The Cape Turnagain Earthquake of 1904

The morning of Tuesday the 9th of August 1904 was like any other as Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, began to emerge from winter. With New Zealand Mean Time set eleven-and-a-half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, only the earliest risers would have had to turn up the gas lamps or light oil lamps as they opened curtains and shutters and rummaged about their houses getting ready to go to work.

The streets outside echoed to the clatter of horses’ hooves as waggons, buggies, cabs and trams rattled past. The trains began hauling their carriages of early Hutt Valley commuters into the city, belching smoke and steam as they pulled into Te Aro station.

Embers in coal ranges throughout the city were stirred up to catch the fresh wood to brew tea. Men reached for stiff collars and fixed them in place with a stud before attaching a tie. Children were packed off to school and men and women reached for hats, cloth caps and bonnets as they headed out into the cool morning. Women wearing the more stylish “mushroom” hats tweaked their long hat pins as Wellington’s famous breeze tickled the brim, hoping to dislodge the confections sewn over the top.

The penguin at Hurcomb’s fish shop gulped down the fish thrown to him by William Hurcomb as he arranged his display of ranked furry bunnies, checked the tank of oysters, and laid out the day’s selection of fish. No doubt the penguin got bored after a while, and waddled out onto the footpath in Cuba Street to watch the workers wandering downhill on their way to offices, shops and factories in town. Out the back, just as at other fishmonger and poulterer establishments in the city, the barrow boy hauled the handbarrow out of its park. Boxes were laid on top, heaped with fish, fresh poultry and still-furry rabbits (ten pence each). Taking a deep breath they headed off into the streets of Mount Victoria, Thorndon and Kelburn hoping to sell their wares to housewives as they plied their routes.

Far to the north, in Hawke’s Bay, town residents went through the same routine. They had forgotten the sleepless night a year and a week earlier when a swarm of earthquakes fired up and rattled windows and doors with 13 earthquakes for 7 hours from 3 a.m. and the magnitude 6 quake at 4:20 a.m. had caused them to bolt from their beds. A year later, most of the building damage had been either repaired or covered up by weather-proofing work.

Back in Wellington, clerks entered offices, drew ledgers from strong rooms and prepared for the day’s record keeping, closely watched by supervisors to ensure that their script was steady, flowing and neat. At the law courts, juniors powdered and picked at wigs to make them presentable for the barristers who were in chambers consulting with clients over the day’s cases.

At Kempthorne, Prosser and Company, things had settled back into a normal routine after their disastrous fire of March 25th which had delighted young and old with its eruptive fireworks display as chemicals of all descriptions exploded. At their Willis Street premises, warehousemen loaded and unloaded drays while clerks consulted ledgers and order books as to the day’s business. Across town on the drained swampland at Kent Terrace, Harrison and Company’s workers stirred the brine and adjusted the stocked shelves at the pickle factory.

In some streets, the laying of tar-coated blocks of Australian hardwood continued. The blocks were being laid to make a more stable surface for the roll-out of tramlines for the electric tram service. Once complete, the residents would welcome the banishing of muddy boots and dress hems, a regular problem when crossing boggy streets churned up by horse hooves and waggon wheels.

At twenty minutes past ten a slight earth tremor was felt, quickly followed by another that increased in strength to begin rattling fittings inside buildings. Abruptly, the tremor became a strong convulsion that rocked buildings to the sound of items falling off shelves, windows shattering, chimneys collapsing and people screaming or shouting instructions as plaster and chips of stone rained down from ceilings and fire buckets threw their contents across floors.

The Evening Post reported, “With almost complete unanimity those indoors broke for the staircases and exits, and sedate seniors and stout citizens who never ran before displayed wonderful dash in whirling themselves into the streets at a pace that would have done credit to a professional sprinter. In less than five seconds the footpaths were crowded with startled citizens; clerks with pens behind their ears, shopgirls hatless and dishevelled, portly citizens blowing and panting … and nearly everybody who was able to move at all. In the bars, the crockery shops, the chemists’, and every place in which there was glassware, there was a clinking chorus of of broken glass and bottles that danced on the shelves and slumped with a crash onto the floor. Chimneys were laid low all over the city, and many buildings were badly damaged.

“Mr Peter Thomson, of the Bank of New Zealand, who was in one of the public offices [at the Government Life Insurance Building] at the time the third phase of the quake occurred, thought the street was safer than the interior of the building. Just as he made his exit on to the footpath a block of Oamaru stone fell from the central tower in front of the building and landed close behind Mr Thomson. This incident prevented even the most venturesome following Mr Thomson’s example, but when after an interval it was found that no more debris came down, the clerks poured out of the building like rats from a sinking ship.” The building suffered extensive damage, and many staff refused to re-enter it.

At the Public Library half a ton of pediments crashed from the building onto the pavements below and the Post noted, “As it was, a lady who had just come out of the Education Board Building, was not more than ten yards past the spot when the mass of plaster and concrete struck the paving. She fled, and as one who saw the incident remarked, she is probably running yet.” The building’s roof and walls were badly cracked with fragments hanging dangerously and one complete wall out of plumb.

There were similar scenes throughout the city, and the Evening Post reported several incidents with some humour. “In the Law Courts – that is, the higher Court – the Judges were on the eve of getting to the business of the day. Suddenly the voice of the Deputy-Registrar echoed along the passage: ‘There’s a thumping great earthquake coming along!’ He had been at the eastern end of the building, and had noticed the queer quiver which preceded the great shock.

“He apparently arrived with it, for immediately the floor began an unpleasant undulating movement, the water in the fire buckets deposited in various corners began to leap into wavelets and lap over onto the floor, and the building began to oscillate violently. Then, with the roar of a fast ‘express,’ the major shock came, and most of those who had stood quietly through the initiatory movements, alarmed by hearing the violent creaking of the building and the fall of articles, incontinently fled for the doorways. The Chief Justice is understood to have made a remarkably quick exit from the south-east wing, while Mr Justice Cooper, hatless, finished fifth or sixth in a field composed of the Chief Gaoler, a detective or two, and a couple of pressmen, who made use of the northern doorway.

“The event of to-day recalls an incident which happened in the Supreme Court some years ago during the occurrence of a heavy ‘shake.’ The Court was in session at the time, and the late Mr Justice Richmond was on the Bench. When the building began to oscillate violently, and plaster began to fall, the Bar and the audience quitted in a hurry, but – ‘Fiat Justitia Ruat Coelum’ – the Judge calmly and collectively sat in his seat. ‘That was a remarkably severe shock,’ he observed, when the scattered constituents of his Court had again collected for business.”

A notable success was recorded at the Government Buildings which had been completed in 1877. In 1904, they were known to be the biggest wooden structure in the world and, despite an ornate exterior that gave the impression of carved stonework, had specifically been built in wood as a defence against the ravages of Wellington’s earthquakes. The Evening Post reported, “The noise and hubbub made by the earthquake in Government Buildings – which are of wood – is described as something appalling during the height of the shock. Most of the inmates remained quiescent during the early stages, but when worse things were threatened there was a stampede from most of the departments, and elderly Under-Secretaries were to be observed coming downstairs five steps at a time in competition with the most agile of the juniors. No damage is reported to have been done within the building beyond the upsetting of a few articles.” The elegant buildings were refurbished during the 1980s to serve as part of the Law Faculty of Victoria University of Wellington and are still turning heads one hundred and thirty years after their completion.

Elsewhere in New Zealand, the quake also caused havoc with chimneys down at Greytown, Carterton, Featherston, Eketahuna, Dannevirke, Pahiatua, Masterton, Woodville, Palmerston North, Napier and Wanganui, as well as other damage. In Napier, a cabman was slightly injured when about 300 tons of the Bluff Cliff fell.

Back in Wellington, where the maximum vibration lasted 70 seconds, and the imperceptible earth tremors lasted for 17½ minutes, people began the clean-up. At Kempthorne, Prosser and Company chemicals, disinfectants, ointments and other fluids were mixed together on the floors together with pills and packages, raising hideous smells. At Harrison and Company’s pickle factory, staff who had fled during the shake returned to find streams of vinegar flowing amongst relishes, tumbling pickles and heaps of shattered glass from broken shelf contents.

As the morning progressed, there was more to be faced. Rumours were circulating of worse to come. The following day’s Evening Post reported, “A number of irresponsible individuals added to the unrest of yesterday’s proceedings by solemnly assuring nervous ladies and the public generally that another earthquake was due at a quarter after noon, and a third one at half-past two o’clock would about complete the destruction of the city. They did not vouchsafe any explanation as to the manner by which they informed themselves of the timetable of the earthquake service; but shattered nerves did not insist on explanation, and were only too ready to believe that the last trump would sound at any moment, and that the Day of Judgement would arrive in great haste at 3 o’clock. Some of the gloomy prognosticators of further cataclysms quoted as their authority the seismograph at the Colonial Museum, with the result that many timid people were genuinely terrified as the times fixed for the disaster approached.”

Well-known Wellington writer Pat Lawlor, then at The Marist Brothers’ School in Boulcott Street, recalls the morning’s events “… with a rumble and a roar the building shook and swayed and creaked for some seconds. I recollect the sudden pallor of the presiding Brother and then above the crying of some of the boys he called on us to pray, which we did most fervently. … I also remember the wild rumours that another and more severe ‘quake was coming later in the day and that Father Devoy was coming up from St Mary’s to ‘give us all final absolution!’”

Opinions differ on these old quakes, and different sources estimate the off-shore Cape Turnagain earthquake at between magnitude 6.7 and 7.5 at a depth of about 30 km. One aspect of these Wairarapa earthquakes, not understood at the time, is that large earthquakes of the right depth can cause severe shaking on soft or reclaimed soils many kilometres away in Wellington. It wasn’t until the pair of magnitude 7 Masterton earthquakes of 1942 that the implications for Wellington were grasped as locals set about repairing 10,000 damaged chimneys at the same time as the country was heavily involved with World War II. The 1942 quakes led to the creation of the Earthquake and War Damage insurance fund.

[sources: private family archives; The National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past website, selected quotes from The Evening Post, Tuesday August 9, 1904 pp 5, 6 and Wednesday August 10, 1904 p 5; Lawlor, Pat, Old Wellington Days, 1959, Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, Wellington; N.Z. Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Bulletin No 43, Report of the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake, Government Printer, 1933. ]

One Response to “The Cape Turnagain Earthquake of 1904”

  1. Chris says:

    sobering reading – but well written.

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