Classic Rock

The Wold Newton Meteorite

Over two centuries ago, East Yorkshire played host to one of the groundbreaking events that helped advance the study of astronomy and even our understanding of the universe itself.  On 13th December 1795, at 3pm, a large meteorite struck near the village of Wold Newton, near Driffield.  Two loud explosions, ‘like cannons’, were heard from as far away as Bridlington, and John Shipley, a 17 year-old ploughman, was just 9 yards away from the point of impact when he saw the clouds ‘open’ and the ground ‘fly-up’ in front of him. 

‘Meteorite’: rock or metal that has fallen to Earth from outer space.

The impact occurred on the grounds of Wold Cottage, owned and occupied by local magistrate, Major Edward Topham, who was a man of considerable fame and notoriety at the time.  He was also involved in newspapers and was able to publicise the incident so that it became a subject of national curiosity, and the meteorite was exhibited at No.2 Picadilly, London, opposite the Gloucester Coffee House.

Location of Wold Newton (green pin) on ‘What Was Here?

The stone weighed in at 51 lb, the second largest in England, and is the oldest surviving meteorite in the British Isles.  It struck at a time when the reason for these strange stones from the air had yet to be explained, and the air of mystery was added to by the fact that the Wold Newton Meteorite did not resemble any other type of rock found in the country.  Only the previous year, the physicist Ernst Chladni, had published his catalogue of meteorite falls, and the interest generated by the Wold Newton event is widely acknowledged as a key influence in the study of meteorites, that led to the eventual explanation of this phenomenon.

The Wold Newton Meteorite

The Wold Newton Meteorite is now in the safe hands of The Natural History Museum in London and a monument, erected by Major Edward Topham in 1799, marks the site near Wold Cottage, where the rock fell.  Major Topham sent and received numerous letters about the meteorite, and even took testimonies from eyewitnesses, but sadly little of this written evidence appears to have made its way into East Riding Archives.

Major Edward Topham

We have an original report of the incident from a 1796 edition of the London Chronicle (archive-ref DDX417/1), and various publications in the local studies collections, but it’s a crying shame that we don’t have more contemporary evidence preserved in this region, of what was such a monumental event.  It would be fantastic if someone in the East Riding of Yorkshire was still sitting on original documents that could be given to us for permanent preservation.

Report in ‘The London Chronicle’, 7th to 9th January 1796 (archive-ref DDX417/1)

Anyone who may have come across original writings about the meteorite should consider having them preserved here at the Treasure House in Beverley.

It’s a long shot, but it’s surprising what people have stored in their attics, and you never know, there might still be one or two Edward Topham letters hanging around in the East Riding that we could preserve for posterity!

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