BALLANTYNES – The Grand Lady of Retail

I’m sure there weren’t enough descriptive words to explain the excitement Esther Clarkson felt at the first sale of one of her straw hats.  As the coins dropped into her hand, maybe she smiled to herself and felt assured that her little business could make something of itself.  She had no idea!

It was 1854 when Esther Clarkson, her husband David and sister-in-law Elizabeth arrived in Christchurch.  They settled in a small cottage on Cashel Street and in one of the front rooms, Esther opened as a small milliner shop – a trade that Esther knew very well.

Business boomed instantly!  So much in fact that David was soon building a two story addition to the cottage so Esther had more room to expand her trade.  Cousin Thomas Atkinson became a partner and by the first advertisement placed in The Lyttelton Times on the 23rd September 1856, the small family business had expanded in extraordinary leaps and bounds.

When Thomas Atkinson left the picture, the business became known as ‘The Dunstable House’, named after Esther’s hometown back in England.  In 1864, the Clarkson’s were approached by a gentleman named William Pratt who asked if the business was for sale.  His offer of £20,000 seemed too good to turn down and the business changed hands.

William Pratt was born in 1823 into a Drapery originated family.  As a young man in London, he worked as such before emigrating to Nelson at the age of 20.  Eight years later he was making his way in Wellington as a bookkeeper but the following year, he was running a store and bakery – the very first – in Lyttelton.  He stuck around long enough to witness the arrival of every Canterbury Association ship (there were 24) and to get married.  1854 saw him back in Nelson but returned to Christchurch again for the purchase of ‘The Dunstable House’ in 1863.

He made huge additions and improvements to the business, including knocking down the old wooden cottage and shop and rebuilding it all in brick.  It was reported that he was weary of owning a wooden establishment due to all the fire hazards of the day.  Fitting really, when we remember what happened to the business in 1947!

But it was 1872 when the name Ballantynes enters the story.  John Ballantyne bought the business from William Pratt and it has remained in the family ever since – in one way or another.
John was born in Scotland in 1825.  In 1852, he immigrated to Australia where he found work with McArthur Kingsbury and Co.  He must have been quite a business man as within a year, he was made a partner.  Not content to play second fiddle, he was soon running his own company before making his move to Christchurch.  He stayed at the helm of Ballantynes for 7 years before retiring to his farm down in South Canterbury.  He left his three sons in charge.  He didn’t stay in retirement long as he helped to organise and open a Ballantynes store in Timaru in 1883.  In a lovely twist, the designers for this new store were a business named ‘Clarkson and Ballantyne’ – the son of David and Esther Clarkson (the original founders of The Dunstable House) and the nephew of John Ballantyne himself.

John Ballantyne died in 1899 and is buried with his wife and other family members at St Peter’s Anglican Church, Church Corner, Upper Riccarton in Christchurch.

Ballantynes ticks along quite happily, enjoying the title of being New Zealand’s first Department Store.  It was also Christchurch’s first store to use electricity to light up its wares.  But it will be the year of 1947 that the people of Christchurch will always remember.  It was the year of the Ballantyne’s Fire.

The fire started downstairs in the furniture area and quickly spread through the three story department building.  As thousands watched horrified, they saw what turned out to be mostly staff perish in the flames that were 100 feet in height at times.  A few jumped from the windows and others rescued by firemen, even while a few of the ladders actually caught fire.

The fire was so full on that the heat of it cracked windows of other shops up to 73 metres away. Two blocks of shops and streets were cleared and closed.

The fight to stop it from spreading to other buildings took a few hours and the crashing of falling iron and falling power lines did little to calm the nerves of the witnesses.

41 people lost their lives that day.

I think it took a lot of courage to rebuild on the same site after such a tragedy.  I know it comes to my mind when I look upon Ballantynes or walk through it today and I was born almost 30 years later.  I know when I saw the Cathedral spire collapse on the 22nd February 2011 that I thought if anyone dies inside, the old gal would have a harder time to recover and maybe even be stained as a result.  Amazingly, the spire was empty that dark day and the Cathedral would have a bigger battle trying to save itself from its Anglican leaders…my hat goes off to Ballantynes for making it all work.

The second hurdle Ballantynes faced was the 8 month closure in its Christchurch store after the 22nd February earthquake.  Proudly today, with its door open for business in a limping city, the Ballantynes family have linked arms with other family-based businesses to help rebuild Christchurch and get its retail heart beating again.

2014 will be an interesting year to watch…

* image of Ballantynes today courtesy of*
* images of fire gutted Ballantynes courtesy of – CH297, Box 4, Exhibit 8, Block 1-4* * all other images courtesy of*
* photo of John Ballantynes’ grave taken by Annette Bulovic*
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