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  • Keith Newman

Shaken & Stirred - locals recall 1931 earthquake

Cape Coast residents felt as if the carpet had been pulled out from underneath them when the Hawke’s Bay earthquake struck on 3 February 1931 and were immediately aware something terrible was unfolding as the sea receded and dust from the rubble built into a cloud above Napier. The tragedy took the lives of 256 people, flattening buildings in both Napier and Hastings, as the land rose in the north and sunk from East Clive to Clifton forever changing the landscape.

The late Jack Butcher, aged 98-years when interviewed, had firm recollections of “the day that changed the world”. He and his friends were sitting on the benches outside one of the classrooms eating play lunch the third day of the new term at Haumoana school when the quake “let loose and the ground jumped like a rough sea”.

In that instant, he recalled, they all panicked and ran toward the new headmaster Mr Florence as he walked in the school gate. “Then down came two brick chimneys across the seats we’d just been sitting on,” said Butcher.

“We just got clear and it smashed the trestles to smithereens. I always wonder what would have happened if Mr Florence hadn’t turned up when he did. Most of the kids just wanted their mothers.”

Butcher, who was 13-years old when the ground started shaking at 10.47am said things “just went haywire.” The children were assembled at the gate and sent home. One girl was slightly hurt and the school was closed for several weeks.

Later that evening at his parents Tukituki farm he heard the bangs and crashes from Hastings as another strong earthquake hit. He and his family slept in the shed afterwards, feeling safer than in the house. “It didn’t stop shaking for days.”

The late Hiraani Logan (nee Scott) was 11-years old and due to return to boarding school in Wellington when her cousin and other friends, sitting in the garden of the Clive Grange family house in Haumoana Rd, felt the ground rise up. “All of a sudden we were sitting with our legs hanging; the ground had gone down.”

Her two brothers were at the Haumoana School so her father Charles Scott and Buster Steward from the family of Steward and Hoadley and Son “who had arrived on his white horse” and was engaged to school teacher Miss Sides immediately went to the school making every effort to ensure the children were safe.

Sent from the district

On getting the two Scott boys to safety; and now aware of the magnitude of the disaster, arrangements were made to send them and others out of the district. “We were all huddled together and didn’t quite know what was going on. They took as many children as possible to Island Bay in Wellington for three months to avoid the sickness that came in the wake of the earthquake.”

Hiraani refused to go and remained home to observe the unfolding events. Once confident his own family were safe, her father Charles went over the Black Bridge which had partially collapsed, to Dr Gilrays Private Hospital on Marine Parade to help get all the patients out.

“He came back with three women who needed beds. We had big marquees which we had imported from America which we used to set up during the summer. We would roll out the flooring and spend our six weeks school holidays there. We set up one marquee for the boys and another for the girls and put out beds and mattresses because you couldn’t go into the house. All the chimneys were down.”

There was also damage to the veranda in the big lounge or the billiards room and the two balconies that were glassed in. Mother (Kathleen Scott nee Blake) saw this as her opportunity to get rid of the billiards room because Dad would invite his friends over and they would be playing and talking while she was upstairs trying to sleep.”

Hiraani’s memories won her an essay competition. “We had a choice to write about a day in our lives and for me it was obvious.”

Peter Circuit was 16-years old when the Hawke’s Bay earthquake struck. His parents were planning to attend a big local wedding, that of Molly Donnelly and Jack Chambers, and he had stayed home from school.

“My father planned to meet my mother in town where she was picking up her dress from Roaches store in Hastings. He met someone on the way to the dress shop and was just getting out (of the car) to talk when the quake struck. It was lucky he had stopped because they would have been in Roaches shop otherwise and pretty much everyone in there was killed.”

Wedding goes ahead

Circuit said the wedding went ahead regardless, although it was a hurried affair and they had to quickly find a parson who was free before heading back quickly to Te Awanga.

“I was looking after my younger sisters when the earthquake came about 11 o'clock in the morning. Everyone gathered at the front of the house. We had seen dust coming from all the slips from Cape Kidnappers and from Bluff Hill, Napier, sort of going across the horizon and gradually meeting.”

He then looked out at across the beach. “I thought, ‘There is something wrong with the sea’. And I went out to look and it had gone right back. There were just puddles of water where the sea was. I wish I had got a camera.”

About four chimneys came down in Te Awanga and in the Circuits house the damage was limited to two jars falling on the pantry floor.

When the sea receded it left a bare reef at the front of Te Awanga. Maureen Heaps says many residents evacuated to “Glenys hill”, the Glenny family property. “I was told that one resident went picking up stranded fish from the sea bed before the sea came back, fortunately washing only as far inland as the road along the lagoon front in Wellwood Tce.”

Safe with broken jaw

Fred Bradshaw, who lived with his family in Springfield Rd, says his father Albert suffered a broken jaw while in the Hastings Public Library where several people were killed. “I was with my mother in the main street of Hastings watching building fronts collapsing.” His older brother Ivan was at Napier Boys' High School and Bob was at the Haumoana School.

“I was only five years old and it was a terrifying experience, in seconds it seems the place is wrecked. Somehow my parents found one another and got back to the car, then was the job of getting from Hastings to Haumoana. We were lucky as a family that no one was missing at the end of the day.”

The only damage to their Haumoana house was a wrecked chimney and water tank, although “the artesian well had to be replaced and the interior of the house was a mess, particularly the kitchen.” His mother wasn’t happy to continue sleeping in the house so “a makeshift bivouac was made in the corner of the tennis court. Dad and Ivan slept in the house. There were earthquakes for days afterwards.

Angus Gordon of Clifton Station records the moment the deadly quake struck from the recollections of his father John who was aged seven years at the time and with his own father Frank Gordon down on the flats by the beach helping the men repair a fence.

“The noise and clouds of dust rising from the cliffs was apocalyptic. His father held onto him as they swayed drunkenly as if on a boat. Trees came crashing down in the plantation behind the houses. But the most vivid memory Dad had ... was watching spellbound as the sea bed rose up and the water retreated. One of the men who was with Frank yelled out ‘Oh my God, we’re going to get a tidal wave boss’ and began to run toward the hills.”

“Dad who was shaking like a leaf in a high wind, wanted to follow him but Frank said ‘We’ll never make it boy’. Cracks were opening up in the ground and with a sort of fascinated horror they stood there facing the sea and waiting for the huge wave to appear. But it never did. The sea came back in a rush, but more like a river than a wave. As they looked out across the bay, great clouds of smoke started rising from the Napier foreshore.”

As soon as he felt it was safe to move Angus Gordon’s grandfather Frank and his son John headed for the family home which they could see was still standing, although clouds of dust were hovering over it. His grandmother Dorothy ran across the front paddock towards them.

“When she reached them she was hysterical, and clung onto my father like a limpet, saying ‘Oh my darling. Oh my darling’ over and over again. When Frank tried to calm her she screamed at him, that it was all his fault for bringing her to this bloody country in the first place. ‘Oh what a terrible country, I hate it, I hate it.’ And then she burst into tears and the worst of the storm was over.”

When they got to the house it seemed to be intact except the billiard room was on its piles and the four chimneys and fireplaces had collapsed, the bricks were scattered all over the drive and inside it was choked with the dust from the rubble. The grandfather clock which has stood on the landing half way up the stairs was face down on the ground floor.

The clock was eventually repaired and is now still in the sitting room of the old family house. The bricks were saved for his grandmother’s pet memorial project, with the resulting brick wall garden at the end of the drive to the rear of the property giving a very English feel to the place. In later years grandmother Dorothy’s ashes were placed in that wall beside a plaque.

Sources: Ex-pupil shares quake memories, Tracey Chatterton, HB Today, Feb 20, 2015 Interview with Peter Circuit in TAPA newsletter Maureen Heaps typewritten notes Angus Gordon, Shadow of the Cape, p121-122 Keith Newman personal interviews Hiraani Logan and Jack Butcher Photos: Archives New Zealand 1931 Hawkes Bay Earthquake, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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