Quakes of the past

19:33, Jul 28 2013
Seddon store 1966
Stocktake: John Bargh surveys the chaos created in his Seddon grocery business by the 6.1 earthquake on April 23, 1966.

Generations of Marlburians have had their lives disrupted by the major fault lines that rumble beneath us. Bill McElhinney looks back on our shaky past.

"You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain. . ."

The opening lines of Jerry Lee Lewis' Great Balls of Fire probably describe how many Marlburians have been feeling for the past week as the earth has rumbled and rocked beneath them. But we shouldn't be surprised (or complacent): Marlborough lies within the highest earthquake risk zone in New Zealand.

1966 quake
A quake on the side of State Highway 1 in Seddon appeared after the 6.1 earthquake on April 23, 1966

The district is crossed by a series of fault lines including the Wairau, Awatere and Clarence faults, which are an extension of the Alpine Fault.

Given the fractured nature of the earth beneath us, earthquakes are a continuing part of our history.

In fact the written record of earthquakes in New Zealand begins in Marlborough when, on May 11, 1773, the crew of the Adventure under the command of Captain Furneaux, while ashore on Motuara Island in Queen Charlotte Sound, "felt two severe shocks of an earthquake but received no kind of damage".


Shaken Seddon residents might spare a thought for the pioneer settlers of the area. In 1848 the Awatere fault let loose with a 7.5 shake. There were only a few - mostly sod - dwellings in the district at the time and nearly all were levelled.

Constantine Dillon wrote to his mother: "We have been the greatest sufferers in this settlement for a new house and dairy which was just finished and established at the Wairau and which altogether had cost me about £80 or £90 has been levelled to the ground."

Terrified whalers working in Cloudy Bay threw their women and children into an open boat and fled across a stormy Cook Strait to Wellington. Not that they found any comfort there, as Wellington was also badly shaken.

But there was worse to follow for the new settlers of Marlborough, most of whom had come from England where earthquakes were unheard of. On January 23, 1855, there was a second and larger earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.2. It rumbled on more or less continuously for three weeks, throwing people's lives into turmoil.

Frederick Trolove, who lived at Kekerengu on the Kaikoura coast, kept a detailed diary of those frightening days.

"So sudden and severe was it that in running out of the house we had great difficulty in keeping our balance. We staggered like drunken men," he wrote.

Poor Trolove. He and his settler companions must have been greatly disheartened in their new homeland.

"As I lay in the woolshed I could see the poor old house, which I had put up with my own hands, tottering with every shock and now and then part of the chimney or wall would drop to the ground. I felt that what I had done in New Zealand was doomed to be undone in one night. And so indeed it was."

Throughout the rest of the year Trolove continued to record earthquakes but at longer and longer intervals. His last journal entry, for March 1856, records "earthquake as usual."


Alexander Mowat and his family fled their cob house at Altimarloch in the Awatere Valley during the January 1855 8.2 earthquake and spent the whole night outside on the lawn. The Redwoods were also forced to abandon their house and took refuge in the woolshed.

Mowat kept a brief running commentary on the aftershocks experienced in the Awatere and Wairau Valleys, which went on with gradually decreasing frequency for the next nine months. "Wednesday Jan 24th. Earthquakes nearly every half hour . . . at 9pm another fearful shake.

"Saturday Feb 10th. Several earthquakes. At 9pm a smart shock." And so it went on, with the final entry "October 10th . . . Sharp earthquake at 5am."

However, there was one positive result from the January quake: It caused the Wairau Plain to subside, consequently deepening the Opawa River, making it navigable by small steamers. This led to the establishment of Blenheim as a river port town. But the same earthquake lifted the mouth of the Flaxbourne River, spoiling the entrance to a safe harbour which had been so useful to the early Flaxbourne runholders. Schooners which had previously been able to enter the river now had to anchor offshore and goods were rowed out to them through the often stormy waters of Ward Beach.

Seddon and Blenheim were shaken again in the early evening of April 23, 1966. A 6.1 quake, originating in Cook Strait, damaged the majority of chimneys in Seddon, cracked many buildings there and in Blenheim, and buckled the main trunk railway line just south of Seddon. The whole of the Marlborough Power Board area was without power for a short time and Seddon and the centre of Blenheim for almost half an hour. Seddon water mains were ruptured and the township was without water for most of Sunday.

The staff of the Marlborough Express were holding their centennial dinner in the Centennial Hall, which stood where the Countdown supermarket is. Once the staff and their guests had got over the initial shock, they continued their celebrations by candlelight until the power was restored.

By the end of April a total of 41 shocks had been recorded in that sequence of earthquakes.

Marlborough was shaken again in 1995, just a couple of months after a devastating quake in Kobe, Japan. On March 23 a 5.9 shake toppled goods from supermarket shelves in Blenheim and caused minor damage to some properties.

While unnerving, the latest series of shakes have caused minimal damage. But we can't be complacent. We live in a quake-prone area and, despite the best efforts of modern science, we will never know just when the next big one may strike.