply by King George III for his wife to live in. He filled in the Canal and turned it into a parade ground for his Household Cavalry. He renamed it ‘Queen’s House’ but these days it has reverted to it’s old name and is called ‘Buckingham Palace’.

Although the city was not destroyed, the two quakes of 1761 does suggest that there is an active fault in the earth’s crust which runs directly under central London. So that’s a worry.


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