Historic Hawke's Bay: Hawke's Bay earthquake stories



This is my maternal grandfather, Neville "Hugh" Eagle Smith (1911-1969) standing outside the corner of Heretaunga Street East and Russell Street weeks after the 1931 Hawke's Bay Earthquake.

The family were not aware of him being a paperboy for the Hawke's Bay Tribune until this photo was discovered in 1999.

At the time of the photo Hugh was 19 years old - which is a bit old for a paperboy - but it was the Great Depression, so he may have had to take what jobs he could get.

Hugh's sister Joan worked for Westerman's, and she got stuck on the top floor when the stairwell collapsed. An eyewitness told me 10 years ago the unpleasantness of her situation was temporarily forgotten when she saw the handsome young fireman who had come to rescue her.

Most families who have lived in Hawke's Bay during the 1931 Hawke's Bay Earthquake will have stories passed down that have become part of their family history, and it has been a privilege to record some of them over the years.

One story told to me concerned their father, a "green" young fireman, who was asked to crawl into the wreckage of Westerman's to retrieve a body, and it was pointed out to him a leg of a young lady protruding under some debris.

When the young man, full of trepidation, pulled on the leg with some force to retrieve the body, he recoiled backwards taking the leg with him.

His colleagues had, unknown to him, placed a mannequin's leg under the wreckage, and erupted in laughter when he rolled backwards.

Most of the earthquake stories, however, are tragic, and changed families and their lives forever. Christchurch too will have their stories which will be retold to family members, some of whom are not yet born.

Michael Fowler is taking walks around Hastings during Art Deco Weekend looking at architecture and the effect of the 1931 Hawke's Bay Earthquake. Book at www.artdeconapier.com

- Hawkes Bay Today

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