Not originally listed among the dead of the Hawke's Bay's devastating 1931 earthquake was one of Napier's earliest citizens, 91-year-old Henry Skelton.
Henry was crushed under the collapsed Park Island Old Men's home with severe injuries and evacuated only to die in an unfamiliar city far away from home 90 years ago today.
Henry, known around the district for his prize-winning strawberries, moved into the home less than a year before the earthquake.
Henry had arrived in New Zealand in the 1850s from England and served for nine years as a non-commissioned officer with the 65th regiment. He settled in the Hawke’s Bay in the 1860s and married his wife Catherine (Kate) in 1886. He and Kate had six children.
The family first settled in Ruataniwha, near Ongaonga, before they moved to Napier where Henry built a grocery store in Carlyle Street (the first store in the street), which he sold in 1879. Henry was also for a time the city’s pound keeper, briefly the hotel keeper of the Bay View Hotel and also served as the Napier’s first band master.
By 1887 the family had moved to Taradale, where Henry grew fruit, in particular, strawberries, which frequently won him first prize at the local horticultural shows.
In 1901 Henry and Kate opened up their property, which they named Avondale Gardens, for visitors to enjoy afternoon teas and lawn tennis. The couple remained in their Taradale home till at least March 1930 when Kate died aged 87. She is buried in Taradale Cemetery. Following her death, Henry moved into the Old Men’s Home. On that fateful February day in 1931 Henry was trapped under the rubble of the shattered building. One of Henry’s son’s, fearing for his father’s safety, rushed to the home and managed to pull him out of the wreckage. Sadly, Henry was injured, his feet were badly crushed. His condition was so precarious that he was moved to Wellington Hospital by Navy boat where he died on March 3 from his injuries.
He is buried in Karori cemetery and is understood to have no headstone.
A few years ago, work done by genealogists and local historians was added to an Ancestry project to match all known data. A few people, like Henry, whose names were sometimes not recorded as earthquake fatalities, were identified. The project also saw some names, formerly thought to have died as a result of the earthquake, discounted.