On 18 November 1947 a fire broke out in one of the cellars of the department store. It was first noticed by a Ballantyne’s staff member at 3.30pm, in the form of smoke drifting up the stairs. However, it developed very rapidly and fire soon engulfed the whole building. Witnesses described the flames as leaping 300 feet in the air above the top of the building. 41 people died, either as a result of being trapped in the building, or in the process of trying to escape. The cause of the fire was not determined.
Fire fighting response
The Christchurch Central station received the emergency callout at 3.46pm, and responded immediately, sending two pumps and the salvage van. The turnable ladder was not sent as the fire was reported as a cellar fire. When the appliances arrived and officers realised the seriousness of the situation a brigade call was made, summoning all available appliances in the city. Eventually, over 200 firefighters and service personnel were fighting the blaze, using 19 appliances.
Legislative changes / lessons learned
A Royal Commission of Inquiry into all aspects of the fire was set up. It concluded that neither the Ballantyne’s management nor the attending fire brigade staff adequately provided for the safety of the staff and public. It made several recommendations, including the following:
- the Means of Egress Code be made compulsory throughout New Zealand
- the NZ Standards Institute complete its fire prevention by-law within six months and that it is applied throughout NZ within three months of coming into force
- the fire brigade be instituted as one service throughout New Zealand, and brought under the control of commissioners
The Inquiry’s recommendations resulted in several changes:
- It brought about the Fire Services Act 1949 which was the first attempt to standardise the Fire Service organisation, its administration, and financing.
- The Act established the Fire Service Council.
- When Ballantyne’s reopened in 1948 fire alarms were installed, and evacuation policies were spelled out in a safety pamphlet issued to all staff.
McLean, G. (1992). Ballantyne’s 1947. In New Zealand tragedies : fires and firefighting (pp 103-114). Wellington: Grantham House.
Bruce, A. (2009). Tragedy in Christchurch. In Into the line of fire: the tumultuous years of New Zealand fire brigades from 1947 to 2009 (pp 29-39). New Plymouth: PublishMe
Report of the Royal Commission upon matters concerning the fire at the premises of Messrs. J. Ballantyne and Co. – Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives
Fires in the 1940s – the Ballantyne’s fire – Te Ara, NZ Encyclopedia online
Civic funeral for 41 Ballantyne’s fire victims – NZ History online
Ballantyne’s fire, footage from the 1947 disaster – NZ on Screen