Jane Austen and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake


One of my current tasks as Collections Volunteer at Jane Austen's House Museum is to review the material in our archives.  This is mostly stored in the Attic and each week I climb up and look inside another box.  I get hopelessly distracted from the task becoming absorbed in the material – old press cuttings, letters from the 1960s, reports from the foundation of the Museum.  It is a treasure trove of information and a wonderful snapshot into the history of the Museum.  This week, the first thing out of the box was a book of press cuttings compiled by John Hubback, with the earliest cuttings dating from 1905. 


John was a great nephew of Jane – his mother, Catherine Anne was a daughter of Francis Austen, Jane’s brother.  Catherine had married a successful barrister, John Hubback, but when he had a breakdown and was committed to an asylum, Catherine started to write to provide an income for her and her three sons.  In 1870 she moved with her son Charles to the USA and, after a time in San Francisco with another son, Edward, moved to Virginia to be with Charles and his wife, Bernhardine.  Catherine died there in 1877.


John had stayed in the United Kingdom, and in 1905 published a book co-written with his daughter, Edith, about Jane Austen’s sailor brothers, Francis and Charles.  The press cuttings book that captivated me started with many press reviews of this book – generally very favourable.  Later cuttings included fascinating political cartoons about the defeat of the Conservative Party in the 1906 General Election and press reviews for a booklet John Hubback wrote in 1915 entitled “Russian Realities: Being Impressions Gathered During some Recent Journeys in Russia”.


However, in the middle of all these press cuttings I found a letter written on April 19th 1906 from Charles Hubback, to John.  Charles was living in San Jose, near San Francisco, and was writing to assure John that he and his wife were safe after the earthquake the day before.  He writes “At 5.12am the shake began, quiet at first then harder and harder and harder till the bed felt as if it was being rattled about in a dice box, china and lamps falling.”  He describes hearing the roar of buildings falling up town and “the rumbling roar of the earthquake itself ….was an experience that will live in my memory as long as I have one I expect.”


He writes how his wife, Dina, was upset at the destruction of their ornamental china until they began to “realise the true destruction and havoc wrought in those 28 age long seconds”.  When Charles went into town he saw for himself the damage – (I)“soon saw that every brick building, with the exception of one or two, was injured more or less, mostly more, few were safe to inhabit…”  On reaching his office Charles found the building damaged, “my table smashed between roof and floor”.

He goes on to describe the ravages on San Francisco and the appalling fire that followed “… the whole north sky was red with the reflected glare of the burning City” and says San Jose would have experienced a similar fate if their water supply had not remained intact.


He concludes the letter by saying “If that shock had been an hour later when breakfast fires were lit 100 fires would have sprung up, if any time after 9 o’clock the loss of life would have been appalling”.  He also points out that Easter was just three days earlier and St Patrick’s RC church full; after the earthquake, the bricks from the tower lay six to eight feet deep at the door and on the steps.


In an age of almost instant communication we forget the anxious wait for news that families must have endured in the past.  In Jane’s writings, local letters are delivered in hours, but news from abroad took months to be relayed home; what a welcome letter this must have been for John in England.  It is not surprising that he pasted it into his book of press cuttings, it must have felt very precious to him when he was so far from his brother.  Jane would have recognised this, judging by the enthusiasm with which letters from Francis and Charles were received and read.


Finishing the letter, I reluctantly return from San Jose in 1906 and replace the book in its box and move to another – this time press cuttings about JAHM from the 1970s, and I disappear into another Austen related world! 

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