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North Sea earthquake of 1931

PUBLISHED: 15:18 08 May 2008 | UPDATED: 11:01 03 July 2010

WHEN we learned that a large swathe of eastern England had suffered an earthquake in February, Mrs Peggotty and I were relieved to be a thousand miles away in Spain but nonetheless concerned about our family, friends and property back home.

WHEN we learned that a large swathe of eastern England had suffered an earthquake in February, Mrs Peggotty and I were relieved to be a thousand miles away in Spain but nonetheless concerned about our family, friends and property back home. Phone calls reassured us that everyone had safely weathered the experience.

Indeed, it had passed almost unnoticed, and the rumble during the night did not even disturb most folk. When we returned from Spain, we found that that Peggotty's Hut in Gorleston had suffered no fallen chimney stack, slipped tiles or lopsided fence.

The British television coverage we received on the Costa del Sol included maps proving the Great Yarmouth area was well within the affected zone although the epicentre of this biggest earthquake for a quarter of a century - measuring 5.2 on the Richter Scale - was in Lincolnshire.

Because these natural events are, thankfully, only occasional, that February earthquake was a major topic of conversation among the Brits in our Spanish holiday complex. As we sipped our wine or downed our sangria, we discussed it all as fully as was possible considering there was, in honesty, little to talk about.

But a combination of my civic pride and urge for a bit of one-upmanship conspired to make me keep emphasising to our fellow holidaymakers in Spain that the 5.2 measurement meant our home town had managed to maintain the unenviable British record for the strongest earthquake ever officially logged by seismologists.

That was 77 years ago next month, before even I was born.

The North Sea earthquake of Sunday, June 7, 1931 had a magnitude of 6.1. Its epicentre was in the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea, and although that was 75 miles north-east of Yarmouth, our town is often named as a salient point in reports about it. Perhaps Yarmouth was the nearest notable place to it, but that is surmise. Most of Britain and eastern Ireland, plus western Europe and Scandinavia, felt the tremors.

Damage in Britain was reported from 71 different places, with the strongest effects at Filey, where the top of a church spire rotated. Bridlington, Beverley and Hull were also affected, with most of the damage affecting chimneys and plaster. A factory roof collapsed in Surrey. Rocks or cliffs collapsed in Yorkshire resorts and - nearer home - Mundesley. North Sea shipping felt the tremor, and a woman in Hull died of a heart attack, apparently as a result of the earthquake. A tsunami caused flooding.

Less seriously, at Madame Tussauds waxworks in London the head of infamous murderer Dr Crippen was shaken off!

Yarmouth Mercury reporters scoured our district seeking dramatic stories of people's experiences but, despite filling columns, the results can be summarised in the title of a Shakespeare play: much ado about nothing. Both the 1931 and 2008 earthquakes were at one o'clock in the morning, and the 1931 Mercury declared that more folk slept blissfully undisturbed through the night than were aware of the unusual visitation.

“At first it was very difficult to persuade people that they had been through an earthquake. Those who were up, or who awoke, were full of their experience and not at all disposed to minimise it,” said the Mercury.

“One heard tales of beds swaying about, trinkets and crockery rattling, pictures being displaced, wobbling lampposts, the ground heaving. As one beachman said, 'I thought we were going sky-high!'

“The noise was as that of a super lorry, and the oscillation was disturbing, but quite obviously the 'quake was not severe enough to cause any panic because none occurred. The town went serenely on with its sleeping after the ugly rumbling and shaking had died down, and only a few dressed and went into the streets to make inquiries.”

Gorleston? It was “wrapped in slumber”, residents supposing it was a return of the evening's violent storm and deluge. Those awakened compared the “the slow rumbling rolling sound” to a passing fleet of heavy tractors which shook houses to their foundations, severe enough to rattle windows and crockery but not enough to waken many.

“In High Street (where the Mercury's Gorleston reporter lived) it is customary to be rocked in one's dwelling by heavy traffic lumbering through the parish, and some sleepers drowsily recalled next morning the bed jarring and the windows and toilet set on the washstand playing a dance tune.

“Others compared it to a steam roller or a heavy lorry passing. One likened it to engine shunting and remarked sleepily about the curious time chosen for this operation!

“Scarcely anyone realised what really had happened until the news spread later in the day.”

At the harbour, watchers felt buildings rock. Seafarers reported nothing unusual. An ex-lifeboat coxswain's wife likened the sensation of the walls heaving “to a big steamer reversing her propellers on the surface of the river at the bend of the harbour where, on such occasions, houses onshore oscillate” - but her husband looked out of the window and found the river empty.

Tremors were severe in the upper storeys of Yarmouth General Hospital on Deneside, occupied as nurses' quarters, but there was little or no alarm. Patients were awakened but were quickly reassured by the matron and staff, and normal routine resumed as the nurses busied themselves. A patient named Toone “who had considerable experience of earthquakes immediately recognised the tremors and was perhaps the least excited person in the hospital”.

Nurses sleeping in top rooms at the isolation hospital in Escourt Road were similarly disturbed to their colleagues at the general hospital, but almost every patient slept through the incident.

A Hamilton Road resident claimed he saw a lamppost swaying to and fro.

A witness near the general hospital reported that three policeman were caught by surprise in the street, bending down in a vain bid to escape the tremor's effect “but were rocked from side to side as if taking part in some weird native dance”.

Near the Market Place a man swore he saw the parish church steeple quiver and was convinced he had not drunk too much. A visitor looked out to sea and saw “a red ball, as if of fire, out to sea”; he too insisted he was sober, but declined to admit it was the rising moon.

In a row near King Street reported “a groaning noise in the distance which grew to a great rumble, the tremors began and everything in his home began to shake before the noise died away “as if a great wave had passed over us”.

A boatman near the Marine Parade said his “washstand things jumped up and down.” A Middle Market Road resident thought a heavy lorry was passing but then was sure the house was coming down - but her neighbour experienced nothing!

East Norfolk, it seems, got away lightly in 1931 and 2008 but still grasps that unwanted seismological record.


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