Tomorrow marks the 69th anniversary of New Zealand’s biggest natural disaster, the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake. Havelock North man Allan de Frere shared his memories of the 7.9 Richter scale shake with reporter ALEXA LUCAS.
Quaking in Frere
Eighty-eight-year-old Allan de Frere is the first to admit his memory is about as shaky as the 1931 quake itself.
But while everyday details have blurred with time, he says the images of devastation left by the 7.9 quake on February 3, 1931, remain as vivid as ever.
“It was when I started losing my hair.
“I was 21 and I reckon the shake shook me up so much that I started losing my hair.”
Employed as a counter assistant at Westerman’s drapery store on Heretaunga St, Hastings, he said it had been just another day in menswear before an ominous silence descended on an otherwise uneventful morning.
A strange roar grumbling below ground at around 11.10am was, he says, the only warning of what was to come. Seconds later the tremors erupted into the now legendary quake which devastated an entire region.
“The ground rose by two feet and rocked the neighbourhood for three solid minutes,” he said. ”It just came up and shook like . . . like nothing on earth.”
Amidst the din of falling timber, bricks and shattering glass, he was left defencelessly clinging on to what ever came to hand. As the tremors worsened, the ground was literally swept from beneath his feet.
“I was just clinging on to the counter.”
Half crawling, half wading through knee-deep shattered glass he made a desperate escape outside from the quavering brick walls shortly before the roof fell in, the rolling ground knocking him to the floor time and time again.
“You didn’t have time to think, but the instinct was to get outside. Everyone was just running out on to the streets,” he said.
“You couldn’t run for cover because of the rocking, you just lost your balance. The force of the ground just kept throwing you down.”
He said he stood and watched in horror as buildings, shops and the once resplendent five-storey Grand Hotel crumbled before his eyes.
The hotel’s arched windows, plastered columns and ornate wrought iron balconies crashed down into a pile of dust and debris with guests and workers trapped beneath the rubble.
“I saw the whole of it come down into the main street, he said. It just cascaded like a waterfall to the ground.”
“They say there was a girl, a house maid, having a bath five storeys up in there. When that quake struck she shot out – still in that bath – on to the streets below.”
“She landed, not a scratch on her, but not a stitch on her either,” he said.
“A policeman gave her his coat.”
Mr de Frere said the sound of screaming drew him back to Westerman’s where 10 workers were trapped by the fallen roof on the second floor.
“I saw the top of Westerman’s come down and I went inside to help. They were all screaming and trying to get out.”
The stairway was blocked and the only way out for the 10 or so women was through a window. Mr de Frere said he helped the women out on to a flat roof where they remained until help arrived.
No one was killed at Westerman’s, although a little further along the road, the quake had not been so forgiving.
“In Hannah’s footwear shop, there was a Mable [Mabel?] Steel in there. She got killed. Must have been the stuff falling on her.”
With the air thick with masonry dust Mr de Frere hurried home through the streets, now strewn with fallen debris and glass, to his family home at 604 Avenue Road East.
His parents, two brothers and a sister, had escaped unharmed although the house, like hundreds of others, had sustained extensive damage.
Sadly, Mr De Frere’s Box Brownie camera which could have captured the devastation for history books and family albums alike, was amongst the pile of shattered possessions.
“It had just jumped off the mantelpiece and completely smashed.”
Meanwhile, a young girl, Jean, whom Mr de Frere would marry eight years later, was working on her father’s Havelock North country property when the quake struck.
Like most people, Mrs De Frere, aged 17 in 1931, knew nothing about earthquakes, but one thing was for sure: “We were frightened. We were really frightened.”
“You just got this sinking feeling like you didn’t know what was coming next,” she said.
“We had our car parked in the garage and we had tomatoes packed all the way round it, and when that quake started the force of it shot that car right out of the garage.”
“Dad was out in the fields and he says that when he looked up, the hills were moving,” she said. “The tops of the trees all bent over till their tips touched the ground.”
Although stunned by the earthquake’s impact out in the country, Phyllis said it was not until her family travelled into Hastings later that day that the extent of the damage hit home.
“We came up the main street and everything was OK until we got to Heretaunga St. That was when we got the shock. It was just a catastrophe. We couldn’t believe it. It was just a mess.”
Just as people regained their balance and came to terms with the first big shock, Mr de Frere said the aftershocks which followed continued to knock the sideways.
Most people were simply too terrified to return to their homes, he said. Some slept out in the park, some stayed out in the orchards.
“It just rumbled on for days.”
The Hastings racecourse was converted to an emergency camping area, he said, where people without homes or power were taken and put up in Army issue tents.
“We all lived outside. The Army came along with some bell tents and we all slept out. I slept in a bell tent in Queen’s Square,” he said.
With water pipes broken, large temporary tanks were set up to provide drinking water for the hundreds of refuge seekers.
With shops destroyed or declared unsafe, trading stopped and pilfering was rife. Until the establishment of temporary shops, food was almost impossible to come by except for basic rations which were delivered in bulk by the Army, he said.
“I don’t know how we scraped along. We had soup-kitchens I suppose and the Army were delivering food by the truckload.”
Although desperate to escape, Mrs De Frere said with roads blocked even to ambulances, and train lines unusable, most people were trapped and forced to sit it out. Some remained under canvas for several months.
“They couldn’t run a train on the lines before they were all investigated – it was weeks before anything was anywhere like normal.”
As the clean-up began, people struggled hard to come to terms with what had happened – often in total bewilderment.
“There was no wireless or television. We only found out what was going on through word of mouth.”
“A lot of it just didn’t sink in. It was the depths of depression and things were already hard enough.”
“We just had no money.”
Nearly 70 years later Mr de Frere is one of the rapidly dwindling few who remain to tell the tale, and while sometimes unable to recall who lived where and what shops sold what, he says “I will always remember it.”
For him it was a terrifying chapter which remains unsurpassed by other events in his life, including his part in the Second World War. Earthquakes he has experienced since simply paled into insignificance in comparison.
“When I was serving in Egypt there was an earthquake there,” he said. “The locals got the wind up them but us Kiwis just sat back drinking beer.”
Photo captions –
Allan and Jean de Frere
Stan Smith stands by the remains of the Grand Hotel on Heretaunga St. Inset: The hotel before the earthquake.
Text on sign – “Anyone touching goods in damaged buildings is liable to arrest.”
Men search through the rubble of the Cosy Theatre on Heretaunga St.
Roach’s Ltd drapers on Heretaunga St.
Ingram’s grocery shop, Russell St.
Club tearooms on Heretaunga St.