The Northland Earthquakes of 1963

The complacency of Northland residents was shaken by two earthquakes in six weeks at the end of 1963. Until the severe quake of December 23rd it was widely believed that Northland was one area of New Zealand that was free of local earth tremors.

Christmas shopping was occupying the minds of Northland residents during the week before Christmas in 1963. People who planned ahead were buying-in provisions to keep households going during the lengthy holiday closures, and Whangarei reported that footpaths were thronged with people in a last minute scramble to buy presents.

The local newspaper reported, “Milk bars and tearooms had cooling fans working at top speed as the crowds sought refreshment, and Christmas cheer could be heard loud and clear in the streets outside hotel bars.”

The previous month, the normally seismically quiet region had been given a nasty surprise when an earthquake struck out of the blue on November 17th. Whilst unusual, the quake was not overly large and it was remarked that until that time no earthquake had been recorded in the area and experts had been prepared to say that Northland peninsula was earthquake-free. This was about to change, and soon Dr R.D. Adams of the Seismological Observatory would observe, “It is now quite clear that no part of New Zealand is really free from earthquakes.”

The population returned to normal routines and, on the evening of Sunday December 22nd 1963 children went off to bed thinking “only three sleeps to go…” and were tucked in by parents keen to get on and secretly wrap presents so that they could be safely stowed out of reach of inquisitive minds. Would Santa fit down the chimney? a seasonal worry for some youngsters was about to become an academic question for some.

In the prosperous 1960s, Christmas dinner was quite an elaborate affair for many families. Traditional fare would include a roast, often lamb but increasingly chicken as the decade progressed, with all the trimmings. Christmas pudding was still commonly eaten, and often included prizes of three-penny pieces (with the main prize of a sixpence) that had been boiled in a pot on the stove to make them clean before they were added to the mixture before baking.

Ham on the bone was becoming more popular too, but it involved several days’ work. First it had to be boiled in the copper which some households still used to boil sheets, and then dressed with cloves and cherries before being baked; filling the house with aromas redolent of Christmas. The relative sophistication of New Zealand society made the week before Christmas a very busy time as, unlike today, most of the food required considerable finishing work at home before it was ready to eat.

Northland slumbered in the early summer warmth and at 1:40 a.m. on Monday 23rd a severe earthquake shock was felt in four northern counties – Whangaroa, Mangonui, Hokianga and Bay of Islands. People awoke to the unusual experience of houses shuddering and squeaking, while books, ornaments, crockery and preserves were hurled from shelves in a cacophony of crashes.

In most areas, the shaking lasted only 5 to 10 seconds and damage was limited to household contents, especially the contents of pantries where stocks of home-made preserves were stored in large glass jars and bottles. Crockery and glassware were also ejected from shelves and cupboards and broken and, in some instances, books and ornaments were thrown to the floor.

Totara North bore the brunt of the damage, and locals commented that the earthquake was preceded by rumbling noises. Here the quake was felt as three distinct waves, and a smaller tremor was felt some 15 minutes after the main quake. Rumblings were reported to continue for up to two hours. Most of the chimney damage was reported from Totara North where some fell during the main quake and others fell shortly after. Of those that survived the quake standing, several had to be demolished during daylight hours as a safety precaution.

Another notable feature of the quake was the number of water tanks that were partially or completely emptied by the movement of the ground. Commercial premises at Kaeo suffered damage from spilt paint and canned fruit, and the Post Office chimney was cracked. Further south, the quake dropped shutters on the manual board at Paihia telephone exchange, and was felt as far south as Ngunguru. The lighthouse staff at Cape Reinga did not feel the earthquake.

The GeoNet database shows two shallow earthquakes 7 seconds apart located near Kaitaia at 1:36 a.m. on the 23rd of December 1963. These quake records derive from investigation by eminent astronomer and seismologist George Eiby which were published in 1964. The magnitude 4.8 earthquakes were thought to be only about 12 km deep.

Being located so close together in time, the quakes had a combined magnitude of 5.2 and Eiby notes in his book “Earthquakes” that they damaged chimneys, house foundations, water tanks and stacked goods in the area east of Kaitaia.

The earthquake of 3:17 a.m. on the 17th of November 1963 was located near Mangonui also at a depth of 12 km. This lighter quake was magnitude 3.5

There have been 17 onshore and close off-shore earthquakes north of a line from Dargaville to Whangarei since the events of December 1963. They include two quakes of under magnitude 4.5 recorded in April and September of 1964, and a magnitude 4.3 quake in 1995. A swarm of 6 small earthquakes occurred near Takou Bay near Kerikeri between the 17th and 20th of September of 2006.

[Compiled from data provided by Hazardwatch and the Geonet project and its sponsors EQC, GNS Science and FRST. Eiby, G.A. “Earthquakes,” Heinemann Reed, 1989, p 150. Alexander Turnbull Library, newspaper archive, The Northern Advocate, Monday 23rd December 1963, p1.]

One Response to “The Northland Earthquakes of 1963”

  1. jan irving says:

    I’ve seen the damage to the landscape above the Utakura valley/Horeke road…. the land has moved up to 2m horizontally and around 7m vertically in places… (Visually scaled – not measured).. The basalt rocks if pushed back together would perfectly match… and when you drop a stone down the opening – it tinkles away for ages ..

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