From Dunstable House to J. Ballantyne & Co. Department Store

Dunstable House after the first additions were made in the 1890s.
Dunstable House after the first additions were made in the 1890s. Source: The Canterbury times, 16 Dec. 1900, p. 15. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0085

Synonomous for offering the best quality goods and clothing since its humble beginnings back in 1854, is the iconic department store of Ballantynes.

On the new town’s swampy plains, newly arrived married couple, Esther and David Clarkson, built a small clothing and straw-hat shop in front of their cottage on Cashel Street. They called their shop Dunstable House, after their hometown in England.

Amongst the neighbouring foundry, carpenter’s shop, bakery, bank and solicitor’s rooms, the Clarkson’s shop did a roaring trade and before long, outgrew their premises.  With the sizeable profits made, they were able to construct a two storey addition on one side.  It had a large storage facility for stock which enabled the Clarksons to go ahead and make larger investments of consignments – one of which was $1,200 worth of drapery from Australia in 1855.

Dunstable House, circa 1903
The side walk outside Dunstable House is crowded with ladies, suggesting that one of the store’s famous sales is about to get underway. Source: The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Canterbury Provincial District. 1903.

By 1857, Christchurch had eighteen draperies and clothing shops to meet the increasing demand for womens’ clothes and undergarments.  During these times, women were required to wear numerous layers of underwear, including  long laced draws, chemises, corsets, flannel petticoats, under petticoats, starched petticoats, starched flounces, two muslin petticoats and a crinoline. Factory made clothes were hard to get and proved expensive, so many draperies sold selections of fabric for making mens and womens clothing as well as household items such as linen, drapes and covers.

An experienced draper called William Pratt, came to Christchurch to find a business to purchase in the burgeoning city.  Unsuccessful in finding anything suitable, he was on his making his return walk back up the Bridle Path to Lyttelton, when he met David Clarkson. Pratt told Clarkson of his desire to buy a drapery, and discussed whether Dunstable House might be available. Clarkson put a high price of $20,000 on Dunstable House, and Pratt agreed to it.

William Pratt was an experienced merchant who was weary of the dangers that a wooden city posed and the inadequacies of a small fire brigade and low water supply. After making such a huge financial investment, he did not want to run the risk of it being burnt down if a fire took hold of the city. He made the precautionary measure of building protective walls around Dunstable House as well as fireproofing the storage building at the rear.  His efforts did not go unwasted. Many of the city’s businesses who had not been so careful were destroyed by fire – one of which stopped at his fire walls.

Dunstable House trade grew steadily and Pratt extended it in the 1870’s expansion era. Pratt had hoped his sons would takeover the business however they had no interest in it. In 1872, Pratt sold Dunstable House to a Scottish draper called John Ballantyne who who had emigrated from Selkirk, Scotland.

A lady looking at the window display beside Ballantyne's Main Entrance 1901
A lady stands outside the front entrance, admiring the display of hats. Note  the intricate detail surrounding the shop’s front door such as the pretty mirrored square pillars and wooden carvings on the pediments above the door. Source: The Weekly Press, 13th November 1901, p. 79. Image: Christchurch City Libraries Photo CD 3, IMG0081

Ballantyne had first settled in Australia before sailing to Christchurch. After acquiring the business, Ballantyne continued to offer the best quality goods and imported fashion by setting up an office in London which was responsible for purchasing the latest stock.

Although Ballantynes advertised regularly, its competition was not huge. Beaths and Stranges were the only two department stores at this time. Ballantynes set itself apart from its competition by offering high quality merchandise, as well as all purchases being delivered free of charge by horse and cart throughout the city and Canterbury and discounts when paying cash.

By 1879 John had made a small fortune and was keen to retire to a farm he had bought.  He sold the business to a partnership which included his 24 year old son, Josiah Ballantyne. However he did not stay retired for long.  By 1883 John purchased Victoria House in Timaru and opened a second Ballantynes store on behalf of the partnership.

The Mantle Show Room at Ballantynes in 1901.
The Mantle Show Room at Ballantynes in 1901 Source: The Weekly Press, 13 Nov. 1901, p. 81. Image: Christchurch City Libraries Photo CD 2, IMG0069,

In 1889, the second Dunstable House, designed by Joseph Clarkson Maddison (1850-1923) was completed. This style of commerical building, had moved away from the heavy Gothic influences of the 1860’s and 1870’s to the elegant classicism of the Italianate style.

In the photograph on the right, the elegance of the mantle show rooom is evident. Mirrored pillars, pressed plaster ceilings, sky lights and decorative wall paper made it the most fashionable store to shop for clothing and accessories during Christchurch’s Edwardian days. The store created its own clothing label manufacturing clothes for men and women in its tailoring factory.

In 1891, J. Ballantyne & Co. became the first shop in the city to be illuminated with electricity.

The decades rolled by with changing family partnerships. Unlike some of its competition, Ballantynes remained steadfast in its reputation for good service, high quality goods, contemporary fashions, elegant tea rooms and a lounge for tired shoppers.  Deliveries by horse and cart was slowly replaced by the motor truck.  Their famous ‘return of goods’ policy was all part of the Ballantynes service. One lady customer rang to ask if she had left a package she had purchased from Beaths Department Store there. On being informed that she had, they duly delivered it to her at no charge.

Photograph shows the new extensions to the Cashel Street frontage of Ballantynes in 1895. Source: The Weekly Press, 15 Dec. 1900, p. 6. This building was designed by J.C. Maddison (1850-1923). It was destroyed by fire on 18 Nov. 1947. Image: Christchurch City Libraries PhotoCD 6, IMG0014

The Ballantynes Fire

Ballantynes fire 1847
View, from a distance, of the Ballantyne’s department store fire, Christchurch. Photograph taken at 4pm 18 Nov 1947 from the Cathedral tower. Photographer unidentified. Image: National Library of NZ PAColl-8163-63

William Pratt’s prediction, over eighty years earlier, was a prediction which many of Christchurch’s shops and department stores had fallen victim to by the turn of the century:- Stranges, Hallensteins and D.I.C., the Bank of Australia, Wardells and Ashby Bergh’s were some off the list.

Ballantynes had been vigilant by the installation of sixty four fire extinguishers fitted throughout the store, as well as an emergency precaution service and staff who patrolled day and night. Even smoking was banned except in the tearooms and staff cafeteria.

No matter how careful the shop’s policies were, the rabbit warren of structures behind the elegant facade posed as a fire hazard.  Over the years, as the shop extended the three different buildings were linked together by horizontal openings at different levels as well as vertical shafts for lifts and other operations. Worse were the numerous dividing walls were made of match lining, pinex and old, bone dry timber.

Just after Show Week – one of the store’s busiest weeks of the year when country and city customers flocked to town – disaster struck. At 3.30pm on Tuesday 18th November 1947, what appeared was a small fire, was spotted in the ground basement.

Initially, the basement fire did not alarm the attending fire brigade. However as with any fire, its speed and ability to spread through the thin partitions and gaps in the vast store. They were unable to contain it in time and it spread through the thin partitions into the shop’s upper floors. The sheer size of the store (one block from Cashel Street and around Colombo Street) meant that  they had no chance to get to all the areas the fire quickly spread to.

Rescuing Mr. K. Ballantyne From the Burning Building on Colombo Street, 1947  Source: CCL One Photograph, Black & White, Moore Collection 0741 Photo CD 1, IMG0018 Ephemera 99
Rescuing Mr. K. Ballantyne From the Burning Building on Colombo Street, 1947 Source: CCL One Photograph, Black & White, Moore Collection 0741 Photo CD 1, IMG0018 Ephemera 99

Like most stores at the time, Ballantynes did not have alarms or sprinklers and so with the delay, the fire took hold of the entire building within minutes.

The shop evacuated its customers even though there were some communication failures which saw a slowness in the response.  Some customers were still being served in the furniture department 15 minutes after the smoke had been seen while the tearoom’s diners were still there at 3.55pm – nearly 25 minutes after the fire had first been discovered. Fortunately, they got out just before the flames and smoke ignited in a ‘flash over (partly caused by a gas leak) which spread across the entire building within minutes.

Customers and nearly all three hundred staff ran left the building and stood helpless on the streets. Passers-by stood dazed by the horror unfolding in front of them. Off duty servicemen and many members of the public went to help the firemen by holding the hoses at the inferno. Thousands of gallons of water were directed into the fire, but it was so hot and intense, the water made very little difference to quelling it.

With management believing the basement fire was being attended to, an evacuation plan was delayed.  On the third floor, staff continued working. The credit and finance department staff shifted 25 bins of records, cash, typewriters, adding machines and other boxes full of records into the strong-room before leaving the building. Although this took a matter of five or six minutes, it was long enough for the fire to block stairwells and cutting off their only means of escape.

Tragically, the delays in evacuation proved fatal for forty-one staff. They became trapped upstairs and were beyond the reach of the short, wooden fire ladders carried on the fire trucks. The brigade’s tall, electric rescue ladder which could have reached them not arrive at the scene until 4pm.

The fire drew a huge crowd of shoppers and workers who stood watching in horror as the fire turned to an inferno. Flames burst out the upper windows and exploded out of the shop’s display windows. Trapped victims learnt out of the third floor windows waving for help, while others further inside, were vapourised by the burning temperatures. The crowds below screamed out, encouraging them to jump or flee back through the fire. But for the trapped people in the tailoring, hat making and shirtmaking department, it was too late and they were unable to get out through the heat and thick smoke.

The fire had taken hold and the only way to escape the third floor was by jumping out a window. During the terrifying scene, there were many acts of bravery.

Salvation Army Workers Hands Out Cups of Tea to the Firemen and Volunteers, 1947  Source: CCL One Photograph, Black & White, IMG0019, 0746 PhotoCD 1, IMG0019 The Weekly News, 26th Nov. 1947, p. 23
Salvation Army Workers Hands Out Cups of Tea to the Firemen and Volunteers, 1947 Source: CCL One Photograph, Black & White, IMG0019, 0746 PhotoCD 1, IMG0019 The Weekly News, 26th Nov. 1947, p. 23
Battling the Flames, Tense Firemen in Action 1947 Source: CCL, One Photograph, Black & White, 16 x 21 cm, 0747 PhotoCD 1, IMG0017 The Weekly News, 26 Nov. 1947, p.
Tense Firemen in action, battling the flames, 1947. Source: The Weekly News, 26 Nov. 1947. Image: Christchurch City Libraries file ref: PhotoCD 1, IMG0017.

For two hours, the fire had total hold of the city block. This sort of carnage and loss of life had never been seen in Christchurch before. The huge plume of smoke could be seen for miles around Christchurch and many people came into town to see what was going on. The heat of the fire had sent charred dockets and receipts up into the air and blown them into the suburbs.

Photographers from the Press, recorded the burning scene, ensuring it remained etched in the public’s memories.

After the chaos and the final count in the next day or so, it was discovered that 41 members of staff and management had lost their lives. The following day, servicemen went into the charred remains of the building to search for the remains of its victims. Sadly, there were no identifiable bodies. This was hard for the victims’ families. The scene was recorded by a crew from the National Film Unit who were in Christchurch that afternoon and its footage was screened on the news around the world.

For the citizens of Christchurch recovering from the dark years of  World War II – this unbelievable tragedy played out in the city’s most iconic store, was felt very keenly. It completely overshadowed the local body elections which were held the next day when Ernest Andrews was re-elected mayor. However, there was still huge interest in the royal wedding of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on November 20th and so photographs of their wedding were published alongside the terrible photographs of the fire.

View of a still smoking Ballantynes on the corner of Colombo and Cashel Streets, 1947
View of a still smoking Ballantynes on the corner of Colombo and Cashel Streets, 1947. Source: Postcard 1905. Image: Christchurch City Libraries file ref: Photo CD4, IMG0047 Ephemera 60 postcard.

It was decided that a joint funeral be held and the remains of those lost laid in a mass grave at the Ruru Lawn Cemetery. The route to the cemetery was lined with people who most likely knew someone who was either in teh fire or had been affected by it. Along with the Prime Minister and other dignitaries, ten thousand citizens came to pay their respects at the graveside service. A memorial was erected and an annual service used to held each year for the generation affected.
The Ballantyne’s fire has remained one the worst disasters in post-war Christchurch.  In the city’s short history, it has left an indelible mark and remained in that generation as one of the city’s darkest days. It also left a blight on the highly esteemed store’s exemplary record.

Many of the fire safety policies we have today, were introduced after the Ballantynes’ inferno.  The company’s resolution to rebuild the store was generously supported by the local business community. Loyal staff rallied around and the customer goodwill which had been built up over ninety three years remained strong.

However, it took thirty years for the department store to be completely rebuilt.  In that time, the hey day of the department store was over.  The city witnessed the demise of  the department stores – of Armstrongs, Beaths, Calder Makays, the Farmers Co-op, Hays, Drayton Jones, Smith & Browns, Butterfields and even more recently, Arthur Barnetts.

Ballantynes modern rebuild and its strength in customer service, high quality goods, huge annual sales and it meeting the needs of both town and country customers seemed to been responsible in its survival and ability to keep its doors open for the last 150 years.


Smoke and flames masking Dunstable House
Smoke and flames masking Dunstable House, part of the department store of J Ballantynes and Company on Colombo Street, Christchurch, during the fire that destroyed the building. Photograph taken on 26 November 1947, by an unidentified photographer for the Free Lance. Image: National Library of NZ ID: PAColl-8163-27

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Corran Vincent says:

    I was six years old when my mother and I went to town on that fateful day
    in November 1947. We often travelled by horse and cart to spend the day in
    town however this day, we had caught the Midland bus at Midland Motors.
    Our shopping trip took a terrible turn during the afternoon when
    Ballantynes caught fire. I have vivid memories of standing on the
    opposite side of the street, outside Mason & Struthers, mesmerised as I
    watched the huge flames and smoke engulfing the store.

    To get home, we used to catch the Midland bus from the depot which was an
    open station between Cashel and Hereford Streets. On this day, we would
    have caught the bus back to upper Marshland Road, as my mother never drove
    the horse & cart.


  2. Sarndra Lees says:

    I am hoping that one day, Ballantynes may see it fit to rebuild the memorial at Ruru Lawn cemetery to those that died in the fire. It was ruined in the earthquakes 😦 … some photographs I took on Labour Weekend 2011 are here:
    Ballantynes Fire Memorial and burial area

    Sarndra Lees


  3. This story does not relate the fact that the RNZ Navy was called in to take over. The scenes related to me by a senior navy man who was a relative- were- in their telling such that the horror of the petrified bodies drew tears decades later and an unrelenting unforgivingness. He in turn was married to a Bowker. The Bowkers from Timaru Oamaru were partners with Ballantynes. I am a direct descendant of one of the four first ships and of Annie Bones whose dress ( which is not unlike some Christian Dior 1957 but a childs ) appears in South Cant Museum website. My mother was direct representative to Christian Dior


  4. Catherine Jemma says:

    The Ballantynes fire was well before I was born. But dad sometimes spoke of it. He said the smoke could be seen from his childhood home, (close to the Somerfield School site and not that far from today’s Barrington Mall). I never realised it was as bad as it was, until reading the above detailed account. 41 dead and bodies un-identifiable… a major tragedy for Christchurch and Canterbury. Probably without equal until the Feb 22, 2011 Earthquakes


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s