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Historic...Timaru senior firefighter Alistair Thornley wearing a leather fire helmet and jacket from the 1800s with a 1953 Bedford fire truck which will be displayed. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

It will be a time to remember tomorrow evening in Timaru.

The block in Stafford St from Church St to George St will be shut off from 5pm to 8pm for stalls, music, children’s competitions and shops being open to mark the 150th anniversary of a devastating fire which destroyed much of downtown Timaru on December 7, 1868.

“The latest count we had was there will more than 20 stalls, as well as food vendors,” said Stu Jackson, chairman of the CBD Experience Working Group which is organising the event.

Among activities planned is a New Zealand Fire and Emergency Evacuation Challenge for children aged from 10 upwards.

Primitive…Timaru senior firefighter Alistair Thornley displays the equipment used to fight Timaru’s ‘Great Fire’ of 1868. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

Children will also have the chance to dress up in historic fire service gear – brass helmets and jackets – and have their photos taken in a 1943 Bedford fire truck.

Mr Jackson said information would be pasted on shop windows of what business had operated on the site at the time of the fire, which destroyed nearly 40 wooden buildings.

Starting at 3pm on December 7, 1868, flames from a small stove melting glue in a cabinet-maker’s workshop on the corner of Church St and the Great Southern Rd (now Stafford St) spread rapidly, fanned by a raging nor’westerly wind, and went as far south as where Warehouse Stationery is today.

The West Coast Times reported: “The fire burned furiously before a strong nor-wester till half past six. All the principal buildings of the town are destroyed.”

An attempt was made to save a billiards table in the Club Hotel, then engulfed in flames. The table ended up a pile of ashes. No-one died but more than 120 people were left homeless and with only the clothes they wore.

Timaru senior firefighter Alistair Thornley said the only firefighters the town had at that time was the Timaru Hook and Ladder Company, which had been formed three or so months before the fire.

Timaru had no reticulated water and only a small number of wells dotted around the town.

All the Hook and Ladder Company had for equipment were buckets, ladders and poles with a hook attached, which were used to pull down verandas and parts of buildings, leaving them to burn.

Before the fire…The Stafford/George St corner looking south just before the fire. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

“There was a big meeting after the great fire and the Timaru Fire Brigade was officially formed in April 1870. It got the brigade up and running,” Mr Thornley said.

The firefighting equipment was still rather rudimentary at first – a small hand pump to which a hose could be attached.

One outcome from the fire was that buildings in the central part of town could no longer be built of wood.

Mr Thornley said besides the old fire gear and Bedford fire truck, the commando control unit and Bronto, a ladder truck, would be on display tomorrow evening.

“We’ll also have an on-duty crew there as well.”