The Murchison Earthquake


Shaky Ground

For centuries before Europeans arrived, Māori had experienced rū whenua - ‘the shaking of the land'. According to Māori tradition, earthquakes are caused by the god Rūaumoko (or Rūamoko), the son of Ranginui (the Sky) and his wife Papatūānuku (the Earth).

Fissures in the roadFissures in Road at Murchison. Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 321270

Rangi was separated from Papa, and his tears flooded the land. Their sons resolved to turn their mother downwards, so that she and Rangi should not constantly see one another's sorrow.

When Papatūānuku was turned over, Rūaumoko was still at her breast, and was carried to the world below. To keep him warm, he was given fire. He is the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, and earthquakes are caused by him as he walks about.1

Major 'Quakes

On 16 October 1848 an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.5 shook the region. It was felt throughout the top of the south and caused substantial damage in Wellington.

Morell House Busch FarmMurchison Earthquake 17.6.1929, Busch’s Slip. Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 309942

The 1848 earthquakes and aftershocks were caused by movement along at least 105 kilometres of a major fault along the Awatere Valley. Nelson's resident magistrate, Major Mathew Richmond, noted in November 1848, that ‘a crack quite straight crossed the country for miles; in some places he had difficulty crossing it with his horse; in one place the crack passed through an old warre [whare] dividing it in two pieces standing four feet apart.2

But worse was to come on 17 June 1929. The magnitude 7.8 Murchison earthquake was centred in the Lyell Range west of Murchison and was felt from Auckland to Bluff.

There was serious damage throughout the Greymouth, Nelson and Westport districts, with Murchison's 300-plus inhabitants experiencing the most cataclysmic havoc and destruction as slips roared down hillsides covering farms, livestock and roads with tons of rocks and clay. Trees snapped like twigs, huge cracks appeared in roads, and telephone and power poles leaned at drunken angles, surrounded by twisted wires.

Seventeen lives were lost in the Nelson/Buller area and hundreds of farm animals died.

Murchison faultEvidence of the seismic power of the earthquake at the end of Johnson Creek Track. Huge layered sedimentary rocks are jumbled about below the cliff face from which they were sheared in 1929. Native forest is regenerating around the massive rocks which have been eroded and weathered. Photo: Wayne Stronach 2014.

In 1979, The Murchison District Museum and Historical Society gathered first hand accounts of the earthquake.3 Bernard Teague, a Methodist home missionary, was pushing his bicycle over the Maruia Saddle when he heard a strange roaring noise and the ground began to shake, trees crashed around him and he had trouble staying on his feet.

When he climbed the terrace above Six Mile Creek, Bernard saw a slip, which covered two farms. "One of them, the home of Sam Busch, being completely covered with tons of great rocks and clay. Mr Busch had been away delivering cream to the factory when the earthquake struck. He saw the slip fall over his home with his wife, son and daughter buried beneath it. He lost everything he had."

Nonie Rodgers saw the top blown off the hill. " It was absolutely horrifying, enormous rocks being hurled into the air, volumes of dust and what looked like a fire behind it all."

She grabbed her baby and crawled to the front door, where she stood up, but was thrown down the steps and surrounded by falling electric wires: "I lay there petrified to see the ground open and close again not far away. I looked up to see the hills rocking like jelly on a plate and to my relief, saw Dr McLean staggering up the road.....he found a piece of wood and lifted the wires up so I could crawl away with Des still clutched in my arms."

Feeding the dogsAfter the Earthquake. Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 321277

Heavy rain made the conditions even worse with continuing earthquake tremors adding to the confusion and terror. With their houses uninhabitable or completely destroyed, the residents of Murchison camped in tents or took shelter in sheds. After about five days about 280 homeless people were evacuated to Nelson. It was six weeks before many people could return home.

The Murchison Earthquake section of this article was based on an article published in Wild Tomato, June 2008, p 23. The article was written by Joy Stephens for The Nelson Provincial Museum and resources mainly came from the Murchison District Museum and Historical Society collection of memories cited below.

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Updated: April 15, 2020.

Sources used in this story

  1. McSaveney, E. (2007). Earthquakes in Maori Tradition. Retrieved from Te Ara: the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  2. Grapes, R., Little, T. and Downes, G. (1998). Rupturing of the Awatere Fault during the 1848 October 16 Marlborough earthquake. New Zealand Journal of Geology & Geophysics, 41, p. 388.
  3. Murchison District Museum and Historical Society (1999). Stories of Murchison earthquake, 17th June, 1929. Rev. ed. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison District Museum and Historical Society.

Want to find out more about the The Murchison Earthquake ? View Further Sources here.

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Further sources - The Murchison Earthquake


  • Adams, R.D. (1970). Seddon earthquake, New Zealand, April 1966. Wellington, New Zealand: Govt. Print. 
  • Brown, M (1976) Difficult country. [Murchison] : Murchison Historical and Museum Society
  • Boon. Kevin (1994) The Murchison earthquake. Wellington, N.Z. : Kotuku.
  • Downes, G.L Atlas of isoseismal maps of New Zealand earthquakes. Lower Hutt, New Zealand: Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences.
  • Eiby, G.A. (1980) The Marlborough earthquakes of 1848. Wellington, New Zealand: Govt. Print. New Zealand. D.S.I.R. Bulletins ; 225 
  • Grapes,Rodney. (2000). Magnitude eight plus; New Zealand's biggest earthquake. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.
  •  Henderson, J. (1937) The West Nelson earthquakes of 1929 with notes on the geological structure of West Nelson. Wellington, N.Z.: Govt. Print, 1937. 
  • Hindmarsh, G. (2010). Kahurangi calling: stories from the backcountry of Northwest Nelson. Nelson, NZ: Craig Potton Publishing. pp 40-53.
  • Johnston, Mike. (1979). Geology of the Nelson area. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Dept. of Scientific and Industrial Research.
  • Mitchell, John & Hilary (2004) Te tau ihu o te waka: a history of Māori of Marlborough and Nelson. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia in association with the Wakatū Incorporation,  p. 63.
  • Motion, M.J. (2013) After the Murchison Earthquake 17 June 1929: a collection of articles recording the activities of Capt. John J. Walker. Murchison District Historical Society Inc.
  • Murchison District Museum and Historical Society.(1999). Stories of Murchison earthquake, 17th June, 1929. Rev. ed. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison District Museum and Historical Society.
  • New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs. Ministry of Civil Defence. (1970). Report on the Inangahua earthquake, New Zealand May 1968. Wellington, N.Z.:Govt. Printer


  • Broad, H. (1989, June 24) When the tigers pounced on Murchison. Nelson Evening Mail, p.7
  • Callan, John (1998, May 27). Earthquake memories still fresh: Inangahua earthquake, May 25, 1968. Nelson Evening Mail, p.11.
  • Catley, Beth. (2004, June 18). The day the ground shook. Nelson Mail, p.4.
  • Collett, G. (1999, June 19) The day of the quake. Nelson Mail, p.13
  • Gorman, Paul (2008, February 5). Fault line's movement studied. The Press, p.A04. 
  • Grapes, Rodney & Goh, Agnes. (2000). Marlborough: just over one hundred and fifty years of earthquakes. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 6 (3), 4-32.
  • Holdaway, Barry. (1995). Some Christmas thoughts on the siting of Blenheim. Marlborough's Past and Present, 3, 18-20.
  • The Murchison Earthquake (1971) New Zealand's Heritage, v. 7. Sydney: Hamlyn Paul. pp. 2241-2245.
  • Trolove, Willy.(2006). Living on shaky ground. magazine, 7 (6), 12-14.


Murchison Museum

The Murchison District Museum and Historical Society Inc. has a range of resources and exhibits relating to the Murchison Earthquake. These include:

  • Photograph display wall.
  • Numerous folders/scrapbooks of interesting information and pictures.
  • Personal recollections
  • 'Earthquake video'- simulated account of 1929 earthquake.
  • Memorial garden for those who lost their lives.

The Museum is open daily, except statutory holidays. Telephone 03 523 9392 before visiting if wanting to access particular information.

The Nelson Provincial Museum Archives (held in the Museum's Research facility in Stoke)

  • Bowron, Lindsay. (2000, 11 September). The Murchison earthquake June 1929. [Sound recording], Nelson Historical Society lecture, NHS 85, NGHS 86.
  • Earthquake Relief Committee, Nelson. (1929-1932). Records. AG 274.
  • Nelson Provincial Museum. (2004 17 June). Murchison earthquake recollections. [Sound recording] OH 112, OH 113.
  • There is also a display about the area's earthquakes at TA445, The Nelson Provincial Museum, cnr Trafalgar and Hardy Streets, Nelson.

Web Resources