Skip to content

Fireball over Eythorne

It was reported in the Dover Chronicle of 23rd June 1866 that “On Wednesday morning (20th June 1866) at 15 minutes to 11 o’clock a large meteor was seen by several persons at an elevation of about 66 degrees, travelling the sky in a direction from North to South. The sun was shining out brilliantly, nevertheless a perfect train of smoke could be perceived for some time. About one minute after the meteor had disappeared a loud double report like unto the firing and bursting of a shell was heard. It is stated that another much louder report was heard at Eythorne and Eastry but of those we have not received definite information. Correspondence appeared in The Times of Thursday 21st June with reference to the subject”.
Anyone in Eythorne itself, or those working in the surrounding fields, that observed the meteor as it passed would have been astonished by what they saw as well as startled by the loud bangs. To have been visible during daylight means that the meteor would have been very large. Such large and exceptionally bright meteorites that explode are known as Bolides.
Its large size would have been why it made it through the earth’s atmosphere intact. Most meteors burn up on entry to the atmosphere and visible meteors are caused by particles ranging in size from about that of a small pebble down to a grain of sand and generally weigh less than 1-2 grams. The meteor of June 20th 1866 would have burnt bright because of its speed as well as its size and such meteors are also often referred to as fireballs. It would have been well over a metre in diameter and travelling faster than the speed of sound which is why the loud bangs (“reports”, or sonic booms were heard). It’s possible that the several “reports” heard at Eythorne could have been due to the sonic boom as its passed by as well as its later disintegration over France.
A contemporary painting of the meteor is attached.
A more complete description of the event was given by “J. Nasmyth” who was almost certainly the Scottish engineer James Nasmyth, who moved to Kent and took up astronomy after he retired in 1856.
Mr Nasmyth saw the meteor from his residence at Penshurst distinctly pass across a clear break in the sky and then disappear behind a mass of clouds. He heard no report of the explosion. Mr Nasmyth’s observations of the daylight bolide are as follows: –
While walking in my garden at about a quarter to eleven on the forenoon of June 20th, I was startled to see a bright red comet-shaped object rapidly moving across the clear blue sky about 35 degrees above the horizon. The length of the meteor was about 1 degree, or twice as long as the Moon appears in diameter. The motion was majestic, yet rapid, for it traversed a space of 80 degrees in rather less than two seconds. The direction was from N.W. to S.E. The advancing end of the meteor was brilliant red, with a white or shining envelope or head; the after part, or tail, was a ragged fan-shape, with a waving motion, accompanied by white vapours, and followed by a faint white vapour-trail. It disappeared from my sight behind a mass of clouds, and I listened for some time to catch any report or sound of explosion, but I heard none. The passage of the meteor was nearly parallel to the horizon, but with a slight dip or decline to the S.E. It is impossible to convey by words the impression left by the appearance of this mysterious object, majestically traversing the clear blue sky during bright sunshine. Had it made its appearance at night, the whole of England would have seen more or less of its light.
A modern computer-generated image illustrating how the event of 20th June 1866 might have looked at Penshurst Place is attached.
The meteor is supposed to have exploded between Boulogne and St Omer in France. At Boulogne, the concussion of the detonating bolide sent alarmed persons running into the streets, where they saw the smoky train of the disintegrated meteor hanging in the sky. It was reported that houses and windows were shaken and “labourers startled in the fields” by its passage at Wrotham and that at Dover Castle a loud report was heard 30 seconds after it disappeared from view there.

Vince Croud

Our sponsors - thank you!

Click below for more information