This story was inspired by a stay at the Orua Bay Motel in 2015. Reading the in-room almanac I found a list of former proprietors of the harbour-side accommodation since it was first opened by the Ritchies in the late 1890s. Researching finer details of these pioneers led to an appreciation of the history of the Bay, and surrounds… its connection with Kauri milling, earliest missionaries, the “Orpheus” tragedy and the unfulfilled Cornwallis dream.


Ritchie family members were among the first to settle at Orua Bay on the northern shore of Awhitu Peninsula on the waterfront of the Manukau Harbour.  They suffered privation, accident, threat of the Maori Wars and, in the case of Robert Junior, financial difficulties. Access was at first by boat (weather and tides permitting), on horseback or by foot. Robert and Mary Ritchie recognised the attractions of the sheltered, first-class beach and its potential. From 1891 they provided visitor accommodation at Orua Bay offering cottages fronting the sands.

These days it’s an easy drive by road through rolling, sometimes steep, farmland from Waiuku to Orua Bay where the road first reveals views of the Manukau Harbour and the distant Waitakere Ranges beyond. Then the road lets down to the flat of the Bay and the settlement there, including the modern, comfortable facilities of the Orua Bay Motel and Camping Ground right on the beach-front. The Ritchie legacy remains.

Ritchies Arrive

Mr Robert and Mrs Mary Ritchie (nee Graham) arrived in Auckland from Paisley, Scotland, aboard one of the earliest steamships, Lord Ashley, in October 1858. The New Zealander newspaper, 23rd June 1858, noted “Steam Service a Fact” after it was announced in London that Lord Ashley was bringing passengers to Auckland, innovating steam propulsion in the colony. It would be the New Zealand Royal Mail Steam Company’s first venture to New Zealand with Captain Alexander Stewart at the helm, notable for his exploits and voyages of discovery in the Arctic.

The Ritchies and 4 daughters, Christina, Mary, Catherine (Kate) and Marion were seeking a better life and departed London on 26th May 1858 under steam. (Newspaper reports about the Ritchie family erroneously put the year as 1857). The ship, later enjoying favourable winds, was under sail for much of the voyage via South Africa and around the southern coast of Australia. As New Zealand was approached the wind died, steam took over, but then with better winds the Waitemata Harbour was safely reached under sail 13th October. The voyage was summed up at the time as “140 days – a very fair run… with passengers arriving in good spirits: there was not one death aboard during the trip out…”


The Ritchies first went to Graham’s Beach, although it was probably called Te Kauri at that time – reports have it that it was not called Graham’s Beach until after the death of pioneer William Graham.  William Graham and his wife, Marion, also originally from Paisley in Scotland, had settled there on what they called Kauri Point in 1853. Also on site at the same time was another family, among those first Europeans on the peninsula, Mr and Mrs Edward Logan and their two children, who had travelled with the Grahams to New Zealand.

Marion Graham was Mary Ritchie’s sister so there was a siblings’ reunion half a world from their native Paisley. The Ritchies, however, soon after moved the short distance to Orua Bay where they occupied 65 acres (26ha), granted title in 1861. The land was then thick virgin Kauri bush stretching to swampy land along the waterline of the Manukau Harbour.

In 1863 Robert Ritchie attended a meeting with other local residents (among them Messres Garland, Panormo, Coulthard and Dall together with Reverend Thomas Norrie) and proposed “…a school house and a place of worship in connection with the Presbyterian Church (of Scotland) be erected”.

Coulthard brothers, led by Septimus, were, like the Ritchies, among the first settlers at Orua: in fact Orua Bay was called Coulthard’s Bay for some time until Septimus’s wife Matilda (nee Panormo) decided the name should revert to Orua Bay and she took steps to get alterations made on shipping timetables, postal arrangements and maps, etc.  Coulthards established a store trading in Kauri Gum and general goods, transported to and from Onehunga on Septimus’s cutter Daphne.  A Post Office was incorporated in the store, with a weekly mail service overland from 1895 for some 15 years until mails arrived direct from Onehunga on the regular launch service which collected cream cans at various wharves on the run.

Original Panormo House at Orua Bay, built c 1860, known as “the old house”
Brian Muir Collection – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 07081

Septimus and Matilda lived at first in the Panormo house, several times added-to and believed to have a means of escape connected to the nearby blockhouse in case of hostilities. Septimus later had another house constructed on the beachfront.

 Milling the Native Timber

The Coulthards established a timber mill to harvest Kauri and other trees, notably Puriri. This industry required a wooden dam to store water to supply a giant waterwheel used to power machinery. On two occasions the dam malfunctioned, threatening settlers in the bay below. The first in July 1872 resulted from the sluice gates not being closed, as was usual, at the close of each day’s operations. This oversight led to a build-up behind the dam during the night until the timbers gave way with torrents of water rushing down into the bay. Some residents, flooded, gave the alarm and were rescued. It was considered lucky there were no casualties. Then, a few months later the scenario was repeated. This time the dam’s wooden frame gave way, an enormous volume of water was suddenly released, taking with it large quantities of logs and sawn timber down the slopes, across the flats, over the beach and into the harbour. Coulthards were left with loss of timbers and repairs to the embankment and timbered dam. The Ritchies must have been alarmed at the danger posed by the risk of the dam failing again. The Panormo brothers also established a mill and Robert Ritchie was employed there for a time. But Panormos gave it up in the face of  Native Land Wars, when demand for timber slumped and, anyway, the forest was being worked-out.  The Panormos travelled abroad but Charles and Louis returned to resettle in Awhitu in later years.


In 1859 Robert and Mary Ritchie extended their family with the birth of a son, Robert, and then William followed in 1861. Their fifth daughter, Annie, was born in 1863.

The pioneering Ritchies would have been in Orua Bay when, apart from milling the abundant timber, there was local activity around shipping (taking the timber and produce to Onehunga) boat-building (using the timber to make coastal craft), gum-digging (harvesting beneath the Kauri trees and in swamps where ancient forests had been located) and smelting (Coulthards’ set up a furnace to convert black iron-sand into metal, but the venture was short-lived: uneconomic).

Ritchies tried commerce, opening a small trading store on the waterfront, but it did not prosper. Robert cleared the land, built a family home and drained the swampland, extracting lucrative Kauri Gum.

The Ritchie family must have eyed with some comfort the blockhouse built in the Bay in anticipation of conflict with Maori – news of the Land Wars in Auckland, Waikato and Taranaki must have given constant worry to the settlers at Awhitu, in case the action spread to the peninsula. They knew there was a large Maori pah not far towards Waiuku and welcomed the blockhouse as a precaution.

But relationships had, from the first, been cordial with the local Maori and their chiefs assuring colonists that there would be no fighting and that the settlers had nothing to fear. Ben Westhead in “West of the Manukau” says the chiefs’ word was kept: the blockhouse was never used. But in an obituary for Marion Snowden (nee Ritchie) in the Auckland Star, 14 August 1940, it says “…during the war Mrs. Snowden had on several occasions been compelled to seek shelter with her family at the old blockhouse when there was danger of Maoris raiding the township”. She went to live in the relative safety of Onehunga until troubles subsided.

The New Zealand Herald, November 1932, recalled events of 1863 saying that rampaging Maori led by Te Pani wrecked the signal station at the Manukau Heads. The report says the military was engaged in skirmishes at Drury, so defence of the station on Paratutai Island at the Heads was left to a band of volunteers. “The rebels landed from canoes and destroyed the flagstaff and a boat, but did not molest two women living at the pilothouse. After removing two other boats, the Maoris sailed to Awhitu where they terrorised the settlers for a time”.

The Irwins, Turners, Milletts, Hamlins, Dickeys, Logans, Palmers, Shorts, Westheads, Hamiltons, McPikes, Arrowsmiths , Brooks and McTiers were among pioneer families – farmers, timber millers, flax millers, gum diggers or traders – in the District, many written up in Ben Westhead’s book.  Some of the men, like Alfred Palmer, left the district for long periods to serve in the Maori Land Wars. The Garland’s Hotel (sometimes referred to as Boathouse and Boat Hotel) at Awhitu Wharf appears to have been first licensed in December 1865. It became a hub of social events and an oasis for hard-working farmers, bushmen and mill-men alike. Renewal of the “bush licence” by John Garland for the eleven-roomed establishment, after a lapse, was declined in 1894.

The Missionary Influence

The overall good relationships with Maori were no doubt the enduring results of the work of the very first Europeans at Orua Bay – the missionaries. Methodist Minister William Woon set up a mission station in the bay in January 1836 but it was short-lived. Crops failed, forcing Maori and William Woon, his wife and two children from the peninsula. During his short tenure Woon described the place as having “grandeur of the harbour and wonder of scenery”. No other missionary had lived in these parts before with only one other settler, a trader, on the northern (opposite) shore of the harbour.

Later, in the spring of that year, members of the Church Missionary Society, notably, Reverend Dr Robert Maunsell and Mrs Maunsell, and, later, Reverend James Hamlin, his wife and family, arrived in the district.

Rev. Robert Maunsell

Hamlin had already visited the Manukau and had chosen the spot for the mission station.

Rev. John Hamlin

The Maunsells first established their base at the chosen spot on the shore just North of Waiuku at Uretoa, also known as Mokatoa and Moeatoa. But soon the Maunsells, joined by John Hamlin and family in September 1836, transferred to new headquarters, ”…slightly to the west of Orua Stream…”, buying land at what they described as the “…much more suitable…” Orua Bay.

Governor William Hobson and party made several official visits to Orua Bay between 1840 and early 1842.

Governor, Captain William Hobson, RN, Auckland Museum Collections

Orua Bay, perhaps because of its stable, mission settlement, had been chosen as location for signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 20th March 1840. 3 Maori Chiefs signed at Orua Bay, the first from the Manukau area to do so. Seven more chiefs from outlying districts signed in late April, but at a different location, probably under Maunsell’s influence at Port Waikato.

“Missionary Station at Ourou in Manukao”
Date unknown c.1840. Pen and wash on paper Johnson, John 1794-1848 Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PD18(23)

Bishop George Selwyn* also called in at the Mission at Orua Bay during his walk of the North Island in 1842. Selwyn arranged a canoe to take him on to Onehunga to avoid the long walk around the Manukau Harbour’s southern shoreline. The Bishop visited Orua Bay again the following year.

Mission Station Flourishes

Notwithstanding trials and tribulations, the thriving Mission Station at Orua Bay endured. Residents at first lived in Raupo huts divided into a few rooms, “…the huts when new are liveable, but as they dry they become highly flammable,” Mrs Maunsell wrote home to England, “… the sitting room in turn serves as parlour, schoolroom, laundry, kitchen etc”. Hewn-timbered dwellings replaced the huts. The wives shared duties to take school lessons, up to 50 local pupils, including Maori children and adults, with morning and afternoon sessions.

John Hamlin* cultivated land adjacent to the Mission and proved himself a capable farmer, probably the first settler in the Manukau to engage extensively in agricultural pursuits. He farmed 400-500 acres (160 – 200hectares) and was looked on by traders as a landowner of considerable importance. (Later farmers said they found the land unsuitable for agriculture and pastoral purposes without application of much fertiliser)

But the missionaries’ work paid off in many ways for the people Orua Bay, like the Ritchies. Ben Westhead, author of “West of the Manukau”, says “… the influence of these missionaries was felt many years later when war broke out in the Waikato. Not a single white person was molested during the whole trouble and Maori Chief Kaihau used his influence with his counterpart, Tawhiao, to protect his white friends”.

The Beaten Track

On the surface the missionaries’ decision to set up at Orua Bay might seem strange because it was off the beaten track, off the busy “highway” between Auckland and the Waikato.

Not so. Orua Bay was just off the route well-used from earliest times by Maori. From Otahuhu they travelled by canoe across the Manukau Harbour to Waiuku. There they carried their craft the short distance to the Awaroa River which flowed to the Waikato River. The shallow draft canoes usually found the stream navigable, but there are stories of mud dams being built by hand to raise the level so, progressively, with a series of temporary dams the travellers could pass along the Awaroa to the Waikato River, gaining access to the South and Waikato. Maori thus deployed their own style of elementary locks when the Awaroa was at low levels.

There are accounts of fierce inter-tribal fighting in 1836 at the territorial threshold, and scene of much warfare, near the confluence of the Awaroa and Waikato Rivers. It may have been an inter-tribal boundary.

Before roads and railways were built, this became the preferred route as trade and travel increased. South-bound travellers and goods would be transported by cutter or scow from Onehunga to Waiuku. It was then a walk or a ride on horseback or ox cart a few miles or so (3 km) to the emerging “new town” of Pura Pura (also known as Moeatoa), a surveyed township at the head of the Awaroa River which was quite a settlement by the late 1840s… and growing… with stores, allocated mooring sites, a flax mill, native hostelry and Edward Constable’s “Rising Sun Hotel” providing travellers with accommodation and refreshment. . (These days few traces remain, it’s as if the place, somewhere near the present Misa Road, never existed).  The hotel was removed to Waiuku in 1851 as “The Kentish”, which has continued as licensed premises since 1853, said to be the longest-held licence in New Zealand.

Kentish Hotel, Waiuku, 1877
James D Richardson Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-9141

The next stage of the journey south from Pura Pura was by boat, first the five miles (7km) through swamp down the Awaroa River to join the Waikato River near Maioro for passage on to Tuakau, Mercer, Hamilton, and beyond.

Awaroa River near Pura Pura known as Otaua Landing c 1898
Enos Silvenus Pegler, Waiuku Museum Soc. – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 04731

Northbound, natives brought vegetables and grain to trade at Waiuku. In 1852 a traveller, Alexander Kennedy** describes the route thus: “Although it is little more than a ditch in some places the whole of the produce of the Waipa District is nevertheless brought by the natives in their canoes up this creek and conveyed across the portage to Waiuku when it is again shipped and landed at Onehunga…”

In these times Waiuku, the portage point, became the most important centre South of Otahuhu and was likely to become even bigger as trade developed and travel became popular. In 1858 the Provincial Government recognised the importance of the portage and provided funds for roading and bridges to ensure this vital link between Auckland and the Waikato remained passable year-round.

The government also investigated a canal, with locks, linking the Awaroa River at Pura Pura with the Manukau Harbour at Waiuku. Government money was set aside for surveying this “water highway” but it was superseded by the decision to prefer inland routes and the forming of the Great South Road and construction of the main trunk railway. Port Waikato provided ample facilities at that time for shipping. Waiuku, thus, was left out: its prominence lost as a vital through-route. Some settlers claimed they had paid high prices for land near Waiuku on the promise of a linking canal, or tramway, with much enhanced prospects for the district. They were dismayed when neither eventuated… and had not forgotten this in 1882 when they petitioned the Government for an alternative: a branch railway line from Pukekohe to Waiuku. They finally got their wish 40 years later when in 1922 local MP and Prime Minister, W. F .Massey, welcomed the first train at Waiuku.  This gave settlers of Awhitu, including Orua Bay, alternative transport for their produce.

Rt Hon William Massey
Schmidt, Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19130501-16-1


First train on the Glenbrook – Waiuku Line 1922
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19220112-42-2

Dairy produce from factories in the district was its principal freight until road carriage took over and New Zealand Railways closed the line in 1967, though it was spared when a year later a spur was opened to serve the Glenbrook Steel Mill. The Railway Enthusiasts’ Society took over the track from Glenbrook Station to Fernleigh on the outskirts of Waiuku in 1971 to create a vintage steam railway. In 2014 the line was extended and visitors on this popular tourist attraction can now travel as far as Victoria Street Station at the rear of the Cosmopolitan Club, a short walk to and from Waiuku’s main street.

 Cornwallis – Unrealised Dream

So, returning to the Mission Station at Orua Bay. It was established not far from off the beaten track, “the highway” of the time, and perhaps Maunsell and Hamlin had heard about the inter-tribal fighting among Maori near Waiuku and decided Orua Bay would be safer.

Then again, perhaps the clerics savoured an extended mission, ministering to colonists in the new town of Cornwallis, proposed on a site straight across the narrow stretch of the Manukau Harbour from Orua Bay.  Colonising entrepreneurs, the New Zealand Manukau and Waitemata Land Company, had chosen Cornwallis as the future centre of a developing Auckland: a large town (maybe, later, a city), commercial hub and port, outdoing that on the Waitemata, bigger and better. Prospective settlers purchased sections through the Company before the first group left Scotland in December, 1840, aboard the “Brilliant”. Adversity began right away: on the first day the ship nearly ran aground and had to make for Cork for a check-up. There the captain, officers, crew and some passengers left the “Brilliant” saying it was less than its name implied: unseaworthy. Captain David Ritchie (no relation) and a new crew got the vessel through many other trials during the long voyage of 10 months. Severely tested, other passengers and crew members had left the ship en route so just 27 would-be settlers reached Cornwallis. Much to their surprise and disappointment they found none of the  development they had  anticipated as their “promised land”, just dense native bush, rough-cut walking tracks, a few Raupo huts, a harbour with a dangerous bar and a port too shallow to take the “Brilliant”, unsurveyed sections and arguments with Maori about who, exactly, owned the land.


There was further setback when long-time advocate of the colonists’ scheme and the Company’s agent/manager, Captain William Cornwallis Symonds, was drowned in November 1841. Symonds had a successful military career and had been in New Zealand since the 1830s where he held numerous public offices during earliest development of Auckland province. Sir William Cornwallis had been a benefactor to William Symond’s father, hence the name.

On the day of Captain Symond’s death he learned that Mrs Hamlin, across the strait at Orua Bay Mission Station, was very ill and that Dr Ellis was not available. Symonds immediately took medical supplies and helpers in a boat. About halfway during the crossing the craft capsized in a sudden squall… Symonds and 3 others drowned. Mrs Hamlin survived her illness.

This tragedy robbed the enterprise’s devoted leader and, along with other land and development problems, meant Cornwallis didn’t prosper despite two more ships, the “Osprey” and the “Louisa Campbell,” bringing further intending settlers. Milling the timber was but a short-lived industry.

The vision was all over by the mid-1850s. Some of the “sections” in the proposed township went unsold or unclaimed – these formed the basis of what is now a public park with a memorial to those who participated in the unfortunate experiment, the obelisk plainly seen across the water from Orua Bay.

Captain William Cornwallis Symonds is recalled with the name of Symonds Street and Symonds Street Cemetery in Auckland City. His younger brother Captain John Jermyn Symonds followed William to Auckland in 1841, becoming a public official and a commander in the military with the Fencible forces. He was later a Land Court Judge and elected MP – he is remembered by Symonds Street, Onehunga, near where he settled.

The area on the Northern side of the Manukau Harbour, including where Cornwallis was proposed, was originally called Karangahape, and the road in Auckland city was so named as this was the beginning of the track that Maori took en route for Karangahape on the Manukau.

Life in the Bay

Dr Maunsell later relocated to Maraetai Mission Station at Waikato Heads. But he often visited Orua Bay, taking several days for the journey, first crossing the Waikato River to Maioro Bay by canoe and then walking along the coastline to Awhitu. John Hamlin later transferred to Wairoa Mission Station near Papakura.

In August 1888 Robert’s son William possessed “a fast sailing boat”, probably the “Maui”, and used it to ferry members of the Awhitu Rugby Club to Waiuku for a match against locals there. Awhitu was victorious, a performance repeated when Waiuku visited Orua Bay for a return match.

In January 1891 a yacht owned by the Ritchies (again, possibly “Maui”) was in the news after an electric storm passed Orua Bay in the middle of the night. After one very vivid lightning flash during the prolonged storm a thunderous crash was heard by all in the Bay. Next morning it was found the yacht had been damaged. Close inspection showed a lightning bolt had struck the side leaving a large hole in her planks and melting metal parts of the rigging. The New Zealand Herald, reporting the storm, noted that it had “… rather interfered with the amusements of the four or five families of visitors residing at the Bay”. Nothing like understatement, but the report includes reference to visitors – they were probably guests at Ritchie’s accommodation. Robert had built cottages on the waterfront; accommodation he would let to visitors whom he thought would find Orua Bay attractive for a summer holiday.

 Orua Bay – Resort

That violent, somewhat unseasonal, storm coincided, in the same month, January 1891, with the very first advertisements in The Auckland Star newspaper advising that Robert Ritchie had cottages to let at Orua Bay.

Papers Past, National Library of N Z

Note that Ritchie uses  the old way of spelling “Awitu” which was rapidly falling into disuse in favour of the other version with the “h”. Whichever, the name translates to “place longed for”, “longing to return”.

In January 1897 the Auckland Star’s Awhitu correspondent noted that Coulthards had purchased more land at Orua Bay, and once the swamp was drained, would be “…a coming resort”. (There are reports that Moa bones were not infrequently found in swampland during these operations)

Coulthard’s house “Jesmond Dene”, c 1895, Orua Bay,
took over from the earlier Panormo residence
Brian Muir collection – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 07066

Newspaper social pages in that summer of 1897 noted that the well-to-do Brooks family from Parnell was holidaying at the Bay at the time. They were related to pioneers in the District.

By Easter 1898 the Waiuku and Onehunga Steam Navigation Company Limited had realised the tourist potential Orua Bay offered for day-trippers as well as those who sought accommodation to stay over with the Ritchies. Special trips were scheduled over the Easter break aboard S.S. Weka, even though the name “Coulthards Bay” is used in the timetable instead of, by then, the preferred “Orua Bay”.  Reduced excursion fares were offered. The Company, revising its business extensively, announced that weather permitting, the Weka would call at all landing places as required… including The Heads, Awhitu, Pollok, Te Toro, Waipipi and Waiuku. The following year Huia, on the northern shore of the Manukau, was added to the Weka’s scheduled stopping places and later still some journeys included Whatipu.

That same date the press was also reporting that the Government Surveyor, presently in Awhitu, should be directed by the Education Board to map the site of the Orua Bay School, land given by Elizabeth Coulthard. “The school is in full swing” the report said, “with Mrs Mellsop the teacher who has created a grand flower garden in front”.

Orua Bay Schoolhouse, Brian Muir Collection – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 07056

But for all Miss Mellsop’s  good qualities and expertise, she resigned her post in 1899 when she declined to teach singing. She is 4th from left in the school photo.

Pupils of Orua School, 1895. Waiuku Museum Society – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 04699

An Auckland Star reporter discovered the qualities of the peninsula for the visitor and waxed eloquent in a lengthy article in the newspaper in July 1899. “Already families have chosen Graham’s Beach and Orua Bay for summer holidays. At the latter there are two stores, each having their own trading cutter – Coulthard‘s and Ritchie’s”. For potential settlers the Star continues “…one striking feature in the northern part of Awhitu is that the lands lay chiefly to the warm and favoured north-east. The soil is light, with a general subsoil of rich clay, and several swamps, some of which are already being drained and turned into grazing land. The district hitherto has only had a Scotch Church, but a pretty site above Orua Bay is being transferred to the Anglican Church by Mr W. F. Hammond out of his own land”.

In July 1899 Robert and Mary Ritchie appeared in Court at Waiuku to successfully apply for a pension.

“Greetings from Orua Bay”, postcard, c 1909
Waiuku Museum Society Collection – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 04613

Boating on the Manukau Harbour

A few months later Robert had the sad duty to telegraph police at Onehunga with a message that a man’s body had been washed up, as the New Zealand Herald reported, “at Ritchie’s Bay”. The victim was Joseph Balton who “ventured out to Onehunga in a cranky boat without sea-faring skills when the craft capsized between Puponga Point (Cornwallis) and the Manukau Heads”. His companion was saved, but 22 year old Balton disappeared, thought to have drowned – and now Robert Ritchie had secured his remains.

There were several similar incidents with boats on the harbour: weather, fool-hardiness, the onset of darkness and poor navigation skills contributed to tragedy. Although outside the Manukau Heads, the wreck of HMS Orpheus in February 1863, showed the treachery of the elements.

HMS Orpheus: drawing in ‘Illustrated London News’
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections JTD-19M-01678

The ship was wrecked as it crossed the bar with the loss of 189 of the 256 on board at the time.  Nothing has changed: there were boating accidents in Ritchie’s time and there are still today.

Not long after the Orpheus tragedy a settler from farmland opposite Waipipi took delivery of a brand new boat at Onehunga and attempted to get it home. Over 4 days as he travelled the Manukau Harbour he was seen by several passing boats at different locations. Everyone who saw the new craft realised the seamanship left much to be desired.  The boat, one-time in the shallows, another in a dangerous situation too close to the Heads, was taken in tow. Then it was sighted anchored off Graham’s Beach, our intrepid apprentice sailor asleep on the beach. A local gave him advice about the best course to take and sent him on his way towards Waipipi. Meantime, one of the earlier helpers mentioned the apparently hopeless case to police at Onehunga and the local constable was detailed to make inquiries. He found the sailor and his new boat had arrived home safely after a circuitous, trying, voyage that took 3 days more than it should have!

In December 1907 one of the Ritchies, William, was involved in what the Auckland Star described as “…a painful accident at Onehunga Wharf to a young man who resides at Awhitu. Ritchie was assisting to get a launch alongside the wharf, when his knee got between the launch and the wharf, and was severely wrenched. No bones were broken, and, after receiving medical attendance, Ritchie was taken to the residence of Mrs. Snowden, Onehunga, (his sister) where he is at present staying”

The scheduled boat service between Orua Bay and Onehunga seems to have ended in  the 1960s, though excursions may have continued.

Then in August 1910 two well-known names in the district were involved in a boating tragedy on the West Coast off Pollok. George Clark and Alfred Clyde Millett had been trying to re-float a punt near Cochran’s Gap when the dinghy they were in was hit by a large wave and capsized. Both men were flung into the sea… Clark tried to assist his companion but to no avail and almost lost his own life in the attempt. Clark eventually made his way back to shore exhausted but uninjured: Millett was swept away by the waves in the current and drowned.

In 1903 the wharf at Orua Bay was constructed after the Awhitu Road Board had a wrangle with contractors about the price of the work, and with settlers about building wharves on the Manukau. Graham’s Beach was also due for a wharf at the same time – tender prices for building both came in well over Government estimates. So the Board did a deal with Ralph Millett of Orua Bay to build both wharves on a “supplies and labour” basis… and to appease Graham’s Beach folk, their wharf was built first.

Orua Bay Wharf c 1925
Brian Muir Collection – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 07060

Construction of Orua’s wharf immediately followed … it was to endure about 50 years before being demolished in 1951.

 The Barges1920s Auckland had an insatiable appetite for sand to make into concrete for the many projects underway. Roading was one, public buildings another, together with construction of the upper dam at Huia to feed the growing city’s fresh water needs . Big Bay, next to Orua at the tip of the Awhitu Peninsula had an abundance of sand and, contracted to carriers and construction companies, barges would arrive to gather the resource and take it to Onehunga. Former bargeman Morton Paul *** recalls long days and nights on these trips the timetable dictated entirely by the tides and the weather. The barges tethered to a launch would often leave Onehunga in the middle of the night to catch high tide, arriving at Big Bay some two or three hours later where a spot to ground the craft was worked out and anchors taken ashore. Once the tide had gone out and the craft were beached, planks would be put down enabling the task of loading the barges. This was by wheelbarrows until some 50 yards (38 cubic meters) of sand, filled each barge. Later ingenious hoists assisted loading.  Once afloat it was the return journey to Onehunga to unload. To coincide with the tides, operations were carried out at all times of the day and night: loading at Big Bay was often done by the light of the moon or illuminated by kerosene lamps and flares. The tidal timetable also applied to loading… Morton Paul says he often saw drays and trucks stuck in the sand, “it was like quicksand”, on an incoming tide… “”the tide comes in so quickly on the Manukau and there’s a rise and fall of 17 feet (5.5meters) so occasionally it proved impossible to get a vehicle out in time”.

Sometimes while awaiting the tide bargemen would have a spell at Orua Bay, tie up to the wharf and visit locals.

Sand for the Huia Dam project was taken from Big Bay straight across the harbour, more or less opposite Orua Bay, to Big Muddy Bay. “But I never enjoyed the trip even though it was short, about 2 miles (3.2k), because it was very risky and more than once I lost a load of sand I was supposed to deliver for the dam construction”.

Barge alongside the hopper at Big Muddy Bay 1920
Henry Winkelmann- Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections JTD-08B-03298-1

Sand operations wound up on the Manukau in the 1930s when Mercer became the main source.

Ritchie – Personal

In 1905 some 65 acres (26 hectares) in Orua Bay were transferred to the name of Mary Ritchie, the then current occupier.

There must have been something of a scandal in the District when Robert Ritchie, Junior, was heading towards bankruptcy in 1914. He had commissioned a builder, E. Morton, to construct accommodation at his mother’s property at Orua Bay. Robert Junior had misjudged funds available: a loan from his brother William and the proceeds of selling his boat, the Maui. He was in trouble with the Official Assignee when he did not appear in person for the scheduled court hearing… but the Court accepted Robert meant no disrespect by his absence when he explained the poor mails to Orua Bay had not alerted him to the hearing in time to get to Auckland. His petition was allowed: he was later discharged from bankruptcy in May 1919.

Mrs Mary Ritchie died in October 1915. Her brief obituary in the New Zealand Herald, while it has the date of her arrival in Auckland wrong, continues,  “…she leaves a husband, four daughters, two sons, twenty-nine grandchildren, and thirty-five great grandchildren”.

Renewed Business

Despite the First World War, in subsequent years there was increased newspaper advertising of the Ritchie’s visitors’ facilities at Orua Bay. In April 1916 there was a plea to make early Easter bookings for-

“An Ideal Holiday Resort. Near Manukau Heads end, West Coast.


First-class Table. Shooting. Fishing, Boating.

Handy City. Good Launch Service.

 Apply immediately to Ritchie, Orua Bay.”

This advertisement  indicates that perhaps Robert Junior’s additions had at last been completed! Later that year regular advertisements in the New Zealand Herald read

“Orua House”, Orua Bay, Manukau –

Ideal place for quiet holiday.

First-class boarding house.

Fishing, boating, shooting.

Terms: 6s day; 30s week.

Brownlie’s launch from Onehunga. Ritchie, Orua Bay”.

And appealing to the Christmas holiday visitors, in December that year the advertising had a new therapeutic twist…

Great Health Resort. Under new management.

First-class Boarding house;

convenient to town, fishing, boating;

good launch service. Terms, 6s day, 30s week”

And then in January 1902 the very last newspaper advertisement for Ritchie’s establishment appeared in the Auckland Star


Fishing, boating, swimming;

tariff, £2 2/.—R. Ritchie, Orua Bay

Within weeks Ritchie’s advertisements were replaced in the Auckland Star by those of a new competitor, the local postmistress, Mrs Johansson who was quick to point out the facilities she could provide guests!

“Beach Haven”, Orua Bay, (via Onehunga).

Winter and Summer Boarding House.

P.O. and telephone in house.

Apply to Mrs Johansson.

In the 1930s Mrs Johansson changed the name of her property, advertising “Loch Lomond House, good seaside accommodation at moderate rates”.

In October 1920 Robert Ritchie, Snr, died and lies in Awhitu Cemetery, Manukau Heads Road, also known as the Maori War and Pioneers Cemetery.  He would have been in his 80s.

Regular newspaper advertising for Ritchie’s Orua Bay property ceased until January 1924 when it resumed and with a new name, “L. Morris”. Up until this time it appears Robert Ritchie Junior had been running the business and now he was in partnership with his nephew, Leslie Morris.

THE PINES. Orua Bay via Onehunga.

 The place to spend your holidays.

Lovely beach for bathing, good fishing; tennis court, etc.

For full particulars wire or write L. Morris, Proprietor.

Advertising resumed in October 1929 after a break over winter.

The typical advertisements continued over the years in much the same form, except in the 1930s “boats for fishing” and “wireless” was added, indicating guests had access to a radio so they could listen to their favourite programmes while on holiday.  “2 hours by boat” was another variation of the classified advertisement along with other changes from time to time -“spend your holidays at the seaside – try us”. “Billiard table”, “dance hall”, “store”, and “seaside frontage” were included as enticement at different times.

By 1930 Leslie and Lilly Morris were outright owners. Robert Junior had sold the establishment on the seafront in 1921 to Trevor Lewis from whom the Morris’s purchased it. The property thus returned to the “wider Ritchie family”. The Morris’s erected a hall which provided for what must have been the social highlight of the year, or for many years, with an evening and dance held in September 1930 by the Public Works Department at The Pines.  The New Zealand Herald reported the gala occasion, attended by Department’s employees and many local residents. “The hall was attractively decorated… … there were solo songs and a pianoforte item between dances… … with an excellent supper provided by Mr L. Morris. Miss Morris wore a navy blue crepe  de chine with fawn trimming. The Public Works Department oversaw development of “an all-weather road between Waiuku and Awhitu, with bridges and access to Orua Bay Road, using “relief labour”: jobs offered men who were out of work because of widespread economic depression.

In 1932 these works were reflected in a “grand celebration”, held at The Pines when residents and members of Franklin County Council marked the opening of Morrison Road, named after an early settler of the peninsula, Alexander Morrison, who came from Glasgow in 1887, buying land at Awhitu 10 years later. He was a member of the County Council and a firm advocate for better roading in the District. He died in 1937 so he could have been at that function at The Pines.

By 1935 there must have been a faster steamship or an “oil launch” available because the journey from Onehunga is reduced by 30 minutes to one and a half hours! Newspaper ads ceased, understandably, during World War Two. And in this year it appears Richies sold their remaining property at Orua Bay.


By 1944 the property at Orua Bay was back in business as a resort operated by Charles Edward Le Grice. He had owned buses in Auckland and tourist accommodation at Piha. Newspaper advertisements for both Le Grice’s Piha property (tariff: 3 pounds 3 shillings per week) and the Ritchie’s “The Pines” at Orua Bay (2 pounds 10 shillings weekly) were, in the late 1920s, often cheek-by-jowl in the classified columns, competing for business.  Le Grice is later listed as owner of the Piha enterprise.

Charles Le Grice began marketing sections at Orua Bay in January 1944:

10 level quarter-acre sections,

close to the beach,

100 pounds each

In April the same year, nearly too late for summer visitors, he began advertising in the New Zealand Herald classified columns:

ORUA BAY. Le Grice’s Orua House

Good fishing, launch, rowing boats, tennis, billiards, dance hall, etc.

Ph 1, Le Grice Orua Bay.

It looks like Le Grice installed the first private telephone in the Bay, about 1944. Business obviously looked up with the end of the Second World War. In October 1945 the advert in the New Zealand Herald advised that the Christmas holidays were already fully booked but the ad on the 27th October was the last in the name of Le Grice. In November the establishment was under new management, gearing-up with newspaper advertisements seeking 2 housemaid-waitresses. “Don’t see a returned serviceman stuck” the advertisement pleaded, referring to the fact that the new proprietor (Stanley Sawyers?) had seen service in the war. Mrs Johansson, still in business in the Bay was also seeking staff as the holiday season approached. And new-comers, Watsons, added an alternative, advertising their accommodation at Orua Bay: guests were housed in Army Huts, no longer required, post-war, by the military and moved to the Bay.

Orua Bay, 1964
Brian Muir Collection – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 07160

There were increasing accommodation opportunities as Orua Bay’s attractions became evermore popular with weekend visitors, day-trippers and sightseers. The original Ritchie property has changed hands many times over the decades. Today the Bay has its share of both year-round residents and holiday baches, along with the modern amenities on the same waterfront where Ritchies opened their facilities in 1891, some 125 years ago!


* Hamlin and Selwyn notes by G.G.M. Mitchell, were published in the “Auckland – Waikato Historical Journal, No.50”, April 1987, Auckland-Waikato Historical Societies, J. P. Webster, Editor

**  Kennedy quote from  “Early Waiuku, Edward Constable and the Kentish Hotel:, Brian Muir,

*** Recollections by Morton Paul were published in the “Auckland – Waikato Historical Journal, No.29”, September 1976, Auckland-Waikato Historical Societies, E. Macdonald, Editor


In-room almanac at Orua Bay Motel

Website: Papers Past, National Museum of New Zealand.  Accessed on various dates in October 2015

New Zealand Herald and The Auckland Star, Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand accessed ditto

“West of the Manukau”, Ben Westhead printed by Waiuku News 1948.

“Heads Harbour and Hills – An Awhitu History”, Edited by Rachael Hawkin and Lloyd Walker, Awhitu History Book Society, 1999

“Auckland – Waikato Historical Journal, No.54”, April 1989, Editor J. P. Webster

Photos reproduced from the Brian Muir Collection are courtesy of Mrs Valerie Muir

“Methodist Beginnings in the Manukau” by C. T. J. Luxton – Wesley Historical Society (NZ) Publication #17(4).


RCC 12/2015. 06/19, o5/20.

It is unusual to dismiss a fire chief who couldn’t do his job because the equipment he was given was deficient. To discharge two chiefs within three years for the same reason is exceptional. In hind-sight it can be seen for what it was: Auckland City Council was derelict in its care of, and support for, the city’s fire protection over many years in the late 1800s. And then the Council, twice, ignored all the evidence pointing directly at itself, finding instead a convenient scapegoat:  the Fire Chief.


Herbert Frederick Gladding joined the Auckland Fire Brigade in 1884 aged 29, rose through the ranks to Foreman at Grafton Station when, in July 1899 he was appointed officer-in-charge, Superintendent.

Superintendent Herbert Gladding took over in July 1899

Gladding must have known it was going to be an up-hill battle to improve the brigade because, as he had seen for long time, the City Council had let fire protection slide with practically no spending. It was going to take a lot of courage, and money, to invest the large sum required to provide a modern fire brigade.

His predecessor Jim Hughes led firefighting at the 1898 blaze in the multi-storey Direct Supply Company (DSC) building on the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street East. Fire-spread was rapid and firefighters were taxed to get the better of the fire before it spread to adjacent buildings.

Superintendent Jim Hughes – career firefighter
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19130423-30-3

Operations were disrupted by unhelpful “assistance” from firefighters who were in Auckland for a Fire Brigades’ Conference and, of course, who had been attracted to the major fire. Their “help” bordered interference, delaying operations. But all the visitors who were watching the scenario unfold were astonished by the primitive firefighting equipment deployed: most of the spectators came from much smaller towns than Auckland and observed they had better apparatus at home.

The morning after: fire Brigade equipment outside the burnt out DSC building
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-18980305-284-1

An inquest into the DSC fire found the fire brigade was ill-equipped. Counsel for the insurance companies, Charles James Parr, said “I think the jury will agree with me that there has been little less than criminal neglect on the part of the authorities”. The jury did agree… but despite this finding the Council overlooked its own shortcomings and blamed Superintendent Jim Hughes. Despite testimonials, references, public meetings and petitions supporting Jim Hughes, the Council terminated his employment; thinly disguising their action by saying it was part of essential retrenchment.

 Major Fires Don’t Wait #1 July 4 1899

Gladding took charge of a difficult fire within days of taking office. Two boarding houses in Vincent Street were alight at one o’clock in the morning, surrounded by blocks of older wooden buildings. Gladding was praised for restricting the flames to, mainly, one of the boarding houses and stopping fire-spread to adjacent wooden premises 1.    

Survivor (1972) of typical large timbered boarding houses found in Vincent Street
L. Downey – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 314-3-5

It was said luck was on the side of the firefighters in Vincent Street that night: an early alarm of fire, no distance for the brigade to travel, little wind and good water pressure. But each fire brought with it a reminder that Auckland’s fire protection as seriously wanting. The City Council was solely responsible for administering the fire brigade and so it relied on Council for funding and support. A glance around the aging fire station and the primitive equipment gave many pointers that the City Council had over many years ignored numerous reports and requests from Jim Hughes, along with much criticism of the brigades shortcomings. It went without: Councillors diverted their attention, and funds, to other civic amenities.

Then, as now, Auckland was the fastest-growing city in New Zealand with an estimated population of 60,000.2 Yet other centres had enjoyed far superior fire protection for many years. Cities and towns, some at that time quite small, had imported fire pumps which were mobilised to a fire either by man-power or with horses and, once in position and with hoses connected, relied on man-power to make the pump work. For instance: Gisborne imported equipment in 1878, Rangiora in 1883, Greytown in 1888, Palmerston North in 1888, Feilding in 1891, Petone in 1892, and Westport in 1893.3

Some brigades ordered steam pumps towards the turn of the century, the first of which went into service about the time Gladding was appointed Chief. Other centres, like Wanganui, were looking at motorised appliances and these arrived in New Zealand in the first few years of the 1900s.

Auckland Fire Brigade, serving the biggest city in New Zealand, had no such pumping equipment, nor any on order. In 1900 it didn’t have one pump – firefighters had to rely on the pressure in the water mains to obtain sufficient jets to, for example, reach the flames on upper floors.

So in this respect it did not measure up to one of six basics required for an efficient fire brigade, as spelled out by veteran New Zealand fire chief Thomas Hugo, who became the Inspector of Fire Brigades in the colony. He said there must be:

  • Adequate plant and resources after arriving at a fire.

His other vital requirements were:

  • A reliable, easily accessible, fire alarm system so fires can be promptly reported
  • A custom-designed station so men can easily turnout within 20 seconds of the call being received
  • Dedicated firefighters available on station 24X7
  • Suitable horses kept on station exclusively for the brigade, and,
  • Sufficient supply and pressure of water at the scene. 4

Auckland Fire Brigade could not score on any one of Hugo’s 6 essential points. Herbert Gladding knew the brigade was deficient before he took office. He well knew unsuccessful efforts by his predecessor, Jim Hughes, to make basic improvements to the brigade with two exceptions… Council approved the purchase of a system of electric street fire alarm boxes introduced in 1883. But these had soon been abandoned,  described as “…a useless toy” by a correspondent to Letters to the Editor.5  Then there was a new extension Merryweather ladder, delivered in 1884, but which did not meet Superintendent Hughes’ specifications and arrived in Auckland having been damaged in transit. Hughes said the ladder was “limp”. Inquiries showed the ladder had been stowed for the long voyage from England in the ship’s hold near the boilers. The timbers of the ladder had been affected by heat and steam which left the wooden ladder sections “as crooked as a dog’s hind leg” according to one newspaper report. On top of which Hughes found it difficult to manoeuvre the appliance in narrow downtown streets and to elevate the ladder because of overhead telephone lines. One report suggests a firefighter on the ladder received a shock when he inadvertently came in contact with a telephone wire.

This state of fire brigade affairs became apparent during a ceremony to mark Herbert Gladding’s appointment as the new Superintendent, held at the fire station in July 1899.6

Gladding thanked everyone for their welcome to his new office and then boldly stated, “I hope the City Council will do its duty by the brigade, and give the plant and appliances which would bring it up to the standard of efficiency of the Southern fire brigades. I know how ex-Superintendent Hughes had endeavoured to get the necessary equipment, but he had not been able to do so”.

In a toast Gladding mentioned Robert Farrell, who was present representing the City Council. Mr Farrell, replying, said “It is quite true that ex-Superintendent Hughes frequently asked for up-to-date appliances, and could not get them. The reason was that the City Council had not the funds to spare. We all saw the necessity for them, and the Mayor was heartily in favour, but the items could not be got till the new loan was floated. Plans for a new fire brigade station had been prepared years ago and I believe the brigade won’t have to wait long now till it was furnished with all buildings and appliances to bring it up to the efficiency, in that respect, of the Southern fire brigades. The Mayor has set his heart on that”.

So here was the new Fire Chief reflecting on the former Chief’s inability to get adequate funding from the City Council and calling out its failure to improve fire protection, followed by a Councillor’s acceptance that the City Council, although well-intentioned, had not moved as it should have.

The brigade, thus, could hardly be blamed, in the circumstances, for any shortfalls.

Gladding tweaked rules and procedures during his first meeting with the Brigade on 14th July 1899 but there could be no announcement about improvements to basic firefighting equipment. This was beyond his control: he was no “new broom sweeping clean”. It was up to the City Council to provide. 7

A New Century

There was a new decade, and a new century with the arrival of 1900.  A convenient milestone to have a stock-take of the Auckland Fire Brigade.

Auckland fire Station with the manual hand reel, 1900. Auckland fire brigades’ Museum and Historical Society.

Fire Station: occupied since 1873, long-since judged unfit for purpose. New premises planned.

Fire Pumps: none. A retrograde step since in 1860 there were 4 pumps available in Auckland

Ladder: Extending Merryweather ladder acquired in 1884 but was unsuitable and reluctantly used

Horse-drawn wagons to transport firefighters to fires: none

Horse-drawn hose reels: 1. Transports Superintendent, horse hired from neighbouring private stables

Horses dedicated to the brigade’s needs 24 x 7: none. In 1867 two horses had been provided by Council

Hose reels drawn by firefighters: 4

Ladder carts drawn by firefighters: 1

Lookout from the Fire Bell Tower: None. Lookouts used to be rostered 24 x 7: since abandoned.

Electric Alarm System: none. The system installed in 1882 was defunct


Major Fires Don’t Wait #2 March 2 1900

Fire swept through the Loan and Mercantile’s waterfront warehouse fuelled by wool, gum and flax. Gladding and his men could only protect adjoining buildings before getting hoses into the interior. The building and its contents were lost.   

Loan and Mercantile Company’s warehouse and offices – a total loss
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1-W184

In March 1900 the City Council did not have appetite to fund outstanding fire brigade matters, shelving a report from Gladding who said that a steam fire engine, as that being offered for sale by T. Hall and Company, would be of great advantage in Auckland, as buildings are now much higher and larger than previously  “Had we had a steam engine at the recent Loan and Mercantile fire, the result would have been very different, as we would have been able to make use of sea water’. 8. The report was referred to a Committee.

Prolonged drought in 1900 had reduced the levels in the reservoirs with concern about sufficient supplies for fire-fighting. Conservation measures were put in place across Auckland. And Councillors were also preoccupied with a major fallout over alleged discrepancies in the Council’s accounts with the Treasurer under cross-examination.


Major Fires Don’t Wait #3 March 13 1900

Mrs Carter’s 14-roomed boarding house in Waterloo Quadrant was gutted in a blaze so fierce that locals thought Government House was on fire.

Mrs Carter’s Boarding House, formerly Dr Kenderdine’s, was destroyed
Auckland Museums Collection

Major Fires Don’t Wait #4 March 20 1900

Flames took out what was left of a bakery in Airedale Street following an earlier fire in the premises. This time the place was gutted.

In April the City Council’s concentration switched to prevention of the bubonic plaque spreading in Auckland: the fire brigade assisted as a precaution in this by standing-by as a precautionary measure when rat-infested, plague-prone, buildings were burned down under decree by health authorities.

In early November 1900 the City Council revealed it had been considering construction of a new fire station. It did not have a site… Wakefield Street had been mentioned… and resolved to advertise, seeking suitable land with a preference for Pitt Street or Hobson Street. During this discussion there were several other revelations. Councillor Robert Salmon said that “the city’s fire appliances were quite inadequate, and required renovating. They are quite insufficient to cope with a large fire”.  Councillor James Stichbury said “I went past the present station today and I think that the sanitary commissioner should condemn it… the place is only fit for a stable”. The Mayor, David Goldie, then got to the nub – “the difficulty lies in the fact that we’ve been endeavouring to get the insurance companies and the Government to bear a part of the cost of the fire brigade. We have endeavoured to get a Bill through, but the member in charge, Mr. Witheford, has not succeeded”.9

The mayor and council should have known not to rely on a Fire Brigades’ Act to determine funding… it must have been seen as a doubtful lifeline. The measure had been discussed, amended and delayed since 1891: 10 years of political dithering with no result. Other local councils had not depended on the possibility of the Act to provide alternative funding: they had ensured fire protection in their communities by funding facilities from property rates, and in some instances, with contributions from insurance companies and subscription. In this respect, Auckland seemed to be the stand-out: no capital had been made available regularly to update fire engines and equipment, while the bare minimum was budgeted for operating expenses.

Major Fires Don’t Wait #5 January 12 1901

The city’s biggest fire to date destroyed three large buildings … the downtown warehouses of Bond and Bell, L. D. Nathan and Owen and Company, while both Mackey’s and Laurie’s premises were badly damaged. Total loss was some £100,000, a new high for the city. 10

Several warehouses were lost, others damaged
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010118-12-1

The Observer newspaper, 19th January 1901, was moved to asked, in its column “They Say…”,   “…that everyone was asking everyone else who it was that was running the Fire Brigade on Sunday – the Mayor or Gladding?” This was mocking reference to the fact that Mayor went to the fire to, reportedly, “render assistance”.

Following this fire the Fire Brigade Committee of the City Council agreed “to consider purchase of tall ladders”. 11  Later in the month the Council approved Superintendent Gladding undertaking a tour to study southern brigades in New Zealand and to a number in Australia.

On his return Gladding reported that he found all the brigades he visited were far superior to Auckland and he compared them to his Brigade.12

“Wellington …

New central fire station opened” – Auckland has been planning one for years

“4 horses on station day and night at the ready” – Auckland has none

“Electric fire alarm system being extended” – Auckland has none

“Christchurch …

Has 2 steamers and a chemical appliance” – Auckland has none

“Has an extension ladder” – Auckland has one (1884 model) not satisfactory


80 volunteer members”  –  Auckland has about a handful


Horse drawn Hook and ladder truck to carry firemen” – Auckland has none  


Full-time paid firefighters, rostered day and night

Firefighters employed in station chores

Most facilities are electric. All appliances are horse-drawn

High pressures in water mains to assist firefighting

Sydney uses, exclusively, steamer pumps

Sydney has telephone system to give fire alarms

At all the places I visited horse-drawn carts are used to transport men and equipment to the scene of the fire – such is not the case in Auckland”.

 Major Fires Don’t Wait #6  April 17th 1901

Lambourne and Dewar’s premises on Ponsonby Road were gutted by fire, consisting their showrooms and several adjacent retail stores. Ponsonby firefighters were already at work when Gladding and his men arrived but “the men who took the hook and ladder carriage had to drag it a mile to the fire up College Hill, and were exhausted by their exertions, and not in a fit condition to fight a serious fire, but did their very best” 13. Others noted it was 15 minutes before Ponsonby Fire Brigade got water to the fire. 14     

Lambourne and Dewar’s shop – just the walls were left standing
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19010426-1-3

Major Fires Don’t Wait #7 March 25 1901  

The aging Army Drill Hall which had served Auckland since the 1860s was gutted in an early morning fire posing risks to firefighters with exploding munitions and red-hot sheets of iron cascading from the roof. Arms, uniforms and military stores, along with records, were lost.

Major Fires Don’t Wait #8 May 13 1901

Fire made a clean-sweep of J D Roberts and Company’s confectionery works. Parnell Brigadesmen were on the scene within 15 minutes but were unable to get to work because their gear did not fit City hydrant fittings. Firefighters from City Station arrived soon after but their fire-fight by that stage was to no avail.15   

Major Fires Don’t Wait #9 May 31st 1901

In the wee small hours an unstoppable blaze swept through the fashionable Grand Hotel in Princes Street .The building was gutted, five people lost their lives and a number of people were injured.16

Grand Hotel, luxury accommodation destroyed
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19010608-1073-1

The course, and cost, of this destructive fire showed that all the major losses suffered before had not been acted upon, the fire brigade remained deficient and that major fires don’t wait. This fire, unlike previous blazes, could not be ignored by the City Councillors who, alone, were those responsible for funding the fire brigade, overseeing water supplies and inspecting/approving hotel fire escapes.

Immediate reaction*

Public outcry was immediate and scathing. Angry townspeople blamed the City Council for failing to provide sufficient funds for the rundown Fire Brigade. Local Members of Parliament loudly censured the City Fathers. Some outraged citizens, wanting to sheet home the responsibility for the Grand Hotel fire, seriously suggested that all the City Councillors should be arrested and charged with manslaughter.

“A Sufferer” wrote to the editor of the Auckland Star, June 3rd, 1901: “ Sir, Is it possible to indict the City Council on a charge of manslaughter for causing the death of Mr Johnston’s three little children and other inmates at the Grand Hotel fire? If a citizen neglected his duty in such a barefaced manner as the City Council has, and showed such utter callousness for the safety of those whoso lives and property were entrusted to his care, it would not be long before he found himself in the dock preparatory to a lengthened term in Mt. Eden Prison.  Why, then, should the City Council escape? Why are the brigade expected to do horses’ work, dragging ladders, etc., to a fire, and then turn to and do a night’s work. It is a standing disgrace to our city authorities, and they ought to be made to account for it, [t redounds to the credit of the brigade that the city has not been devastated over and over again. A braver or more willing lot of men could not be found, and they simply work wonders with the appliances at their disposal”.

An editorial in the New Zealand Herald was very critical of the Council saying it had ignored repeated requests over the decades from various Fire Chiefs to improve the Brigade’s equipment. “It was shown (at an earlier major fire) that the appliances at hand were so inadequate as to be farcical”…. “we are always just about to do something but fire after fire occurs and the better machinery is in the future”… “the history of Auckland in connection with this subject is simply disgraceful, disgraceful in the first place to those who have been in power in civic positions, and disgraceful to every citizen who tolerated such criminal neglect of duty.” 17.  Cartoons in the Press unmercifully lampooned the unready state of the Brigade.

*Some of this text is reprinted from my other item on this site “The Grand Hotel Fire 1901 – A Turning Point”


Shortcomings – the luxury hotel was destroyed
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010607-2-2

(In 2018  work began to redevelop the sites of the old Grand Hotel and, next door, the Masonic Building. Their facades were retained, a high-rise block  combining both properties  emerged, completed in October 2020)

Grand Hotel and the Masonic Building, redeveloped. 2020 


A correspondent with the pen-name “Excelsior” had a letter published in the New Zealand Herald a week before the Grand Hotel fire. It condemned what had been evident at recent fires: inadequate and ancient fire-fighting resources. A few days after the Grand Hotel fire “Excelsior” wrote again: “I have now the melancholy satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so’ and cannot contemplate the scene of the latest fire without feeling that the city fathers are guilty of culpable negligence. I trust the City Council will now ensure the city is made a safe place in which to do business and to live”.

“I told you so” – ‘Excelsior’ prophesied the fire
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010607-3-1

Questions were also asked about installation of the fire escapes that had proven so hopelessly inadequate during the fire. How was it that they had been erected inside the premises when both the Fire Chief and head of the Salvage Corps advised the builder to install the ladders on the outside of the building?  The result was there were no escapes on the exterior of the building.

The Artful Dodgers

The Chamber of Commerce, representing a wide-spread of businessmen in the town, called a meeting to tell those in authority, the City Council, that Auckland’s fire protection just would not do, and demanded immediate improvement. The meeting became heated as those present said who, exactly, they thought was responsible: City Councillors over the years. And then the defensive replies from those serving Councillors who had been caught napping. 18

Why were there inadequate water supplies for firefighting?

No amount of water could have put out the hotel fire.

And why were the City’s waterworks projects running so far behind schedule?

Bad weather has delayed construction and pipes will not be connected with the Waitakere dam until two summers hence.

Next, an effective alarm system was required: there was no bell to signal fires in the East Ward… this was called an “impossible situation”.

The bell has been deployed elsewhere.

How come there were no horses to haul appliances to the fire: this had to be done by the men themselves, sapping their energy? Fire brigade arrangements are behind the times, the meeting heard, especially men pulling that hook and ladder carriage. But the brigade itself was not to blame – the men did what they could with the appliances they had, but was it not time an up-to-date horse-drawn service was obtained for the city?

Council has been remiss in not supporting the brigade for years but it had recently ordered new appliances.

Why had Council not been given specifications for a horse-drawn ladder?.

Nothing further had been heard. It had been shelved.

And what of the promised new fire station in Pitt Street – was it subject to the same procrastination?

The Council had some time ago received designs for a new fire brigade station, and the Mayor assured his intention to carry the matter through.

Then criticism of the fire brigade. Why is the present Council department not “organised in any shape or form?  It should have a thoroughly up-to-date man, capable of organising the whole department, of making every firefighter efficient in every detail, and of running the brigade on the same principles as characterised the greatest fire brigades in the old world”.

Council said it would be making changes.

The meeting asked why the question of fire escapes had not been gone into by the Council as it had absolute power in the matters of design and enforcement?  Why had fire escapes been included in the whole question of inspection of buildings but the Council had come up short at the Grand Hotel?

Council said it had once been the Police’s job: Council took over inspections only very recently and would be getting on with it.

It was pointed out that in other countries Insurance Companies contributed much to the upkeep of fire brigades: why does this not occur in New Zealand?

The response was that the Companies deal in risk and premiums would drop commensurate with a lesser risk when there was a competent fire brigade with proven water supplies.

Finally, the topic came up questioning the calibre of Council members who had allegedly delayed, or made poor decisions, about Auckland’s fire protection.

“I consider”, said one man, “that until we do away with the ward system we will not got the proper stamp of men to represent us in the Council” .

David Goldie, Mayor when the Council had made some of the allegedly bad decisions, spoke up in defence of the city’s fire appliances, rebutting comments made at the Chamber of Commerce meeting.

“There are horses in the stable next door to the station that are always there when required by the fire brigade”.

“If the ex-Mayor had said”, the New Zealand Herald challenged, “a horse instead of horses, he would have been right. One horse, and one only, can be used. That is the arrangement between the Council and a nearby stable. And the horse is not a special one, not kept there for the purpose, and not consequently fresh, but it’s any horse, which perhaps has been out all day and is tired out. The other horses are the members, the men, of the fire brigade!”

More tough talk:  the Memorial Service

A memorial service for the victims was held in St Andrews Church, during which the preacher, the Reverend Mr Gray, was not hesitant in his message to those elected to the City Council. From the pulpit he said “I am sure we wish them to understand that, cost what it may, such a calamity as this must be made forever impossible in the City of Auckland. We demand an end to all delay and procrastination in this connection… … what is money when it is the lives of our little children that are at stake?”  19

The Inquest

As with all loss of life, and serious fires, the Grand Hotel fire was subject to an inquest to determine the cause, whether recommendations for improvement were justified and to decide if any criminal charges should result. 20

There were some telling statements made reflecting the state of the fire brigade at the time:

  • “There’s no one on lookout duty on the tower overnight” – Moss Keesing, Fireman
  • “We rely on bells and telephones to give the alarm, here are no street alarms” – Moss Keesing, Fireman
  • A Juror asked if it was true that Auckland was well behind other centres in the provision of firefighting. Superintendent Gladding replied “Auckland City Council intends largely improving the plant, erecting a new station, and introducing an up-to-date system of alarms” . “In the sweet by-and-by, I suppose,” was the Juror’s lament.
  • “A steam pump is necessary for buildings in the higher parts of the city such as those where the Grand Hotel was” – Superintendent Gladding
  • “Ladders and jumping-sheets are the only appliances we have in ‘Auckland for life-saving purposes” – Superintendent Gladding to which the Coroner said “And this is the 20th century!”
  • A Juror asked : You are entirely at the mercy of the City Council as to whether you get the necessary appliances, or not? Superintendent Gladding- “Yes”
  • “Ladders are taken to the scene of fire by hand on a carriage. The process is necessarily a slow one as the carriage and ladders (six in all, of different sizes) weighed 11 cwt.” –Superintendent Gladding.
  • “Had I been asked if the well was a suitable place for fire-escapes I would have said ‘no – those escapes lead people into danger, instead of out of it’” – Captain Field, Officer In Charge of the Salvage Corps.

The Coroner – Censuring

The Inquest was damning of the City Council.

  • Previous Fire Chiefs had repeatedly sought funds for new equipment, but to no avail.
  • Fire-fighting at the Grand Hotel had not begun in a timely way:
    • There was a late alarm given to the Albert Street station
    • Firemen had to man-handle their equipment, pushing and pulling it up to Princes Street via what’s known today as Victoria Street East and Bowen Avenue.
    • Occupants told how the fire raced along wooden linings and wall-boards, the flames engulfing everything it touched.
    • Firefighters were handicapped by low water pressure: hoses could not effectively fight the flames above street level.
  • Inside the hotel there were confusing signs pointing to emergency exits.,
  • The signs led to an unsafe route – two vertical iron ladders descending an enclosed shaft to the enclosed yard below.

The Coroner’s findings might have been enough to move the City Council to take immediate action to remedy the shortcomings. But there were other accumulated factors also pressuring the Council to act.

Earlier Fires

On top of public sympathy and concern about the loss of life, and 3 youngsters at that in the Grand Hotel blaze, townspeople recalled all the other major fires, all with severe losses.

Council’s Shortcomings

Another factor that the Council had overlooked with its blasé attitude about fire protection was that the city had grown outwards with burgeoning suburbs. And upwards. Auckland city no longer comprised only simply constructed single-storied wooden cottages, shop premises and warehouses. The few ladders the Brigade owned were inadequate for the “high rise” buildings of the day and those ladders that were available were despatched to fires on a retired ex City Council hand cart, dragged along by two firemen running at-the-double until slowed by exhaustion.

Auckland was also growing outwards. It became unreasonable to expect firemen to run the distances to the new areas dragging their reels and carts behind them. It left little energy to fight the fire when they eventually got there.

Ratepayers Pay Higher Insurance Premiums

Agitation for the Council to upgrade the Brigade came from other quarters. The newly formed Ratepayers’ Association, keen for a cause to flex its youthful muscles, loudly condemned the Council’s history of inaction, accurately reflecting wider public opinion which quickly turned to dismay when underwriters, seeing the risk involving poor fire fire protection and the old brigade’s equipment, increased premiums for fire insurance.

Influential citizens lobbied the Council, some of whom had personal experience of the deficient Brigade. The likes of Davis and Nathan, along with other leading businessmen, had seen fire destroy their premises and businesses, with heavy losses, not all of them covered by insurance.

Members of the Masonic Lodge, among them pillars of Auckland society, also spoke up. The Masons realised that had the wind changed direction during the Grand Hotel blaze it would have taken the flames towards their premises, probably consuming their building, too.

All this pressure, coupled with the Inquest’s critical findings, meant the City Council found it had no option but to act.


The result was that the Superintendent of Wellington Fire Brigade, Captain Thomas Hugo, was called in to investigate the Auckland Brigade and advise what was wanted to bring it up to modern standards.

Captain Thomas Hugo was well-known for passion towards fire safety. Free Lance, National Library of New Zealand

Hugo candidly set out his findings which included recommendations for the improvement of every part of fire brigade’s operations: he found that no one element had been properly provided for by the City Council. 20.

See Appendix A, below, for a summary of Hugo’s recommendations.

So it was up to the City Council to face up to the shortcomings in the fire brigade and to consider implementing Captain Hugo’s recommendations to overhaul it. There was a £12,000 price tag.


In adopting the report, Councillors’ discussions still showed some of them were reticent to act.

Mr Hannan: “I think the matter should not be hurried on. We are rushing the whole thing owing to the recent disaster. Prices of material were at present very high, and it would be injudicious for the Council to plunge while the market was in that state.

Mr Court countered this “This is no reason for delay, that the price of materials is high. The difference this would make in the cost of the scheme would be trifling compared with the loss occasioned by a big fire. If another big fire were to occur, what would people think of the Council?

Mr Hannan again “has the Committee considered the possibility of legislation on the matter of fire brigade maintenance?”

On the matter of a look-out at night, Mr Kidd: “Mr Hugo tells us this is not so important as was generally thought. Mr Hugo replied “I said that with fire alarms it was not important, but at present there should certainly be a look-out”.

The Superintendent’s Future

Again there was diverse discussion, but in the end it was agreed Gladding could not continue as Superintendent.

Alfred Kidd: “We are now proposing a large scheme involving the training of 30 men in all departments. It would not be fair to Superintendent Gladding to put him in that position, seeing he has not the requisite knowledge and experience”.

John Hannan dissented. “It’s unfair. Superintendent Gladding has not had a fair chance. The appliances have not been satisfactory, and now he has to be punished for the shortcomings of the Council”.

John Hewson: I want to ask Superintendent Hugo if he considers it necessary to terminate Superintendent Gladding’s engagement. (The question was ruled unfair to Captain Hugo)

Alfred Kidd: “Superintendent Gladding had done fairly good work with the appliances at his command, but the city is behind the times, and it must progress as other cities have done.

John Hewson: It must be said that some time ago the present Superintendent wrote to the Council asking for up-to-date appliances. It is only fair to state this”.

Arthur Rosser: “I feel sure that to put Superintendent Gladding in charge of the up-to-date plant we propose to establish would be unfair to him”.


Mr Frederick Baume: “I am prepared to bear my part of the responsibility attached to the report”.


Christopher John Parr: “This matter must be hurried on. If we do not, we will be hurried out of municipal life ourselves”

Council’s Decision

Captain Hugo’s report and recommendations were accepted: after decades of neglect the Auckland Fire Brigade would at last have a make-over, bringing it up to date with modern equipment and practices.

The Councillors would go to the community with a poll asking for approval to borrow £12,000 to finance Hugo’s plan. 21

They could not see Herbert Gladding leading a reformed brigade. He was relieved of his job, demoted to Deputy and Charles Woolley from Port Adelaide in Australia was recruited for the top job.


Gladding’s predecessor Jim Hughes was “retrenched”, retired, after it was alleged he bungled  fire-fighting at the DSC building in Queen Street in February 1898.

It must be observed in hindsight that the only deficiency was the Council’s, which left Hughes with antiquated equipment to fight a fire involving a large downtown multi-storey building.

And then along came the fatal Grand Hotel fire where once again the Council’s short-funding of the fire brigade was crystal-clear to everyone: to the Press, the Chamber of Commerce, the bereaved, townsfolk, the Coroner and Captain Hugo.

But the Council did not shoulder the responsibility. Councillors once again blamed the Superintendent. This time Herbert Gladding was the scapegoat. He was stood down, the Superintendent’s position advertised in Situations Vacant columns.


In October and November 1901 Herbert Gladding was farewelled at a series of gatherings with presentation of suitable gifts: within the year he had entered business on his own account, opening a grocery shop. His wife, Emma, died in March 1904 and in July his son, Arnold, aged 20, died of injuries sustained while firefighting at the Morrin’s warehouse blaze. Herbert died on Christmas Day 1908 and rests in the family plot at Waikumete cemetery.

Appendix A.

Summary of Captain Thomas Hugo’s recommendations.

In hindsight his blueprint, and the passing of the Fire Brigades’ Act in 1906 which took administration from local Councils passing it to Fire Boards, were foundation blocks of modern fire services in Auckland.

  • A street fire alarm system installed to give the best means of giving the alarm
  • The site of the proposed fire station in Pitt Street is appropriate
  • The design of the proposed station is not: and Hugo gave his ideas
  • New station to accommodate superintendent, 2 married men and 14 single men
  • Brigade should be staffed – superintendent, foreman, 9 permanent men and 6 auxiliaries
  • Second station in downtown Queen Street, not as planned
  • Third station in Ponsonby
  • All single men to be provided quarters, light, and uniform, bed and bedding
  • The mess to be provided with coal, crockery and cooking etc
  • Auxiliary Staff of 24 men to be paid £5 per annum for the first year, £15 per annum thereafter
  • Nine horses are required, two to be stronger three-quarter-bred animals
  • Requirements are 1 fire engine, 450 gallons capacity, 1 fire engine 350 gallons capacity, 1 two-horse hose reel, 1 two-horse hose and ladder cart.
  • 4,000 feet of new hose
  • capital expenditure required is about £11,000
  • cost of maintenance is about £800 per annum
  • water pressures through Auckland are good for firefighting except in the higher places
  • steam fire engines required as a priority response in these higher areas.


  1. New Zealand Herald 17th July 1899
  2. Z. Government – Census
  3. Various Brigade histories and National Library of N. Z.
  4. Hugo – Report to Auckland City Council
  5. Auckland Star 13th January 1883
  6. New Zealand Herald 17th July 1899
  7. Auckland Star 15th July 1899
  8. New Zealand Herald March 23rd  1900
  9. New Zealand Herald 2nd November 1900
  10. New Zealand Herald 14th January 1901
  11. New Zealand herald 17th January 1901
  12. New Zealand Herald 10th April 1901
  13. New Zealand Herald 17th April 1901
  14. Observer 20th April 1901
  15. New Zealand Herald 14th May 1901
  16. New Zealand Herald 31st May 1901
  17. New Zealand Herald 1st June 1901
  18. New Zealand Herald 4th June 1901
  19. Auckland Star 3rd June 1901
  20. New Zealand Herald 6th July 1901
  21.  Auckland Star, 5th July 1901


Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

“United to Protect – An Historical Account of the Auckland Fire Brigade 1848 – 1985”-  G. M. Gillon, Orion Press 1985

History of Auckland Fire Brigade – C. Mears

Further Reading

On this site “The Grand Hotel Fire 1901 – a Turning Point” and “The Sensational Witness – Inquest into the Grand Hotel Fire”

RCC May 2020