In January 1703/4, Ralph Thoresby (an antiquary of Leeds and fellow of the Royal Society) sent Sloane a collection of accounts of an earthquake in the north of England on Childermas Day (December 28th) around five in the evening. Thoresby’s letter, and a second one on the earthquake, appeared in the Philosophical Transactions 24 (1704). The earthquake had been strongest in Hull, so Thoresby wrote first to the “most suitable person I know” there: Mr Banks, The Prebendary of York and Vicar of Hull. Thoresby also had accounts from friends and relatives across the north of England: his sister (a Parson’s wife), a minister who was related, and a minister named Mr Travers. The story is interesting on its own merits, but it also reveals much about the overlap between religion and science, the collection of scientific information and the activities of daily life.
Mr Banks had relatively little to say for himself, having been walking through the noisy town streets on his way “to visit a sick Gentleman”. His Reader, however, the “ingenious good man” Mr Peers, had been writing at his desk and was “affrighted” when the desk and chair began to heave and the chamber and window shook. Mr Banks had twenty more such accounts from tradesmen. Mrs Banks had been concerned about the china in her closet [small private room] falling on her, while the rest of the family heard the pewter and windows rattling. Some of the accounts were more amusing. A neighbouring gentlewoman found her chair lifted so high that she thought her “great Dog had got under it”. And in a nearby ale house, the company was so merry that they did not even notice the chimney falling down. Only the landlady’s mother, who was in a chamber on her own, “felt the shock so violent, that she verily believ’d the house to be coming down” and nearly fell over. The accounts from Thoresby’s relatives and friends were similar.
The earthquake came one month after the largest natural disaster in the British Isles, the Great Storm of 1703. Mr Banks concluded that “Famines, Pestilences and Earthquakes, are joined by our Blessed Saviour, as portending future calamities.” In this case, he feared “the approach of some more dreadful Earthquake” and he prayed “God of his infinite mercy to avert his future Judgments.”
As Thoresby’s reports suggest, the exploration of the natural world and a firm belief in God went hand-in-hand in the eighteenth century. Thoresby had a longstanding interest in natural events such as unusual weather or earthquakes, and several of his letters on these subjects were published in the journal. Thoresby was typical of his time. Like Mr Banks, he believed that these events were signs from God. But these were not merely punishments. By Divine Providence, God might show his favour by protecting people from the worst. The terrible storm and the recent earthquake were warnings to be heeded. But if one could uncover the cause of these events, it might be possible to prevent them in the future.
Thoresby’s letters also reveal his information gathering process. Although Thoresby had not been in Hull, he knew just who to ask. In less than a month, Thoresby had heard back from Mr Banks, who had spoken to at least twenty-five people about their experiences. Thoresby then passed it on to Sloane who, as Secretary of the Royal Society, might publish the account in the Philosophical Transactions. It was, nonetheless, important to establish the credibility of one’s sources. Mr Banks was “suitable”, Mr Peers “ingenious good” and several of the others were listed as ministers, gentlewoman, or “Parson’s wife”. These were the accounts that received precedence, being from people considered reliable. This list also highlights Thoresby’s wider social and intellectual networks. Thoresby might be a fellow of the Royal Society and have access to Sloane’s attention, but his own information gathering occurred primarily within his own social group, the middling ranks of clergymen and tradesmen.
The accounts also tell us what was going in Hull at five in the afternoon when the earthquake happened. Mr Banks was walking through the lively town centre, on his way to visit a sick person. Mrs Banks kept the china in her closet, which is where she was, and many of the family members were at home. The Banks family were also obviously comfortable in their domestic arrangements, owning as they did both pewter and china. Mr Peers, Mr Travers, and twenty tradesmen were busy writing at their desks. A neighbouring woman kept a large dog, which was clearly known for causing similar domestic havoc. The nearby ale house, run by a woman, was thriving, and at least one member of her family lived above. Thoresby’s relative the minister was visiting a gentleman and his sister was “sadly frighted” while alone in her room. The drama of the earthquake contrasts sharply with the homeliness of regular activities.
A short scientific report, perhaps. But one that offers a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of Thoresby and his friends – encapsulating their religious beliefs, information networks, social status, family relationships, and cozy domesticity.