It’s 85 years since the Hawke’s Bay quake and we still don’t know how many died

On 3 February 1931 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand – particularly hitting the town centres of Napier and Hastings.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.
After the 1931 quake Napier was rebuilt in deco style.

It remains the worst natural disaster ever to strike New Zealand in historic times – despite some doubt as to the precise casualty figure, it was still 50 percent more than the Christchurch quake of 22 February 2011.

Back in 2000 I wrote a book on the Hawke’s Bay disaster – published the following year for the 70th anniversary – which ran to two editions. The same disaster also featured in my science book on New Zealand’s seismic adventures, Living On Shaky Ground (Random House 2014).

You’d think after this length of time that everything there is to know about the 1931 quake has been discovered. Well – yes and no. One of the mysteries remains the exact number of casualties. In a historical sense it’s not too crucial – it doesn’t affect the clear scale of the disaster or its social impact. However, it’s irritating not to know – the issue is evidence of slip-ups by officials who shouldn’t have slipped up.

When the quake occurred, rescuers thought up to 300 might have died. That was too high. The official death toll, as listed in March 1931, was 260. Several deaths afterwards among the 400+ who had been seriously injured in the disaster increased it. But that was before a proper search had been taken to find some of those listed as missing (at least one ‘missing man’ turned up alive in Auckland). After a further analysis, the tally was revised down to 256 in the official report, although that figure is certainly wrong – not least because there are 258 names on the official list. I’ve looked into that and it seems to be a simple numeric error.

Napier rebuilt in deco styles. The Masonic Hotel (1932) – early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind.

But doubts have also been cast on the 258. For instance, there were persistent rumours that someone had been buried in their car under a slip near Napier’s Bluff Hill. That debris wasn’t cleared until the 1960s – at which point it was found no car existed. Some people – such as Arthur Ryan or George Dennett – disappeared and were never found, thought to have been crushed under debris and their bodies destroyed when Napier burned. They did make their way on to the official casualty list: but there were always niggling worries that people had gone missing who were never reported.

Although every effort was made to find bodies and to tally up those found against the missing – this was the generation, don’t forget, who’d lost sons in the First World War – there was enough confusion to warrant doubt.

Efforts since to ‘revise’ the figure, however, haven’t been wholly compelling to me – partly because some studies attempted to include later deaths, including victims of an air accident on 8 February during a post-quake reconnaissance flight.

I’m told that new information is about to be released following a fairly comprehensive ‘forensic’ look into the issue using available information.

I am inclined to think that despite certain sloppiness, officials of the day probably got a figure fairly close to the real one – there won’t be too many surprises. We’ll see.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016



3 thoughts on “It’s 85 years since the Hawke’s Bay quake and we still don’t know how many died

    1. It’s an extremely tricky question because record-keeping wasn’t as good as it could have been. I discover that the ‘revised’ figure produced by the genealogists is, indeed, close to the official one – it’s 253 – but already has come under criticism (they eliminated a 5-year old whose death certificate listed ‘intestinal obstruction’ without realising he’d got it from being thrown down by the quake, receiving an abdominal injury). The issue is as much to do with historical philosophy as methodology – and also the experience of dealing with just how people handled and wrote records of the day. There is unlikely to be an absolute final answer, alas, because the empirical data is so patchy. But I am seriously wondering about tackling it anyway – I wrote a book on the quake, years ago, which is way out of print and can probably stand being revised with all the latest detail, if I can find a publisher to take on the risk of reissuing it.

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