Welfare plan gets baptism of fire

2 February 1939

Department of social security head office, 1939

Just before three on a damp Thursday morning, Thorndon residents – including a Supreme Court judge in his pyjamas – rushed from homes threatened by a huge fire.

The first firemen on the scene ran for their lives as a solid wall of flame swept along Aitken St. Sixty men and 11 appliances from all over the city fought to limit the spread of the inferno, from which embers fell on Wadestown hill. The damage exceeded £100,000 (equivalent to around $10 million in 2016).

Daylight revealed the extent of the devastation to crowds of sightseers: 43 properties had been destroyed or badly damaged. The ruins of the nearly completed three-storey wooden Social Security building in which the fire had started were a sorry sight. The heat now went on a Labour government recently re-elected with a huge majority thanks to its promise of social security from the cradle to the grave. With no offices to work from, how could the complex new benefit system due to come into operation on 1 April be implemented?

Cabinet decided to erect a temporary replacement building on railway land beside Aotea Quay. By that afternoon bulldozers were clearing the site. On Monday 6 February the Minister of Public Works, Bob Semple, announced details of the new building, on which work had already begun. The plans were adapted from those for the razed structure, with the addition of fire walls and a reinforced concrete basement that would double as a strongroom and boiler-room. Many elements would be prefabricated off-site.

More than 400 tradesmen were coordinated by Fletcher Construction, which had a large workforce already in Wellington working on the Centennial Exhibition and state housing. Unions agreed to suspend normal award conditions and two 10-hour shifts were worked six days a week – disturbing Thorndonites still in their homes. With no time to import specialised items, the lavatory fittings were made locally.

Despite praise that no corners were cut in terms of quality, not everything went smoothly. The press reported seven injuries to workers during construction – most on the night shift – and an electrician was trapped for several hours when a partition was put up across his only way out. A rumour that several men had been killed was fortunately unfounded.

The 4500 sq m building was completed in seven weeks and opened by prime minister M.J. Savage on 27 March. Hundreds of public servants had already moved into their new offices and the introduction of the new scheme went smoothly. The Social Security Department was based in this building until 1973, when – merged with Child Welfare as the Department of Social Welfare – it moved into the new Charles Fergusson Building in Bowen St.

Image: Opening of Social Security building (Te Ara)

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