An oil painting of the Wold Cottage obelisk

An oil painting from 1811 by George Nicholson. It depicts Edward Topham's monument to recognise the impact site of the 'extraordinary stone' now officially known as Wold Cottage.

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Wold Cottage: the stone that proved meteorites come from space

Wold Cottage is the UK's oldest-known surviving meteorite, having plummeted through Earth's atmosphere in 1795. The fall of this 'extraordinary stone' prompted the first large-scale investigation into the origins of meteorites.

Where meteorites come from was not well understood in eighteenth century. But when a peculiar rock fell in a Yorkshire field in 1795, it helped introduce scientists to the possibility of extraterrestrial origins.

A fortuitous fall

On 13 December 1795, a meteorite fell in an agricultural field near the village of Wold Newton in East Yorkshire. Farmworker James Shipley was so close to its impact site that he was struck by soil and rocks thrown into the air by the crash landing, which caused a crater about 50 centimetres deep.

Playwright and journalist Edward Topham (1751-1820) lived at Wold Cottage, a nearby house that the meteorite was named after. He took statements from three key witnesses including Shipley - all reported a dark body passing through the air and striking the ground. 

A watercolour painting of the Wold Cottage meteorite, by Harriet Topham, one of Edward Topham's daughters, in 1797

The meteorite's arrival was heard in several villages as it passed overhead, although many were unable to determine the cause of the noise. In an account printed in 1806, Topham relayed how although there were thunder and lightning in the distance, 'It was not until the falling of the stone that the explosion took place, which alarmed the surrounding county.'

The event was so unusual that when the two sons of a clergyman saw the stone pass overhead, they immediately ran to Wold Cottage to see 'if anything extraordinary had happened'.

A pen and ink sketch of the Wold Cottage obelisk, by Gerard van Spaendonck in 1812

Topham had the impact site marked by a monument, to commemorate the arrival of the 'extraordinary stone'. It notes its whole weight of 56 pounds (25.4 kilogrammes), width of 28 inches (71 centimetres) and height of 30 inches (76 centimetres).

Studied by Sowerby

Topham didn't keep the meteorite. By 1804 he had sold it to James Sowerby (1757-1822) for ten Guineas - which is around £10.50.

Wold Cottage is now part of the Natural History Museum's Meteorite collection

Wold Cottage featured in the second volume of one of Sowerby's most influential works, British mineralogy, published in 1806. The discussion on the meteorite went on for 19 pages and was primarily Topham's detailed account of the fall.

In 1837 Sowerby sold the rock to the British Museum for £250 - a substantial price for its time, although not all of the meteorite was sold. Only 20.6 of its 25.4 kilogrammes made it to the museum's collection. The remainder is believed to have been broken off and given away prior to the acquisition.

The meteorite is now part of the Natural History Museum's Meteorites collection and on display in the permanent Treasures exhibition.

A portrait of James Sowerby featuring the Wold Cottage meteorite, painted by Thomas Heaphy in 1816 Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Lightning strikes and meteorites

Before the Wold Cottage meteorite fell, German physicist Ernst Chladni (1756-1827) had begun recording similar fall events. In 1794 he published a book in which he suggested that the unusual rocks had extraterrestrial origins.

But the scientific community doubted Chladni's views. It was commonly believed that meteorites were formed from either lightning strikes or volcanic debris that accreted in the air into large, rocky masses which then fell to Earth.

But with no active volcanoes anywhere near Yorkshire, this seemed an unlikely explanation. In Sowerby's work, Topham questioned, 'What projectile force could throw a stone of 56 pounds in weight from any volcano upon Earth to the spot near my house where the stone fell?'

Wold Cottage has clear indentations that Topham also referenced: 'These dents, I think, look truly more like piece having burst from the mass, which always appears more like an irregular fragment of rock than a conglomerated body that had gathered in air.'

Topham noted that it appeared Wold Cottage was not accreted in the air. This clashed with the common theories for the origin of meteorites at the time

The Yorkshire stone prompted the first full scale investigation into the origin of meteorites. Notable naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) began a worldwide study to compare them. It was noted that Wold Cottage was similar in composition to other meteorites that had fallen elsewhere, but that the unusual rocks did not resemble other stones found naturally on Earth.

Banks's study helped proved Chladni's theory - meteorites come from space, not volcanoes or lightning.

Why study meteorites?

Scientists now know that meteorites have extraterrestrial origins, beginning as part of asteroids. We study meteorites to understand how different materials mixed together during the formation of the solar system approximately 4.6 billion years ago.

Wold Cottage is thought to have been a piece of debris sent hurtling to Earth after two asteroids collided. It is a stony meteorite, categorised as L6.

There are approximately 60,000 meteorites held in official repositories around the world, 35% of which are L type. According to the Meteoritical Bulletin Database, just over 10,000 of the collected meteorites are classified as L6.

Museum scientists are currently studying chondrites in the Meteorites collection to learn about conditions in the early solar system, and the processes that formed the planets.