The Earthquake Wave at Lyttelton, 1868

Port Cooper Jan 20th 1866
Lyttelton, Port Cooper, January 20, 1866. [1]
Extract from The Sydney Morning Herald. Wednesday 26 August 1868.
(From the Lyttelton Times, August 17)

The town of Lyttelton on Saturday morning (15 August) was thrown into a state of great excitement owing to a most extraordinary rise and fall of the water in the harbour.

We learn from Mr. Webb, nightwatchman on the railway, the following particulars. He states that at 4 o’clock he noticed the John Knox, [2] barque, lying on her starboard broadside, and her yards nearly touching the jetty alongside of which she was discharging her cargo. He immediately gave an alarm and aroused Captain Jenkins, who came on deck, and on looking over the side he saw that the harbour from the wharf to Officer’s Point was quite dry, and that all the vessels and boats were high and dry.

In a few minutes their attention was directed to a noise resembling thunder, or a strong wind coming from off Officer’s Point; there was no wind at the time on shore. On looking, they saw an immense wave coming up the harbour and making toward the head of the bay. In a few minutes it was surging round the vessels, tearing them from the different wharfs, and breaking their warps like twine. It caught the John Knox, barque, and dashed her against the screw-pile-jetty, carrying away her starboard quarter, and snapping her best bower cable, also the 8-inch hawsers which held her to the wharf.

The ketch Margaret, [3] lying on the beach near the Government wharf, had her warps carried away, and on the rebound of the wave she was carried into the harbour, where she fouled the schooner Annie Brown, [4] carrying away her own bulwarks, staunchions, and mainmast, and also doing some damage to the schooner. The schooner Jeannie Duncan [5] was lying at the railway wharf alongside the p. s. Novelty. [6] The former has sustained considerable damage, and the Novelty had her bulwarks and staunchions from the fore to the main rigging  destroyed. The drawback out of the harbour took the Novelty down as far as Gollan’s Bay where she tried to bring up, but her best bower anchor and chain snapped; by this time, however, she had steam up, and was able to steam against it.

The township of Lyttelton, circa 1867. Image: National Library of New Zealand ID: 1/2-004777-F. [7]
For some hours the tide kept rising and falling rapidly. At 6. a.m. the tide was below low water mark, and in a quarter of an hour afterwards it was above high watermark; the current was fearful, and the water surged round the vessels like a whirlpool. As instances of the effects of this remarkable phenomenon upon the shipping, we may mention that the ship Coleroon [8] spun round like a top, and the schooner Dove [9] came up the harbour as fast as a steamer, dead against a westerly breeze, with all her canvas on her. The current afterwards swept her broadside on for two miles up the harbour, before she was able to get steering way.

At half-past 9 o’clock another roller came into the harbour, and again caught the John Knox, which was, at that time, on the mud. In a few minutes her warps had parted, and the vessel was swung round, fortunately clear of the wharf. The tide again commenced to rise and fall rapidly, sometimes three feet in five minutes. At 10.30 the pilot boat crew arrived from the Heads, but it appears from their statement they noticed nothing uncommon, only that the tide was very high; the keeper from the quarantine station also came up, but he had not noticed anything, except that at 6.30 the tide was lower by a hundred yards than he had ever seen it.

Mr Mitchell of Gollan’s Bay, [10] states that at half-past 3 a.m., he heard an unusual noise, and at the same time the house was shaken as if by an earthquake. The watch on board the barque A. H. Badger, [11] state that they heard, an hour previous to the wave coming in, three distinct noises like rushing wind. From the officer on board the Coleroon, we learn that at 3 o’clock the water commenced rushing out of the harbour at the rate of twelve knots an hour, and left the vessel on the mud bottom; at 4 p.m. the vessel gave a tremendous lurch, and commenced going round like a top, just as if the vessel was in a whirlpool, and it continued until 8 o’clock. We also learn that the ketch Georgina is wrecked in Rhodes’ Bay, and that the schooner Onehunga fouled the Antelope cutter, [12] carrying away her stanchions and bulwarks from the rigging aft.

The large buoy off Officer Point was carried into Dampier Bay. At 11 o’clock the steamer Taranaki [13] entered the Heads, and as she stopped there some time, it was feared there might be something wrong, as she was seen broadside on. It turned out, however, that she stopped to pick up a hatch covering belonging to some large vessel, she also passed a full rigged mast outside the Heads. Captain Francis informs us that he saw no signs of any eruption during the passage.

The following is the report of Captain Jenkins of the John Knox: –

At 3.30 I heard a great noise, and the ship went down on her beam ends. I got on deck with difficulty and found the ship lying with her yard arms on the wharf. I could not imagine what was the matter, when hearing a noise like the rushing of a great body of water, or a strong wind, I looked out into the harbour. It was all dry as far as the breakwater, and a wave was rolling in about eight feet high; it came up against the ship with great force. A few minutes afterwards it rebounded, and caught the ship’s bow, carrying away two parts of an 8-inch warp and the best bower cable, which was shackled on to the wharf, dragging the anchor home with sixty fathoms cable. In fifteen or twenty minutes after the wave came in, the water was within two feet of the top of the wharf, and in less than half an hour the ship was dry again. The water ran in and out at intervals until 10 a.m., when another rush broke three parts of the stern warp, the ship swinging round again clear of the wharf. Captain Gibson sent his boat and crew with the Government warp, making it fast to the buoy, and passing both ends on board ship, by so doing the ship was kept head and stern to the current. The starboard quarter is knocked in by being dashed against the jetty by the wave.

On Saturday afternoon the water continued in a very perturbed state, the current running very strong in and out of the harbour. It was with great difficulty that the watermen could get off to the steamer Taranaki, the boats being carried by the current up and down the harbour. We also learn that the jetty,  300 feet long, at the head of the bay, has been carried away, and that Mr. Manson’s paddocks have been flooded. [14]

The Comerang, from Timaru, arrived in harbour yesterday morning. The following is the captain’s  report:-

At Timaru, on the morning of the 15th instant, about 5 o’clock, the men at the old Government landing service, whilst in the act of preparing to launch a cargo boat in order to come off to the Comerang, were washed up on the beach by a sudden rise of the sea – about six feet, which in the course of five, minutes fell to a lower level than has ever been witnessed at Timaru. The sea rose and fell on the beach rapidly for the space of four hours with a strong current, changing with the rise and fall of the tide. In the offing, the Comerang narrowly escaped parting from her anchors through a succession of whirlpools, causing the vessel to turn round very frequently. There were no signs of any eruption during the passage.

Yesterday afternoon the tide had not returned to its ordinary state, and there was still a strong current in the harbour. [15]

The following communication from Dr. Haast to the editor of the Lyttelton Times, dated Saturday night, will be read with interest :-

Lyttelton Harbour In 1867

Sir,-I need scarely apologise for offering you a few observations on the remarkable disturbance in the sea level as experienced today in Lyttelton harbour, and in other localities on the coast of New Zealand, because in doing so, I hope to throw some light upon the causes by which this curious phenomenon has been brought about. I wish also to dispel some errors concerning it which were as it seems current among many of my fellow citizens. In the first instance it is not as your contemporary the Star of this evening states, “A great tidal wave,”  but without doubt an earthquake wave in the sea, such as is commonly observed in the adjacent seas, wherever any earthquake of consequence takes place, and followed in many instances by a volcanic eruption in or near the focus of the former.

Although the shock transmitted through the earth’s crust, travels much faster than the sea wave takes to reach the same distance, the latter is still of such velocity that it travels at the rate of several miles a minute, consequently, if the disturbance under review were the result of the volcanic phenomena observed a few months ago in the Sandwich Islands, as suggested in the same paper, it would have reached us the very same day.

In confirmation of this assertion, I may be allowed to add a few facts which will show you that only a short time is needed for the transmission of such waves over great distances. During the great earthquake of Lisbon, on the 1st of November, 1755, the shocks travelling through the earth, arrived in Madeira, from the focus near Lisbon, in twenty-five minutes (535 nautical miles), whilst the sea wave took two hours and five minutes more before it reached the same locality.

In several islands in the West Indies, where the tide has only a rise of 2 feet to 3 feet the sea rose suddenly more than 20 feet the same day.

The earthquake at Valdivia, in Chilli, on the 7th November, 1837, which was remarkable for its violence, as well as for its great extent, caused violent agitations in the sea at Gambier’s Islands, Tahiti, the Navigator’s Islands and Vavao Islands, which consisted of repeated rising and falling of the surface of the sea. At the Vavao Islands these movements occurred on the 8th November, and continued every ten minutes for thirty-six-hours.

At the island of Opolu, one of the Navigator’s Islands, continuous earthquakes were felt on the 7th and 8th November, after which the oscillations of the sea took place.

At Awahu, one of the Sandwich Islands, the fluctuations of the sea occurred on the 7th November, and lasted during the whole night and till noon of the following day.

At Hawaii, also, the water fell nine feet in a very short time, and then rose suddenly twenty feet above high water mark.

The wreck of the Russian frigate, Diana, sunk as a result of the a tsunami, following the powerful Ansei-Tōkai earthquake of 23 December 1854. [16]
At the great earthquake which destroyed a Russian frigate in the harbour of Simoda, Japan, on the 23rd December, 1854, this harbour was emptied and filled several times by advancing and receding waves. In San Francisco, 4800 English miles from the scene of the earthquake, the colossal wave arrived twelve hours sixteen minutes after it had left the harbour of Simoda, so that it must have moved at the rate of 6½ English miles in a minute over the ocean. The first wave caused a rise in the surface of the sea at San Francisco, which lasted half-an-hour. It was followed by seven smaller waves with intervals of an   hour between. In San Diego the same phenomenon was observed, only the waves there came in later, and raised the surface of the water less.I may here add that no earthquake was felt at San Francisco, and thus the great disturbance of the ocean near that town would have remained unexplained had the focus of the earthquake been in the high seas below the level of the Pacific ocean or on an island on the shores of a continent inhabited by savages only. It is consequently possible that we never may became acquainted with the primary cause of the phenomenon observed to-day; at the same time we do as yet possess too few reliable data for deduction or generalisation, but I have no doubt that as soon as all the material is collected, we may be able to advance some steps towards the elucidation of this remarkable occurrence.

But I may already state that all the news which reached us from the various ports of both islands, lead us to the conclusion that the focus of this disturbance lies in an easterly direction.

Lyttelton Harbour 1869From the telegrams already received, it is evident that the phenomena observed in the various parts of the East coast happened not only at different hours, but also in a greater or lesser degree of magnitude. This difference, may be easily accounted for by the direction of the earthquake wave, the configuration of the coast, the form of the harbours and bays, the greater or lesser shallowness of the shores, and the depth of the sea a little distance off.

General observations have already sufficiently shows, in many parts of the world, that earthquake waves in the sea reach the coast with much less violence, when the shores are steep, and deep water is close by ; whilst at the head of long shallow bays their effect is very great and destructive. I have also heard that several persons experienced a slight shock of an earthquake this morning, between 3 and 4 o’clock ; one single perpendicular shock, apparently travelling from S.W. to N.E., accompanied by a slight subterranean rumbling sound. And I only regret that no seismometer has been placed anywhere in town to obtain conclusive confirmation of such an occurrence and of its direction. [17]

Tidal Wave and Earthquake

Colonist, Volume XI, Issue 1142, 4 September 1868, Page 5

On the morning of 15th August, (1868) a large tidal wave visited most of the seaports of New Zealand, and was particularly noticeable on the East Coast of the Middle Island (South Island), and at Wellington. A similar wave was experienced at about the same time at Sydney and Adelaide, upwards of a thousand miles distant. It was believed to have been the result of a severe earthquake to the eastward and in fact a slight shock of earthquake was observed that morning on the east coast of the Canterbury Province in this Colony. On the following Monday, 17th August, a sharp shock of earthquake was felt all over the Middle Island, and in Wellington, on the North Island but it does not appear to have affected Auckland or Taranaki. [18]

The Earthquake Wave

Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXIV, Issue 350, 7 October 1868, Page 3

The earthquake wave that crossed the Pacific Ocean in August from Peru to Australia is, I believe, the largest wave of its class yet recorded, the only ones that can at all compare with it being the one caused by the earthquake at Lisbon in 1755, which was propagated across the Atlantic to the West Indies, a distance of 3,500 miles, and the more recent one of December, 1854, caused by the great earthquake in Japan, and which traversed the North Pacific to San Francisco, a distance of 4,500 miles.

The wave that lately visited our shores appears to have originated somewhere about latitude 20˚ S., and longitude 70˚ W., at 5 p.m., on the 13th of August, according to the reckoning at the place, or at 9 a.m., 14th of August, according to our time. The first wave reached New Zealand at 4 a.m. on the 15th August, having therefore travelled about 6,700 miles in 19 hours, or at the rate of 3.87 miles a minute. The three waves reached us at three-hour intervals, and must therefore each have been about 1,000 miles in breadth.

The velocity at which waves travel over the ocean depends upon the depth of the water, and varies as the square root of the depth, so that the deeper the water the quicker the wave will travel. The wave raised by the earthquake at Lisbon travelled to the Barbadoes at the rate of 7.8 miles a minute, while it went to London at very little more than two miles a minute. Professor Airey has shown that a fixed relation exists between the breadth of a wave, its velocity of progress, and the depth of the water on which it travels.

The earthquake wave of December, 1854, was 217 miles in breadth, and travelled at the average rate of 6.l miles per minute, from which Professor Rache concluded that the mean depth of the North Pacific was 2,365 fathoms, or 14,190 feet. In the same way, by the progress of the tidal wave, the Atlantic, from 50˚ N. to 50˚S., has been calculated to have a mean depth of 22,157 feet.

Applying the same theory to the late wave, we find that the South Pacific has an average depth of only 8,721 feet, or not quite 1,454 fathoms or, in other words, the South Pacific is much more shallow than either the North Pacific or the Atlantic. This fact, if it should hereafter be established, has a very important bearing both on geology and the geographical distribution of plants and animals, which, however, it would be quite out of place to enlarge upon here.

F. W. Hutton. Auckland, October 6, 1868.[19]

  1. Image: State Library of Victoria. Accession No: IAN20/01/66/4. Image No: mp000979.
  2. The John Knox, a barque under Captain Jenkins, plied the waters between Sydney, Port Cooper and Lyttelton carrying cargo and passengers, often including the Captain’s wife and four children. After this event, she returned to her home port of Sydney and was docked and re-coppered, making good the damage done by the earthquake wave. Source Star, Issue 131, 13 October 1868, Page 2.
  3. The ketch Margaret was a local trader, plying the waters from Kaikoura, to Saltwater Creek, Kaiapoi, Lyttelton and Akaroa, carrying commercial loads such as coal and telegraph poles.
  4. The schooner Annie Brown, under the charge of Captain Brown, sailed from Melbourne and Hobart to Port Chalmers and Lyttelton, caring cargo.
  5. The schooner Jeannie Duncan carried freight and passengers throughout New Zealand and Fiji.
  6. The Novelty sailed from Sydney to the Coromandal and Lyttelton, and up the Heathcote, carrying cargo.
  7. The Novelty sailed from Sydney to the Coromandal and Lyttelton, and up the Heathcote, carrying cargo.
  8. The ship Coleroon, under Captain E. Montgomery, left Gravesend on the 27th March, arrived Lyttelton on 12 July, with 27 first and second class passengers, a large general cargo and two heifers and a bull for Mr E. Reece of Christchurch. The vessel met with a succession of heavy gales before and after passing the Cape. On 3rd June she shipped a heavy sea, when large quantities of water poured down the after hatchway. Men were employed for many hours bailing it out from the cabins. Source: Star, Issue 51, 13 July 1868, Page 2.
  9. The schooner Dove, under Captain C. Warren, sailed Akaroa, Little Akaloa, Lyttelton, carrying such cargo as timber.
  10. Gollan’s Bay lies below Evan’s Pass and is named after Donald Gollan, overseer for Captain Thomas.
  11. ‘A.H. Badger’ was a wooden barque of 337 ton, built in Maine, USA, 1858. In 1868 it sailed from her home port Newcastle to Sydney, Auckland, Lyttelton, Timaru under captain Brown, carrying commercial cargo, like coals. On the night of 15 October, 1871,  about 100 miles off the New Zealand coast en route to Auckland, it was suddenly crashed into by a 2,400 ton American steamer Nevada running the mails under contract with the New Zealand Government between San Francisco and New Zealand, and then on to Sydney. The Steamer never slacked up to see what had happened, and continued on at top speed. The ‘Badger,’ owned and sailed by Capt. J. L. Leddra, was also carrying his wife and children, on their first trip. Leddra ordered out all the boats left, and his family and the crew put off, abandoning the Badger. When they arrived in Sydney, they reported the incident to the authorities. The Admiralty Court  consequently found the Nevada had acted negligently and awarded Leddra £1600, being the value of his vessel, plus court costs.
  12. The Antelope cutter sailed mostly between Akaroa and Lyttelton in 1868, under Captain Malcolmson, carrying timber and casks of beer.
  13. The steamer Taranaki, 170 feet long, was under Captain Henry Francis, and carried passengers and cargo from Wellington to Southern Ports. Just four days after this event, on the 19th August 1868, the vessel entered Tory Channel and suddenly swerved from course. An attempt to correct the vessel failed and it struck a rock, breaking the propeller and wrecking the vessel and the £40,00 worth of cargo it was carrying. The official enquiry that followed found that fault did not lie with the the master or crew, but that the tidal disturbances which had taken place had been the cause ‘and the vessel had succumbed to what the ingenuity of man could not overcome’. Evening Post, Volume IV, Issue 168, 28 August 1868, Page 2.
  14. S. Manson farmed 136 acres at Port Lyttelton. Source: Stevens and Bartholomew’s New Zealand Directory for 1866-67,
  15. Source: Extract from The Sydney Morning Herald. Wednesday 26 August 1868. (From the Lyttelton Times, August 17)
  16. Image: Illustrated London News 1856. Source:
  17. Source: The Earthquake Wave at Lyttelton. (From the Lyttelton Times, August 14. 1868) (1868, September 17). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved September 30, 2012, from
  18. Source: Colonist, Volume XI, Issue 1142, 4 September 1868, Page 5. Papers Past.
  19. Source: Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXIV, Issue 350, 7 October 1868, Page 3. Papers Past.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    Strange incident of tidal wave at Lyttelton
    Sailmaker’s Tools Recovered From Bottom of Harbour
    James Robinson, of 246 Hereford Street, wrote:
    “My father kept a ship chandler’s store at Lyttelton and things had been slack for some time. A sail maker used to call every morning to inquire if there was any work. This kept on for six or eight weeks. At last he got desperate and said: “I will not do another day’s work at making sails.”
    He took his bag of tools, went to the end of the wharf and threw them into the sea. He went to work on the wharves if he could get work. The next day he started down to the wharf to get a job and when going along the street he met Mr Forbes, ship chandler, and he said: “You’re just the man I want. A ship has arrived with all her sails blown away. There will be plenty of work and overtime to make up for lost time.”
    But he told him he had given up sail-making for good. Then he heard we had work also. Then he thought, “What a fool I was,” and as he walked along a bit further he was met by another man, who said: “Brown, you’re just the man I want to see.” “There seem to a a lot of people want to see me this morning.” he said. So Bonner said to him: “You are a sailmaker are you not?”
    “No, I’m not; I was yesterday.”
    “Look here,” says Bonner, “I have got a bag of sailmaker’s tools.”
    Bonner told him he was sleeping in a truck when he was awakened, and the water left the harbour, and he saw a bag in the mud. So he went and got it.
    So Brown says: “That is my bag. There is my name on the bag.” So he bought it back, and went to work again.
    Bonner told him there had been a tidal wave and a great earthquake. So Brown top him he did not want all that trouble on his account, so he thought he had better start back to sailmaking again!

    Source: Canterbury Scrapbook. Clippings from Newspapers published approx. 1929.


  2. Marion J Hansen says:

    I enjoyed the story of the 1868 earthquake/tsunami at Lyttleton and the one about the sailmaker. Great stories from our history. My grt grandfather, Francis Scarenge, (Scorringi) had been a passenger on the ketch “Margaret” around May 26 1868, heading to Saltwater Creek.


  3. Robin Malcolmson says:

    I read this with great interest. My Great-great Uncle was Captain James Malcolmson who captained the Antelope.


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