The Southwell Topple is a spectacular example of a toppling failure on the southeastern coastline of the Isle of Portland, on the south coast of England. Types of mass movements, which occur around almost the entire coastline of Portland and include some other much smaller but well-known topples, vary depending on local geological and topographic contexts. The ‘Southwell Landslide’ of 1734 (i.e. the Southwell Topple), differs in most respects from all the others, not least in its size. We examine the historical and geological contexts of the Southwell Topple in order to explain its origins and characteristics. The recently published bathymetric data from the DORIS project reveals the tectonic context for the landslide, particularly the frequent transform faults parallel to the southeastern coastline of Portland and the axis of the Shambles Syncline forming Portland's ‘central depression’. It appears that the Southwell Topple resulted from coast-parallel tectonic discontinuities – probably a single joint and/or transform fault – through the Portland Stone combined with preferential marine erosion of the underlying weaker Portland Sand.