The Gisborne Cenotaph

One of Gisborne’s treasured monuments remains in a precarious state more than three years after it was damaged by a strong earthquake.

Monday 28th March 2011

Most towns and cities in New Zealand have a war memorial that commemorates those who fell in the Great War of 1914-1918. These take many forms including halls, ceremonial gates, arches and monuments.

Gisborne has its War Memorial Hall, of course, but the stunning white cenotaph on the banks of the Turanganui River is something special.

Local historian J.A. Mackay described the memorial eloquently in his book, “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, North Island, New Zealand.”

“The handsome war memorial alongside Kaiti Esplanade, Gisborne, was erected in honour of the district servicemen who fell during the Great War of 1914-18. A marble statue of a New Zealand soldier, with bowed head and arms reversed, surmounts a lofty shaft set upon a massive pedestal. On each corner of the square plinth is a pediment on which lies an outstretched lion with upraised head. Wide, shallow steps lead on each side to the plinth. On the four walls of the pedestal are bronze tablets bearing the names of the heroes ”“ 561 in all ”“ inscribed in high relief. The monument, which was designed by Mr. E. Armstrong (a young Gisborne architect) was unveiled by Colonel C.W. Melville, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., on 25 April, 1923.”

Those of us who grew up in Gisborne know the memorial as The Cenotaph, and will be familiar with it sparkling away in the sunshine on the riverbank. The stark white marble makes it stand out in its peaceful riverside setting.

Gisborne Cenotaph from across Turanganui River

[click for larger image] The Gisborne Cenotaph is popular with locals and tourists alike and has a commanding presence in this view taken from the opposite bank of the Turanganui River. [Wild Land photo, April 2009]

The monument has weathered the elements well and, at the age of 87, is in remarakably good condition. When compared with the Wellington Cenotaph, which has a stunning bronze warrior atop, the wisdom of building entirely in stone and avoiding the unsightly effects of verdigris is obvious. This has made the memorial a low maintenance asset for the council.

Wellington Cenotaph’s warrior

[click for larger image] The warrior atop Wellington’s cenotaph is striking and detailed, but the weathering of the bronze work has a high impact on the marble structure below. [Wild Land photo, March 2009]

Regrettably, earthquakes have little truck with the aspirations of mankind. What weather could not age, was tampered with in the 1966 earthquake. The statue of the soldier was rotated during the shaking, but thankfully did not topple from its lofty perch. Some careful work with a crane restored him to his rightful position, when the city had returned to normal.

But when the bigger magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck on December 20th 2007, three buildings collapsed and many others were seriously damaged. The cenotaph also suffered during the strong shaking, and Armstrong’s lofty shaft was seriously mis-aligned, sliding forward toward the river and rotating slightly inland away from the sea. The proud soldier held his station on this occasion, presumably having been cemented in place following his previous roller-coaster ride in 1966.

Gisborne Cenotaph from downslope

[click for larger image] This image taken from downslope on the banks of the Turanganui River shows the Gisborne Cenotaph in all its glory, but the astute observer will note that all is not well with the alignment of the central shaft. [Wild Land photo, April 2009]

Mis-aligned central shaft Gisborne Cenotaph

[click for larger image] The central shaft of Gisborne’s cenotaph has rotated and slid forward toward the river as a result of the 2007 earthquake. [Wild Land photo, April 2009]

Close-up central shaft, Gisborne Cenotaph

[click for larger image] The extent of the drift riverward can be seen in this photo. [Wild Land photo, April 2009]

Overhang at base of central shaft, Gisborne Cenotaph

[click for larger image] The amount of the overhang, which has transferred the centre of gravity of the monument toward the downward slope of the Turanganui riverbank. [Wild Land photo, April 2009]

More than three years after the magnitude 6.8 earthquake caused serious damage in Gisborne, repair work continues. Many buildings have been restored but the stunning white marble Gisborne cenotaph is still in a precarious state. The fact that the centre of gravity has moved toward the river on soft alluvial soils is becoming obvious in the extensive cracks which are now showing up in the ground-level structure of the memorial.

Ground-level cracking, Gisborne Cenotaph

[click for larger image] These cracks tearing through the ground-level pavers around the monument without following the weaker grouting suggest the foundations may be creaking under the off-centre load above. [Wild Land photo, February 2011]

The Gisborne District Council now faces a major repair project in preserving the Gisborne Cenotaph. The job is no longer one of simply restacking the structural elements that are out of alignment.

It probably needs to be disassembled and stored while the foundations are completely rebuilt to modern building codes that weren’t in place in the 1920s when it was built. During reassembly, the council needs to find a way to lock the various pieces of the structure together so that it can maintain its integrity during future earthquakes, rather than allowing friction to ensure that a stack of heavy masonry won’t slide back and forth and actually fall apart.

For all that, it is a marvel that a heavy marble monument which seems to have simply been stacked-up nearly ninety years ago has withstood seven serious earthquakes. Whatever techniques they used have survived the two Hawke’s Bay magnitude seven quakes of 1931, and local magnitude six events in 1931, 1932, 1966, 1993, and 2007. Those foundations on soft riverbank soils must be rather good, but now seem to be failing after the seismic ravages of decades.

Further information on the earthquake events mentioned in this article can be found via the links below.

The Hawke’s Bay Earthquake of 1931

The Gisborne quake of 1931 –
Part 1,  Part 2

The Gisborne earthquake of 1966 –
Part 1,  Part 2,  Part 3,  Part 4

The Gisborne Earthquake of 2007

[Back to Wild Land main page]

[With thanks to: J.A. Mackay, “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.” second edition, 1966]

One Response to “The Gisborne Cenotaph”

  1. Lizzie from Gizzie says:

    Doh! Have been wondering where the Cenotaph story was and have, at last, found the time to wander around and ‘Eureka” I found it. Hooray Hooray at last someone has raised the topic sensibly. May ‘the powers that be’ sit up and take note, before we have our hansome Memorial lying by the river. I am a ‘Gisbornite’ and have steadily watched the decline in the condition of the Memorial. Please Please Please GDC take note.

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