European settlers arriving in the Wellington region from 1840 onward soon became accustomed to a distinctive feature of the new land: the numerous small earthquakes. Because these minor tremors caused no damage, people were ill-prepared for the severity of the quakes that were to follow.
Intensity of the earthquake
On 16 October 1848 an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.5 shook the region. Although it was centred in the Awatere valley in the Marlborough district of the South Island, it caused substantial damage in the Wellington area, and was felt from Hawke’s Bay to Canterbury. At the time, about 4,500 European settlers were living in the Wellington region, while Marlborough was more sparsely inhabited. Māori settlements were scattered along the coast.
The first earthquake occurred at 1.40 a.m. during a severe gale and heavy rain. The main shock lasted for at least two minutes, and was followed by strong vibrations for 10 minutes. Vibrations continued for at least an hour, increasing to earthquake shocks every few minutes. Judge Henry Chapman noted about 100 aftershocks between 1.40 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Impact in Wellington
In Wellington the violent shaking damaged almost all brick and stone buildings, including many homes, commercial buildings, churches, barracks, the jail, and the colonial hospital. Wooden buildings survived, but many lost their brick chimneys. In Marlborough, a number of homesteads were badly damaged.
Major aftershocks on 17 and 19 October brought down a number of buildings that had been damaged in the first earthquake. Many people in Wellington described these aftershocks as being as strong as or stronger than the initial earthquake.
Rumblings in the press
Lieutenant Governor Edward Eyre described the effects of the 1848 earthquake in alarming terms: ‘the town of Wellington is in ruins … Terror and dismay reign everywhere ... ships now in port … are crowded to excess with colonists abandoning the country’. 1 Angry newspaper editorials blasted Eyre’s catalogue of desolation and gloom, fearing that his descriptions would deter new immigrants and discourage business investment.
After the quake
As aftershocks continued, some people sought safety at night aboard ships in the harbour. Others decided to leave permanently: on 26 October the barque Subraon set sail for Sydney with over 60 settlers. It struck rocks near the Wellington Harbour entrance and was wrecked, but no lives were lost. Many of the rescued settlers eventually stayed in Wellington.
On the other hand, those living near the earthquake epicentre thought Wellington would be a refuge. After the first few days of frightening tremors, whalers from Cloudy Bay, Marlborough, took their families to Wellington in an open boat, despite stormy weather.
Surprisingly, only three people died in the 1848 tremors. A barrack sergeant and his son and daughter were fatally injured on 17 October, when the brick wall of a damaged building collapsed during a major aftershock.
Soon after the earthquakes, the settlers were clearing ruins and rebuilding. Mindful of the severe damage to brick and masonry buildings, many chose to replace them with wooden buildings.
The 1848 earthquakes, and the aftershocks which continued well into 1849, were caused by movement along at least 105 kilometres of a major fault along the Awatere Valley. Along the fault, land moved as much as 8 metres horizontally. Matthew Richmond, the resident magistrate of Nelson, visited the area in November 1848. An account of his visit noted that ‘a crack quite straight crossed the country for miles; in some places he had difficulty crossing it with his horse; in one place the crack passed through an old warre [whare] dividing it in two pieces standing four feet apart.’ 2