Story: Historic earthquakes

Page 9. The 1942 Wairarapa earthquakes

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During the Second World War, in 1942, two powerful earthquakes on 24 June and 2 August caused substantial damage to many towns in the Wairarapa, and in Wellington. The epicentres of the earthquakes were both near Masterton, but because the August main shock was much deeper than the June earthquake, it was less severe. They were caused by movement along buried faults, so the fault ruptures did not reach the surface.

The first earthquake

On 24 June there was a minor earthquake at 8.14 p.m., followed at 11.16 p.m. by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that was felt from Auckland to Dunedin. This main shock lasted about a minute, and aftershocks continued through the night: over 200 were felt before 7 a.m.

The earthquake was centred near Masterton, and the heaviest damage was in the town’s business area. Many shops had brick facades with ornate parapets and gable ends. These crashed into the street, taking with them the wooden verandahs that sheltered the footpaths and the electricity and telephone lines. Heavy roofs and water tanks collapsed. In many Wairarapa towns, including Eketāhuna, Martinborough, Gladstone, Carterton and Greytown, churches and commercial premises, especially brick buildings, were damaged. Most houses in the Wairarapa were timber framed – they survived the shaking well, but almost all lost their brick chimneys. Close to the epicentre, however, some houses shifted off their foundations.

Rocking the baby

‘I was just going to bed when we got this terrific shake. We could hear bricks coming down through the roof into the room where our baby was sleeping. I crawled along the passage – you couldn’t walk, the whole place was rocking so badly. It was terrifying. I could hear the baby screaming but I couldn’t get to the cot because of the rubble in the room. The cot shot from one side of the room to the other with the violence of the quakes. I finally found the cot, got the baby out and we sat underneath.’ 1

Effects in Wellington

In Wellington, 80 kilometres from the earthquake epicentre, buildings swayed and people rushed into the streets. Walls in many older buildings cracked, windows shattered, and in the central city, bricks, concrete and masonry came crashing down onto footpaths. In the countryside, the earthquake caused many landslides, and damaged roads, railway lines and bridges.

Only one person died – a man in Wellington was killed by coal gas escaping from a fractured pipe. Had the earthquake struck during shopping hours, many might have died; but it hit late on Saturday evening, when movie theatres had closed and few people were about.

The army was called in to assist with demolition and clean-up, and to guard buildings. Bricklayers from all over New Zealand came to help rebuild and repair the thousands of wrecked chimneys.

The second earthquake

About five weeks later, while the damage was still being repaired, earthquakes struck again. A magnitude 5.6 tremor was felt in the late afternoon of 1 August. It was followed by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake at 12.34 a.m. the next day, felt through much of New Zealand.


Structural damage in Wellington and the Wairarapa was extensive, due to the cumulative effects of the two earthquakes. Eketāhuna suffered more damage than in June. Two blocks of Manners Street in Wellington were closed for several months because of the dangerous state of the buildings. One Wellington building had lost 316 windows in June: 100 shattered in the August earthquake. In Wellington at least 5,000 houses and 10,000 chimneys were damaged by the two major earthquakes. Several years later, many buildings were still unrepaired. This prompted the government to set up an Earthquake and War Damage Commission for earthquake insurance in 1944.

  1. Quoted in Jan McLaren, A night of terror – Wairarapa’s 1942 earthquake. Masterton: Wairarapa Archive, 2002, p. 17. › Back
How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney, 'Historic earthquakes - The 1942 Wairarapa earthquakes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Eileen McSaveney, published 12 Jun 2006, reviewed & revised 28 Mar 2011, updated 1 Nov 2017