Friday, January 01, 2010

John Chapman’s New Year’s Gift: documenting the Westerham landslip, 1596.

Google Earth image contributed by Malcolm Page,
see comment from him below the post


John Chapman presented his pamphlet A most true report of the myraculous moving and sinking of a plot of ground, about nine acres, at Westram in Kent, which began the 18. of December, and so continued till the 29. of the same moneth to Margaret, Baroness Dacre as a New Year’s gift early in 1596 (she was the sister of the Gregory Fiennes, Baron Dacre, who had been executed for murder in 1594).

It’s an interesting pamphlet, carefully written and unsensationalised, about a creeping landslip near Crockham Hill, in Kent. 27 male witnesses verify the account – the local JP, the vicar, a physician, 12 gentlemen and 12 yeomen. As far as I can pick up from local village websites, there does not seem to be any current local knowledge of this historical happening in their pretty landscape.

Chapman supplies everything we need to understand what happened, geomorphologically. We are in 1596, and Shakespeareans all remember how at that time

the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.

Chapman confirms this at local level, writing finally of how by “the great aboundance of water, and continuall rayne which have fallen so many months together of late, sundry great bowrnes (bournes), and violent streames have broken out in many places of this land, and at the least seaven such within xii miles of this place every way, the least whereof is able to drive a corne Mill”.

That’s a lot of ground water. England was saturated, and if you look at this map, my best guess as to where the landslip occurred, you can see (switch to the OS map) the spring line beneath the higher ground to the north.
Chapman makes, for his own reasons, which I will come to, a big point about how the rain water did not increase the flow of two ‘gozelles’ in the area that slipped (for ‘gozelle’, the OED cites 1695 KENNETT a gutter is in Lincolnshire a Gool, in Kent a Guzzle, in Wiltshire a Gushill, and Gooshill”). I imagine some feature of the local geology saturated the top soils, which maybe traveled on a slippery clay layer below. As far as I can judge by my geological map, Crockham Hill seems to be precisely at the northern boundary of the Weald Clay, which is succeeded by the overlying Lower Greensand. I think that would be the impermeable layer which prompts the spring line upslope.

This Wikipedia page has a nice animated gif of a similar slump landslide over several days: . Though that’s on a far steeper slope, with no saturation. As Chapman writes, vividly, the two ‘closes’ or fields that slipped and merged into one further downslope “were Adant (sic? Not in OED), and upon the shoot (= rising?) of an hill, but not so much that a bowle being cast up against the hill might easily have layen and settled without tumbling backe againe perforce”. The ground was not steep enough for a sudden slide, but just gave way in a gradual slumping.

On the 18th of December, the whole area (nine acres!) started to move, leaving a scar at the point of detachment of six and a half feet. On the 19th December, there was thirteen feet more of slippage, then eighty feet on the 20th. People stood on it, experiencing how it managed “to move, slide, and shoote southward, not with any suddaine shot, but creeping by little, and little, so as the motion and stirring thereof was not discerned nor perceived, by them that were presently standing upon it, but onlie by the sundrie effects that followed, as the cracking of the roots of trees, the brushing of boughs, the noise of the hedge-wood breaking, the gaping of the ground, and the riving of the earth asunder”.

The slide was measured at one stage as fourteen “handfulls by measure in one houre and a halfe” – 56 inches, nearly 6 feet. After eleven days of movement, Chapman outdoes the Beatles’ count of ‘10,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire’ with a conscientious tally of “eleven thousand furrows, riffes, cracks, and clefts in diverse places here and there”. The nine acres of ground had moved by eight perches or more (a perch is that useful old English measure, of sixteen and a half feet, or coincidentally close to five metres). He describes the way the upslope material ended up on top of the lower lying ground: “the hinder ground coming faster forward … then the former ground did give way unto it, caused it to swell uppe in rounde hillocks like unto graves, the green turf remaining still whole and unbroken above”. In other places, the higher material had gone like a broken wave over the lower.

Everything went with the topsoil layers: a hedge that ran across the slip was displaced southward by seven perches, its trees either still upright and apparently growing, or overthrown. There had been “two standing water pools” in the upper of the two fields. These also moved “four perches south, with their tuftes of Alders still standing upon them, but withal, they are mounted up aloft, and become hilles, standing yet to be seen with their sedge, flags, and black mudde upon the toppe of them still”. In their place, dramatically, a “great hole made by sinking of the earth, to the depth of 30 feet” opened further down the slide.

This gentle slumping after a very rainy year hardly seems unaccountable. But what is interesting (from the early modern mindset side of things) is the way that Chapman sets out to interpret all this: as he saw no increase in the runoff through the ‘gozelles’ (the flow in each could be accommodated by an auger hole of one and a half inches, he says, and it didn’t rise at all during all the deluge), the landslip, he firmly decides, “cannot be imputed to the aboundance of water enforcing it as the cause thereof”.

The great Crockham Hill landslip is in fact for him a tremendous act of God, through which the deity gives ‘unto our eies a sencible testimony of his most certaine being”. We do not have to travel far, Chapman says, to have stirred up in ourselves “a strong and fruitfull impression of the great deitie”. Fifteen miles south of London will do.

This local and rather quietly impressive event is a manifestation of the God who “hurleth downe hilles … and exalteth the lowe vallies”. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” said Isaiah, and here it is locally, as Chapman triumphantly, and piously, concludes his description: “By means of all which confusion, it is come to passe, that where the highest hilles were heretofore, there the deepest dales be now. And where the lowest dales were then, now the ground lyeth mounted heist”.

As the creeping earth was moving so slowly, people had plenty of time to get aboard for the ride. Chapman says that 4,000 people have visited the site, from London and elsewhere: “to whom it hath seemed to be a very strange and fearefull sight, giving occasion unto some of them, to thinke upon that great opening of the earth that shalbe in the latter day when she shall yeelde up her dead, that be in her to come to the resurrection”. He makes their experience one of supernatural, not natural, wonder.

So it was, in Chapman’s eyes, as though the visitors were on a slow ride in a divine theme park. He remarked at the start of his pamphlet that God by his “wonderfull and unsearchable providence … doth from time to time … alter and change” the world He created. Here was the local instance, though it is rather evident that Chapman would have liked it rather better if God could have contrived to swallow up a few atheists, those who ‘in their own hearts … saye plainely … that there is no God at all’. He has an excellent Bible example in mind. Chapman says “this damnable impiety deserves to be punished”: either with the fires that fell on Sodom, “or the sudden gaping of the ground that swallowed up Corah.”

He refers to Korah, in Numbers 16, who complained to Moses about having left behind one land flowing with milk and honey, and not having arrived in the promised land: Moses refutes these objections to his handling of the wilderness years, remarking to the Israelites: “But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD. And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.”

Chapman emerges well from the pamphlet. I think he has to be the ‘yeoman’ of the same name listed among the witnesses. He is a credit to local education: meticulous, observant, and capable of writing very vividly. But this bit of local slope instability cannot for him be accounted for by secondary causes: the primary cause is the important one. God is reshaping his world. Or rather, bible texts fill out Chapman’s response to what he witnessed: it’s Isaiah, The Book of Numbers, and what the earth will look like when the dead awaken. His religious beliefs give meaning to what he saw.


Vivienne said...

I live in Crockham Hill on the spring line. Your blog on the great landslip of 1596 is very interesting. I would appreciate a copy of the pamphlet if you have this available.
Also the map location link didn't work. Please let me know where you believe the landslip to have occurred.

Many thanks for this exciting bit of our local history.

DrRoy said...

Hello, Vivienne, glad someone found it interesting after all these years! Now that Multimaps have completely merged with Bing, that old link is indeed defunct, and six years on, I can't reconstruct my judicious opinion about just where the landslip was on the present day landscape. Put it like this, I seem to have known a deal more about it in 2010 than I do now.
The pamphlet has to be read on a database called EEBO. If you want to drop me an e-mail to my academic address,, I will send page images of the pamphlet when I have a moment. It's only 14 pages long, and 8 images of double page spreads.
Best wishes, Dr Roy

DrRoy said...

Comment pasted in from an e-mail, from Malcolm Page of Oxted, Surrey:
"I have walked across the field where the landslip occurred many times. One can discern what I think are traces of the disturbed ground on land off the footpath that runs across it from east to west lies south of the B202 Hosey Common Road, east of the Crockham Church and village hall, and on up to the steep steps up to Froghole. I recall the field can be quite boggy in parts to the north of the footpath on the higher ground towards the B202 in very wet periods.

You take the footpath from the village hall and walk east, there is a steep slope above you to the B202. You can see the footpath that is often used by walkers on Google Earth.(Attached - the footpath runs diagonally across the field in the centre of the Screen Shot)

I established the location from Dr Roy's original map.

Leith Hill which is the highest point of the Greensand Ridge, is the site of the most frequent landslips these days."