Canterbury has a shaky history

From the archives

Last updated 09:58 25/02/2012
cathedral
Alexander Turnbull Library
SHAKY PAST: The damaged spire of the Christ Church Cathedral after the 1888 quake.

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Sometimes it's good to look to the past as a window to the future, writes VICKI ANDERSON.

The Press of June 5, 1869, carries a small report of a violent earthquake that shook the region.

Under the modest heading of "The Earthquake", an unknown scribe reported it as follows:

"Just at the hour of eight this morning the city of Christchurch and its neighbourhood was visited by one of the most violent shocks of earthquake that we have yet experienced. All accounts agree in stating that the shock was preceded for the space of three or four minutes by a low rumbling noise. One gentleman living a short distance out of town states that the combination of sounds produced by the rumbling, the breaking of furniture and the shrieks of the people, was most peculiar, and the morning being perfectly still was distinctly heard.

"The shock seems to have been most severely felt on the north side of the river, from the Papanui road towards the sea. Several houses in the Avonside district suffered most severely. Mr Hennah had all his chimney stacks knocked down, and considerable damage done to his furniture. Several chimneys in Manchester St north have fallen, and the side of a brick house in an accommodation road off this street has come down.

"Considerable damage has been done to the brick and stone buildings in the town."

The front page is not entirely devoted to the quake, it is merely a 15cm, one-column story. It sits alongside other news reports of the day including this one, which made me giggle:

"An Irishman was called up in a case of assault and battery, and when asked by the magistrate what he said to the complainant, remarked "I said to him wid de toe of my boot, 'Go home'."

Curiously, a few lines in The Press two days later are devoted to collecting "earthquake levy" fees.

The quake may have caused ground settlement in the Heathcote Estuary, as locals describe the tide as "running higher up the Heathcote River afterwards". The 1869 quake also saw the town hall, in Sumner Rd (High St) deemed unsafe.

German-born colonist Sir Julius von Haast was an explorer, specialising in geology. Among his many achievements was the founding of the Canterbury Museum. In Bonn, he studied geology and mineralogy before travelling throughout Europe and Russia, studying art and music.

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In his capacity as surveyor general of Canterbury, Haast investigated the 1869 quake and, signing himself "your obedient servant", had, in part, this to say to The Press:

"The morning of the 5th of June was remarkably clear and beautiful, with a rising barometer. When at 8 30secs a.m., a considerable earthquake shook, the most severe I have ever felt in Canterbury, Christchurch and its neighbourhood. This shock, coming from the south, lasted about three to four seconds; it was succeeded after a short interval of two to three seconds repose by a slight tremor of short duration. Another slight vibration of a similar nature was experienced at 7.16 minutes p.m. I have been told that towards 12.30 p.m. a number of feeble shocks was experienced, which, however, I did not observe, although at that time I was sitting in my office and writing."

Without a seisometer to hand, Haast analysed spillage of a milkcan filled "nearly to the brim".

"The milk had distinctly run from N. 15E, to S. 15W over the table in an unbroken stream, and only a few scattered drops were found in the opposite direction.

"It thus appears that this earthquake is simply the dynamic effect of some local abyssological disturbance in or near our neighbourhood, such as happens all over the globe by changes in the crust of the earth . . . "

This quake, which scientists now list as an earthquake of about magnitude 5.7, and have established it as a New Brighton quake, was felt with an intensity of MMI 7-8.

The effects of the earthquake on stone buildings such as St John's Church, it lost its spire, prompted the Church of St Michael and All Angels to be built in wood.

At the time, the 1869 quake was believed to have been centred at "a shallow depth in Spreydon or Addington" but was not enough to deter community spirit. The epicentre was later attributed to New Brighton.

A newspaper carries a report of a "spirited" football match held in Latimer Square on the afternoon of the quake. "The sides were selected alphabetically. The players representing the latter section had a slight advantage in strength, but they were opposed with great determination, and it was not until somewhat over an hour had elapsed that they succeeded in scoring a goal. The match was undoubtedly the best played this season."

In the second edition of The Press of June 5, 1869, the violent earthquake, football matches, court news and the to-ing and fro- ing of ships in Lyttelton Harbour all took a back seat to goings-on at the Provincial Council.

Sound familiar?

Half the front page is devoted to Provincial Council business and bears the ominous heading "The Present Crisis".

This, in part, states the Superintendent's view that: "His own feeling is very decidedly opposed to the creation of further political offices, and he heartily concurs in the opinion of the Council as he understands it that the position of an Executive Councillor is one of adviser rather than of administrator".

It seems some things never change.

When I was in Auckland earlier this year, at Auckland University I found a copy of a 1995 report by NZGIS called Geology of Christchurch.

Between 1869 and 1988 there were 12 earthquakes bigger than 6.0 on the Richter scale within 150km of Christchurch, two of these were 7.0 and larger.

Between 1946 and 1994, the report states there were 59 earthquakes that were felt in Christchurch.

Of these 59 earthquakes recorded as being "felt in Christchurch between 1946 and 1994", 47 were of intensity MMIV, 9 were MMV, and there was also a MMVII - this was an earthquake centred in Pegasus Bay on March 8, 1987.

Canterbury's recent earthquake season has seen the largest quakes ranging in intensity between MMVII and MMIX.

This report from 1995 by NZIGNS states: "Dibble and others consider the 5 June 1869 New Brighton earthquake to have been the most destructive since European settlement. This earthquake is estimated to have produced intensities of MMVII- MMVIII at Christchurch, and reports of the observed effects are consistent with an M5.75 earthquake located 10 miles from the city centre."

On December 5, 1881, a shock occurred that dislodged a stone from the Christ Church Cathedral spire. Another earthquake struck on September 1, 1888, more severe, bringing down the top of the Cathedral spire.

Interestingly, there was also a report of an earthquake near Banks Peninsula on August 31, 1870: "The Canterbury region was shaken by an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 5.8, centred south of Banks Peninsula, near Lake Ellesmere. Damage was minor in Christchurch - a few fallen chimneys and some structural damage to buildings. Shaking at Lyttelton and Akaroa was much stronger, with rocks falling from cliffs around Lyttelton Harbour."

As for liquefaction in previous times, there may be more but I could only find one historical report recorded in the Canterbury area.

On November 16, 1901, a magnitude M6-7.5 earthquake, felt with an intensity of MMIX in Christchurch, and centred near Cheviot in North Canterbury, was reported in The Press which said that those in Kaiapoi felt the quakes with "great violence" and "that at some places the earth opened and water and sand were emitted from vents in the ground and that at one time an inundation by water from this source was apprehended".

The Cheviot earthquake was reported elsewhere as follows: "A terrible earthquake occurred at 7.45 this morning, travelling direct from east to west. It lasted several minutes. There is not a brick building or chimney left standing. The windows in many houses were shattered to atoms. One little child was killed by a falling house. The bakers' ovens are broken to pieces, and everything in the district is a complete wreck."

Our Canterbury forebears got on with their lives after the quakes, rebuilding their lives and homes as best they could. They took care of each other. They laughed, they loved, they cried. They played football together and raised community spirit.

Although this week for Cantabrians is an emotional one, we will go on, we will get through this.

Who knows, in another 143 years another generation of quake- affected Cantabrians might be looking back at us for inspiration.

- The Press

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