It came from outer space
Howard M. Beck reports on the momentous event that made the Yorkshire Wolds the centre of world attention
Coloured lights and strange fireballs in the sky, accompanied by wooshing noises or sonic booms. No, we are not talking about UFO sightings nor the start of an alien invasion of earth, but more probably the appearance of another mysterious interstellar traveller - the meteorite. We now know these stony messengers from deep space have collided with our planet and struck the surface of the moon (hence its cratered appearance), on a regular basis for billions of years since the creation of the Solar System.
As one would expect with such a geological timeline, these events are not uncommon — evidence for them on the grand scale can be found the world over — but what is unusual is to have documented, eyewitness accounts of meteorite landings. This, then, is where the East Riding of Yorkshire enters into the plot, to become the centre of world focus.
Our story unfolds one momentous Sunday afternoon, December 13th, 1795, two years after Britain had entered the Napoleonic Wars. The weather was inclement with leaden clouds gathering overhead like harbingers of doom. Rain had been falling for some time, when suddenly the heavens were riven apart by lightning flashes. And with such drama the curtain was raised on one of the strangest encounters of all time.
Wold Cottage is 13 miles west of Flamborough, between the villages of Thwing and Fordon. Today it is a listed building. On that fateful afternoon, however, John Shipley, a shepherd employed by the owner of Wold Cottage, was working in the grounds not two fields distant from the house. At precisely 3 pm, and with a sudden noise, the clouds parted and a dark object streaked across the sky, to plant itself in the ground within a few yards of where the terrified man was working.
According to accounts of the day this violent thunderstorm had been raging all over the Yorkshire Wolds, and was especially felt at nearby Wold Newton, a village just a mere stone’s throw (no pun intended) from Wold Cottage. While villagers enjoyed the display of atmospheric pyrotechnics, there was a loud noise described by some as being like the discharge of cannon and others as an explosion. Another thunderclap was the probably consensus.
What soon became apparent, however, was that a strange aerial object had narrowly missed Wold Cottage, residence of Eton-educated Captain Edward Topham, a respected local landowner and magistrate. The object turned out upon closer investigation to be a sizeable meteorite, the second largest in fact to impact on Britain and, more fortuitously, the only such event ever to be witnessed anywhere.
Meteorites are rocks, of varying size, usually containing a high percentage of nickel and other minerals. They are thought to be the leftover debris after the planets were formed. Most originate in the asteroid belt located just beyond the orbit of Mars. They travel at about 250 metres per second and can, as this story highlights, be of sufficient size as to pose a threat. Most are so insignificant, however, that they burn up upon entering the upper atmosphere, forming the familiar ‘shooting stars’. Amazingly, the latter are mostly particles, no larger than grains of sand.
The meteorite that landed in the Wolds, known to geologists as a chondrite, weighed in at an impressive 3 stone 15 lbs (25 kg) and would certainly have caused more than a headache had it perchance struck someone. Besides Shipley, a carpenter called George Sawdon, and one of Topham’s grooms, were both also within yards of the impact zone. Not surprisingly this event caused considerable alarm.
What is more remarkable about the so-called Wold Meteorite, is that landing where it did it was seen not by one, but several independent observers. Subsequently, and for this very reason, it became the most detailed recording of such an event. A singular phenomenon of this nature was of course bound to draw a great deal of attention from academic circles.
Topham was in London at the time, but when he received the news made haste north to investigate. He was nothing if not thorough. And it was almost exclusively due to his efforts in publicising this singular event that his reports, and those of the witnesses, became a major factor in the fight to prove that such stones on occasion did actually fall out of the sky.
While there may have been some variance in what villagers reported as having heard, a number of widely separated observers were adamant in stating, under oath, that they saw an object searing through thick cloud and hurtling over villages from roughly a southwesterly direction. Moreover, people from as far away as Bridlington are said to have heard noises they took to be cannon fire at sea. Provincial newspapers ran eyewitness reports of the incident, and two sons of the Wold Newton vicar hurried to Wold Cottage to assist, believing that the house had been struck.
Shipley told his interlocutors that he had been spattered with mud and earth as the visitor from space buried itself in the ground. The stone was found to have penetrated through the topsoil and implanted itself almost ten inches into the underlying chalk strata, so firmly in fact that it was only excavated with some effort. The stone was warm to the touch.
So shaken was the shepherd by events that it was some time before he settled down sufficiently to provide his employer with a coherent statement. In his first description of what he saw he told that…’the clouds opened up as it fell’ and ‘I thought heaven and earth were coming together!’
Topham subsequently placed the meteorite on exhibition in London — admission one shilling — for the benefit of the ‘curious, and the public in genera’ and advertised this fact in ‘The Times’. To commemorate the event he also provided the funds to erect an obelisk to mark the impact site. The structure still stands today, though it is on private land with no public access. The inscription on the plaque reads:
On this spot, December 13, 1795
Fell from the atmosphere
An extraordinary stone.
In breadth twenty-eight inches
In length thirty-six inches
Whose weight was fifty-six pounds.
In memory of it
Was erected by
Though the meteorite itself is now housed in the Museum of Natural History in London, it still attracts attention today, influencing local communities and businesses. The village pub in nearby Thwing was named after the meteorite, and two local farmers, Tom Mellor and his neighbour the current owner of Wold Cottage, Derek Gray, founded the Wolt Top micro-brewery in 2003, naming one of their more popular real ales, Falling Stone Bitter.
There are literary connections too, for American author Philip José Farmer [1918-2009], in his fictional biography, ‘Tarzan: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke’, centred his plot on the Wold Newton village and its famous meteorite. In this case, however, the stone was radioactive and created mutations among the passengers of a passing coach!
Strangely enough, and rare as meteorites are in Britain, in August 2005 former electronics engineer turned professional meteorite hunter, Rob Elliott, discovered another rock from deep space along the edge of the Hambleton Hills. This was unearthed close to the village of Kilburn.
The stone weighed 17.6 kg (39 lbs) and was an example of a very rare pallasite meteorite, containing a high percentage of the magnesium iron silicate known as olivine. This type of meteorite represents only 1% of all those ever found. The Hambleton meteorite formed part of a collection to be auctioned off by Mr Elliott this August .
Further research has turned up a fireball reportedly seen over the Hambleton Hills in 1783 by travellers traversing Yorkshire on route for Scotland. Whether this has anything to do with the object discovered near Kilburn, or indeed another meteorite which fell near Middlesborough in 1881 one may speculate till the heavens fall, as it were.
All over the world there are craters and other evidence for massive impacts, vis-à-vis the Arizona crater. Britain, I was surprised to learn, is no exception. Geologists searching for evidence of large meteor impacts here, made a momentous discovery in 2002 while studying the geology of the Stoer Peninsula in northwest Scotland. The geological clues uncovered clearly pointed to a colossal impact, which ejected material over some 50 km. Worrying? Possibly not, for the Stoer meteorite landed 1.2 billion years ago, so perhaps we can forego wearing hard hats in the garden after all. Or can we?