Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 56, September 2012
(by Graham Watton)
One of the largest building fires seen in Paeroa's long history occurred early in the morning of Saturday, September 20, 1952, when the two-storeyed former Bank of New Zealand building, on the corner of Normanby Road and Victoria Street was completely destroyed by a fierce blaze.
Perhaps the only other blaze to better this one was on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1979, when the Paeroa Racing Club's wooden grandstand was reduced to a heap of smouldering ashes after being struck by lightning during a violent thunderstorm.
But first, back to the origins of the bank building. The Bank of New Zealand was the first bank to open in Paeroa, when on November 10, 1881, the bank's Grahamstown Branch in Thames, opened its Ohinemuri Agency in response to the growing needs of the district.
The original building was a single storeyed wood structure with an iron roof and verandah on a 12-perch (300 sq.m) section on the corner of Normanby Road and Victoria Street (now the Paeroa Service Station) and leased from John Buchanan. There were two shops on the section and while one was converted to the bank the other was renovated into living quarters for the bank manager, Mr G. A. Burgess, who was a teller in the Grahamstown branch. Business in these early years were mainly dealing with gold purchases.
Over the next 10 years business increased and Mr A. T. Kenrick was appointed teller and the business widened from gold purchases to include other services provided by the bank.
Early in 1891 the bank purchased the section it was on, plus another three sections facing Victoria Street, these belonged to Cassrels and Bennett, and this gave the bank the full Victoria Street frontage from Normanby Road to Willoughby Street.
By the end 1892 a palatial two-storeyed wooden building had been erected with an iron roof at a cost of ₤1433/17/3 ($2869.27). The building included a gold melting room, complete with furnace and bullion balance and gold assaying equipment. Gold was bought over the counter from miners, melted down, poured into bars and then assayed for its purity—gold, silver and other minerals.
There was 23ft by 25ft bank area, manager's office, strong room and in the rear a dining room, kitchen and bathroom. The first floor had five bedrooms, one of which was used by the manager with a separate dressing room. Another bedroom was used by the manager's servant.
In 1896 the Ohinemuri agency was granted branch status with Mr C. Rhodes the first branch manager.
In 1924 the manager Mr A. F. Steadman, in his annual report, recommended that the bank be moved to a more central location as the railway station had been moved further north from its original site at the end of Belmont Road, and the post office, which was on the corner of Willoughby and Victoria Streets, was to be moved into the centre of the town.
The present bank building was reported to have deteriorated due to dry rot and borer despite being extensively renovated in 1914. Gas reticulation was undertaken in 1902 and electricity in 1923. The bank's headquarters rejected the proposal to move.
In was not until 1938 that the decision to move was made by the bank's head office. A section owned by Hare Bros., on the corner of Wharf and Princes Streets, in the middle of the town was purchased. A re-enforced concrete two-storeyed building designed by R. A. Abbott and constructed by P. W. Peate was opened on August 18, 1941. The bank facilities were on the ground floor with the manager's residence on the first floor. This building had a major "make-over" in 1963. During 1970s bank managers were not required to live of the premises and residences were provided in the community.
Some three years ago the Bank of New Zealand sold its building in the centre of Paeroa and moved into a Belmont Road retail shop, which had been renovated to meet the bank's needs.
Now back to the disastrous fire, the cause of which was never solved nor was the time it started. On Saturday, September 20, 1952, a well-known Paeroa citizen Mr W. P. Wylde stated that he had passed the building at 12.30 a.m. and there was no sign of a fire, although he did think that he saw a light at the back of the building.
Mr Selwyn Zeigler, son of Mr and Mrs L. Zeigler, of Victoria Street, who lived near the old bank building, was awakened by his dog barking and when he got up to quieten it he saw that the whole back of the building was blazing fiercely and he immediately gave the alarm.
Almost at the same time Miss G. Coulter, who lived not far from the old bank building, noticed the fire and ran down the street to the nearest telephone at Mr E. J. Tibbots' home. Mr Tibbots immediately communicated with the telephone exchange whose officials sounded the alarm.
The Paeroa Volunteer Fire Brigade was quickly on the scene but the fire had a strong hold by this time and practically the whole back of the building was burning fiercely. Four leads were run out and the booster pump put in use. A good water supply was available, but it took until 4 a.m. before the firemen gained control of the blaze and it was not until later in the morning that the fire was eventually quelled.
Firemen were at the scene well into Saturday as the smouldering ruins continued to re-ignited. On Sunday morning the brigade was back on site when some of the old records started to burn again.
Fortunately while the fire was at worst there was very little wind and what little there was carried the flames away from the next door premises of Paeroa Motors Limited, the top floor of which is occupied by Mr and Mrs W. G. Coldwell.
At the height of the fire the whole area was lit as bright as day and there was a large crowd of the public watching the work of the firemen. At times showers of blazing embers drifted along Normandy Road, many of them landing on the roof of Dean and Company's furniture factory, directly opposite, on the corner of Victoria Street and Normanby Road, but a watch was kept on this in case of an outbreak of fire in this building. This building dated back to the origins of the town.
The firemen were hampered in their endeavour to bring the fire under control owing to the construction of the building, partitions, a large cupboard and big brick chimneys preventing the men from directing water into the centre of the building where the fire had become strongly established. The building was one of the oldest ones in Paeroa and had to be demolished as only the front and two side walls are left standing and these were so badly damaged that they swayed in the wind.
At the height of the inferno the heat from the burning building was so great that some of the spectators feared there would be difficulty in saving the premises of Paeroa Motors Limited. Many willing hands commenced to remove stock from the service station and household goods from the living quarters above.
At the time of the fire the building was occupied by three Government departments, the Labour and Employment Department, the Department of Maori Affairs and the Rehabilitation Department and many of their records, valuable to these State departments, were lost.
On Sunday morning members of the State departments involved were early on the scene in an endeavour to salvage as many records as possible and they were surprised at what was left in view of the intensity of the blaze. Quite a lot of records from the front office, although saturated with water, were not burnt and the office furniture, after renovation, was used again. The records and equipment were removed to the Paeroa Drill Hall until other accommodation was found for the departments involved.
The future of the Government departments immediately after the blaze was not clear, but by the Monday morning staff were endeavouring to find temporary accommodation. As most of the staff had their homes in Paeroa they feared the possibility of a transfer to other centres.
The first premises of the Bank of New Zealand in Paeroa, were soon to be no more. For nearly 60 years the bank conducted its business opposite the Criterion Bridge, subsequently moving to its new premises near the Post Office. The old premises were then purchased by Mr J. Pickford, who, during the Second World War, leased them to the Army, which utilised them as barracks for WAACs. Earlier in 1952 the property was purchased from Mr Pickford by Messrs W. G. Coldwell and C. Knox, who leased the offices to the Government departments.
The building was insured but the owners' loss was very considerable as the insurance did by no means cover the cost of rebuilding.
Following the granting of branch status to the Paeroa agency in 1896, its was responsible for several agencies being established in the surrounding districts, These were:
Te Aroha: Opened as an agency under Thames in 1882, closed in 1890; re-opened as an agency of Paeroa in May, 1891 and closed in 1896. Re-opened as an agency under Paeroa in 1901, branch status in 1905.
Waihi: A Paeroa agency in 1901, branch 1902.
Karangahake: Opened as agency of Paeroa in 1907, closed in June, 1913.
Hikutaia: Agency of Paeroa (opposite Corbett's Hotel) opened September, 1913, and by 1921 had 125 customers. Closed in December, 1941, owing to rationing of petrol in Second World War. Re-opened in 1946 on alternate Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., to service the stock sales. Finally closed in January, 1959.
Kerepehi: Opened as agency in October, 1923; closed, 1941, owing to the rationing of petrol in Second World War. Re-opened in January, 1956, when the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company built its new factory. The agency was in the public hall until the bank purchased an agency bank building at Waitakaruru and moved it to Kerepehi. The agency closed in January 1975.
Netherton: Agency was opened on October 18, 1923, but the closing date is unknown.