Quakes Haunt Christchurch Since Settlement Began

Crowd outside Christ Church Cathedral 1888
Crowd milling in the Square outside Christ Church Cathedral. Photo shows damage to the spire after earthquake on 1 Sept. 1888. Photographer unknown. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Image: PAColl-7985-72

The underlying geological issues hidden beneath Christchurch’s swampy plains meant that the city’s founders and their surveyors who chose this site for their planned city, knew nothing of the dangers. The tranquil flat expanses provided no clues to the benign faults which shook the province with more than just an alarming regularity.

Between 1869 – 1988 there have been twelve earthquakes over 6.0 recorded within 150 kilometres of Christchurch. Two of these were 7.0 and larger. An earthquake in 1888, caused considerable damage to the town.

We have some clues prior to newspaper reports due to correspondence from early settlers writing home to their relatives,


In 1844, John Deans who had settled on the future site of Christchurch with his brother William, wrote of his first experience of the shaky plains,

“William awakened me to say there was an earthquake coming and in a minute or so come it did; it was reckoned a pretty severe one, there was very little noise but a curious trembling feeling for a few seconds; it reminds me more than anything I know of being in one of Mr. Fulton’s shops opposite the Council house in Kilmarnock when a heavy loaded cart is passing, but of course with less noise. The wooden houses yield to it, but the brick ones are thought to be rather unsafe. I should say stone ones would be still worse. I have never heard of any doing much damage; some people are rather alarmed at first, but they soon come never to mind them.”

Source: Extract from “Pioneers of Canterbury. Deans Family Letters, 1840-1854”

August 5th, 1851

Charlotte Godley wrote home of her first experience of a quake,

“On Sunday we had a slight shock of an earthquake, while we were sitting at breakfast; the first we have felt here. We, who were accustomed to such things, know instantly what it meant; but most of the new-comers either did not feel it at all, or thought someone had banged on a door, or that a cart came by.”

September 10th, 1851

“We had, yesterday, a meeting of ‘members of the Church of England’, at which it was decided that we are to have a Church begun here forthwith, and I hope of stone; a wooden church, being so very temporary an affair, is very unsatisfactory.

I believe it will be the first stone Church in the Colony. Some of the Committee, however, incline to a wooden frame for the Church, filled in with bricks, which would be much safer in case of earthquakes; and if it were built from a good design, it would look very well, and last well too…”

“We had another shock of an earthquake last Sunday. A long low rumble, that lasted perhaps a little more than a minute, and strong enough to make the doors shake, and even the handle of the pump; but the shock was not severe, though from the length of the shake, I hear of some plates that were piled up being thrown down and broken. Out of doors it was not felt by most people. But it was as bad as the worst they can remember down here.”

Source: Extracts from “Letters from Early New Zealand” by Charlotte Godley.

January 23rd, 1855 – A Slight Tremor

“On the evening of the 23rd of January, 1855, a shock of earthquake, described by Mr. Hamilton, collector of customs at Lyttelton, as “a slight tremor,” was felt throughout the province, but no damage whatever was done.”

Source: 1857 – Paul, R. B. Letters from Canterbury, New Zealand. Page 17

“Two shocks of earthquake were distinctly felt in Lyttelton last night, at about the hour of 9 and 12 o’clock, and another this morning at about 7 o’clock. Several people mentioned having felt other minor shocks during the night. None of them were violent, but the first was of longer duration than any we have yet experienced here. Several pendulum clocks were stopped by the motion. Many old settlers say that they do not remember an earthquake before of such long duration in New Zealand. The wind was blowing in strong gusts from the N.W., and has continued in that quarter ever since, the weather being oppressive and sultry. We have just heard the first shock at Christchurch was felt very severely.”

Source: Lyttelton Times, 24th January 1855, reported in the South Australian Register, Monday 12 March 1855.

June 1855

New Zealand.— An earthquake, nearly as severe as that which happened in 1848, has done considerable damage in New Zealand.
The shocks at Lyttelton and Christchurch were severe, but no damage is reported. The shock was felt 150 miles out at sea.

Source: Worcestershire Chronicle, Wednesday 06 June 1855

October 18th, 1868

At eleven minutes past twelve on Sunday night, Oct 18th, an earthquake shock was distinctly felt in Christchurch and the neighbouring districts. It lasted for several seconds, but passed off without doing any damage.

Source: York Herald, Saturday 02 January 1869

June 5th, 1869- An Earthquake in Christchurch

The Lyttelton Times, June 7th, 1869 reported the earthquake to hit the province: —

A series of shocks from earthquakes have been felt throughout the province since Saturday morning, causing some damage to property. The first was the most severe and the worst that has been experienced for many years. It occurred about eight a.m. on Saturday, and slight vibrations were felt several times during the day, a very distinct shock taking place in the evening, and another yesterday afternoon.

Between four and five o’clock on Saturday morning, a loud subterranean noise was heard, which continued for upwards of a minute, and was accompanied by a slight tremor of the earth. At five seconds past eight o’clock a severe shock was experienced, its direction being from south to north, and the vibration continuing for fully twenty seconds. Great alarm was caused, in the more populous thoroughfares, and especially in the vicinity of stone buildings. While houses were still shaking, and chimneys falling in almost every direction, men, women and children were rushing terror stricken into the open air, and one person living at a short distance from the city compares the mingled sound borne through the air to the rush of a large railway train with the steam- whistle giving forth its shrill shriek.

Several slight disturbances were noticed at later periods during the day, one particularly at about half – past twelve noon, and a still more distinct one at nine minutes past seven in the evening. Yesterday afternoon also, a smart shock was experienced at twenty minutes past two; and although none of these were equal to the first in intensity, they were a source of much uneasiness in the city. The damage to property was fortunately confined to the former, and there are few quarters in Christchurch in which evidences of the shock are absent. In most cases however, the damage is confined to rent or fallen chimneys.

It appears that the Government Buildings were badly damaged, in particular the new Council Chambers.

The tops of two of the old chimneys have fallen down, the coping over the main entrance to the Council Chamber, and the apex stone of the gable over the retiring room, are shaken back, one stone in the arch over the Bellamy staircase is displaced, and there are now fractures in the plastering.

The new offices of the New Zealand Insurance Company, in Hereford-street, have sustained damage, and so have the offices belonging to Messrs. Matson and Co. close by. The offices of the New Zealand Trust and Loan Company, also in Hereford-street, are damaged. The spire of St. John’s Church has been damaged, and the new Supreme Court buildings now in the course of erection are somewhat shaken. Fortunately none of these are so bad as to cause apprehension for their continued stability unless further disturbed.

We are thankful to say that we have not heard of any injury to life or limb. Few private houses in town have altogether escaped. The damage to private dwellings it would be impossible to enumerate, as but very few escaped either injury to chimneys or house hold goods.

Source: Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, Melbourne, Vic., Saturday 10 July 1869

The Earthquake at Christchurch. Latest Telegrams. This Day. (by Electric Telegraph.) [from Our Own Correspondent.] Christchurch. 11.50 A.m.

The earthquake on Saturday morning was the severest shock ever felt in Canterbury, in the memory of the oldest settler. lt occurred precisely at the fifth strike of eight o’clock by the Government clock.

The policemen on their beat heard a loud rumbling sound at 5 a.m. The shock came on with great suddenness from the south, and lasted three or four seconds. It was succeeded at intervals of two or three seconds by slight tremors of short duration. The first shock was in magnetic south and north direction, with transverse motion. The shock was only felt at Lyttelton and on the Plains.

It was less felt at Lyttelton because the town is built on volcanic rock, whereas Christchurch is built on sand and gravel.

Dr. Haast says that an earthquake is simply the dynamic effect of some local abyssological disturbance in the near neighbourhood. Such happens all over the globe by changes of the earth’s crust, and generally at very great depth below. He does not think there is any cause for apprehension that the late earthquake is the beginning of a series still more vehement.

Chimneys fell in all directions, men and women rushing out of the houses.

Brick and stone buildings suffered most severely, especially the Government Buildings, the Trust and Loan Company’s Offices, the New Zealand Insurance Company’s Offices, the Bank of New Zealand, the Town Hall, Matson & Co’s Office, St. John’s Church (Latimer Square), the New Supreme Court House in course of erection, and Calvert’s (late Registrar of the Supreme Court).

The tower of St. John’s Church is rent from top to bottom. No damage has been done to the tunnel. No serious accidents have occurred. Great damage has been done to the interior of private dwellings, public houses, and crockery shops. Some bars, especially that of Tomkins’ Albion Hotel, were swimming in drink of all kinds.

There was a slight shock felt at 12pm on Saturday, a more violent one at 7.16 p.m.

Mortar fell in the Provincial Council Chamber while the house was sitting, and the strangers’ gallery was soon clear. Another shock was felt early on Sunday morning, and another at 2.30 p.m., second in violence to the first shock.

Considerable alarm prevails, especially as the shocks are found to be entirely local. The stone churches were almost deserted on Sunday. Bricklayers are busily employed repairing damages.

Weir Brothers, who keep a china shop, sustained a loss of breakage of one hundred pounds.

Source: Evening Post, Volume V, Issue 99, 7 June 1869, Page 2. Papers Past.

We learn from Kaiapoi that the most severe shock within the memory of the oldest inhabitant was felt at 8 a.m., on Saturday.

A correspondent writing from Ohinitahi says: “I have to report the occurrence of a rather sharp shock of earthquake this morning, at about six minutes past eight. It lasted several seconds, and appeared to pass from east to west.”

A correspondent writing from Halswell reports a severe shock at about 7.47 a.m., giving the direction as from south-east to north-west.

Our Akaroa correspondent reports “A severe shock was felt in Akaroa on Saturday morning, the 8th inst., at near 8 o’clock. It appeared almost like two distinct shocks, and lasted some seconds, the oscillatory motion being very perceptible”.

Source: Star, Issue 332, 7 June 1869, Page 2

Aftershocks followed, as shown from this report two days later:

An Earthquake.

A correspondent, writing this morning, says:-“A distinct shock of earthquake was felt by me last night at a few minutes before 12; it was preceded by the usual rumbling sound, which lasted for about a second, the shock, which followed being of about the same duration. The direction was apparently the same as that of the earthquake of the 5th June.

Source: Local and General. Star , Issue 358, 7 July 1869, Page 2

August  5th, 1869

A Severe earthquake was experienced at Christchurch on the 5th and four following days. Nearly all the brick and stone buildings were shaken, and numerous chimneys were thrown down. No lives were lost.

Source: Fife Herald – Thursday 12 August 1869

Less than six months later on March 17th, 1870 Christchurch suffered another short but sharp shock.

Earthquake at Christchurch

A smart shock of earthquake was experienced at Christchurch on the 17th at 11.28. It appeared to travel from N.E. to. S.W. No damage was done.

Source: Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser, Victoria. 31 Mar 1870

A young female settler, writing home from Christchurch in October 1872, tells her parents about this quake:

“I must tell you that the mountains here are something grand – burning volcanoes – you can see the ashes that were all alight on them some years ago. I went up to the top of one last Sunday morning, and saw the sun rise, and I never saw a more beautiful sight in my life. They were visible from the ship fourteen days before we landed, and when we ran into harbour there was chain after chain of green high- peaked mountains all round us for miles and miles; it was a grand sight, and should so much like for you all to have seen it.The town l am living in lies at the foot of some of them, so if another earthquake occurs I daresay we shall all be swallowed up. There has not been one for two years that is the reason all the houses are built of wood, because earthquakes shake all brick buildings down.”

Source: Western Times – Tuesday 08 April 1873

Almost to the year on March 28th, 1871 another shock hit the city, followed by another on 31st October, 1872.


Slight. shock of an earthquake shortly before eight

Source: Wanganui Herald, Volume IV, Issue 1170, 28 March 1871, Page 2

A slight earthquake was experienced at Christchurch on the 31st October.

Source: The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.) Wednesday 20 November 1872

Wednesday, 19th July, 1876

At Lyttelton and Christchurch the earthquake was felt severely at ten minutes past 4 this morning. It lasted several seconds.

Source: The Mercury (Hobart, Tas). Thursday 10 August 1876

Nearly a decade on, March 23rd, 1882 saw another shake in Christchurch

Earthquake in Christchurch

Christchurch, March 22. A shock of earthquake was felt this morning at 9.10. No damage is reported.

Source: West Coast Times , Issue 4039, 23 March 1882, Page 2

Within a year another shock hit at midnight on June 24th, 1883.

Earthquake. Christchurch

A slight shock of earthquake was experienced in several parts of Canterbury just before midnight on Sunday.

Source: Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume IV, Issue 530, 26 June 1883, Page 2

Nearly two years later on October 10th, 1884 another quake hit.

Earthquake. Christchurch, October 10.

Another smart shock of earthquake occurred at 5.52 this morning.

Source: Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume V, Issue 925, 11 October 1884, Page 2

Another two years, and the city experiences more shakes, on 3 September 1886


A slight shock of earthquake was felt in Christchurch to-day, just as the town clock was striking twelve. The direction was apparently from north-east to south-west, and the duration of the vibration between four and five seconds. Those persons who were in buildings at the time describe the first sensation of the shock as similar to that experienced when a sudden equal} strikes a house. Loose objects were rattled and chandeliers swayed to and fro. A low rumbling sound accompanied the earth tremor. Many persons who were walking in the open air at noon did not notice any disturbance. To the northward of the City the sensation seems to have been unpleasantly strong.

Star , Issue 5714, 3 September 1886, Page 3

Christchurch Cathedral Spire after the Earthquake, 13 October 1888
Christchurch Cathedral Spire after the Earthquake, 13 October 1888. . Source: Illustrated Australian News, Wood engraving. Image: Picture Australia. IAN13/10/88/181

Then a large and serious earthquake on September 1st, 1888 left the city in a state of shock and badly damaged.

Serious Earthquake

Christchurch Cathedral Spire Knocked Down.
Damage to Other Buildings.
The Shocks Felt All Over The South Island.
Prolonged Vibration.
General Alarm
Christchurch, This Day.

The severest shock of earthquake ever felt in Christchurch commenced this morning a few minutes after four o’clock. The first shock occurred at four minutes after four. It was of a most violent character and awoke everyone in the city. It lasted several seconds, and caused all buildings to rock in the most alarming manner. Wall pictures were dashed to the floor, loose articles of all kinds were upset, and glass windows broken.

The worst damage known so far has happened to the Cathedral spire. At the first shock, which was the severest, about 40 feet of the spire was shaken off, and fell on the pavement in Cathedral-square. It knocked large holes in the pavement, and the mass of falling stone was scattered over the street and much of it ground to powder. The centre of the top of the spire was supported by or built round an iron rod, at the top of which was the large iron cross and the bottom of the rod held, and the cross and top most stone are now hanging by this rod down the side of the spire. Small pieces of stone continue to fall, and it is quite unsafe to pass by the tower.

The only other public building known to have suffered is the Normal School, which is said to have some of its chimneys thrown down. Just before the first shock came it is said large flashes of light were seen in the direction of the Hanmer Plains hot springs. Five distinct shocks were felt in Christchurch, and extended over the space of half-an-hour, the first and fifth were the sharpest.

Earthquake in New Zealand. Violent Shock in the North and South Islands. Alarming- Effects at Christchurch. Fall of the Spire of the Cathedral. Other Buildings Damaged.
The Inhabitants in Terror. Narrow Escapes.further, Shocks Reported.

Shortly after 4 o’clock this morning the whole of the South Island and a portion of the North Island experienced a violent shock of earthquake-the most severe that has taken place for more than 20 years.

The shock was felt with more or less force at New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Blenheim, Timaru, Christchurch, Greymouth, Westport, Kaikoura, Dunedin, and Invercargill. Its direction is given variously as north-east, south-west, and east to west, while its duration is estimated at fully a minute.

At Christchurch its effects were most alarming. The first shock occurred at four minutes past 4, and was followed at intervals by four others extending over half an hour. The whole city was aroused. People rushed from their houses into the streets, momentarily expecting the rocking buildings to collapse. The greatest commotion prevailed. Wall pictures were dashed to the ground and there was an immense destruction of glass and crockery ware. The bells at the cathedral were made to toll by the rocking spire, and immediately afterwards about 26ft. of the spire came crashing to the ground. A large number of chimneys also fell, and many buildings were cracked. The cathedral itself does not appear to have suffered much damage, but it has been decided not to hold service there to-morrow.

A small portion of the stonework of the Durham street Wesleyan Church has been displaced; and the Normal School also suffered. Morton’s block -a pile of new buildings opposite the Bank of New Zealand, sustained a considerable wrench. The Sunnyside Asylum escaped, no damage having been done to it.

The Museum, escaped uninjured so far as the building is concerned, but the exhibits have been knocked about a good deal. The Young Men’s Christian Association building shows evidence of having been considerably affected. Planks were cracked in several places, especially in the corner stair well. Generally, however, the damage is less than was expected. The inhabitants were greatly alarmed, but after the shock ceased they returned to their homes.

Just before the first shock came it is said that large flashes of light were seen in the direction of Hanmer Plains hot springs. The shock was felt with great intensity at Amberley, North Christchurch, and Lyttelton. At neither of these places was much damage done.

On the high bluffs, Sumner-road, near Lyttelton, blocks of rocks 10 tons in weight gave way, and went into the harbour with a great crash, carrying fences and other obstructions before them.

It was most severe in Christchurch and the districts lying north of it. The steamer Rotorua, which arrived in Lyttelton this morning, felt the shock when off Kaikoura.

Another shock was felt, at Christchurch at a few minutes to 11 this morning, and at Westport shocks continued from 4 o’clock until 9. The first shock was most violent and prolonged; the inhabitants were greatly terrified. A number of brick chimneys were cracked and otherwise damaged. At Greymouth the houses creaked and rocked like vessels at sea. At Kaikoura the people rushed into the street in their night clothes. At New Plymouth tons of water were forced out of the tanks at the gasworks, and the gas holders oscillated greatly, but no damage was caused.

No loss of life or injury to limb by the earthquake has been reported, but there have been some narrow escapes. A man named Losh was working close to the cathedral when the spire fell, and he was nearly struck.

Three feet of brickwork was dislodged from a house in Madras Street, Christchurch and crashed through the roof over a bedroom in which two young ladies had been sleeping. They had fortunately got out of bed at the first shock, and thus escaped being crushed to death. Another shock was felt at 4.25 yesterday.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald. 3 Sep 1888:

Side view of church with broken spire. Front view of church with broken spire. Front view of church before the earthquake. Source: Australasian sketcher. Oct. 10, 1888. Image: State Library of Victoria, Image number A/S04/10/88/152

The Newspapers wrote to the citizens of Christchurch, in sympathy:-


We most sincerely sympathise with our Christchurch neighbours on the great misfortune they have sustained in the destruction of the beautiful Spire of their noble cathedral. The spire was, undoubtedly, a thing of beauty, and we can only deeply regret that it has not been permitted to remain a joy for ever.

The cathedral plans were drawn for the Canterbury Association by Gilbert Scott, the great ecclesiastical architect, at the very initiation of the scheme of settlement, and the structure, a small portion of which only has yet been erected, would, when completed, rank with the noblest fanes of Europe, in architectural beauty.

The destruction of the spire by the earthquake may mar its fair proportions, but, so far as we can gather, the damage caused by the earthquake was due to a structural error in the way of too rigid binding of the masonry by an iron core, even in England cathedral spires are known to sway far out of the perpendicular under the influence of heavy winds, but without sustaining any permanent damage. The upper portion of the Christchurch spire was deficient in elasticity, as compared with the base, and it seems, in consequence, to have snapped off under the shake.

It is most providential that no loss of life attended the unfortunate occurrence. Had the earthquake occurred during business hours, or on a Sunday during the hours of Divine worship, the consequences would have been much more deplorable.

Cathedral-square is the busiest spot in Christchurch, the centre of the tramway system, the place from which ‘buses start, and the site of a cab-stand. Had the spire fallen in the day time great loss of life must have occurred.

The last serious earthquake experienced in the Southern city was in 1863 when the Town Hall was so injured as to necessitate its being pulled down, and a stone church – a Wesleyan one, we think – also suffered some damage. In this city the shake was not by any means so severe as many which have been felt within the last few years, but it was exceedingly prolonged, and many careful observers who felt it were quite prepared to learn that serious damage had been done elsewhere. Most of the city, however, slept undisturbed by the vibration.

Source: Evening Post, Volume XXXVI, Issue 54, 1 September 1888, Page 2

The Brisbane Courier also expressed its sympathies,

…But the latest and most alarming experience of this kind is that just reported from New Zealand. The earthquake which on the 1st September, and again on the 3rd, visited the South Island and part of the North is said to have been the most severe that has been experienced in that colony for more than twenty years. Its centre of operation seems to have been in Christchurch, but important towns like Wellington, Dunedin, Invercargill, and others had a very uncomfortable half-hour under its influence. At Christchurch the inhabitants, roused from sleep in the early morning by the shaking of the walls, the crash of glass and crockeryware, and the involuntary clanging of the Cathedral bells, rushed out half naked into the street.

Buildings were cracked, chimneys fell, and a large portion of the Cathedral spire came down; yet strange to say, though some narrow escapes are reported, no one was killed or seriously injured by the convulsion. Subsequent inquiries showed that the shock, or series of shocks, was felt over a radius of 300 miles from the centre of the disturbance ; and it is supposed that both the breadth of country affected, and the comparative harmlessness of the earthquake, are due to the depth of the disturbing cause. If this sort of thing is to obtain to any extent in Australasia we shall have new reason to congratulate ourselves on the prevalence of wooden houses, and to postpone the much-coveted advance to brick or stone. We do not know whether our redoubtable friend Wragge is so enwrapped in the contemplation of heavenly disturbances as to be incapable of keeping one eye upon the earth; but a little more of such unpleasantly close experiences will compel us to add seismography to the other sciences on which we seek premonition from the learned.

Source: The Brisbane Courier, Thursday 6 September 1888

The Earthquake At Christchurch.
To The Editor of The Herald.

Sir,—An earthquake at Christchurch is rather an unusual occurrence. I can well understand that it caused terror to the inhabitants of such a quiet, ecclesiastical city. The noble cathedral was an architectural ornament to the city. Canterbury was founded in 1848 by an association of Church of England members—including the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Lyttelton, and the Duke of Manchester. It is built on the banks of the lovely Avon, a few miles from the sea and is bordered with willows. The river is spanned by one or two bridges, the views from which are exceedingly picturesque. The public buildings are principally built of wood, and, strange to say, they all have a religious look about them. The Gardens are beautifully laid out in lawn, shrubberies, and floral ornamentation. They are the best in New Zealand. Closely adjoining are the Museum, College, and Post Office, all fine buildings. Sir Julius von Haast made the Museum what it is—the best in the colony. The country around is flat and level, and the grand old Cathedral spire could be seen for miles. The view from the spire in early summer was very charming. The exodus from New Zealand of late has been great, but how much greater will it be if these shaky fits continue.

I am, &c,

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sept. 1888

27th December, 1889

A sharp shock of earthquake was felt at Christchurch on the evening of the 27th inst., the apparent duration being about 15 seconds. It begun with a short heavy shock, followed by a lateral vibration. At Waikari, near the Hanmer Hotsprings, it was felt severely, and was accompanied by a noise like thunder. It was also felt at Greymouth, on the West Coast. Although it caused some alarm at Christchurch, no damage appears to have been done.

Source: The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) Tuesday 8 January 1889

Nearly six years on, a small quake shook the city on May 21st, 1894,

Earthquake in Christchurch
Christchurch, this day.

A slight shock of earthquake was felt in Christchurch at 9.40 a.m. to-day.

Source: Auckland Star, Volume XXV, Issue 120, 21 May 1894, Page 4

There were more ‘earthquake shocks’ felt in the city a month later,

Earthquake Christchurch, This Day.

Two earthquake shocks were experienced this morning. The first at 4.50 lasted about 38 secs. but was not very severe. The second at 6.30 was very slight. No damage is reported.

Source: Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XXVIII, Issue 172, 29 August 1894, Page 2

On December 3rd, 1894, just four months later another stronger quake hit the city,

Second Edition. Earthquake in Christchurch.

A severe earthquake shook was experienced here at 10 minutes to 3 this afternoon. It was the heaviest felt here for years. No damage was done.

Evening Post, Volume XLVIII, Issue 132, 3 December 1894, Page 3

An aftershock was felt on December 11th, 1894,

Earthquake at Christchurch.
Christchurch, this day.

A slight but prolonged earthquake shock was experienced here at 1.58 this afternoon.

Source: Auckland Star, Volume XXV, Issue 295, 11 December 1894, Page 5

On August 23rd, 1896 a sharp shock hit the city,

Earthquake at Christchurch.

Christchurch, August 23. A sharp shook of earthquake was experienced at 4.45 this morning.

Source: Colonist, Volume XXXIX, Issue 8644, 24 August 1896, Page 4

3 March 1897

Earthquake Shocks. Christchurch, March 3.

A sharp shock of earthquake was felt here at 9.17 this morning.

Source: Thames Star, Volume XXIX, Issue 8600, 3 March 1897, Page 2

18 April 1897

Earthquake. Christchurch, April 18.

A Slight shock of earthquake was felt here at twenty minutes past three this afternoon.

Source: Colonist, Volume XL, Issue 8843, 19 April 1897, Page 3

9 July 1898

Christchurch. July 9.

A slight shock of earthquake was felt at 9.20 last night.

Source: North Otago Times, Volume XXXVI, Issue 9259, 11 July 1898, Page 2

On November 16th, 1901 a large earthquake hit the province causing much damaged and killing one child.

Earthquake in New Zealand,

A Child Killed. Cheviot Post Office Wrecked.
Christchurch Cathedral Damaged.

Wellington, Sunday. – An earthquake of a particularly severe character was experienced on Saturday morning in North Canterbury. The post office at Cheviot was completely wrecked. An infant was killed, and two other accidents are reported. The township of Cheviot is in a state of collapse, and business is suspended. Later reports show that an earthquake shock was felt throughout the colony this morning lasting about half a minute. Christchurch Cathedral spire was cracked in two places, and the part of the spire under the cross was shifted about a foot. Later, it is estimated that it will take £800 to repair the cathedral spire at Christchurch, about the same as when a piece was shaken off the top 13 years ago. The shock was felt on the West Coast gold field towns, and as far south as Invercargill. At Timaru, the tremors lasted fully a minute. Shocks of lesser violence were experienced in the North Island.

Source: The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, Tasmania, Wednesday 20 November 1901

September 21st, 1902 the Adelaide paper reported,

Lessons from the Earthquake

Sermon by The Bishop of Christchurch.

The Bishop of Christchurch (N.Z.) preached a thoughtful sermon in St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide, on Sunday night, in the course of which he drew some lessons from the recent earthquakes. There was a very large congregation present, the Cathedral being almost full.

His Lordship took his text from Hebrews XII. 27 –  “And this word, yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.” Earthquakes, the Bishop pointed out, were common in Palestine, both in ancient and modern times. The book of the prophet Amos opened with a statement that the prophet spoke two years before the great earthquake in the reign of Uzziah, and the prophet Isaiah obviously referred to this earthquake in his second chapter.

Nothing in nature so revealed to man his insignificance and helplessness as the earthquake, more especially, perhaps, because the earthquake touched precisely those works of man which seemed to be most secure and well-established. The palace of the great and the vast temples of the worshippers were affected more than the cottage of the poor. From that they learned an obvious and wholesome lesson – the instability of human greatness. What seemed more secure to them than the civilisation of the twentieth century? And yet, in the very midst of it, they were conscious of forces that were ever actively menacing its security. They knew quite well that civilisations as great, perhaps, had perished utterly; and what was this civilisation? There were men of thought who trembled at the sight of forces that were beginning to manifest themselves. When they turned to the individual what did they find? That whatever lifted itself above its fellows was the more exposed to the terrible destructive forces that were at work amongst them.

Strength of body might be brought low by sickness, powers of mind might be humbled to the very dust, wealth or fortune seemed to lie at the mercy of a possible drought, or a change in the markets, or an unfortunate speculation. All those that were lifted up in any way above their fellows were the more subject to the changes and chances of this mortal life, and there came a time when they touched them all, and they were laid low in the common level of the grave. He supposed it was the instability of human greatness which had led men for ages past to seek the security on foundations which could not be shaken, and because men could not find them here on earth, they had sought for them in the unseen and eternal. He heard of a church in Adelaide in which there was gathered a congregation for worship, when the earthquake came. Could they conceive the shaken nerve, the bewilderment, the passing terror, perhaps, and could they then conceive the strength and comfort that accompanied the words, “I believe in God.” for those who believed in Him rested upon a foundation that could not be shaken. Did we find security in religion? With the creeds, and what had been built upon them, they rested in a certain sense of security. He would not dare to prophese what would be the ultimate outcome of the great movement in the midst of which they lived, but they might discern how fearful men were to build afresh.

They saw an awful wreck of faith in God, and love, and trust. Many old traditions and theories, once loved and reverenced, had vanished, never, perhaps, to return. This earthquake of belief should teach them that much was bound to perish, because it was earthly and human, and it should lead them to turn again to the foundations themselves. Christ alone stood unshaken and unmoved, and His word was the message for the twentieth century. Their fancied securities had been shaken about their ears in order that they might build strictly on Him, and live out in their lives the life of Jesus Christ.

Source: The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA. Monday 22 September 1902

Tuesday, 8th December, 1908

A smart earthquake shock was felt at Christchurch two minutes before noon on Tuesday. Two severe shocks, accompanied by a rumbling noise, were felt in Cheviot. The residents were greatly alarmed.

Source: Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW). Saturday 12 December 1908

It was nearly seven years later, a large earthquake hit on 2 January, 1909

Earthquake. Christchurch, This Day.

An earthquake was felt in Christchurch on Thursday evening at 7.20. It was also felt at Hanmer Springs.

Source: Evening Post, Volume LXXVII, Issue 1, 2 January 1909, Page 6

Six years later on 14 February, 1915 a large quake hit the city

Earthquake Shock

An earthquake shock was felt at Christchurch at 11.40 a.m. yesterday. Buildings at Burnham rocked, and a low rumbling noise was heard.

Source: Evening Post, Volume LXXXIX, Issue 38, 15 February 1915, Page 8

Then six years later on 17 March 1921

Christchurch, This Day.

There was a slight shock of earthquake shortly before 8 o’clock. No damage was been reported.
Source: Evening Post, Volume CI, Issue 65, 17 March 1921, Page 8

Christmas Day, 1922

Canterbury and Westland Experience Prolonged Shock
Fissures Opened on Waikuku Beach. Chimneys Levelled and Masonry Thrown Down.

CHRISTCHURCH, Dec. 25. A very severe and prolonged earthquake shock was experienced about 3.5 this afternoon. Its direction was apparently from the north-west. The quake caused considerable consternation, and it is feared that there must have been a good deal of damage in the country districts, but only meagre particulars were available up to 5 p.m.

The Christchurch Cathedral bells were set ringing, and in houses pictures and crockery were smashed.

The shock was felt severely in the Christchurch Press Company’s big building. Some of the ornamental masonry on the front facing Cathedral Square broke away, and a large portion crashed through the timber work of the election display board on to the pavement below.

The Government Buildings, opposite the Press Office, in Worcester Street, rocked alarmingly, and onlookers thought that the whole structure would open up.

One of the patients, in the Christchurch hospital, who was in a low state, died as a result of shock following the terrifying experience.

Telephone messages from Rangiora state that the shock, was the most severe ever felt there. At the Junction Hotel all the masonry in the front part of the building fell across the street, smashing the verandah and doing other damage. At the Farmers’ Co-operative Stores in Rangiora plate-glass windows were extensively cracked, and considerable damage was done to the big stock of glassware and crockery, which was thrown from shelves to the floor.

In the Red Lion Hotel all the bottles in the bar crashed to the floor. A levelling of chimneys is reported everywhere, and glasshouses also suffered severely.

At Southbrook near Rangiora, it is reported that every chimney in the township is down. At Waikuku Beach, where there were hundreds of picnickers, great fissures opened up on the beach, through which; the sea water forced its way. There were about a hundred motor cars parked on the beach and they were all surging about during the quake.

People who rushed; from houses in Christchurch describe the roar of the ‘quake in the distance as awe-inspiring.

Mr. H. F, Skey, director of the Magnetic Observatory, stated tonight that the violence of the earthquake shock militated against getting a complete record, the delicate recording instruments being put out of action. The waves appeared to come from the northwest. Mr. Skey believes that the origin of the disturbance was in the vicinity of Lake Sumner, in the Waikari district, North Canterbury, and believes also that further disturbances are imminent. He states that to-day’s shake was purely local to Canterbury.

The shake was severely felt at Cheviot, where the crashing of falling chimneys and the breaking of crockery sent everybody on to the streets.

At Ethelton the ‘quake played havoc with the railway line, a portion of which was thrown into the river. There was a similar experience at the Greta Pass.

The telephone system all over North Canterbury suffered very badly. Considerable damage was done to the Glenmark Anglican Church, a stone building. Fortunately this afternoon’s church service had been abandoned.

The shock was severely felt at Lyttelton, where between thirty and forty chimneys were damaged. Several were entirely demolished. The wharves rocked alarmingly and vessels in the harbour swayed at their moorings. Great precautions were taken by the railway officials concerning the tunnel. A train was sent through dead slow, and a gang examined the tunnel from end to end, but there was not the slightest sign of any damage.

In the Waikari township and district practically every chimney is down. In addition to the hospital losing all it’s chimneys, the big concrete water tank is badly cracked.

People on the pier at Sumner were made so uncomfortable by the swaying of the structure that they rushed to the esplanade.

The big crowd at Lancaster Park matching the cricket match treated the earthquake as a highly humorous diversion, and amused itself by watching the big chimneys at the tramway powerhouse and gasworks, which were rocking dangerously, and various smaller chimneys on private houses, which showed promise of crashing to the ground.

Damage estimated at £50 was done in the Christchurch Cathedral.

A piece of masonry weighing several hundredweight crashed from the top of Inglis’s buildings, opposite the White Hart Hotel, High Street. Fortunately there were no passers-by. A large number of cases are reported of women rushing from houses and forming huddled groups in the roadways, where they remained until the visitation had passed.

In some places trees are reported to have been uprooted.

Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume XLII, 27 December 1922, Page 5

The Earthquake in Canterbury

The severe earthquake that visited Canterbury and the West Coast of the South Island, and was felt in diminished strength over part of the North Island, on Christmas afternoon draws attention once again to the enormous power which must give rise to such disturbances. New Zealand experiences many earthquakes, but seldom is more than trifling damage done. The long series of shakes of varying strength and duration which disturbed the villages in the Taupo did not cause much loss, but had the series of earthquakes occurred in one of our large cities great damage would hare been done.

The unwelcome visitor to Canterbury and the West Coast this week will direct attention to the question of ‘the size’, height and structure of buildings in the cities. Apparently the earthquake, which was more severe than any experienced in Canterbury since the Cheviot Earthquake years ago, did not damage the large buildings of Christchurch to any serious extent, and well-built properly reinforced may be regarded as generally safe.

A great deal depends on the type of earthquake experienced. A sudden elevation or depression of an area of land by an earthquake is more likely to do serious damage than a steady swaying motion. The former type occurs near the seat of the disturbance. The intensity of a shock may vary from a slight tremor only perceptible with the aid of very sensitive instruments to a great convulsion causing great changes in the surface of the earth and damage to property. There is no accepted method by which the approach of earthquakes can be predicted, and probably it is as well that such predictions cannot be made, for anticipation in the case of earthquakes would probably give rise to much unnecessary alarm and fears of serious results.

Whatever be the reason, for earthquakes they are not welcome visitations, and, though they are fairly frequent in New Zealand, they do not bring with them the frightful destruction of life and property that occurs in some parts of the world. There seem to be periods when seismic disturbances are more numerous and frequent than at other times. The Taupo earthquakes, the great earthquake in Central America, the eruption of Stromboli, and the Canterbury visitation have all occurred in the last few months, and each of these places is on one of the three main lines of weakness in the earth’s crust. The greatest damage was done in the American States, where the earthquake caused considerable loss of life and much property was destroyed.

Whether or not there will be further disturbances in the near future nobody can predict with certainty, but in any ease the chances of serious damage being done are comparatively remote, and people have no need to feel nervous or anxious over the shaking which the South Island has experienced. If a big earthquake does come, provided people get away quickly from chimneys or brick buildings, there is, little danger of their receiving injury.

Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume XLII, 28 December 1922, Page 4

Again six years later on 21 August 1927 a severe earthquake shook the city

An Earthquake Shock.
Night Alarm at Christchurch. Wellington, August 22.

Christchurch experienced a severe earthquake 0n Sunday morning. It was the worst since Christmas 1922, but luckily no damage was done. Awakened by rumbling and shaking as from a nightmare, people sprang terrified from their beds. Walls and ceilings shook dangerously, articles danced wildly on tables and mantelpieces, and teeth chattered. People in night attire dashed into the streets and stayed there until the ‘quake was over.

Almost two years later, a huge quake causing considerable damage hit on 17 June, 1929

Earthquake Damage
Loss to Private Owners, £237,000 Christchurch, July 9.

An estimate of the damage done to private property by the big earthquake has been made, at the Governments direction, by the Commissioner of Crown Lands. The amount is assessed at £237,000. This takes no account of the damage done to roads, bridges, railways, and other public property.

Source: The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA., 10 Jul 1929.

After June’s sharp shock, another hit the city on July 15th, 1929

Earthquake Shock
Christchurch and Westport Christchurch, July 15.

The sharpest earthquake shock since the big shake on June 17 was felt at Christchurch at 8.30 to-night. No damage was done. Westport felt a severe prolonged shock. The people rushed into the streets but soon returned to their houses. No material damage was reported.

Source: The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA., Tuesday 16 July 1929

Another nine years passed before fourteen tremors shook through the South Island on 17 December, 1938

Earthquake Tremors in N.Z.
Christchurch, December 18, 1938

Fairly general earthquake tremors were felt throughout the South Island on Saturday morning. Christchurch escaped the real severity of the quake, most of the people not feeling the shocks. There were about 14 shocks altogether up till 10 o’clock. Two sharp shocks were experienced in Dunedin shortly after 5 o’clock. At the same time Gore felt a tremor of unusual severity sufficient to sway buildings. Hokitika experienced an earthquake with a long, sawing motion at 5.20. The South Island shake lasted approximately one minute and was preceded by rumbling, accompanied by sharp jolts, disturbing the sleepers. No damage is reported. In Queenstown windows were broken and several chimneys displaced. A sharp shake also was felt at 11.16.

Source: Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Qld., Monday 19 December 1938

Earthquake … But On With the Show

The final scene of “The Vagabond King” had been reached. Villon was to be hanged, and we, as acolytes, were to enter the church in the square. It was at this moment that the earthquake hit Christchurch, N.Z., and people in the “gods” were crying out with fear as the balcony swayed with them. Apprehensively we watched the huge overhead lighting effects and scenery, and expected any moment that they would fall on us. But the show must go on, and we went through our scene to the last. By this time the quake had abated and we left to go home. But we had gone only a few yards up the street when it commenced again. We staggered from side to side, as chimneys and clock-towers toppled and people rushed from their homes. No one slept that night, as minor shocks occurred frequently, and we had no lights, the globes being broken as they smashed up against the ceilings of the hotel. In the morning we walked around the city and saw just how serious it had been and how lucky we were to be safe.
Mrs J. Cullum, Aintree, Rd, Glen Iris, Victoria

The Australian Women’s Weekly, Saturday 25 June 1938

Nearly five years later another shock rattled Christchurch in August 1943.

N.Z. Earthquake
Christchurch Shaken.
Slight Damage; None Hurt.
Auckland, August 24, 1943

Towns in Canterbury and Westland, including Christchurch, have been shaken by a sharp earthquake. There were two or three sharp jolts in Christchurch, the shake rocking buildings and making houses creak loudly. Then followed a series of lurches, lasting about a minute, but there was no serious damage.

Power failures occurred, telephone services were interrupted, and trains were delayed in Westland. Many chimneys collapsed, and other small damage was caused in many inland centres. Greymouth reports a continuous shake, accompanied by a rumble. The post office clock stopped, but there was no damage to buildings.

Source: Cairns Post, Qld., Wednesday 25 August 19

New Zealand Earthquakes Christchurch, January 11, 1951

(A.A.P.-Reuter): Widespread damage, in some cases serious, but without casualties, was reported following seven hours of earthquake jolts and tremors centred in the Cheviot area,, north of Christchurch, this morning. The main shake at 7.17 a.m. cracked wells, tumbled chimneys, and smashed windows. The main road heading north is closed by a landslide. Only one telephone connection to Cheviot remains. Crashing chimneys, shattering glassware and crockery, and wildly swinging doors shortly after 7 a.m. to-day climaxed a sleepless night for people in Cheviot and surrounding districts. The shocks toppled over 80 per cent of the township’s chimneys. Three miles from Cheviot a crack 30 yards long, with a maximum width of 6 inches, opened up in the main highway.

Source: Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld), Previous issue Friday 12 January 1951

N. Zealand Earthquake
Christchurch, Oct. 16, 1962

An earthquake shook New Zealand today, rocking tall buildings in towns and cities of both islands and setting off spectacular snow and ice avalanches in the Southern Alps. No casualties were reported.
Associated Press.

Source: The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Oct 17, 1962; pg. 12; Issue 55524.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Heather McDonald says:

    How was William Deans able to give his brother a minute’s warning of an earthquake in 1845?


    1. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

      Unfortunately John does not reveal this in his letter. Perhaps William had felt one a few minutes earlier and knew the pattern, much as we all now know that one follows another.


    2. Mitchell says:

      Heather – Back in that time the country was extremely familiar with Earthquakes, and in my guess the Brother had noticed the P (Primary wave) before the Secondry wave hit!


  2. amanda kelly says:

    If you have ever been in an earthquake you get to the point where you can hear them coming seconds before they hit, so it is not unusual that he warned his brother.


  3. Jo-Anne Clark says:

    It’s not uncommon. After the recent series of quakes in Christchurch from 2010 – 2012, both my husband and I have quite often had a forewarning of about a minute or so before a quake hits. It’s hard to explain but it does happen.


  4. Jos Dickson says:

    Can anyone shed light on what the “flashes of light” in Hanmer Springs way are a result of? Unusual and interesting…


  5. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    William Deans had also spent a number of years farming around Port Nicholson (Wellington), so I suppose he was also well versed in earthquakes prior to his brother John’s arrival.


  6. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    Perhaps the ‘flashes of light’ came from a lightening storm.


  7. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    After the September 1888 earthquake centred in Hanmer, which caused damage to the Christ Church Cathedral, the government geologist, Alexander McKay was sent out to review the land damage. This article, published in an English newspaper, outlines the ‘extraordinary phenomena’ he reported.


  8. David Baxendell says:

    I observed almost continuous light flashes in the sky during the September earthquake. They are most probably cause by a piezo electric effect being generated by the compression of geological strata. Another explanation involves disturbance to the earths magnetic field. Earthquake lights have quite frequently been reported, but it is difficult to do practical research on something of such limited duration and unpredictable timing!


  9. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    von Haast’s experience of the 1869 quake, which he said was “the most severe I ever felt in Canterbury”.


  10. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    The Supposed Lights of Hanmer Plains
    … A similar phenomenon is often mentioned in connection with earthquake shocks. Sulphurous fumes, which were combustible, says Professor Milne (Professor John Milne, British geologist and mining engineer who worked on a horizontal seismograph. His nickname was ‘Earthquake Milne’), were belched out of the earth at the time of the Jamaica earthquake in 1692. The Professor adds that “in addition to the flames, lights appear often to have been observed, the origin of which cannot be easily explained. The earthquake of November 22nd, 1751, at Genoa, is said to have been accompanied by a light like that of a prodigious fire, which seemed to arise out of the ground.” Volger (Georg Heinrich Otto Volger, January 30, 1822 – October 18, 1897, was a German geologist) has attributed the origin of lights or flames appearing above fissures to the friction which must take place between rocky materials at the time when the fissures are opened. As confirmatory of this, he refers to instances where similar phenomena have been observed at the time of landslips. At the time of these landslips the heat developed by friction as been sufficiently intense to convert water into stream, the tension of which threw mud and earth into the air like the explosion of a mine.
    Source: The Press, Sept 8. 1888


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