The Ballantynes Fire – 18th November 1947

As smoke silently crept up the cellar stairs of Ballantynes, unaware customers continued to sip their drinks in the tearooms and the businesses’ typewriters kept tapping away in the offices on the top floor. Brothers, Roger and Kenneth Ballantyne, were on site keeping an ever watchful eye over the family legacy, theirs since 1872. Ballantynes was Christchurch’s Queen of all Department Stores and she sure was grand!

458 Ballantynes employees were at work that day, 18th November 1947. Some were on their afternoon breaks, some manned their counters while others balanced the books and sat at a desk upstairs. It was around 3.30pm, and between 250 and 300 customers were milling about doing some shopping. The building was dangerously inadequate when it concerned fire regulations. Though it had passed it last safety inspection in 1943, it was regarded more as a factory than a busy business outlet. Fire sprinklers and external fire escapes only existed in some parts of the building and there were no fire alarms. Practiced evacuations had ceased since the end of WWII and no fire escape plan was in place. Many workers had no knowledge of the building layout beyond their own section.

As the smoke filtered into the floor above, the nearest Manager was notified. It would be just over 15 minutes later when a call to the Fire Brigade would be raised. Meanwhile, as the news slowly spread, many employees were told to stay at their stations and ‘…carry on…’ Even those who were returning to work after their break had of idea of the danger and were told nothing.

Outside, the first Fire Engine (No. 11) had arrived. It was 3.48pm. As they dismounted the truck, they stared at Ballantynes with uncertainty. It looked fine. Roger Ballantyne came out to meet them, showing them the way to southern staircase that led to the Furniture Department in the basement.   With the first floor now well choked up with smoke and heat, counters and cash resisters were abandoned as people fled for their lives.

With untreated soft wood-fibre lining in the interior walls, it was no surprise that the first floor soon erupted with deadly fire. For some of the poor souls still upstairs, sadly, their fate was sealed. From the street below, as Fireman struggled to secure their ladders against Ballantynes’ huge verandas, people on the street below were horrified as they witnessed some those trapped victims last minutes, their fists pounding on windows for help. They soon disappeared in the fire and smoke.

As the heat barrelled down Cashel and Colombo Streets, other shop windows cracked or blew out with the pressure. Some of the wooden ladders of the fire fighters had to be deserted as they too, caught fire. The last rescue was of Kenneth Ballantyne, just making it out of his window as the floor collapsed behind him.

It wouldn’t be until 6pm that the fire fighters and police could enter the building, the fire not being fully out until 8pm. For the next four days, the site was worked over to cool down the remaining hot spots and bodies were recovered. 41 people died and all were employees. A civic mass funeral was held on 23rd November 1947 and a memorial erected at the Ruru Lawn Cemetery. The memorial has recently been restored (2014) due to damage sustained in the Christchurch February earthquake.   The cause of the Ballantyne’s fire has never been determined.

In May 2015, at Ferrymead Heritage Park, there was a very special unveiling of a restored Ford V8 Mercury ’45 Fire Engine (No.11). This was the first Fire Truck to respond to the Ballantynes Fire, leaving from the Fire House at Lichfield Street.

It was sold to a private owner in 1972; it passed through a few hands before being used as an irrigation pump on an Auckland farm. By 1991, now replaced by an irrigation system, the old engine was rusting away in a field where it was finally rescued, without its historical significance being recognised. In 2005, it was gifted to the Fire Service Historical Society and returned to Christchurch. It’s taken from then till December 2014 for the restoration to be completed.

It is now be housed at the ‘Hall of Flame’ at Ferrymead Heritage Park.

*Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library – Reference Number: PAColl-7171-89. Fire at Ballantyne’s department store, Christchurch, 18 November 1947. Shows both of the upper stories ablaze, and fireman using fire hoses. Photographer unidentified. (http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=40131).

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