1931 Earthquake Story


My mother, Daphne Spencer (nee Manning) aged 21 years lived in Grays Road, Hastings with her parents and two of her six adult siblings when the devastating 1931 Earthquake struck on the 3rd February, in Hastings and Napier. At the time Daphne was working in Hall’s Bookshop in the centre of the block in Heretaunga Street.  When the building began to shake violently, my mother and Jean, the other young assistant’s immediate reaction was to run out of the building through the main door at the front.  In a split second they decided on the back door.  Had they gone out the front way, they would have been killed as all the fixtures laden with books fell into the centre of the floor.  Daphne being a conscientious young woman realised that the cash register was sitting on the counter so back she went to retrieve it whilst the ground was still shaking creating continued falling masonry around her.

Her next thought was for her younger sister, Dorothy, known as Doll who had just started work in a shop a few blocks away that very day.  Daphne picked her way to the corner to find that the shop was now just a heap of rubble.  She was standing on the corner crying when she hear whistling and there was Doll, always happy and cheerful obviously unfazed by the devastation, wheeling her bike over the rubble.  It was with great relief that they were able to wend their way homeward unscathed on that dreadful day.

A young family friend who was living with Grandma and the family in Grays Rd, also named Doll, worked at the Grand Hotel when the earthquake struck with devastating results as it was built of brick without any reinforcing, consequently collapsing like a pack of cards.  Doll was buried beneath the masonry for some hours until she saw a chink of light and scraped an opening large enough to crawl through.  She arrived home to Grandma’s house dishevelled, covered in dust with cuts and bruises but alive and able to relate her ordeal.  Doll was also lucky that day as a fire started in the rubble of the Grand Hotel some hours later with loss of life of those who may still have been alive.

My mother’s older brother, Claude was working on the nearly completed St John’s Presbyterian Church in Napier at the time.  He along with a young lad from Australia was straddled across a high beam in the centre of the Church above a workman’s bench that held a circular saw.  How they came down from their lofty position unscathed is unknown but Claude recalled the young Australia remarking to him that very morning why he had not felt an earthquake since he had arrived in the country!  The family story goes that Claude did not see the young man again and trusted that he left earthquake prone NZ unscathed!  The newly built Church was destroyed by fire that swept through the CBD that fateful day.  Claude’s young son aged 4 years was in the Napier Hospital having his tonsils removed when the quake struck.  Claude could not find him for two days but was eventually located at the Hastings Racecourse where many of the hospital patients were transported to for safety.  That was a joyous reunion for his parents to find him safe and well.

My mother kept all the Auckland Weekly papers of the 1931 quake that my brother and I would pour [pore] over in our early years but with moving house in 1944 they became mislaid they would have now been a valuable part of our history to recall that fateful day on the 3rd February 1931.

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