Ashes of the past – The Great Fire of Lyttelton 24 October 1870: The Christchurch Heritage Festival

First up for The Christchurch Heritage Festival is an exhibition at Lyttelton Library entitled Sifting the Ashes: The Great Fire of Lyttelton.

The fire that is the subject of this exhibition began late in the evening of 24 October 1870, when a small blaze was kindled in the storeroom of the Queen's Hotel on the corner of Oxford and London Streets. The cause of the blaze remains unknown but the fire spread quickly, despite the desperate efforts of many. Less than five hours later the greater part of the township's commercial area lay in ruins.

Sanderson, J, active 1870. Sanderson, J :Great fire at Port Lyttelton. 1870. Ref: B-079-006. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23197759
Sanderson, J, active 1870. Sanderson, J :Great fire at Port Lyttelton. 1870. Ref: B-079-006. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23197759/

One hundred and fifty years later, the team at Lyttelton Library decided to see what we could find out about the fire, using the amazing range of primary historical sources held by Christchurch City Libraries. Our research took us on a journey though records of tragic loss, heroism, rumour and hearsay, as well as the strong community spirit of the fledgling town.

In the exhibition we cover the origins and progress of the fire, the attempts to control it (including contemporary fire-fighting methods) and the aftermath, as the damage and losses were assessed and the town rebuilt. In doing so we’ve attempted to showcase the primary sources we accessed to research this exhibition and we're grateful to our library colleagues who chipped in and helped with the search.

Thanks are also due to Lyttelton Museum for the great range of images they’ve generously shared with us.

View images of the Great Fire in the Lyttelton Museum collection.

Come and take a look! The exhibition runs until Saturday 14 November. Lyttelton Library is open Monday to Friday 10am to 6pm and Saturday 10am to 1pm.


See more Christchurch Heritage Festival events at libraries.

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