On the evening of February 7th, 1908 the headlines in the Star ‘screamed out’
A DISASTROUS FIRE,
HUGE OUTBREAK IN THE CITY,
CENTRAL BLOCK DEVASTATED,
DAMAGE AMOUNTS TO HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS,
WATER SUPPLY INEFFICIENT, EFFORTS OF BRIGADE FRUITLESS,
AN AWE INSPIRING SIGHT.
This disaster was certainly the largest and most destructive fire experienced in the city’s history.
The night before (February 6th) a fire took hold in the heart of the commercial centre of Christchurch. It had been first spotted by the principal night watchman, Patrick M’Ilroy who had worked the Lichfield, High and Cashel Street ‘beat’ for five years. As he was making his rounds, he saw a reflection of flames in the windows of Malcolm’s Warehouse in Lichfield Street, at approximately 9.45 pm. Malcolm’s and Co was at the time the largest importing company in New Zealand, their 9000 square foot warehouse was full of carpets, textiles and dress fabrics. Patrick ran to break a fire alarm but a young man got there before him so he ran back up the right-of-way lane between Strange’s and Malcolm’s to find what was burning. He saw the packing cases in Strange’s packing department on fire.
That night, the city’s firemen were all together, celebrating their annual dinner with the city mayor and other dignitaries at the Lichfield Street Fire Station. When the alarm came through, the men abandoned the tables and harnessed the horses to the engines and set off.
As they made their way down the dark streets, towering tongues of flames could be seen, soaring high into the dark sky. This also attracts thousands of spectators who flocked to the scene. Although it did not take the fire brigade long to get to the scene, Strange’s was already fully ablaze thanks to the vast amount of inflammable materials kept in the store. Acting as fuel, it was reported that the three storey building took just ten minutes to be on fire, from top to bottom. Such was the intensity and heat of the flames, it was impossible for the brigade to get anywhere near the shop’s frontage. This made their job of beating the fire, completely hopeless.
The inferno then jumped across to the next victim before taking every building in its path. As the fire intensified, the crowd’s presence caused confusion and the police tried to force them to move back.
Before 10.30 p.m. the fire had spread through to Lichfield Street taking Ashby, Berg’s Ironmongery establishment, the three storeyed brick building once occupied by Ross & Glendining (Woollen Millers and Importers); Messrs Malcolm & Co.’s warehouse; the back portion of P. Hayman & Co.’s (General Merchants) warehouse; Messrs D. Benjamin & Co.’s (General Merchants, Importers and Wholesale Jewellers) warehouse; and the D.I.C. building with frontages on Lichfield and Cashel Street.
On High Street the fire destroyed:- Messrs Ashby, Bergh & Co.’s shop and warehouse fronting the street; Messrs. W. A. Tribe & Co.’s drapery establishment; Messrs Hulbert & Slaymaker’s tailoring and outfitting premises; James Freeman Ltd. confectionery shop and tearooms; Messrs Williamson & Co.’s chemist shop; Messrs Tucker & Co. jewellery shop; Messrs Hallenstein Bros. ‘New Zealand Clothing Factory’; Mr. H. B. Sorensen’s store; Messrs Wardell’s & Co.’s bacon curing factory, engine room and store; a four storeyed building at the back of the White Hart Hotel and facing on a right of way leading from Cashel Street and the near new White Hart Hotel.
Although the brigade had the help of many extra firemen who were attending the dinner, no amount of work could extinguish the blaze:-
“The Brigade was simply unable to cope with the outbreak and some thousands of people received a lesson that will not be easily forgotten regarding the advantage of a decent high pressure water supply… The fire worked along the roof from Ashby, Bergh and Co.’s and at 10.50 made its appearance at an upper window in the White Hart Hotel. The glass cracked and fell out, there was a fierce in rush of air, a flicker and then a flame at the net window. Twelve minutes later the near new hotel was burning right along the upper storey and blazing fragments from the windows were falling into the street. A fireman directed a hose into the interior from a perilous position on a balcony, and received a round of applause from the crowd, but the flames continued to travel.
The premises between Ashby, Bergh and Co.’s and the White Hart went one after the other. Freeman’s confectionery shop, with the tea rooms already a blaze became a mass of white flames a few minutes after the fire first got a hold. Tribe and Co’s and Hulbert and Slaymaker’s premises held out for a while, but then succumbed and burned fiercely. Williamson and Co’s chemist shop went, and then Tucker’s jewellery shop next door was swept by the fire. The flames jumped a right-of-way from Messrs Strange and Co‘s Building and ran through Malcolm and Co.’s premises. Next came Hayman & Co’s Warehouse which escaped for a while. The fire worked round behind however, crossed another right of way and entered Benjamin and Co.’s three storeyed warehouse.
The brigade received a good deal of criticism during the evening, but none of it quite so trenchant as that which followed this advance of the fire. Water was running short, the tanks having been pumped out, and the railway steamer having only just started to pump from the river but there were jets available in Lichfield Street, and they were being used on Malcolm and Co.’s building then merely a frame of scorched walls containing a mass of glowing ashes. There was nothing to be saved there, whereas it seemed to the observers that one jet would have saved Benjamin & Co’s building. The jet was not supplied and the flames appeared at the windows in the upper storey and soon engulfed the whole building in a red ruin. Next came the D.I.C. building, stretching right through from Cashel Street to Lichfield Street, and it was evident that there was scant hope of saving that.
The scene looking down the narrow rights of way leading from Lichfield Street was a lurid one. Down the first could be seen the back portion of the White Hart Hotel, a mass of roaring flame. Stranges’ building on the left, was throwing up tongues of blueish flame accompanied by fierce heat, and on the other side Malcolm and Co.’s building was blazing. Down the next right-of-way could be seen a portion of Wardell’s building and the rear most part of the White Hart Hotel, both vomiting forth flames and throwing showers of sparks and red hot fragments over on to the next buildings. Hayman & Co’s premises were burning on the right, the flames working forward from the back, and Benjamin & Co.’s building lit up the left.The feature of the fire after midnight was the destruction of the D.I.C. There had been hopes that this building would be saved and the brigade seemed to be devoting its best efforts to this end, but the fire won handsomely. Just before 12.30 a.m. a flicker of fire appeared at an upper window facing Lichfield Street, then the flames came with a rush, and in a few moments the whole of the front was blazing. The fire went back steadily and irresistibly right through to Cashel Street, and gutted the building. The New Zealand Clothing Factory next to the west in Cashel Street, shared in the fate of its larger neighbour, and supplied the last big blaze of the night. At 2.30 am the fire was in hand, and the owners of the other premises in the block breathed again. The flames had eaten the heart out of the best block in the city, but they had not destroyed all that they might have reached. The absence of wind had been the chief factor in producing this result.”
Christchurch Fire Brigade’s four steam fire engines had been long regarded as inadequate in the face of a great city fire. The water supply in many parts of the city was insufficient to supply them for long enough. It was not that there was a lack of water in the vicinity of the fire. The river was close enough to provide the powerful engines with a supply. It was the loss of time moving the engines which caused the delays.
The most important steam fire engine, the ‘Extinguisher’, had been parked beside the tank at the corner of High and Cashel Streets. As the closest to the fiercest fire on the High Street frontage, – pumping 300 gallons per minute – it provided enough water to keep two strong areas drenched until the supply in the tank ran out after an hour. At twenty five minutes to twelve it had to be moved to the tank beside the cathedral. It took about fifteen minutes for the ‘Extinguisher’ to be hooked up to this tank and start the new supply.
The ‘Deluge‘, the second of the city’s engines, was stationed at the corner of Colombo and Lichfield Streets, alongside Mason, Struthers and Co.’s hardware, saddlery manufactory and show rooms. It supplied two leads of hose to the fire burning on Lichfield Street, pumping 450 gallons per minute. This sump contained enough water to keep the pumps going for about an hour – fifteen minutes after midnight.
The public become vigilantes
Items were salvaged where they could and placed on the street, on tram lines or where ever it was deemed safe. Although there was a large police presence, thieving did occur and in some instances, the public became vigilantes:-
“Very good order prevailed, and every assistance was given to them by members of the crowd… Detectives in plain clothes were present and watched the goods on the street. One man was caught thieving by some onlookers. He was chased, caught and severely beaten.”
Superintendent Smith reported to the Star that the problem had not been manpower. The brigade had its full force of forty two men on the scene, supplemented by sixteen men from the Railway Brigade and by delegates from Lyttelton, Sumner, Spreydon and the Addington workshops, who had all been present at the brigade dinner. The problem was a shortage of available water.
The fire was the largest, as far as value of destroyed property was concerned, in New Zealand’s history. The Superintendent was thankful that the fire had not spread along the entire stretch of Cashel Street from Messrs Beath and Co’s to the river. His theory was that Messrs Hallensteins’ building was very old so it burnt quickly. The brigade was able to hold the flames back from Beath and Co’s until the fire had burnt out of the Hallenstein’s Buildings. If the latter had not collapsed so soon it would have been impossible to hold Beath and Co’s, then the A1 Hotel would have gone, along with Messrs Ballantynes and Co’s and all the others in the town.
Superintendent Smith concluded with four issues to address:-
1. There was a necessity for a high pressure water supply.
“It all comes back to the same thing, We must have the water. We are all right otherwise. Until we have the high pressure system we will continue to sit on a volcano, as I said some years ago, and as the Lyttelton Times repeated this morning.”
About thirty years ago, it seems an attempt was made to bring water from the river up Lichfield Street, past the very buildings which were destroyed only that morning. Superintendent Smith explained that the scheme was not a success because the pipe was not placed at a sufficiently low level. Drain pipes were laid from the river up to Colombo Street corner, but they were not used, and gradually sand settled in them and choked them.
It would be an excellent thing, in his opinion to have mains running along the principle streets, conveying water from the river, but they must be laid at a level which will give them sufficient fall to enable the water to be used. But all that would be unnecessary if there was a high pressure system. About eighteen months will elapse before this system would be ready for use. In the meantime, he suggested that all the underground tanks should be connected by mains, so that when an engine pumped from one, it would pump from all.
2. That the brick walls and iron partitions should be used in the erection of buildings in the city.
He would do away with wooden partitions altogether. The White Hart Hotel was full of wooden partitions and it burnt like matchwood.
3. That partitions should go right through the buildings from floor to the roof.
4. That the May-Otway Fire Alarm appliance should be brought into greater use.
If it had been installed in the building in which the fire started, the alarm would have been given much sooner and the fire might have been stopped before much damage had been done. When the alarm did come in, the first engine was out of the station in sixteen seconds.
If there had been a good supply of water it is probable that the D.I.C. and other buildings in Cashel Street west would not have been destroyed.There were four steamers – the Railway Brigade’s, the Deluge, the Taniwha (St. Albans) and the Extinguisher at work and three chemicals. The little motor chemical was the first on the scene but in a fire of that magnitude it was useless. The principal tanks at Messrs. Mason, Struthers and the White Hart ran dry and for half an hour, while an engine was being sent down to the river, there was no water available. When the water came through the hose again, the fire had gone a long way ahead and it was impossible to catch it up until several hours had passed.
Fire Brigade Critics
Comments were made by spectators about the manner in which water spouted out of the hose on to the street – as much water was running on the streets as was going onto the fire. Superintendent Smith says that the leakages in the hose cannot be avoided – a scratch with a nail sometimes causes leaks.
It was frequently suggested to Superintendent Smith that he should dynamite buildings in front of the fire. He did not see the necessity for that, however, and he found that his plan of fighting the flames hand to hand was better, more effective and less destructive. The biggest fights he had with the flames were at two right of ways, next to Wardell’s buildings and next to the D.I.C. The brigade fought a good fight at both those spots, he says and he is very pleased that the brigade was victorious. 
A maniac or some irresponsible youth
Suspicion of who lit the fires caused blame to be pointed at a ‘half caste’. The Grey River Argus on February 17th reported:
Yesterday Sergeant Burrows detained a half-caste who was believe to be connected with the outbreak at the rear of Mr. Andrew’s shop. It was stated that this man visited Mr Andrews’s shop and asked for some matches prior to the fire occurring in the A1 Hotel right-of-way. Mr Andrews identified the man but as the police had not sufficient evidence to connect him with the fire he was allowed his liberty.
The police are inclined to the opinion that the incendiary is a maniac or some irresponsible youth who wants to witness a fire similar to the one which ruined a number of business places last week. 
- Trial of the City Steam Fire Engines: Star , Issue 4925, 14 February 1884, Page 4
- Fire Engine Trial: Star , Issue 6098, 30 November 1887, Page 3
- Source: The Weekly Press Jubilee number, 15 Dec. 1900, p. 35. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0074I
- Source: Auckland Weekly News 20 February 1908 p004. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19080220-4-1.
- Source: Auckland Weekly News 20 FEBRUARY 1908 p003. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19080220-3-3
- Source: Auckland Weekly News 20 February 1908 p003. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19080220-3-5
- Source: Auckland Weekly News 09 August 1906 p012. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19060809-12-1
- Source: Steffano Webb Photographic Studio, Christchurch. Image: National Library of NZ ID: 1/1-005288-G
- Taken from the Star, February 7th 1908.
- Christchurch Fire Notes, Grey River Argus, February 17th, 1908.