The arcaded facade of Ballantyne’s Department Store made a grand statement in the heart of Christchurch on South Island. Since opening in 1854 as the ‘New Drapery Establishment’, it had grown from one to seven buildings, mirroring New Zealand’s booming prosperity. By 1947, Ballantyne’s covered an acre. It was a maze of rooms and passages on two or three floors with 300 employees, and famous throughout the country. The store replicated New Zealand as a whole, including its subtle hierarchies and prevalent mores.
And that proved fatal.
Midway through a November afternoon, a woman employee reported to her immediate superior, a floor salesman, that smoke was issuing from the cellar below the furnishings department. He passed the message up the staff chain, but called the fire brigade himself. They did not respond. In their offices the owners waited, then called again. The brigade arrived in two minutes, to find the ground floor already cleared of customers and staff, and flames licking through the floor of furnishings. Expecting a cellar fire, the firemen failed to bring a turntable ladder. That realization came as the whole center of Ballantyne’s exploded in flames, and it became obvious that no one had told the clerical staff and dressmaking department in their rambling, upstairs eyries.
It was grotesque. The firemen could not call for back-up because the telephone lines were overloaded. Department heads dithered for permission to evacuate their staff. The store’s policy was not to allow staff to leave until all insured equipment had been signed off into a fireproof safe first – so the national culture of bureaucratic obedience made disaster inevitable. Worse, thousands of onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle, obstructing firemen, and exclaiming at tortured, flaming bodies being sucked back into the inferno. In every way, it was the worst fire in New Zealand’s history.
When was the Ballantyne’s Department Store Fire: November 18 1947
Where was the Ballantyne’s Department Store Fire: Cashel and Colombo Streets, Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand
What was the Ballantyne’s Department Store Fire death toll: 41 members of Ballantyne’s staff were killed. There were few serious injuries and burns – those who were trapped, died.
You should know: The fire happened on Cup Day, so Christchurch was full of extra visitors who came to watch the disaster unfold. Although some of the obstruction was well-intentioned (men seized firemen’s hoses thinking to help rather than hinder), the crowds got so obstreperous with anxiety that at one point firemen had to turn the hoses on them to drive them back.