Leading up to the 3 February 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake, relations between Hastings and Napier were at an all-time low – but were about to get worse.
Attempts to secure a full-service public hospital in Hastings had been frustrated over decades by the Napier-dominated Hawke’s Bay Hospital Board, and by politicians in Wellington. In turn, Hastings and rural districts were blocking progress on Napier’s breakwater harbour, preferring development on the inner harbour at Ahuriri.
Napier’s long-term goal to reach a population of 30,000 was also under threat – having insufficient land to expand, and its nearby neighbour, Hastings, was growing fast – which meant resources for the hospital, new industries and government departments could be lost to Hastings.
On the day of the 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake, Napier suffered more than Hastings in terms of deaths (162 in Napier and 93 in Hastings) and damage to buildings. With no on-going water supply in Napier, the town’s CBD burned to the ground, and firemen looked on hopelessly.
Watching Napier burn from Scinde Island (Napier Hill), according to Mr H Latham, was a group of Hastings businessmen. And according to Mr Latham, these men, aware that the Napier Hospital was wrecked, overheard them say, “Napier is done now. Hastings is made. We will get the hospital in Hastings now.” These comments were forgotten in the heat of the earthquake, but would later be stated publicly.
Several days later, newspapers around New Zealand began reporting that Hastings might try and take advantage of the fact that most of Napier was evacuated, and its infrastructure was in ruins. Attempts were made to site the Napier-based Hawke’s Bay County in Hastings, and build a new base hospital there as well. Napier business owners were encouraged to relocate to Hastings, and an old 1870s plan to build a wharf and town near Haumoana resurfaced.
Mr H. Latham, mentioned previously, was a member of the Napier 30,000 Club, whose aim was to advance and expand Napier.
In November 1931, he wrote a letter, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph stating, “The ordinary humane sympathy one was entitled to expect was absent and in its place was an almost ghoulish elation at the prospect of Hastings benefiting by Napier’s affliction.” Mr Latham recalled the incident of the businessmen on Scinde Island, who stated Napier was doomed, and also that people in Hastings were singing that same chorus. Hastings mayor George Roach took offence to this letter, and replied that his accusations were “…wicked untruths and libels upon the Hastings people, who have surely suffered enough by the earthquake disaster without Mr Latham, or any other irresponsible taking it upon themselves to besmirch their good name.”
Mr Latham was not finished however, and replied to Mayor Roach stating “Napier has suffered infinitely more without the tentacles of an octopus being thrust into our midst endeavouring to suck away our remaining vitals.”
An ex-Hastings resident, now living in Napier, wrote defending Mr Latham, saying that while he was in Hastings for a few months in 1931, he attended a public meeting, where he reported the majority of speakers said “To h— with Napier, what does it matter; now is our chance— let us take it!”
No further correspondence was received from Mayor Roach.
Some may have been surprised that civil war did not break out between Hastings and Napier; the feelings were so bad between them, and this was not unnoticed around New Zealand.
There was always some issue occurring between Hastings and Napier since the 1880s. The post-quake events brought a new low, with some other towns in New Zealand watching on to see if Hastings could gain the upper hand, and claim the status as capital city of Hawke’s Bay.
The relationship between both towns was, not surprisingly, badly damaged for many years afterwards. Hastings felt it had been unfairly treated by Napier for many years before the 1931 earthquake over the hospital, and Napier felt betrayed by the post-earthquake actions of its neighbour only eighteen kilometres away.
Unfortunately the memories of these events remained in the consciousness of a generation, and suspicion and distrust of each town carried on into the decades following.