Hawke's Bay earthquake of 1931 leaves vivid memories

By Clinton Llewellyn -
Add a comment
CHB earthquake survivors and friends since the 1950s, Jim Fleming and Pat Box. Photo / Clinton Llewellyn
CHB earthquake survivors and friends since the 1950s, Jim Fleming and Pat Box. Photo / Clinton Llewellyn

Surprisingly, Central Hawke's Bay nonagenarians Pat Box and Jim Fleming don't remember feeling overly frightened during the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake.

"I don't remember all the minute details, but I don't remember feeling overly frightened. But I can certainly remember feeling it," said Pat, 92, of the 7.8 quake that struck at 10.47am on February 3, 1931 - some 86 years ago this Friday.

"No, I didn't seem to be frightened either, more bewildered," said Jim, nodding in agreement with his long-time friend.

But that's where the memories of the pair of survivors of New Zealand's worst natural disaster - which killed 256 people in Hawke's Bay, including 161 in Napier, 93 in Hastings and two in Wairoa - begin to differ.

Pat was a 7-year-old pupil at Te Pohue School on the Napier-Taupo Rd and just heading back into class from playtime when the quake struck.

She remembers looking across to the couple of cottages opposite the school as the ground shook.

"There was a woman with a baby - Mrs Nicholls I think she was - she came out and up the path beside the house, pushing the baby in the pram. And she just got past the house when the chimney fell down behind her. I can still see it quite clearly - it was just horrifying."

Pat said the school's sole teacher-in-charge, Mrs Palmer, took her under her wing and drove her to the Te Pohue Hotel, which in those days was opposite where it stands today.

While the school escaped major damage, Pat said the hotel did not fare as well.

"It was up on stilts over the pond. It was the only wooden building to collapse in the earthquake apparently, because it was on stilts."

From there she was collected on horseback by her father, who was the manager of the nearby Rukumoana Station, owned by the prominent Chambers family, and taken to stay with friends, the Ruddenklau family, at their property high up in the Te Waka ranges.

"Te Waka is quite high up and I remember they had this big window. I watched Napier burn from there," said Pat of the inferno which is credited with causing more damage than the quake itself.

Her father, meanwhile, had embarked on horseback to Napier in a desperate search to find her mother, who had driven to Napier with her younger brother, Colin.

"He rode for the first six miles but after that he couldn't ride anymore because all the bridges were under water, and the water was too high.

"So he walked. He spent the night looking in all the burnt-out cars [in Napier] but he couldn't find her."

Pat said her determined father then walked to Hastings, where her mother's parents lived, but she was nowhere to be found, so he started walking back to Napier.

The next day on one of the bridges between the two towns, Pat said her dad met her mother's brother, who suggested he look in Taradale.

"For lack of something better to do, he walked to Taradale. And sure enough, that's where he found her.

"Taradale was only about two men and a dog in those days. He must have walked all night," said Pat.

Jim Fleming was 10 years old at Waipukurau School when the earthquake hit.

"I was on the bottom playground when the shaking started, and we weren't too sure what it was," he said.

"We made for the top playground, where the school is, and where the teachers were - they would have come out pretty smartly I would think - and we looked across Porangahau Rd from the school. And there were chimneys coming down everywhere."

As he walked up the drive of their home on Farm Rd, Jim saw his eldest brother sitting on the roof, throwing bricks from the destroyed chimney on to the lawn.

"There weren't many chimneys standing in Waipukurau for a long time after that."

One of eight children, Jim said another older brother, Cecil, was working at the woolstores in Napier, while his eldest sister worked as a nurse at Napier Hospital.

"From the woolstore, he looked up and saw the nurses' home had been flattened. He went straight up that hill and found that Helen was on day duty.

"It was the night duty nurses that were killed. They were all sleeping in that nurses' home. It folded like a pack of cards," he said.

On February 12, Jim and Pat will join about a dozen other CHB quake survivors travelling to the annual 1931 HB Earthquake Survivors' Afternoon Tea, hosted by Napier Boys' High School.

"It's great. The boys wait on you and serve you sandwiches and all sorts," said Jim, a great-grandad and long-time funeral director until his retirement in 1981.

"They have a guest speaker every year and a big screen and lots of old photos," added Pat, a grandmother of two and former nurse at Waipukurau Hospital.

For more articles from this region, go to

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

Have your say

1200 characters left

By and large our readers' comments are respectful and courteous. We're sure you'll fit in well.
View commenting guidelines.

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 29 Apr 2017 06:52:15 Processing Time: 738ms