“The Sick, Faint Feeling of Violent Shakes,” Jane Deans

For one of our city’s most famous early women settlers, poor health had marred not only her voyage to New Zealand but also her arrival to her new home at Riccarton. From the moment Jane Deans boarded the sailing ship at Plymouth for Canterbury in November of 1853, she suffered from motion sickness. As the voyage progressed, her sea sickness became so severe, she could neither face hot tea nor food of any kind. Only just married to John Deans in October, Jane was also suffering from morning sickness.

Jane Deans circa 1865
Jane Deans, circa 1865. [1]
After her three month voyage, she wrote, that her health was not robust and that she could barely ‘stick on’ a horse which took her down the Bridle Path. She was in such a bad state she had to stay at the house of Reverend Puckle and his wife Elizabeth, before the horse and wagon took her on to the homestead at Riccarton.

The Puckles were Canterbury pilgrims who had arrived aboard the Randolph – one of the first four ships, – in 1850. Elizabeth was believed to have been the second woman to step ashore at Lyttelton. The Puckles brought which them a large quantity of their beautiful furniture from England – about 70 tons – believing that they would be living in a wing of a large college. However home was at first a little paling hut at the side of the immigration barracks in Lyttelton. Their furniture was stored on the seashore, and bit by bit they watched each piece be carried away by the sea. Puckle became the first curate of the Heathcote district, and his family the first occupants of the little parsonage in Heathcote Valley. [2]

She describes the fear she felt when experiencing her first earthquakes. She was sitting in the Deans Cottage – the oldest European building in Canterbury – when a massive 8.2 quake, centred in the Wairarapa, hit on 25th January, 1855. It caused widespread destruction in Wellington and killed nine people.

“…We had a severe shock of earthquake, the worst that I had felt till then. It did a great deal of damage in Nelson and Wellington, though not so much here.  It came about nine in the evening.  I was sitting reading, when all at once the house began to rattle, and my chair felt to be upsetting. The pictures swung on the walls and the lamp on the table shook from side to side as if it would capsize. It was over in a few seconds, but lasted long enough to make everyone’s face pale, and their limbs to tremble. That was a shake!

…In the middle of the night a very sharp “upheaval” one came, shorter but more alarming…. Aunt Grace was sleeping with me, and was so frightened she grasped my throat with terror and nearly choked me before I got her released. Slight shocks continued to come every night for many weeks after, possibly during the day as well, but when moving about they were not felt.  The weather at the time was mild and beautiful, being midsummer.  In the evenings the eastern sky had a most peculiar appearance for weeks at sunset – a lurid blue shading to yellow. We used to watch it so anxiously, thinking it must have been something to do with the earthquakes. I will never forget the sensation.”

On the 5th June, 1869 Christchurch was hit by a 4.7 m earthquake – the most severe earthquake experienced by the early settlers of the province.  It is thought it may have been the same fault line that broke apart 140 years later, causing much loss of life in February 2011.

Jane wrote,

“We were visited by one of most severe earthquakes experienced here by Europeans. It came, as they usually do, without warning. A loud report like a cannon ball hitting the house, then a long rumbling noise like a long heavy train passing over a wooden bridge, shaking violently, all the time.

I cannot remember how long the shock lasted – not a great length of time, perhaps a minute but it seemed interminable. Coming, as it did about eight in the morning and not being very strong at the time, I was still in bed, but tried to jump up at the first notice. That, however, was impossible.  The sick, faint feeling and violently shaking compelled me to lie down again; then the feeling that every moment the roof was coming down on me, was something dreadful…..

The shocks continued to come and go for the next two months. The first was the heaviest, though some of the others were just as alarming, being quick and sharp. On the last evening of August the following year, 1870, we had another very similar in character to the first shock of those just mentioned, but being downstairs, I made a rush for the door, my son caught my arm to prevent my going outside, as my health was not robust, so I stood with the handle of the front door in my hand, swaying backward and forward with the motion like the branch of a tree in a storm.

On going into the kitchen when the shock was over, I found my good old Jane and the groom still fixed to their seats at table, where they had just finished their tea. The hams hanging from the ceiling swayed backward and forward for a quarter of an hour.” [3]

  1. Source: Selwyn Library.
  2. ‘ONE OF THE CANTERBURY PILGRIMS.’ Star , Issue 3479, 5 June 1879, Page 3. ‘THE LATE REV. E. PUCKLE’ Press, Volume LV, Issue 10128, 30 August 1898, Page 5.
  3. Letters to My Grandchildren by Jane Deans, 3rd Edition with Indexes.
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