Onlookers amongst the remains of Benge & Pratt’s store, the morning after the explosion. The damaged Provincial Hotel is in the background.
Joesph ‘Zak’ Zachariah, 1914, Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives
One of the worst disasters in Upper Hutt’s history occurred on the night of 28 March 1914 when a fire broke out in Benge and Pratt’s, a general store on Main Street. Townsfolk quickly gathered and, under the direction of local constable ‘Dinny’ Mahoney, attempted to douse flames and retrieve stock from the burning building. They were soon joined by railway staff and passengers who rushed to assist after the last train for the evening arrived at the nearby station.
However, a few minutes after midnight, just as Constable Mahoney was giving orders to evacuate the building, it suddenly blew up in an violent explosion visible for miles around. Eight locals were killed, including Mahoney and Upper Hutt’s Postmaster, James Comeskey. The tragedy was major news throughout the country. Large numbers from across the Wellington region attended the funerals for those who died.
An inquest eventually found that the explosion had been caused by illegally stored dynamite. A few months later, the disaster finally led to the creation of a long proposed Upper Hutt Volunteer Fire Brigade.