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The Earthquake That Shook Adelaide 1954

On March 1st 1954 the Adelaide Advertiser reported that; “An earthquake shook Adelaide and a large area of South Australia for 20 seconds from 3.40am this morning, causing minor damage to buildings and shocking the population.

Photo from State Library of SA. Front page from Adelaide's afternoon newspaper The News

Photo from State Library of SA. Front page from Adelaide’s afternoon newspaper The News

Thousands of men, women and children were momentarily terrified by the noise of trembling homes.

Celebrated South Australian geologist (Sir Douglas Mawson) said there was no likelihood of an immediate occurrence.  “I would classify it as an earthquake rather than a tremor. It was more severe than what we normally call an earth tremor,” Sir Douglas said.

The area of the tremor extended north from Penneshaw (Kangaroo Island) to Melrose — nearly 250 miles”.

I don’t remember much about the actual quake but I do recall the amount of discussion it created and the news headlines in the papers at the time.

Of course there is a known “fault line” in South Australia and the tremor followed that line pretty closely. According to the newspaper report “It was caused by the slippage of one-great rock layer on to another along the “fault line.” probably many miles beneath the earth’s surface.

Sir Douglas Mawson said “the fall may have been only two or three inches, but untold millions’ of tons of rocks slipping and grinding on either side set up intense vibration

For 20 seconds the earth shook with such vibration that masonry tumbled from many buildings. Blackouts were caused in many parts of the metropolitan area. Radios were cut off the air. Windows were smashed and stock in some shops became jumbled in a heap on the floors.

Many people jumped from bed and ran into the streets.

Others sheltered beneath beds, fearing walls and ceilings would collapse.

Parents grabbed children from their beds to rush them to the open.

Probably the greatest effect of the earthquake was the nervous shock it gave the population, unprepared by any previous experience. The telephone system became choked with the rush of calls. Electricity, water, gas, and other services immediately checked their plant and premises, but no serious faults were located.

The earthquake occurred in clear weather. The air was still and the sky cloud-less. It precipitated a barrage of calls to the Weather Bureau, chiefly from people anxious to know whether another and more severe shock was likely to follow.

In Gawler Place, the terrifying crash of glass followed the tremor. Panes from 12 windows of the five-storied Agriculture Building fell into the street.

In Selbourne Chambers, Pirie Street, the top of a block of four brick chimneys crashed on to the roof and the footpath. At the Oddfellow’s Hall in Franklin Street, part of a moulded hand holding a heart on the top of the building, broke away and smashed an electric sign above the footpath.

Thousands who left their beds and switched on the radio, found reassurance in the calm voice of 5KA announcer Jack Fox, who, although he had had one of the worst experiences, allayed the fears of many.

He was showered with plaster from the studio ceiling, his cup of tea was jostled from the saucer and spilt over a turntable, and all the lights failed.

The station went off the air for three minutes until the auxiliary power plant was started.

Mr Fox told listeners later: “I groped my way out of the window, thinking

our 180 foot mast had  crashed. Then we thought the steeple had fallen.”

When dawn broke, it was discovered that bricks had fallen from the top of the steeple. The spire was still standing, but half of the top rim was a gaping hole”.

There have been some minor earthquakes since 1954 but none have caused anywhere near the damage of that ’54 quake.

Do you have any memories you’d like to share about the 1954 Adelaide eatrthquake?

Click on the sound clip below to hear Jack Fox on 5KA describing the earthquake to listeners that morning (Thanks to Cape Dx – Gary Deacon)

5KA Adelaide 1954 Earthquake Aircheck

11 Responses to The Earthquake That Shook Adelaide 1954

  1. Wayne Rosser September 13, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    I was born a couple of days before the quake so don’t remember it but I know that my grandfather got a lot of work as a result. He was especially proud of the work he did restoring a damaged church at Happy Valley. By coincidence I only live a few streets away from that church so it reminds me of him when I drive past.

  2. Graham Nixon September 13, 2014 at 9:42 am #

    My Mum remembers the ceiling in one of the rooms to her flat in Flinders Street collapsing.

  3. Vivienne O'Neill September 14, 2014 at 11:46 pm #

    I slept through it, and only woke up when I heard my parents talking and turning on the radio to hear Jack Fox suggesting everyone make themselves a cup of tea. By the time I came to properly all the neighbours were out in the street, and trying to work out what had happened. My grandmother had apparently been calling out to Dad, “Ted! Ted! It’s an earthquake!” His answer was, “Well, what the bloody hell do you expect me to do about it?”

  4. Peter H September 15, 2015 at 11:53 pm #

    I was 5 when the earthquake occurred. i can remember laying in my bed petrified wondering what had happened… and then my mum coming and consoling me….i slept in her bed with her the rest of the night
    My father was a painter and decorator and i remember him saying in later years….after the earthquake i had so much insurance work i employed 3 people…i wished we could have an earthquake every year…not for the sake of the people tho…for the work it presented….i didnt quite understand his meaning…but as i grew older i realised it wasnt meant as harmful to householders

  5. Rick E. May 26, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

    Although I lived in Sydney,then as now,a great-aunt and her husband resided in Glen Osmond at the time.Several months later they visited Sydney,and though I was very much a youngster back in 1954,I recall their description of being jolted out of bed as damage was occurring to their home,made a big impression on me.

  6. Kath Grant November 4, 2016 at 6:34 pm #

    Dad got my very pregnant mother out into the back yard, then my two younger sisters. He had to carry me as I slept through it. A short while later the milkman turned up and had to be calmed down with a stiff whiskey. He said that his horse and cart had slid all over the road.

  7. Kevin McCue December 14, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

    Well done, especially reproducing the 5KA transmission. What a pity the SA government will cease monitoring earthquakes early in 2017, handing the responsibility to the Commonwealth Government. A seismograph was installed in Adelaide in 1909 following damaging earthquakes in the state in 1897 and 1902. Adelaide City Council and the State Government will be responsible for the recovery when the next earthquake happens as they were in 1954, not the Commonwealth Government.
    Much has been learned about the distribution of earthquakes in South Australia, their frequency, focal depth and association with faults over recent decades, all by a small dedicated state government group running a network of seismographs around Adelaide and the Southeast.
    Just when the state government is lobbying to establish a nuclear waste repository in the state seems hardly a time to stop monitoring earthquakes there.

  8. Pam G January 8, 2017 at 2:01 pm #

    I was 12 when the earthquake occurred. My family all went out into the street as did our neighbors. Very scary. I remember my older brother saying ‘who shook the boat?’ The post office clock in King William Street was damaged too. One newspaper headline the next day was ‘March Comes In Like a Lion’. I believe the earthquake was about 5.5 magnitude.

  9. John Wells February 2, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

    I was eight years old when the quake happened. I remember waking as my bed bounced around the room. My father said he ran to my room and fell over because of the floor movement. When he reached my room he couldn’t open the door because the bed had moved and was blocking the door opening. We ran into the street and I recall the lady next door was hysterical. She was looking at the sky convinced the moon had a crack and it was the end of the world. Our chimney cracked quite badly and I went past my childhood house recently and the crack still remains to this day.

  10. john July 9, 2018 at 7:06 pm #


  11. Chris Arnold January 2, 2023 at 11:00 am #

    I was born 12 months after the big quake. Our house was on a very large block/ almond orchard at the bottom end of River st St Peters. Dad sub divided a small block from this, and started building a new house , bit at a time as the money came in. He would get the builder in.etc. When i was around 13 years old, my mother and i were in the front garden and i looked at the two big yellow lintals over the front windows. They both had a big crack all the way through. I said “ gee , thats shoddy work isnt it “ my mother said “ oh , no no , that was all caused by the big earthquake ! “

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