New Zealand’s nickname of the ‘shaky isles’ didn’t come from nowhere.
The country is on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire. As such, it experiences around 20,000 seismic events each year, although usually, only a couple of hundred are strong enough to be felt.
While the Napier shake of 1931 and the Inangahua Junction quake of 1968 are some of the most remembered earthquakes, there have been more than 25 significant events, reaching as high as an 8.2 in the Wairarapa in 1855. (This earthquake devastated stone and brick structures in Wellington).
Christchurch has seen it’s fair share of such quakes in the past.
The latter part of the nineteenth century was particularly active. At the time, however, these quakes were seen more as a scientific curiosity rather than anything worthy of serious study and New Zealand was considered to have a similar earthquake risk to that of England!
While experts from the museum and Canterbury College (later to become the University of Canterbury) argued otherwise, little apart from personal accounts exists in terms of scientific reports of these quakes.
In June 1869, the foundling city was shook by a 5.7 event that was strong and shallow, causing widespread damage, including to the spire of St John’s church in Hereford Street - prompting the Church of St Michael and All Angels to be predominantly built of wood.
The local Star newspaper of the time reported the parishioners as saying “Owing to the late severe shocks of earthquake the vestry came to the conclusion that it would be useless to attempt building any part of stone. Therefore it was decided that wood should be the material.”
Somewhat fittingly, St Michaels was the only Anglican church in central Christchurch to remain in use following the 2010/2011 sequence of events.
But perhaps more notable is the shock of 1888, at 4:10am on the 1st September. (The 2010 Canterbury earthquake occurred at 4:35am on the 4th September.)
This earthquake is said to have been in the range 7 - 7.3, lasted around 40 – 50 seconds and was centred about 100km from Christchurch. It was the first earthquake observed to be associated with mainly horizontal fault displacement. According to some historians, the actual scale of the earthquake at its epicentre may have been closer to an 8, but lack of recording equipment at the time has hampered any accurate estimation.
Along with many chimneys across the city, the Cathedral spire fell down. About 8 metres of the spire became dislodged. (In fact, just a month after Christchurch Cathedral had been consecrated in 1881, it had been damaged by an earthquake, apparently causing the bells to toll by themselves and stones to fall from around the spire.)
Twenty years later, in 1901, with the impact of yet another earthquake, the spire once again suffered damage and was subsequently replaced with a hardwood shell covered in copper. While this survived the 2010 event, it would not be so fortunate in the major earthquake that would follow.
As, Professor Frederick Hutton, Professor of Biology and Geology Lecturer at Canterbury College noted in 1888 that ”the earthquake is not friendly to the picturesque in architecture.”