The Earthquake of 1855
Given that the NZETC is Wellington-based and that we have a number of Wellington-themed texts in our collection, it should be no surprise that we have plenty of material online relating to the earthquake of 1855 that struck Wellington and the Wairarapa.
For example Early Wellington has a first-hand account of the 1855 earthquake, describing "heterogeneous confusion". The author of the account notes:
Amidst the general wreck of property, but one life has been sacrificed, and not more than four other persons seriously wounded.… This would appear astonishing to a person viewing the wreck of the houses, the mass of brickwork from the falling of the chimneys.… .the extraordinary rise of the tide, the entire destruction of some tenements, the collapse of others, the universal sacrifice of property and the natural terror and despair among the inhabitants, all tending to far greater personal disaster than fortunately I have to narrate.… . The hour was favourable to the escape of adults who seized the children from beneath the tottering chimneys, themselves not having generally retired to bed.The timing of the earthquake, at 9:11pm, was fortuitous, as "Government House, had it been occupied, must have destroyed its inmates; for in every room, was a pile of brickwork, the chandeliers, etc., utterly destroyed."
An earlier earthquake, in 1848, had persuaded Wellingtonians to forego the use of brick as a building material, and the wisdom of this was borne out by observers:
“But upon going round Wellington and comparing the damage of 1848 with the present damage, I should say the amount was very much less than in 1848.The death of the one person killed directly in the 1855 earthquake, the owner of Baron Alzdorf's Hotel, in fact appears to be a testament to the dangers of brick construction:
“This may easily be accounted for from the fact that there were not nearly so many brick houses, and those that were are all strongly bonded with wood and iron.…”
'They are repairing the bank, which got dreadfully shaken, and the Baron's (Alzdorf's) new brick hotel—poor fellow, he little thought he was building his death trap, he used to say: ‘Look at my house, that is the way to build against earthquakes; no shock will destroy that.’A memorandum on the 1855 earthquake, appearing in Te Ika A Maui, describes in detail some of the geological consequences of the earthquake, and notes that the results were generally favourable:
Upon the whole the province of Wellington will gain considerable advantage from the earthquake:—For the inhabitants of Nelson though, there were few beneficial effects of the 1855 quake, as an article by Rodney Grapes in the Nelson Historical Society Journal explains:
1st. Large portions of land can be easily reclaimed from the harbour for the extension of the town.
2d. The main road to the Hutt and the interior formerly suffered occasionally from the action of the waves during high winds, and many parts had to be retained by a sea-wall; now it will escape the damage of the one and the expense of the other, and the whole of that valuable valley will be rendered, if possible, more healthy from greater facility of drainage arising from the elevation.
3d. A much better coast road to the eastward is already formed for the temporary use of the colonists and the driving of cattle.
The earthquake caused the lower part of the Wairau Plain, together with parts of adjoining coast, to subside about 1.5m. According to Lyell, this allowed the tide to flow several miles farther up the Wairau River than formerly, and settlers had to go three miles further up the river to obtain fresh water than they had before the earthquake.Oddly enough, many people initially thought this earthquake to be volcanic in origin, and this led to a comic interlude:
As with the 1848 earthquake, many people believed that the cause of the earthquake was the result of a volcanic eruption and they were eager to locate the source. It appears that while the Lady Grey, a steamer trading between the mainland and the Chatham Islands, was nearing the coast, those on board noticed "wreaths of white vapour rising in a thin and unsteady column" from a high and conical shaped mountain in the Kaikoura range, culminating in "a canopy of smoke," and it was concluded that a new volcano was in eruption. The "volcano" was sited about 20 miles south of Cape Campbell and was also apparently observed by shepherds at Flaxbourne.The Tuatara Biological Sciences journal contains a more scientific analysis of the geological effects of the 1855 earthquake by Harold Wellman, focusing on the tilted marine beach ridges at Cape Turakirae and examining them as historical evidences of past earthquake.
This report, however, was not supported by passengers of the steamer Nelson that arrived in Wellington shortly after the Lady Grey, and an argument ensued. Indeed, when Weld left New Zealand for England in mid 1855 he was still of the opinion that a volcanic eruption had occurred, and it was not until New Zealand newspapers arrived in London, and after his interview with Sir Charles Lyell in May 1856, that he give up this idea as spurious.
Apparently to settle the matter, a party went across the Strait in a whale boat and on proceeding to Flaxbourne, found that the cause of all the excitement was an old shepherd who had set fire to the fern on Benmore. The flames spreading up the mountain slope had ignited a clump of white birch trees on the summit, resulting in the "wreaths of white vapour" and "the canopy of smoke" that indicated the site of "Marlborough's active volcano."
The Earthquake of 1848
The earlier Wellington earthquake of 1848 resulted in the deaths of two children, and caused a number of people to try to flee Wellington for Sydney aboard the Subraron, although this resulted in another calamity when the Subraron was cast ashore:
Fearful of another such visitation, many settlers with their families determined to leave the Colony for Australia, and took passage in the “Subraon,” bound for Sydney. The vessel, however, in beating out of the Heads, missed stays, and ran ashore, when she became a complete wreck. The whole of the passengers were saved (amongst whom was Sir Wm. Fitzherbert, a former speaker of the Legislative Council), and the majority again took up their residence in the land of their adoption.This account, in Early Wellington, describes the effects of the earthquake in some details, and makes note of the numerous aftershocks, both in the hours and days following the main earthquake, and we can easily see a parallel with the last week in Christchurch:
The homeless were sheltered by those who were fortunate enough to be living in wooden houses and the ministers of the several denominations likewise performed good offices, and prayers were offered morning and evening in all the churches left standing, and in most of the private houses of the settlers
“During Monday three or four slight quiverings were experienced. The weather cleared off in the evening, and the stars made their appearance, but few slept during the night, and at four o'clock and at half past seven in the morning, two slight shocks took place.Early Wellington also contains a detailed report of the damage from the 1848 earthquake, containing the illustration below of damage and ending with the sombre observation: "NOTE.—All these buildings were repaired in wood".
The 1848 earthquake was also felt significantly in Nelson, and the Nelson Historical Society Journal has an historical analysis of the effects on the Nelson region:
Jones writes: "The Awatere during the 1848 shock suffered very much: a huge fissure having been made upwards of eighty miles in length: resembling a macadamised road and of about the same width." Jolliffe records that: "the earthquake of 1848 was severely felt throughout the Wairau Plains [probably means the Wairau area] and the ground there was torn up and displaced in a direct line for eighty five miles, in some parts as wide as a canal, in other places merely a fissure in the earth of various depths."The Earthquake of 1931
The May 1931 issue of the Railway Magazine examined in detail the response to the 1931 earthquake that struck the Hawkes Bay, and remarkably, in spite of the devastation, the railway network was still largely operational:
The arrangements made covered a possible evacuation of 15,000 to 20,000 people, and within twenty-four hours there were available 150 railway cars and 50 railway bogie wagons each with a capacity (in emergency) of 100 people or 20,000 people in all.An article from the June 1933 issue of the Railways Magazine concentrates on the rebuilding of Napier after the devastating earthquake of 1931, and focuses on the Spanish Mission styles evident in the rebuilding rather than the Art Deco that we know now Napier for, and again touches on some of the favourable effects of the earthquake:
Schedules were prepared to enable trains to leave at short intervals and had the necessity arisen the whole of the population could have been removed from the danger zone in a short space of time.
The Spanish style of architecture is mostly evident and the frontages have in many cases been finished in various shades of colour which are very pleasing to the eye. There are no posts to support the verandahs and this helps to give a graceful continuity of line to the long and widened thoroughfares...
Upon the Marine Parade great improvements have been carried out which will help visitors to Napier to enjoy their stay. A large area has been reclaimed from the sea and this has been laid out in lawns and shrubbery with very beautiful effect.
Earthquakes in Poverty Bay
Historic Povery Bay and the East Coast recounts the details of several earthquakes which have affected the area, and include some rather hair-raising details about ensuing tsunamis:
A fairly heavy, but not a damaging, earthquake at 8.33 a.m. on 26 March, 1947, was followed by two seismic (or so-called “tidal”) waves which affected the coastline between Tokomaru Bay and Mahia. It was most intense between Whangara and Tatapouri. The initial surge at 8.40 a.m. rose about 25 feet above normal sea level at Pouawa. A smaller comber followed a few minutes later. Mr. and Mrs. A. F. Hall, who had a beach cottage at Turihaua Point, had an alarming experience. They were in the kitchen with a lady visitor when the first outsize wave rushed in. With the water up to his neck, Mr. Hall held on to the mantelpiece, and the women clung to him. Before the next big wave came inshore they had reached a safe spot. Their home was practically destroyed.Literary after-effects
At Tatapouri the waters reached up to the windowsills of the hotel, wrecked a motor shed and carried away some small buildings. A “bach” and motor shed nearby were demolished. The superstructure of the 36-year-old wooden bridge over the Pouawa River was carried half a mile upstream. In Gisborne inner harbour the sea rushed in at about 5 feet above spring tide level. Just north of Mahia the natives made a large catch of fish which had become trapped in low-lying maize fields. A smaller seismic wave, which followed an earthquake on 19 May, 1947, was most pronounced along the beaches adjacent to Tolaga Bay, but it did not do any damage.
Seismic waves had been experienced on the East Coast on several earlier occasions. In August, 1840 (Opotiki Native Land Court minute book, No. 9), a wave of this character threw H.M.S. Buffalo on shore at Whitianga (Mercury Bay) and wrecked her. Tokato block (between Te Araroa and Hicks Bay) was strewn with fish. A wave 10 feet high rushed inshore at Cape Runaway in August, 1868. Violent earthquakes had just been experienced in Peru.
As earthquakes have emotional and geological consequences, they also leave their trail in literature, and the NZETC collection has some evidence of this.
From the mythical (How Maui Challenged the Earthquake God, in Sport), through the ludicrous ("The Moral Causes of Earthquakes" in the New Zealand Evangalist of 1848) to the poetic (verse in the June 1933 issue of the Railway Magazine), there are many accounts and causalities given to earthquakes.
Some of the more literary effects include Earthquake, by Jack Hodges in Sport, and traces of earthquakes even show up in the writing of Katherine Mansfield who, in a letter of November 19, 1919, describes an earthquake and shows that the belief in "earthquake weather" is not just a contemporary phenomenon:
We had a severe earthquake last night at 11 o'clock. The little Casetta gave a creak and then silently shook. And to-day it is dead calm, airless, real earthquake weatherGrowing up as a young child in New Zealand, Mansfield probably experienced occasional tremors, and her experience of these obviously supplied her with material for metaphor, as this comment in a letter of August 11, 1917 shows:
But between these lovely memories and me there opened a deep dark chasm—it trembled open as if by an earthquake—and now it is shut again and no trace of it remains.
Mansfield also recounts experiencing a Zeppelin air-raid in a letter of March 21, 1915, and casts it in terms of having experienced an earthquake:
finally when it was over I made some more tea and felt that a great danger was past and longed to throw my arms round some one. It gave one a feeling of boundless physical relief, like the aftermath of an earthquakeJason