Fire chief recalls the night Reids Department Store was gutted in an inferno

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services produced this documentry remembering the Reids Department Store fire. 

Racing down Limestone Hill towards Reids Department Store in Ipswich’s CBD, Michael O’Connor knew straight away he was in for a long night.

Mr O’Connor was the chief fire officer of the Ipswich Fire Brigade and he and his wife, Catherine had spent the earlier part of the evening at the Ipswich Civic Centre watching a play with the chairman of the Ipswich Fire Brigade and his wife.

Mr O’Connor hadn’t been home long when he received the call at 1.33am on 17 August, 1985.

He was still awake and was able to scramble into his fire uniform in seconds.

Home was nearby in Chermside Road so he was able to reach the blaze in two minutes.

“There was no traffic around and once I turned into Limestone Street I could see it,” Mr O’Connor said.

“The flames already reaching into the sky.

“I immediately radioed the communications officer to send Bundamba and Redbank brigades right away.”

It was a long minute as Mr O’Connor travelled towards the orange flames.

“I can’t tell you what I said,” Mr O’Connor said.

There may have been a few expletives uttered as Mr O’Connor took a moment to process what he was seeing.

Retired Ipswich Fire Brigade Cheif Michael O’Connor. Image courtesy: Queensland Fire and Emergency Services.

Image courtesy: Picture Ipswich/The Queensland Times/Channel 7

When the fire officer’s boots hit the ground he was all over the scene from Bell Street to Brisbane Street assessing the fire and talking with his firefighters.

He knew straight away it was deliberately lit as his experience told him they should have been winning the battle.

“The conditions were favourable for us, the firefighters, there was no wind, we didn’t have to worry about the breeze carrying the fire through other buildings in the city,” he said.

But not only was the whole ground floor in Brisbane Road already alight within a few minutes of the fire starting, in Bell Street the fire had already up crawled up to the third floor.

He suspected some sort of accelerant had been used.

“The more water we put on it, the fire seemed to get bigger and bigger,” he said.

“We just couldn’t put anything out – nothing worked.”

As the raging inferno intensified, the crews were forced back to the footpath as the fire reached its hottest point.

“I had been a firefighter in Brisbane before Ipswich for 20 years and I had seen a few big fires but I had never seen a fire this big and certainly none of the Ipswich firefights had either” he said.

At the height of the fire there were 10 officers on site and 16 firemen.

There were 14 jet hand-held water hoses, and four fixed hoses on top of the fire trucks, flooding tonnes of water over the building and into Brisbane and Bell Streets.

Images courtesy: Ipswich Libraries

Ipswich City Council loaders were bought in to clear Bell Street. Image courtesy: Picture Ipswich/The Queensland Times

The roof collapsed and smothered what remained of the fire.

By 3.17am, less than two hours after it began, the fire burned out.

As the fire chief stood surveying the scene, he could only be grateful that none of his men had received any serious injuries and that none of the surrounding buildings caught alight.

“A lot of people were standing around in Brisbane Street from the nearby nightclub just staring in disbelief that their favourite store – that had grown up with Ipswich – was burnt to the ground,” he said.

“There was just dead silence.

“They couldn’t believe what they were seeing.”

Smouldering bricks and rubble filled the streets with a gaping hole remaining where the once-proud Reids Department Store, and Cribb & Foote before it, first stood in 1849.

The Ipswich Clock Tower clock face had melted in the heat casting a droopy face over the scorched scene.

Picture Ipswich/The Queensland Times

Image courtesy: Picture Ipswich/The Queensland Times

When the sun rose on that day, Bell Street looked like a scene from a war-torn country.

Residents from all over Ipswich made the pilgrimage to see one of Ipswich’s oldest buildings reduced to smouldering ruins.

Reids store assistants, lift workers, administration and storeroom workers, 170 staff in total, all found themselves plunged into uncertainty.

The Ipswich City Council had moved into a new building the same week as the fire, leaving the old town hall vacant.

Within a few days, council announced that Reids had signed a lease for the old town hall.

Renovation was fast-tracked and a reduced-size store reopened only three months later.

The Reids chain closed less than two years after that.

Four young people were arrested, tried and found guilty of Arson, but they were later acquitted after an appeal.

Cribb & Foote 1901. Image courtesy: Picture Ipswich


Benjamin Cribb started his London Store business in Ipswich in 1849. In 1854 Benjamin partnered with J.C. Foote, and Cribb & Foote were formed.

The business grew to become an indelible part of Ipswich’s commercial history for 128 years.  

In 1972 Walter Reid & Co. acquired 91% of Cribb & Foote, the store originally founded in 1849 by Benjamin Cribb.

In 1854 J.C. Foote became partner and Cribb & Foote was formed.

In 1977 the store was partly sold and renamed Reids Department Store. 

Image courtesy: Ipswich Libraries

One Comment

  1. Nobody who lived in Ipswich would ever forget that night and the following day; which brought terrible images and disbelief to all the city.
    My late husband Paul (Stix) Baker was one of the many firemen called in that long fearful night. We lived at One Mile and from our kitchen windows I could see the unreal glow of the fire as it burnt throughout the night. I stayed up worrying until he came home late next morning, soaked to the skin and dead on his feet, exhausted but cheerful they had put it out. He was mainly in the little ally in Nicholas St next to Reid’s to stop it spreading. We had to throw away his uniform and boots as they were ruined, scorched and smelling of ash and smoke, a smell I’ll never forget.

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