You are currently viewing Fatal fire at boarding house in Paeroa
The ruins of the Royal Mail Boarding House. Photo: SUPPLIED

Fatal fire at boarding house in Paeroa

As part of a Valley Profile series, MEGHAN HAWKES explores our local history by seeking out stories of life and death in the Thames Valley

A noise in the middle of a February night in 1912 woke John Crosby.
He looked out the window of the Paeroa boarding house owned by his father but seeing nothing, got back into bed.
Almost immediately he heard someone shout “Fire!”
Opening the door he found the passage full of smoke. He ran out, coming across Tony Lupes who told him it seemed the fire was in George ‘Scotty’ Preston’s room.
Together they tried to enter Scotty’s room, but flames came forth in great sheets and the room was black with smoke.
Tony ran from room to room rousing the occupants while John rang the fire bell. John went back and up the stairs, but was unable to get to the top. He helped Mrs Flett down just as one of the ceilings began to fall. In less than five minutes the whole place was a blazing inferno.
Crosby’s boarding house was formerly the Royal Mail hotel closed by prohibition three years earlier. Now used as accommodation, it had just over 40 rooms in which about thirty people, including some children, slept. Many had come that night from the Premier Picnic in Auckland.

Now lodgers were rushing about in their night clothes. There was a scramble for the stairway and most escaped this way out on to the road.
One young woman, cut off from the stairs by the flames, used a rope to pluckily make her way down the outside of the building. Other boarders also found themselves in a perilous plight but soon everyone was assembled on the road outside the building, except 33-year-old Scotty Preston. It was hopeless to try and get back into the building again.
Within minutes, the Paeroa Fire Brigade was on the scene but the water pressure was poor. The heat was intense, and although the firemen worked gallantly they had no chance against the devouring flames.
Medhurst’s stables, alongside the end of the burning hotel, soon caught fire; fortunately all the buggies, coaches and horses were removed.
On the opposite side of the road, buildings were scorched and started to smoke in the heat which was so great that one of the firemen at a fire plug in Wharf St had to have a constant stream of water playing on him to prevent his clothes from catching fire. Within an hour and a half the boarding house was entirely consumed.
Around 5am the body of Scotty Preston was found. The noise that woke John Crosby he now believed to be Scotty trying to put the fire out.
Scotty had not been in Paeroa long. The Scotchman was formerly on the sea and held a marine engineer’s certificate. He had been second engineer at the Waihi Paeroa Gold Extraction Company for about six months. He had been lodging at Crosby’s boarding house for some four or five months.
An inquest found that George Preston was accidentally killed in a fire which destroyed the Royal Mail Hotel and that the fire originated in or near his room.
George, a single man, had no known relatives in the country. He was buried at Pukerimu cemetery, Paeroa.