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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, 2000

The 1855 Earthquake

The 1855 Earthquake

The earthquake of 1855 was the largest historic earthquake in New Zealand, with an estimated magnitude of perhaps 8.1 or 8.2. 17 It occurred at 9.17 pm on Tuesday January 23rd, the second of two days of celebration to mark the founding of Wellington, and was felt from Auckland to Dunedin. The earthquake was centred in Cook Strait, between Turakirae Head and Cape Campbell, and the worst hit areas were the southern part of the North Island and the northern part of the South Island, in particular coastal Marlborough.

On the day of the earthquake Frederick Trolove at Kekerengu recorded:

"Wind from the W.; the sky looking very curious at sun set. Jurdon's cows came up from "Woodbank" [Clarence River]. About half past 9 o'clock pm or 10 pm a very severe shock of an earthquake took place. So sudden and severe was it that in running out of the house we had great difficulty in keeping our balance. We staggered like drunken men. The shocks continued lighter, and the earth constantly in motion either in little convulsive starts or oscillating like a pendulum until, I should say, the middle of the night, when a most awful shock the imagination could conceive forced us once more out of the house in the greatest confusion and alarm. It is impossible to describe one's feelings in such a moment – the earth trembling beneath your feet – everything in the house tossed to and fro, books shelves and books falling, rafters and roof creaking, chimneys falling, wall rent and split all in a few seconds. For the rest of the night I thought it safer to sleep in the Wool Shed, so we took our mattresses and blankets there and slept as well as we could until morning, being continually rocked with the earth's motion." 18

At Altimarlock, in the Awatere Valley, Alexander Mowat wrote:

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"At 9 p.m. was visited by a most fearful shock of an earthquake which rendered our House uninhabitable and broke a great deal of glass, and earthenware. Got the children outside and lay down in front of the house a great number of shocks through the night but none so severe as the first." 19

Unfortunately there is no account of the earthquake at Flaxbourne among Weld's personal papers or diaries. However, an entry in Trolove's diary for Tuesday 30th states: "Edwin [Trolove's brother] brought news from Flaxbourne that 16 houses (all new, having been built this summer and last) are either flat to the ground or so shattered that they are beyond repair. The houses built immediately under large hills have suffered the least. Those on the flat ground are levelled with it."

Despite the demoralising effects of the earthquake. Trolove kept a very informative diary of the events in the days following the earthquake:

"Wednesday, 24th. Jan. All day today the earth has not ceased shaking for 10 minutes. The shocks were lighter towards the afternoon and we heard more of the rumbling before each shock that we did yesterday.

"Thursday 25th. Jan. We have had a fearful night indeed and we have had 3 heavier shocks than any before. During the whole of the night until daybreak we have been in (I may almost say) perpetual motion. The shocks were always preceded by a hollow rumbling – something like the last part of a clap of thunder when heard in the distance; but, I think, more unearthly. I positively thought that N.Z. could not stand the racket until morning. The direction of the shocks seems to me, as near as I can judge, to be about S.E. and N.W. or probably a little more to the S. As I lay in the woolshed I could see the poor old house, which I put up with my own hands, tottering with every shock, and now and then part of a chimney or wall would drop to the ground. I felt that what I had done in N.Z. was doomed to be undone in one night. So indeed was it too true.

"Friday 26th., Sat 27th. Sun.28th., Mon.29th. Thursday night 11 or 12 o'clock pm we had the heaviest shock of any. About an hour after there was another very severe shake. Jurdan [sic] and Cate came just after the shock. They saw the ground rise before them like a sea and the horses they were riding staggered as though a bullet had been driven through their brains – sleeping in the hut on Madcap's Rat – Friday morning at the earliest dawn I peeped out of the hut to see if the house was still standing there, or whether the hill had slipped any more during the night. What a change it presented. In the grey morn a few days, nay a few hours past, you page 18might have seen one of the neatest N.Z. cottages (Station cottages) with a healthy garden before it full of vegetables. Its destruction is now complete. Its ruin is not to be repaired and like thousands more I fear, will remain a melancholy memorial of the earthquakes of Jan. 1855. I rode down to Jordan's along the beach (my shepherd) thinking that the house he was living in would not be all harmed by the shocks. It was the first house I built on the run and made of toi-toi and posts in the ground three feet with a clay chimney. I came up to the spot and Woodbank was no more!! Jurdon [sic], whom I had taught to write completed my surprise and consternation by these words written in pencil and put on the top of a pole which was supported in a rent made by the earthquake, 'i have goin to the Big river pint i do note like the grunde at the wood Bank i shulle Come Back to morror Trolove.'

"There were two or three sharp shocks today (Friday) which came from the northward. The overhanging hills along the beach are now as bare of vegetation as can be well imagined owing to the slips. The sea has been inland many feet above high water mark. Indeed in some places the sea occupies what used to be green bushes and grass.

"Friday night – slept in the Big river hut – the chimney is down. The shakes have not been so constant tonight, but sharper than during the day.

"Saturday morning. We have no meat, very little tea, sugar and flour. We are living on eels, young sea-gulls, woodhens, potatoes and fish. This morning took across the river two cows and a filly belonging to the natives at Waipapa [five miles south of the Clarence River].

"Today I should think we have had shocks about every two hours but not severe if you compare them to what we had had. Sleep in the hut. The night is close and cloudy. Had a sharp shock about the middle of the night.

"Sunday morning thick and misty with a little rain. Light shocks every hour or so. Sunday night we felt a sharp quick shock or two. How one feels the want of religious consolation in such times.

"Monday morning, very misty. Beginning to put the hut into living order. Came from the Big river to Kekerengu. How very, very desolate everything appears as you pass along. How many sanguine people in England, if they had felt these earthquakes, would say, 'this is the country for England's surplus population.' Shocks as usual.

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"Monday night slept in the tent. Went eeling; no luck. Fine but cloudy night. Reading 'Bleak House.' Shocks as usual.

"Tuesday 30th. Jan. Morning fine. Wind from N.W. …..Rode up to the Flags. The hills are very much shaken and split. My boat at the Flags was taken away 20 yards in land by the roll which came in from seaward and left high and dry on the green sward. Whilst writing this there has been one very decided, sharp, quick shock 7 o'clock p.m.

"Thursday 1st. February. [Trolove rode up the coast to Flaxbourne]. It is quite miserable to see Flaxbourne and the owners and manager seem quite cut up. Felt a shock or two there. The Flaxbourne house which is built of wood rocks and creaks like a basket (in a shock). Mr W[eld] thought that the shocks came from the W and S. No further news.

"Friday 2nd. Feb. At Flaxbourne. Very windy and warm. Now and then felt shocks. About 2 o'clock p.m. saw the Shepherdess pass Flaxbourne going to take my wool from the Flags. Ate a mouthful of bread and cheese. Went to the Flags. Mr Weld and Harris rode with me to the White Rocks. Felt a shock as we were going round them, which brought down some stones. …. made a large fire on the beach opposite the place for the schooner to anchor. Shepherdess anchored about 11 o'clock p.m. Slept in a goat's house.

"Saturday 3rd. February. I was awake all night. Could not get to sleep. Got up at day dawn, went down to the beach. Wind from the W. Myself, Duckworth and a Maori went off to the Shepherdess. Took two bales of wool. The boat leaked a good deal. The same trip we landed 10 rams belonging to Flaxbourne, a little boy, and letters. The boat was very near sinking before we could pull her on shore. A beautiful day for loading the schooner, smooth and not much wind. 12 o'clock midday, blowing strong from the N.W. Hauled the boat up for a while until the wind lulled a little. The Captain (Jackson) is assisting with his boat and two men. Got on board about 20 bales. Sent for a case of brandy to give the men a glass. We were working like horses. The schooner lies about 1 and a half to 2 miles off shore. Sent young 'Jack' off to Flaxbourne with letters and the news of 'Sly boots'. At 4 o'clock pm the wind shifted to the S.E. Afraid the schooner will weigh anchor and be off, certainly if it blows harder. All hands working like the devil to get the wool on board as quick as possible. Gave the boatmen (and wool rollers) as much grog as they could work on and no more. Saw a heavy shock out at sea. It made the sea appear on the horizon like a hilly and undulating country; it also caused a swell on the page 20beach for about an hour after. 8 o'clock pm the last load of wool is gone off in my boat with a hurrah! from all hands. The schooner's sails are being set, and they are taking up the anchor. She is under weigh, and we are pulling like one o'clock to get hold of a rope which has been hove from the schooner for us. We get the rope after a hard struggle, put the wool on board, and come on shore. Mr. Harris and Knight came from Flaxbourne, just in time to send their letters. I wrote a letter on the beach to Levin & Co., telling them about the wool. I also sent over for Levin to post four English letters. My feet are all blistered and the skin is off my knees and legs, holding on to the boat in the surf.

"News of Earthquakes. Baron 'Alsdorf' is killed. He kept 'the' hotel in Wellington. Several have got their legs and arms broken. Clifford's house is shaken except two rooms. All the chimneys and a great number of wooden houses are shaken to the ground. The sea has been up 20 feet higher than it was ever known before.

"February 4th – February 10th

Monday night. Came home from the Flags. Everything looking as desolate as ruin and destruction can alone make a home appear. Shell fish and potatoes for supper. Sleep in the tent. Now and then feel slight shocks. …… Friday got the beds from out of the ruins, mended them and put them up in the Wool Shed where I have made a little room and lined it with wool bales and sods. 9 o'clock pm felt a sharpish shock – it brought down some stones from the hill back of the house. Two or three shocks during the night… The springs at Waipapa (5 miles to the S of my S boundary and on the other side of the Waiautoa or Clarence River or Big River) is gone dry. In the history of man it was never known before. … Shocks come sometimes in the middle of a job, when you are thinking nothing about them. In fact when you hope and believe they are all over. I have many times sat down for a few minutes to consider whether or not I should go on with what I was doing or cut and run away from everything and NZ.

"February 12th Monday – Thurs 22nd

"Mon – Tues. Left Flaxbourne about 12 o'clock rode to Redwoods Station in Awatere – there I saw Mr Mowat and felt a slight shock or two before going to bed – Redwoods people have deserted their house and are living in the woolshed – … We Rode over the hills to Dashwood's Station (Mr Paisley overseer) … Gave Mrs. Budge an order… Thurs. Left Dashwoods rode over to Marshalls… Fri. Marshall's place is shaken down with the earthquakes but I am confident they have not been so severe in the Awatere and Wairau as at Flaxbourne and Woodbank -

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Mar 15 – shocks are still constantly felt in the Awatere…

Sun. 18 … Felt two shocks in the night. I consider it almost presumption to attempt to build again but it must be done." 18

A record of the almost continuous aftershocks up to February 14th was also made by Alexander Mowat at Altimarlock.

"Wednesday Jan 24th 'Earthquakes nearly every half hour …. at 9 p.m. another fearful shake.

Thursday Jan 25th…. The ground in one continued shake … at 9 pm a very sharp shock of earthquake.

Friday Jan 26th. Earth still on the move with frequent earthquakes.

Saturday Jan 27th. Frequent earthquakes.

Sunday Jan 28th. Frequent shaking of the ground.

Monday Jan 28th. The ground in one continued shake and moving as if it had been afloat.

Tuesday Jan 30th. Numerous earthquakes.

Wednesday Jan 31st. Earthquakes frequent but not so sharp as the day previously.

Thursday Feb 1st. Felt four or five earthquakes throughout the day.

Friday Feb 2nd. Several shocks of earthquakes – at noon one very sharp shock indeed.

Saturday Feb 3rd. Two or three slight earthquakes.

Sunday Feb 4th. Felt one shock of an earthquake around 1 pm and two at night.

Tuesday Feb 6th. Several earthquakes throughout the night.

Wednesday Feb 7th. Felt some slight earthquakes through the night.

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Thursday Feb 8th. Several slight shocks of earthquake.

Friday Feb 9th. Felt three or four earthquakes (after 6.30 p.m.)

Saturday Feb 10th. Several earthquakes. At 9 pm a smart shock.

Sunday Feb 11th. Several earthquakes." 19

The original Altimarlock homestead was badly damaged. There is no mention of repairs, but the day after the earthquake Mowat had to rig a tent. His February 7th diary entry records that he went to the Wairau to find a carpenter to build him a house. He appears to have met Trolove at the Redwoods, at Ugbrooke, on the 12th February where they stayed the night.

Two months after the earthquake the effects of the strong shaking were still visible to Sir David Monro at Flaxboume Lake (Lake Elterwater). Here, Monro observed that "in many places the ground is very much cracked and the sides of the hills have slipped." He also passed by the "ruins of the clay cottages," most of the houses being "down level with the ground." 20 These were presumably the same cottages referred to earlier by Trolove.

The coast from Kekerengu to The Flags (Wharanui), that was traversed by Trolove a few days after the earthquake, was badly affected by landslides and rock falls. The Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter also mentions that "near Cape Campbell parts of the mountain fell exposing white rocks…." 21

Sir Charles Lyell states that further south along the coast "in a place called "The Flags', between Cape Campbell and Waipapa on the second day after the first earthquake of the 23rd January: several men employed to load logs on a ship distinctly saw an earthquake approaching them from a point called White Rocks, situated 3 miles northward. It approached them in a NW-SE direction, and was made visible by stones rolling from the top of the cliffs, by landslides, clouds of dust and a sea wave." 10

News of the effects of the earthquake in Marlborough appeared in the newspapers during February. From the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle of January 31st, "… intelligence has been received from the Wairau, and we find that the shock of the 23rd was felt very severely at the lower end of the valley, where several buildings were more or less damaged, but ascending the valley, the shocks became less severe as the distance from page 23the sea increased. From the mouth of the Wairau River we received no accounts, but we hope to find that no very serious damage has been sustained there, although we hear that cracks in the ground had taken place in the neighbourhood of the wood [Grovetown], and that sand or mud had been thrown up there in places."

Others reports state that "in the Wairau Valley … near the river bed, numerous systems of earthquake fissures can be observed, which always trend parallel to the course of the river and are intersected at various angles by abrupt bends in the river" 21 and that "several fissures in the earth, four feet deep, and sufficient to admit a man, yawned…." 22

The February 21st issue of the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle stated: "Within the last few days we have also received letters from the Wairau and Awatere, giving particulars of the extent of damage which the earthquake caused in those districts. In the Awatere, the shock was very severe, and nearly all the cob buildings, within twenty miles of the sea were more or less damaged, but beyond this the force of the shocks sensibly diminished. At the mouth of the Wairau river a gigantic wave swept the beach, similar to what is described to have occurred on the opposite side of the Straits, at Wairarapa, but fortunately without inflicting similar damage; and the ebb and flow of the tide, at short intervals, occurred in the manner in which Captain Drury [of HMS Pandora] described it to have taken place in Wellington Harbour."

This may have been the wave that stranded Trolove's boat at the Flags some "20 yards inland" and left it "high and dry on the green sward" although a large wave (tsunami) swept the coast on both sides of Cook Strait a few minutes after the first great shock earthquake at 9.15 pm on the 23rd.

There is some evidence to suggest that movement, or at least a fresh opening, was made along the Awatere Fault during the 1855 earthquake. Hochstetter records that one fissure "… was traced full forty miles" and this strongly suggests that the fissure was along the line of the Awatere Fault. The Atkinsons of Burtergill Station in the lower Awatere Valley mention that in 1855 "a great crack opened up in the ground, the remains of which can be seen today," 23 although this could be a confusion with the fissure that formed in 1848. Similarly, J. Burnett mentions that "the earthquake crack in Marlborough was much enlarged, the ground east of it subsiding several feet….." 24

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An unsourced footnote (p.37) in T.L. Buick's Old Marlborough quotes a writer describing the effect of the 1855 earthquake upon the upper Awatere: 'On Fairfield Downs, a fissure was opened as far as the eye could reach, and perfectly straight." 25

Alexander McKay was the first person to investigate the Awatere Fault in any detail, during his 1886/87 and 1888/89 surveys of the Marlborough and Amuri districts. His observations of "earthquake rents" were published by Sir James Hector in the progress report of Geological Explorations of 1890, where he states:

"It has up till now always been considered that this Awatere earthquakerent had its origin in and was caused by the earthquakes of 1855. Mrs Mouat [Mowat], of Altimarlock informed Mr McKay that the open rents and fissures yet seen on the surface along the line of fracture were not produced by the disturbances of 1855, but were caused by the earthquakes of 1848. It may have been as thus stated, but it is equally probable that fresh fractures may have taken place on both dates. Mr McKay came to the conclusion, both here [at Altimarlock Station] and further up the [Awatere] valley obtained distinct proof, that the earthquakes of 1848 and 1855 did but open afresh an old line of dislocation and produced meager results compared with the total movement which has taken place along this line [Awatere Fault]." 26 Unfortunately, Hector did not elaborate further regarding this "distinct proof."

The information at hand suggests that some rupture may have occurred along the Awatere Fault in 1855, but to what extent is unknown, although it is clear that some statements appear to confuse the effects of the 1848 earthquake, in that the fault trace was an obvious feature that existed before the 1855 earthquake.

The earthquake caused the lower part of the Wairau Plain, together with parts of adjoining coast, to subside about 1.5m. According to Lyell, this allowed the tide to flow several miles farther up the Wairau River than formerly, and settlers had to go three miles further up the river to obtain fresh water than they had before the earthquake. William Budge, who was living at Budge's Island near the mouth of the Wairau Plain, found that the subsidence, which he considered to be eighteen inches, caused his land to become so sodden that he was forced to leave. As a consequence of the sinking, the Opawa River apparently became navigable by whaleboats up to the tidal limit, which was just beyond the railway bridge over the Omaka River. 27 Nevertheless, the subsidence did not extend south of White Bluffs, page 25because the coastal route was still used after the earthquake and any change would have been commented upon.

A letter dated January 7th 1949 from Everard Aloysius Weld, second son of Frederick Weld and the last manager of Flaxbourne Station, implies that some uplift or shallowing may also have occurred during the 1855 earthquake:

"Flaxbourne River was deep enough for small craft to come up as far as the old boiling-down plant, and that was the reason that the original homestead [i.e. that of Frederick Weld] was established a short distance further up the river. The big earthquake of which you speak in your letter [by a Mr E. Roberts] was responsible for the alteration ….the cutter which was used for trading with Wellington used the river which in those days acted as a harbour." 28

Unfortunately this letter is not archived in the Alexander Turnbull Library, but Kennington mentions that E. Roberts worked at Flaxbourne as a fleece picker during the 1899 shearing season and was interested in the history of the station, hence his inquiry. 29

It is interesting to note that there is a personal communication from the same E.A. Weld recorded in a 1914 article by Sir Charles Cotton on the uplifted wave-cut platforms along the east coast of Marlborough, stating that the bed of the Flaxbourne River had been "perceptibly raised" and that the Kekerengu River that now flows in braided channels on a broad gravel bed was, in the early day of settlement, a "swamp stream." 30

Cotton concluded that this was the result of aggradation from man-induced destruction of original vegetation cover. However, the area was not forested when Weld first saw it in 1846: "plains and gently undulating hills all covered solely with grass and anise…" and "The general aspect of the country is open, not a bush except flax to be seen, neither is there any fern…" and so Cotton's explanation can be ruled out.

Today, in times of normal flow the river is very shallow, such that it would be hardly navigable for a dinghy. In addition, for much of the year the river entrance is blocked by a large gravel bar, and is therefore completely changed since Weld first entered his "river-harbour" in John Wade's six ton cutter, the Fidele. The river estuary that they entered "had six or seven feet of water at low tide" and they anchored in the river itself.

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In consideration of the above, admittedly meager, evidence we consider that there is a distinct possibility that a very small amount of localised uplift occurred along the Kaikoura coast during the 1855 earthquake – enough to have at least begun the process of aggradation and consequent growth of the gravel bar across the mouth of the Flaxbourne River. The amount of five feet mentioned by Kennington is impossibly high and would certainly have been commented upon by Trolove, for example. No obvious change in land level along the coast or river bed was mentioned by Weld, who would almost certainly have commented on it if it had immediately affected his access into and up the Flaxbourne River.

If uplift did indeed occur, it might have happened in response to an aftershock. Some of the aftershocks felt at Kekerengu and Flaxbourne were unusually strong. While Marlborough residents elsewhere regarded the first earthquake as the most severe, Trolove at Kekerengu considered six other shocks as more severe or very severe. Some of these were hardly noticed in Wellington. Also, Weld informed Sir Charles Lyell he had felt an earthquake at 3 am on January 24th that he thought was equal in strength to the first shock at 9.15 pm, and supposed this second shock to be local.

Any slight uplift of the coast could easily have been missed, because Weld told Sir Charles Lyell of "the great disturbance of the tides for some weeks after Jany 23/55 and this all along the shores of Cook's Straits so that when they at length settled into a state of equilibrium adjusted to the new levels it would render the estimate of the rising or sinking of the land very vague except in favoured spots." 11 He was clearly unaware of any uplift of coastal Marlborough.

As with the 1848 earthquake, many people believed that the cause of the earthquake was the result of a volcanic eruption and they were eager to locate the source. It appears that while the Lady Grey, a steamer trading between the mainland and the Chatham Islands, was nearing the coast, those on board noticed "wreaths of white vapour rising in a thin and unsteady column" from a high and conical shaped mountain in the Kaikoura range, culminating in "a canopy of smoke," and it was concluded that a new volcano was in eruption. 25 The "volcano" was sited about 20 miles south of Cape Campbell and was also apparently observed by shepherds at Flaxbourne.

This report, however, was not supported by passengers of the steamer Nelson that arrived in Wellington shortly after the Lady Grey, and an argument ensued. Indeed, when Weld left New Zealand for England in mid page 271855 he was still of the opinion that a volcanic eruption had occurred, and it was not until New Zealand newspapers arrived in London, and after his interview with Sir Charles Lyell in May 1856, that he give up this idea as spurious.

Apparently to settle the matter, a party went across the Strait in a whale boat and on proceeding to Flaxbourne, found that the cause of all the excitement was an old shepherd who had set fire to the fern on Benmore. The flames spreading up the mountain slope had ignited a clump of white birch trees on the summit, resulting in the "wreaths of white vapour" and "the canopy of smoke" that indicated the site of "Marlborough's active volcano."