On two occasions over the decades, in 1902 and 1927, Aucklanders have been rattled by a series of arsons and false alarms to the fire brigade, not knowing when and where the incendiarists would strike next. Both in 1902 and 1927 the fires continued and the brigade was given the run-around for weeks before it was found youths were responsible.
1902 – A Fascination
When the brand-new Central Fire Station was officially opened with pomp and circumstance on July 3rd 1902, there could be no idea of the most unfortunate consequences which were to unravel in coming weeks.
Among those gathered to watch the ceremony were two youths who were impressed with the new station and the recently-acquired equipment. For the first time during opening festivities they could get close to the horses and appliances: the glistening brass on the bridles, the smell of neats-foot oil on leather and then there was the harness, specially hung overhead, ready to drop down and get hitched to the horses immediately there was a fire alarm.
The two boys, looking around, could imagine the front doors suddenly flung open, the firemen’s immediate response to the fire bells and the horses galloping away on their urgent mission.
The fire brigade eventually moved most of its equipment and men into the new station and by 17th July 1902 all was in readiness to respond from their new station. Firefighters did not have to wait long. At three o’clock next morning they were called to a blaze in Parnell. Roberts Biscuit Company’s factory was well alight, a major blaze which taxed both the Parnell and Auckland Fire Brigades plus the Salvage Corps. The Auckland Star noted “This was the first turn-out of the city brigade since their installation in their new premises, and the smartness with which they arrived on the scene of the fire and commenced with incredible rapidity, four hydrants began placing upon the flames”. It was the second devastating fire within a year for the Roberts Company.
In late August the Auckland Fire Brigade’s brand new horse-drawn telescopic ladder was commissioned at Central Station and the two boys who were fascinated by the brigade on Opening Day later admitted they were thrilled to see it turning out to fires. The new horse-drawn ladder could reach 65 feet (20m).
The new equipment was certainly being put to good use. By the end of the day on Saturday 6th September the Auckland Fire Brigade had attended 8 fires within nine and a half hours, a record. But Superintendent Woolley was suspicious.
Some of the outbreaks looked like arson – it appeared fire-lighters were at work. Mr Woolley’s contention was confirmed when, day after day, firemen were called to outbreaks which all looked like the results of incendiarists. At different places downtown there were fires in sheds, office blocks, a warehouse or two, a dwelling and, on several occasions, in bushes beside the road. Fortunately all had been contained, notwithstanding some had been assisted by accelerants. The calls were almost one a day. But there had been even more outbreaks. Police had been alerted to other fires that people had come across and that had been put out, and to which the brigade had not been summoned.
September 27th rolled around. It was to be another busy time for firemen with 5 calls before mid-afternoon.
The first, at around 2.30pm, was to Mrs Mary Graham’s boarding-house at the top of Shortland Street where passersby spotted a fire and prevented it getting hold. Mrs Graham was away from the house at the time. From the street, two men saw the flames in the front room, broke into the house and managed to get the better of the fire which was consuming blinds and curtains. The fire brigade checked the rest of the place: but, otherwise, had nothing to do. They were then directed to smoke showing from a shed behind William Beattie’s shop in Shortland Street. It was an incipient, but suspicious fire. Almost at the same time a passerby drew fire-fighters’ attention to another small blaze in Lee’s cooperage in nearby Chancery Street. Firemen found it had been broken into, so added it to the list of deliberately lit outbreaks. There were two further fires that day: paper on fire in the Victoria Arcade and toi-toi bushes alight in Beach Road.
Police Make Their Move
Detectives had been well aware of the suspicious fires and were looking for the culprit. They decided the fires might have been the work of two youths, whom, police noted, were present at all, or most, of the events. Detective McMahon, detailed to look into the arsons, had noticed the two lads and decided to question them. He had been in Shortland Street soon after the fires were reported there and came across one of the youths very near where all the action had been earlier in the afternoon. McMahon accused the youth of causing the fires, and seizing the opportunity of an unguarded word, succeeded in bluffing him into a confession. The lad gave his name as James Henry Sargent aged 15 of Balfour Road, Parnell. On being further pressed he admitted being the cause, in company with a friend, of the series of fires which had occurred over the past month. He named his cohort as another 15 year old, Arthur Ruddle of Napier Street. Both were later arrested and Ruddle, on learning that Sargent had confessed, confirmed the truth of his mate’s statement. Both youths were locked up awaiting appearance in the Police Court next day, where they would be facing 18 charges of arson and several of breaking and entering. At the first hearing the Magistrate remanded them in custody while police completed their inquiries. At their second appearance the police called some 35 witnesses who gave evidence of finding a fire in their premises, or having been broken into with signs that there had been attempts to start a fire. Kerosene, methylated spirits, paper tapers, shavings, straw, tarpaulins and matches were frequently mentioned in evidence.
The Clerk of the Court read out their statements which were similar. Sargent said the idea of lighting fires originated some five or six week earlier, about the time of the opening of the new fire station. He and Ruddle were talking about the new fire appliances, and spoke how much fun it would be to see the brigade galloping to a fire.
They talked the matter over, and made appointments to meet from time to time and the result was the various fires listed on the charge-sheet. He said the usual practice was for one boy to keep watch while the other lit the fire: both would then run away for a short distance, and when the brigade came along, accompany it to the fire. On some occasions they helped firemen extinguish the flames. On the occasion of the fire in Hobson’s Buildings, Sargent admitted he lit it alone because Ruddle had failed to keep an appointment. The statements gave detailed particulars of the meetings, and the lighting of the various fires, all of which were fortunately suppressed in the initial stages. The fire at Gillespie’s kerosene bond was set by pouring methylated spirits and kerosene around the door, and pushing a lighted stick (around which a rag soaked in kerosene was wrapped) under the door. The blaze at Beattie’s was also started with kerosene.
On the accused being charged, both said they had nothing to say, and pleaded guilty to all the charges. They were committed to the Supreme Court for sentence. The magistrate, T. Hutchison, indicated he would not allow bail: the two would have to await their next trial in jail. Mr Ruddle applied on behalf of his son. His Worship said he did not like refusing boys bail, but in this case the responsibility was too great for him to accept, and he must refuse bail. Chief-Detective Grace said that the boys had been confined on the female side of the gaol, and whilst there one of them had attempted to borrow a match from a female prisoner to set fire to a padded cell. His Worship repeated that the responsibility of allowing bail would be too great for him to undertake. The boys were then removed to custody awaiting a sentence in the Supreme Court.
On 12 November 1902 James Henry Sargent and Arthur Ruddle appeared in the Supreme Court before Mr Justice Connolly for sentence on the charges of arson.
His Honour read the Probation Officer’s report, which he found an unfavourable one. The Judge said it was extremely difficult to arrive at a decision what to do in such cases. He sentenced each prisoner to a total of seven years’ imprisonment, the sentences to be concurrent.
The two went to jail having pleaded guilty to the following charges, jointly faced:
“Did wilfully set fire to…
Gillespie’s kerosene store, Beach Road, (August 30)
toi-toi grass, Mills Lane (September 1)
toi-toi grass in Albert Bark (September 6)
toi-toi grass in Princes Street (September 6)
building owned by J. A. Knight, Lorne Street (September 6)
paper in a shed owned by R. C. Horton (September 6)
shavings in Tolson and Garlick and Co.’s factory (September 6)
timber in Tolson Garlick and Co.’s factory (September 6)
leaves of a book in Hobson’s Buildings, Shortland Street. (September 6)
straw and shavings on Winks and Hall’s premises, Shortland Street (September 8)
sacks at the Central Mission Hall (September 9)
wilfully damaging a tarpaulin, the property of Jas. Ferguson, by setting fire to same, doing injury to extent of 15s (September 12)
paper in a building owned by the Mutual Life Association (September 20)
paper in the N.Z. Insurance office, Victoria Arcade (September 27)
shed owned by Wm. Beattie (September 27);
wilfully breaking and entering dwelling of F. A. Lees and setting fire thereto (September 27)
breaking and entering Mary Graham’s house, Shortland Street, and setting fire to curtains (Sept 27)
toi-toi grass at Beach Road (September 27)
J. D. Roberts and Company’s Biscuit factory which was destroyed by fire on 18th July 1902 was added to the list after the two boys, who in January 1903, while serving their sentence, admitted they set the place alight. This triggered the brigade’s first turnout from the new fire headquarters in Pitt Street which had been fully commissioned just the day before.
James Henry Sargent subsequently appeared before the courts on various dishonesty charges: in 1906 he received six years’ jail on a number of charges. Once released he offended again, and again. He was convicted of theft and breaking and entry committed in Wellington, Manawatu, Christchurch and Southland. In 1913 a judge named him “a habitual criminal”.
Notwithstanding, at the age of 30 and employed in Inglewood as a butcher, Sargent enlisted on 31st March 1917 for active service abroad in World War One. Among other units he served with the 3rd New Zealand Entrenching Battalion digging trenches and other earthworks and being part of a pool of troops able to be mobilised to the front. He received severe gunshot wounds and was hospitalised, later transported home and discharged in May 1919 where he was rated 100 per cent disabled. His wartime trauma led to alcoholism … and a return to crime.
He began using several aliases – William John Walsh, James Geoffrey Graham and Ernest Watters and his repeated offending meant he spent a good deal of his life in jail.
“What is your real name? “
One of his last appearances was in Southland in 1927 after being charged with breaking and entering and theft in Riversdale. Having become by then thoroughly conversant with the court process, he enjoyed the liberty of cross-examining witnesses and addressing the jury. After which he would then inevitably plead guilty and launch a plea in mitigation to the Judge. On the occasion of his appearance in the Supreme Court in Invercargill for the Riversdale episode he told the Judge that drink was his demon after the rigours of war, but crime seemed uppermost in his mind. He said there was little hope for him in prison – he had been there so many times before – and perhaps detention on a working farm might be better for him. The Judge resisted the suggestion and sent Sargent back to jail… but before doing so he asked “what is your real name? – you have so many aliases!” The answer was “James Henry Sargent”. He had earlier told the Court that he used aliases so as not to besmirch his family’s name. Mr Justice Sim sentenced Sargent to two years in jail and again declared him ‘a habitual criminal’.
James Henry Sargent is last recorded before the court in Auckland in 1941 on a charge of theft and he was sentenced to two years’ probation, to live and work at Ohakune.
He died in November 1956 and is buried at Waikaraka Cemetery, Onehunga, Auckland.
1927 “A campaign of plundering and incendiarism…”
As with the 1902 series of arsons, the episode in 1927 was unveiled by a major fire. Flames swept through the classrooms at Normal School in Wellesley Street East (site of AUT buildings today) about 5pm on Sunday 3rd July. Firefighters arrived to find the place well involved and got to work to cut the flames off from the rear of the old wooden building.
Fire Chief Bill Wilson said it had been taxing work, the flames had a good hold and he was certain it was arson. Thick black smoke billowed across Wellesley Street into Albert Park and on towards Princes Street. The loss of about half the school’s classrooms, teaching aids and teacher’s personal property was major: the following week the pupils had to be diverted to Newton East School to continue their lessons.
Fire Chief Wilson told the press that it was apparent that the fire had been building up inside for some time before showing itself, so it was a very hot fire and he also said that it appeared the blaze was deliberately lit: it had started in a pile of old car tyres stacked in the basement. On inquiry, the headmaster told reporters the old tyres had been collected as a means of fundraising for the school library. Detectives investigated the cause of the fire.
Within days three youths had been arrested, one aged 15 the others 14. Two were charged with setting fire to the Normal School and all three with breaking and entering. They appeared in Court on 8th July. The Auckland Star observed “all appeared clad in short trousers with their socks rolled down to their boot-tops in the style affected by gangs of youths who roam round the Newton and Ponsonby districts”. The three were remanded in custody after police told the court that it was not safe to let them free. Chief Detective Cumming thought he should give them a warning before they left the dock. “Now you boys are to understand that while you are at the Probation Home you are not to get up to any tricks, such as playing with matches or setting fire to the building, otherwise you will be taken to Mount Eden Gaol”.
“All right, sir!” they all chorused.
When the three appeared in Police Court a week later they faced a total of 54 charges. As well as Normal School they were accused of 10 further cases of arson, numerous occasions of breaking and entering plus theft. And two more young offenders were also in the dock jointly charged with setting the fire at Normal School. Detective Knight told the court that some of the accused were noticed by Detective Sinclair and himself at the time of the Normal School fire. Three days later the eldest boy made a statement admitting all the offences with which he was now charged. The other four were interviewed the following day and made statements admitting their guilt. A revolver, bicycle and first-aid outfit were recovered from one boy and some stamps from another, while a third said he had disposed of his portion of the spoil. The detective said the two others were not really implicated in the whole series of offences. On July 3 they had been sent to Sunday School, but instead went to Myers Park, where they met the other three. They were present when the Normal School was set on fire, but took no active part in the crime.
The magistrate, William McKean, said he did not think the evidence against the two boys was sufficient for them to be sent to the Supreme Court. They could be adequately dealt with in the Children’s Court. But the other three who had pleaded guilty were committed to the Supreme Court for sentence.
The two boys involved in “a mild way” were sentenced in the Children’s Court to supervision. Mrs. Ferner, JP, told the mother of the boys that “stricter control is necessary and that there must be no going out at night”.
The other three appeared in the Supreme Court for sentence.
“This is, I think, the worst instance of juvenile crime I have had to deal with,” said Mr. Justice Herdman. ”How to assess an appropriate punishment is a question of difficulty… the offenders for weeks were engaged in a campaign of plundering and incendiarism and the damage done by them in their short career of crime ran into between £3,000 and £4,000. The case is one which cannot lightly be dismissed with a motherly pat on the head and an injunction not to do it again”.
The Judge said he found it difficult to find his way through the tangled maze of legislation which in New Zealand deals with the punishment of crime. “I have no power to punish by ordering a birching so the two elder boys will be detained in the Borstal Institution for a term of not less than two years, the minimum term prescribed by the Act. The other defendant should, I think, be with the other lads, and I will suggest this to the authorities. What happens to these offenders will depend upon their good behaviour and upon the will of the Executive regarding their release from Borstal”.
One of the two was a frequent defendant in the courts over following decades charged with minor thefts, false pretences and possession of stolen goods.
The list of charges April – July 1929
A total of 54 counts: some of the accused were jointly charged:
Giving six false alarms of fire on May 30 and 31
Wilfully setting fire to:
Kennerley’s storehouse in Power House Lane on June 22
packing cases at Smith and Smith, Ltd., in Albert Street, May 31
premises of Marks, Morrin and Jones, Ltd., Nelson Street, June 1
a dwelling at 76, Grey Street, on June 5.
a building at 5, Rutland Street, occupied by Moir and F. S. Sullivan, also on July 3
a building at 33, Lorne Street on the same date
two Auckland City Council sheds, in Sturdee Street, on June 28
the Normal School on July 3
a shop on the same date
John G. Nook’s shop in Avondale, on the same date
premises of Harrison and Gash, Ltd at Newmarket, June 3.
Stealing a revolver on June 29
Stealing a bicycle valued at £6 on June 11.
Stealing a bicycle valued at £3 on April 1.
Breaking and entering the counting-house of George Kennerley on June 22
Breaking and entering the counting-house of T. C. Grant on July 3 and theft
Breaking and entering Amos Firth’s shop in Avondale, on June 29
RCC 13/11/18 updated May 2020
“United to Protect” by G.M.Gillon, Orion Press, 1985
Archway – Archives New Zealand
Auckland Cemeteries data – Auckland Council