The night the city hall burned down

2009-06-18 00:00

IN mid-July 1898, Fillies’s Circus was visiting Pietermaritzburg. An advertisement in The Natal Witness announced its “Special and Last Week” in the marquee set up on Market Square. But on the night of Tuesday, July 12, 1898, the circus was a decidedly minor attraction. Barely 100 yards from the circus tent the town hall was burning down.

According to the story in the following day’s Witness, “a conflagration such as never before seen in Maritzburg … took place last night, when the Town Hall, one of the finest buildings of its kind, and justly the pride of the City was burnt down.”

The foundation stone for the city hall was laid in 1860, over-optimistically as it turned out, because financial difficulties put an end to building operations. By 1888, the councillors had learnt to balance the books and a competition for a design was launched. The winner was announced in May, 1889. Street Wilson and Barr’s winning design, a modest renaissance hall and offices, was completed in 1893. Five years later it was ashes. The day after the fire, the main news page of the Witness — in those days page three — carried an extensive story headlined: “Great fire in the City / Town hall burnt down/A municipal disaster/Damage £60 000 / Description of the fire / A magnificent spectacle.”

The alarm was raised shortly after 7 pm when a Mr B. A. Dix, a borough auditor, was returning to work to continue his auditing of the books. A little after 7 pm when he “was about to enter the small side door facing the Market Square … he caught sight of flames through the basement windows.” He immediately rushed off to the police station to raise the alarm.

Around the same time, three councillors saw a “lurid glare” and dispatched a passing youth to the police station. “At the time all was quiet around the building and scarcely anyone was in sight.”

The police and the fire brigade were quickly on the scene but there was a delay getting water. “There were laughs of derision … when a trickle from a solitary hose pipe, suited for a suburban flower bed, was thrown on to the great roaring blazing mass.” When the hose reels, and there were only two or three, finally got going, their use was marked more by “zeal than utility or success”.

With such a blaze success was a forlorn hope; the fire services were simply inadequate. By 7.45 pm the north and east sides of the building, from basement to roof, “were completely under the sway of the fire, and five minutes later a portion of the roof fell in”.

The fire then crept through to the Commerical Road side of the building and “the flames, fanned by a steady breeze, burst out in uncontrolled fury, shooting through the roof, and, shattering the window panes”.

With the fire raging out of control, there was nothing to do but stand back and enjoy the spectacle. By now there was an eager crowd — “the red coats and the gold braids of the military giving variety and colour to the animated scene”. As for the circus, the “fire had a lamentable effect on the attendance … but a performance was given, although the fire was raging not more than 100 yards from Mr Fillis’s marquee”.

The anonymous Witness reporter clearly relished the free entertainment: “As the fire reached the interior of the main hall, it first caught the wooden framework of the grand organ, and the spectacular effect as the stately organ pipes reached to the dome were bathed in vari-coloured tongues of flame was particularly striking.

“Very quickly the roof of the great hall was enveloped in fire, and fell in with a crash, while the woodwork of the balconies kept falling to the ground in blazing masses. The folding doors of the entrance fell from their hinges, and for a moment there was a glimpse of the spacious interior of the hall, converted into a fiery furnace, from which came a scorching blast which could be felt on the further side of the broad street.”

The burning of the tower at 8.30 pm provided “the grandest spectacle” of the evening, enthused the Witness. At 8 pm its chimes “seemed to toll the death knell of the doomed tower”; it chimed again, weekly, at 8.15 pm and stopped altogether five minutes later. The glass of the dials cracked in the heat and smoky tendrils issued from the fissures.

“Owing possibly to the draught through the lofty narrow tower, the flames roared as they pressed upwards, means cracked and fell thundering to the bottom, the smoke above and around the tower was curring in what appeared to be blood-red masses — the reflection from the fiery furnace below — while great tongues of fire curled aloft, shooting through the smoke clouds, and lighting up the neighbourhood with a dazzling, almost blinding radiance. Then was heard the cracking of the bells and dull booms as they fell.”

There were no fatalities as a result of the fire although a “native policeman” playing a hose on the blaze was knocked unconscious by falling debris. He recovered on the way to hospital. Someone else cut his hand on broken glass, and a soldier and two civilians received slight injuries.

Almost immediately, Street Wilson was summoned to design a bigger and better version. Nearly 300 angry citizens unsuccessfully petitioned the council, objecting to this preferential treatment, the expense of rebuilding and the style of the original. They wanted something in the classical mode, such as Durban’s City Hall — itself a duplicate of that in Belfast, Northern Ireland. However, similar but larger, the city’s new hall was ready for use by 1901 and the lavish opening ceremony was presided over by the Duke and Duchess of York, soon to be Prince and Princess of Wales and later King George V and Queen Mary.

The city hall fire caught the public’s imagination and even provoked the composition of a waltz called Town Hall Memories by Arthur Anerly — it begins with a clock chiming eight o’clock. But public curiosity as to the cause of the fire was never satisfied. A commission, set up to investigate the matter, failed to come to any concrete conclusion.


• This article was first published in The Natal Witness on January 7, 1998.

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