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Recollections of the 1954 Adelaide earthquake

The following recollections of the 1954 Adelaide Earthquake were submitted by members of the South Australian public.

If you have an interesting story about that early morning, 1st of March, 1954 email it to the Seismology Group (don't forget to include what suburb you were in) and we will endeavour to publish them on this website.

Strong Shock Of Earthquake: The story of the four greatest earthquakes in the history of South Australia

This book is a collection of eyewitness and newspaper reports from earthquakes in 1883, 1897, 1902 and 1954 brought together into a story format by local historian Tom Dyster.

Full reference: Dyster, T, 1995. Strong shock of earthquake: The story of the four greatest earthquakes in the history of South Australia. PIRSA Report Book 1995/047. 86pp.


Adelaide Children's Hospital
I was a patient at the Adelaide Children's Hospital at the time of the earthquake, in a ward which was on the northern side (Brougham Place) of the hospital and overlooking Brougham Gardens. The ward had a verandah which was open to the outside air, but enclosed for safety with chain link fencing. Because it was a hot night, the nurses let us sleep onthe verandah which was much cooler than the ward (and which, incidentally, allowed us to have pillow-fights without the nurses seeing us!).

In the early morning we were awakened by a noise and movement, and were amazed to see cars, which were parked along the side of King William Road and in the Brougham Gardens area, shaking. The night sister told us it was an earthquake. All I could think of was that my grandmother had some beautiful china on a narrow ledge on her dresser and I was worried it would all fall off and be smashed! We weren't scared, really, more excited than anything.

J.M. Kilkenny


Myrtlebank
As a 9 or 10 year old, I can remember a plaster vent cover falling off the wall high in my bedroom and landing on my pillow when I was asleep.   Our house at Myrtlebank sustained some severe cracking.   The next day my family drove around the suburbs looking at the damage (mainly broken chimneys).   Shortly after I remember having a dream that there would be another significant earthquake in Adelaide when I was 60.

Mr S.


Goodwood Orphanage
I was aged 3 and I had been admitted to the Goodwood Orphanage (as if that wasn't enough of a shock!). I was on St Mary side (Southern Wing) sleeping in a metal cot near the window I heard the building rumble and shake. It was really scary! Many of the children started to cry and scream; we didn't know what was happening. We weren't allowed to help each other unless you were a big girl.

My sense of survival kicked in and I looked out at the very grey skies, and then in the imagination of my childlike mind I saw a black witch in the sky. She was turning around and pointing, then she pointed straight at me. I ducked under the blankets to the smell of my own urine (which was more scary - the storm, the witch or the reprisals of wetting the bed?). I never told anybody about this of course. When I didn't get belted or punished that day for wetting the bed, that was a pleasant change.

Who would believe me anyhow? Who would believe any of the things I could tell them. I was just an "Indolent Child". There were too many other dramas going on around the place. Far more important than me or the needs of the other kids in the same home and dormitory with me. Nobody to comfort us or protect us. In hindsight I guess the Earthquake caught us all by surprise, even the nuns.

I do remember Sister Patricia (she was the nun in charge of our care) coming out of her cell into the dormitory in her big white cotton nightie without her veil, and a funny hat over her bald head. She looked very worried, but then she often looked very worried. However there was certainly something different about this day. I had never seen a nun without her veil before. What a fascinating day; things were very different including the arduous routines for a change.  Even the pigeons that used to roost in the roof were behaving differently.

I remember over the next few days or weeks, its hard to tell because all of the days were rolled into one in that place. But there were big cracks left in the building and people (important people I think) came out to assess the damage to the building.

It was a very large and solidly built building too. I think that some things might have been in need of repair before and certainly after the earthquake. There may have even been some donations made to fund some of the refurbishments made. I'd like to know more if anybody out there knows, because I was so young and my ability to take note of all of what was happening around me was limited.

But I certainly do remember that day and morning, it has remained indelible in my mind forever.

Denise Brooks (ex Goodwood Orphanage Resident)


Edwardstown
I was 14 and slept in a wooden detached sleepout beside the house. I was awoken by a very loud noise like a truck with a load of corrugated iron. I became aware that the whole sleepout was shaking, the small pictures on the wall were swaying and china knick-knacks on the dressing table were moving. I decided to go into the house. A dead almond tree seemed to be moving in a strange frightening way. As I crossed the back verandah the ground seemed to move under my bare feet. I asked my father what was happening. He didn't even open his eyes but muttered "It's just an earth tremor. Go back to bed." I lay awake for quite a long time, listening to neighbours reassuring and calling to each other in the early morning gloom.

Mrs J.F. (abbreviated)


Grote Street, Adelaide
On the way to Adelaide Girls High School there was a chemist shop in Grote Street that had had a whole wall of shelves collapse onto the floor, and it was littered with bottles, boxes and pills of every description. As I passed, the chemist and his assistant on hands and knees in the debris were trying to rescue some of the medicines in the chaos. To my dismay the school was still standing, solid as ever, but girls in the yard were a-buzz with the event.

Mrs J.F. (abbreviated)


Hindmarsh
On the night of the quake I was on duty with St John Ambulance.   The ambulance station was located above Sykes Furniture Store on Port Road, Hindmarsh.   We had gone to bed after an uneventful night and early in the morning we were awakened by dogs barking and a roaring noise which seemed to come from a south westerly direction.   We appeared to sway with the building and it seemed as though we swayed on the timber framed building well into the next door neighbours’ yard which was of course an illusion.   This was followed by a complete power blackout as all Adelaide residents put on their lights simultaneously.   At this time all calls for ambulances came through the telephone room at Hindmarsh.   Murray Ashton, who was the telephonist on duty only had one call which he suspected came from the lady next door who said “What was that?”  

Mr V.K.


St Peters
Our family had a Ukrainian boarder.   When the quake hit the whole household woke.   Within seconds our boarder had rushed into the hallway, brandishing a gun, calling out “The Russians are here, the Russians are here”.  It took quite some time to calm him down.    I was in charge of an insurance claims department and a client had to query an unusual occurrence.   While there was no evidence of damage due to the quake, a bird’s nest had mysteriously appeared in the middle of the dining room.   We decided to send a loss assessor out to check.   What appears to have happened is that a bird’s nest had been built in the cavity wall, and due to the quake the roof had lifted enough for the nest to shoot out from the wall and onto the floor.   The roof had then settled back into its original position.

Mr K.P.


Seaton
The whole family was asleep.  Suddenly I was woken by the squawking and screeching of several hundred hens.   The noise was an inferno of confusion.   My first thoughts were that foxes and rats were attacking the birds.   My husband slept on.   I had a sense of everything swaying.   I tried to get out of bed to go outside but lost my balance and stumbled across the room.   I was worried about the children.   As I reached for the door, the floor heaved, seeming to roll up in front of me, and a cupboard leaned towards me, then swayed back again.   I was thrown back onto the bed just as a terrific roar, like a huge aeroplane about to crash on us, filled the air.   Suddenly there was an eerie silence, and a monumental stillness settled over everything.   The poultry yard was so quiet that it could have been lifted up into space.

Mrs G.P.


Grange Seafront
My doctor husband and two small children, were living in a large old solid home on the Grange seafront. At approximately 2 am on March 1st my husband had just returned from making a ‘house call’ and had gone to bed. Our bedroom faced the sea. I heard this incredible noise, as if an army of trucks were travelling along the seafront road. I sat up in bed, put on the light and to my amazement our two wardrobes were swaying – the doors flying open. But it was the floor that caught my attention. It was a parquet floor – set in sand. The tiles were lifting up and down and gave the impression that I was watching gentle sea waves – in the bedroom. My New Zealand born mother had told me about earthquakes so I woke my husband, grabbed the two small girls and we stood in the door ways – I was eight months pregnant at the time! We were concerned about the possibility of another quake. Should we have been outside on the road? Would we get a tidal wave? I can still remember listening to the wireless. At that time I think there was only one station broadcasting at night – 5KA. I can vividly remember how ‘useless’ the announcer was that evening – he refused to believe the many calls, and was quite incapable of giving any sound advice!

Mrs A.D.


Mount Lofty
The second memory of that night was that of the plight of my mother and brother then living at Mount Lofty. They were in the castle (Carminow) at the top of Summit Road. The castle had belonged to our family for many years and it had just been painted and renovated. On March 1st my mother awoke to some movement – I am not sure what awoke her. She jumped out of bed – called to my brother and once again they stood in the doorways. The ceiling caved in onto my mothers bed – she could easily have been badly injured. Large cracks appeared down the walls – 2 bedrooms in the tower were badly damaged. Many large blocks of stone fell from the turrets at the top of the tower. They crashed to the ground.

Mrs A.D.


Adelaide
On March 1st 1954 I was an in-bed patient in the skin, ear, nose and throat ward, 1st floor, Royal Adelaide hospital. The brick chimney collapsed on the roof above our ward and the ventilator shaft shook. I buried my head under my pillow and stayed laying in bed. Sick patients fled and returned to retrieve their jewellery! Young men with broken legs from motor-bike accidents were under a verandah and had a canvas blind pulled down and anchored to the ground nightly. As their broken leg was suspended from a pulley I guess they couldn’t flee! Having been brought up religious I felt like the “end of the world” had come.

Mrs O.


Marleston
At that time I was 26 years old and came out of hospital on March 1st after abdominal surgery and could not walk upright. My husband and I went to dinner that night, arriving home (Marleston) quite late we had gone to bed, the light still being on, and when the quake hit our house the wall behind the bed leaned over the bed then went back. I raced my husband and brother into the middle of the backyard. Our next door neighbour, a gas victim of world war one, slept on his front verandah and told us he thought a huge truck was about to slam into his bed. The local milkman said the road was undulating towards him and his truck, it was a horrifying experience as it reached him. There was a great deal of damage to the house, great cracks especially on our bedroom side which was the eastern wall, but cracks were everywhere.

Mrs M.


Prospect Estate
It was a warm still night. Roland had just called out and I took him a drink of water to the room he now shared with Greg. I had only just returned to bed when there was a loud unexpected noise. Harry was awake and I said to him, “Is that thunder?” He looked out the window and replied, “It can’t be, there are no clouds in the sky”. “Could it be an explosion?” I asked him. Just then we got the answer as the noise seemed to be heading straight for us like an express train out of control, and the house started to shake. An earthquake – Adelaide didn’t get earthquakes, did it? This night it did. “Come on”, I told Harry, “let’s get the boys outside”. The clock showed 3 am. As we made our way along the passage to the boys’ room the floor seemed to ripple under our feet, and then the sound and the movement ceased. “What was that?” Roland asked. “Only a big truck going by”, I lied. We figured by now it was all over, and I accepted Harry’s assurance that there would be no more shocks. Actually he was right. Greg slept on. We did not know till the next day that many of our neighbours spent the rest of the night outside, not game to go back indoors.

“Sunshine and Shadows” Brenda May


Seacombe
Mrs P lived in a beautiful historic house. The house was badly damaged but did not collapse. They dashed outside. The local milkman was the only one properly dressed! The council condemned the building and they were forced to move out. The house was soon looted. It took 2½ years to get the insurance money. After 50 years it was still a distressing memory.

(abbreviated from phone call)


Joslin
Mr H was in the Sheffield Shield team at the time. On the Sunday rest day the SA team took their Victorian counterparts to the Barossa for a drink or two. Mr H woke after being hit in the head by the wall. He found himself looking at a one foot gap between the ceiling joints and the wall, but thinking ‘ I only had one red and one white’

(abbreviated from phone call)


Greenhill
Perce Squires was a farmer travelling to Adelaide with produce very early in the morning. As he was coming down Greenhill Road in his truck, he was surprised to see every light in Adelaide go on at once. (He did not feel the earthquake – this is to be expected while driving – Ed)

Mr. H.


Too valuable to risk
Neil Thomas of the State Library tells the story of how Sir Donald Bradman discovered on the morning after the quake that one of his most treasured possessions, a Royal Worcester Vase on his mantelpiece that was given to him in 1938, had moved forward toward the edge.

He immediately became very concerned about the security of his memorabilia and was pleased to take up a suggestion by the State Library some years later to house the collection for him. In his words: 'I only parted with the vase after much soul-searching but in the end my family felt it to be so valuable that the safety and security of a public collection was essential'.


Ethelton
I remember at 7 years of age we lived in the sand hills at Elthelton in an army tent, waiting for a housing trust house to become available, when the earthquake came.

With 2 siblings and a mother and step-father we were thrown out of our beds, the tent pole split and the tent ripped.

We went down to the beach and there was a lot of dead fish on the sand.

J.P.