The Gisborne Earthquake of 1966. Part 1: The Experience

Saturday the 5th of March 1966 started like any other late summer Saturday morning. Dairies were open for their weekend trade, but in Gisborne the town shops and offices remained closed as they always did in the days before the liberalisation of weekend trading.

At people’s homes, the weekend’s housework had begun. With the weather being fine, agitator washing machines were grunting away, churning through the week’s clothes and linen. Some were moving through their houses with buzzing vacuum cleaners like our old Goblin Ace – a black tubular thing on plastic wheels which had a mind of its own and more wheeze than suck.

Crashes and bangs came from the town’s kitchens as ovens were wiped out, the big old fridges of the time were de-iced, and benchtops were wiped down.

Out in the sunshine, there was the “swiiiish” of push mowers as they were pushed in short sweeps across lawns, and the steady buzz of motormowers being paraded about. There was the clank of gardening tools, thump of handymen’s hammers, and the sound of cars passing by.

The was the odd “Oooh-oooh” of neighbour announcing their visit to a neighbour, and the patter of quiet conversation punctuated by shouted instructions and admonishments to children playing outside.

As the morning wore on, preparations were made for lunch, and sash windows were thrown up with a clank of window weights to welcome in the gentle breeze.

At 1 minute to noon, I was standing on a stool adjusting some ornaments on a shelf in my room. Abruptly, the ornaments were thrown over and I was catapulted to the floor. Suddenly, the roofing iron began a terrific rumbling as if someone was shaking it like a huge mat and the window weights began battering against the inside of the walls as they emitted bell-like clangs.

The house had been built toward the end of the 19th century by local solicitor and later judge of the Native Land Court, Robert Noble Jones. It had four main bedrooms, a servant’s bedroom, a formal dining room and linen pantry, a sitting room, and a vast kitchen. Over time, verandahs had been built in to add a dressing room and another bedroom, but the old coach-house and stables still remained along with an additional outside water closet at the back.

Most of the rest of the family were in the kitchen at the far end of the house when the earthquake hit with a great thump. Then the swaying began, to the sound of rumbles from under the house and from the roof above. My mother was standing at the stove at the time, and my brother recalls her holding onto the handle of the oven door to try and steady herself. He remembers her swaying back and forth on her heels as the oven door opened and closed with the swaying of the house.

Suddenly the fridge burst open and food began falling out as the door waved to and fro. It seems that some of the kitchen cupboards lost their contents, but the sight of the fridge ejecting its contents is one that stands out.

The next few minutes were confused as the swaying ceased and people regained their senses. The various members of the family were rounded up and assessed. There were no injuries to any of us, except our frayed nerves.

In my case, I can remember my mother calling me anxiously from the far end of the house. My first thought was that we were in the midst of a hurricane because of the great rumbling of the roofing iron. As I sped off down the hall, I wondered why the weather forecasters hadn’t warned us!

It was a huge house with 14-foot high ceilings and grand arches in the main hall where we could play cricket on wet winter days. I tore down the main hall and round the corner to the hall which contained the kitchen and bathrooms. I was grabbed and held under the kitchen door as the house slowly ceased shaking and silence descended.

In the melee, the formal dining room had settled as its massive totara piles sank into the softened ground – no more playing marbles in there on a wet day; for the next few years any marble pitched would roll over toward the wall of the adjoining kitchen. The house had three fireplaces, and all had sustained damage. The chimney above the formal dining room (known as the rumpus room in our day) had snapped and collapsed onto the roof. In the master bedroom, the fireplace appeared to have moved out from the wall by about half an inch, but in reality the wall had moved – not that we noticed it at the time. Both the master bedroom and sitting room chimneys had cracked at the top, and bricks had come loose.

All sorts of things had tumbled from shelves and cupboards, and water could be heard slopping back and forth in the huge water tanks far above our heads. Outside, long cracks had opened in the front lawn, but none of us thought of measuring them. Our rainwater tank outside the wash-house had survived, but its large wooden stand had settled and twisted. Presumably the large pipes feeding the wash-house tubs had held it largely in place.

Elsewhere in the suburb of Whataupoko, water mains had burst, windows had cracked, power lines had been torn from the front of houses, chimneys had cracked or collapsed, toilet pans had shattered, houses had slipped off foundations and numerous water tanks had slid on their supports and tank stands had partially collapsed.

Some people had the heart-stopping experience of their chimney crashing through their roof and into the house. Despite this, there were no serious injuries and only one heart attack was reported.

In the town centre, the few people at work had some hair-raising experiences. Filing cabinets, furniture and shelving were thrown over and a 10 ton printing press had moved backwards and forwards across the floor, several feet in each direction.

Practically every shop window on the south-east side of Peel Street had broken, cracked or slid in its frame. Gypsum tiles had fallen from business premises ceilings, and walls had cracked. Gaps had opened between floors and masonry walls and some buildings had suffered damage as neighbouring structures had hammered against them. Fortunately, no serious damage to modern buildings had occurred during the earthquake. However, some of the older buildings had suffered and those that had been poorly repaired during the bigger earthquakes of the 1930s showed the most damage.

The elegant opera house on the corner of Peel Street and Childers Road had large cracks in its outer walls. One wall of the Chief Post Office had moved outward, and both buildings were quickly roped-off to keep people out of harm’s way if they collapsed. Some of the older classrooms at Gisborne Boys’ High and Mangapapa schools sustained major damage, whereas the old Central School which had been strengthened by the attachment of external “corsetting” following the damage it sustained during the Wairoa quake of 1932 had come through largely unscathed.

The sewer line crossing the Peel Street bridge had broken, but the bridge itself survived the quake. The statue of a soldier atop the town’s war memorial had rotated but not toppled.

Back home, a quick appraisal of the damage was conducted, and a headcount was completed. There was just enough time to commence the cleanup of broken items before the first of the many aftershocks commenced. There had been 25 minutes of relative peace, and then the quivering began. For the next 11 hours there were earthquakes every few minutes as 225 aftershocks rattled the town.

Members of the family climbed up and across the steeply gabled rooves to demolish the tops of the three damaged chimneys. With the rumpus room chimney lying across the roof, my mother was worried that it would fall through into the house, so it had to be broken up and the bricks thrown over onto the lawn. While they were working up there, my sister and brother reported that the house was shivering and rattling underneath them as the many aftershocks occurred. Later in the afternoon, others were sent out to check on my grandmother and our neighbours.

My father had been away on surf rescue business and, on being alerted to news of a damaging earthquake in Gisborne late in the afternoon, had commenced the long trip back by road from New Plymouth. He had been unable to get through by phone, so it was an anxious night-time trip.

Later that night most of us crammed into our parents’ bedroom, not realising that the fireplace beside the bed now stood out from the wall. It was a restless night punctuated by the clanking of window weights; with almost constant quivers and shudders as the house creaked and rattled under the onslaught of the aftershocks. We were all woken by the noisy quake just after 1 a.m. but the bigger one just before 4 a.m. had us all on edge.

We were relieved when my father got home just before dawn, and the lightening sky meant we could drop any pretense of trying to sleep.

2 Responses to “The Gisborne Earthquake of 1966. Part 1: The Experience”

  1. Flying deldas says:

    Having finally found the time to catch up on your blog and have read the first two paragraphs of Pt 1 and can’t wait to read it all. Have printed out 1, 2, 3 so that two other interested observers can peruse AFTER I have done so. Hmmmm……

  2. Sheridan Gundry says:

    I am interested to know the author of this series. I am researching a book on Gisborne’s history over the past 55 years. Some of the reminiscences here could be very useful but I would need a source. You can email me at the above address

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