Government Geologist reports on ‘extraordinary earthquake phenomena’

Earthquake in Christchurch New Zealand 1888
Illustrated London News (London, England), Saturday, September 15, 1888; pg. 322; Issue 2578.

After the September, 1888 earthquake centred in Hanmer caused extensive damage to the Christchurch 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 found,

The Melbourne Argus, November 16th (1888), says Mr. Alexander McKay, of the (New Zealand) Geological Department, recently examined Hanmer Plains district, where the earthquake of September 1st, by which Christchurch Cathedral was injured, was mostly severely felt.

In his report to the Government he enumerates some extraordinary phenomena. Rents and fissures of varying widths were to be met with a number of places, tracks being rendered impassable in several places. Even where a track had been cut out of solid rock the wreak was complete, but the fissures and dislocations did not extend or back into the river cliff. At one place a cubical mass of rock, 6ft square, encumbered the road, having seemingly rolled or fallen down from the heights above, leaving no track or passage.

Mr. McKay believes the foot of the slope burst into three pieces, each taking different courses, but coming together at the end of the journey. At Glen Wye station (in the Lewis Pass) one cottage was totally wrecked, and the whole building shifted from the piles. Another cottage was screwed and twisted in all directions, finally settling down with a list to the east, whilst the large woolshed, 100 feet long, had its back broken in two places, and the side walls erratically crooked. The piles were partly drawn from the ground, and lean 50 degrees to the east. The 400 gallon (approx. 1,514 litre) tanks appear to have been pitched into the air, and the substantial masonry in which they were set so wreaked that no two bricks were in their place. Rails of fencing were drawn free from their mortices.

At one place, for a quarter of a mile, the whole surface is a network of fractures, fissures, slips, and dislocations some four chains in width (approx. 80 metres), and ten chains (approx. 201 metres) had subsided two feet in the centre, perhaps more than that. At one place at Glen Wye, the fence, though not actually sundered (split-apart), was shifted five feet out of the true line, and many iron standards were drawn out of the ground. At another place where the fence crossed an old earthquake rent, the fence was smashed and thrown down to the east a distance of 8ft. 6in.

At another part of the district, dry birch trees, though sound, were broken, generally 10 ft to 15 ft from the ground, and thrown down by the earthquake. Some of these trees were at least 1 ft in diameter, and some larger. Large branches were wretched from green trees, and in some places trees 25 ft and 30 ft in length had been torn up by the roots, firmly fixed in most cases, and thrown down.

He is of opinion that if the shock had been as severe in Christchurch as at Glen Wye, where the ground was moved 8ft. 6in, literally the whole city must have been destroyed. Mr. McKay opposes the theory that the shock was the premonition of a volcanic outburst. No volcanic outbreak has taken place in the north-east of the South Island since the early Miocene age (23.03 to 5.332 million years ago). He heard the booming noises while in the district, but is not able to account for them. [1]

Official Report on Public Buildings

In consequence of the illness of the City Surveyor, Messrs Collins and Harman were instructed by the city authorities to survey the various public buildings which had been reported as damaged, and more or less rendered unsafe by the recent earthquake. The report is as follows Christchurch, Sept. 1, 1888.

Durham Street Wesleyan Chruch
Durham Street Church [2]

“To the Deputy Mayor,

“Dear Sir, In accordance with your instructions, we have inspected the building mentioned in your letter, find beg to report as follows on the damage done by the recent earthquake.

The injury done to the Cathedral consists of the top of the spire being shaken down. We have examined the walls below the point of fracture, and find that the remainder of the tower and spire is perfectly sound, and when the cross and loose stones have been removed, we consider that there would be no risk in holding services in the building.

The West Christchurch School has suffered no appreciable damage, and can be used with perfect safety.

The Normal School has suffered considerably. The top of one chimney has fallen, and the plaster ceilings are very unsafe. The school should not be used until a more extended survey has been held.

The East Christchurch main school buildings, Gloucester street have been severely shaken, some of the chimney have moved bodily. One in particularly is considerably out of perpendicular, and the top of some of the chimney beads have fallen. We do not think the building should be used until a more extended survey has been made.

The infant school has not received any damage.

The Wesleyan Church, Durham street, has been very much shaken. The mortar has fallen from the joints of the stonework in the East windows and parapet, and several courses of stone at the top of the North wall are out of place. We think that another shock of earthquake would be very likely to bring down some of the masonry, and that the building should not be used until it has been repaired.

The parapet of Mr Cookson’s house has fallen through the roof of the adjoining premises. We do not think there is any further danger with this building, but we consider that all brick buildings built on peat soil similar to this one are more likely to be damaged than those in other parts of the town.

We find the Municipal Buildings have not received any damage.” [3]

Alexander McKay – from Scottish Sheep Farmer to noted New Zealand Geologist

Inventor of the telephoto lens, Alexander McKay was also the first to refrigerate meat in New Zealand, by preserving mutton and game for long periods in the ice of the glaciers in the Southern Alps.

Alexander McKay, Government Geologist, circa 1911
Alexander McKay, 1841-1917 [4]
He arrived in New Zealand  in 1863 to join the gold rush and afterwards gained employment as an assistant geologist to Julius Haast, Canterbury’s Provincial Geologist. McKay worked under Haast’s direction during the excavation of Moa Bone Point Cave in Sumner, Christchurch. A self taught geologist, McKay worked his way up through the government Mining Department to become the Government Geologist before his retirement in 1908.

“McKay was the first scientist in New Zealand – and possibly the world – to document transcurrent, or sideways, fault movement. (The only previously recognised fault movement was vertical.)”

McKay’s Remarks on Earthquakes in the Amuri District

As Government Geologist, McKay was sent out to review the damage at the centre of the earthquake, and report back to the Royal Society of New Zealand:

… for twelve months previous to the end of August last, booming noises, proceeding from the ground, had been heard in the district surrounding the Hanmer Plains, and that towards the end of that month earthquakes began to be experienced; these premonitions were followed by the great shock of the 1st September, which did nearly all the damage that happened to buildings, and opened most of the fissures that are yet to be seen. This was followed by the shock of the 28th September, and, after a like period, by that of the 23rd October, and those of the 26th and 28th of the same month; there being just about a lunar month between the first and second and the second and last series of shocks.

Glynn Wye was described as being the point on this line at which the most violent disturbance of the surface took place; while Westport, 60 miles to the north, Christchurch, 65 miles to the south, and Kaikoura on the east coast and Hokitika on the west coast, were the limits to which the earthquake extended as a shock violent enough to do damage to buildings, &c. Mr. McKay said that, while not touching the question what the primal cause of earthquakes may be, he felt sure that the Amuri earthquakes, in as far as they were expressed at the surface and had been studied by him, were due to crushing movements along the old earthquake-line; and he went on to show that in the northern part of the South Island, and, indeed, throughout the islands of New Zealand, there are many old faults, showing a great vertical displacement, running coincident with earthquake-rents opened but recently, though not for the first time.

Although McKay’s writing style was anything but elegant, fellow geologist and Director of the Colonial Museum and Geological Survey in Wellington, Sir James Hector, considered McKay’s paper on the earthquake would become classical in the literature of earthquakes. However he doubted some of the author’s deductions, stating that ‘the mere linear extension of fault-lines did not determine a liability to earthquakes’.


  1. “THE SEPTEMBER EARTHQUAKE IN NEW ZEALAND.” Leeds Mercury [Leeds, England] 27 Dec. 1888: n.p. 19th Century British Library Newspapers. Web. 10 Jan. 2012. Gale Document Number: BC3201857018.
  2. Illustrated guide to Christchurch and neighbourhood / M. Mosley, after p. 46. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 12, IMG0081.
  3. Star, Issue 6333, 3 September 1888, Page 3.
  4. McKay, Alexander, 1841-1917 : Fragments of the life history of Alexander McKay. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library. Image Reference: ID: MS-1177-001.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Serra says:

    fascinating, and he could be just about writing about the last year and a half!


  2. mandy says:

    Enjoyed reading this, my grandparents moved her from Ireland in the 1920’s my mum tells me her father knew of all these quakes they lived through 1929 but then they packed up and went back home


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s