1855 Wairarapa Earthquake – Liz Garden

Rose Chapman: I’d like to ask Liz Garden to speak to us; extremely interesting, the [background voice] 1855 Wairarapa earthquake. Although it was given that name, like the so-called Napier earthquake it affected a much wider area. So she’s also very knowledgeable about local history; so Liz, I will hand over to you. Thank you very much.

Liz Garden: Thank you. Well good morning, everyone. For our sins of offering [chuckles] our services, we now find we’re …

Audience member: In much demand.

Liz: [Chuckle] Yes, yes. In my family I have two published books of my family history in New Zealand, and in one of the books there is a written account by a great-aunt of her early life in New Zealand. So the recent events in Christchurch made me re-read the account, and it has great relevance to what has happened in Christchurch, and of course in Hawke’s Bay.

[Shows slides and photographs throughout]

That’s Wellington harbour, 1840-1850; and this is Wellington city here; and then here is from Petone and the Hutt River; and looking back the other way. And that’s 1850 … quite relevant to the time of the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake.

Well 23rd January 1855 – it’s a very important date in our New Zealand history, because on that day Wellington was celebrating the arrival of the first Scottish and English immigrants off the early boats that had arrived in the harbour in January 1840. And it was celebrated as a regional public holiday; it was called Anniversary Day. And what do we have today? Wellington [Anniversary Day, a] provincial holiday still celebrated as a public holiday round about the 23rd January, so it’s a very important date. It was a fine, clear day; lovely, as you well know Wellington can be; and it was a day of picnics, festivities, fun, and on the harbour there was a regatta. And there was absolutely no indication of what was to happen later that night.

According to my sources, which are reputable and reliable resources – both the New Zealand government’s Geonet website and Te Papa’s official website, and a symposium that was held on this very earthquake in 2005, sponsored by Victoria University, with the most learned of people within earthquakes and [the] effects of earthquakes – the earthquake struck about nine thirty-two that evening. And it is the most powerful earthquake New Zealand has had since the beginning of the records in 1840. Now bear in mind they did not have Richter Scales, but – geological investigation methods today can and have provided us with these figures. It struck at a depth of thirty-three kilometres, so it was quite a deep earthquake. It happened along the Wairarapa fault. Now we have a gentleman here who can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t want to get too much into detail. But the Wairarapa fault runs down the eastern side of the Remutaka Ranges, coming out through Palliser Bay and right out into Cook Strait. Roughly a hundred kilometres of that faultline ruptured. It’s huge … absolutely huge. So with the consequence of the 8.2, [not previously mentioned] this side of the Wairarapa, right down here, was thrust up; and round this part here, if you ever are fortunate enough to be able to sail round there, you can actually see the level of the coastline that was thrust up.

Huge upthrust here in Cook Strait … the seabed. Well, what happens when you have upthrust under the sea, and so close? Within minutes there was a tsunami that came in through the Wellington Heads and into Wellington harbour. The tsunami was ten metres; now you’re looking [at] twice the height of this room, I would say – this’d be about fifteen feet? You know, so you’re looking [at] thirty feet. The tsunami flooded Lambton Quay and many other areas. The Rongotai isthmus, where the airport is today, [and] Miramar, were probably at least a metre under water.

Upthrust was also evident in Wellington and Lower Hutt, and of course a lot here in the Wairarapa, but I’m basically concentrating on this area. The Basin Reserve that sits there today that you know so well – well that’s built on land that was upthrust at that time. And then of course, round the Wellington-Hutt Motorway, this is a huge landslip, which is still visible today if you know where to look. And of course we’ve got the motorway and the railway built round there – there was a track, but now, like, it’s the width; and there has been some reclamation – but however, that’s it.

The ’quake lasted fifty seconds, and there were at least two hundred and fifty aftershocks in the following twelve hours. And it was experienced over most of New Zealand – certainly from Auckland to Dunedin. All this is written documentation, very easy to access. And next day on 24th people in New Plymouth reported that if they were sitting down or leaning against a wall, you [they] would feel a constant vibration, which must’ve been a little bit unnerving for them. Sandblows occurred in Wellington, in the Hutt, in the Wairarapa, in the Manawatū; and these are caused by groundwater erupting to the surface as a result of the enormous shaking; so you’ve got the groundwater accompanying the sand and silt. Is that familiar to you? Yes; as we know it today … liquefaction.

The aftershocks continued for several months; many of those would have been 5.0 to 6.4 on the Richter Scale, and hundreds – and probably thousands – were 4.0 plus. So there’s no difference between the Hawke’s Bay earthquake, and Christchurch and the Wairarapa. But amazingly, there were only approximately six to nine fatalities reported, and five people hospitalised. There must’ve been hundreds of minor injury [injuries]. The Wellington fatality – there was only one – was a Baron von Alzdorf who ran outside, and one of the brick chimneys fell down and killed him. Two people in the Manawatū were caught in fissures in the earth opening and closing, never to be seen again. Your worst nightmare, that one, isn’t it? And a Māori family – they don’t know how many in the family – in the Wairarapa were killed when their whare collapsed on them.

Now in the 1855 Blue Book – blue ’cause the cover is blue, and that’s its official name – which is the official book of the government of the time for all government departments; they give an annual report on revenue, expenditure, statistics, you know, all those sorts of things, what was interesting there was that the number of settlers in New Zealand were [was] twenty-eight thousand five hundred and sixty-one males, and twenty-three thousand and thirty-eight females. Isn’t that wonderful? [Chuckles] Giving the grand total of fifty-one thousand five hundred and ninety-nine settlers; but the Māori population was purely estimated, and they thought that was about fifty-six thousand. So you probably had living in New Zealand some hundred and seven to a hundred and ten thousand people.

But still, the number of fatalities was quite amazing, ’cause you would’ve thought there could’ve been terrible fires, which no doubt there was. And probably you are wondering why there weren’t more in Wellington; well in 1848 on 16th October, a Monday at two o’clock in the morning, there was a 7.8 earthquake along the Marlborough … you know, it originated in the Awatere Valley in Marlborough. And this caused huge destruction in Wellington; most of the brick buildings were down. So the rebuilding which had started was basically all in wood … weatherboard. So they did learn something, didn’t they? So that’s the scene, and a little bit about it.

We now come to my great-grandparents, Thomas and Margaret McKenzie. [In] the only other photograph I have of them they are younger, but it’s not as clear. In 1840 my great-grandparents came to New Zealand; Thomas was a young man of twenty and he came from Scotland, and Margaret was sixteen and she came from Scotland with her parents. He came on the ’Oriental’; she came on the ’Blenheim’. And they met … he carried her ashore actually; he waded out to the boat and carried her ashore … and they married two years later.

However, here they were some fifteen years later in 1855, about a hundred and fifty kilometres north of Wellington; living between Bulls and the mouth of the Rangitīkei River on their property called Poyntzfield, of eight hundred acres. Great-grandfather had bought it. You may well recognise the name Flock House? Subsequently, Flock House [Poyntzfield] was sold out of family ownership in 1909, I think; and it was bought and Flock House then was built.

But that is my McKenzie family property. Their house, the original house that they built there, was a six roomed house built of totara slab walls with clay, and a toe toe thatch roof with the inner bark of the totara tree as a lining of the roof. That was very common of the settlers, what they built their houses of, and they were watertight [and] warm. There are actually little bits of remains of totara houses around, because as you know it is such a hard wood.

So there they were with eight of their children, asleep – their eldest, Eliza, eleven years, and Daniel [the youngest], six months. That family increased to nineteen in the next six years, and here they are with eighteen – sadly, by then Daniel had been killed. He was twenty; they all grew to adulthood. My grandmother’s the fourteenth. My father had ninety-three first cousins [chuckles] so, very proud of that.

This is basically a map – here’s Bulls; this is Parewanui Road coming down to Scotts Ferry; Tangimoana on the other side, and this is the Rangitīkei River, and Poyntzfield is here, straddled the road. And that’s their house – they built another house – and then Flock House came. And the family cemetery is there, and some Frasers live there as well.

Eliza, their eldest daughter, was an interesting lady … very interesting. She wrote a great deal; many articles for various publications, and we’re very grateful that she did. [Microphone interference] And I’ll just read you her account of what happened.

’About 10pm, Mother was aware of sounds of excitement and distress among the animals. The calves bleated and ran about while their sedate but anxious mothers crowded to the fence which was near the house, wishing to comfort their young though feeling in themselves, as it seemed that something was wrong. The fowls called out, and more so the turkeys sitting on the calves’ fence. Then the rumble, and the first jerk that seemed to lift the earth beneath her feet and throw her forward. She caught up the candle lest it might be knocked over and leave us in darkness, or set fire – Mother never lost her head. Father sat up startled, and at once began to call on his God, as seems to be the instinct of all people in their extremities.’ [In extremis] [Chuckles]

’Although they had known two heavy earthquakes, neither was nearly so severe as this. Mother waked such of the children as were asleep, to be ready for anything that might happen; all but John, nine years, who had proudly accompanied his father for part of the afternoon’s boundary ride, and was so dead asleep that he could not be awakened, and wondered in the morning what had happened. [Chuckles]

’My own feeling was that on the bed was a little safer than standing on the bare earth.’

They didn’t have [a] boarded floor, they had a rammed earth floor. And I don’t know if any of you have ever seen or had anything to do with a rammed earth floor, but you actually sweep them; you can wash them, and they’re shiny, but it’s earth; it’s amazing.

’Oh dear! How good it seemed for those who had boarded floors; so I stayed strictly on the bed, and there endured all the shocks of the night. They were numerous and of varying strength. After a time, Mother gave each of us a piece’ – now that means a little biscuit, a drink of milk, or something like that – ’and advised us to go to sleep. She did not think there would be another as bad as the first shock. Nor was there, but for weeks shocks recurred, some of which would almost have been considered big in another time.

’As soon as it was light, our nearest neighbours about a mile away, came to us still shaking after their night’s experiences, and carrying their baby and what food was in their house ready cooked. Our neighbours stayed with us all day, during which they got from their home some necessities including bedding, which was spread on our floor and where they slept regularly for a good many nights, though going back for part of every day. It seemed easier to bear the nervous strain of the recurring shocks among one’s kind.

’When we looked about that morning, the first thing we noticed was that the slabs of the wall seemed to stand in a ditch with sloping sides from the workings backwards and forwards of the earth; and the earth at the tall centre support of the ridge pole looked to us, as children, as if the house had stuck a heel in the ground and twisted round on it.’ I think that explains it exactly.

’Our water supply was the clear end of the swamp that stretched along the bank, from whence we carried it in buckets; glad to have such good clear water so near. But the first to go for water that morning found, before getting to the bottom of the bank, a step over a foot deep, and a strip of mud on the side of our waterhole which was no longer clear, but yellow and horrid-looking, and nearly choked with raupo roots. We could never use that water again for cooking or drinking. Father took buckets and went to the river for a load.’ They just had to walk across the paddocks to get to the river. ’Of course the bigger boys went to see what it was like, and came back with round eyes to tell of all the cracks they saw while crossing the flat to the river. Large pieces of the riverbank had been thrown in, and you had to walk across more beach to get to the water than the day before. Besides, in some places on the riverbed, there were what looked like the tops of tumblers, deep as a house, they thought; and it looked as if the smooth grey wet stuff on the ground had been ejected from those round mysterious holes.’ Which of course it had.

’After all this, the ordinary substantial breakfast helped us the feel more like ourselves. That day, 24th January 1855, was to us a strange, almost weird day, when the regular meals seemed the only thing not out of joint … Father not at work, and it a weekday; of course, Mother sewed when she could; the visitors staying all day, and had not really come to see us. But above all, the frequent tremors of the earth, some of them amounting to shocks and sometimes accompanied by rumbles. No one seemed to like being alone in case of what might happen. But like all longest days, it came to an end, and I for one was glad to have the width of the bed between me and any possible earthquake crack in the floor, where, I hoped, the neighbours would be safe.’

So there ends Eliza’s account. So you know, I find it extremely interesting, with the analogies a hundred and fifty-six years later being virtually exactly the same. I’m very proud of my great-grandparents and their families – they were a marvellous family. They all learnt a musical instrument; they had their own orchestra. They all had the Gaelic as well as English. They’re a very close-knit family. They had a family reunion every New Year’s Day, and I do have photos of [chuckle] all these people … pardon?

Audience Member: Hogmanay.

Liz: Yes. Yes, it would be hogmanay.

Question: And are you wearing the McKenzie tartan?

Liz: Yes, yes. Great-Grandfather was very strict; and when he wanted to chastise the boys as he was wont to do … I guess when you have ten sons and nine daughters … I guess [chuckle] it’s easier to do the whole lot than try and [chuckles] single out one. He would give them his pen knife, and he would tell them to go and cut a piece of supplejack, so they used to have to bring the piece of supplejack to their father. My father remembered his father doing that to him, too – giving him the pen knife – because [you] could imagine the pranks they got up to. [Chuckles] And some of them are retold in the book. So there we go.

Great-Grandmother, you know, having nineteen children, is amazing. They lived ’til they were … yeah, Great-Grandfather I think was eighty-four; Great-Grandmother was eighty-nine. And I am doubly proud of Great-Grandmother and her mother; her mother lived ’til she was ninety [plus]; they both signed the Women’s Suffrage [Petition] in 1893. So that’s good old Scotland, isn’t it? Stamina. They are one of the first families in that area, and well-remembered still, by many down there. So thank you, everyone.


Comment: In Wellington in Lambton Quay, there’s a place where you can look through the glass floor …

Liz: Yes, of course that’s where the sea wall … you know, there are photos. The sea actually came right up; I mean there was just the width of Lambton Quay, and then eventually, after 1855 … well no, they were in the process of building it in 1855 when the ’quake came, and [the] water just came straight over.

I do belong to Clan McKenzie New Zealand, of course, so … although my mother was English. [Chuckles]

Jim Watt: Liz, I have a record of a sea captain running from Wanganui down to Wellington – I think it was the same earthquake, and they observed to the westward, a sheet of flame go up into the sky. And that’s always been a bit of a mystery, but to me it suggests that was the first indication of gas fields off Taranaki, and that the earthquake had caused a rent and this sheet of flame went up. And it was just fairly transient – it didn’t last for very long, but it would’ve been weird to have seen it from a ship.

Liz: If you’re interested in the symposium in 2005, it’s online but there’s also book form. There’s one chapter that I found particularly interesting, which was ’The Effects of the 1855 Earthquake on People’. The thing which Eliza at eleven said, “Father wasn’t at work, and this was all strange.” I mean, Mother was fine, she kept on sewing! But Father wasn’t at work. In this symposium they actually hold Napier – I mean it should be Hawke’s Bay because it wasn’t ’the Napier earthquake’ – and San Francisco, which was …

Audience member: 1906.

Liz: They actually hold both of those up as shining examples of how communities got stuck in [and] got back to normal ASAP. But of course, both of those ’quakes had fire. But they said, “The thing was that they involved everybody, and things were demolished. It’s people who count, not buildings.” And I found that very interesting; this symposium was held in 2005. It also had projections for what buildings in Wellington, because that was where the next big one was expected … building codes, building practices;  and not one thing from that symposium has really been adopted. It was just something that happened at Te Papa; all these learned people who knew exactly what they were talking about, and we see, six years later … nothing.

Comment: The rent in the Wairarapa itself was forty-two feet horizontally, and nine feet vertically; so you can imagine today – half this room, the land went up.

Liz: Yes, that was it – the whole of the lower North Island kind of did a thing like – the Wairarapa went up; and basically a little bit over to like, Titahi Bay and over on the west coast, kind of went down a bit. But we’re very fortunate that we’ve got geologists and so forth today, that [who] can work all these figures out for us. They identify in [the] 2005 symposium the Wellington-Hutt motorway, they’ve mapped out where the next landslips will be. Nothing is [has been] done; they clear the hills and they build on them. But the interesting things is this is the biggest since 1840 – 8.2, thirty-three kilometres deep; a rupture of a hundred kilometres in length. Enormous … enormous.

Rose: Well, thank you very much; that was a really interesting morning. Thank you, everyone.

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Duart House Talk 21 September 2011


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