Charles Alexander Woolley was from a “fire brigade family” and began his career as a talented fireman in Auckland but who swapped his fire uniform and went to fight in World War One. He returned to rejoin the fire service and eventually become Superintendent at one of the country’s biggest brigades. His story was first told in 2014, one in a series to remember fire fighters who served – part of nation-wide celebrations to mark 100 years since the start of World War One and the Gallipoli Campaign.
The son of Charles and Edith Woolley, he was born in 1894 in Adelaide where his father was a senior officer in the fire brigade having received his training while with the London Fire Brigade.
In late 1901 Charles Snr was appointed Superintendent of Auckland Fire Brigade and the family migrated to New Zealand. Charles Snr oversaw many progressive moves within the Brigade, notably the transformation from horse-drawn hose reels to motorised appliances. He resigned in March 1918 due to illness and died in September that year.
Charles Jnr joined Auckland Fire Brigade as a boy-messenger aged 13, he served 2 years as a cadet and was then appointed fireman. Before his 18th birthday he had received his motor-driving diploma and by the age of 20 he was a senior foreman in the brigade. His brother, John (Jack), involved the family name in fire brigades: he was a member of both Remuera and Auckland City Fire Brigades.
Charles was just 21, and already had a remarkable rise through the ranks of the fire service, when he cut short his career to sign up for active service in World War One.
Charles Alexander Woolley, registered number 23/962, signed up with the Army in May 1915 and sailed with the 1st Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, for overseas aboard “Maunganui“ on October 9th, 1915.
From Fires to Arms
Woolley arrived in Egypt in mid-November and transferred by train to Aerodrome Camp near Cairo. It was a 5 week stopover before the Battalion was sent off to Alexandria en route to its first engagement with the enemy at Matruh on Christmas Day 1915. Subsequent events over 3 months proved the turning-point in the campaign that ultimately brought about the downfall of the Muslim group Senussi. Fighting took place in adverse weather and during periods without proper rations, the enemy pursued across sandy, rocky and undulating hostile territory.
In January 1917 he was among those wounded in action. After treatment and convalescence in England he was appointed to a machine-gun corps at Grantham, Lincolnshire, and promoted to Temporary Staff Sergeant-Instructor. This machine-gun branch was the nucleus of developing tanks for action in France – it later became the Tank Corps, then the Tank Regiment. Woolley was involved in these moves at Grantham and in March 1918 he was transferred to the Regiment’s depot in Camiers, France, about the time tank warfare was being reinvigorated with the arrival at the front of the new Mark V models.
Battle of Amiens
This enabled battalions of the Tank Regiment to re-equip and join preparations for the Battle of Amiens. It was to be one of the first major battles involving armoured warfare. For three days in August allies took the offensive and made a meaningful breakthrough, later regarded as “the beginning of the end of the war”. Exhausted Germans who survived the onslaught either capitulated or took to their heels. On the first day the allies, supported by the telling armoured units, advanced more than 11 kilometres (7 miles), one of the greatest advances recorded in the war. On subsequent days the allies gained further territory with many thousands of Germans taken prisoner.
The British war correspondent Phillip Gibbs said the Amiens’ effect was that “the enemy…is on the defensive” and, “the initiative of attack is so completely in our hands that we are able to strike him at many different places.”
Reinforcements, more tanks and additional armoured cars were sent from England in preparation for an all-out battle in 1919 – but the Armistice intervened.
Woolley played his part in these actions in France and was given a commission about the time the armistice was signed.
While overseas he took time out wherever he was on leave to inspect fire brigades in Germany, Britain and France, amassing expert knowledge.
After serving with the Army of Occupation in Germany, C. A. Woolley returned to New Zealand in 1916… he had been away for just in 4 years… and resumed employment with the Auckland City Fire Brigade. Woolley also resumed playing football on his return and was in the Auckland Representative Rugby team in 1919.
He then changed to Rugby League and toured Australia with the New Zealand team in 1921. The same year he had the distinction of playing in a combined Australian and New Zealand team against an Australian side at Sydney. He later reverted to Union.
Charles Woolley married Esther Pulman in July 1923 and about the same time was promoted to Inspecting Officer in the Auckland Fire Brigade and, a year later, to Third Officer.
In 1927 he went to live in Mt Roskill, a burgeoning suburb on Auckland’s South Eastern fringe, where a fire brigade was being established. Woolley was appointed superintendent. He oversaw the design and construction of the two-storeyed station in Mt Albert Road.
The brigade purchased a brand new 1927 Dennis fire engine imported from England at a cost of £1000. It was just the very latest with a 20 horse power engine capable of making 35 miles per hour (56kph). According to the Auckland Star… “it has a first-aid hose reel and a tank holding 30 gallons (110 litres) of water. The pump can send up 250 gallons (950 litres) of water a minute through 1,900 feet (580 m) of hose. The chemical fire extinguisher, salvaging gear, and smoke respirators complete the firemen’s outfit”.
Charles Woolley recruited 18 volunteer auxiliaries comprising the Mt Roskill Brigade which soon moved into the new station on Mt Albert Road.
He took to remedying the poor water reticulation throughout most parts of the borough with publicity in local newspapers saying the pressure wasn’t sufficient for fire-fighting. “Should a fire occur in these areas,” he told the Press, “there’s only the remotest chance of the property being saved. I want the Road Board to give due consideration to these recommendations to improve reticulation… the position is serious and must be taken in hand and not shelved for future years”.
He then found big gaps in fire protection and egress at the Ranfurly Home, which housed dozens of aging and recuperating returned soldiers – “…this rambling two storeyed wooden building also needs better water supply for fire-fighting”.
Notwithstanding the handicaps, the brigade was credited with several good saves. One, according to The Auckland Star, was when firemen tackled a fire in a 6-roomed house at the corner of Budock and Hillsborough Roads, confining fire-spread to the washhouse.
Woolley championed public telephone boxes in new subdivisions, so that residents could easily call in fire alarms. He had to contend with imminent proposals to amalgamate separate Fire Boards across Auckland into one cohesive fire district which he could foresee was probably the end of valuable assistance afforded by volunteers.
But before talks among the discursive parties could be resolved Woolley, in May 1932, was celebrating his 38th birthday, the very day he received word that his application was successful for the position of Superintendent of Wellington City Fire Brigade.
His first challenge in the Capital was from a newspaper correspondent who wanted to know why abundant sea-water is not favoured for fire-fighting. Woolley explained that fresh is best: salt water can play havoc with the internal parts of fire-pumps. But there were plans for each suburb showing how and where to draught salt water supplies in the event of a major fire. Harbour tugs, temporary street dams and large diameter hoses featured in the plans which, he said “have been carefully worked out by the brigade’s officers, and tests indicate a very fair degree of protection could be given, though nothing is certain when emergency conditions have to be met”.
A few years later he told a meeting of Insurance Brokers that the Brigade acknowledged the speed required in answering all fire alarms, “…and I hope others do, too. We have developed the ‘flying turnout,’ concentrating on light, fast, quickly accelerating motor units and we have negotiated with traffic departments for rights-of-way, we have placed warning sirens in congested areas, and we also press for the best street alarms. We have done our best to organise the brigade to meet all eventualities but we have to operate under a number of disadvantages, some incurable. The physical characteristics of the city, with the hills rising sheer from a narrow strip of flat land, make fire-fighting anything but easy. So far as planning is concerned, the city appears to have, like Topsy, just “growed”, and we have narrow, twisting streets, with sharp corners and hillside roads that seem to have followed goat tracks. Other disadvantages can, I hope, soon be overcome, like the present central station, which is not even large enough to house the apparatus required, not to mention the staff”.
Woolley oversaw the planning and erection of the new central fire station which opened with all due ceremony in Oriental Parade in December 1937.
He also modernised much of the equipment, bettered firemen’s work conditions and planned for replacement of several aging suburban stations plus the construction of new ones to meet Wellington’s growth. He introduced a new specialist vehicle, the Salvage Tender, and updated old appliances. Unbeknown to him at the time, this stood the city in good stead for new risks over the bleak war years.
Second World War
Woolley headed the Brigade throughout the conflict, punctuated with drawn out argument and controversy when Emergency Precaution System and Fire Protection Services were established in tandem with Civil Defence, the Home Guard and existing fire services.
Woolley, like others, had to ask who was in charge at fires, who was responsible, who was providing training and the uniforms and how did the new organisations dovetail with existing brigades? After months of uncertainty the Government moved to appoint District Fire Controllers (Woolley was chosen for Wellington) under the Emergency Fire Service constituted in 1941. This was designed to ensure existing (augmented) fire services operated in parallel with, but subordinate to, Civil Defence measures. This scheme was stepped up after the raids on Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 when Japan’s participation in the war increased the perceived risk of invasion.
Woolley also strengthened the ranks of Wellington Fire Police as an adjunct to firefighting and salvage during the war years, ensuring they were looked after with uniform, equipment and an additional petrol allowance during rationing so they could get to fires and to training in their private cars.
Post- war Woolley pushed development of the fire brigade as quickly and as hard as post-war austerity and restrictions allowed. It was a quiet time. There was some suggestion of revised fire legislation to overhaul and update fire protection services in New Zealand… and this became urgent after a disastrous fire. A formal Inquiry had investigated matters surrounding the blaze in Ballantyne’s Department Store, Christchurch on 18th November 1947 in which 41 people died. The Inquiry found many shortcomings and made a host of recommendations to improve fire services and building regulations. Some changes required legislation.
Subsequently C. A. Woolley was still superintendent in Wellington when, for the first time in New Zealand, an over-arching body was created, the Fire Service Council, which had oversight of all fire brigades. Fire Boards had now to confer with the Council on certain acquisitions and procedures to promote nation-wide standards and a Dominion Chief Fire Services Officer was appointed to further reform fire brigades throughout the country.
When considering a new fire engine for Wellington in 1953 Charles Woolley recalled the reliability and power of Mt Roskill’s old Dennis appliance and those he had since encountered. He set something of a new standard when he ordered the Brigade’s first Dennis in the “F” series, a powerful F12, the largest model in the series known as the “limousine fully-enclosed appliance”, reputedly “the best yet made by Dennis Brothers of Guilford in England”.
Worldwide, these fire engines were found to be ideal for urban fire brigades: Woolley’s lead was followed for the next 20 years as Wellington Fire Brigade added first, a Dennis turntable ladder and then other Dennis appliances to enhance and modernise the fleet. Wellington held out, insisting on Dennis replacements, long after the Fire Service Council began steering fire brigades to buy appliances made locally.
Charles Alexander Woolley retired as Chief Fire Officer of the Wellington Fire Brigade in 1954 after 22 years in command.
In the Queen’s Birthday Honours that year it was announced he had been made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).
He died on November the first 1966, aged 72.
We are remembering them.
Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand
Archway New Zealand archives
Gordon Drummond Collection
“Bells to Blazes – The Story of the Wellington Fire Brigade 1865 -1985” edited by Rex Monigatti
RCC 2014 / 2020