Inferno that scarred Ipswich

Retired fire fighter Athol Harding of Brassall recalls the night he fought the huge fire at Reids department store in the Ipswich CBD.
Retired fire fighter Athol Harding of Brassall recalls the night he fought the huge fire at Reids department store in the Ipswich CBD. David Nielsen

IF YOU weren't in Ipswich you'd never believe it, if you were you'll never forget.

When Reids department store caught fire in the very early hours of August 17, 1985, it was described as the night Ipswich lost its heart.

Its loss left a physical and symbolic void in Ipswich and many people still regard it as the beginning of the end for the CBD.

Plans to replace the building that replaced it has reignited memories of the department store that stood on the site for more than 130 years.

Reids was at the centre of Ipswich's life from when it opened in 1849 until it was reduced to smoking rubble in the August 1985 fire.

The Queensland Times' call for people with photos or memories about the Reids fire produced an unexpected gem.

Athol Harding was a station officer at Ipswich fire station, who like many of his colleagues, was called in off-duty to fight the fire.

He was one of the incident controllers and spent most of the time on the roof of an adjoining building, making sure the fire didn't spread.

Mr Harding, who retired from the fire service in 1998, also saw a Channel 7 cameraman filming the Reids fire that hot August night.

"1.33am was the time of the call," Mr Harding said, recalling when he first heard about the fire.

"I was there before the roof went through.

"A Channel Seven cameraman happened to be on their way past and stopped in and stayed the whole morning.

"Afterwards, I rang Channel Seven and they ran off a copy."

Every now and then he pulls out the video, that runs to an hour and 10 minutes, and still marvels at what he sees and hears.

It makes for fascinating viewing.

Early on, fire appears at several spots around the building. In seconds the whole place is ablaze. There is the sound of explosions. Fire spurts high into the early morning sky, mixing with billowing smoke.

A gaggle of people from the Palais Royal nightclub across the road in Bell St appear, looking suitably confused and dishevelled.

The front of the building on Bell St collapses like a wave breaking, only it's lumps of bricks that crash down and tumble across the street.

"It just got such a go on. It took the whole thing out," Mr Harding said.

"When I look back I realise how lucky I am."

"You can see from the start that it was deliberately lit. It didn't just start in one place like you would expect with an electrical fault."

Selwyn Clist said he was a witness for the prosecution in the court case where four young people were found guilty of arson.

They were acquitted on appeal.

"It was a terrible event which seemed like the death knell for Ipswich. When Reids was there the town was always busy; after that it's never been the same again in my opinion," Mr Clist said.

Barbara Harrison said: "I remember the grannies gossiping about it over the fence. It was the talk of Adams cake shop."

Dawn Whelband said her husband Graham had worked in Reids early in his career, so it was a sad time seeing the result of the fire and reminiscing of his time there and realising that so many of the current employees - some he had worked with - were out of a job.

"Losing Reids was like losing our city's heart," Mrs Whelband said.

"I have visited Harrods in London and that is the only other place - apart from the Glenfiddich factory in Scotland - that I recall where the ladies room was very elegant, with a separate sitting area/lounge and an attendant.

"And how often do you see a lift with an attendant to take you to your chosen floor? Certainly not very often these days but an everyday service in Reids."

Many of Queensland Times readers' memories of the Reids are sad but not all are dramatic.

Fiona Walker, who lived in East Ipswich, said she was only young and remembers being upset "because all the Cabbage Patch dolls had died".

Topics:  acquittal arson department store fire

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