‘But alas! The beautiful new building had just about reached its completion [when it was] destroyed by the disasterous earthquake and fire of February 3rd, 1931. … Nothing more was left then the pathetic ruin which for many a day looked out on Dalton Street…What a testing time for the congregation! Buildings all gone, no benefits from insurance, many of the members dispersed all over the Dominion, and Napier itself completely overwhelmed…For a period services were held in the open air, and when the surviving churches were opened for public worship , by the generosity of the Congregational Church, many of St. Paul’s worshipped there… .’
‘The first meeting of the office-bearers held after the earthquake will ever be remembered for its good cheer and spirit of helpfulness that prevailed. The heart of the Church at large was touched by the plight of the congregation, so that friends throughout the Dominion subscribed sufficient money to erect the present church and Sunday School Hall.’ (The First Century, Centennial History of St. Paul’s, Napier, 1958)
I was prompted to reflect on the strong comparisons between the Napier earthquake and the numerous Christchurch quakes, when recently I discovered a report written by the Rev. John William Martin who ministered at Taradale a few kilometres from Napier. The Napier earthquake occurred when New Zealand was in the grip of a depression, 250 lives were lost, and the majority of people throughout Hawkes Bay had been affected in one or another. Martin’s report written 18 months after the three quakes tells of ‘earthquake sickness laying its grip upon them’; that ‘time centres around the date “before the earthquake, since the earthquake”. ‘The night quakes with their loud reports’ disturbed their sleep so much that before the shaking even started they had leapt out of bed seeking safety.
‘There are still homes with wrecked rooms and fallen chimneys, ragged wall-paper, and creaky fall boards’ he writes. Many chimneys had been repaired two and three times each time bringing in a bill that had to be paid. He makes light that unmatched crockery is a trifle that people are not bothered by.
I read with a sinking feeling that little has changed over 81 years. The desperate desire of the locals to find employment is very evident in the report and their frustration when outside firms were engaged and outside employees brought in for the rebuilding of Napier. ‘It is no exaggeration’, he suggests, ‘that there are more out-of-work tradesmen and labourers here then in the rest of the Dominion. It does seem a pity that after such a chapter of terrible experiences, and the loss suffered by so many people they should not have been first considered for work and wages right in their midst.’
Ending on a positive note Martin acknowledges that the appearance of prosperity was returning with the ‘fine new buildings, beautiful shop fronts and splendid new streets’.
Many in Christchurch continue to be frustrated by continuing aftershocks, some 10 000 now, damaged housing, delayed repairs, and great uncertainty about their future but we continue to hope that a sense of progress will soon be visible.