The Great 1868 Timaru CBD Fire

Timaru has very special architecture, but it came from immense destruction. A fire erased two thirds of the early business part of town, paving the way for the heritage buildings we see today.

1868 In the same year Timaru became a Borough, one of the most disastrous fires ever known in the colony took place on 7 December.

17 Years after the first European house was built on George St, the town had grown to around 1250 dwellings. The business part of town was one street just under 1km. The buildings were wooden with shingle roofs.

The fire originated in a small cabinet makers workshop behind a furniture warehouse on the corner of Great Southern Rd, (Stafford St) and Church St. (Arrowed).

1 Boy left one pot of glue melting on a small stove for a few moments. At 3:30pm some shavings caught fire, and within minutes the building was in flames. Imagine what must have gone through the boys mind when he discovered the fire.

Tap handle could have given access to a water tank, but it was missing. There were no networks of water pipes then, only a few wells scattered around the town. The fire was starting to spread to near by properties.

32 Members in the Hook and Ladder Company only had buckets, ladders and poles with a hook attached. With no sufficient water supply, all they could do was attempt to pull down buildings and structures with the hope of preventing the fire from spreading.

Hours is all it took. A hot nor-west wind fanned the flames and by 6:30pm all that remained were rows of chimneys and ashes.

39 Wooden buildings were destroyed. A reporter estimated property worth "at least £70,000", about $8 million today, was lost. No-one died but more than 120 people were left homeless with the clothes on their backs. Not everyone was insured.

1 Enquiry into the cause of the fire was taken by B. Woolcombe Esq with a jury, the verdict “Accidental fire, with carelessness.”

16 Months after the fire, a public meeting saw a unanimous vote to establish a volunteer fire brigade. A fire engine was loaned by a Christchurch insurance company.

1869 A council bylaw ruled that new buildings in the CBD had to be constructed of masonry. The 1870 Landing Services Building is a great example of this.


The architecture reflects times of growth and prosperity in the district’s history. It’s amazing to think...
What was a dirt track for bullock wagons, lined with a wooden buildings, could emerge from the ashes to become sealed Stafford Street for cars, lined with significant heritage buildings.
- A “WuHoo” to discover and admire.


Join the history hunt

Learn more at The South Canterbury Museum
Read about the disaster on - PRESS 10 Dec 1868 P3.
Read about it in the Jubilee History of South Canterbury 1916, and the book When The Smoke Clears, 1995.

- These are also the source for Wuhoo Timaru Fact Sheet © WuHooTimaru 2021

The 1868 Timaru Fire Colourful Facts

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Ever wondered why Timaru has a stunning collection of heritage buildings on Stafford Street? Over 150 years ago a devistating fire destroyed the commercial heart of early Timaru. Years the later the CBD rose from the ashes to buildings constructed of masonary. How many significant buildings can you find in our Colourful Facts sheet

Download: Colourful Facts 1868 Timaru Fire.pdf


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Location where the fire broke out

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The cabinet maker's workshop highlighed with the arrow is where the 1868 fire originated, now hosts Hallensteins on the corner of Church St and Great Southern Rd, now Stafford St.

Stafford Street Timaru

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Photo by Muir & Moodie studio. Dry plate negatives Te Papa (C.014407)

This is a Street Scene of the commercial area in Timaru and the Old Bank. Across the road a scene of utter devistation unfolded in 7 December 1868 destroying two thirds of the early business part of town. This paved the way for many of the heritage buildings we see today. Some of these buildings were demolished to make way for larger modern buildings. 

The original tavern where the Old Bank stands today, was built on the corner of Church and Stafford Street in 1864 by the father of Cecil Walkden​ Wood who invented the motor tricycle. Through the years it has been known as a tavern, hotel, pub, restaurant and backpackers and was now called The Old Bank Cafe and Bar. The tavern was built on the Bank of New Zealand agency site which is where it gets it's name.


Some of the the heritage buildings we can see on and near Stafford Street today.


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