Book details Wheatsheaf flood after earthquake

FLOODED: The effects of the May 1960 tsunami can be seen here at Teddington. The old Blacksmith’s shop, adjacent to the Wheatsheaf Hotel and now restored and operating as a smithy, can be seen on the right. Photo: David Bundy

Head of the Harbour author Jane Robertson talks about the history of local jetties and natural disasters she discovered while researching for her book.

Over the five years in which I’ve been working on Head of the Harbour: A History of Governors Bay, Ohinetahi, Allandale and Teddington, I’ve interviewed local residents and ex-residents, scoured old newspapers and institutional archives and been given access to a fascinating array of letters, diaries, photos and other material from private collections. The following account, which draws on material from the book, focuses on a few of the stories relating to the jetties at the head of the harbour.

Everyone knows the iconic ‘long jetty’ at Governors Bay. First built as a short jetty in 1874, it was extended in 1915 and again in 1927 because increasing upper-harbour silting meant that the jetty was able to be used by steamers bringing day-trippers from Lyttelton only at high tide. At the time of the 1915 extension, Eddie Radcliffe was going to school in Governors Bay. After class the children would rush down the jetty, where there was a trolley on railway lines that transported materials to the construction end. The workmen would allow the children to get into the trolley and push themselves up and down. No health and safety to contend with then! The long jetty is soon to be rebuilt, as a local initiative, following earthquake damage.

However the stories of other jetties are less well known.

For example, on August 15, 1868, an earthquake of about magnitude 9, offshore from the Peru–Chile border, generated the largest recorded distant tsunami to strike New Zealand. Around 4.00am a wall of water surged up Lyttelton harbour. At the Head of the Bay (Teddington), a substantial 300-foot jetty, built only six years before to transport produce, particularly for the Manson and Gebbie families, was completely washed away, along with the boats moored at the jetty.

The most powerful earthquake of the twentieth century, off the coast of Chile on May 22 1960, measured 9.5 on the Richter scale. In the late evening and early morning of the May 23 and 24, the first of many tsunami waves began to reach New Zealand’s east coast. In Teddington, about midnight, David Gebbie heard a rumble like an approaching earthquake, went outside and found water lapping around his house. Daybreak revealed the extent of the damage. Waves had travelled as far inland as St Peter’s Church. The ground floor of the Wheatsheaf Hotel was covered in three feet of water and empty beer barrels had floated away from the outhouse. The road from the bottom of the Allandale hill to the Wheatsheaf was a quagmire with receding water still running across it in places and dead and exhausted sheep lying along its length. One farmer lost about 200 sheep from paddocks on both sides of the road – the force of the tidal wave carried the animals out of their paddocks and into a nearby property. Fences were destroyed and ditches blocked. Flounder, conger eels and red cod lay in the paddocks. Dogs chained to their kennels were drowned. The Press reported the Wheatsheaf proprietor Mary Packer managed to keep up a supply of beer which was welcomed by locals as they strove to clean up the mess, though their efforts tended to be thwarted by fresh tidal surges coming through.

At Sandy Bay, Graeme Small saw the harbour empty out:

“I was about 11 or 12 … I looked out – hmmm, it’s a low tide, there’s no water. And it was right out as far as the end of Quail Island. Quail Island was high and dry… I rushed inside and said, ‘Oh, there’s no water.’ ‘What d’you mean?’ I said, ‘There’s no water in the harbour, it’s all gone.’ They said, ‘Rubbish.’ They came out and, ‘Oh, where’s it gone?’… Woooof, back up it came. I took the day off school – I bunked it. My parents didn’t know until late in the day. I took a sugar bag … down to Māori Gardens. There were fish stranded on the beach. I took the sugar bag and got flounders and sole…”

Seeking a deeper water access to Governors Bay, where steam craft such as the John Anderson could berth, the Lyttelton Harbour Board built another wharf, in March 1883, at Percevals Point (now the point off Sandy Bay). This jetty was known variously as Small’s jetty, Percevals Point jetty and Sandy Bay jetty. Today only the piles remain. The narrow track that now runs from Sandy Bay round to the remaining jetty piles was once a busy official road providing access to the bay for cargo and visitors. However the jetty was dismantled in 1938 following a tragic incident. Two young Christchurch boys were fishing from the jetty. One lad, walking backwards while unwinding his lines, fell in. Local resident Angus Small pulled him out of the water but the boy died. His family attempted to sue the Lyttelton Harbour Board because the jetty had been constructed without railings at the end so that cargo could be loaded.

Accidents of a different sort could occur on the harbour. Gladys Robertson recalled a frightening childhood experience when she and her sisters were returning from Lyttelton in January 1907:

“Margaret wanted to come home on Purau but I loved John Anderson and insisted on going on her. I think the Captains must have had an argument on who’s boat could go the fastest. Well we got out the moles, with Purau hot on our stern. John took a straight line for the short wharf and we expected Purau to go to the long wharf, but she got up a great speed and took off for Quail Island. We sat on the seat and watched and when she swung round and faced us her bow was right out of the water with speed, she came straight at us, but poor kids we thought she would turn off, but a deck hand rushed along & pitched us along to the cabin & told us to go in the cabin quickly and stay there. With that there was a splintering crash & poor old John lay on her side with Purau half over us. She slid back into the sea & backed off & set off happily for her destination. Our engines were not damaged & we crawled in to the short wharf w[h]ere we were hurried off.”

The need for sea transport waned as road access to the head of the harbour improved. Of the approximately seven jetties that were once in use between Teddington and Sandy Bay, only the long jetty remains, earthquake damaged and marooned at mid-low tide. The rebuilding of this jetty will restore a much-loved piece of maritime history to the local community and the citizens of Christchurch.