Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, 2000
The 1848 Earthquakes
The 1848 Earthquakes
At about twenty minutes to two on the stormy morning of Monday, October 16th 1848, Marlborough settlers were awakened by a large earthquake. This was to be the first and strongest of many more shocks that followed over the next four weeks, causing substantial damage to the young settlements of Wellington and Nelson, and throughout Marlborough.
The effect of the first shock at Flaxbourne is recorded by Frederick Weld: "Violent shock of earthquake felt at 29m [minutes] before 2 am this morning. The men ran out of their house…." 1
Thomas Arnold, the youngest son of the famous educator and headmaster of Rugby School in England, was staying with Weld at the time and describes the earthquake and subsequent events in a letter that he had begun to write to his mother on October 10th:
"Tues, Oct. 17th…. Yesterday a little before 2 o'clock, I was awakened by feeling the bed shake under me; my first impression was that the wind was shaking the house; but Weld cried out 'An earthquake,' and indeed there was no doubt as to what it was. For about a minute the bed was violently shaken from side to side; every plank in the house creaked and rattled, the bottles and glasses in the next room kept up a sort of infernal dance, and most of them fell. When the shock was past, there came a few spasmodic heavings, like long drawn out breaths, and then all was still. But for the rest of the night and all yesterday there were slight shocks at intervals. In the morning we found that the kitchen chimney which is of stone, was cracked right through." 2
The first shock of the earthquake was also distinctly felt at sea. The New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian of October 25th reported that the Sarah Ann, about 20 miles off Cape Campbell, and being driven through Cook Strait by the southerly storm: "… felt the first shock of the earthquake. The vessel shivered from stem to stern and the impression of the Captain and crew was that she had struck on a reef and was forging over it. The lead was thrown overboard, but no soundings were found."
Later that day, Arnold records that he and Weld were out walking "and came across several large cracks in the ground, and in one place several fragments of rock had become detached from the cliff by the shock, and were scattered on the beach. There has not been an earthquake for many months before, and that is the reason I suppose, why this shock was more violent than ordinary. There has never been any serious harm done by them, so that people think very little of them now, though they used to be frightened at first." 2
Weld also wrote in his diary: "Heard afterwards that the earthquake had been felt more severely at the outstation ware [whare]. It threw down our ware, Kemps ware (Newcombes and Murphys house), Hon. C. Dillons and also Mr Goulands house were thrown down. A succession of minor shocks for two or three days. Large fissures are every where seen in the ground and one of them stretched right across the ware at the outstation." 1 Of the Marlborough inhabitants mentioned by Weld who had suffered earthquake damage, George Kemp managed the Starborough Run, bordering Flaxbourne to the northwest, for Major Richard Newcombe. He probably lived in a cob cottage called Kempton that he may have built himself.
After Flaxbourne, Newcombe's Starborough run was the first to be taken up on the south side of the Awatere River. Although his depasturage licence was granted on January 1st 1849, he was clearly 'squatting' prior to the 1848 earthquake, and probably had been since early 1848. By May of that year he had established a 'station', i.e. Newcombe Station, which was a cob cottage with a thatched roof. Mr and Mrs Daniel Murphy also lived in a page 9cob cottage, at a spot near where Richmond Brook joins the Awatere River and beside the track which crossed the Awatere at the Taylor Ford. 4
The Hon. Constantine Dillon lamented over the effects of the earthquake on his new house and dairy in the Waihopai Valley in a letter to his mother in England:
"We have been the greatest sufferers in the settlement for a new house and dairy which was just finished and established at the Wairau and which had altogether cost me about 80 or 90 pounds has been levelled to the ground. However, the dairyman made the best of a bad job and has put up in a hut which he has built on the same spot again and is quite happy. You see that this Colonial life if it does nothing else gives elasticity of view and teaches people to help themselves." 5
Henry Gouland lived in the Wairau Valley and, clearly retrospectively, merely noted in his diary: "Awoke at 2.30 a.m. by the great earthquake of 1848. House thrown off piles." 6 Gouland had bought William Budge's house on the Opawa River a few kilometers south of Blenheim, in the vicinity of present day Riverlands, for 40 pounds in November 1847. The fact that the house was built on piles suggests that it was constructed of raupo.
The effect of one of the more noticeable aftershocks is described by Arnold in a letter: "One beautiful morning, several days after the great shock, Weld and I climbed a steep hill about 1200 feet high for the sake of the view. We were sitting down on top when a smart shock came, and we distinctly saw the whole top of the mountain heave and rock to and fro." 2 Weld Cone is actually 1207' or 274m high.
In a later description of the incident he wrote:
"On Sunday, six days after the first shakes, we walked to the top of Weld Cone, seated on the narrow conical summit we gazed on the sublime appearance of the Kaikouras covered in snow. While we were thus intent there came a shock which distinctly made the top of the hill heave to and fro." 3
The aftershock experienced by Arnold and Weld at the top of Weld Cone on Sunday 22nd was presumably one of two recorded in the meteorological tables of Captain Oliver of HMS Fly while anchored in Wellington Harbour, one in the morning at 10 o'clock and the other in the afternoon at 3.55 pm. 7 page 10Further mention of the effect of the earthquakes was occasioned when Arnold walked from Flaxbourne to Nelson: "Here [Big Wood, in the middle of the Wairau Plain] the effects of the earthquake were very apparent on the river bank: there were a great many large cracks in the ground, some as much as two feet wide: and I also saw numerous deep holes, by which a lower stratum of sand and water had burst its way thro' the overlying ground, and covered everything with sand for some distance." 2
Big Wood is the location of present day Grovetown. Arnold's observation of numerous deep holes (sand blows) in the Wairau Plain appears to have been verified by Weld, on a return journey from Cloudy Bay to Flaxbourne via the Wairau on the 2nd November: "In the Wairau the surface crust of dry land has in some places sunk 10ft. the water spouting up through diminutive craters from the swamp subsoil." 1
Judge Chapman, who recorded in some detail the effects of the continuing shocks in Wellington, mentions that he had heard of "some subsidence of land at the Wairau Plain (where the Ngati-toas massacred their prisoners in 1843), creating a swamp where the land was dry before, and draining another place hard by …." 8 This extract may refer to the possibility of more widespread subsidence in the Lagoons area behind the Wairau Bar by compaction during the earthquake shaking. 9
News of the effects of the earthquake in Marlborough began to become known in Wellington during late October and early November. On October 28th the New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian reported that "at Cloudy Bay, Queen Charlotte's Sound and Cape Campbell, the shocks appear to have been felt severely as any in Wellington."
The November 1st issue of the same newspaper reported: "The Triumph arrived yesterday from Nelson, having called on her way at Queen Charlotte's Sound. Mr Toms, who is a passenger from the latter place, states that the natives report an eruption to have taken place on the night of the 17th ult. at the Bluff, half way between the mouth of the Wairau River and Cape Campbell, and that a large fissure had been made in the Wairau near the native cultivations, about ten miles from the mouth of the river [at Tuamarina]. The natives, among who was Te Rauparaha, had left in alarm and proceeded to Otaki."page 11
Seven days later the Wellington Independent of November 8th stated: "that the majority of natives assert that volcanic action is in force at the Bluff, two miles south of the Wairau, on the Middle Island, and they likewise say the hill which has now opened, tho' a cone, had not the slightest trace of its ever having been a vent, up which gases, collected in the earth, might escape. We trust in a few days to know the truth or falsity of these reports."
The 'eruption' reported by the Maori undoubtedly refers to a landslide, or the dust rising from it from the area of White Bluffs and this is confirmed by the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle of November 3rd stating that: "on the seaward face of the Bluff a large landslide had occurred." The time of the landslide, reported to have taken place on "the night of the 17th ult." by the New Zealand Spectator, is also interesting.
Assuming that this is not a confusion with the first earthquake shock, early in the morning of the 16th, one has to assume that the landslide occurred as a result of an aftershock. A large aftershock did occur on October 17th. but at 3.40 in the afternoon, and none of any notable strength were felt during the night. The landslide may therefore have occurred in response to a smaller shock, after the rock had been weakened by previous shocks on an already unstable slope. We have examined the coast on the southern side of White Bluffs and found evidence of a large landslide from the cliffs that is being eroded by the sea.
Superficial cracking of soft sediments throughout the Wairau Plain was apparently widespread, as reported by Thomas Arnold. The Wellington Independent issue of November 3rd records that "a chief named Kanae reports that the earth had opened, and that the hills have been thrown down, and that water is bubbling up through the cracks."
One fissure in the Awatere Valley is specifically mentioned in the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle of November 3rd: "In the Kaiparatihau district [lower Awatere Valley area] the shocks of the late earthquake were very severe. From the White Bluff, extending in an easterly direction [this would be out to sea!], there is for several miles a fissure in the ground, and the high and precipitous banks of some of the branch rivers have been thrown down."
This extract clearly indicates that rupturing occurred along the line of what is now known to be the Awatere Fault. Confirmation of this comes from Frederick Weld, as given in the account of the 1855 earthquake by Sir Charles Lyell:page 12
"Mr Weld, who was in the Middle (South) Island during the previous earthquake in 1848. tells me that at that time there was produced a big crack in the high range of mountains, from 1000 to 4000 feet in height, which extends to the south from the White Cliffs [White Bluffs] in the Bay of Clouds [Cloudy Bay]…. The crack of 1848 was not, on the average, more that 18 inches in width, but was remarkable on account of its length, for it has been traced by Mr Weld or his friends, and some people worthy of trust, over an extent of 60 miles, in a N-S direction, on a line parallel to the axis of the range. Whether there may not have been some uplift to the formation of the crack is what one has not been able to establish." 10
Weld's meeting with Lyell took place in London sometime before 19th May 1856. when Lyell wrote to another eyewitness of the 1855 earthquake. Walter Mantell the New Zealand naturalist, who he had also interviewed, and mentioned: "I have seen Mr Weld and have obtained a good deal of information about the earthquakes of 1848 and 1855 as they affected the Middle Island….." 11
In 1850 Weld carried out the first exploration of the upper Awatere Valley, almost to the Acheron River, although his route up the valley as far as Middlehurst was mainly on the opposite side of the valley to that of the fissure. It is disappointing that Weld makes no mention of what must have been, and still is an obvious line of fissuring, although he does describe an 'earthquake fissure' on the true right bank of the Awatere River, near its confluence with the Isis Stream: "… encamped for our midday's bathe and rest by a spot where rugged rocks narrow the channel of the river…about 1-1/2 miles from our midday resting place we remarked a very extraordinary earthquake fissure horseshoe shaped some 30 ft wide by 12 ft deep – thus it appeared as if the neck of the land on which it was had – so to say, been shaken till one side bulged out leaving a fissure on the ridge – the bottom covered with strips of sod which appeared to have sunk into the aperture – apparently not more than two years had elapsed since the chasm was made – the hill was yellow gravelly clay – there is no possibility of its having been formed by the action of water."
Caption to Plate
(top left). Thomas Arnold (1823–1900) in 1847. (ATL Ref. No F-36955-1/2)
(top right). Frederick Aloysius Weld (1823–1891). (ATL Ref. No F-1819-1/1)
(bottom left). Frederick William Trolove (1829–1880) in 1866. (ATL Ref. No F-146475-1/2)
(bottom right). Alexander McKay (1841–1917 in ca. 1900s (ATL Ref. No F-1 162-1/2-MNZ
Lyell's account states that the fissure along the Awatere Fault extended inland from the coast at White Bluffs, in agreement with the report of the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle. We have found no accounts of the fissure at the coast, even though the main route between the Wairau and Awatere valleys went along the beach and would have passed by the line of fissuring. If, however, the fissure was not more than 18 inches in width at this locality, as stated by Weld, then it could easily have been missed, and the cliff section containing the fissure was possibly obscured by the large landslide mentioned above, that occurs precisely where the Awatere Fault reaches the coast.
Additional contemporary evidence suggestive of the formation of a fissure along the Awatere Fault comes from J. W. Saxton of Nelson when recording, on December 22nd 1848. information from Major Mathew Richmond. Nelson's resident magistrate, who had visited the Wairau in November:
" …the awful effects of the earthquake at the Wairau; a crack quite straight crossed the country for miles; in some places he had difficulty in crossing it with his horse; in one place [the] crack passed through an old warre [whare] dividing it in two pieces standing 4 feet apart; in a Native potato ground holes appeared all over it from which sand seemed to have been expelled." 13
Early in 1848 Major Richmond had employed William McRae to take up and stock a run for him that lay across the Awatere River from Blairich, a 22,000 acre run lying between Blairich River and White Bluff Creek, which McRae was getting started. Richmond's run extended in a south-easterly direction across the Flaxbourne River to the Ure River. 2 His journey to the Wairau in November, after the October earthquakes, was presumably to inspect the area and the 1100 in-lamb ewes with which McRae had stocked the run.
Richmond's run bordered much of the western boundary of Flaxbourne Station, where Weld records that a fissure had cut through his outstation whare. It is tempting to equate this outstation dwelling, and the fissure which dislocated it, with that seen by Richmond. In fact, Richmond visited Flaxbourne at the invitation of Weld and stayed two nights there. He was also shown over much of Weld's run at the time, and is therefore certain to have seen and heard about the effects of the earthquake.page 15
The outstation referred to by Weld was a shepherds' hut, most probably a mud whare, possibly situated near the northern boundary of Flaxbourne. The fissure that opened through the outstation whare is likely to have been one of the superficial cracks in soft alluvium recorded by Weld that "were everywhere seen in the ground." 1
If the extensive 'crack' mentioned by Saxton refers to rupturing along the Awatere Fault, his reference to 'the Wairau' clearly means the Wairau area, i.e. the area of the Crown's three-million-acre Wairau Purchase of March 1847, which also included the lower Awatere Valley. The fact that Major Richmond seems to have had difficulty getting his horse across it would imply that he probably crossed into the Awatere Valley by a bridle track over the hills from the Wairau Plain following Taylor Pass, formerly known as Kaiparatihau Pass, which had been discovered the previous year.
The line of the 1848 fissure would have crossed this track, now the Taylor Pass road, a short distance east of Lake Jasper, where the fault is upthrown on its southern side forming a steep escarpment. The location of the 'native potato ground' mentioned by Saxton is unknown, but it is worth recording here that on the north side of Toe Toe Creek, about 1.5km from the Redwood Pass road, there is a large wall two feet high and twenty yards square, with ditches that appear to have been dug to drain the area. 14 The site appears to have been a Maori potato garden. Interestingly, the fissure that formed along the Awatere Fault runs parallel to Toe Toe Creek, known as Flax Creek in the 1850s, within a few tens of meters of the garden.
Two other sources which confirm that breakage along the Awatere Fault occurred in 1848 are provided by Morton Jones and John Jolliffe of HMS Pandora, the successor to the survey ship Acheron, that was in Wellington Harbour during the 1855 earthquake. The Pandora sailed for Nelson two days after the January 23rd earthquake, and Jones and Jolliffe dined there with Major Richmond who presumably told them what had occurred during the 1848 earthquake.
Jones writes: "The Awatere during the 1848 shock suffered very much: a huge fissure having been made upwards of eighty miles in length: resembling a macadamised road and of about the same width." 15 Jolliffe records that: "the earthquake of 1848 was severely felt throughout the Wairau Plains [probably means the Wairau area] and the ground there was torn up and displaced in a direct line for eighty five miles, in some parts as wide as a canal, in other places merely a fissure in the earth of various depths." 16page 16
For several days following the first shock of the earthquake sequence the night sky had a very unusual appearance, described from Wellington by the New Zealand Spectator on October 25th as a "fiery glare apparently the reflection of some stronger light" towards the south and lasting from half past eight until about twelve o'clock. Some thought it was the light of an erupting volcano in the Marlborough area, but Weld's diary entry of October 19th gives the correct explanation – "Auroa [aurora] Australis" – without further comment. The earthquake happened to precede the period of the solar maximum, when wide-spread solar lights of a red rayed aurora were seen throughout Europe.