Ballantynes’ Fire 70th Anniversary – 18 November 2017

About 70 years ago, on 18 November 1947, should you have been wandering down Cashel Street towards Colombo shortly before four in the afternoon, you would have seen a strange sight: Ballantynes co-owner, Kenneth Ballantyne, climbing down the parapet of his storefront. Flames all around him, he is the last to escape the Ballantynes’ fire with his life.

41 other people were not so lucky.

Rescuing Mr. Ballantyne from the Burning Building on Colombo Street, Christchurch. CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0018.
Rescuing Mr. Ballantyne from the Burning Building on Colombo Street, Christchurch. CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0018.

This Saturday will mark the 70th anniversary of the Ballantynes’ fire. If you would like to learn more about the tragic sequence of events that unfolded in 1947, Christchurch City Libraries has a digital heritage resource containing transcripts and images, among other resources, to help you paint a picture.

Firemen at Ballantynes Fire 1947. Kete Christchurch. PH14-001.jpg Creative Commons License

Photos are our glimpses of the past, and you can browse spectacular photographs taken of the Ballantynes’ fire through the following sources:

Aerial View of the Gutted Shell of the Three-Storied Department Building. CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0016.
Aerial View of the gutted shell of the three-storied department building. CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0016.
Battling the Flames: Tense Firemen in Action. CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0017.

More resources about the Ballantynes’ Fire

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

New Zealand Fashion in Pictures: Our Image Collection

For New Zealand Fashion Week we’re sharing some of our favourite images of New Zealand fashion.

Over the years, Christchurch City Libraries has built up a collection of local images. Many of these are donated from private collections and capture the places and people of Christchurch, and Canterbury’s history. Some of these we’ve grouped into themed image collections, including one on Costume and Fashion.

Our image collection is mostly made up of early 20th century images but is less comprehensive in terms of more recent history. If you’ve got photos that you think we’d be interested in then please contact us.

In the meantime, here are some oldies but goodies in the fashion stakes –

Suits you

Members of the Christchurch Drainage Board and visitors present at the opening of the septic tank, Bromley sewage farm [4 Sept. 1905] CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0084
Members of the Christchurch Drainage Board and visitors present at the opening of the septic tank, Bromley sewage farm [4 Sept. 1905] CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0084
A group of Maori women dress reformers [1906] CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0096
A group of Maori women dress reformers [1906] CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0096
 Mr E. H. Hughes, Mr R. E. Alexander (Director of the College), and Mr Walter Macfarlane [1909] File reference P7030226
Mr E. H. Hughes, Mr R. E. Alexander (Director of the College), and Mr Walter Macfarlane [1909] Selwyn-P7030226

 The diploma winners of 1913. File reference P3051336
The diploma winners of 1913. Selwyn-P3051336

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Ballantynes’ Fire Anniversary

Today marks the 67th anniversary of the Ballantynes’ Fire. The fire at the Ballantynes Department store in Christchurch on 18 November 1947 was the worst fire in New Zealand’s history and 41 people died.

If you want to find out more about this tragic event, Christchurch City Libraries has a resource that features transcripts of articles from newspapers and other sources about the fire. It includes contemporary news reports and photographs.

Archives New Zealand, Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga, has posted news reel footage from the National Film Unit. It’s gripping.

A special ceremony today will celebrate the completed rebuild of the Ballantynes fire memorial at the Ruru Lawn Cemetery in Bromley. Relatives of people who died in the fire will attend.

Ballantyne Memorial Rose Garden Tribute to Kitty Webb Moira Forde rose

Ballantynes – a symbol of Canterbury resilience

photo of Dunstable House

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.

photo of firemen at Ballantyne's fire200 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.

A city mourns: Ballantynes’ Fire: 18 November 1947

This Sunday marks the 65th anniversary of the disastrous fire at Ballantynes. The fire changed from a cellar fire into an inferno that cost 41 lives and destroyed the store, which occupied a number of inter-connected buildings in the commerical heart of Christchurch. Photos taken at the time demonstrate the tremendous efforts both fire fighters and volunteers made to try to control the fire, and power of it once it passed ‘flashover’.

Following the funeral, a memorial garden was established at the Ruru Lawn cemetery at Linwood.  Unfortunately the memorial has been badly damaged in the earthquakes, but Chistchurch City Council staff are working on plans to repair it.  Photos taken prior to the earthquakes have been recently added to New Zealand History Online and were supplied from Council files.

The library has several books on the fire. Even so long after the event, reading an account of the event is still pretty harrowing – Walker’s The Ballantyne Fire disaster had me blinking back tears.

Battling the flames tense firemen in action. Rescuing Mr K. Ballantyne from the burning building on Colombo Street, Christchurch   Firemen dampening down the main entrance of Ballantyne's building, Christchurch View of still-smoking Ballantynes after the fire of 1947 Aerial view of the gutted shell of the three-storied department building

A city mourns the 41 victims as they are carried through the streets of Christchurch on the way to the civic funeral

Rose, Insite

Antigua Boat sheds “Open on Moonlight Nights”, 1902

Read about the history of the Antigua Boat sheds on their website. They were erected in 1882 by boat builders  Albert Shaw and J.T. Tidd.

There is a connection with the library as:

In ‘The Press’ of 1902 and 1903, Anstey advertised that he had “70 well-built boats to choose from” and also a “photographic room for the use of visitors”. Scores of his glass-plate negatives remained in an attic above the Boat Sheds until they were transferred to the Canterbury Public Library.

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We have digitised a rather splendid 1902 publication Tourists’ guide to Canterbury.

I will share some of the interesting ads and pictures from it in a series of posts – there’s lots of information about local businesses and places in 1902.

“Cutting and singeing”, 1902

There are combinations mentioned in here that just don’t appear in beauty ads today: “Faded Wrinkled and Withered Skins”, “Toilet and Hairdressing”, and “Cutting and Singeing”.

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We have digitised a rather splendid 1902 publication Tourists’ guide to Canterbury.

I will share some of the interesting ads and pictures from it in a series of posts – there’s lots of information about local businesses and places in 1902.

“Ballantynes are genuine ladies’ tailors”, 1902

The history of Ballantynes is explored on their website:

Ballantynes was established in 1854 and was originally named Dunstable House by its founders David Clarkson, his wife Esther, and sister Elizabeth Clarkson. They lived in a cottage in Cashel Street. Esther came from Dunstable in Bedfordshire, England and had been trained as a milliner. She imported 2 cases of straw hats which she sold, with sundry other items of clothing, from the front room. Seeing how well she was doing, David built a small gabled shop for her, which extended out to the Street frontage. In 1854, a partnership with David’s cousin, Thomas Atkinson, was established and the “New Drapery Establishment” in Cashel Street was first advertised in the Lyttelton Times on 23rd September 1854.

— — — — —

We have digitised a rather splendid 1902 publication Tourists’ guide to Canterbury.

I will share some of the interesting ads and pictures from it in a series of posts – there’s lots of information about local businesses and places in 1902.

Ballantynes’ Fire November 18 1947

Today is the 62nd anniversary of the fire at the Ballantynes Department store in Christchurch. It was the worst fire in New Zealand’s history. Forty one people died and the resulting Royal Commission recommended urgent changes to the building regulations and fire prevention and firefighting throughout the country.

If you want to find out more about this tragic event, Christchurch City Libraries has a resource that features transcripts of articles from newspapers and other sources about the fire. It includes contemporary news reports.

The fire has also resonated with New Zealand fiction writers.  Deborah Challinor’s novel Fire is a historical romance based on the Ballantynes Fire, but set instead in Auckland 1953.

Christchurch writer Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s 1993 book Gardens of Fire is based on historical research and:

looks at the very ordinary lives of very conventional shop workers and customers, yet lifts those lives into tragedy and mystery.

The victims of the fire are buried in the Ruru Lawn Cemetery in Bromley.