When the Ground Shook – 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake

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Almost all of Napier’s roads, houses and buildings were damaged or destroyed in the quake. Image: Hawke’s Bay NZ / Archive

2021 (3 February 2021, to be exact) marks 90 years since the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake, which occurred on the 3rd of February 1931. This earthquake devastated the cities of Napier and Hastings and goes down in Aotearoa’s history as our worst natural disaster to-date. The quake was measured at 7.8 on the Richter Scale with 256 deaths – 161 in Napier, 93 in Hastings, and 2 in Wairoa. Many thousands more required medical treatment.

Lascelles kids (1929). Annie is wearing the bow in her hair. Image: Courtesy Sue Jane

The following is an account of that terrifying day written by Annie Lascelles who was 8 years old at the time. Annie went on to have a long and interesting life, playing the piano until her death in 2019, aged 96… but I think you’ll agree that she had a lucky escape! Annie never lost her fear of earthquakes and would refer to Aotearoa as “The Shaky Isles”:

On the 3rd Feb. 1931 I set off for school, it being the first day of the 1st term at St. Joseph’s School (now Reigner School),
Greenmeadows (just 4 miles from Napier).  It was my first day in Standard 2 (year 4) – I remember it was a mild, slightly cloudy morning.  We had a new teacher, also as being a Tuesday I had taken my music.  The previous year it had always been my piano lesson at play time (10.40am).  With this in mind I was about to go over to the nun’s convent adjacent to the school.  This was a new two-storied brick building, erected about 12 months before.  

The new Convent collapses in the quake. Sadly, Annie’s music teacher was killed. Image: Courtesy Doreen Keogh

However, my friend Molly asked me to go over to the shop as she had to get some slate pencils (we used slates in those days, sort of like mini-chalkboards) so  I went, thinking I would go over and see my music teacher when I returned. Mr Russell’s shop was through the horse-paddock at the back (a few of the children used to ride horses to school).  Molly  spent half her money on the slate pencils, but the other half on an ice cream each!  We were heading back across the shingle road to school when the earthquake struck (10.47am).  We were both thrown to the road.  I remember looking along the road.  It reminded me of a rough sea with breakers coming in but instead of spray on the ridge of each wave it was dust and shingle.  Of course my ice cream was squashed into my new uniform, about which I was more concerned (what would Mum say!).  Mr Russell rescued us and we spent the next half hour clutching onto him, each had a leg I think – every time the quakes jerked and shook we pulled at his trousers!  After some time my Mum appeared.  Dad had rushed home from his work, hopped in the car and drove Mum down to see we were OK.  They found my four brothers but not me. Mum gave one look at the Sisters’ Convent which had collapsed like a pack of cards, and thought the worst (I can remember watching the convent crumble and the roof just sliding down over the top of the bricks, looking for all the world like a big tent top).  Also, there was so much noise from the quake, which seemed to be a continuous shake after the first 2 big shocks.  Fortunately, someone remembered seeing Molly and I going through the horse-paddock to the shop so no doubt Mum was pretty relieved to see me clutching Mr Russell’s trousers…but I was still concerned about the mess I had made of my uniform!

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Napier burns post earthquake. It was thought that the fires started in two chemist shops in central Napier. Image: Stuff.co.nz

We were all  put in the dodge (a big black car, with side curtains) and drove into Napier to get my older sister who was having her first day at Sacred Heart College on Bluff Hill. I can remember Dad being concerned as the road kept opening up with cracks and closing again, he was afraid a wheel could become entrapped.

Only for the fact that trucks, Army I think, were transporting patients from the Napier Hospital out to the Greenmeadows Racecourse (now Anderson Park) we were able to follow the trucks on return, as the two bridges over a couple of river outlets had risen by quite a few feet and the soldiers were stacking timber up to fill the gaps to allow the trucks through and they beckoned us on.  We parked to the south of Clive Square as it was impossible to go further.  The town was ablaze and razed practically to the ground with firemen and hoses and rescuers doing what they could.  Mum and another brother had to follow the path up the side of the hill to approach the Convent that way.  They eventually came back with my sister and another girl who lived out our way (a sister of Molly, by the way).

At home the exterior looked OK but the chimney had moved about a lot.  Inside was chaos, cupboards emptied on the floor, jams, pickles etc. Just a mess; furniture pitched here and there, pictures fallen and smashed. It was impossible to use the coal range in the house for cooking, as with the chimney so damaged, it would be dangerous.  Dad made a temporary stove out in one of the out-buildings, erecting a pipe chimney through the corrugated iron roof, enabling Mum to cook food and boil the kettle.  No mean task I imagine, as there were six of us in the family.  Dad and the boys brought out mattresses and we slept in the garage for nearly six weeks while the house was made safe to live in again. We also brought our grandparents from Taradale out to live with us too.  They slept in a tent on the back lawn for a few weeks.  Their chimney had collapsed and went through the dining room table, which grandfather was following around the dining room during the worst of the initial shocks – he was underneath, but escaped injury.  Nana was confined to bed at the time.

We had an artesian well, fortunately, which never ceased running, so water was not a problem.


Want to know more?

Many Answers – Hawke’s Bay Earthquake 1931

Te Ara Dictionary of New Zealand – Historic Earthquakes

Napier City Council – The 1931 Earthquake

Christchurch City Libraries – Hawke’s Bay Earthquake


Want something to read?

Earthquake! : the diary of Katie Bourke, Napier, 1930-31 / McVeagh, Janine
On the day of her father’s funeral, 11 year-old Katie Bourke begins a diary. It is 1930 and New Zealand is in the grip of the Great Depression. Money is scarce and even basic necessities are hard to find. Katie describes how she longs to escape the boredom of school and do something to help her struggling family. Then a disaster happens which turns every body’s world upside down. (Catalogue)  Continue reading

Kids’ Club Review by Josie: Lyla

LylaLyla, Fleur Beale

I enjoyed this book as I grew up near Christchurch and felt the earthquakes in Timaru when I was 4. I am a big fan of Fleur Beale’s I am not Esther series which is why I chose to read this, but I didnt like it quite as much.

4 stars

Reviewed by Josie from Cummings Park and Seatoun School , 12 years old

Kids’ Club Review by Isidora: Lyla

LylaLyla, Fleur Beale

this book is really good and it is interesting it is about the Christchurch earthquake I recommend it for nine year olds and up

3 stars

Reviewed by Isidora from Miramar and Seatoun School , 10 years old

Kids’ Club Review by Aarushi: Lyla

LylaLyla, Fleur Beale

I enjoyed reading it,it was happy and a bit sad and learning so much about a girls experience on the 2011 Christchurch earth quake and she open up her home to other people with was so nice because she is doing a act of kindness and that was my favourite part

5 stars

Reviewed by Aarushi from Tawa and Greenacres School , 10 years old

Kids’ Club Review by Isabella: Lyla

LylaLyla, Fleur Beale

This book is very moving. Lyla is torn just like the earth but she still preserves through so much

5 stars

Reviewed by Isabella from Miramar and Seatoun School , 10 years old

Kids’ Club Review by Petra: Lyla

LylaLyla, Fleur Beale

A very moving and dramatic novel. It is the kind of book that pulls you along and makes it hard to stop. My fave character was Matt because it is fun to read about how he turns from neighborhood bad boy to home angel .All round it was a good book!!

5 stars

Reviewed by Petra from Khandallah and Other , 12 years old

Read up on Earthquake facts

It’s been a pretty scary couple of days here in Wellington (and all over New Zealand) after the big 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit on Monday morning! Maybe it even woke you up? I thought this would be a good time to refresh our knowledge on earthquakes and what we need to do in an emergency.

 

So, what IS an earthquake?

 

The surface of the earth is covered in large rocks (or plates), which we call the earth’s crust. Earthquakes happen when these rocks move, causing a great release of energy that travels through the earth.

 

The edges where different plates in the earth’s crust meet are called fault lines, and these are often where earthquakes are most likely to centre, although people will feel them from a long way away.

 

After a major earthquake, it is also normal to feel lots of smaller aftershocks for days or even weeks afterwards. An instrument called a seismograph records and measures the size of an earthquake. Geonet keeps a record of all the earthquakes that have occurred across the country, so check out their website to see just how many aftershocks we’ve had in the past couple of days!

 

Because we never know when an earthquake might happen, it is really important that we are prepared and know what to do when an earthquake hits.

 

The first thing you need to remember if you feel an earthquake is to drop. If you are close to a sturdy table or desk, you can crouch underneath, otherwise cover your head with your arms to protect yourself from things that could fall on you. Lastly, hold your position until you feel the shaking stop, or until an adult tells you it is safe.

 

Drop, cover, hold – pretty easy right? You might like to have a quick practice now.

 

If you are interested to learn more about earthquakes, or how and why they happen, we’ve got lots of great books available through the catalogue. You might also like to read this information from Civil Defence about how to be prepared for an emergency, or check out the science kids website for more earthquake facts.

Stay safe out there!

 

Kids’ Club Review by Rohan: Graphic Natural Disasters: Earthquakes

Graphic Natural Disasters: Earthquakes, by Rob Shone

Graphic Natural Disasters: Earthquakes is an awesome book, because it is very informative. I like the way it hooks the reader in, like when it shows Kobe, Japan (see page 26-27) as a beautiful modernised city with not a single sign of an earthquake (not to mention that Japan is on an earthquake zone)! I also like those magnificent drawings, for example on page 27, because of that beauty which I always find in pictures of cities/villages from above, since all the buildings look like tiny insects on the ground! I also greatly enjoy this book because it is about one of my favorite subjects (this is the reason I wrote this review): Earthquakes! I do not mean that earthquakes are good, because even though they may be interesting, they are not good, and usually are not helpful, since they can just occur and then, Boom! something cool, like a birthday is gone in even a few seconds!

Okay. so what is this book about? Earthquakes. now… Hmm. What words could I use to describe the book? Interesting, informative… Uhhh.. Wait a second. I could say the book features three earthquakes, that were the San Francisco, USA Earthquake (occurred in 1906), The Great Hanshin Earthquake/ Kobe, Japan Earthquake (occurred in 1995) and the South Asia Earthquake/Kashmir, Pakistan Earthquake ( occurred in 2005). I like this book very much because it features many interesting stories based on real earthquakes.

YOU HAVE GOT TO READ THIS BOOK!!!

(Just relating to the South Asia Earthquake/Kashmir, Pakistan Earthquake, did you know that Kashmir is in between two countries, India and Pakistan? They are at war in that beautiful war zone because they are fighting over who gets the portion of Kashmir. When it says Kashmir, Pakistan, it is not owned by Pakistan. It is only the divided half of Kashmir given to Pakistan. I don’t know whom you are supporting, but I am supporting India!).

5 stars

Reviewed by Rohan from Johnsonville, 8 years old

Kids’ Club Review by Rohan: Volcanoes

VolcanoesVolcanoes, by Rob Shone

Graphic Natural Disasters: ‘Volcanoes’ is an interesting book which has beautiful pictures and very realistic drawing. This book is mostly comic-style but also has some pages of background information about volcanoes. The mini-comics are about the eruptions of three famous volcanoes: Krakatoa (erupted in 1883), Mount St. Helens (erupted in 1980), and Vesuvius (erupted in A.D. 79). The background information also includes how a volcano forms and erupts, and has a few images of volcanoes such as Popocatépetl (whose nearby residents prefer to live within the view of the volcano rather than stay far from it!).

The book is clearly non-fiction because it is about many real eruptions that have happened in the past. The volcanoes described are still present today!

So, Rob Shone and Terry Riley have brought to you this colourful, informative book about one of the many natural disasters which rage around our planet. It has an amazing, stunning picture right on the front cover and if you open it… there, in front of your eyes is a world of pictures that bring the volcanoes to life!

Read this book as soon as possible and if you can, try reading the whole series! The other books in the series are Avalanches & Landslides, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Tornadoes & Superstorms and Tsunamis & Floods.

5 stars

Reviewed by Rohan from Johnsonville, 8 years old