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Museum notebook: Wellington Remembrance Day also marks the anniversary of a massive earthquake

Museum notebook: Wellington Remembrance Day also marks the anniversary of a massive earthquake


Lambton Quay in Wellington, 1865. A four-meter tsunami swept through the harbor and washed up along that road eight years ago. Wanganui Regional Museum Collection Ref: NZ/NI/375

Today, people in this area celebrate Wellington Remembrance Day, which falls on the Monday closest to January 22nd.

This was the date in 1840 when the first shipload of European settlers landed at Wanganui-a-Tara (Wellington area).

An expedition ship arrived in September 1839, and officials determined that the area was suitable for a new colonial city. They were sent to Britain for settlers, who arrived on January 22, 1840, and in November of that year named the site Wellington in honor of the Duke of Wellington, hero of the Battle of Waterloo that effectively ended the Napoleonic Wars.

Whanganui celebrates this Memorial Day because the area is included in the original Wellington County, which covered the area between Maxwell in the west and Norsewood in the east, all the way to Wellington. The entire region was governed by a regional government until the advent of local councils and central government in 1876.

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Today also marks the anniversary of a massive 8.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Wellington 168 years ago on January 23, 1855. The quake struck at 9.11pm and the tremor lasted 50 seconds.

This earthquake had a great impact on the landscape of the thriving city. The sea floor was raised, the swamps were drained, and the southern end of the Rimutaka Mountain Range was raised six meters.

A number of large buildings collapsed, but several one-story wooden buildings remained standing, most of them damaged by falling chimneys and moving foundations. Ten minutes after the aftershock, a four-meter-high tsunami swept through Wellington Harbor and surged along Lambton Quay.

Sketch of Wanganui Township, 1856, the year after the earthquake. Unknown artist. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection Ref: W-EV-20

The massive earthquake was felt across the country by residents, and many Wanganui residents recorded the event here.

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Mr. Bates was relaxing in the Commercial Hotel when the building started to shake. When the bottles in the bar started shaking, he ran outside, forgetting to put down a glass of gin, remembering watching the buildings “dance” and having to dodge the falling stacks. The next day, Bates described the change in scenery. Some parts of the riverbank collapsed while others rose, and all the bottles he heard in the Commercial Hotel were shattered.

In a letter to his sister, surveyor H.C. Fields wrote that he had just gone to bed at Waitetara and was thinking about a day of strange weather and strange animals when his house began to shake. He was thinking of taking shelter between his bed and his table in case his house collapsed, but the shaking caught his table on fire. When he stopped, he went to check on his neighbours, but the aftershocks were too strong and he was thrown off the road, unable to stand up.

Fields walked to Whanganui the next day and remembered that the landscape was rutted, with sand and mud brought in from below. Upon reaching the city, he noticed only two brick chimneys, while those made of pumice remained in place, and Pūtiki’s brick church was cut down.

Description of the earthquake and its aftermath, 1855, by an anonymous Wanganui resident. Published in the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle on 21 February 1855.

The Whanganui didn’t escape either, as big waves were making their way away from the river. A man found that swollen water had washed his boat 18 meters to dry land.

One memory estimated that there were 250 aftershocks in the first 11 hours after the quake, and that they lasted for weeks before the ground settled again.

Sandy Black is the archivist at the Whanganui Regional Museum.




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