Historic moments through the eyes of the Webb family

It might puzzle visitors to stumble across a segment on the Mount Tarawera eruption in the museum’s newest exhibition, “The House of Webb: A Victorian family’s journey to Ormondville”. The viewer may wonder why this event is part of an exhibition that focuses on Southern Hawke’s Bay.

However, the connection between the eruption and the Webb family living in Ormondville, does make sense. Just after midnight on Thursday, 10 June 1886, Mount Tarawera near Rotorua, erupted: the people of Te Wairoa, a village close to the mountain, were woken by a sequence of earthquakes and massive explosions. Fountains of molten rock and thick columns of smoke and ash rose over ten kilometres high. For more than four terrifying hours’ rocks, ash and mud bombarded the peaceful village. Mount Tarawera had split wide open.

Rocks, ash and mud did not besiege Ormondville, however the eruption still made its presence felt in the small township. Tom Webb, the nephew of Reverend Anthony Webb, wrote a letter to his brother Arthur, in England: “Early yesterday morning (10th) about 3.30 I was awakened by very heavy, loud and deep boomings, which sounded very much like heavy guns being fired at sea. The first one woke me up & was the loudest […] the boomings kept up at intervals of a few seconds.”

Other parts of Hawke’s Bay were similarly affected. “The Daily Telegraph” newspaper recorded that, in Woodville people were startled from sleep by “a series of loud explosions, accompanied by rumbling noises: at each discharge there was a violent shaking of the earth.” Meanwhile in Waipukurau, a dance held in the town hall was still in progress, when the gaiety was interrupted by a series of earthquakes, accompanied with “loud rumblings as of distant thunder” and “flames shooting up high into the air”. Terrified, the party broke up and the dancers quickly left for the safety of their homes. Along with earthquakes and explosions, “vibrant flashes of light in the northern sky” stunned the people of Napier.

Meanwhile, those living in Gisborne saw the magnificent sight of “volumes of fire shooting up in the air out of an umbrella-shaped cloud which spread over the whole sky”. By four in the morning, Gisborne was in utter darkness and there was a distinct smell of sulphur pervading the air. Breathing in the air “had a peculiar effect on many of the inhabitants” and by morning the “birds were seen flying about in a helpless fashion”.

That morning was a milestone in New Zealand’s geographical history: the Pink and White Terraces, colonial New Zealand’s premier tourist attraction and considered the eighth wonder of the world were destroyed along with Te Wairoa. On the 15 June, Tom Webb continued in his letter: “It is believed by people who have been within a mile of where the terraces are supposed to be that they have disappeared & a lake formed over them.”

Today all that remains are memories shared by those who experienced the devastation – accounts like those of Tom Webb, and paintings by eminent New Zealand artists, two of which are on show in this current exhibition.

Tarawera Eruption‘The White Terraces’ by Charles Blomfield

The White Terraces known as Te Tarata (the tattooed rock) originally fell 30 metres from a geyser that produced the white silica of the terraces. These terraces spread out and down for about 240 metres and the water spilling into pools was a crystal-clear blue.

Gail Pope – Curator Social History, MTG

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today, 4th August 2018





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