The 1954 Adelaide Earthquake in review

Kevin McCue

Introduction Seventy years ago at 3:40am on Monday morning the 1st March 1954, a strong earthquake shook Adelaide and the region damaging buildings and injuring 4 people. It was shear luck that no one died. It cost insurance companies more than £3M to repair insured buildings. Few businesses, churches and some housing were covered by insurance so the loss was much greater.

A reappraisal of the earthquake and its maximum intensity (Figure 1), and location of the two aftershocks on 2 March and 2 September 1954, has confirmed contemporary estimates that the epicentre was near Darlington. The magnitude was close to magnitude 6, larger than previous estimates of 5.4 to 5.6, making it South Australia’s 3rd largest but most damaging earthquake.

Figure 1 Revised Isoseismal map using Kerr-Grant (1959) and Malpas (1993) felt reports for SA with addition of felt reports in Victoria and NSW using TROVE. (Map compiled by Clive Collins). 

The felt area suggests a magnitude of about 6.0. This location near Darlington close to the Eden Burnside Fault with no surface rupture restrains the focal depth to at least 10km. The fault area of a magnitude 6 earthquake is about 10km x 10km, indicating a source region rupturing from below the surface to10 km or more deep depending where it commenced. Recent studies have confirmed observations made by university and government geologists in 1954, that the earthquake generated no movement on the fault at the surface. Interestingly, with a comprehensive monitoring network operated by citizen scientists of the Seismological Association of Australia now running in the Adelaide region, small earthquakes there have been accurately located down to 20km or more, about the middle of the Earth’s crust in the region.

1954 02 28 18:09:53 UTC, Adelaide mainshock

At about 3:40am on Monday morning the 1st March local time, a strong earthquake shook the southeast of South Australia causing extensive damage in Adelaide, and costing insurance companies more than £3M. Damage to houses appeared to be particularly severe in and around the foothills. Four people were injured but miraculously there were no deaths. Extracts from local newspapers made available on-line by the ANL’s Trove are presented to give the reader a feel for the earthquake and then the issues of where and how big it was are discussed.

The ground shaking in the city was strong, with descriptions of walkers nearly thrown off their feet and damage to homes, commercial buildings and churches. Chimneys collapsed and windows were broken. Several close calls are recounted of people escaping serious injuries. Masonry structures and plaster ceilings performed badly. Many homes and buildings were constructed of clay bricks and sandstone blocks, very attractive but practicable with scarce timber. Government House, home to the Queen during her imminent visit from 18th to 25th March, required urgent, and no doubt, highest priority, repairs.

Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 – 1954), Thursday 4 March 1954, page 3


Scared People Leap From Beds, Rush Out Of Doors


The worst earthquake in SA history …. rolled across half of the State early on Monday morning. Heavy tremors, lasting up to 30 seconds, terrified tens of thousands of people when their houses shuddered, and caused thousands of pounds’ worth of damage. Although only three people were injured, many had narrow escapes from falling masonry and debris. In the metropolitan area some districts were blacked out for about two hours. Many people leapt from their beds, rushed outside and remained there until dawn. A daylight survey revealed that many big city buildings had been cracked, and in some cases parapets had moved about two inches.

People in city hotels and boarding houses groped their way into the streets in the darkness after they had felt the buildings rocking… At police headquarters the wireless aerial masts swayed nearly six feet, the top floor rocked and heavy transmitters slid around the floor while officers on duty struggled to keep on their feet. Policemen patrolling the city were thrown against shop windows. Appliances were called from Fire Brigade headquarters when the nightwatchmen at Charles Birks Ltd. thought that part of the building had collapsed. Windows were broken in many large city buildings and glass showered into the street. City Council employes barricaded off a number of areas considered dangerous from falling masonry. Three casualties were reported. The wife of the police sergeant at Hindmarsh, Mrs. W. A. Mcintyre. tripped in the darkness and broke an arm. She was admitted to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. At Belair, Miss B. Petty was knocked unconscious by a large piece of plaster in a railway cottage. A refrigerator in the house moved right across the kitchen floor, and in the adjoining cottage two chimneys were lost and ventilators were jolted out. Bill Jeffery, 15, of Rowells road, Lockleys received an eye injury when a ventilator brick fell out of the wall above his bed. At the Victoria Hotel, Tapley’s Hill, Josephine Gibbons, 15 – year – old daughter of the proprietor, had a narrow escape when part of her bedroom wall collapsed and masonry crashed on her pillow. Her mother, Mrs. A. T. Gibbons said, ‘Fortunately Josephine ducked under the bedclothes and saved her life.’ Mrs. Gibbons added that every room in the house had been cracked and they could see from one room to another. Another Tapley’s Hill resident,

Maureen Tiller, 20, was asleep when a 50-lb. piece of masonry missed her pillow by an inch. Her father, Mr. Cyril Tiller, said that the house had been so badly damaged that it could not be repaired.

The family spent the night with relatives. Caretakers and cleaners in city buildings had harrowing experiences. Mr. and Mrs. N. H. Gilbert, who occupy a flat in the Queensland Insurance Co. building in Pirie street, were awakened by rumblings which were quickly followed by the noise of shattering glass. Bricks and mortar fell from a block of eight chimneys on adjoining premises. Some crashed into a laneway and the rest smashed the windows of the Armored Division clubrooms. The ceilings of most offices in the Queensland Insurance Co.’s building were cracked. Minor damage was caused to the GPO, where several walls were cracked and the parapet surrounding the top of the building was loosened. The northern face of the GPO clock was smashed, but the tower was undamaged. Among the premises barricaded off to protect pedestrians was the Commercial Insurance Co.’s office in Pirie street. The large statue of Britannia on the top of the three-storey building was cracked across the base.

City Church Spire To Go

A prominent city landmark, Maughan Church spire, which was damaged when a hurricane struck the city a few years ago, was badly shattered. An architect said it would not be worth repairing and would have to be demolished. A coping stone, weighing about a quarter of a ton, on the top of St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Wakefield street, cracked and shifted about five inches. Police and firemen barricaded off the front of the building. Following an architect’s report, contractors roped the stone until it can be pinned into position. Cracks appeared in the walls of the 102-year-old Pirie street Methodist Church and a part of an ornamental fixture in the centre of the ceiling broke away. The spire at Archer street Methodist Church, North Adelaide, was barricaded off and will have to be removed. In the Helping Hand Centre, walls in the men’s dormitory were badly cracked and the ceiling was damaged. The Rev. A T. Strange said that walls and ceilings at the Country Girls’ Hostel and Old Folks’ home had also been badly damaged. Toppling chimneys at Bishop’s Court, North Adelaide, did severe damage to the house, which was recently modernised. Bricks fell both outside and inside the building. Many bottles of packed drugs were thrown off the shelves in the drug department of E H. Faulding and Co.’s warehouse in James place. Chief Fire Officer J. J. Whyte was awakened when a chimney on top of his quarters collapsed on to the roof. It was the only damage caused at fire brigade headquarters. Firemen used extension ladders to remove masonry from damaged city buildings. Croydon, Findon, Hindmarsh and Brompton were blacked-out for an hour, and areas in the city west of King William street and north of Currie street were without power for about two hours. Several minor cracks appeared in the freshly painted walls of Parliament House, with one fissure running through a landing on a marble staircase. Arches and the corners of a number of committee rooms were cracked, and mouldings and cornices dislodged from the ceiling of the billiard room. Part of the parapet fell from the old Legislative Council building on North terrace and ornamental stone jars on top of the Treasury were cracked. Some of the monkeys and birds at the Adelaide Zoo became noisy after the earthquake, but most of the animals took it quietly, the Director (Mr. V. D. Haggard) said. A chimney which fell from the second storey of Mr. Haggard’s house on to the ground floor smashed the iron on the roof and cut electric light wires. Homes with electric clocks registered the time of the earthquake accurately. The clocks stopped dead with the first jolt at 3.40a.m. A few electrically operated clocks equipped with a self-starting device resumed after the shock — but in the reverse direction. Others resumed normal running — but at double speed. In a Kensington Gardens home, a clock which was a family heirloom and had hung motionless for 15 years sprang into life.

Damage in the suburbs was widespread, the worst seems to have been in the south of the city, Darlington, Belair and Blackwood in particular.

Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 – 1954), Thursday 4 March 1954, page 7

Hundreds of suburban homes lost chimneys in addition to having walls, ceilings and verandah pillars cracked and plaster strewn over beds and furniture during Monday’s earthquake.

Many housewives viewed with dismay broken glasses, dishes, jars of jam and bottled fruits in their pantries. Damage to houses appeared to be particularly severe in and around the foothills. Extensive cracks and falls of plaster were reported from Mitcham, Fullarton, Glen Osmond and Burnside as well as Belair and Blackwood. The late Professor McKellar Stewart’s old house at Blackwood, now occupied by Mrs. L. Grange, was severely damaged. The hot water system burst and 80 gallons of water poured through the ceiling into the dining room. Several large cracks appeared in the walls and some bricks fell from the eaves. Mrs. Grange’s mother was slightly injured when she bumped her head getting out of the house.

The church and rectory at Belair were hard hit. In the rectory every room was cracked around the ceiling. The sky could be seen through one of the back rooms. Plaster was knocked down in the church, and heavy cement crosses on the outside were moved. Every room at the new Blackwood Community Hospital had been damaged except the operating theatre, the president of the board of management (Mr. Gordon C. Brown) said. It was feared that damage  would exceed £1.000. The library roof at St. Michael’s theological college, at Crafers, was left sagging badly, cornices were torn from the walls, and large cracks developed between ceilings and walls. A large piece of masonry from the Glenelg Town Hall crashed into Moseley square from near the clock face.

The church and rectory at Belair were hard hit. In the rectory every room was cracked around the ceiling. The sky could be seen through one of the back rooms. Plaster was knocked down in the church, and heavy cement crosses on the outside were moved. Every room at the new Blackwood Community Hospital had been damaged except the operating theatre, the president of the board of management (Mr. Gordon C. Brown) said. It was feared that damage  would exceed £1.000. The library roof at St. Michael’s theological college, at Crafers, was left sagging badly, cornices were torn from the walls, and large cracks developed between ceilings and walls. A large piece of masonry from the Glenelg Town Hall crashed into Moseley square from near the clock face.

 Figure 2 This photo, it is claimed in the Courier of 4 March 1954 page 3, is typical of damage caused by the Monday morning earthquake. Pages 26 and 27 of the newspaper are devoted to damage photos.

 A fire brigade extension ladder was used to remove pieces still dangerously hanging. Large cracks appeared in the eastern wall of the town hall ballroom. At the Pier Hotel, opposite, a 1,000-gallon water tank burst in the ceiling and the contents damaged the walls and carpets in five rooms. The hotel lift jammed when a counterweight was vibrated from its guides and hotel guests in night attire hurried down the stairs into Moseley square. Bottle in the front bar were shaken down and broken and two walls were cracked. At Woodlands Church of England Grammar School, Glenelg, an iron water tank containing about 1,000 gallons broke and cascaded water down outside the building. Glenelg firemen turned out to false alarms at Dunrobin road, Brighton, and Anzac Highway, Morphettville, caused by alarm shutters falling through the vibration. A number of homes at Darlington received a battering. Houses occupied by Messrs. Sachse, R. Edwards, J. Buckley and Mrs. J Edwards were extensively damaged. The home of Mr. and Mrs. L. Wakefield may have to be evacuated because of damage to nearly every room. The Eventide Home, the Salvation Army home for the aged at Linden Park, was severely hit. All ceilings in the main building were cracked and most will have to be replaced. One resident heard the pre-tremor rumble and sat up in bed. As he did so a heavy piece of masonry crashed on to his pillow. At the Torrens Arms Hotel, Torrens Park, a guest was struck on the side of the head by a large piece of falling plaster. He was treated for abrasions. At the home of Mr. V. H. Thomas, of Owen street, Panchito Park, a gas heater was torn out of the wall. Bricks from a chimney fell into the living room of Mrs. Zbierski, of Myrtle street, Prospect. They landed on a piano, causing damage estimated at £100.

Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1926 – 1954), Sunday 21 March 1954, page 12


Royal Aust home is oldest

From Annette Moir

ADELAIDE (by telegram) — Government House, Adelaide, the home of the Queen in South Australia, is the oldest Government House in Australia. The eastern wing of the present building was built in 1839 for Governor Gawler. Built in Regency style, it has been added to gradually. Most of the building dates from 1855, and the last additions were made in 1901. It is a lovely cream stone building, set in huge grounds right in the heart of the city. 

Cracked walls

Adelaide had the greatest headache of any capital city in preparing the rooms for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The recent earthquake caused a lot of interior damage. Great cracks appeared in the ceiling and walls of the Royal apartments, and workmen and plasterers were busy until the Queen’s arrival repairing the damage. 

Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 – 1954), Thursday 4 March 1954, page 7


Noise Like Train At High Speed

Heralded in many centres by a roar like a train travelling at high speed, Monday’s earthquake caused minor damage over a large area of the State, extending from the Upper North to the Lower South-East, and from Lower Eyre Peninsula to Upper Murray districts.

Lasting from 10 to 20 seconds in most places, the earthquake shook houses and rattled windows, doors and crockery. Many homes were cracked, tanks sprang leaks, clocks stopped and pictures were left askew on walls. At Murray Bridge a milk vendor said he saw a brilliant flash and many lights like falling stars. The road seemed to billow, and he could plainly see the houses on either side moving. Like Thunder The tremor was brief, he said, but with a roar like thunder it awoke all the townspeople. As he continued his round he found that many homes had walls cracked and water escaping from leaking tanks. Following are reports of the earthquake received from country centres: —

Figure 3 Photos of damage in Adelaide taken soon after the earthquake. The widespread use of un-reinforced masonry, and damage, are very like that in Newcastle NSW following the M5.6 earthquake there in December 1989. At Newcastle, many different assessors judged the maximum intensity at MMVIII and likewise in Adelaide.

MOONTA.— Residents of Moonta and the surrounding district were awakened by windows rattling, roofs creaking, and a distinct movement of beds and other furniture, which lasted from eight to 10 seconds. Old residents said it was the worst for nearly 50 years. No extensive damage was reported. 

MINLATON.— Many residents of Minlaton were disturbed by the earth tremor. Mr. A. R. Burley, carrier, said the disturbance lasted seven to eight seconds. A new reinforced concrete shed has a large crack from top to bottom. His 28,000 gallon concrete tank was also cracked and the house was cracked in six places. Mr D. Snook was almost knocked off his bicycle while on his way to work.

BALAKLAVA. — A noise like a high wind preceded a one-minute earthquake tremor here. Some residents were awakened by water splashing from cracks in tanks. Some house walls were cracked, but otherwise there was little damage 

KANGARILLA. —The most severe earth tremor for over 40 years was ex-perienced here. Doors, windows and crockery rattled, pictures were left aslant and cracks appeared in walls. A very slight tremor followed shortly after 4 a.m. 

LITTLEHAMPTON. — One resident said the damage in the Mount Barker-Littlehampton area had had been really severe. Several houses were badly cracked. Main damage appeared to be in the valley, houses on the ridges being not as badly affected. 

BURRA. — The earthquake hit Burra at 3.40 a.m. One resident said that at the beginning he saw the reflection of a yellow light, turning to a brilliant orange in the south-east sky. 

BORDERTOWN. — Noise like an express travelling at high speed could be heard a minute before the earthquake. The tremor lasted 20 to 30 seconds, badly shaking houses. Many walls were cracked and tanks shook on their stands.

GERANIUM.— It was the severest earth tremor ever felt here. No serious damage was reported, except for cracked walls and plaster falling from ceilings. 

PENNESHAW.— Windows rattled, and pictures and furniture moved. Many people were awakened by a loud rumbling which lasted for several seconds. 

TUMBY BAY.— People rushed out of their homes when the ‘quake struck the town about 3.45 a.m. Many said they were rocked in their beds.

JAMESTOWN. — A severe earth tremor experienced here lasted about 10 sec. and awakened some residents. A peculiar noise accompanied the tremor.

CUMMINS. — An earth tremor rattled windows and roused a few people from their beds. 

FRANCES. — A severe earthquake early this morning badly shook many houses. Minor tremors lasted about half a minute and rose to a very sharp shock before gradually diminishing. 

PORT LINCOLN. — A number of townspeople were awakened by the earth tremor. Mrs. R. Cooper, of Stevenson street, felt her bed shake violently and heard a noise like a strong wind. A wireless message from Messrs. N. Growden and R. Reid, of Wedge Island, 50 miles from Port Lincoln, said the tremor was felt on the island. 

SADDLEWORTH.— Earthquake shocks lasted over a minute, awakening most of the residents. No damage was reported. 

COWELL— Many local residents reported a severe earth tremor. Mr. Yates, the local manager of the Bank of Adelaide said he woke up to crysstal candlesticks on his sideboard rattling. Mr. Bruce Jacobs, a grazier, 12 miles from Cowell reported severe damage to his home.

PORT PIRIE. — Local police said no case of damage was reported here during the tremor. Many people reported that there houses were shaken and crockery and other movable articles rattled. A large number of people awakened after their beds were rocked. 

WISTOW.— A house on the property of Messrs. McGilp and Barker was cracked in a number of places and one of the walls opened about half an inch. A tank also sprang a leak. 

TAILEM BEND. — The earthquake shock appeared to be travelling east, the rocking being from south to north. No damage was reported. 

PORT AUGUSTA.— The tremor lasted less than a minute. Most homes shook, especially those of timber framed construction. No noise accompanied the tremor, which appeared to pass from south to north.

VICTOR HARBOR. — Only mild damage was reported. Most houses escaped wifh a few cracks and fallen plaster. 

RENMARK. — Two shocks half a minute apart shook homes and were followed by a loud noise. 

STRATHALBYN. — There was a tremendous roar when the earthquake hit the town, followed by severe rumbling. Almost immediately the streets were filled with people who had been awakened by ornaments and pictures crashing to the floors in their homes. Large cracks appeared in the policeman’s residence and the adjoining court building. 

TEA TREE GULLY.— The local hotel walls and ceilings were badly cracked. Half of the grocery stock of the main store was on the floor when the proprietor opened up, and the walls of the police station were badly damaged.

The Adelaide city newspapers chronicled damage in the city and in many country towns near and far but not Mount Barker with its own newspaper, its account are reproduced below. The comment that in Mount Barker new homes suffered more than old homes that were already cracked is interesting. It is a staement more about the poor foundations than the degree of shaking. Undoubtedly there was extensive damage of some degree or another,  the district hospital suffered little damage. Many residents and children slept through the earthquale. It was estimated that thousands of pounds would he spent reinstating dwellings and business premises through the Hills – not much.

Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser (SA : 1880 – 1954), Wednesday 3 March 1954, page 1


Damage totals many Thousands

The terrifying and devastating earthquake which struck South Australia on Monday morning affected every town and village through the Hills districts. Summing up of widespread reports from the district indicates that most powerful “shake” was experienced in a line which travelled through Nairne, Littlehampton, Mount Barker, Macclesfield and on to Strathalbyn.

It is doubtful if more than a handful of buildings in the more closely settled area of Mt. Barker escaped damage. The earthquake wreaked havoc among homes on the southern side of Gawler Street.

Remarkable feature of the disturbance is that in collating information it was found that most seriously damaged buildings were quite modern where as many old homes, already extensively cracked, threw heaps of plaster into almost every room but remained solid.


At almost 3.40 a.m. many residents were awakened by a sinister rumbling which grew in intensity until it seemed to smack each building. Invisible giant hands gripped the houses and shook them violently like a dog would shake a bone. It was the longest twenty seconds most people have spent in lives, young and old, and when the main quake rumbled away into the distance leaving a trembling sensation in everything the population sighed with relief.

Strangely enough, many children slept through the ordeal but those who did wake were terrified.

It was particularly noticeable that from the time the earthquake struck until shortly after daylight an orange light filled the southern skies. As the earth regained its normal balance a peculiar smell filled the air possibly caused by an unusually large amount of dust floating upwards as a result of the disturbance. 


Old residents of Mount Barker and District have claimed that the quake was much more severe than that experienced in 1902.

Well known South Australian geologist, Sir Douglas Mawson said it was caused by the shifting of a large rock formation in the “fault line” which extends from the Flinders Ranges to Kangaroo Island. Sir Douglas said he did not think it likely that there would be a recurrence for another fifty years.

Thousands of pounds will he spent in reinstating dwellings and business premises through the Hills.

So many reports have been received from Mount Barker that it would be impossible to list the individual damage. The rental group of Trust Homes at Weld Park suffered severely. Walls and verandahs cracked, plaster showered down in every room, fancy tiles above kitchen sinks were shaken from the walls, built in cupboards moved out from the walls. One man said his refrigerator shifted six inches. An other said his rainwater tank was still doing a jig long after the last tremor passed.

Lights flashed on and people rushed into their yards. Many said afterwards they expected a second quake and could not go to sleep for the remainder of the night.


Buckets and even wheelbarrows were used in many instances to carry out fallen plaster.

Large pieces of plaster, including a heavy beading, crashed to the floors showering convalescent patients with debris at the Mt. Barker Rest Home. Several ceilings were damaged at the Convent. Fortunately little damage was done at the district Hospital. Matron Barratt said one small crack appeared in the new maternity wing and a good deal of plaster fell in the old wing but none of the patients were unduly upset by the disturbance. A 1,500 gallon rainwater tank is leaking in a number of places as a result of the shaking. One tank completely burst.

Mr. Jack Howard said sweets tins littered the shop when he opened for business on Monday and yet his stocks of fine glassware, displayed on shelves, had not shifted.

The same gentleman had a different tale to tell about his damage at home. He had just completed plastering and the earthquake shook it all off the walls. He estimated it would cost £70 to replace it. Bruce Newman required medical assistance to remove a piece of plaster from his eye The High School tuck shop conducted by Mr. I. C. Ellis required a lot of cleaning up on Monday. Many bottles toppled over and were broken. Mr. Jack Hillier reported one ceiling down whilst Mr. Keith Stephenson said one wall at his father’s home had visibly moved out. It is believed damage was considerable at the ‘”Laurels”—lovely old home of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Walsh.

The stories are similar in every corner of the town and it may be safely said that the return of the earthquake in the next fifty years will be all too quickly for Hills residents.

The following are reports received from other centres:



When the quake struck Lobethal houses were cracked and plaster showered down. Bottles and crockery danced on shelves and in cupboards before crashing to the floor. Shopkeepers generally, seemed to fare reasonably well and not a great deal of damage was reported.

Doors flew open and chimneys were cracked and otherwise damaged at Woodside. Through Woodside, Oakbank and Balhannah a large number of houses suffered damage. At Woodside several people reported that they could not open their front doors which indicated that there was a movement in the walls. One house at Oakbank was cracked in every room


Some Aldgate residents reported a slight tremor about 11 o’clock on Sunday evening. The main quake hit some homes and left a trail of plaster and mortar as it rumbled off toward the south.


Our Stirling correspondent generalised. FOR SALE, heaps of broken plaster, unlimited quantities, exchange for any good crack filling. Apply “Any stone or brick house in Stirling West.” The result of one earth tremor.


A slight tremor was felt and heard at 3.45 a.m. on Monday. It seemed to be more severe on the ranges, several folk reported plaster having been shaken from the walls. The tremor terrified children whom it awakened.


During the earthquake in the early hours of Monday morn-ing some houses in Nairne had plaster fall from the walls and ceilings.

Mrs. Frank Gilbert’s tank suffered a rent in the side and helpers tried to patch this in order to save the water.

Many tanks built on ground level suffered and water there-in was unfit for use for some time until sediment had settled.

People awoke in fear as the quake, with a roar, rumbled on its way through the town leaving behind a distinct humming noise. Some houses shook but, beyond windows rattling, there was little damage reported. Dishes in sideboards and cabinets rattled and dressing table equipment was shaken.

Figure 1 Revised isoseismal map of the 1954 Adelaide earthquake from Dix (2013) with additional intensities in Victoria by the author. (Map drawn by Clive Collins), magnitude 6.

Figure 4 A revised isoseismal map of the 1902 St Vincent’s Gulf earthquake with additional intensities in Victoria, magnitude 6, same scale as Figure 1.

Packers at Chapman’s factory loading goods on to a truck felt no vibration of the earth. Truck tyres may have absorbed the shock. A packer said the roof shook violently and something he could not trace crashed somewhere inside the factory. It was indeed a frightening experience.


Mr. Miels and Mr. Cleggett’s homes at Littlehampton were damaged. The ceilings and walls of some rooms in Mr. Miels’ home parted, whilst over one door the crack is big enough to put an arm through. Other damage was done.

Mr. Stevens’ tanks next door have water pouring from them near the base of each one. In Mr. Harry Cleggett’s home ornaments on the mantel piece fell to the floor as the chimney cracked. Sauces and jams crashed from some pantry shelves while others hung precariously on the edge.


Macclesfield residents were all considerably startled by the earthquake which disturbed everyone’s sleep at approximately 20 minutes to four on Monday morning.

The quake was accompanied by loud rumbling and this was added to by tbe rattling of windows and other fittings.

The Macclesfield Hotel was badly cracked in almost every ceiling and inside wall, and one outside wall has a wide crack from top to bottom. Both chimneys were badly cracked and look as though a strong gale could topple them. The proprietor, Mr. Reg Halkett, was awaiting an estimation of the damage which it is thought will amount to several hundred pounds.

Bottles and other goods were thrown to the floor from one block of shelves in the store owned by Mr. W. A. Ingerson and a mixture of hair oil, cordial and broken glass greeted the assistants.

After the first tremor two other loud rumbling were heard in the distance, but were not accompanied by the severe vibrations of the first.

The Injured

 Three casualties were reported. The wife of the police sergeant at Hindmarsh, Mrs. W. A. Mcintyre, tripped in the darkness and broke an arm. She was admitted to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. At Belair, Miss B. Petty was knocked unconscious by a large piece of plaster in a railway cottage. …. Bill Jeffery, 15, of Rowells road, Lockleys received an eye injury when a ventilator brick fell out of the wall above his bed. At the Victoria Hotel, Tapley’s Hill, Josephine Gibbons, 15 – year – old daughter of the proprietor, had a narrow escape when part of her bedroom wall collapsed and masonry crashed on her pillow. Her mother, Mrs. A. T. Gibbons said, ‘Fortunately Josephine ducked under the bedclothes and saved her life.’ …..Another Tapley’s Hill resident, Maureen Tiller, 20, was asleep when a 50-lb. piece of masonry missed her pillow by an inch.

Several heart disease patients were confined to their beds since Monday. Patients in one rest home, some of whom were in a neurotic condition, were deeply disturbed by the experience of the earthquake. It took a long time to calm them.


The Adelaide earthquake must have come as a surprise to commentator and expert geologist Sir Douglas Mawson, and his surprise has been shared by many geologists and earth scientists following other Australian earthquakes. The newspapers are full of comments by learned geologists such as Mawson, Curlewis and David over the last 100 years that Australians need have no worry about damaging, life-threatening earthquakes. That despite the historical record, earthquakes such as those in South Australia in 1897 and 1902, Western Australia in 1906 and 1941, Newcastle 1868 and 1925 seem to have been ignored or perhaps forgotten. It is clear that the insurance industry has not forgotten and a surprising number of Adelaide residents know of the 1954 earthquake.

The West Australian newspaper, Monday 28 June 1954, page 6 noted the following advice about the Adelaide earthquake insurance claims:

£3,000,000 In Quake Claims LONDON, Sun.—Claims in the London insurance market as a result of the earthquake in South Australia last March exceeded £A3,000,000, the British Insurance Association stated today. About 30,000 claims had been registered.

A story in The Mercury by the financial editor on Friday 3 December 1954, page 26 included the following:

Bigger loss ratios and smaller profit surpluses have characterised the accounts of many insurance companies in the past year. The recent South Australian earthquake resulted in the biggest insurance payout for a single calamity in Australia history, said Mr. Keith Bentzen, the new president of the Council of Fire and Accident Underwriters of the Commonwealth. He said latest figures from South Australia showed that tariff companies alone were meeting 29,916 claims, totaling £2,640,000. Almost 70% of these claims had already been settled. Claims to all companies would exceed £3,000,000, he added.

News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), Wednesday 3 March 1954, page 32

Some owners of homes built with State Bank loans have found their insurance policies do not cover earthquake damage. A statement on the position was issued by the bank’s general manager, Mr. A. J. Manning, today. Mr. Manning said: “Under the Advances to Homes Act, borrowers are insured against fire, flood, tempest or lightning, but the cover does not extend to earthquake or volcanic eruption damage. 

News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), Tuesday 14 September 1954, page 25

Earthquake damage amounted to about £600 at the Wakefield street Private Hospital, the acting chairman, Dr. K. S. Hetzel, said in a recent report. The amount was not recoverable from insurance, as the hospital— being an institution— did not carry a house-holders’ comprehensive policy and no specific insurance was taken out against this risk, he said.

News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), Thursday 23 September 1954, page 3

Bank quake aid £146,000

Earthquakee damage repairs will ultimately cost the State Bank more than £146,000.

Executive Council today approved earthquake risk being included in the bank’s home insurance policies. The bank so far has paid out £92,543. It estimated it will pay out another £53,829 before all repairs are completed. Under the Advances for Homes Act homebuilders must insure with the State Bank. Until now, however, the bank’s insurance did not cover earthquake damage. Following the March earthquake the bank found many people had not taken out insurance with an outside company. In view if this, the bank decided to make ex-gratia payments to meet the cost of repairs.

Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), Wednesday 3 March 1954, page 1

Church To Come Down

St. Jude’s Church of England, Brighton rd., Brighton, will have to be demolished as a result of earthquake damage. The rector (Rev. R. D. Lloyd) said this last night after architects and designing engineers, who inspected the church yesterday, had condemned it as being in a dangerous condition. Mr. Lloyd said that in the church, which would have been 100 years old next month, the walls had moved three inches and were beyond repair. The sanctuary was cracked and the chancel arch split down both sides. It was considered that vibration from passing lorries could bring the roof down. Mr. Lloyd said a fund to raise at least £25,000 for a new church on the same site would be opened soon. 

But the £3M  probably didn’t include later ongoing structural damage or delayed ground failures. The Advertiser, Wednesday 7 April 1954, page 1, mentions that repercussions of the earthquake which hit South Australia on March 1 are still being felt.

New cracks are reported to be appearing in a number of houses in the worst affected suburbs. From Pinnaroo it is reported that although the earthquake had no immediate effect on properties, cracks were now opening up in the Pinnaroo Hotel and the local branch of the Commercial Bank. The cracks began to appear in some of the walls about a week ago, and now some of them are so bad that the light can be seen through them. Miss L. Aberg, the manageress of the hotel, said the cracks were ‘tremendous.’ ‘The door frames have been thrown so far out of shape that it is impossible to shut the doors,’ she said.

New Damage By Earthquake: Big Gully Landslide

Yesterday a large expanse of mud, nearly 3 ft. deep, slid about 350 yds. downhill in Brooke’s Gully, where creeks and springs have been flowing strongly since the earthquake.

Mr. S. O. Fendler, who has a property in Brooke’s Gully, near the Eagle on the Hill hotel, on the main Stirling road, discovered the landslide about 6.30 a.m. when he went to milk his cows. Part of it covered nearly an acre of his potato crop valued at £75.

The grey mud had swept down the hill on a 25 yard front and finished only 30 ft. from a shed containing a truck-load of potatoes and valuable machinery. Trees and shrubs were uprooted and swept down the hill by the slide. Mr. Fendler said that only the day previously he had climbed the hill to inspect a water hole because the pipes had run dry. He had found the walls of the dam were badly cracked — in some places the cracks were a foot wide— and he believed that this had been caused by the  earthquake.

Because creeks and springs had been flowing strongly since the earthquake, he had not needed to pump water to the potatoes. Mr. Fendler reported late last night that the water was flowing freely from new springs and he had temporarily abandoned attempts to drain it away.

The earthquake location

The question ‘where was the epicentre’ has been disputed over the last 70 years. Bolt (1956) relocated the BCIS provisional epicentre, using P arrivals from the available Australian stations Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Riverview and six teleseismic stations, all further than 115°. This moved the epicentre from near Victor Harbour to south of Adelaide near the area of highest intensity (Kerr-Grant, 1954 and Malpas, 1993), but the formal uncertainty is large.

Before or without seismographs, seismologists located earthquakes from the location of surface faulting or from damage reports or aftershock locations. An atempt was made to locate evidence of any surface movement of rocks by Kerr-Grant and others, but none was found. Some resolution is obtained by locating aftershocks, the same situation faced by seismologists trying to minimise the uncertainties in the location of the December 1989, Newcastle NSW earthquake. Changes in hydrological flows are caused by strong shaking but cannot be used to choose the epicentre – they just indicate where underground water and appropriate geomorphologoical conditions coexist. A large stream of water burst out of the side of a hill on the property of Mr. J. L. Frame, of Mount Barker on Tuesday morning. The water appeared after a minor landslide. Mt Barker Creek was not flowing before the earthquake but afterwards was running at the rate of more than 100,000 litres per hour.

News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), Thursday 4 March 1954, page 13

QUAKE CENTRE DARLINGTON Evidence is accumulating which pinpoints Darlington as the likely centre of Monday’s earthquake. Geophysicists who at first thought Blackwood was the centre now believe Darlington was the most disturbed region.

One authority said today the Eden Fault ran right through Darlington, then curved through Mitcham and skirted the foothills. An inspection indicated the most serious damage was done in the Darlington area, where there was partial collapse of some houses. The Eden Fault actually crossed the South road at a point near the Darlington sawmills, the authority said.

The Coromandel of Friday 5 March page 1 stated that it is evident from reports that the Blackwood-Belair area suffered more than other areas; the Birrelea Soldiers’ Sanatorium, Belair, alone suffered damage estimated at £25,000. 

The isiseismal maps, by Kerr-Grant and Malpas, and subsequently modified here to include reports from NSW and Victoria clearly delineate the area of highest intensity as the most likely location for the epicentre.

The Adelaide (ADE) seismograph time markers were not operating when this earthquake occurred and the shaking was so strong that the pen mechanism failed immediately, so no information could be gleaned from the record. 

Cause of earthquake. The South Australian Mines Departments spokesman, Mr. Kerr Grant, proposed the cause of the earthquake, a model just as relevant today, post plate tectonics. He said that:

…the March earthquake and the four other earthquakes of comparable intensity in SA, since 1897, seemed to be the very last stages of a great fracturing of the earth’s crust. ‘This fracturing.’ he said, ‘was responsible for the formation of the Adelaide Hills and Flinders Ranges and the ‘down-buckling’ which caused Spencer and St. Vincent Gulfs to be depressed below sea level.’ Mr. Kerr Grant said the earth movement along the Eden fault line, which caused the March earthquake, appeared to have been no more than an inch or two. This opinion was based on the inspection of a number of cracks which had appeared in the ground in several places near the foothills. ‘Movement appears to have taken place near the surface near Darlington and Beaumont, but, between these places, only at deeper levels along the fault line.’ 

Mr Kerr Grant also warned (Ed. 70 years ago) that: Adelaide would probably experience “a few more earthquakes during the next few hundred years.” Contrast that with the following:

Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 – 1954), Thursday 4 March 1954, page 3

Sir Douglas Mawson, former Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Adelaide said that the earthquake had been caused by the slipping of one great rock layer on to another along the fault line which extended southward from the Flinders Ranges. The area of the earthquake extended from Penneshaw (Kangaroo Island) to Melrose — nearly 250 miles. The movement probably occurred many miles below the earth’s surface. It might have been only two or three inches, but millions of tons of rocks slipping and grinding on either side of the crack set up intense vibration. It was most unlikely, he said, that SA would experience another earthquake or tremor of the same severity in 50 years. South Australia was not in a region where tremors occurred within a few minutes of each other. 

Mines Department geophysicists also think that the cause was a slippage deep under the earth’s surface a few miles from Adelaide. They believe the slippage occurred along what is known as the Eden Fault Scarp, which can be traced for six or seven miles along the edge of the Adelaide Hills between Marino and Waterfall Gully. The seismograph at the University of Adelaide was wrecked by the force of the disturbance. The Professor of Physics at the University (Professor L. G. H. Huxley) said that the instrument was not designed to take the full force of a tremor centred in SA, probably near the south coast. “The seismograph jumped right off scale and stuck”, he said. To determine the exact location of the slip seismograph readings would have to be developed in eastern States and computed.

1954 03 02 20:17 UTC, Adelaide aftershock 

Aftershocks, particularly those immediately after the mainshock are considered to have their origin on the same fault that ruptured in the mainshock. Portable seismographs are often deployed around a mainshock location to record aftershocks and so delineate the fault zone. In this case there were no portable seismographs so the proxy, felt area, is used to do likewise. 

Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), Thursday 4 March 1954, page 1

Earth Tremors Reported But Not Recorded on Seismograph

A series of earth tremors were reported yesterday by suburban and Adelaide Hills residents, but Sir Douglas Mawson, former Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Adelaide, said they must have been very feeble ones. They could have been the result of final settlements of rock masses disturbed by Monday’s earthquake, he said. Tremors at 2.43, 5.45. 5.50. 6.43 and 6.45 a.m. were reported, but not one was recorded on the seismograph at the University of Adelaide. Although the seismograph was put out of action on Monday by the earthquake, it had been repaired and was running continually throughout Tuesday night, the Professor of Physics (Professor L. G H. Huxley) said last night. ‘Some people might have thought rumblings made by heavy traffic were earth tremors.’ said Sir Douglas Mawson. The Weather Bureau received a number of reports about tremors, the first being from Macclesfield about 2.43 a.m. Residents at Blackwood, Littlehampton, Echunga, South Road Estate, Morphett Vale, Brighton, Mitcham, Torrens Park, O’Halloran Hill, Cumberland, Clovelly Park, Reynella, Verdun, Balhannah and Edwardstown reported having felt tremors between 5.45 and 5.50 a.m. Another report was received from Largs Bay of a tremor at 6.43 a.m. and was followed by one from Anzac Highway two minutes later. No damage was reported. 

The most widely felt event occurred between 5:45 and 5:50 am local time on 3rd March. Plotting the felt reports gives a fairly tight epicentre location for this aftershock, and by inference, the mainshock. 

Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser (SA : 1880 – 1954), Wednesday 3 March 1954, page 10


This morning at 5.45 another tremor was felt at several Hills centres but was not more than a slight shaking. Littlehampton and Echunga residents reported feeling the new tremor but apparently it was not sufficient to be noticeable in Mount Barker. A Wistow resident said there was a slight movement about 10 o’clock last night.

Figure 5a A revised isoseismal map of the 2 March 1954 aftershock shown here indicates where the shaking was reported felt and from which the magnitude was computed at about 2.6 ±0.3. The epicentre is very close to the epicentre of the mainshock. This aftershock was barely felt at Mt Barker. 

Figure 5b This map of the 2 March 1954 aftershock was drawn by Katherine Malpas and was published in the Isoseismal Atlas Pt. 3 by McCue (1996).

This aftershock was barely felt at Mt Barker. 

A late report from Uraidla concerning damage by the first earthquake on Monday states that one lady, Mrs. J. Sprigg, may have to vacate her home while damage is repaired. An inspection yesterday revealed that several walls were dangerously cracked and will probably have to be partly rebuilt.

Further reports from Mount Barker indicate that the earthquake played havoc with underground tanks, a number of which lost the whole of their storage through cracked walls and caving in.

Some wells suffered likewise. However, many bore owners are quite pleased with the boosted output of their bores. One at Hahndorf began to overflow immediately after the quake and had to be directed into a nearby dam. Another at Mount Barker increased its output by several hundreds of gallons per hour.

The uniform intensities are an indication that the focal depth could be in the mid-crust at 10 to 20 km depth compared with Kerr-Grant’s estimate of the focal depth of the mainshock at less than 10km (in Bolt, 1956).

This location and isoseismal map are similar to that of the much earlier 14 November 1904 earthquake so the 1954 earthquake was not a one-off earthquake. Recent earthquakes mostly occur in narrow zones defined by historical earthquakes and Adelaide is in one such zone. Earthquakes are not uniformely distributed across South Australia, but we should always plan for the unexpected.

1954 09 02 19:04 UTC, Adelaide – late aftershock

The Advertiser of Friday 3 September 1954, page 3, published a story about yet another small earthquake felt in the city and suburbs of Adelaide, and in the Mt Lofty Ranges without giving details: An earth tremor shook parts of the city, some suburbs, and portions of the Mt. Lofty Ranges at 4.34 a.m. yesterday. It followed almost the same path as the severe shock which rocked Adelaide on March 1.Many householders were awakened. The Weather Bureau apparently fielded many phone calls from the metropolitan area and some hill districts, the newspaper didn’t name them. It may be a bit late for this event to be considered an aftershock, given the lack of aftershocks in the intervening six months but it would be useful to find more felt reports. It was obviously bigger than the March aftershock and woke people so we tentatively assign it magnitude 3.5.

Figure 6 Felt area of the 2 September 1954 aftershock, southeast of Adelaide. The Eden-Burnside Fault is roughly outlined by the edge of the topographic feature coloured green and near the centre of the ellipse marking the felt area. Compare with Figure 3. 

News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), Thursday 2 September 1954, page 1

Houses shake, roofs creak ; little damage

A rumbling earth tremor awakened hundreds of people in the Mount Lofty Ranges and Adelaide suburbs about 4.35 a.m. today. Damage generally was negligible. Some houses shook slightly, beds rocked, windows rattled, and roofs creaked. It was felt in an area of about 300 square miles bounded by Blackwood and Meadows in the ranges and Glenelg and Christies Beach on the coast.

More than 40 people rang the Weather Bureau to report the tremor. One man said cracks which appeared in his house after the earthquake on March 1 had reopened Some people thought the rumble was thunder and went back to sleep. Lightning flashes were reported at the time. Don Connor, 15, on night duty at Meadows Post Office was first to report the tremor He. said: “There was a rumble and the building shook. “I timed it, and the vibration lasted about 40 seconds.” Mr. J. Benson. of Richmond avenue, Melrose Park, was up at the time. He said: “I thought it was thunder, but then I felt a sudden movement of our house “I waited anxiously to see if there would be any more. “Cracks which appeared after the last earthquake have opened up. A signalman at Blackwood Railway Station felt the tremor pass through his signalbox. He heard the rumble echo eerily back from the hills. Mr. G. D. Hambling, of Prosser avenue, Norwood, said he heard a rumble which he thought was thunder. It lasted only a few seconds. A Dulwich resident felt the tremor distinctly. Mr. E. Braendler, of Echunga, said he felt a severe jolt and the whole house shook. “I was in bed and felt it rock. I could hear the cracks from the last earthquake grating in the walls,” he said. Many people including residents of Christies Beach, Brighton, Glenelg, and Enfield Heights, rang the News to report the tremor.

News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), Wednesday 8 September 1954, page 19

MAIN TREMOR SHOCK LASTED 4 – 5 SEC. The intense part of last Thursday’s severe earth tremor lasted only four to five seconds, Mr. Colin Kerr Grant said today.

Mr. Kerr Grant is the Government’s senior geophysicist. But recordings of waves from the tremor lasted for up to 40 seconds, he said. Mr. Kerr Grant said the scale of intensity of the tremor was four, compared with eight for the March 1 earthquake.

An intensity of 12 caused total destruction to buildings at the centre of the earthquake. “Last Thursday’s disturbance can be called a severe tremor or a very mild earthquake,” he said. “It was not severe enough to do damage, but could aggravate existing damage.” Mr. Kerr Grant said the centre of Thursday’s tremor was probably near the Victoria Hotel on Tapleys Hill. That was very close to the centre of the March earthquake, which was most intense near Darlington.


The revised isoseismal map of Figure 1 shows for the first time, the whole area over which the earthquake was felt, in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. It is compared in Figure 2 with the revised isoseismal map of the 1902 St Vincent’s Gulf (Warooka) earthquake, at approximately the same scale. The felt areas corresponds to a magnitude of 6, quite a bit larger than earlier estimates of the author and others of magnitude 5.4-5.6 for the 1954 earthquake, but in line with the Dix (2013) estimate.

The timing system had failed on the Adelaide seismograph prior to the earthquake and the strong shaking dismantled the pen assembly so nothing useful could be gained from the record which incidently has never been sighted by the author. So the location and magnitude have to be determined from other evidence.

Mainshock location  

Bolt (1956) did a relocation using Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney seismograms to read phase arrival times and his origin time is probably the best available.

There was no surface faulting so aftershocks and the isoseismal map are the only tools to indicate the latitude, longitude and focal depth. Experienced people on the ground at the time had the best direct evidence of the intensity, structural and non-structural failures and impacts on people and it was their conclusion that Darlington south of the city was the most likely epicentre and the newspaper reports copied here do not contradict that observation.

The aftershock just 2 days later (like that at Newcastle NSW in 1989) is located from the isoseismal map south of the city and very close to our adopted mainshock location. The late aftershock in September of 1954 is further support for this location.


Magnitude is a relative measure of the size of an earthquake as measured from the maximum wave amplitude on a seismogram corrected for distance and type of seismograph. Without a seismograph, felt area is a proxy for magnitude calibrated by later earthquakes with both measured magnitude and an isoseismal map. The bigger the earthquake, the larger the felt area for earthquakes in the crust. Dix (2013) and this paper concur on the revised magnitude of 6.0.

The uncertainty in the magnitude is about the same from either method, no better than ± 0.2 at best.


It seems the oft-quoted cost of £3M is an underestimate that should be re-evaluated. It is just the insured loss, not the total cost to society.