NAPIER AFTER THE 1931 EARTHQUAKE

A few days after the devastating earthquake in the North Island of New Zealand, Mr Edward Wallace of the Burroughs Adding Machine agency in Wellington visited the area. He took along his camera, and recorded his experiences. This is his account; the captions are those he gave the photographs. I have retained the original punctuation.

Napier 1931

“Wellington Automobile Club here” said a voice over the telephone.

“Yes.” I answered, expecting to get the same call I had been receiving regularly during the past few days since the earthquake, to take my car and meet the refugees at the railway station or boat, and drive them to the Red Cross Depot and afterwards to their billets about the city and suburbs.

“We have a special job for you Mr. Wallace – can you start for Napier at six in the morning?”

“I think so.”

“We have a man who wishes to return to his wife who is in hospital and not likely to live, and we have a couple of others who want to return on other urgent business.”

And so it was settled that I was to start for the earthquake area on the morning of the 10th February 1931 – just a week after the disaster had taken place.

Before daylight I was getting the car ready for the trip and took care to place some fruit and biscuits in my bag as well as a rug, as I was told I would probably have to sleep in the car over night.

Just before 6 a.m. I was at the Vivian Street Baptist Church where I was to pick up the refugees. They were ready with the few things they had hastily packed when the town was evacuated just after the earthquake had taken place. We were also asked to take some letters, a policeman’s uniform, and some more uniforms for the nurses in the field hospital at Napier.

The 96 miles to Palmerston North were covered in good style. There we picked up Mr. Claude Armstrong of the Burroughs staff, who had arranged to go through with me to see if we could obtain any further particulars of the damaged machines in the district. Mr. Armstrong was boarding in Napier for some weeks before the earthquake and had only left the night before it occurred to attend to some urgent business in Palmerston North.

At Palmerston we were told that all traffic to Napier had been stopped unless we had passes from the police. We did not all have passes as it was considered unnecessary in the case of the refugees, and my pass was only from the Automobile Club which had been recognized previously. The car was marked with a large red badge “Relief Car” in two places. Anyhow, we did not anticipate trouble and we started from Palmerston at about 10.30 a.m.

At Woodville there was a Red Cross booth on the main road and here we were given a cup of hot tea and some sandwiches which were very acceptable. The members of the Red Cross Society in each town had arranged such booths for the convenience of refugees leaving the earthquake district, and also the few returning for special reasons.

When we reached Dannevirke we saw that the town had been badly shaken and plate glass windows were missing in many places, but there was no structural damage of any consequence.

About a mile past the town we were stopped by a road picket and asked for our passes.

“Very sorry Sir, but your passes are not acceptable, as this morning instructions have been issued that only police passes are to be recognised.”

We were then referred to the police station in Dannevirke and there was nothing else to do but to turn round and go back.

We had some difficulty in convincing the rather officious police sergeant that we were entitled to enter Napier and that our present passes should be recognised. I eventually gave that sergeant a piece of my mind when I could see that one of the party was likely to be held up, and although he told me he was “not going to be stampeded” by me he issued a pass almost immediately afterwards.

Before we reached Waipukurau we were able to see the full effects of the earthquake. Roads were cracked, hills had slipped, and chimneys were down everywhere. When we reached the town we had to get our passes stamped by the Borough Council authorities before we were allowed to pass over the bridge leading to Napier. Here we were given another cup of tea and we made the best of this for we knew it was going to be the last on the journey.

During the trip the refugees had given us an interesting account of their experience and from this part onwards they were able to point out much damage to property.

When we reached the Hastings boundary we were stopped again and not permitted to go through the town. We then drove on to Napier. Between the two towns there is only a distance of twelve miles but these twelve miles were full of interest.

Napier 1931

Road ouside Napier showing bridge risen about four feet; notice the crack in the road in the centre of the picture.

At one part there was a large crack about two feet wide running parallel with the road for a few hundred feet and in places the road had sunk so far as to almost make the car disappear from sight. Every bridge or culvert had been damaged and in most cases the bridges had risen. It was a strange sight to see a bridge about four feet higher than the road and it would appear that the upward thrust of the earth had pushed the bridge out of its place and the earth had settled under the piles or supports so that it could not get back to its original position. The bridges were still passable although they had to be taken very slowly on account of the rough approach which was just soil heaped up from the roadside, to enable the cars to run up to the bridge.

The refugees desired to go to Taradale, a few miles west of Napier, but we could not take the usual road because the main approach was completely destroyed. We therefore had to make a detour and go through Napier first. Although we were driving on a concrete road for much of the distance we had to go slowly for the thick concrete had suffered in the same way as the rest of the ground, and large fissures a foot wide had to be negotiated.

At last Napier was reached – Napier – or “Sunny Napier” as it was generally called, beautifully situated on the edge of the ocean, and one of the prettiest towns in the Dominion. Alas, that Napier was no more.

Napier 1931

A typical street scene in Napier.

As I drove slowly along I had a sinking of the heart and an indescribable feeling of amazement combined with despair. Was it war? No! War’s destruction could never equal this! Why had this beautiful town been wrecked? What terrible force had destroyed the thousands of homes and business houses almost in the twinkling of an eye? I was reminded of the God who holds the earth in the palm of His hand, and of the futility of living lives that do not conform to His will, for surely man’s power was less in comparison than a drop to the mighty ocean which still beat its force at the door of the ruined city.

We came to where the people were at work amongst the ruins. The scene was indescribable. It reminded me of an ants’ nest which had been trodden on by school boys. After a few moments of disorder the ants run hither and thither not knowing what to do, and then in a very short space of time they start removing the dead and repairing the damage.

Napier 1931

Filling an old water course with debris from buildings.

Here in less than a week after the appalling disaster and wholesale destruction of life and property, those remaining with their health and strength were doing their utmost to restore order. There were dozens of lorries being loaded with the debris from streets by men who were working at high pressure, and the spoil was taken away to fill in a piece of land which was normally under water, but had now been left high and dry. And those men seemed to find some solace in their work and could smile as they threw the bricks on to the lorry, for although some had lost all their earthly possessions, had they not had their lives preserved, and many in such a miraculous manner, that they believed God had purposely delivered them from that death.

We drove to the park which was now serving as a community camp. Here the ground was filled with tents properly laid out and resembling a military camp. There were many here who were unable to work and yet they did their share whenever possible, for there was much to be done. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the Y.M.C.A. were all represented and doing excellent service.

We left one of the passengers, delivered the uniforms and the letters, and drove on to Taradale.

Although only a few miles out the road had to be covered very carefully. We passed the railway which usually ran over a flat piece of land in a straight line, but it was now torn and twisted like a wriggling worm, with the earth-works in places broken and sunken.

We passed the race course which was now the main hospital. Here men and nurses were running to and fro and some cars passed us in a great hurry. It was one continuous race with death and the daily papers showed how many times death won.

Napier 1931

Arrival at Taradale with the men returning and Mr. Armstrong

We arrived at the little township of Taradale and here it seemed that the earthquake had been just as bad as in Napier. We stopped at the man’s little cottage and he asked us to go inside. The whole house had been lifted bodily from the foundation and left askew. All the chimneys were down, the hot water service was thrown to the ground, and the front portion of the house was propped up with beams. In the kitchen the stove was thrown out, crockery, glass-ware, and all the usual kitchen fittings and furniture were lying broken or damaged, mixed up together on the floor. There was a bowl of eggs on the floor and strange to say some of them were still unbroken.

We passed to the other rooms. Pictures were down in many cases, but on some of the walls they were still hanging although they had been turned completely round by the movement of the house, and the face of the pictures was turned to the wall. A piano was thrown bodily from one side of the room to the other and faced a different direction. Unless one had actually seen these things it would be almost impossible to believe that a house could be so shaken.

A wardrobe was lying on its face with the mirror broken to atoms. It reminded me of a completely furnished doll’s house which had been kicked to one side by the child when the playtime was over.

The man showed us where he was sitting in the kitchen at the time of the quake. He struggled outside with everything falling about him. As he reached the back door the earth seemed to come up to meet him and he was thrown over a four foot fence into a pumpkin patch in the garden. He showed us where he hurt his hand as he was pitched over the hurdle.

Napier 1931

Remains of Masonic Temple at Taradale

Right next door was the Taradale Masonic Temple, or rather all that was left of it. It had been a two storied brick construction but it was now a heap of bricks with the roof settled down on top of it.

In every case the bricks had proved the worst kind of building material. When the earthquake came it simply shook every brick apart and let the place collapse like a pack of cards.

We said “Good-bye” to the owners of the cottage and left them to their difficult task of clearing up and rebuilding their little home. As we passed to the car we said “That man must have a heart of a lion to return to such a spectacle before his nerves had properly recovered from the great shock.”

Mr. Armstrong and I returned to Napier to see what we could learn concerning the fate of some of the Burroughs machines.

Napier 1931

Showing a hillside which fell away leaving the cottage overhanging the edge.

We passed at the foot of a hill which had slipped and saw a cottage overhanging the edge of a drop of about one hundred and fifty feet. On the same hill at the other end there was a similar sight and I believe more than one cottage actually came down with the hillside in other places.

Napier 1931

Clearing the wreckage at the Nurses’ Home. Many bodies are still underneath.

We saw some men working with a tractor and a steel cable trying to pull the wreckage of a building apart. This proved to be the Nurses’ Home, another brick building, which had collapsed in the manner described, and entombed a number of the nurses. These men were working to clear the debris and find the remainder of the bodies. This was one of the worst death-traps in the whole district and it was nothing short of miraculous that so many could escape with their lives.

Napier 1931

Another view of the wreckage of the Nurses’ Home

Directing the workers and doing more than his share was a policeman. His clothes were torn and dirty; he was working in his shirt sleeves; his face had a grim set appearance which was aggravated by the perspiration marks, as it tricked down his grimy face. The only way of identifying this man as a policeman was the fact that he wore a helmet which was almost as dirty as the rest of his clothing. He was certainly doing his bit. We now understood why we had been asked to bring up some new uniforms.

Napier 1931

Remains of what was once a beautiful home

Mr. Armstrong then took me to what was once a beautiful home where some friends of his were living on the eventful day. It was another brick house and this time three women were caught in the falling walls as the place collapsed. Fortunately one was able to extricate herself after great difficulty and she then obtained assistance for the other two who were eventually freed. The owner of the house was also injured and subsequently died. Mr. Armstrong drove the three ladies into Palmerston North the second day after their dreadful ordeal. Their home is a complete wreck as the photograph shows and their new car is amongst the wreckage in the garage underneath.

We went to the main street of the city. Here and in fact, right throughout the main portion of the business area everything had been burnt, and very completely burnt, for there had been no water or fire fighting appliances available, and when the fires started they were only stopped by the naval men blowing up a fire break with explosives.

A track had been cleared in the street to enable the lorries to wend their way around the heavy masses of concrete and other large obstacles which had not yet been moved.

Napier 1931

Remains of Criterion Hotel. Mr. Armstrong is standing where his machines were found.

I was taken to a corner where the Criterion Hotel was once standing and here we found the remains of three Burroughs machines, the steel barrel of a small rifle and a gold Eversharp pencil. These were all that remained of the whole of Mr. Armstrong’s personal effects and consignment machines.

Napier 1931

Three Burroughs machines burnt after the earthquake.

Napier 1931

Mr. Armstrong finds one of his burnt machines.

A sentry approached and as he was armed I thought it better to make an explanation and then received permission to go ahead and take the photographs amongst the ruins.

Napier 1931

All that remained of the Burroughs machine used by the Union Bank.

We then went across to a corner block which was once the Union Bank. We were told that there was some burnt money still amongst the ruins but the sentry kept an eye on us as I photographed the remains of another machine.

Napier 1931

One of the Naval sentries on guard in the streets; notice the motor car upon which some wreckage fell before it was burnt.

He then became talkative, and as he thought the photographs would appear in the press he was pleased to be included in the picture.

Almost every part of the city had some tragic stories attached to it.

“Here was a spot where a woman was pinned under the wreckage. It was impossible to extricate her but she was quite conscious and watched the furious fires approaching nearer and nearer. Her agonising screams and appeals to be rescued were heart-rending. At last a doctor threw a wet blanket around himself, went to the spot where she was held a prisoner, and gave her an overdose of morphia to save her from further pain.”

“Here was another spot where a boy had been buried for four days, and when he was rescued he seemed little the worse for his experience and asked for a drink of water.”

We saw the Bank of New Zealand. Although the building toppled down while the staff were at work nobody was seriously injured. While the building was actually falling the staff rushed to their back door only to find it blocked by a fallen building on the outside. They then rushed back to get to the front entrance just in time to see the front of the building fall outwards on to the street and crush a woman who was just leaving the Bank. If they had not first tried the back door they would have been with the woman at the moment she was killed. When the shock had subsided they decided to rescue the cash and ledgers, and when this was successfully completed they closed the strong room door as far as it would go and then got out their three adding machines which were still in a corner absolutely untouched. While this was being done the fires were sweeping along the street towards them and before they could finish their work the wreckage caught fire which completed the destruction.

No matter where you turned, if anyone interested in the ruins happened to be present you could hear stories which could only be enacted under such circumstances as those which had taken place exactly a week ago.

We went to the Post Office, that fine new building, which was only just completed the last time I was in Napier a few months ago and was now a ruin. The clock was not burnt and its hands were still at ten minutes to eleven, reminding people of the hour and the minute of the catastrophe.

Napier 1931

The remains of one of the largest and most up to date stores – Messrs. Blythes Ltd.

Blythes Store, one of the principal business houses of the city, still had a portion of its walls standing, although those on both sides had been almost razed to the ground. No doubt the burnt Burroughs machines could have been found, but we had found enough of such ruins for the day.

Napier 1931

Another car pinned down by falling concrete and afterwards burnt. The concrete building in background is burnt and wrecked, although it appears sound in the photograph.

We turned a corner to where a concrete building was standing, the walls of which were very little damaged but the fire had penetrated right through the building.

Here as we went along the street we saw another of the many motor cars upon which had fallen pieces of masonry which had prevented it from being moved, and had then been included in the path of the fire.

Napier 1931

A Boarding House which escaped the fire but is nevertheless only wreckage.

We went to the other end of the town and here the buildings had been mostly saved from fire, although they were almost completely destroyed. I photographed a three storied boarding house, the falling roof of which had been caught by an electric light pole which still kept it from dropping to the footpath.

I wondered whether the absence of fire had actually saved anything after all.

I came to the Masonic Hotel and remembered the nights I had stayed there. I thought of the remarks of the wife of our General Manager who said she had not seen brighter silverware in any other hotel in New Zealand. I pictured my bedroom on the third floor facing the ocean, and the beautiful seascape I had seen in the morning when the “glorious sun rose in the east” above the far distant horizon. Alas, those blackened ruins still held some burnt bodies beneath them for here several persons had lost their lives.
I walked to the concrete wall of the Marine Parade to see where the ocean had been forced back a distance of some 20 yards by the uprising land. Further along the shore was the Bluff Hill which had fallen into the sea and where there were known to be two or three parties in cars buried for ever. The road around that hill would never be opened.

Yes, it was depressing; it was nauseating in every sense of the word; there were sights which sickened and there was the poisonous atmosphere in places where sewer gas was coming into the streets.

We got into the car and with a heart full of sympathy for those thousands who had suffered loss of friends, relatives, or property, and were still homeless, we drove towards Hastings.

When we reached the boundary we knew we would be stopped by the picket but on this occasion we were prepared. Before he could get in a single word we asked if he could direct us to the Mayor of Hastings. He looked a little bit suspicious but we mentioned Mr. Roach by name and said we had some urgent business with him. It worked and we were allowed to pass on through certain of the streets.

The main portion of the town however, was still denied us but we knew this could be seen if we reached Mr. Roach. We went to the Drill Hall where the Relief Committees were working, but he had left and we were directed elsewhere. After making several calls we finally found him in his Son’s garage where the members of the family still remaining in Hastings, had just finished their evening meal.

Outside the garage was an open camp fire-place built from the bricks of the broken chimneys. Some meat had been cooked and also some potatoes. We were invited in and as we had not had any food for a number of hours we were very thankful for the meal which was so kindly placed before us.

Of course there was only one topic of conversation and one thought uppermost in their minds. The poor old Mayor, who was previously a comparatively wealthy man, was now ruined. His business was completely destroyed, not a particle of the stock was saved, and the building was burnt to the ground. His home was wrecked, but he was exceedingly thankful that although many lives had been lost in his premises, yet every member of his family had been saved. With all his own troubles he was now spending most of his time assisting the people of Hastings in the true public spirit which had won for him the love of the people of the district.

When the meal was over I was shown through his son’s house. It was in just the same condition as the home I visited in Taradale, except that the rooms were larger and the furniture seemed to have had more space in which to be thrown about.

In one lounge room the bricks from the broken chimney had crashed through the roof and eventually came through the ceiling on to the furniture and a new carpet, the room having been completely renovated only a few weeks before. The house had been deserted ever since the earthquake. The garage had been used for meals and three tents on the lawn in front of the house served for the bedrooms. Little sleep could be expected, even in the tents which were comparatively safe, yet they were infinitely better than going into that wrecked house which was likely to break still more with every after shock which came along.

One of his sons, Neville, was deputed by the Mayor to escort us through the town and as he had a permanent pass we knew we would now see the worst.

Mr. Roach first took us to the spot where only a week ago Roachs Ltd. carried on the largest business of the town.

What a sight! This beautiful department store was now nothing but a mass of concrete, steel girders, burnt sheets of galvanised iron, and general wreckage. I stood up on a big piece of concrete about 20 feet long, which had previously formed part of a wall, so that I could see the various spots of interest which were now being pointed out to me. After I had been on this solid block for a minute or two, it began to rock. At first I thought that it was balancing on something in the middle and my weight was making it see-saw but I soon realised that it was something different. I jumped off only to find that the road was moving the same way. “Only a little one” said Mr. Roach, who was now getting used to the quakes which always follow a big earthquake. Nevertheless, it gave me a feeling of insecurity and a peculiar sickening sensation which must be experienced to be understood. It was over in a few moments and I climbed back to the concrete.

“This is where we rescued my brother Gordon,” he continued. “It was a very close shave. He was pinned down by the legs and neck, and although quite conscious, he could not move, but saw the fires approaching rapidly each minute. He was quite yellow and almost suffocated by the smoke and fumes when he was at last released. Two more minutes and he would have been killed. As it was, he completely collapsed when carried to safety but is now recovering under treatment in Wellington.”

“We were only given a matter of minutes in which to effect all the rescues and it was a case of working frantically and reach and release those whom we knew we could save while the screams from the other poor unfortunate victims were only drowned as the fire passed over them. It was hell!”

“My other brother was on the top floor in the office when the quake came. It was all so sudden, and the building was actually falling down almost immediately after the shake started. Some of the girls rushed out to run down the stairs. My brother stopped five of them and gathered them together in a doorway until the quake had somewhat subsided. These girls were afterwards able to crawl through the broken roof which had settled down on the wrecked building, and thus find their way to safety. All of the girls who went down the stairs were killed. We have recovered seventeen bodies but we have not yet searched that portion of the wreckage over there. It would be necessary to employ machinery in that spot in order to lift the heavy material. In fact there is a Donkey Engine which they are erecting for that purpose.”

We climbed over a huge steel girder which had been supporting one of the main portions of the building and was now bent beyond repair.

There was another spot of special interest to which we made our way. It was a small brick room behind an iron door in which was stored explosives. At the time of the fire, there were a number of large bags of salt stacked outside the door of the room. That salt kept the fire at bay, and as the bags burnt the salt tumbled down and put the fire out, and thus the explosives were left intact.

There were other harrowing stories which were all the more gruesome when told amongst such surroundings, and at that time  of night, when darkness was beginning to fall.

We walked further down the street.

“Here was a spot where a young man had been shopping with his intended bride at the time of the shake, and they had arranged to get married at three o’clock the same day. They escaped from the falling buildings without injury and immediately set out for the bride’s home to see if her people were also safe. There they found everything wrecked and the elaborate preparations for the wedding were – well you can imagine what happened – but fortunately no one was injured. Love prevailed, and even the earthquake did not prevent that wedding from being celebrated, for some of the good things were salvaged and at three o’clock on the lawn outside the wrecked home the young man took unto himself a plucky little wife.”

Unlike Napier, Hastings had not been completely burnt, but the fires had only done their destruction in places.

We were now in a street which the fire had scarcely touched. Here the buildings were all wrecked and in many cases hanging together in a very dangerous condition. It was now easy to understand why the Hastings authorities were so strict with regard to allowing people in the streets. The buildings were likely to fall at any time, and in fact each after-shock did some further damage towards bringing them to the ground. In these stores were goods which might be salvaged, although in some cases it looked very unlikely that anything could be saved.

An attempt had been made to salvage some of the fancy goods in the store of R.J. MacKenzie Ltd. Quite a fair amount of the goods had been sorted out and replaced on the shelves for the time being. The next day another earthquake came along and they were all scattered to the ground once more.

Here was a confectionery store. Before the earthquake it was the pride of the street with its many glass jars and glass cases of sweets, soda fountain etc. I will leave you to imagine what it looked like after it had been tossed about many times like a cork upon the ocean.

There was a picture theatre which had only partly collapsed and the remainder was now likely to fall down at any moment. What a blessing the earth commenced its tricks at a moment when no theatres were open, otherwise there would have been more deaths. This building would have to be pulled down or blown up. At present a section of the street is roped off to prevent the workers from getting too close.

We reached an intersection of the street and here again we were challenged. As it was now almost dark the police sentries were particularly watchful, as no one other than the police were allowed in this portion of the town after dark. The police were working in pairs at each intersection and were now making themselves snug for the night. There were chairs or seats of some kind placed in front of a good fire which was burning brightly in a fire place built of bricks from the wrecked buildings. These fires provided warmth and light during the hours of the darkness, and such sentry posts were placed at every intersection of the road, the fire being right in the middle.

Mr. Roach introduced us to one of the two police sentries after his pass was found to be in order. This special constable, like all others, was in old clothes, and the only visible sign of uniform or authority, was a band on his arm showing he was a “Police Sentry.”

These were all voluntary police drawn from the citizens and consisted of almost every trade and profession. This man was a teller in the Union Bank, and when he knew I was interested in the Banks and machines he was able to give me some good information. Leaving his companion in charge for the time being, he came along to the next intersection with us and there showed us three of the ruined Banks.

The Union Bank was a brick building and the walls were still standing, although it had been gutted by fire. This was a good illustration of what bricks built with cement mortar will stand.

On the opposite corner was the Bank of New South Wales. This building had been in two sections, the old portion being of wood and the new portion of brick. The wooden section was still standing, although damaged, but the brick portion had totally collapsed.

The concrete walls of the National Bank which was close by were still standing, but they had been damaged and the fire had been completely through the building.

If the fire had caught the Bank of New South Wales nothing would have been saved but they lost very little in the brick portion which was wrecked.

The several Banks had agreed upon the community plan in Hastings somewhat similar to what they had decided for Napier, except that in Napier there was no building whatever in which they could commence operations, and there they proposed to erect a galvanised iron building in which all the Banks would be housed. This building would take about four days to build and they expected to occupy it for a period of a couple of years while the new premises were being erected.

I know of no other part of the world where the various Banks are together in such a building, and I should think it would be quite a unique experience in the way of banking.

In Hastings the Bank of New South Wales would carry on in the wooden portion of their building which had not been wrecked. The Manager’s residence was a portion of the same building and this would be used for the National Bank. The other Banks were going to build temporary premises on the lawn at the side of the Bank.

Thus in the two towns all the Banks will be together.

After a further short talk about the Banks in general the special constable resumed his place as watchman for the night, and we made our way down the dark streets to where we had left the car.

Just before 9 o’clock we started on our journey of 110 miles to Palmerston. We had to travel slowly at first to avoid the cracks and broken road but we soon got to the sound road.

Just as the clock was striking the hour of midnight we entered the city of Palmerston North, having been travelling just over 18 hours and covered nearly 400 miles in the car as well as a few miles walking around the ruined towns.

Napier 1931

Another view of burnt machines.

It did not take very long to have a bath and get to bed. I was soon fast asleep only to dream of earthquakes and fire. I heard a loud report, followed by another. It was the rumbling of another earthquake; the wall was falling on me; I struggled to get free, and then awoke to find the maid knocking at my door with the early morning cup of tea.

During the remaining 96 miles to Wellington I had the car to myself as Mr. Armstrong was staying in Palmerston North, and shortly after 11 o’clock I was sitting in my office feeling thankful that Wellington had been spared from the fate of Napier and Hastings.

signature - E. Wallace Feb 1931

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