Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Earthquakes and their results

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
Earthquakes and their results
by William Bridges Adams


Once upon a time when London was threatened with an earthquake, a quack doctor advertised his pills as good for the occasion. It is not to be supposed that, gullible as is the Britisher generally, it was intended to physic Mother Earth with boluses, but simply so to physic her children with gamboge or whatever other drug might be current, as to render them quite prostrate and indifferent to what further might befall, as in the case of sea-sickness. On another occasion, some years back, when this terrible prognostic was again broached, people left London in numbers, i. e., those who had money wherewith to travel out of it, and wives wrote to their husbands to join them on that day that they might at least die together—at which a French writer remarked that “they had not been long married.”

The “Times,” for two successive days, has had its columns filled with letters testifying to a veritable earthquake, in this our England, on the night of October 6th. The descriptions and signs given by so many persons, all tallying, render it tolerably certain that this was no false alarm, albeit more fright than hurt. The hollow rumbling sound, as of a carriage or fire-engine driving up and suddenly stopping, is a familiar image with all who have ever experienced an earthquake. For my part, I did not know of the earthquake till it appeared in the “Times,” and had I awaked, sleeping some thirty feet above the ground, in a brick house built in this century, I should not have considered it a condition of absolute safety.

I once, as our Gallic neighbours have it, assisted at an earthquake in a far-off land. It was no sudden fright and away again, but a piece of earnest business. It shook down whole streets in towns; it drove ships ashore and swallowed up rivers of clean water to vomit them forth again in avalanches of mud; it killed people in thousands, albeit not their sleeping time. It never ceased for a whole month, with intervals of five minutes, and finally, it left some nine hundred miles of sea-coast and “pented hills with all their load,” permanently raised a fathom higher out of the ocean than they had been before.

It was a fine night, and the moon shone bright, when the distant roar was heard, and the earth swayed with a horizontal rocking movement, now north and south, and then east and west, and then in a circular whirl; huge trees bowed down like giants in sport; men and women rushed from churches and chapels; horses broke their bridles and halters and rushed with the cattle to the hills; the lake disappeared, and the wild birds from its surface flew screaming into the air. A sensation like sea-sickness came on; and, as on a ship’s deck in a heavy gale at sea, it was impossible to stand without stretching the legs wide. I was in a house at the time, and the house had a chimney of brick. It was like Paddy’s house, all the stories were on the ground-floor, built of wooden posts planted firmly on the ground and filled in with brushwood or wattle and daub, and heavily thatched with rushes. It was, before the earthquake, a very comfortable rustic dwelling. With the shock the chimney fell in through the ceiling; tables, chairs and bookcase were all heaped on one another, and covered in a cloud of dust and ruins. I was “nowhere.” The house lay like a ship on its beam-ends, and doors and windows were all jammed. To get out it was needful to wait till a reverse rocking enabled them to open. Once outside, there was a clear sky and bright moon looking down, and but for the thought that all in-door comforts were wrecked, and the possibility of a great ocean wave coming up the bed of the lake, and the lofty sand hills tumbling down into the valley, one might have imagined oneself at sea in a bright gale of wind. But the groaning of men and the screaming of women and children, dispelled that illusion. Their shouts to the Virgin for help were incessant.

Now, in all that country, houses of one floor—the ground—were the rule, and two floors the exception. The walls were very thick and very low, of bricks such as the Children of Israel made, but with good tough barley-straw entwined through them to hold them together. The tall churches of burnt brick toppled over like packs of cards, and wooden altar-pieces stood erect in the ruins, while even the low thick walls were thrown down. The people in the towns fled to the hills to dwell in tents, for the incessant shaking left them no hope of returning to their several dwellings; and when, two days after, a heavy and uncustomary rain set in, it added to their misery; but fortunately it did not continue. Attempts were made at repairs, but abandoned, for incessant shocks threw down the brickwork as it was being erected. And what were the poor people to do? They had no timber to build with, for rafters and roof-poles were brought from afar off.

Our English earthquakes are apparently but the reverberation of the distant mischief. We do not appear to live on the edges of the great cracks, the weak spots in the shell of the inner furnace, which serve as safety-valves; but there was once an earthquake in our neighbourhoood—Lisbon. Where the volcanoes are, the “imprisoned vapours in the womb of earth” find easier vent. Were a stopper put into the mouth of Hecla we know not how far the mischief might spread. The builders of Babel seem only to have been conscious of the evils wrought by water, and were possibly unconscious of earthquakes, a calamity fatal to all such building craft.

Now let us suppose what might be the result in London of an earthquake similar to that of Lisbon, and happening in the night. The single-storied dwellings of the poor might probably remain erect, though damaged; but what of the four and five storied dwellings of the middle classes—what of the huge palaces, piled floor on floor in the heart of London, and let out in offices? What of those ranges of houses in the main streets serving for shops, the whole fronts of which stand on slender stilts of cast-iron, which would crack like potsherds did they once overhang their bases. Oxford Street, Regent Street, the Strand and Holborn—all the buildings in main thoroughfares, whose front walls stand upon plate-glass, would fall prostrate at a blow, and choke the thoroughfares with heterogeneous ruins and the mashed frames of humanity. The huge Cathedral of St. Paul’s would bury its own churchyard in its fragments. The Bank and the Exchange would mingle their crumbled materials together; churches and their many spires would fall down; the warehouses and stone bridges on the river would block its channel, and the breached and riven banks would again convert the whole low-lying lands into the marsh that they were in the days of Julius Cæsar; but all putrid with dead bodies. Water and gas supply would cease, and the great sewers would be underground reservoirs of pestilence. A plague would supervene, and many hundreds of thousands would perish. The dockyards would be destroyed, and speculating despots on the Continent would gloat over the downfall of English supremacy, and talk of invading us with the pretext of help. The cast-iron bridge at Queen Street would not be left for the New Zealander, and though the forged upper structure at Charing Cross would be indestructible save by time and rust, the masonry of the piers would burst through the cast-iron casings, and leave the bridge a wreck. And meanwhile throughout England similar ruin might prevail, and commerce be stopped, and famine add its presence to other evils. The transit of food and fuel by water would cease, and the toppling down of brick viaducts would stop for a time all railway transit.

But men would be left, and women, racy of the soil, and the soil itself would continue to produce its fruits, and we should begin the world anew, but with a mass of knowledge to begin upon such as the world has never before massed together. The Colonies would suffer, for working men and women would become too valuable to be spared till we had again “filled up our numbers,” if war, prompted by our misfortunes, did not intervene. And if it did, we should still hold our own, and our Colonies would come to the help of the mother from whom they sprung.

After all, the evils of an earthquake would be less evils of nature than of art. The shaking of our soil can do no more to us than the shaking of the water round our soil. The trees and the corn and the fruits of the earth will continue to grow let the earth shake never so often. Only, if earthquakes are to come at frequent intervals, we must give up our luxuries of lofty buildings of brick and stone, and such-like brittle material, and betake ourselves to a material that will not break. Wood is combustible, and therefore dangerous; but we have an indigenous material that will neither break nor burn if rightly used—iron.

Nor, therefore, would there be a necessity of abandoning this home of storied greatness, even though earthquakes were to become perennial. We should have to build our dwellings as we now build our ships, of iron, and they would lie as well on the surface of the shaking land as our iron craft do on the surface of our shaking ocean, and the landsman might “seal up his eye and rock his brain” in cradle of the land as well as of “the rude impetuous surge;” and if men will make monuments to lift their tall spires to heaven they must build them of tough wrought iron, keeled deep in the ground, and formed like the iron masts of our war-ships, that still stand erect, let the vessel rock never so wildly. And take the very worst condition of an earthquake and all its consequences, better that than the atrocious civil war now raging between our descendants in America. We should not be demoralised, but become better and stronger men by our physical trials, and all the new circumstances we should have to surmount by improved art. Who shall say that such an event would not ultimately serve to increase our commerce, making us the iron-house builders for the earthquake zone of the earth, as we are already the iron shipbuilders to girdle the ocean round?

It is not good to live in fear, nor is it our habit. A fight with nature is better than a fight with our fellow man; and, after all, this world would be little worth living in were there no work to do to exercise the faculties and energies that God has given to us. The land where fruits grow spontaneously, and where peasants live on milk and chestnuts, as do wild animals, is no land for the grand old English race that has done more than all other races put together to win the world from the wilderness, and make it a habitation for civilised man.

We “went down to the sea in ships” along the river courses, but we did not stop there. We went on the sea also, and out into the great ocean. Storms came and men perished. It was not always in sailor craft to keep off a lee shore in a land-locked bay that offered no harbour of refuge. So when foul winds failed us, or only bore us hap hazard, we found out the force of steam, and made it our servant, and then in the teeth of wind and rain and hail and storm we left the lee-shore behind us, strong in our God-given might—given to save, and not to destroy. We laughed the tempest to scorn as we “clawed off the land,” and we shall find fitting remedies for earthquakes as well as waterquakes when we are once put to our work—if the earthquake should visit us in permanence. If we cannot make chimneys vertical we will make them horizontal; and if it should so happen that a Hecla were to take up its abode in the Scilly Islands, it would go hard but we should turn its hot-water privileges to special economical account, sparing the labour of many a coal-miner. We have heard of stray English travellers boiling their dinners in the Geysers for an experiment: we should turn these, if at home, to the uses of agriculture and many other purposes; and earthquakes also may be a blessing, under Providence, when human art shall take the place of human ignorance. We continue to use the ocean for a highway, albeit amidst shaking mountains of water, and we shall not abandon the shaking land when we have adapted our dwellings to its new circumstances, if such new circumstances are to be, as the whirligig of time turns round.

W. Bridges Adams.