Fires in Nelson
When Nelson went to blazes
It was during my childhood years. Very few people had telephones. If you wanted to call the fire brigade you had to rush up or down the street until you found a red metal fire alarm box. You then had to find a rock or something to smash the glass panel and press the alarm button. This activated an alarm panel at the fire station.
By this time it was quite often quicker to hop on your bike and ride down to the station. The other problem of course, was that hardly a day went by without a false alarm being set off and the broken glass panels having to be replaced. There were more false alarms than genuine calls.
The fire station had a full time staff of about four, one of whom was rostered on as officer of the watch. The rest were all volunteers, most of whom made their way to the station by bicycle or other means when the general alarm sounded. Needless to say fire callouts often took some time to respond to.
Fire callouts were far more frequent than they are today and some major fires occurred in Nelson over the years. Nelson's first fire fatality occurred on 11 December 1938 when the recently completed new nurses home in Kawhai St burnt to the ground. The fire, it was thought, began in the boiler room and had a firm hold of the two story building by the time the brigade arrived. Five nurses jumped from the upper floor and suffered bruising, abrasions and fractures. However, 22 year old nurse Mary Rothwell suffocated in the smoke while sleeping in her bed. The tragedy could have been much worse but for the fact that three of the nurses had been called early in the morning for an emergency operation being carried out in the theatre.
On 15 May 1943 another fire fatality occurred when Bridge St restaurant proprietor George White burned to death, after burning fat set his clothes on fire. Fire fighters, using respirator masks for the first time ever, were able to prevent much damage to the building but were unable to save Mr White.
My earliest childhood fire recollection occurred on 10 July 1944 when I watched the Regent Theatre in Collingwood St burn to the ground. The alarm had been given by the occupier of the adjoining house, although not burnt in any way they had the misfortune of having the brick wall of the theatre collapse through the roof. There was big consternation among the community after the fire that we only had one picture theatre in the town. This was a serious matter in the days before television.
Not for the first time, on 27 May 1948, the kitchen block at Nelson College was destroyed by fire. As a temporary measure, big copper cookers were brought in to cook for the college boarders in the open air. Hardly had they restored the kitchen facilities when 15 months later, on 10 August 1949, the completely restored dining room block was gutted. This time the boarders were sent home early for their holidays.
A double fire catastrophe occurred in 1965 both of which the writer was witness to. On Sunday evening of 5 December, a major fire broke out at Valet Dry Cleaners shop in Trafalgar St. It quickly spread next door to Keith Walkers electrical shop. Extensive fire and water damage necessitated the demolition of the building. The staff of the local radio station 2XN, which had been located upstairs, showed quick initiative and transferred their broadcasting operation to the hut at the base of the transmitter tower at Saxton field (then farm land) where it remained until new premises were set up in town.
However, scarcely had the brigade dried out and packed up their equipment than the very next night, Monday 6 December, another major fire occurred in the city. The premises of Harley & Co, furnishers in Bridge St were badly damaged and all the stock destroyed. Rumours were rife around the town that the second fire was the result of arson. It was suggested that a volunteer fireman was responsible but nothing ever appeared in the paper.
Over the years since, other major fires have occurred including; a furniture factory in Bolt Road in May 1975, a huge forest fire in the Maitai Valley in February 1981, the magnificent five storey wooden Redwood College building in Manuka St in May 1983, the Tae Chang fishing vessel which took three days to put out at Port Nelson in September 1984, and "The Warehouse" fire on Trafalgar Square in 1992.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the major fires that occurred in Nelson over the period. There were others. The last major fire occurred on 6 January 1996 when the old Majestic Theatre in Trafalgar St, by then a church, burnt to the ground along with adjoining shops. Once again we had only one picture theatre. Nowadays, most of the fire brigade callouts are not for fires, but for road accidents.
This article first appeared in the Nelson Weekly 16 November 2010, p.22
Updated May 2020
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Further sources - Fires in Nelson
Hellyer, R (1993). From small beginnings: a history of the Nelson Fire Brigade 1886-1993. Auckland, N.Z.: Percival Publishing
- Blaze guts Majestic Theatre (1996, January 6) Nelson Mail, p.1, 3(?)
- Bush fire flares on hills behind Nelson (1981, February 5) Nelson Mail, p. ?
- Overnight rain aids firefighters (1981, February 7) Nelson Mail, p. 1
- Forest fires not arson say police (1981, February 9) Nelson Mail, p. ?
- Flames consume historic college (1983, May 8) Nelson Mail, p. 1.
- Landmarks destroyed by fire (1999, September 28) Nelson Mail, p. 14
- Rawson, D. (2012) The great fire of Nelson, 1868: another family cautionary tale. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 7(4), p.27