Saturday, August 7, 2010

The great Christchurch coloured towel riot of 1944

World War II, together with rationing restrictions and reduced imports, caused some interesting incidents here on the homefront. This is just one of them.

Christchurch, this day.
A milling, surging mass of people besieged a large city store this morning in a frantic attempt to buy coloured towels. As the doors opened women were thrown to the ground, handbags, gloves and baskets were scattered in all directions, counters were mounted by anxious buyers, and some of the staff were driven to the back of the shop and had to mount a merchandise rack to escape from the mob.

The first people arrived at the store before 7 o’clock, and by 8 o’clock there was a queue about 100 yards long and about six deep. By 8.30 the number had doubled and people were still arriving in droves.

With the opening of the doors the crowd yelled and surged forward, blocking the opening. Then, as some freed themselves from the crush and rushed the Manchester department, others were hurled through the door by pushing crowds at the back. Some landed full length on the ground and one girl hurtled into the shop with the front of her clothing ripped open.

As soon as they could assistants again locked the doors, but by this time those already in the store had swarmed over the show cases and counters, and waving coupon books and money, were demanding towels.

Forced Over Counters

The pressure of those at the back was so great that the people in front were forced over the counters and were soon milling around among the assistants and cash registers.

Several fainted and had to be hauled up on to the merchandise racks, which stand about 6 feet 6 inches in height, at the back of the counters.

By 9.30 the position was completely out of hand and the police were summoned. The arrival of two constables was greeted by cheers from the crowd, and soon they also were down behind the counters trying to clear a space in which the assistants could work. By this time emergency tills had been installed at the top of the merchandise rack and towels were being sold from there.

Factories close by report that many of their employees failed to turn up and they believed they were out buying towels.

The manager of the store expressed his disgust that people should be forced to undergo such an ordeal to obtain essential articles.

(Auckland Star, 26 July 1944)

The Commissioner for Supply, Mr F R Picot, was quick to point the finger of blame at the storeowner, though, saying that the store “teaser” advertised the towels and over-did the promotion. Coloured towels were usually imported from Britain, but (of course) the war got in the way of that, so at that point, New Zealand was waiting for supplies from America – and these were slow in coming. (Auckland Star, 29 July 1944)

And that solution caused an uproar too. Anything coming from America, it was feared, would add to the country’s Lend-Lease war debt with the United States. Imported coloured towels, it was feared, might ruin the economy for years to come … (Auckland Star, 2 August 1944)

I stopped looking through the newspapers at that point. Hopefully the towels, and the economy, were all sorted out in the end.


  1. Lordy !
    And they reckon the Myers Boxing Day sales are a nightmare...!

  2. What a tale. Hard to imagine such passion for coloured towels.

  3. All it needed was an anachronistic reference to a certain series of books by Douglas Adams ...