The 1942 Wairarapa earthquake

Photo source:[1]mast earthquake 3

“Earthquakes were the last thing on most people’s minds on 24 June 1942. The country was at war, and many households had their men in camps in New Zealand – soldiers were at Carterton, the Opaki racecourse and Solway Showgrounds.

The Wairarapa was shaken by a sharp earthquake at 8.17 p.m. but much worse was to follow at 11.16 – the earth growled and rumbled and the sky was lit by flashes of light coming from high-tension wires. Inside, furniture was rolling around rooms, and bric-a-brac was being thrown from walls and mantelpieces to the floor. Masterton was the worst affected town, much of the central business area being badly damaged in the shake.”[2]

mast earthquake mapMasterton is about 100 kilometres north-east of Wellington in the Wairarapa Valley. I grew up there as did my mother and her parents. Mum was always upset by an earthquake and said it was because of living through the 1942 ones.

This account, from the Evening Post of 26 June 1942, p. 1, gives a first impression of the extent of the damage.

mast earthquake 3

The Masterton Library website adds: “Some damage was consistent. Many residents lost ornaments and pictures in the shake, and most lost their preserves and jams as pantry floors became strewn with glass shards. Chimneys fell in staggering numbers – there were an estimated 4,700 chimneys down in Wairarapa. The cemeteries of the district were also devastated, each littered with fallen headstones and cracked monuments.

Army engineers were quickly called in to assist with the clean-up. They pulled down the worst of the damaged masonry, and started cleaning up the debris while the town centre was closed as the work went on. Bricklayers from all parts of New Zealand were called in to repair many chimneys.

On Tuesday the Army decided it was time to demolish the badly damaged St Matthew’s Church with explosives. The explosion was heard all over town and buildings in the vicinity rocked with the force and some windows were blown in. People living near the church complained they sustained more damage in the demolition then they did in the earthquake.

There was a large aftershock on 2 August that toppled many rebuilt chimneys. They were repaired again just in time to be toppled by yet another major aftershock in mid-December.”[3]

Here is some Archives NZ footage of the damage (4:05).

I interviewed my mother (Nella Morrell, nee Jones) in 2003, and I asked her about the earthquake. She said that ‘dad’ (meaning my father, not hers) was working on the Jones family farm in Masterton, doing the family milk round, because her brothers were in the armed services. My parents lived only half a mile from the farm. On the night of the earthquakes they went to her parents for tea. “We came home and put Beverley [age 2] to bed, asleep. And at 8pm, getting ready for bed – cos he had to be up at four in the morning – we had the first one [earthquake]. It was a beauty. We said, ‘by golly, someone’s got that one bad’. Then we went to bed and went to sleep and about 11:00 we had the big one. It woke us up. We didn’t dare get out of bed. Beverley was alongside the bed in a cot and she slept right through it. But the old man next door to us, came and yelled through the window, “you alright in there” – we said: “Yes we’re ok”.

“When dad got up at 4:00 to go over to the farm I went with him, with Beverley in the pram and we walked down the middle of the road. It was pitch black, no lights on. I suppose we had a torch, must have… When I went with dad to the farm at 4 a.m. I didn’t actually go to the farm. I got as far as Mave’s and went in there [Mavis Wootton, nee Jones – mum’s older sister lived across the road from the farm house]. Her husband, Rusty, was working on the farm too. He’d be milking. So she was awake and I went in there for the rest of the night – but it shook the rest of the night.”


A photo of the Jones farmhouse (it still exists in Kuripuni Street, Masterton, but no longer in the family). The photo pre-dates 1895 as it includes my great-great-grandparents Henry (1811-1902) and Mary (1814-1895) Jones; in the buggy are my great-grandparents Edward (1854-1935) and Mary (1859-1920) Jones.

Mum remembered the day of the earthquakes (June 24) because it was the day after Beverley’s second birthday. She was also about seven months pregnant at the time with my oldest brother.

They lost the chimney; and a shelf full of ornaments came down over the top of the tea trolley, which had a tea set on it. “That shelf fell over and broke half my tea set. And then the pantry – we had a walk-in pantry with high shelves. I had a whole set of Pyrex dishes – a wedding present [from 1939]. A set from meat dish down to little pie dishes and all I had left were two little pie dishes. All the jam came off from the top and fell onto the ground. Broke everything – I lost all that. I can’t remember what else we lost. Same over home – at mum’s place. They had a big standing wardrobe and that fell over the end of the bed. Didn’t hurt them or anything.”

granny allsworth 4 generations ‘Four generations’, c. 1940

From then until Kelvin was born in August they stayed with her parents and she and her mother used to go back in the daytime and dig holes in the backyard to bury all the jam and jars, and clean it all up. But on the morning after the earthquakes my father still delivered the milk! He wasn’t allowed in the main street, because of all the damage, but there wouldn’t have been any deliveries there anyway. He took my mother around afterwards. She said “It was a real mess – the Midland Hotel was on the corner, where the bank is now, and Woolworth’s was right next door. A big wall of the hotel went right through into Woolworth’s.”

“It was in the war time and we had [NZ] soldiers up at Memorial Park there and they came round and fixed up chimneys and things like that. But we had aftershocks right up till Christmas. Quite big ones too … It was scary because we didn’t know when it was going to finish, that’s the trouble. Or whether it was going to finish with a jolt and things could collapse. I hate them now.”

“What else was there? Oh, the Anglican church – that collapsed too, because that was all brick. Afterwards they were blowing it up to demolish it and every time we heard that we thought it was another shake.”

mast earthquake 5

St Matthew’s Church, Masterton, after the 1942 earthquake. Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: PAColl-6301-65. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

The 11:16pm shock was a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that was felt from Auckland to Dunedin. This main shock lasted about a minute, and aftershocks continued through the night: over 200 were felt before 7 a.m. Only one person died – a man in Wellington was killed by coal gas escaping from a fractured pipe. In Wellington at least 5,000 houses and 10,000 chimneys were damaged by the two major earthquakes. Several years later, many buildings were still unrepaired, which prompted the government to set up an Earthquake and War Damage Commission for earthquake insurance in 1944.[4]


[1] Shop fronts in Masterton, damaged by the 1942 earthquake. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/2-123912-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

[2] This is from the Masterton Library website:

[3] Masterton Library website

[4] Eileen McSaveney. ‘Historic earthquakes – The 1942 Wairarapa earthquakes’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12 URL:


One thought on “The 1942 Wairarapa earthquake

  1. What strikes me is all the “women’s work” of jams and preserves smashed onto pantry floors and ruined … in our supermarket age, women don’t ‘do’ preserves any more – or if they do it is from inclination rather than economic necessity. It must have been hard to see all that hard work go to waste.


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