Today marks the 65th anniversary of New Zealand’s most deadly fire.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 18 November, 1947, Ballantynes Department Store was full of shoppers enjoying one of the busiest retail days of the year. Show Week had taken place the week before and the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten was two days away. The city was buzzing. Then, at 3:31pm, disaster struck.
One of the store’s salesmen was told by a woman employee that smoke was coming up from the basement. He told her to call the fire brigade and inform the owners. When he didn’t hear sirens, the salesman became concerned and worked with other staff members to place fire extinguishers at the bottom of the stairs. The owners, Kenneth and Roger Ballantyne, were informed and made a call to the fire service at 3:46pm. It’s unclear whether an earlier call was made.
Most of the store’s 250 customers and retail staff on the ground floor were evacuated from the building but no effort was made to alert the staff on the first floor who had just returned to work after their tea break. The fire service treated the call-out as a cellar fire. Tragically, they didn’t bring a turnaround ladder or ladders long enough to reach the top floors. Within minutes the building was ablaze and the centre of the store exploded in flames.
200 fire fighters, police and volunteers using 20 appliances fought the fire that day. A large crowd looked on in horror as Dunstable House, which was made up of seven buildings linked together and built of match lining, pinex and bone dry timber, burned to the ground. 41 staff members, trapped by flames and smoke, lost their lives. A memorial was built at the Ruru Lawn Cemetery in honour of them.
It took thirty years for Ballantynes to be rebuilt and it is possibly due to strict building codes and determination of the owners that a disaster like this would never happen again that the building survived the recent earthquakes.
Many Cantabrians mourned the loss of access to Ballantynes when the Central City was red zoned due to quake damage and took advantage of bus tours to the Timaru branch to get their ‘shopping fix’ while enjoying a glass of bubbles and plenty of shopping treats.
Ballantynes has been operating in Christchurch for over 150 years and is an integral part of our city. It has withstood the test of time and remains trading. It has become a symbol of resilience in good times and bad.