On the evening of 8 and early morning of 9 February 1994 six heritage buildings in Ridgway Street burnt to the ground in a spectacular blaze described by a senior firefighter as the worst fire in Whanganui in the 20th century. The fire was well established by the time the fire brigade arrived and took more than 65 firefighters two hours to bring under control. Senior Firefighter Peter Langford’s first impression was of … a mass of flame … obviously this was a big job, we needed backup and as soon as possible. Four appliances from Whanganui, one from Palmerston North and volunteer units from Feilding, Waitōtara, Marton, Bulls and Rātana were called to the blaze.
The heat was extreme, absolutely extreme … (Senior Firefighter Duncan Troughton) and … flames were in fact roaring out at ground level and curling back… into the windows of the next level up … What really surprised us … was that the tar on the road itself was actually alight. That’s something we don’t often see. (Peter Langford)
Firefighters also battled to save buildings on the opposite side of the street as the intensity of the blaze blistered paint and shattered glass. Several shops, a law office, an architectural office and two flats were completely destroyed.
It is like starting again – we have lost everything – we did have a fire-proof cabinet but the intensity of the fire destroyed everything in it. Mark Southcombe Architect (Wanganui Chronicle 10 February 1994)
Solicitor Terry Refoy Butler, who on Tuesday night watched his office… burned to the ground, had an anxious 10 hours until firemen yesterday recovered his deed box and other important legal documents from the old fire safe. (Wanganui Chronicle 10 February 1994)
Numerous fires have occurred in Ridgway Street over the past 140 years. One of the greatest fires in the history of Whanganui started at 11am on Christmas Day 1868 when a recently erected American bowling saloon in Ridgway Street caught alight. Desperate efforts were made to confine the blaze but, fanned by a strong wind from the north west, the fire soon spread to the Howe’s Assembly Room building next door and then to the Rutland Hotel.
With no public water supply, a double bucket line was set up to pass water between the river and the fire but to no avail. The wind changed and flames from the Rutland Hotel blew towards buildings opposite and soon the military hospital was alight. Patients were quickly evacuated. Three further buildings burnt down while “good people carried trays of watches and jewellery from Robinson’s, cloth from Harding’s, bottles from Gower’s, and sundries from all three to the Oddfellows’ Hall, but many things had to be left”. G F Allen). A barber’s shop in Victoria Avenue was pulled down to stop the fire spreading further. It finally burnt out at about 3.00 pm.
Within 12 months a new and larger Rutland Hotel rose from the ashes of the old one. But in 1880 there was a minor kitchen fire in May and a major conflagration in September where the fire started upstairs in a bedroom and destroyed the interior of the hotel.
… the strained attention of the large crowd of spectators was focused on the adventuresome firemen as they challenged the flames, which seemed to engulf the whole building. Wanganui Herald 5 September 1880
In 1904 the hotel was again rebuilt on a much grander scale. Architect A Atkins produced a design for a three storey brick building with a dome on the corner, and six shops and 17 offices on the ground floor. On 30 December 1946 the fire alarm sounded yet again for the Rutland Hotel on Ridgway Street. The fire was on the first floor so guests were evacuated from the verandah roof. Within thirty minutes the top floor was burning furiously and the roof had collapsed.
The hotel was again evacuated when, in 1983, fire hit once more. The Fire Brigade was able to contain the fire to one room. In 1986 the hotel was closed, the fittings sold, and the building fell into disrepair and neglect. A major refurbishment was completed in 1993. Fortunately, the only damage that occurred during the 1994 fire in Ridgway Street was blistering of the new paint.
The 1868 fire was commemorated in a poem by Laura Taylor, the daughter of Reverend Richard Taylor and his wife Mary Caroline Taylor.
Wanganui, Christmas 1868
All hail, all hail, this bright December morn
It is the day our Saviour Christ was born
And early in this town the church bells chimed
I liked to hear them, tho’ they brought to mind
Many sad thoughts! Of Christmas days long past
And more than all, of how we spent the last…
But thoughts have carried me far, far, away
The subject I resume and try to tell
Of all I saw today; and what befell
Poor Wanganui – The people in their best,
Did soon assemble – many gaily dressed
To join in worship to our Sovereign Lord
And also to listen to his Holy Word.
The prayers were scarcely o’er e’er dread alarm
The fire bell rang; the people quickly swarm
To lend their aid, and soon a goodly band
Was there: ready to work with heart and hand
It was indeed too true, the town on fire!
See the black smoke, the flames are rising higher
Yes, higher still they rise & soon will catch
A second house tho’ all are on the watch
Alas! The want of engines now is felt,
All they can do is form a double belt;
The water quickly hand from each to each
Until the dreadful flames at last they reach
All did not much avail, the fire still spread
The smoke and blaze – are curling overhead
The large hotel the Rutland soon burnt down
It was the very best we had in town
Unfortunate; the wind was very high
And far and wide the burning sparks did fly
The flames soon crossed the street, & then the sight
Was grand indeed! though fearful to recite
From out the windows – bright red tongues of fire
With scorching heat, soon made the crowd retire
And then you saw one high and burning mass,
A minute more it fell with a loud crash.
In this way up the street it quickly passed
And anxiously we hoped each would be the last
At last providentially the wind did drop
And slightly changed, or else we feared the block
In which the bank now stands, could not be saved
And those nice shops where all the street is paved
They pulled some houses down to make a gap
And tried to put an end to this mishap
So after all the dreadful enemy
Was conquered, but – his ravages you see
The blackened ruins all lie smouldering there
Which but this morning looked so fresh and fair
It was indeed a grievous sight to see
Poor women with their goods; who tried to flee
From the fierce fire; and then in safety place
The little treasures, which their homes did grace
The streets were filled with furniture and goods
And busy carts were carrying great loads
Yet some bad boys, who could no pity feel
Were looking round to see what they could steal
Their hearts; if hearts they ever had
I’m sure indeed they must be very bad
To rob, and steal when folks are in distress
And thus to make their little savings less
And now I’ve told you all about the fire
From public view I think I must retire
And hope that when I wish to write again
A more propitious subject I may pen
Three fires in sixty eight which now is gone
In sixty nine may we ne’er hear of one
The summer comes apace, with it our friends
Then let us hope that these sad times will mend.