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The Collapse of J.C. Turnbull’s Department Store, Peterborough, August 28, 1913

April 21, 2024

Turnbull Building Disaster, August 28, 1913 (Trent Valley Archives, F50 Electric City Collection)

Originally Published in the Lindsay Post, September 5, 1913, with images from the Trent Valley Archives F50 Electric City Collection

A terrible catastrophe occurred at Peterborough this morning, when a portion of the J.C. Turnbull & Co.’s large departmental store, corner of George and Simcoe streets, collapsed between ten and eleven o’clock, burying many people in the ruins. The store is one of the largest of its kind in the district, and only recently the firm added to their premises the store at the corner of George and Simcoe Streets, occupied by the Thomas Barrie Co.

The manager of the J.C. Turnbull Co. is Mr. Fred Might, brother of “Tiny” Might, a former well known local G.T.R. engineer. The section where the catastrophe occurred was undergoing certain alterations and improvements, and had, it was thought been sufficiently propped in order to make it safe to continue the business until the work was completed. A special Thursday morning sale had been announced for today, and as a result quite a number of customers were in the building when the crash came. The scene that followed beggars description. Chaos and confusion reigned on every side. George Street was alive with excited people, while the groans of those buried in the debris could be plainly heard. A fire alarm was sent in and Chief Howard and the members of the fire brigade quickly responded. Chief of Police Thompson and a number of policemen were soon on the scene and prompt measures were taken to rescue the uncomfortable people in the ruins. The city ambulances were summoned to the spot as well as the corps of doctors, and as the dead and injured were removed from the ruins they were taken to the morgue or city hospitals. Up to the hour of three o’clock some ten or twelve people had been taken from the ruins, five of whom were dead. Considerable excitement prevailed on all sides when frenzied parents anxiously enquired if their loved ones were among the victims. This is the second catastrophe that has occurred in a Peterboro department store during the past ten years, the first one being the collapse of an elevator in the store of Richard Hall & Co., seriously injuring a number of people, some of them being crippled for life.

The Dead:

The following bodies were taken from the ruins:

Alfred Cuff, a bricklayer

Miss Lily A. Voddson, saleslady

Mrs. Elizabeth Brown, housekeeper for Peterboro gentleman

Unidentified lady from Tweed, who was a customer

Miss Dolly Sisson, who was a saleslady in the store, and a relative of Mr. M.H. Sisson of Lindsay, is missing and said to be in the ruins.

Mrs. Alfred Finlay, of Norwood, is in the hospital with a broken back, and will die.

Three others are seriously injured and a number escaped with minor injuries.

The Simcoe Street wall fell out on that thoroughfare. The George Street wall remained standing. The stock is thoroughly destroyed, everything was smashed to matchwood in the ruins.

The Examiner published a special edition at noon, giving a full account of the catastrophe. It will be noticed that the above authentic facts contradict in several details, the sensational despatch published below, which was received by The Post, this afternoon.

Peterborough, August 28: The northwest wall of Turnbull’s millinery and dry goods store at the corner of George and Simcoe Sts. collapsed at 10 o’clock this morning, carrying down into the basement a large section of the building, with its human cargo of clerks and morning shoppers, and also a gang of workmen, who were reconstructing the wall. Five deaths have been reported so far and two clerks are still unaccounted for out of the full compliment of 50 employed, while 20 workmen are still buried in the ruins. About 20 injured persons are in the hospital. Extensive repairs being made to the adjoining store weakened the partition wall of the Turnbull store, and the crash came with little warning.

Removing Ruins at Peterboro

Peterborough, August 29: The work of clearing away the debris of the ruined store of J.C. Turnbull & Company, was well advanced this evening. As the work advances the wonder increases that many more lives than the ill-fated five were not sacrificed in yesterday’s catastrophe, and had the police and fire departments and the volunteer band of willing citizens not responded so gallantly, undoubtedly the majority of those who were rescued would soon have perished either from suffocation or from the serious extent of their injuries.

The four in Nicholl’s hospital today are reported to be progressing favourably. Mrs. J.A. Findlay, of Norwood, is still in critical condition, and Mr. Harry Manley, whose both legs are broken, is very serious. The other two, Mrs. Middleton and Miss Agnes Tucker, are doing well.

Cuff, who was among the killed is found to be not Alfred Cuff, a bricklayer, but J.J. Cuff, a carpenter, who was working on the same building. Cuff had just returned from the west a short time ago, and his wife, following him, arrived in Peterboro only a few days ago. The burial will be on Sunday afternoon.

The remains of Miss Dorothy Sisson were taken to her home at Cavanville this afternoon, and the funeral will take place Sunday. Miss Lily Boddison’s funeral will be on Sunday morning. The body of Mrs. John Kelly was taken to Norwood, today. Mrs. Brown will be buried at Webbwood on Monday. There will be no public funerals, but the sympathy of the whole of Peterboro goes out to the bereaved ones.

Placing the Responsibility

Pending the result of the inquest, which will be proceeded with next Thursday, and in which an endeavour will be made to place the responsibility, Crown Attorney R.E. Wood will take no action in the way of laying a charge of negligence. It seems that the plans for the alternations in the old store were drawn up by Mr. John Belcher, a local architect. Mr. W.J. Johnston, the contractor was doing the work by the day. Mr. Johnston stated today that in view of the building being old, unusual precautions had been taken to make it safe.

Mr. F.J. Might, manager of the Turnbull business, today was making his plans for the future. He will endeavor to secure temporary premises, and probably an altogether new and modern building will be erected on the corner, which is one of the best from a business point of view in the city. Mr. Might has been very much upset by the happenings of yesterday, and even today he would not attempt to estimate the amount of damage he has suffered.

It appears that there had been a nominal building inspector in Peterboro, in the person of Mr. T.A.S. Hay, who is also acting as assistant city engineer. But there has been no regular system of inspection, and the inspection that has existed has been with a view to fire protection, rather than to protection against such a collapse as that of yesterday. That action will be taken at an early date to have a proper system of building inspection is taken as an accepted fact.

Foundation Wall Badly Built: Result of Inquest at Peterborough Tuesday

From The Lindsay Post, September 19, 1913

Peterboro, September 16: The adjourned inquest into the case of the death of Hannah Sisson, one of the five victims of the collapse of the Turnbull building on the morning of August 28th, was resumed here tonight. The additional evidence given centred around that presented at the first sitting, to the effect that the cause of the collapse was the defective foundation, which received the concentrated character of the basement wall thrust of the pillars used to replace the party wall which was removed to throw two shops into one.

Jury Does not Fix Blame

The Jury retired at 19 o’clock, and after an absence of an hour and a half, returned a verdict that Hannah Sisson came to her death through the collapse of the Turnbull building, and that the evidence was not sufficient to determine the person or persons responsible for the collapse of the building. The jury recommended that the city council provide a building inspector whose duties would include the inspection of buildings undergoing alternations.

Very Badly Built

The principal witness was G.W. Gouinlock, Provincial Government Architect, sent down by the Attorney General’s department to inspect the situation. He examined the foundation wall and found that it had been very badly built.

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