This coming Sunday 24th October, marks 151 years since Lyttelton was decimated by fire; it began at about 9 pm and was suspected to have started in packing cases filled with straw behind the Queen’s Hotel on the corner of London and Oxford Streets. It spread very rapidly through the mainly timber structures of the township.
Valiant local efforts were made to contain the inferno by the local ‘hook and ladder’ brigade, by prisoners from the Gaol and by seamen organised by the publican of the Mitre Hotel, who bucketed beer from barrels in an attempt to protect the shingled roof. Eventually, after frantic messages via the telegraph office, a Fire Brigade and fire steam engine arrived by train from Christchurch, along with the Mayor of Christchurch and several City Councillors!
The sight that greeted the Christchurch Press reporter who also travelled on that train, was just awful;
“At this time the scene was terrifically grand, the whole block, some three acres in area, being one solid mass of fire, lighting up the harbor and surrounding hills. The scene on the reclaimed land was of a most painful character, women and children being huddled together on heaps of furniture, utterly homeless, and only partially clothed.”
The fire was finally contained in the early hours of the morning, but its consequences were very evident come daylight - approximately two thirds (5 acres) of the township had been razed; 30 local businesses and many private residences left with only their chimneys standing. Though many people had lost their homes and livelihoods, it was remarkable that there were no serious injuries or deaths.
At the time it was New Zealand's worst urban fire, but it would not be the only time that Lyttelton was badly affected. Aside from numerous shipboard, business and residential fires over the years, a large blaze on Christmas Eve 1942, beginning in Rhinds store on Norwich Quay but fanned by a strong wind, caused significant damage on Norwich Quay and Canterbury Street.
The Great Fire of 1870, as it came to be known, was the catalyst for the establishment of the Lyttelton Volunteer Fire Brigade in 1873; members of which have served Lyttelton through multiple disasters and gained the highest respect and appreciation by local residents.