Disaster – Week 9


In February, 1931, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake levelled almost every building in the town of Napier, New Zealand. Aftershocks in the following weeks brought the rest of the buildings down. Over 250 people died.

Nell Farr, a Queensland local and former nurse at the Cairns District Hospital, had arrived in New Zealand the year before, pursuing her nursing career. On the day of the quake, doctors and nurses rushed from places all over the North Island. Nell was one of those from Palmerston North. They travelled the 116 miles to the Hawke’s Bay area.

“On the day of the earthquake, a wireless message came through for six doctors and some nurses to go to Napier as soon as possible, and I was one of the nurses... we did the journey at the rate of 50 miles an hour.” Nell Farr

Policemen cleared their way to prevent hindrance through the small towns. On arrival at Napier, Nell’s group found they were most needed at the temporary medical ward set up at the Hastings Racecourse where there were 2000 patients. The earthquake had flattened the Napier Hospital.

Temporary Hospital at Hastings Racecourse 1931
Temporary Hospital at Hastings Racecourse 1931 Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 New Zealand

By 10 pm, tents housed all patients. Sailors from the HMS Veronica, fortuitously in port, provided hot soup and tea to the victims.

Two iron buildings substituted for operating theatres, with Nell’s theatre experience prompting a supervisory role of one of them for the night shift. Here the medical staff performed amputations, splinted fractures, and sutured tendons under difficult conditions. A generator provided light, but aftershocks forced some operations outside under car headlights. Sterile water was not available; in fact, any water at all was scarce because of burst pipes. Firefighters were helpless to quell the fires raging in town.

After 10 hours without a break, Nell had a cup of tea and a biscuit. Then it was back to Palmerston North to accompany patients evacuated by ambulances, lorries, and cars, before returning to the makeshift hospital for another night in charge of the theatre. After being occupied for over 48 hours, Nell stole away to a car for some rest.

I had two hours’ sleep, after which I wakened hearing that Sister Farr was wanted for night duty at the public hospital at Palmerston. Off I went, accompanied by one of the nurses and arrived in Palmerston just in time to change clothes for the 1st time in three days

After six days, a nun asked Nell Farr to be matron of the Convent Hospital, a temporary home for earthquake victims.

“1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1931_Hawke%27s_Bay_earthquake&oldid=941896498.
“At Port Ahuriri.” Manawatu Standard, February 10, 1931, Volume LI, Issue 60 edition. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/MS19310210.2.6
CAIRNS AND NAPIER. (1931, March 11). Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 – 1954), p. 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article41121789
Napier Earthquke. (1931, March 19). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 39. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23136600
SCENES OF HORROR (1931, March 14). Glen Innes Examiner (NSW : 1908 – 1954), p. 8 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18588858
Temporary Hospital in Hawke’s Bay. (1931, February 16). Waikato Times, Volume 109, Issue 18254, p. 3. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WT19310216.2.20.3

Genealogy Snapshot

Name: Alma Ellen (Nell) Farr (1907-1981)
Parents: Herbert Farr (1880-1955) and Mary Ellen Barrett (1886-1971) 
Surnames: Farr, Barrett
Relationship to Chris: Nell is Chris’s aunt

  1. Father
  2. Chris

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