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This Month in History – February




The Napier Earthquake – Feb 3, 1931

On the morning of 3 February 1931, the air in Napier ‘had grown still and oppressive’ and the sea was ‘so calm and still’ and a ‘most peculiar colour’, (Wright, 2001). At about 10:47am an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck central Napier and Hastings causing widespread damage and resulting in the deaths of 256. For two and a half minutes the earth shook with a violent force, with those there saying the noise was deafening, like an express train at full speed. In terms of loss of life (at least 256), it remains the worst civil disaster to have occurred in New Zealand. There are 258 names on the earthquake memorial in Napier.

Among the buildings destroyed were Napier’s Anglican cathedral, public library and nurses’ home, where clerical staff and off-duty nurses died. In Hastings, 17 people died when Roach’s department store collapsed, and eight when the front of the Grand Hotel fell into the main street. Fifteen died at an old men’s home near Taradale, where rescuers pulled a 91-year-old alive from the rubble three days later. Nine students died in the wreckage of Napier Technical College and seven at the Marist Seminary in Greenmeadows.

Fire broke out in Napier’s business district shortly after the earthquake, and once the reservoir was emptied, firefighters were powerless. Flames gutted almost 11 blocks of central Napier, killing people who were still trapped. Rescue parties, boosted by sailors and soldiers, worked desperately to reach those trapped in wrecked buildings. Aftershocks made such efforts dangerous, and some rescuers were killed or injured as more buildings collapsed. With Napier’s hospitals badly damaged and unusable, medical authorities set up makeshift surgeries at the botanical gardens and Hastings and Napier Park racecourses. Two naval cruisers arrived from Auckland on the 4th with medical personnel and supplies.On the same day the army set up a tent camp for 2500 people. Refugee camps were created around the North Island for women and children, who were encouraged to leave the region. Able-bodied men were required to stay to help with searches, demolition and clean-up work.

The earthquake ultimately had some positive outcomes: the 2.7-m uplift drained much of Ahuriri Lagoon, making land available for farms, industry, housing and Napier Airport; and much of central Napier was rebuilt in an art deco style which would begin to attract tourists half a century later and continues today.

Birth of Charles Dickens – February 7, 1812

Charles Dickens is much loved for his great contribution to classic English literature. He was the quintessential Victorian author. His epic stories, vivid characters and exhaustive depiction of contemporary life are unforgettable. His own story is one of rags to riches. Born in Portsmouth, England on 7 February 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens. The good fortune of being sent to school at the age of nine was short-lived because his father, inspiration for the character of Mr Micawber in ‘David Copperfield’, was imprisoned for bad debt. The entire family, apart from Charles, were sent to Marshalsea, a notorious Suffolk prison. Charles was sent to work in Warren’s blacking factory and endured appalling conditions as well as loneliness and despair. After three years he was returned to school, but the experience was never forgotten and became fictionalised in two of his better-known novels ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Great Expectations’. He began his literary career as a journalist. His own father became a reporter and Charles began with the journals ‘The Mirror of Parliament’ and ‘The True Sun’. Then in 1833 he became parliamentary journalist for The Morning Chronicle. He published a series of sketches under the pseudonym ‘Boz’. In April 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of George Hogarth who edited ‘Sketches by Boz’. Within the same month came the publication of the highly successful ‘Pickwick Papers’, and from that point on there was no looking back for Dickens.

As well as a huge list of novels, including Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities he published autobiography, edited weekly periodicals including ‘Household Words’ and ‘All Year Round’, wrote travel books and administered charitable organisations. He was also a theatre enthusiast, wrote plays and performed before Queen Victoria in 1851. His energy was inexhaustible and he spent much time abroad - for example lecturing against slavery in the United States and touring Italy with companions Augustus Egg and Wilkie Collins, a contemporary writer who inspired Dickens’ final unfinished novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. He was estranged from his wife in 1858 after the birth of their ten children, but maintained relations with his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan. He died of a stroke in 1870. He is buried at Westminster Abbey.

The Communist Manifesto – February 26, 1848

In February 1848, two young socialists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published a pamphlet entitled The Communist Manifesto that would change the course of history. Marx was a philosopher, economist, sociologist and journalist who spent much of his life in London. Engels was a German philosopher, social scientist, journalist and a businessman and just before he joined Marx, he was working in Manchester, U.K., and had published The Condition of the Working Class in England.

The Manifesto advocated the abolition of all private property and a system in which workers own all means of production, land, factories and machinery. It was written to tackle the class struggle and the problems of capitalism (one person owning too much wealth). According to them, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” — meaning the problems in society were mainly because of money. The manifesto is divided into a preamble with four main sections and a conclusion. The concluding statement read: “Working Men of All Countries, Unite.” This became the rallying cry of the Communist party. Between 1871 and 1873, the Manifesto was published in over nine editions in six languages including the United States and following the October Revolution of 1917 that swept the Vladimir Lenin-led Bolsheviks to power in Russia, the world’s first socialist state was founded explicitly along Marxist lines. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1990s, the Communist Manifesto remains ubiquitous; Hobsbawm says that “In states without censorship, almost certainly anyone within reach of a good bookshop, and certainly anyone within reach of a good library, not to mention the internet, can have access to it”.


His energy was inexhaustible and he spent much time abroad - for example lecturing against slavery in the United States and touring Italy with companions Augustus Egg and Wilkie Collins, a contemporary writer who inspired Dickens’ final unfinished novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’.



The Manifesto advocated the abolition of all private property and a system in which workers own all means of production, land, factories and machinery. It was written to tackle the class struggle and the problems of capitalism (one person owning too much wealth).




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