Wellington City Libraries

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Tuku Ihotanga > Ngā rū Heritage > Earthquakes

Earthquake damage in Masterton following the 24th June 1942 earthquake. Footnote [1.]


Earthquake damage in upper Manners Street following the 1942 earthquake. Footnote [2.]


On Tuesday 23rd of January 1855, as the sky slowly darkened to twilight at the end of a summer's day, Wellington was preparing to go to bed.

In a small 4-roomed house in Te Aro, the Darcy family sat playing dominoes by oil lamp. At 9.15 pm, without warning, the house began to move like 'waves on a sea'.

The family were thrown to the floor and the chimney crashed through the roof, covering everything with bricks and dust. Pictures leaped from walls, tables overturned and their upright piano came down with a crash.

In the Hutt Valley, Arthur Ludlam reported that the first shock lifted his house clean off the ground and shook it from side to side before it came crashing down. On Lambton Quay, Baron von Alzdolf was killed when his house of brick, one of the very few brick structures in Wellington, collapsed in on him. Wellington had just been struck by the most devastating earthquake since human occupation began.

Though the 1855 earthquake was the most dramatic earthquake ever recorded in Wellington, many larger (and smaller) quakes have had a role in shaping our geography, our building practices, the lay-out of our city, and our social history. They have even led to the creation of urban myths - such as how until 1855, ships used to sail up what is now Kent and Cambridge Terrace, to dock at what is today the Basin Reserve. (a canal to the Basin Reserve was once planned but was never built!)

Wellington is prone to earthquakes because it rests on the point where two tectonic plates meet. Kilometres beneath Wellington the light, thick Australian plate rides over the heavier, but thinner Pacific plate. These plate movements have resulted in three major fault-lines running either through or very close to Wellington City - the Ohariu Fault, the Wairarapa Fault, and the Wellington Fault. It is when one of these faults shifts suddenly that earthquakes occur. The number of earthquakes which occur in Wellington has led to our city becoming one of the world's leading centres for the study and research of earthquake activity and for the development of seismic strengthening techniques in buildings.

At the library

Below are a number of resources which can be found in the Central Library to help you research and study the history and the effect of earthquakes in Wellington in greater detail. Some of the books may also be available in branch libraries. The title links take you to the catalogue to check their location and availability.


Note that some of these are available as reference items only. You will find them within the New Zealand Reference Collection on the 2nd floor of the Central Library. Ask at the reference desk if you need help locating any of this material.

  • Earthquakes / by G.A. Eiby.
    551.22 EIB
    First published in 1957, G.A. Eiby's classic book has undergone several expansions and revisions. Though it is not Wellington specific, it remains one of the best introductions to earthquakes in New Zealand ever written. It covers what happens inside the earth to cause earthquakes, why and where they occur in New Zealand, the different types of seismographs available and how they work, and how buildings are affected by earthquakes.
  • A night of terror : Wairarapa's 1942 earthquake / Jan McLaren
    Ref. 551.22 MACL
    One of the largest earthquakes to effect the region in living memory, this earthquake also had a big impact in Wellington. Many chimneys collapsed and Manners Street was closed to pedestrians for a few days due to the number of unsafe buildings.
  • Caught in the Crunch : Earthquakes and Volcanoes in New Zealand / by Rebecca Ansell and John Taber.
    551.2 ANS
    Another good general introduction to earthquakes in New Zealand with many references specific to Wellington.
  • Magnitude Eight Plus : New Zealand's Biggest Earthquake / by Rodney Grapes.
    551.22 GRA
    A recently published work which gives one of the most detailed accounts ever written of the massive quake which struck Wellington in 1855. The author has compiled personal accounts from a number of different sources as well as illustrations which help convey the extent to which Wellington's landscape was transformed. The book includes newspaper reports from the time as well as the full text of a report produced by a commission called to investigate the level of damage caused.
  • Wellington's Restless Coast : Changes in Land and Sea at Turakirae Head / by G.R. Stevens.
    559.3142 STE
    A detailed field guide to Turakirae Head on the south Wairarapa Coast. It includes a geological time line of the area and specifically looks at how earthquakes caused by shifts in the Wairarapa Fault have radically shaped the landscape of the area.
  • More Earthquakes Explained / by J.J Aitken and M.A. Lowry
    551.22 AIT
    This is an introductory guide to earthquakes in New Zealand with a special section dedicated to why Wellington is particulary prone to quakes. The guide is published by one of New Zealand's most important research centres dedicated to studying earthquakes - The Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences.
  • Earthquakes and Uplift History of the Miramar Peninsular, Wellington / by Brad Pillans and Phil Huber
    Ref. 551.22 PIL
    This unpublished academic research report written for the New Zealand Earthquake Commission looks at an area which has long fascinated many people in Wellington - how and when did the land bridge which is now Kilbirnie, rise out of the sea to turn what was once an island into the Miramar Peninsular?


The library has been collecting newspaper clippings for a number of years and storing them in a vertical file. Please ask the Reference Desk staff on the 2nd floor of the Library if you would like to see the file.

In addition to this, the library has microfilmed copies of the major Wellington daily newspapers back to 1865. Here are some dates of larger earthquakes which were felt in Wellington. Some of these resulted in considerable damage to buildings and property in the Wellington region. You can look up microfilmed copies of the newspapers from around these dates to see how these quakes were reported:

  • 9th August 1904.
  • 6th August 1921,
  • 19th June 1921.
  • 5th March 1934,
  • 24th June 1942,
  • 1st August 1942,
  • 5th January 1975,
  • 18th January 1977.


  • The Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences.
    The Institute has made a wealth of information available through the internet. You can check latest earthquake data, monitor earthquakes around the world, and even find instructions to make your own seismograph. Check out the GNS Quake Trackers page for great classroom resources.
  • GeoNet.
    GeoNet is a collaborative project involving the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, the Earthquake Commission, and the Foundation for Research, Science & Technology. The project provides real-time monitoring and data collection for rapid response and research into earthquake, volcano, landslide and tsunami hazards. At GeoNet you can even check the latest data from the seismograph based in South Karori (one of the main sites for measuring earthquakes in the Wellington area), on their South Karori Seismometer Recordings page. The online screen image is an electronic representation of a traditional drum-type seismograph.
  • Wellington Emergency Management Office (WEMO)
    Formerly known as the Wellington Office of Civil Defence, WEMO is a City Council funded institution which helps Wellington to plan and prepare for disasters - including earthquakes! It will be WEMO's job to help run the city and co-ordinate emergency services in the event of a big quake hitting Wellington. The site has plenty of tips to help you prepare for an earthquake and contact details for various volunteers groups which may be called upon should the "big one" ever strike!
  • The Earthquake Commission.
    The Earthquake Commission (EQC) provides insurance to residential property owners against damage caused by earthquakes and other natural disasters. The EQC also facilitates research and education about matters relevant to natural disaster damage, methods of reducing or preventing natural disaster damage and the insurance provided under the Earthquake Commission Act.


  1. Time-frames reference 1/2-123912. Used with kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Not to be reproduced without permission. back
  2. Time-frames reference 1/2-123903. Used with kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Not to be reproduced without permission. back

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