A Magnificent Trophy – The Silver Casket

During a visit to the museum in Napier (mtg Hawkes Bay) I came across an exquisite item featured in the exhibition “Silver, Heirlooms from the Collection”. It captured my eye because, having an interest in fire service history, I noticed it was a silver trophy for competition between the two local fire brigades in the 1880s and described at the time as “…one of the finest pieces of presentation plate ever brought to New Zealand”. More than 140 years later I found that the intricately-crafted piece more than lives up to its reputation… and has a story to tell.

The Trophy

The plaque on the side says the trophy was presented to the Napier Fire Brigade by Messrs Neal and Close in 1881. The donors designed a casket and then commissioned silver-smiths in Manchester, England to make it. We shall meet the donors and the makers later… but first their trophy.

“Trophy 1885, gifted by the Spit Fire Brigade, Ahuriri, Napier
MTG Hawkes Bay 69/292/5” – exhibition brochure

It’s in the shape of a casket, 43 centimetres (1 foot five inches) high, 38 centimetres (1’ 3”) long, and 30 centimetres (12”) across, weighing 11kg (400 ounces).  The trophy was for competition between two local volunteer fire brigades, Napier and Spit (Ahuriri) and is extremely appropriate, unmistakably designed for the purpose, and certainly announcing prowess and superiority in competition.

         

Its chief embellishment on the top of the casket is a model in plate of a horse-drawn manual fire-engine, crafted in great detail, with a suggestion it’s based on a Merryweather pump seen here in the London company’s 1890 catalogue. The model is complete with lanterns, ladders, hitching gear and water inlet/outlet valves.

                             

At each corner of the lid stands a figure of a fireman in the act of pointing a hose-line, and beneath these, continued downwards so as to form the feet of the casket, are grotesque stork-like figures.

The sides of the casket are adorned with beautifully executed chase work, and in front is a fire-engine depicted in ” full cry” as it responds to a fire. The urgency of the situation is well-conveyed in the action: the galloping horses, the fire chief blowing his trumpet while another fireman is reaching out, as if gesturing to spectators to stand back, allowing the fire engine on its way.

Inside, the casket is handsomely lined with sky-blue satin. The trophy was held to be something special even in Manchester, the home of the silversmiths and the centre of electro-plate manufacture, when the “Birmingham Daily Post” made mention of it, “…it’s a most handsome and elaborate presentation, altogether a highly-finished and admirable piece of workmanship which, rightly, will be highly competed-for in Napier”.

The Donors

So, who were “Messrs Neal and Close” as inscribed on the trophy?  They turn out to be two Johns, John Close and John Neal, immigrants from England who created a business partnership in Napier in the mid-1860s.

John Close. Auckland Libraries

John Neal.  Auckland Libraries

They set up shop in Hastings Street, at first outfitters and drapers, later extending to dairy, grocery and liquor, while their other enterprises stretched to land-owning and hotels throughout Hawkes Bay. Their shop was ever-expanding, arguably the first department store in Napier, the best-known retailer in the province – and beyond. The company reflected the personal philanthropy of Messrs Neal and Close when it donated numerous prizes to sports clubs and community organisations, both in cash and in kind. It was in 1881 that the firm decided to give a trophy for competition between Napier and Spit (also known as Ahuriri or Port) Fire Brigades and the two Johns designed the silver casket. They stipulated that, in terms of the competition, it would ultimately be won outright by the better of the two brigades… it was not a prize for annual competition in perpetuity.

Remnants of the company Neal and Close continued until well into the 1900s despite a strange occurrence in 1896 when, within several weeks, the company changed ownership 3 times. In late December Messrs Neal and Close sold the business as a going concern – land, building, stock and plant – to well-known Wellington retailer, Kirkcaldie and Stains. Four days later on January 4th Neal and Close bought the business back. A confused public was even more rattled when, just four days later, it was announced that Kirkcaldies had purchased the business again… and that Mr Neal would stay on to manage grocery and liquor departments. “Truly a most remarkable business transaction…”, The Hastings Standard newspaper said on January 14th, 1897.

In 1894 Neal and Close had given a band rotunda to Napier City, situated on land the company donated at the intersection of Marine Parade and Tennyson Street. The structure was elaborately decorated with ornate iron-work and there was a  weathervane featuring the initials N&C.

The New Masonic Hotel, Pohutukawa trees and the band rotunda, c1900 Auckland Libraries

This was followed in 1897 with the opening of the New Masonic Hotel, owned by Neal and Close Limited, accommodation with the most modern facilities boasting a billiard room,  smoking-rooms and wine cellars. Bedrooms had been decorated with themes, lounges were richly furnished while the well-equipped kitchens were second to none. It replaced the old hotel, destroyed by fire. During the opening ceremony for the new hotel, dignitaries planted Pohutukawa trees on Marine Parade: they appear to have survived today, but both the hotel and the band rotunda were destroyed in the 1931 earthquake.

John Wainhouse Neal died in Napier on 7th January 1898 aged 58. Apart from his business affairs he had been a Napier Borough Councillor from the time it was formed in 1875 until his death (with one short break) and he had also been an elected member on the Harbour Board for almost as many years. His demise ended a 25-year business partnership.

John Close was 68 when he died in Napier on 24th June 1902. Unlike his business partner, Close did not take part in local politics although he was one of the promoters of the Napier Park Racing Club and was for many years its President. He was also chairman of the Gas Company Board of Directors. His philanthropy continued in death – his bequest ensured “hams and ale” gifts were distributed to Napier’s not-so-well-off folk at Christmas time.

The Makers

Messrs Neal and Close sent their design for a trophy to England, to the firm of silversmiths and electroplaters, William Spurrier, who had their premises at Colmore Row and Newall Street in Birmingham and a showroom in Coleman Street, London.  In choosing a manufacturer in Birmingham, the donors went to the heart of silversmith country… and to Spurrier who, in 1881, was well known and respected in the trade.

Competition for the Trophy

Delays  

The question may be asked, knowing the trophy was completed by the silversmiths in December 1881, why it was not competed for until 1886.

There was no delay in delivery from Spurrier’s: the trophy arrived in New Zealand early in 1882 and it was on display in Neal and Close’s shop window, attracting much attention. Competition for it was ruled out in 1882 because arrangements for the challenge between the two brigades could not be made in time for that year’s Annual Competitions held in April. And then, more than a year later, in May 1883 it was advised that the two brigades could not agree on the events which would comprise the challenge nor the numbers of firefighters eligible to take part. Neal and Close themselves ended the squabble when they decided on the format and invited the brigades to accept the conditions… and the challenge. Spit Fire Brigade immediately agreed. Napier did not, cynics saying Napier feared they would lose on the basis of the fire brigade routines chosen by the donors. It took another year to sort out these matters: meantime the expensive, handsome trophy awaited the challenge.

A Decision, and a Winner at Last

In September 1885 the form of competition was agreed. It would be between two 5-men teams from each Brigade, the trophy awarded to the team making the best time in 3 events: hose reel, engine and hose & ladder. It was further settled, in terms of stipulations laid down by Neal and Close, that after the first contest in January 1886 the trophy must be competed for in November of each following year until won twice in succession by either Napier or Spit brigades… and that the trophy would become the property of the winning brigade.

At the first contest in 1886 it was recorded that both Spit teams “met with many accidents during the contest” and Napier easily won. In 1887 Spit turned the tables with a good win. 1888 provided an exciting clash… if Spit won it again for a second time in succession, they would be the overall winners. In a tense contest the firefighters from Spit won comfortably and took ownership of the exquisite trophy.

Spit firefighters retained possession until their brigade was disbanded in 1968 (when Ahuriri and the Port was protected from Napier City) and the trophy was donated to the Napier Museum (now MTG Hawkes Bay) along with other valuable silver pieces the brigade members had won over the years.

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RCC June 2023

Unattributed photos are by the author.

References

“Silver, HEIRLOOMS FROM THE COLLECTION”,  brochure accompanying display, MTG, 2023

Hawkes Bay Today, Michael Fowler, New Zealand Herald, 16th March, accessed on line 30th May 2023

“Birmingham Daily Post” December 5th 1881 accessed on line 30 May 2023

Silversmiths and their Marks:  www.silvercollection.it accessed 1st June 2023

Papers Past National Library of New Zealand, accessed on line 23rd May – 2nd June 2023: Daily Telegraph, Hastings Standard, Hawke’s Bay Herald, Hawke’s Bay Times, Hawke’s Bay Tribune, New Zealand Herald.