The day the earth shifted
New Zealand’s largest earthquake in European times struck the centre of the country almost 150 years ago. Although the later Murchison and Napier earthquakes claimed more lives, neither created the geological upheaval wrought by the Wairarapa earthquake of 1855.
On the evening of January 23, 1855, the British Admiralty survey ship Pandora was lying at anchor in Lambton Harbour in the young settlement of Port Nicholson. The 400-tonne brig had been in New Zealand waters since 1848, supplementing the coastal mapping work of the Acheron, and was in her last year of work here.
Lieutenant Morton Jones was on deck when, a few seconds before 17- and-a-half minutes past nine, Pandora was jolted by a severe tremor. It was as if the ship “was grating heavily and rapidly over a sand bank,” wrote Jones in his account of the event. Within the next minute, the vibration increased in intensity and violence. Pandora slewed broadside to the wind, setting all the ship’s bells ringing and causing panic below.
Others quickly joined Jones on deck, and during the lull that followed the shock they heard shouts and the crash of falling chimneys and houses in the town.
In one of those houses, John Jolliffe, surgeon on Pandora, had been visiting the D’Arcy family. The children had gone to bed, and Jolliffe and Mrs D’Arcy were playing a game of dominoes. Captain D’Arcy was asleep on the sofa. Jolliffe heard a rumble, like a carriage passing over a wooden pavement, which was followed immediately by a violent shock.
With the cry, “It’s an earthquake!” Jolliffe and Mrs D’Arcy jumped up from the table, but could hardly stand because the ground was moving in waves and rocking the house to and fro. The chimney collapsed, bricks falling into the parlour and covering everything with dust. Pictures leaped from the walls, ornaments on shelves were thrown into the centre of the room, chairs, tables, and everything movable mingled in a “confusion of tossing about and smashing.”
Jolliffe wrestled with the door against the force of the shaking. When he finally managed to wrench it open, Captain Maybin from next door rushed in like a “madman with his hands thrown up,” yelling for everyone “to get out of the house for God’s sake!”
Soon after the first shock had abated, Lieutenant Jones and Commander Byron Drury hurried ashore from the Pandora. Landing at Lambton Quay, they were confronted by “a sad scene of destruction.”
Houses had been shaken down, nearly all had lost their chimneys, and wherever bricks had been used in their construction total demolition had occurred. They found the large wooden government buildings a “perfect wreck,” and discovered that soldiers in the military guardroom had had a narrow escape from a large falling chimney.
Along the quay, Jones and Drury found that many of the older wooden houses had collapsed. “The poor Baron [von Alzdorf]’s hotel, a fine-looking two-storeyed building [of lath and plaster] had suffered very much, the front wall being bulged out very considerably and a portion of it having fallen to the ground.”
Many shop windows had fallen into the middle of the street, and “at Mr Laing’s, the celebrated confectioners, the contents of the shelves had been thrown down and the debris of sweets [and] preserved fruits [was] strewed on the floor to the depth of several inches.” The combined smell of spirits from the public houses, peppermint from the confectioners and chemicals from the pharmacists was quite overpowering.
At the bank—”a wreck on the inside from falling chimneys”—the manager had taken refuge with his account books in the iron safe.
In Te Aro, the oldest part of the town, Jones and Drury heard a similar story: “the feeling of the ground in motion and rolling from under their feet—unable to stand—furniture and objects falling in all directions, the swaying about of the house itself with all the accompaniments of a gale of wind on board a ship coupled with shouts and screams from outside proving it to be a peculiarly awful and distressing scene—once witnessed, never to be forgotten.”
Aftershocks, some of them quite violent (a few probably reached magnitude 6.5), were occurring every half-hour, and the earth was in an almost continuous state of vibration. At least 250 shocks were counted over the 11 hours following the first tremor, although towards morning they came at greater intervals and were less intense. People began to hope the worst was over.
The earthquake that the crew of Pandora and the residents of Wellington experienced that summer evening nearly 150 years ago was the largest to hit the shaky isles of New Zealand since Europeans had arrived in the country—and nothing as large has happened since.
It was felt from Auckland to Dunedin, and wreaked severe damage on settlements in the southern half of the North Island—particularly Wellington and Wanganui—and in the northern part of the South Island. The Wairarapa Fault to the east of Wellington ruptured for a distance of over 90 km (including at least 15 km under the sea), and 5000 sq km of land to the west of the fault—almost the entire Wellington peninsula—was uplifted and tilted. The earthquake caused extensive fissuring in coastal plains and river valleys, and loosed massive landslides in the hills, particularly in the Rimutaka Range. Aftershocks continued for over a year.
At the time, Wellington was a medium-sized town of between 3000 and 4000 people, with more residing in the Hutt Valley. The New Zealand Company had brought many of these colonists here in the 1840s, but its operations had ceased by 1850. Whaling, one of the mainstays of the early economy, was fading, but farmland in Hawkes Bay and the Wairarapa was coming into production, and wool exports were on the increase. Wellington was sited on the best harbour in the southern North Island and was beginning to come into its own as a merchant and trading centre. The only impediment was the insistent earth tremors.
According to contemporary accounts, the 1855 earthquake had to be felt to be believed. “There is no describable or known phenomena [sic] to which it bears a resemblance and to the last day of my life I shall never forget the extraordinary thrill which ran through me on first experiencing it,” wrote Jones. “It was not one of fear, but accompanied by a sickening sensation and an idea of general instability and the insecurity of everything which we had ever before regarded as solid and immovable. The conviction of the insecurity of one’s possessions, the uncertainty of one’s best laid plans, the fundamental nature of the ties which connect us to the world.”
Geologically speaking, New Zealand is one of the least “solid and immovable” places in the world. The country lies on the boundary of two great tectonic plates, the Pacific and Australian Plates, which are moving towards each other at a rate of up to five centimetres a year. Ructions accompanying their ponderous progress drive most earthquakes in the New Zealand region.
Some 120 km east of the Wairarapa coast, the westward-moving Pacific Plate meets its sparring partner and is forced beneath it. But in this area the plate boundary also takes a turn to the west, which means the plates are trying to slide past each other as well as over and under. Resultant stresses have splintered the north-eastern corner of the South Island and the southern end of the North Island into giant slivers of rock separated by fault lines.
The 1855 earthquake was initiated on the interface between the Pacific and Australian Plates at a depth of 25 km below Cook Strait close to Wellington when one of these fault lines ruptured, releasing a thousand times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb—energy that travelled outwards and upwards at speeds reaching six kilometres per second.
The destruction of Alfred Ludlam’s house in the Hutt Valley, 13 km north-east of Wellington, took only moments. The initial shock threw the house in the air and shook it. Seconds later, another shock sheared the chimneys off their foundations. Ludlam, sitting close to the fireplace with his wife and guests, Charles Bidwill and a man named Hutton, was jammed by a table as he tried to get up from his chair. Bidwill and Hutton, being closer to the door, grabbed his wife to get her out, but she broke loose and went to her husband just as the five-metre-high chimney began to collapse.
Fortunately for Ludlam, the falling bricks were preceded by a large picture, which fell over his legs, protecting them from the rubble. A lamp gave out its last flicker, and husband and wife were in darkness. The house was still shaking, and the noise of breaking glass coupled with choking brick dust was almost too much to bear. After frantic efforts, the pair managed to wriggle out from the debris. On reaching the hall, they found Bidwill and Hutton holding the door open for them to escape.
The Manawatu and Wairarapa felt the full force of the earthquake, too. Charles Borlase, who lived east of present-day Greytown, found his house “waved to and fro, rocked and jumped, as you might fancy a ship would when she strikes a rock.” Amid the smashing and crashing, Borlase jumped out of the window and clung to a post outside but was thrown to the ground and unable to get up until the shaking was over. Later, he was to write: “No house, but one built with posts let into the ground, and wooden houses put together like a box, as the houses in this country are built, could have outlived such a rattling.”
Thomas Bevan, owner of an accommodation house at Waikawa, was seated by a large double-brick chimney with a child on his knee. When the shaking commenced he ran outside but fell on his face, with the child landing some distance ahead. Several guests were similarly thrown off their feet. Everyone was in a “terrible state of confusion,” and they could hear the cries of terrified animals and horses neighing in the stable.
William Colenso, the well-known missionary and traveller, was living at Waitangi, Hawkes Bay, when the earthquake struck. His house reeled and creaked; bookshelves and their entire contents of 4500 volumes, specimens, a writing case and jars fell, but not the chimney.
Colenso fled the building, but had difficulty standing and so lay down and clung to the ground while watching the willows being tossed about and listening to the post-and-rail fence clattering noisily. While on the ground, he was transfixed by the sight of a stream of pale, flickering fire with ragged blue edges gliding along about a metre from the ground—a will-o’-the-wisp caused by the spontaneous combustion of methane and other gases, which can sometimes be seen at night in swamps.
Across the island, at New Plymouth, the shaking lasted about two minutes, with “five or six explosions like the discharge of heavy artillery.” Patrons in Wanganui’s Commercial Hotel made a speedy exit just in time to avoid falling chimneys, but outside could barely keep their balance on the “dancing” ground.
Even as far north as Kitotehe, near Cambridge, the earthquake was felt strongly. Harry Johnstone recorded that “[we] were all sat round a table . . . when the house began to move to and fro. I sang out … and had scarcely got the words out of my mouth when the whole earth and place seemed as if about to turn topsy turvy, and the natives outside cried out ‘he ru he ru’ meaning the shaking of the earth. We all rushed outside rather alarmed that the house was coming down. It lasted about 3 or 4 minutes . . . I should think that no brick building could possibly have stood.”
Some in Auckland experienced a “slight tremulous motion,” but no effects were felt in Northland.
In the South Island, too, the intensity of the tremors diminished with distance from the epicentre. The earthquake struck Nelson with a “great rushing and roaring,” while near the Clarence River, on the Kaikoura coast, Frederick Trolove and his companions had great difficulty keeping their balance as they ran out of the house, staggering “like drunken men.”
At Lyttelton, William Smith reported pictures swinging from the walls, the floor heaving upwards and bells ringing, and heard the cries of frightened women in “wild consternation.”
In Dunedin, as in Auckland, the earthquake was “felt so slightly as to be totally imperceptible to those inexperienced in such matters.”
The physical effects of the earthquake were as dramatic as its destructive power. Even before the great shock had died away, the water in Wellington Harbour rose about two metres and flooded the floors of shops and houses facing the sea along Lambton Quay. One man, picking himself up from the road where he had been thrown by the shock, was suddenly engulfed by the inward rush of the sea, carrying logs of wood and other debris. The water then retreated almost immediately to several metres below low tide. For the next eight hours, the sea approached and receded from the shore in Lambton Harbour every 20 minutes, causing one ship to hit the bottom four times while at anchor.
Back-and-forth surging of water in lakes and rivers (seiching) occurred as far north as the Waipa River and Lake Rotoiti, in the upper North Island, and as far south as the Waimakariri River, near Christchurch. Near Wanganui, seiching caused water from a shallow lake to suddenly spill over adjacent flat land. One man was about halfway across the flats when he found his horse suddenly knee deep in water and thought he had gone off the road and into the lake. The water retreated as suddenly as it had overflowed.
About 10 minutes after the first shock, a tsunami swept the coast on both sides of Cook Strait. At Wellington the wave overtopped the Rongotai isthmus. The entrance to Wellington Harbour was too narrow to admit the full force of the wave, which was estimated to be about oneand-a-half metres above the highest tide inside the harbour and nearly four metres higher outside. It being high tide at the time of the earthquake, the tsunami induced a bore up the Hutt River that helped complete the destruction of the “durable and fine-looking” wooden Hutt bridge.
Both inside and outside the harbour, thousands of fish were carried inland and stranded, in at least one area, strained out by rushes. Galloping along the beach to his Terawhiti Station home, John McMenamin had difficulty controlling his horse as it floundered and slipped among the piles of fish.
In Palliser Bay, the wave was over nine metres high. It washed away several buildings and their contents, including bales of wool and a “ton of iron” to be shipped to Wellington from the little anchorage of Te Kopi on the east side of the bay.
In the South Island, the “gigantic wave” caused flooding in Kaikoura and created a bore about a third of a metre high which swept up the Avon River to within three kilometres of Christchurch. A large wave was reported in Otago Harbour.
In Cook Strait, immense quantities of dead fish floated to the surface. These were mostly ling, a bottom-dwelling, pressure-sensitive species, and had probably been forced to rise too rapidly from the sea floor to escape submarine mud slides triggered by the shaking.
Ground damage caused by the earthquake affected an area of some 52,000 sq km stretching from Kaikoura in the south to Cambridge in the north. The Hutt Valley was particularly badly affected, with more extensive damage than in Wellington. The road up the valley was “rent into continuous chasms.” In the lower part of the valley, especially the delta area of the Hutt River, numerous hillocks of sand were thrown up, forming cones a metre high. During the earthquake, one man, in the company of a servant girl, fell into a deep fissure that had opened in the ground. In assisting him, the girl had to lie on the ground and was just able to reach his fingers and pull him out covered in mud.
The earthquake virtually destroyed the Rimutaka road. Charles Bidwell, returning to his home in the southern Wairarapa from the Hutt the day after the earthquake, walked the whole distance, jumping the fissures and threading his way among the great landslides and cracks in the continually quaking hillside.
Almost the whole of the Wairarapa Plain was crisscrossed by crevices up to five metres deep and extending for many hundreds of metres. Ploughed ground, mud and dry river- and pond-beds “were thrown up into all sorts of undulations like a short choppy sea, the ridges in some cases 2 feet [0.6 m] in height.”
North of Masterton, a hill adjacent to the Ruamahanga River was “rent in twain,” one half going into the river, temporarily damming it. When the river broke through, Maori living downstream had to climb trees to escape being swept away.
Charles Borlase described the area around Greytown as “being rent in every direction … Our horse track to the river, which is about half a mile off, has more than twenty such across it, twelve of which opened and shut with violence during the shock, and threw water to a considerable height over the surrounding bushes.”
Between the Rangitikei and Turakina Rivers several lakes were drained. The lakes had been formed by layers of ironsand becoming rusted together and forming a pan which prevented the surface water from soaking downwards. The shock cracked the iron pans, releasing the water and stranding hundreds of eels.
Fissures and landslides were also reported on the eastern coast of the South Island as far south as Kaikoura.
The most notable and lasting effect of the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake was the sudden uplift and tilting of the southwestern part of the North Island, and corresponding subsidence of the coastal area of the Wairau Valley across Cook Strait in Marlborough.
The morning after the earthquake, Wellingtonians were surprised to find that the shoreline around the harbour had been upheaved by over a metre, so that high water came to only a metre or so of its former height.
A number of vessels were lying on their sides in shallow water, with some smaller ones stranded high and dry on the beach fronting the town. All around the harbour, thousands of shellfish were exposed. Maori gathered the unexpected harvest for the next two days until putrefaction set in. Great beds of barnacles, oysters, mussels and other seashore organisms were also killed by being uplifted above high-water mark.
Many of the tidal inlets of the Hutt River were drained by the uplift, and the river, which was previously navigable for about 22 km from the mouth for smaller craft and for nearly 3.2 km up to the Hutt bridge for large cargo boats, became too shallow for shipping.
Along the south Wellington coast the uplift manifested itself as a stranded beach and a raised rock platform. The elevation reached its maximum extent (six metres) on the western side of Palliser Bay.
The main route from Wellington to the Wairarapa lay along this part of the coast, and involved rounding the Mukamuka rocks on the eastern flank of the Rimutaka Range—a hazardous task if wind and tide were unfavourable. As a result of the uplift, “the dreaded `Muku-Muku’ rocks … were left many chains above high-water, and a sandy beach formed about their base, affording the settlers a fine driving road for their stock, where previously so much delay and loss had prevailed,” wrote Alfred Matthews in the Wairarapa Times Age.
Edward Roberts, who was in the process of constructing a road around the cliffs at Mukamuka at the time of the earthquake, found that the Rimutaka Range had been elevated by nearly three metres during the earthquake, while the Wairarapa valley and plain to the east were unaffected. The uplift occurred on the west side of an almost continuous fissure that ran inland from the coast along the base of the Rimutaka Range for nearly 75 km.
This fissure, which marks the position of the Wairarapa Fault, can today be traced as an almost continuous line of rupture from the coast at Palliser Bay to just north of Mauriceville, in northern Wairarapa.
The earth movement wasn’t only vertical. Numerous small streams which crossed the fault were offset, or “dog-legged,” by an average of 12 m—one of the largest horizontal displacements recorded anywhere in the world along a fault during a single earthquake.
Despite the violence of the 1855 earthquake (with an estimated strength of 8.0-8.2 on the Richter scale), there were few fatalities. Contemporary accounts put these at 10, compared to 17 in the 1929 Murchison earthquake and 256 in the 1931 Napier earthquake.
Two people were reported to have been “engulfed in a fissure in the Manawatu.” Seven Maori were killed in the Wairarapa when their whare collapsed.
In Wellington, Baron von Alzdorf, the owner of the largest brick building, a hotel on Lambton Quay, happened to be standing by the chimney when it fell, taking with it a wall on which a large mirror was fixed. The broken glass severed a femoral artery, and he bled to death while lying among the ruins.
Although settlers were stunned and shocked by the calamity, most newspaper reports deliberately played down the event. Wellington’s Independent reported: “On Tuesday evening . . . the community were alarmed by a smart shock of an earthquake, which lasted several seconds, and was succeeded at intervals by tremors of less violence . . . At the time of our going to press, there is every appearance of all commotion having ceased.” There was no mention of half the city having been destroyed, or of parts of the harbour now being dry ground.
At the time, Wellington was vying with Auckland to become the future centre of government, and the success and prosperity of the colony as a whole depended on continued immigration. Both press and politicians were anxious not to spread alarm, and thereby deter settlers and stymie the city’s political aspirations.
Byron Drury, commander of the Pandora, was much criticised when his account of the earthquake was published. Edward Jerningham Wakefield remarked that it “would convey false impressions to distant readers.”
In fact, this was Wellington’s second major earthquake in less than 10 years. In 1848, an earthquake on the Awatere Fault in Marlborough had caused severe damage to the settlement. Though smaller than the 1855 event, it had been more widely reported. Even then, one English journal had carried an item claiming that the “earth tremor” was “unworthy of the name of earthquake,” and had been “greatly exaggerated.”
Demolition of buildings damaged by the Wairarapa earthquake began almost immediately, business was resumed within weeks and the “virulence of politics—mitigated for a night—resumed its sway.”
One longer-term effect of the earthquake on the growing city of Wellington was that brick was eschewed as a building material for probably the next 40 years. Once central government moved to Wellington (in the 1860s and ’70s), the Houses of Parliament were erected in wood. Even when memory of the damage of 1855 had receded sufficiently for brick to make a tentative comeback as a construction material, brick buildings were typically limited to three storeys.
The 1855 event was only the latest in a series of large tectonic movements which have resulted in displacement along the Wairarapa Fault. Evidence of prehistoric earthquakes can be seen where the fault cuts across a flight of terraces along the Waiohine River near Greytown. Here, the terrace steps show progressively greater amounts of vertical and horizontal displacement the older they are. The highest and oldest terrace has been displaced by 20 m vertically and 125 m horizontally, representing the amount of cumulative earthquake movement over the past 10,000 years.
Around Turakirae Head, a sequence of beaches—each stranded by earthquake uplift above high tide—present an earthquake record dating back 7000 years. Carbon dating of shellfish which were stranded on these beaches suggests that one earthquake uplift occurred about 2580 years ago, another about 2890 years before that and possibly another 1600 years earlier still. This chronology may tell us something about the timing of future earthquake displacements on the Wairarapa Fault, but at present no definite predictions can be made.
Nevertheless, the tectonic plates continue their slow, relentless convergence beneath central New Zealand. The strain—perhaps only a fraction of what was released 145 years ago on that Tuesday evening of January 23—may be building up again, gradually squeezing an illusory trigger to the point of unleashing another great earthquake.
Will Wellington be ready?