Napier Hill was originally known as Mataruahou by Maori.

The Ahuriri block of 265,000 acres (107,241ha) containing modern Napier was purchased in 1851 by Land Commissioner Donald McLean.

Chief Tareha was not happy about his share of the Ahuriri sale, so as was the common practice, the Crown paid him a further £50, as well as giving him two town sections, for the 640 acre (259ha) Mataruahou.

A name change from Mataruahou to Scinde Island was gazetted in April 1855, when the first sections went up for sale.

Advertisement

Scinde Island, which wasn't strictly an island, as it was connected by a shingle spit to the South, was named after the province in India (now part of Pakistan) that Sir Charles Napier had won in 1843 in the province of Scindh in India, which is now part of Pakistan.

The part of Napier hill facing the port was referred to ‒ as it still is today - Bluff Hill.

Bluff Hill's cliff-face was prone to slips, and on May 13, 1930, 1660 tons (1,660,000 kg) of material, which was mainly limestone rock and clay, came down upon the vehicle driven by Douglas Barr and passenger Minn Kauter. Both were killed instantly.

Less than a year later, the 7.8 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake caused a massive landslide from the same cliff-face.

An eyewitness account of the Bluff Hill cliff-face collapse was seen from the ketch Huanui.

Captain C Thompson of the Huanui, outlined what he saw in Napier:

"I was standing on the wharf, supervising the loading of our cargo of shingle for Gisborne, when we felt the first heave.

"For a few moments we did not realise what was happening, and then my attention was attracted by the puffs of dust at the foot and at the head of the Bluff Hill cliffs.

Advertisement

"These cliffs were suddenly obscured by a great cloud of dust which shot out from the foot of the hills and billowed right out to where our ship lay.

"When the dust had settled, after a few minutes, we saw that the whole face of the hill had come down, and that the road round past the breakwater wharf [Napier Port] to the port [Ahuriri] was blocked completely…and huge boulders weighing up to 15 tonnes were thrown about 600 yards".

It was originally thought that great loss of life had occurred because of the slip, which had brought down several houses and covered the road to the breakwater wharf.

Two women where pushed out to sea by the landslide, but both managed to get ashore.

A man was at home recovering from surgery, when his home was left on the Buff Hill's cliff edge when part of it fell away. He had to be lowered down the cliff by ropes.

Apart from these lucky escapes, and the thought that at least two cars were buried under the slip, miraculously there was no loss of life, or bodies found.

With such a large amount of material blocking an important route, attention turned to how to remove the spoil and open the road and railway to the breakwater harbour and Ahuriri.

Work started on February 12 to provide access to the breakwater on the Ahuriri side. A caterpillar-type excavator (shown in the photo) was used to cut a roadway of 1.2 km and the work was expected to take several weeks.

By early March 1931, men (shown in the photo) had been employed to clear a walking track around the base of Bluff Hill, while other men were cleaning away overhanging edges on the cliff edge.

Some of the spoil was transported to the Marine Parade beach, where it was used as infill to build up the land.

It was thought that the Bluff Hill slip would be cleared away in a matter of months, but this was far from reality.

In 1933, there was still significant spoil left and a suggestion was made by Stanley Natusch and Louis Hay as honorary architects to the Napier reconstruction committee, that the area be planted in coastal flowering shrubs and Norfolk pines. This was to guard against further slips and to hide "an ugly scar". This, however, did not occur.

By 1936 the considerable remnants of the Bluff Hill slip were still there, and chairman of the Napier Harbour Board, Trevor Geddis, had confirmed the Board had planned for its removal.

Apparently, a bet had been made that East Coast Railway (started in 1912 at the Napier end) would be completed before the slip had been removed.

This proved to be incorrect and the railway connecting to Gisborne in 1942 was completed first.

In 1948 it was reported that the Bluff Hill slip was overgrown in vegetation.

In the late 1960s the Bluff Hill slip was finally cleared away, and in the process a large boulder was discovered, and it was moved to Marine Parade Sunken Gardens, then under construction, for a feature.

Signed copies of Michael Fowler's Historic Hawke's Bay book are only available from the Hastings Community Art Centre, Russell Street South, Hastings for $65.00.

Michael Fowler FCA (mfhistory@gmail.com) is a chartered accountant, contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.