18 November 1947 – The Ballantyne’s Department Store fire

18 November 2015 marks the 68th anniversary of New Zealand’s most deadly fire – The Ballantynes’ Department Store fire –  it’s a date permanently etched in the collective New Zealand psyche.

Ballantynes Fire 1947
Firemen battling the blaze. CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0037

On the afternoon of Tuesday 18 November, 1947, Ballantynes Department Store was full of shoppers – Show Week had taken place the previous week and the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten was due in two days. It was a fine day and 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, but it wasn’t until a quarter-hour later that the Fire Brigade received the call-out.

Most of the store’s 250 customers and retail staff on the ground floor were evacuated from the building, but since it was thought that it was just a cellar fire, staff on the first floor – who had just returned to work after their tea break – were not informed. However, within minutes the building was ablaze, 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.

See also

Funeral for the victims of the Ballantyne's fire
Funeral for the victims of the Ballantyne’s Department Store fire, Ruru Lawn Cemetery, Christchurch. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-7171-88. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22322125
Trucks with wreaths in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, during the funeral service for victims of the Ballantyne's Department Store fire,. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-7171-90. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22739444
Trucks with wreaths in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, during the funeral service for victims of the Ballantyne’s Department Store fire,. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-7171-90. Alexander Turnbull Library,  Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22739444

8 thoughts on “18 November 1947 – The Ballantyne’s Department Store fire

  1. Roger Strong 18 November 2015 / 3:25 pm

    There were senior staff available – the most serious thing was the lack of communications. No two-way radios available and the first fire station officer on the scene had to find a phone to ring back to the fire station. The fire brigade’s ladder engine was a 1921 Tilling Stevenson-so old that it had solid rubber tires. Don’t forget that this was immediately post-war and the country was still quite poor. Fire services were largely locally based and funded. Most engines were pre-war and my father was the driver of a 1939 V8 engine that was open-no cab of any sort. Most engines were older than that. There was an inquiry held where the owners of the store tried to shift the blame onto the fire service – wrongly in my opinion. Even after than fire my father would often come home and say that at another department store where there was a false alarm the staff would be hanging out of the upstairs windows watching the firemen below instead of evacuating the building.
    By the way many jumped rather than be burnt in the fire.

  2. Roger Strong 18 November 2015 / 7:54 pm

    My older brother has also pointed out another error in the account above. The third officer Jim Burrows as at the fire -the second officer was on leave and the head of the Christchurch Fire Brigade was absent on the day so it’s not true there was no senior officer available, Jim Burrows conduct was exemplary although legal counsel for the firm tried to cast all sorts of doubt on what he did. My brother also points out that one of reasons that it was hard to use ladders at the fire was a huge number of wires strung along the streets and the firemen’s inability to distinguish which were telephone and which power wires. Incidentally that was the main reason that they had done away with brass helmets many years before-the black helmets visible are made of cork. Strangely in one photograph from the fire there is person wearing brass helmet but no uniform – a puzzle that will never be solved I guess.

    • Donna 19 November 2015 / 10:47 am

      Thanks for this, Roger. It seems like you have a lot of in-depth information – so it is good to have your perspective.

      • Roger Strong 19 November 2015 / 11:01 am

        That sounds more than slightly patronising I’m afraid.
        This is how history gets to be distorted ( and we have a lot of that these days!). At the inquiry the Ballantynes firm hired a gun lawyer who tried to shift the blame to an experienced and excellent fire officer Jim Burrows – this had a considerable effect on his life as he was unfairly blamed. It also had a huge effect on the lives of the firemen who were there – I know as my father was one of them. He kept a scrapbook of the entire proceedings (now in the Hall of Flame museum at Ferrymead I think).
        You should have in the library ‘The Ballantynes Disaster’ by G.G.Walker -Whitcoulls 1983 and if you read just the preface by Tom Boyle you will see just what the firemen of the day thought of the process and the way in which it was handled. To say that a senior officer was not available is simply wrong -as an example.
        Its a shame if the incorrect conclusions keep being repeated.

      • Donna 19 November 2015 / 3:19 pm

        Kia ora Roger, I’ve done a wording amendment on the blog post around that section about senior staff. Hopefully this is a more accurate representation of what happened.

    • Yvonne 4 October 2021 / 1:52 pm

      My Grandfather was James Thomas Burrows. It was understood in our family that my Grandfather would have more than done his duty to make sure people were saved. He was a brave and caring man. He did fire safety inspections and told me that Ballentynes had not taken any notice when they were told their building was not safe. Fire escape routes were blocked with boxes piled high, there were no fire sprinklers etc. I have a photo of the Firemen at the Central Fire Station about that time.

      • Roger Strong 7 December 2021 / 9:33 am

        Yvonne – That is amazing. I recall Jim Burrows and his wife when we lived just along from them at the fire station. I was born March 1941 so the things I recall are small and probably haphazard but I knew my father had a very high opinion of Jim. I recall him washing his Morris(?) car in the yard – it was a very smart two toned red and black vehicle as I recall. I have a book written by Gordon Walker about the fire and have endeavoured to collect as many photos of the fire as I can.

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