Black Monday for Timaru

Due to the fire, regulations were instituted which required all new buildings on the Great South Road to the sea to be of brick or stone and roofed with slate, titles or metal and a volunteer fire brigade was formed immediately after the fire (and all over Canterbury) and water tanks were installed in the most vulnerable area. Timaru was rebuilt and the town greatly improved so today Stafford Street, Timaru is known for its elegant Victorian and Edwardian buildings, made of volcanic bluestone.

The Timaru Herald January 2 1869

Great Fire in Timaru, Monday, the 7th December 1868

A fire in a little over an hour swept away about 40 buildings and destroyed at least 80,000 worth of property. The wind was blowing fiercely from the nor'west and carried the burning embers and fired the shingle roofs of houses 200 and even 300 yards distant where the fire was raging. The Timaru Herald office was destroyed.
The following is a list of building destroyed

On the West side, Main South Road
Mr D Munro's 	furniture warehouse
Mr Kitson's 	offices (New Zealand Insurance Company)
Mr Nelson 	tailor
Mr Knight 	painter
Mr Wood 	saddler
Mr Seymour 	watchmaker
Mr Salomon 	draper
Mr French 	seedsman
Mr Younghusband bookseller
Mr Greer 	tobacconist
Mr Jacobs 	watchmaker
Mr Erskine 	grocer
(gap of 70 yards)
Mr Watkins 	chemist
Mr Williamson's architect offices
The Bank of New Zealand
The Post and Telegraph offices
Private cottage up George street (Mrs Chisholm and her family)
Messrs Clarkson and Turnbull's warehouse (containing boots and shoe department)
(small roadway between)
Mr Beldy 	hairdresser
Dr Butler 	chemist and duggists (Dr Butler resided on the premises with Mrs Butler and family)
Messrs Clarkson and Turnbull's ironmongery store
The Timaru Herald offices
Mr D. Salomon 	draper (one portion let off by Messrs Horton and Belfield to Mr Salomon)
Messrs Inwood and Bilton shop
Mr Bilton 	bookseller
Mr Byrne's 	private house
Executors James King butchers' shop and house (Mrs King's butcher's shop)
Messrs McCaa and Morgan bankers (former bakery and pastry-cook's shop)
Mr Hitch 	blacksmith and house (tinsmith) Here the fire stayed

On the East Side, Main South Road
Mr Weaver 	tailor
An empty 	shop
Premises of the Timaru Butchering Company
Mr Perry's 	offices
The Club Hotel

[The store and offices of Messrs G.G. Russell and Co. survived roof slate and wet blankets were kept on the face of the building and men posted at various places to put out the fire]
[Captain Scott who resides on the eastern or seaside of the Club Hotel - his house escaped]
[as also the stables on the hill, immediately in rear of the Club Hotel, belonging to Messrs Barton and Gardiner]

Mr Mountfort 	photographer (soon showed only a chimney) (opposite side of street from Mr Hitch's)
Mr Melton 	private house
Mr Melton's 	stables (horses saved)
Mr Turnbull's a fine new brick building, occupied by Frazer Bros., butchers, and Mr Pogonowski, hairdresser
A small private house
The following buildings were damaged:-
Messrs Cain Munro and Co.'s warehouse
Mr Hutton 	grocer
Messrs Todd 	drapers
Mr Green, Ship Hotel (on the same side of the street but higher up, being on the north side of Beswick street)

The fire was first seen to break out in a cabinet maker's workshop, at the back of Mr D. Munro's furniture warehouse. The flames speedily caught the furniture warehouse and in a few minutes it was levelled to the ground. The fire also extended backwards and ignited some timber in the yards of Cain, Munro and Co. The house occupied by Miss Rose, standing at the back of the timber yards was saved. The house occupied by Mr Weaver, tailor was destroyed when the flames were blown across the street from Mr Knight, painter and Mr Wood, saddler. There was a 2oft gap between Mr Seymour, watchmaker and Mr Wood

A public meeting was hastily convened by the Mayor (Mr Samuel Hewlings) at the Royal Hotel. Mr Luxmore, Captain Crawford, Mr Angus MacDonald, Mr Healey, Captain Cain, Mr Woolcombe, R.N., Mr Cardale, Mr Archer, offered assistance. A committee formed. Timaru Councillors: Taylor, Cliff, George Healey, Turnbull, Duncan McLean (surgeon) and Green and the Engineer. Mr Polson's request to store fireworks at the back of the Commercial Hotel was not granted.

An inquiry into the origin of the fire.
The following jury were empanelled
F.J. Wilson, A. Menzie, A. Stevenson, H. Green (foreman), J. Simpson, S. Harding, J. Gibson, R. Bartlett, J. Shepherd, J. Gay, J. Peters, J. Ross, D. West and A. Ross.

Mr White appeared to watch the case on behalf of Mr D. Munro.
Witnesses:
Daniel Munro - cabinet-maker, living in Timaru
John Hamilton and John Jackson tapped on his window and said the workshop was on fire. My boy, William Clark was in the my warehouse at the time.
Mr Perry - appearing on behalf of the insurance companies
Cain and Munro's tank - handle of the tap gone.
Mr Flockton's well
Robert Taylor said once the stove was dangerous. Mr Wood also cautioned me.
William Nicholls worked for Mr Daniel Munro. Lit a fire to heat the glue. Shaving on floor.
John Hamilton - plasterer
Percy Goodwin was working in the workshop last week.
Verdict - Accidental

To those who have seen the town grow year by year, the calamity appears like a dream, so clean has it been swept away and reduced to a mere village, the shadow of its former self. 

Timaru Courier Oct. 2009
Fire spread in minutes and left a lasting scar
WILLIAM Nicholls is not remembered as a notable character, yet he had an impact on the town far greater than his contemporaries — he burned it down!

William Clark is sometimes blamed for the tragedy as both Clark and William Nicholls were mentioned by witnesses at the subsequent inquiry. It seems, however, that Nicholls was the stepson of one William Clark, hence the confusion. He later worked for 14 years at The Timaru Herald but died aged 28 after an illness of three days, leaving a wife and two children. In spite of his part in the earlier conflagration, he was held in high regard.

The morning of Monday, December 7, 1868 was hot and blustery as the seasonal nor’wester blew through the district. Daniel Munro, a cabinetmaker in the northern part of the main street, told William Nicholls, who was working for him, to light a fire in the stove to heat the glue-pot in the workshop behind the furniture warehouse. William would have been about 12 at the time and was paid 10 shillings a week to run messages and do odd jobs. He heated the glue and took it to Munro, leaving the fire unattended for a few minutes. During his short absence, the wind apparently came through the weatherboards (which says something about the construction) and blew the wood shavings about, providing an ideal starting point for the flames. Mr Munro, in the front of the shop, was alerted at 2pm by two passers-by and found the flames already burning up the side of the building. He rushed to the nearby water tank but found the key to the tank was missing; it had been taken away because people had been using the water for their horses. He then told the men in the warehouse to take the furniture out. The flames spread rapidly in the wind and the warehouse was soon ablaze. Within minutes, the men were so blinded by smoke that they could not get into the back part so broke the windows to get furniture out faster and pass it across the street. The fire then spread, igniting timber stacked in the yards of Cain, Munro and Company. Fortunately there were plenty of willing hands available and most of the timber was saved, as was a neighbouring house. The warehouses of Cain, Munro and Company were now at risk, but men covered the roofs and parts of the building nearest the fire with blankets and kept them wet with water, which was now available. The danger was still so great that gangs of men smashed the far windows and removed stock to a safer place. But the fire burned furiously and soon enveloped the offices of Mr Kitson and the shop of Mr Nelson, a tailor, in a broad sheet of flame. Nearby shops were quickly engulfed and attempts were made to make a fire-break by pulling down Mr Wood’s shop but before the veranda posts were cut down the building was ablaze. One or two men throwing goods down to the street from the second storey had a narrow escape as they stayed there till the roof and walls were on fire. The people below kept shouting to them to warn them of the danger but the howling of the wind drowned out their cries. They were eventually forced to quit by the blinding smoke and flames, the building falling moment later. The flames were then blown across the street, and spread down both sides of it. The shops and the Ship Hotel to the north of Beswick St and opposite Munro’s furniture shop, narrowly escaped destruction, though the shop fronts were charred and the windows broken by the intense heat. The fire spread to the east side of the main road and it was soon seen that the whole block was doomed. The buildings then collapsed, one after another, like a pack of cards. Most buildings at that time were of wood and the roofs wood shingles. This was all to change after the fire, when new, stricter regulations for building materials came in.

Solid: The Bank of New Zealand’s replacement building was built out of bluestone, in accordance with the stricter bylaws brought about as a result of the fire on December 7, 1868. Picture: South Canterbury Museum 4822
Combustible: The Bank of New Zealand building before the fire. Like most buildings of the 1860s, it was built of wood. Picture: South Canterbury Museum 4820

Timaru Courier November 05, 2009 page 6
Blaze engulfs city block, sparks new regulations

IN last week’s South Canterbury Tales, we read of how a hot, blustery northwesterly and a boy’s brief inattention to a small fire on the morning of December 7, 1868, resulted in a blaze that swept through Timaru. Beginning in the workshop of cabinet maker Daniel Munro at the northern end of the main street, the flames engulfed neighbouring buildings before sweeping across the street. As the fire spread down both sides of the main road, it became clear the entire block was doomed . IT was thought that the fire would now be contained, as there was a gap of 70 yards between Mr Erskine’s shop and Mr Watkins’ pharmacy, but the wind carried with it fragments of burning debris, some of which fell on the Bank of New Zealand, a detached building at least 130 yards from Mr Erskine’s shop, where the fire was raging. At the same time the fine ironmongery store of Nichollson and Turnbull, at the opposite corner, caught fire and it became obvious that no power on Earth could save the entire block. The Post and Telegraph was in flames before anything much could be saved, and the batteries of the Telegraph Department were destroyed, cutting off all communications. The whole surrounding area was now well alight and the roof of the Bank of New Zealand was burning. Mrs Chisholm and her family had little time to escape, but some of their property, along with all the bank’s documents, were saved by daring volunteers. The fire was moving quickly to the top of the hill at the south end of the town, with the wood shingle roofs all seeming to catch fire simultaneously, as they were as dry as matchwood from the dry nor’west wind. Dr Butler’s medical centre was next, and his family, who lived there, barely escaped with their lives. Then came The Timaru Herald office, a comparatively new building, where people were frantically carrying out cases of type to an open space at the back and taking down presses. The fire went through the presses, but one was patched up in time for the Wednesday edition, a great effort. Mr Belfield’s dog was burnt to death as it would not leave the office while its owner was still inside. He had actually left, but the dog was unaware of this. The far side of the main street was now a mass of flames, with volunteers trying to save valuable property. At North St, where buildings were more scattered, people were desperately clearing their houses before the flames reached them, but by six o’clock the worst was over.
A large amount of property had to be left in the streets overnight, and volunteers kept watch over it, assisted by special constables sworn in for the purpose. About 120 people were left homeless, mostly having only what they stood up in. A committee was immediately set up to raise money for them and find them somewhere to live. The jury brought in a verdict of accident, but added a rider ‘‘that greater care might have been exercised on the part of Mr Munro with regard to the stove in his workshop where the fire originated’’. New building regulations were soon brought in, with buildings in the town centre having to be made of permanent materials. The result was Stafford St, much as we know it today.


Timaru Herald, 29 June 1870, Page 5 BANK OF NEW ZEALAND. photo George St.
As this building is finished, it may be interesting to our readers to give a brief description of it, especially as it is undoubtedly the finest public building at present erected in Timaru. The bank is built on nearly the same site as the one which was destroyed in the great fire of December, 1868, but it was not for some considerable time that preparations were made to replace the old structure, in the winter of 1869 numerous plans and specifications were drawn out, and at last, in November of that year, one by Mr Lawson, of Dunedin, was decided on, and the contract of Messrs Hunter and Goodfellow, of Dunedin, was accepted, and the building commenced.
    The new bank is of blue stone obtained from the quarries near Timaru, with dressings of Oamaru white stone, and built after the Italian style. The plan is nearly square, with a frontage on the street of 47ft. A splayed dressed bluestone base, and a moulded white stone plinth over is carried all round. The lower windows are circular headed, with carved and moulded keystones bold architraves and deep reveals, with moulded trussed sills and sunk panels under, flanked with bold pilasters with rock-faced quoins, having a neat cornice over running all round. The upper windows are square headed with architraves, moulded sills, &c, pilasters on either side with rustic jointed quoins. The main entrance to the building is approached by a massive porch built chiefly of white stone, with panelled rustic angle pilasters surmounted with cornice and neatly panelled angle blocks over, with stone balustrading between. The building is finished with a bracketed frieze and a bold cornice carried on richly carved cantilevers (all in white stone), with panelled soffit and blocking course over. In the front face of the building a pediment is carried up with mouldings, &c. The blue stone work is in coursed rubble, and is very neatly pointed.

BNZ building to the left. Looking north up Stafford St. in 1932

    On entering the building at its main entrance, passing through an inner door of cedar with glass panels, the visitor finds himself in a large banking room of 18ft x 28ft This room is lighted by three large windows, one in the front face of the building, and two on its north side. This is really a handsome room ; but we think it would be improved if the cornice running round it was a trifle less heavy. The height of this room is fourteen feet, and the cornice is of dimensions which would suit a room of twice its size. The fittings here are of polished cedar (worked up in Dunedin). The counter is carried on richly carved trusses on capped and panelled angle posts with handsome mould nosings, the space under being panelled with bolection mouldings. The screens to the desks are the same, but finished off with baluatrading. Off the public rooms is the manager's room of 13ft x 13ft, and a strong room built of 18-inch brickwork, measuring 10ft x 7ft. The manager's room is furnished in the same style as the public room, the fittings being of polished cedar. Besides these rooms on the ground floor, there is another small room for the manager's private use, stationery room, kitchen, dining room, &c. Upstairs, are the remainder. of the private apartments, consisting of a large-sized drawing room with seven bed rooms. These upstairs rooms are 12 feet m height.
    Mr Lawson, of Dunedin, is the architect for the building, and Messrs Hunter and Goodfellow, contractors. The whole of the work seems to have been done m the most satisfactory manner under the general superintendence of Mr Evans, clerk of the works.


When the Smoke Clears: A History of The Timaru Fire Brigade, 1864-1995 by Timaru Fire Brigade - 1995. Imprint: Timaru : Timaru Fire Brigade Club, 1995. A limited edition of 500 copies. Historic display at the 23 Latter St station. A 1934 Bedford fire appliance has been restored and is on show at the station.

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