Remembering the Quake of ’31

Eighty nine years ago, on 3 February, my home district of Hawke’s Bay was laid waste by a massive earthquake that destroyed the two main centres, damaged a wide swath of central New Zealand, and killed at least 256. Hundreds more were seriously injured, and thousands hurt in ways that many did not bother to officially report.

It remains New Zealand’s most severe natural disaster, approached for lethality only by the February 2011 quake that struck Christchurch. The social impact echoed for a generation or more. Even when I was growing up in Napier, much later, town history was popularly divided between ‘before’ and ‘after’ the quake.

Most Hawke’s Bay families had their ‘quake stories’ – and still do. My own family had a fair few. My grandfather – a former professional British soldier from the pre-First World War British army – had been working on Napier’s hill when the quake struck. He immediately began making his way home; his wife and son (my father) were in a house perhaps 1.5 km from the base of the hill, on the other side of the town centre.

But he had not got very far before a hysterical woman approached him; she had run from her hill-side house when the quake struck, leaving her baby behind. She was too frightened to get her child, fearing the house might collapse down the hill. My grandfather immediately went into the teetering building, heedless of his own safety, and rescued the baby. He made sure mother and child were all right, then moved on – but had not gone much further before he found others who needed help. Finally he reached the town centre, which was devastated – and there plunged into urgent rescue and life-saving work. He did not get home until evening.

This picture of post-quake Napier isn’t well known; it is from my collection and was published for the first time in the 2006 edition of my book Quake – Hawke’s Bay 1931. It was taken a day or so after the quake. My grandfather, F. C. Wright, stands in front of the ruins of the Women’s Rest building in Clive Square. The devastated town centre is beyond.

My grandfather’s experiences were typical; and I am in no doubt that his military background stood him in good stead. Britain’s pre-war army was trained to an astonishing level in a wide range of survival skills, similar to special forces today; and my grandfather knew how to handle himself in any emergency. The same was true to some extent for many of the adult men in town. About half had served on Gallipoli or the Western Front in the First World War. The experience gave them coping mechanisms and resilience when confronted by a sudden disaster in their own homes.

Earthquake stories continued to permate life for a generation or more afterwards, often because the effects of the quake were still visible in surviving buildings, or because some event had occurred at the location. Again, my own family had a classic. The house I was brought up in, which my parents bought in the 1960s, had a crack in one wall caused by the 1931 quake. And there was a grimmer tale: a badly injured survivor had apparently been brought into the house after the quake, and had died there. I never knew which of the 256 victims.

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I’ve written extensively on that quake; my book Quake – Hawke’s Bay 1931 (Reed, 2001) was published in 2001 and reprinted with new photos in 2006. And in 2015 I devoted a part of my book Living On Shaky Ground (Random House, 2015) to those events. The latter is about to be reissued, in second edition with updated science and coverage of the 2016 Kaikoura quake. You can pre-order it online from Mighty Ape, and it’ll be in all good bookstores on or before 10 February.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020