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Early Wellington

Earthquake, 1855

Earthquake, 1855.

On the 23rd of February, 1855, at 11 minutes past 9 p.m. a very severe earthquake was felt on both sides of Cook Strait, but especially in Wellington. Extracts from the most reliable report supplied by Commander Drury of H.M. Sloop “Pandora,” are here given:—

“We felt suddenly an uncommon and disagreeable grinding, as if the ship were grating over a rough bottom. It continued with severity for more than a minute; the ship slewed broadside to the wind; we were then in six fathoms, so that there was little doubt that it was an earthquake. Lights were seen running, to and fro, from all parts of the town, and evidences of consternation, combined with a loud crash. Lieutenant Jones and myself immediately landed. We found the tide alternately ebbing and flowing. The first scene before us on landing was the Government Offices
Fig. 50—Barrett's House at the Hutt, 1852. Figs. 49 and 50 were drawn by Mrs. Swanson and later copied by Miss Deane.

Fig. 50—Barrett's House at the Hutt, 1852. Figs. 49 and 50 were drawn by Mrs. Swanson and later copied by Miss Deane.

page 161 entirely destroyed, the upper storey, the falling of which had caused the crash we heard, lying on the ground. The stair case, the Council Chamber, the papers and documents in heterogeneous confusion. An adjoining chemists' shop, whose samples and compounds admixing, had a decided bias to peppermint, while the doorway of the public house was a confusion of broken bottles. Amidst the general wreck of property, but one life has been sacrificed, and not more than four other persons seriously wounded.… This would appear astonishing to a person viewing the wreck of the houses, the mass of brickwork from the falling of the chimneys.… .the extraordinary rise of the tide, the entire destruction of some tenements, the collapse of others, the universal sacrifice of property and the natural terror and despair among the inhabitants, all tending to far greater personal disaster than fortunately I have to narrate.… . The hour was favourable to the escape of adults who seized the children from beneath the tottering chimneys, themselves not having generally retired to bed. Few, if any, since 1848 have been rash enough to build brick houses. The most substantial two-storied house—Baron Alzdorf's Hotel—of lath and plaster, buried its owner in the partial ruin. Government House, had it been occupied, must have destroyed its inmates; for in every room, was a pile of brickwork, the chandeliers, etc., utterly destroyed. The guard had a wonderful escape from the guard room, and the gun at the flagstaff turned over. The elegant and substantial new building, the Union Bank, is, in its front, a perfect ruin.… . Opposite to this building (corner of Willis and Manners Streets), a considerable opening on the road emitted slimy mud, and the main street was inundated.… . The principal shock occurred at 9.11 p.m.… . . During the night, scarcely half an hour elapsed without a lesser shock, more or less violent, accompanied by deep, hollow sounds. For eight hours, subsequent to the first great shock, the tide approached and receded from the shore every twenty minutes, rising from eight to ten feet and receding four feet lower than at spring tides.… . The scene on the streets was novel, some people standing at their thresholds, groups upon mats clear of the houses or in tents in their gardens1… With shops exposed and every temptation to plunder, there seemed to be neither fear nor thought of robbery, but a generous and manly feeling to ease each other's burdens pervaded all classes, from the Superintendent to the lowest mechanic, from the Colonel to every soldier of the 65th Regiment.… Nor can I forget to mention the ready assistance afforded by the merchant vessels in the harbour to the houseless and more nervous inhabitants.… On the 25th, at 12.55 a.m., there was a very sharp, but comparatively short shock.… . In crossing Cook Strait, we felt a shock in 26 fathoms, at noon, off Sinclair's Head, and a slighter shock, in 30 fathoms, off Queen Charlotte Sound.”2

Mr. J. C. Monro, of Palmerston North, recently forwarded a letter written by Mr. Alfred Ludlam, Neury, Hutt, to the late page 162 Sir David Monro, relating his thrilling experiences at the Hutt at this period. The letter is dated 8th March, 1855, and refers to the Earthquake of 1855. He expresses his appreciation of Sir David's kindness in inviting him to Nelson when his house was destroyed.

“We have indeed had an awful visitation,” he writes, “and now it is all over, we can look calmly on its effects; to some they have done no damage, to others very great.

“Unfortunately, I have to place myself amongst the latter, for it completely destroyed my house and a great deal that was in it.

“But upon going round Wellington and comparing the damage of 1848 with the present damage, I should say the amount was very much less than in 1848.

“This may easily be accounted for from the fact that there were not nearly so many brick houses, and those that were are all strongly bonded with wood and iron.…”

“The shocks seem to have been much more fatal in their effects on any land that joins the spurs of the Tararua Range. I believe that we suffered as much in the Hutt from the fact that the shocks took along that Range. The effects over here are ten times worse than in 1848. You will remember that my house was nearly finished (1848)—all the chimneys and brick work were up—except the ornamental tops, the only damage done to it then was a slight crack on the top of the unfinished chimney.

“The destruction of my house was momentary; the first shock, the vertical one, threw it in the air and shook it; the movement was very perceptible. The second, in a moment, shook all the chimneys off their foundations and brought them into the rooms.

“I was sitting close to the fire, my wife opposite, and Messrs. Hutton and Bidwill, who were with us, next. They, being near the door, got away, and tried to carry off my wife, but she broke away and came to me.

“I was jambed by a table, in the act of pushing myself back in an easy chair. I dare not go forward for fear of being buried, and there were we—in the dark.

“I thought nothing could save us from being buried in the ruins when I saw the chimney, 15 feet high, coming down in a mass. A picture which had been hung on the chimney not more than a week, jumped about at first, and the shock threw it over my knees, resting on the arm of the chair.

“My last view of the whole affair, just as the last flicker of the lamp lying on the floor went out, was the chimney in a mass falling in on us, and while in the act of falling, a shock seemed to double it up. My legs received the fall of half, but owing to their being covered up by the picture, although very severely bruised, they were not further injured.

“Had it not been for the frame, they must have been smashed. We were both very much bruised about the face and body by falling bricks. Nothing can describe our feelings, while we remained quiet for an opportunity to get out.

“It was perfectly dark, the house was rolling and rocking heavily—the noise of glass breaking was the most appalling thing I ever encountered—the feeling of being covered up to my waist in the ruins, and not daring to move until all was over, was most fearful.

“I wriggled myself out of the brick work, and escaped into the hall with my wife, where we found Messrs. Hutton and Bidwill holding open the door for us to escape.

page 163

“They said they thought we were buried. As soon as we got outside we went to see about the servants, who, we found, just escaped out of the windows. They, too, had a narrow escape.

“There were four distinct shocks, although it appeared as one. We remained in front of the house for an hour; the earth was heaving up the whole time, and when a fresh shock came, the house appeared almost to bend to the ground.

“We left it, and went to Bell's—found that Mrs. Bell had had a very narrow escape. The road all along was riven in strips and sunk, in some places a foot.

“The bridge, which you will remember, is destroyed; the first shock struck it, it bounded high in the air, and then fell into the river. The shocks were incessant until daylight. The first one did all the damage.… .

“You ask what the Wellingtonians will do, whether they will move?… .

“They are repairing the bank, which got dreadfully shaken, and the Baron's (Alzdorf's) new brick hotel—poor fellow, he little thought he was building his death trap, he used to say: ‘Look at my house, that is the way to build against earthquakes; no shock will destroy that.’

“I am quite of opinion, after what I have seen, that the stronger and heavier the building is, the worse is its destruction whilst under the operation of being upheaved.…

“New Zealand will have periodical visits of earthquakes and upheavals, and if Auckland were so visited, what an awful effect it would have upon a place built on caverns. I would rather take my chance here,” he continues, “where the land is solid. I saw a letter in which it stated that the Auckland folks were much terrified, very sick and disgusted at having had a visit, which they never expected, and are keeping it secret. It appears to me that the papers in the different provinces are anxious to keep the affair quiet. Our papers, particularly the ‘Independent,’ mentioned it in a few lines; just as if we had had a shock that knocked a chimney or two down.”

An article on Earthquakes also appeared in the “New Zealand Spectator” of the 2nd May, 1855.

Another article, published in the “Dominion,” of 16th January, 1926, entitled “In Tremulous '55.” contains extracts from the personal diary of one F. W. Trolove, farmer, who was residing in Marlborough at the time. The extracts are dated from the 23rd January to the 30th, 1855, during one of the most awesome times ever experienced in this country.

The article concludes by referring to news from Wellington.

The diary states:—“Baron Alzdorf is killed. He kept the hotel (now the Commercial) in Wellington. Several have got their arms and legs broken. Clifford's house is shaken, with the exception of two rooms. All the chimneys and a great number of wooden houses are shaken to the ground. The sea has been up to 20 feet higher than ever before.”

It is interesting to note that a survivor of the earthquake of 1855 is still living in the Wairarapa district. This is Mrs. Harrison, who lives just outside Martinborough. The following paragraph, taken from the “Dominion,” of 25th October, 1917, refers to Mrs. Harrison:—“She is 95 years of age, and came out to New Zealand on the “London” with her parents and five other children, in 1842, when she was ten years of age. Her mother died on the voyage and was buried at sea. On arriving in Wellington she and her brother accompanied her father to Happy Valley, where farming page 164 operations commenced. Her father built a two-roomed whare of stone and clay, with a lean-to, and the ruins of that house are still to be seen beyond Brooklyn.”

Mr. A. B. Fitchett, of Brooklyn, who is 84 years of age, very kindly forwarded to the writer for reproduction this letter from Mrs. Harrison:—

“The Pines, Martinborough,
Nov. 30th, 1927.

Mr. Fitchett; Dear Sir,

I received your letter dated 30th October. Mrs. Jane Harrison came out in the ‘London's’ second trip with the Stockbridges, Shorts, and your parents. My father bought the 100 acres off Mr. Reid, it was then called Ohiro. Captain Smith, the surveyor, called it Happy Valley because he liked the place. When Mr. Reid had the section he had the stone house built; then Mr. Reid went home to Scotland and died shortly after, then we went to live in the stone house—and the second (1855) shake brought all the house down. I was sleeping on a large feather bed when it came down on me, but I was not hurt very much, only one hand slightly hurt. Mrs. Tutchen was living in Happy Valley at the time. After our house was destroyed we went to live in a calf house belonging to Mr. Tutchen, and in another afterwards on a 40 acre section adjoining the 100 acres. I am now 95 years of age on 5th March next. If you should come up to Martinborough at any time I would be very pleased to see you.

Yours faithfully,

Jane Harrison

, per H.H.”
Fig. 50a.—Makaenuku Pa, District of the Hutt. Mr. Brees writes, in 1846: “This Pa has been built, and the extensive potato grounds around it cleared entirely within the memory of the present settlers. It was occupied by the ‘Porerua’ and some other troublesome natives, who acknowledged Rauparaha and Rangihaeata as their chiefs. The former is considered the ‘ariki’ or chief ruler. A Pa is enclosed with stockades and trenches; low bars are laid across the entrance to keep the pigs in or out as may be desired. The name ‘kainga’ is given to an unenclosed settlement.”

Fig. 50a.—Makaenuku Pa, District of the Hutt. Mr. Brees writes, in 1846: “This Pa has been built, and the extensive potato grounds around it cleared entirely within the memory of the present settlers. It was occupied by the ‘Porerua’ and some other troublesome natives, who acknowledged Rauparaha and Rangihaeata as their chiefs. The former is considered the ‘ariki’ or chief ruler. A Pa is enclosed with stockades and trenches; low bars are laid across the entrance to keep the pigs in or out as may be desired. The name ‘kainga’ is given to an unenclosed settlement.”

1 Mrs. Harold Freeman (neé Alice Wakefield, a daughter of Daniel Wakefield and a niece of Edward Gibbon), recollected seeing the latter on the night of the earthquake. She was among a crowd of frightened people who were to spend the night out of doors. In the middle of the group was her uncle, Edward Gibbon, seated in an arm chair. This was in Tinakori Road; they had left their house on The Terrace to come to live with them in Tinakori Road. (Garnett's “Edward Gibbon Wakefield.” p. 362.)

2 “Nelson Examiner,” vide “History of New Zealand,” by Alfred Saunders, p. 313.