A NIGHT OF TERROR - THE 1942 EARTHQUAKE
Major earthquakes have been a prominent
feature of living in Wairarapa for almost as long as pakeha
has lived in the area. The first whalers and sealers were
upset by earthquakes in the early 1840s, and the first
farmers on the plains were rocked by the major 1848 shake.
The Small Farms Association pioneers in
the first inland towns in New Zealand, Greytown and Masterton,
experienced an even worse earthquake. The shake of 23
January 1855 was the largest shock ever experienced in New
the landscape of Wellington and Wairarapa being re–shaped
dramatically in places. The settlers in the small townships,
then on their land for less than a year, spent a terrified
night together as the earth heaved under their feet.
The land seemed to have settled following
the big quake. Although the region was rocked with minor
quakes it wasn't until the new century that major damage
was caused to Masterton, and the town suffered its first
In 1904 the recently constructed Masterton
Post Office was cracked in a quake, and locals expressed
the opinion that the building was not safe. Their fears
were to be borne out on 12 April 1913, when another earthquake
shook the town. Among those fleeing from the Post Office
was a young man, Te Hone Ngawhiro. He was struck by a piece
concrete decoration falling from the parapets of the building
The Wairarapa felt the shake that destroyed
Napier in February 1931, but it wasn't until the 1934 Pahiatua
shake that Masterton's buildings suffered any major effects.
That shake damaged much of the ornamentation on the brick
and concrete buildings in the centre of town, and for weeks
Queen Street was home to extensive scaffolding. Fortunately
the shake occurred at 11.50 p.m., when the town was deserted,
so there were no injuries.
By June 1942 earthquakes were the last
thing on most people's minds.
The country was at war, and many households
had their men, fathers, sons and brothers, either fighting
overseas, or in camps in New Zealand. Many local men were
in camps in Wairarapa - soldiers were camped at Carterton,
at the Opaki racecourse and at Solway Showgrounds.
The whole district was shaken by a sharp
earthquake at 8.17 p.m. One young soldier, in Masterton
on leave from the Carterton camp, was soaking in a hot
bath at his grandmother's house. He was terrified as the
water sloshed around the bath. He was torn between quickly
getting out of the bath, (and risking his grandmother seeing
him) or riding the shock out in the water. He chose the
latter. When he arrived back at camp, and was safely in
his tent with his comrades, he shared his experience with
his fellow soldiers. As they lay waiting for sleep they
laughed at his expense.
Just after eleven he felt himself being
woken as he was thrown out of his bed. Thinking his tent
mates had played a joke on him, he became angry and tried
to see who was tipping him out of bed. As he tried to stand
on the rocking and rolling earth he realised this was not
a practical joke. This was the real thing.
It was 11.16, and the whole Wairarapa
district was being shaken awake. The earth was growling
and rumbling, and in the town the sky was lit by the
flashes of light coming from high–tension wires as
they arced and snapped. Inside houses, furniture was rolling
rooms, and bric-a-brac of all kinds was being thrown
from walls and mantelpieces to be smashed on the floor.
Masterton was the worst affected town,
the epicentre of the shake being at nearby Tauweru. Much
of the central business area was badly damaged in the shake.
J.V. Gordon's chemist shop, situated on the corner of Bannister
and Queen Streets and identifiable by its distinctive rounded
tower, was severely damaged, debris littering the corner.
The whole front of the shop occupied by Miss Ninnes, in
Queen Street, fell off the building, exposing not just
the store below but also the living quarters above. The
large water tower behind the WFCA in Queen Street collapsed
in a torrent of water and bricks. The chapel attached to
the side of St Matthews Church fell in, and many parapets
and verandahs were damaged.
The soldiers from the nearby camps were
quickly called out for guard duty and Queen Street was
cordoned off, from King Street to Worksop Road. Borough
Council employees checked through buildings thought to
have been occupied that night, to ensure that no-one was
lying injured. The following morning the staff were out
on the streets again, sweeping up the glass and rubble.
Men were soon employed removing the portions of damaged
buildings thought to be the most dangerous.
Similar activities were taking place in
the other towns throughout Wairarapa. Eketahuna had been
badly affected, and the Borough Council Chambers were
badly cracked. In Carterton, the well-known Wakelin's Flour
was damaged, as was the Wairarapa A & P Society building
in Memorial Square. Damage in Greytown was not just restricted
to the shops in the centre of town. W.H. Day's shop lost
its facade, but the earthquake also damaged the town's
swimming baths, and a large monument to chief Tamahau
Mahupuku, erected at Papawai marae. The southern-most
and Featherston, were not so badly affected, but Pain
and Kershaw's store in Martinborough was extensively
Some damage was consistent throughout
the region. Many residents lost ornaments and pictures
in the shake, and most families lost their stock of preserves
and jam as pantry floors became strewn with pickles and
relishes mixed up with glass shards. Chimneys fell in staggering
numbers. There were an estimated 4,700 chimneys down in
Wairarapa, over 1,000 in Masterton alone. Throughout the
Wellington region 20,000 were estimated to have fallen.
The cemeteries of the district were also devastated, each
of them littered with fallen headstones and cracked monuments.
As the shocked population surveyed their
damaged surroundings they were still being rocked by aftershocks,
over 200 shocks being recorded between the first 8.17 p.m.
shock and 7 a.m. the following morning. These shocks continued
Cracks were clearly visible in many buildings
in Queen Street, and the Army engineers were quickly called
in to assist with the clean up. They pulled down the worst
of the damaged masonry, and started the long job of cleaning
up the debris from the street. The town centre was closed
and guarded as the work went on.
Bricklayers from all parts of New Zealand
were called in to assist repairing the many chimneys that
were damaged. It is recorded that some soldiers, who had
never laid hands on a brick before, answered the call,
to escape their camps.
Although people had been allowed into
town on the Friday following the shake, the local community
leaders thinking it best for morale if things could be
back to normal as soon as possible– it was after
the weekend before most of the shops were passed as safe
By the following Tuesday the Army decided
it was time to demolish the badly damaged St Matthew's
Church. A 16 pound charge was exploded by the engineers
shortly after six. And nothing happened. A much heavier
charge was placed in the building and exploded at 8.15.
The explosion was heard all over town and buildings in
the vicinity of the church rocked with the force of the
blast, and some windows were blown in. People living near
the church complained they sustained more damage to their
houses in the demolition of the church then they did in
The quakes hadn't finished either.
There was a large aftershock in early
August, a shock that was said to have caused more damage
in Eketahuna than the main shock in June. It also toppled
many of the rebuilt chimneys in the district. Many of those
chimneys were rebuilt again just in time to be toppled
by yet another major aftershock in mid-December.
The legacy of the earthquakes of 1942
is plain in the main street of Masterton. Photographs from
the 1930s show a street lined with ornamental buildings
furnished with ornate decoration. The earthquakes destroyed
over twenty brick buildings, over fifty other buildings
required alteration and strengthening. In most cases the
ornamentation was removed for safety reasons.
The Wairarapa Times-Age editorial of July
6, 1942, said: "There is a great deal to be done in
safeguarding existing buildings and in setting the highest
practicable standards in all buildings to be erected henceforth.
It should be recognised that it was by a merciful dispensation
that the recent earthquake occurred late at night as it