New Zealand Earthquakes – Shock Death Destruction

New Zealand



Claims 256 Lives


Page 16

Above: Hastings Street, Napier, a few seconds after a gas explosion added to the problems caused by the earthquake.

Page 17

Worst Tragedy

TUESDAY, February 3, 1931, in Napier. People looked at the clear blue sky, and wondered if the drought would ever break. The day was, still, the heat oppressive, even at 10.45 a.m. before the sun had climbed to its peak.

In the inner harbour, the sloop H.M.S. Veronica, on a hydorgraphic [hydrographic] survey along the coast, was tying up; on board, the harbourmaster, Captain H. White Parsons, was talking to the commanding [commanding] officer, Captain H. L. Morgan.

At the fire station, Superintendent W. J. Gilbert wondered if there would be more scrub fires, as there had been in January. With no rain in sight, it seemed likely; but the brigade, with its two engines, should be able to cope.


At a Napier school, a teacher asked his headmaster if he should ring the bell, now that morning playtime was over. “No,” said the head, looking out the window at the blue sky. “Give them five minutes more.”

Those five minutes were to mean the difference between life and death, because at 10.48 it struck the worst tragedy in New Zealand’s history.

The earth rumbled, then twitched; and then heaved in giant tremors which left Napier and Hastings in ruins, and shattered many other smaller centres in Hawkes Bay.

One of the first signs was the crumpling of the cliff face over the port road, on to traffic below. The Veronica heaved and tossed for at least 10 seconds; when Captain Morgan rushed to the deck, he saw the houses on Bluff Hill collapsing and the wharf buckling. Everything, he said later, seemed to disappear in clouds of dust.


A second shock raised the bed of the ocean by several feet, leaving the Veronica fast aground in the harbour. Three miles offshore, the freighter Taranaki; anchored securely in 42 feet of water, was being loaded with frozen meat. In the shock and afterquakes, the sea floor rose by 18 feet under her keel.

From the Taranaki and the Northumberland, another freighter at anchor, stunned seamen and watersiders could see Napier crumbling in ruin. under a great cloud of dust. Soon the fires started, to add to the terror on shore. At 12.36 p.m. the master of the Northumberland radioed: “All the centre of the town behind the promenade seems to be blazing and there are heavy volumes of smoke over the town.”

LEFT: A curious Napier citizen examines the twists and curls in the railway line linking the city with the outside world.

Page 18

On shore, the reality was harsh. Napier lay in ruins. The nurses’ home at the public hospital, the home for the aged at Parke [Park] Island, the technical college, the public library, the cathedral, countless warehouses, shops and offices had collapsed; the streets were filled with rubble, the dead and dying everywhere. In the nurses’ home, many of those crushed were asleep after night duty; probably they never knew what had hit them.

In Hastings, the story was much the same. In one big department store customers and staff died together; a second wave of tremors killed men trapped in a hotel, as rescuers worked to release them. And a further violent shock at dusk brought fires, to add to the chaos.

The trail of destruction stretched for more than 300 miles, from Wairoa to Dannevirke and the northern Wairarapa. Great stretches of coastline slipped into the sea north of Napier, and throughout the whole of Hawkes Bay communications were disrupted or destroyed. All that day, New Zealand waited anxiously for word from the stricken area; had it not been for the presence of the Veronica, whose men were soon into action in the town, and the Taranaki and the Northumberland, relief might have been long delayed.

At 12.50 p.m. came the first message from the Veronica:
“Serious earthquake Napier. All communications destroyed. Medical assistance urgently required.”

It was the first of a series of stark, dramatic cries for help. At 1.18 p.m. the Veronica said:
“Most stone buildings demolished and many other houses destroyed. Many fires are raging. All medical assistance urgently required. Impossible to give any idea of extent of damage, but feared serious loss of life.”

By 10 p.m., Captain Morgan could report: “It is feared that the casualty list is a very heavy one, but it is impossible to estimate the number at present. The water supply has failed and the populace are quiet and appear stunned by the magnitude of the disaster. I have organised a food depot and am policing the streets.

Photo caption – ABOVE: This aerial view clearly illustrates the extent of the damage in the centre of Napier city.

Page 19

“Several temporary hospitals have been organised and the Veronica is forming an x-ray station. All destitute women and children are being received on board the Veronica. Earthquake shocks are still continuing.”

The shakes, in fact, were to continue for some 10 days, adding to the problems of rescue, clearing up the ruin and providing for the comfort and evacuation of about 30,000 people.

The courthouse was used as a morgue; 161 died in Napier, 93 in Hastings, and two in Wairoa – a total of 256 in all.


But many lived – some almost by miracles. Fourteen of the 94 inmates of the Parke Island old men’s home died; 90-year-old James Collins was dug out of the ruins three days later, still alive. His body had been protected by a fallen beam, his face buried in a mattress. At the Salvation Army maternity home, a chimney fell across five babies in their bassinets; not one was injured.

Help was soon to come to Napier and Hastings, once the word got out. The following day the cruisers Dunedin and Diomede left Auckland, to help the Veronica in her rescue work; doctors, nurses, soldiers, railway men were rushed in from many parts of the country. That same day, February 4, a general order was issued ordering the evacuation of Napier within two days.

Fortunately, the good weather continued for several days after the disaster; rain would have made the situation for the rescuers, and for the many people forced to live outdoors, intolerable.

Not all the consequences of the earthquake were bad. The entire Ahuriri Lagoon, for instance, a wide stretch of water and marsh, was lifted by six feet or more, leaving behind a stinking mess of dead fish and shellfish, foul mud and rotting vegetation. Yet by 1936 it had been converted, by careful drainage and land development, into a productive farm, carrying crops and sheep.

But the damage was immense, although no precise costing was ever made. Estimates at the time said that, beside the tragic loss of life, the earthquake cost Napier £5 million and Hastings nearly £2 million. Yet the huge task of recovery and reconstruction went ahead so fast, with nationwide assistance, that within two years a new town had risen at Napier, and the population had actually increased since the earthquake.

Seismologists say that the Napier earthquake, with a magnitude of around 7%, was the biggest in New Zealand since the giant Wellington earthquake of 1855.

So strong was it, that it was felt nearly 500 miles away.

Could it have been anticipated? There was no doubt that many of the buildings of Hawkes Bay were completely inadequate to resist a big earthquake, let alone one of the magnitude that struck Napier. The earthquake led to a fresh assessment of earthquake hazards and building codes, so that things are hopefully better today.

Yet Napier had been warned; on February 23, 1863, the infant town was shaken by tremors which brought nearly every chimney down, and in some cases removed houses from their piles. But the damage was relatively small, because of the smaller population and the few brick or stone buildings. When the earth speaks, people should heed the warnings.

ABOVE: This recent aerial view shows the expansion that has taken place in Napier since the disastrous earthquake. Residents claim the big Bluff Hill is still the safest place in the city despite its rather unstable appearance. Homes on the hill suffered little in comparison to the rest of the City centre in 1931.

Page 20

ABOVE: Refugees from the Napier quake set up “home” on the city’s main beach.

LEFT: The severity of the Napier quake is illustrated in this photograph of a city street.

Page 21

ABOVE: A grim task. Rescuers searching for dead and injured in the Napier ruins.

BELOW: The Public Trust office in Napier stands almost completely undamaged amid a badly damaged Napier city block.

Page 22

This aerial view of Napier provides a vivid description of the havoc wrought by the quake.

Page 23

Road Gone…Take Rail

ABOVE: Nothing stopped the reporter from the New Zealand Weekly News getting through to cover his story. With the roads blocked or impassable, he went by rail, laying planks parallel with the railway line to get his car across a difficult section on the road between Napier and Wairoa.

Page 24

ABOVE: A policeman and a Naval officer stand clear as a further tremor sends concrete walls tumbling down in Napier.

ABOVE: This couple have theirs backs turned on the past. This shattered seawall at West Quay, Napier, is one of the only remaining pieces of evidence from the 1931 earthquake. Broken pilings and pulverised concrete testify to the force of the upheaval 40 years ago.

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1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake pages 15-24


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