Newspaper Article 2006 – The school’s walls began to sway…



The school’s walls began to sway…

Feeling smart in a new uniform, Irene Earnshaw (nee Tonkin) was looking forward to starting at Napier Technical College. The first day of her secondary schooling – February 3, 1931 – was to turn into a nightmare with the quake turning her classroom into a dark dusty pit. With other pupils, the 12-year-old was hauled out through a narrow opening in the collapsed building.

A schoolmate from Nelson Park School and I had decided to walk to “The Tech” together. My family home was in Carnell Street, and she lived nearby in McDonald Street – her name was Beatrice Craig (later Mrs Harold Pond.)

We were kitted out in the standard school uniform of the times, navy blue serge three-box-pleat tunic, long-sleeved white blouse, and black stockings, and wore the school tie, and panama hats with the school hatband and badge.

The weather was very hot, and it was tough work having to walk a greater distance to school than previously, wearing so much more restrictive clothing.

We were directed to an upstairs classroom in the centre of the building, facing on to Munroe Street. Except for our school mates from Nelson Park School, we did not know the other girls, so felt rather at a loss.

We had just returned from the mid-morning break when the quake struck. I was seated near the back of the room and could hardly believe what was happening.

After the initial jolt, the walls began to sway, and broke at the top corners, where the outline of the bricks showed as the plaster covering them broke.

All was dust and darkness. Probably some of the girls sitting nearer the doorway to the room may have been able to get out to the corridor, but I was too far away to be able to move much at all. After some time we heard people calling to us to come to them, and gradually the girls in front of me were helped out and I followed. The ceiling of our room had dropped, so there was not much space above our heads, and I suppose the floor we were on had subsided also.

Hands were reaching down from above and we had to stretch up to reach them, and were hauled up through a small space, about two feet (60cm) by two feet.

The men then took us along a portion of the corridor and lifted us over the bannister beside the remaining few steps at the bottom of the stairs. I waited for a while on the footpath outside, but couldn’t see anyone I knew, so decided that I’d better go home.

Part way down Thackeray Street I met Beatrice, and we walked home together. Looking up Thackeray Street towards the town, we saw the sky was obscured by what seemed to be an orange-red cloud, which would have been the sun shining through the red brick dust blowing along from the fallen buildings. I don’t remember meeting other people en route.

When I reached home, my mother was there with my two younger sisters. Lorna was aged nine, and Beryl, the youngest had just turned five, and this had been her first day at school. Lorna would have looked for her and brought her home.

My mother had been out on the road at the time of the quake, with a neighbour Mrs Mercer, buying  vegetables from the man who called weekly.

When they felt the jolt he said “Hold on to the truck ladies”, but the movement became so violent that it was no use at all.

Mr Mercer had been able to get home from his business in town, and brought in some brandy to settle the nerves, but I had never tasted such strong stuff and did not have much.

My father eventually arrived, having biked in from his work at Awatoto. From there he had seen all the dust rising from the falling of Bluff Hill, and probably very worried about what had happened to us. He had bought his first car, an old large Crossley tourer, some months earlier, and had to learn to drive when nearing 50 years of age.

Until then, he had ridden the bike every week-day, in all weathers, to Awatoto, but he was finding with advancing age that this was becoming too much. However, for economic reasons I suppose, he still rode to work in the summer. Had he taken the car to work, he probably would not have been able to travel much distance with damage to the road. So we were all safe.

In the early afternoon men came along the streets calling out for everyone to get up on the hill, as there was a tidal wave coming. We children were very worried about this, so our parents took us up to Guy’s Hill, probably with blankets and food.

I cannot remember what we did for food in general during the few days after the quake, but of course it was not my responsibility. We walked up to the upper part of Guy’s Hill Road, and were told that people could stay in one of the paddocks which belonged to Frank and Fanny Ormond, who lived in the large two-storey house in Ormond Road, off Napier Terrace, which later became a rest home.

Frank and Fanny were an elderly brother and sister, who would have inherited the family home from their parents

We spent the night in the paddock, with other people also staying there, and in the morning we went home, as no tidal wave had eventuated. My elderly grandfather, who had lived with us for a few years, was not well at the time, remained in the house.

He had said “If I drown, I drown”, or words to that effect, and took a chance, so he had a comfortable bed, while we had sat on the sloping grass and felt every little aftershock, so not much, if any, sleep.

My father went out for information and what food might be available, and after a day or two came home with the news that refugees would be taken to other places, with transport supplied.

It was decided that my mother, we three children and our grandfather would go away, and that my father would remain in Napier to help with restoration work.

We had to report to a depot in Nelson Park, where an Information Bureau had been established, and were all taken in one big car to Dannevirke. I cannot remember much of the journey.

I had not been in a car very often at that time, no further than Eskdale for a picnic on one occasion, and to Cornwall Park, in Hastings, in our own car, on New Year’s Day, just a month before the quake.

It transpired that I was very prone to car-sickness, but over time with the improvement in road conditions, and in vehicle construction, I gradually overcame this tendency. Nowadays I can travel anywhere, and have been round the world more than once.

We arrived in Dannevirke late in the afternoon, and were unloaded at the Dannevirke Drill Hall, where accommodation was being arranged by the local people.

We were, I suppose, rather a big group to be considered. We probably did not want to be separated, and the people in charge probably felt that as we had already suffered enough, they did not want to disrupt us any more.

Then an elderly man, in his working clothes, said “I’ll take that lot”, and we were all loaded onto his truck. He was Mr Miller, who was a self-employed local carrier.

We then had quite a long ride to his home in Smith Street, Mangatera. He had five children, and his house was a small old-time cottage our bungalow in Carnell Street seemed really modern in comparison.

He and his wife were the souls of kindness. They sent their two older children, a son and daughter, to other people in Dannevirke, and somehow managed to fit in our group of five, and their three younger children, two girls and one boy, in this little house. We were with them for five weeks.

Soon after we were settled in we were able to have baths, and my mother discovered that I must have been hit on the head during the quake, as there was a healing scar about two inches long on the front of my head, with the congealed blood hidden by my hair, which was as thick and curly. I had no recollection of that having happened with the general turmoil following the calamity.

Within a few days I became ill with a devastating bilious attack and developed an all-over crop of large red heat spots the size of a ten-cent piece or larger. I could not face food, the vomiting continued, and the doctor was called.

He could not find any explanation for it and felt it was a nervous reaction to the trauma of the quake. I was probably treated with the application of calamine lotion or something such, as was the usual treatment for itchy complaints in those days.

When I recovered I was rather debilitated for a while.

I did not go to school while we were in Dannevirke, partly because of my sickness, and the fact that it would have been a very long walk to the High School.

My sister went to the primary school with the two younger Miller children, and our little sister did not go to school either, as she had been a new entrant for 1931, and in the long run she did not go till the winter was over, as she was not a robust child.

My mother must have been worried having to deal with my sickness, her father not in good health (although he lived for 20 more years, and died at the age of 90), and our little sister underfoot all day, living in such cramped conditions. However, she was a hard worker, and not a complaining kind of woman, so managed somehow. Our father came down for a short visit on one occasion during this time.

We found on our return, that previous Technical College students were to report to Nelson Park, where a large marquee had been set up and supervised by the Salvation Army.

This was for multi-purpose use, but in the day-time was a gathering place for the students who were returning in dribs and drabs from having been away as refugees.

About Easter time several marquees were set up in the back yard of the new brick Technical College (the Napier Intermediate School main block is built on which although it was complete and did not appear to have suffered much damage, was subsequently destroyed by blasting.

It was a handsome two-storey red brick building with white point and this was the school which I had hoped to attend, and would only have had to walk half a block to reach.

At the rear of the school yard the concrete engineering block (two large rooms) had already been built and used for a year or two, so they were a permanent structure on the site, and apparently had not suffered any damage in the quake.

I do not remember much tuition in the general subjects, but we were very quickly introduced to our commercial subjects, and shorthand seemed to be incomprehensible at first, but in the long run I became an expert.

Our teacher was Mr F B Lambert, affectionately known as “Peanut”, owing to his small stature and balding head I suppose.

Towards the end of the term, we were informed that they were not going to rebuild the Technical College that the girls were to join the Girls’ High School in Clyde Road, and the boys to go to the Boys’ High School.

That caused much consternation, but in was a Government decision. So when school resumed after the May holidays, we had this tremendous walk through town and up the hill. I had hardly ever been on Bluff Hill before, and the whole thing was quite upsetting.

For the Girls’ High School staff it must have been a difficult task even finding accommodation to absorb the extra pupils. There were a number of wooden buildings scattered about the area, some on each side of Clyde Road.

The school hall could not be used as it had become a storage area for furniture and belongings, as the boarding establishment had suffered extensive damage in the quake.

Also we later found that the typewriters, which would have been salvaged from the Technical College, were stored there, as our class had to carry them, one each, from the hall, along the level below the road, cross the road, and then to a two-room wooden block on the far boundary which backed on to the properties in Corry Avenue.

Typewriters in those days were heavy, and this was a tremendous task to expect of 12 and 18-year-olds.

Morning assembly was held each day in the large downstairs room of the clubroom block.

The school roll at the time I suppose would numbered about 200, but we all had to stand as we were into the one room, third-formers in the front, and seniors further back.

I was in the front row, very near to Miss Arthur, the headmistress, and in my view she appeared to be looking odd, but it was me to faint. I have never before fainted, and never have since.

I woke up to find myself in the fresh air outside, and soon revived but suffered the embarrassment of being made to sit on a chair for several successive assemblies in  case it happened again.

Within a month or two a bus service was started, departing from the Faraday Street depot, which was a great help.

On the higher side of Clyde Road, the site of the present school, there was a two-storey brick school standing, although damaged, but it was nowhere near completion: only the shell, with open window spaces etc.

This too was demolished, as everyone became very “brick conscious” – quite a phobia developed after having seen the devastation in the centre of the town.

“Tin Town” was established around the perimeter of Memorial Square, and sometimes I walked to school through there, and home again.

One thing I remember was sometimes having threepence to spend, and I would buy an oprange from the fruit and vegetable shop run by a Chinese family.

Another thing was a picture in the window of a second-hand or antique shop. Even now I can visualise it, and I will always be intrigued. It was a print of the head and shoulders of Jesus, in a greenish-sepia colour; if you looked at it in a certain light, the eyes were closed yet from another direction they appeared to be open.

I soon settled into secondary education, and stayed at the Napier Girls’ High longer than any other ex “Tech” girls.

Mr Lambert at first had to divide his teaching time between the two schools each day; the girls in the morning, and the boys’ high in the afternoon. I was very fortunate to do all my shorthand and typing under his teaching – when we were preparing to sit for our Public Service exams, he would have a group of us to his home in the September school holidays, to give us extra readings for our shorthand speed-writing.

As a result of his training I obtained good passes, and after four years at the girls’ high, I was offered a position in the Public Works Department, where I worked for 12 years before being married.


Thelma Pickering’s older brother, Ray, was also at Napier Technical College but did not have such a lucky escape. After searching the town, their mother noticed shoes she had re-soled protruding from a cover on the tray of a truck. Mrs Pickering, who lives in Onekawa, Napier, relives the sad story

Anguished climax to brave mother’s search for her boy

I was 10 years old at the time. I lived at Bay View with my family. My Dad, Arch Robertson, was away, contracting road work on the road to Wairoa with trucks.

My mother, Maria, had to take my brother, Raymond, to college in Napier to enrol him at the Technical College, his first day. Another brother, Norman, and I went to the Eskdale School.

We were in our classes when the quake struck. Of course, we all rushed outside.

I had a cousin, Ken Brown, who was in the same room, and as he ran out a chimney collapsed and he was badly injured and rushed to Palmerston North Hospital.

My brother and I, with other children from Bay View, got home. I had an older married sister, Delia Calder, to go home to.

Our homes were badly damaged, and, of course, not knowing what was happening with mother and Ray and my Dad it was a terrifying time. There were not the communications there are today.

We did find Napier was very badly damaged; our thoughts were of Mum and Ray.

My Mum had a terrible experience. She was having a cup of tea with a friend in town when the quake struck. She made her way to the Tech College. It had completely collapsed and the children had been sent to several areas around the town.

She walked to each one to see whether Ray was there.

Mother went back to the Tech and a truck had a cover over the tray and she saw Ray’s shoes, which she had re-soled for him, sticking out from under the cover. Under the cover was Ray. She climbed up and held him. She said he wasn’t badly knocked about.

Mother then went to Mr Dunstall’s, the funeral director, see whether he could collect Ray’s body. He did.

Mother then had to get back to us at Bay View. She found the embankment collapsed; the railway line, which was alongside, was badly damaged. She had to crawl across to get home to us. Mother was a very brave lady.

My Dad had to leave his truck up on the job and make his way over very damaged roads on foot.

We were all warned to make a hill, as they said there would a tidal wave. It was frightening.

Eventually, Ray’s coffin was 2 brought across the lagoon by boat at Westshore and Dad was able to go and bring it home. Mr Dunstall was able to take the service for Ray at the family plot at the Eskdale Cemetery. He is one of very few who were not buried in the community grave at Park Island.

We had to live in tents, and cook outside until our homes were made liveable. We were very nervous when inside.

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Format of the original

Newspaper article

Date published

7 February 2006

Creator / Author


Hawke's Bay Today


  • Ken Brown
  • Delia Calder
  • Beatrice Craig (Mrs Harold Pond)
  • Mr Dunstall
  • F B Lambert
  • Mr and Mrs Miller
  • Fanny Ormond
  • Frank Ormond
  • Thelma Pickering, nee Robertson
  • Arch Robertson
  • Maria Robertson
  • Raymond Robertson

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