Asher Asher was a businessman in early Auckland who led the town’s first volunteer fire brigade. But there’s a challenge to this fact in the writings of another pioneer, William Daldy. Based on evidence, however, it’s safe to say that Asher Asher was indeed the first fire chief in Auckland with the title Superintendent.
Asher Asher was from London, arriving in Auckland with his parents in 1842 when he was aged 20.
William Crush Daldy, from Essex in England, was a ship’s captain who settled in Auckland in 1846 aged 30.
There are two instances when William Crush Daldy claimed he was the first to lead Auckland’s Volunteer Fire Brigade. The first was his own writing in what is described as his diary but which were his recollections written when he was aged 83.1 The supposition that he was Auckland’s first fire chief is further carried in a book about Daldy’s life published in 1993. 2
In short, Daldy claims that about 1848-49 the first volunteer brigade was formed and that he was elected Captain. He says he had help from Asher Asher and others. 3.
Daldy also reckons he had firefighting equipment including an engine, ladders, buckets and says all the town’s water wells were marked. 4.
Daldy recalls two specific fires in his diary, one in the new National Bank Building, the other in Coombes’ block. 5.
Some townspeople credited Daldy with forming a fire brigade following a public meeting held in September 1849 because of what they called ‘the present emergency’?” 6
“The Present Emergency…”
But the concern about fire in the closely-settled wooden buildings of burgeoning Auckland was just one of the topics discussed. More importantly, settlers discussed other matters that night and in the end didn’t bother themselves about fighting fires. Those gathered wanted just one thing – to get rid of the Governor, George Grey.
The accusing townsfolk were tired of his ‘despotic rule’, which they said was delaying all development in the Colony because he stopped land sales, delayed public works and passed restrictive laws. They said the over-zealous Grey was dissuading further settlers and demoralising those already here. He had to go. 7.
Various matters along with the dissolution of the Provincial Council, comprised ‘the present emergency’. And they were not solely Auckland’s lack of fire protection. Daldy would have had no authority, nor motivation, to immediately go out and set up a fire brigade at that time.
Military had the Monopoly
There is no evidence that there was an organised fire brigade in Auckland in 1848 or 1849. The military had the sole “fire engine” in town. It was a hand-pump, a cart, dragged to fires by the garrison’s soldiers. They drew water from the sea or from wells and pumped it through leather hoses, directing it on to the flames. The soldiers responded, for example, to the major fire that destroyed Government House in June, 1848. 8.
It’s recorded that the Governor, himself, thanked everyone who assisted on the night of the fire: the volunteer fire brigade isn’t mentioned: there wasn’t one. William Daldy is not reported in attendance, and he surely would have been mentioned if he was Captain of the fire brigade, present, and fighting the blaze. 9.
The newspaper of the day confirms that Auckland had only one fire engine – and it belonged to the military. 10
The City Fathers Take Action
Further evidence of this was a resolution passed at a meeting of the Municipal Corporation in early 1852 calling for the purchase a fire engine and equipment from Merryweather in London and that ‘a competent fire brigade be organised’. There was also realisation that a water supply for fire-fighting, in all seasons, was going to be essential. 11
This was before a water supply for the downtown area was piped from the Domain duck pond.
Once again, the military engine was the only equipment available late 1853 to tackle a blaze in the Black Bull Inn in Albert Street. The crew of the navy ship “Pandora” came ashore to assist and their combined efforts prevented the fire spreading. There’s no mention of a volunteer fire brigade. 12
The City Council followed up with a By-law in August 1854 which did two things. The Council would collect an annual “fire levy” on every building in the town. (In effect the introduction of annual rates collected by local bodies). The second objective was to provide fire protection: the By-law declared there would be a “City Fire Brigade” funded by the “fire levies” collected by the Council.
Then again, in December 1854, the military were at the much more serious outbreak of fire in Fort Street in December 1854. 13
Reviewing the damage done by that blaze the “Daily Southern Cross” advocated the formation of a fire brigade. 14. The newspaper would not have said this had Daldy’s brigade already existed.
A Reminder from Abroad
Moves towards a fire brigade stemmed from concern by local businessmen in December, 1853, when attention was drawn to further fires in San Francisco, an earlier major blaze having all but destroyed the city.
Auckland businessmen said it would be foolish to rely on the military while waiting for the government or council to provide proper fire protection. Auckland newspapers reported that San Francisco had learned the lesson about fire protection, establishing no fewer than fourteeen Fire Companies with 840 men at the ready. This prompted Auckland townsfolk to form several sub-committees to collect subscriptions from citizens. They said Auckland, with its mainly wooden buildings – as had been the case in San Francisco – needed fire protection and the money gathered would go towards purchase of ‘fire engines etc’. 15
This fire brigade equipment – the first investment by the community for such – showed that in 1853 there was no fire brigade in Auckland: the military had the sole fire engine. Thus Daldy could not have led a Brigade with a fire engine 4 or 5 years earlier, in 1848-1849, as he claimed.
Enter Asher Asher
About the same time, late 1853, local businessman Asher Asher began to get interested in fire protection and he imported a quantity of portable fire escapes, ladders and fire buckets, and advertised them for sale in local newspapers from May 1854. He had a shop in Shortland Street. 16
He presented a set of these escape ladders to the City Council in October 1854 which was gratefully received, stored in a lock-up in Market House ready for any emergency. 17
They were kept in the Market House, near the waterfront, because there was no fire station. It’s recorded that the Commissioner of Police was trusted with the key. Had there been a fire brigade then surely its officer- in-charge would have held a key enabling him access when required.
Some townsfolk had short memories about the devastation fire had already caused in the colony and there remained some antipathy about fire protection, especially when they were called on to pay the fire levy. Some refused to pay the small rate the council levied to fund the fire brigade once formed, to build a fire station and to equip it. 18
New Fire Engines
Real progress towards a fire brigade took place In February 1855 when the 2 new Merryweather fire engines which had been funded by townsfolk arrived, ready for service. 19. And it was always known that the Provincial Government was also buying one, with the understanding that all three engines would combine for fire-fighting. The militia’s engine could also be counted-on in times of need.
Within a month a meeting was called, mid-March 1855, to put the new fire engines into service. While William Daldy was appointed to a committee to oversee funds and administration, it was Asher Asher, along with others, who were tasked with forming two new brigades to deploy the Merryweather fire engines. 20
The claim that these men comprised Auckland’s first fire brigades is backed up in the newspaper of the time with a write-up welcoming their formation as a great improvement for the city. 21
Recruiting began and within a week or so – in March 1855 – all those men interested in joining an engine company gathered. They enrolled on-the-spot and within days they were practising in Queen Street. 22
And the new firefighters didn’t have long to wait before they were called out to a fire. On 24th March they responded to Chancery Street but the blaze had been extinguished by neighbours and the next day they turned out to a fire in Shortland Street, also subdued without the need for their services. But the “Daily Southern Cross” praised them for their rapid deployment to both calls. 23
The newspaper further welcomed the formation of these brigades. 24. More recruits were sought in April 1855. 25
Combining Resources to Fight Fire
By May 1855 the combined Engine Companies were regarded as one fire brigade, acknowledged when it was being proposed that the engine imported by the Provincial Council be handed over to ‘the brigade’.26
So Asher Asher did not follow Daldy as Superintendent of the Brigade as Daldy infers in his recollections. And October 1854, which he recalls as the date Asher took over as Superintendent, is wrong. 27
There was some pressure on Asher, having helped establish these brigades in 1855, to combine them as one stand-alone brigade. Before going ahead it was essential to have sufficient firefighters and Asher could see a problem with this. By March 1857 there were real fears that those members of the Engine Companies who were also soldiers may no longer be available because, more and more, they were being deployed at the front, defending the threat from Maori dissidents in South Auckland. The fire brigades relied on the soldiers’ help, so Asher took two actions. He advertised a meeting to reorganise the brigade, as the “Engine Companies” were by now, collectively, known. 28
And he asked the Government to ensure militia support. The Governor, realising the problem, acted. In September 1857 the military formally advised that it realised the town’s fire protection depended on the availability of those soldiers who were also members of the fire brigade. While the soldiers could not be excused active duty at the front, they would be drafted as a ‘fire detachment’. It seems this meant they would be deployed on ‘local duties’ and thus always available in the town to help fight fires. 29
Within a month, despite arguments, the Provincial Government handed over its fire engine in October 1857, along with all its gear and it was re-organised as one of the brigade’s 3 fire engines. 100 volunteers were sought, the estimated number required to man 3 engines, the number based on the militia’s experience. This figure was probably recalled by Daldy when he mistakenly wrote in his diary that it was the number of men he led as Fire Chief in 1848.
Asher Asher as Superintendent
Asher Asher officially became Superintendent on 13 October 1857 at a meeting which formally united the 2 Engine Companies and then elected Captains for each. Amalgamation talks had been going for some time and at the meeting Asher was unanimously elected to lead the one organised fire brigade, known as the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, combining all available fire-fighting equipment which was then allocated to each of the Brigade’s Fire Engine Companies, ready for action. 30
It was well-known and widely publicised that Asher Asher was elected on that date – the first Superintendent of Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, the first to hold this office anywhere in New Zealand because Auckland had the first such fire brigade. 31
The newly-combined brigade wasted no time in practising and by mid-November 1857 they had a well-planned and rehearsed process to find and pump water, two engines (those purchased by public subscription) often feeding the third (ex-Provincial Government) to provide sufficient pressure for fire-fighting in the town area”. 32
The Great Fire of July 1858
“Townsfolk could see progress and Asher was specially thanked for his work, as Superintendent, at the Great Fire of July, 1858. 33
It was huge fire attended by the 3 engines working together, along with the Army’s outfit. The blaze got an early hold and much of the business district around High Street was gutted with big losses. Daldy was also there, acting in a private capacity, joining others to help save some premises.
Another aspect suggesting Daldy’s recollections were somewhat hazy concerned the water sources in early Auckland. He says wells and water courses were marked on a map in 1848. But there is documented evidence that it was only in late 1854 that the Royal Engineers were completing their useful project to map all the available local wells and waterholes so that there was a ready reference of their locations, essential in times of fire. 34
And then a year later the City Council began constructing wells at strategic places throughout the built-up area specifically for fire-fighting with attention to ready and easy access for the brigade”. 35
It was only after these sources were available and marked that it was made clear that the brigade had the right to use the water: at long last firefighters could be reasonably certain of supplies for their pumps as of right. Although firefighters sometimes drew on sea-water for waterfront fires, they couldn’t rely on it if the tide was out.
William Daldy’s mention of two colleagues assisting him with the early brigade also shows confusion. Asher, named as one, was not part of the brigade at that stage. But in 1858, when he had been Chief, the fire brigade fell apart in disarray so the garrison of the 58th Regiment reverted as the mainstay for Auckland’s fire-fighting. But the soldiers returned to England in November that year leaving only police to attend to fires.
Then, in February 1859 after re-organisation, the fire brigade started up again. Asher was involved, but this brigade, too, was short-lived, with firefighters claiming they were under-resourced by the Council and received nothing but discouragement from the authorities. So they packed it in some 3 months later in May 1859. There’s evidence that this was when Daldy came in – it was August 1860 when he led a reformed brigade and was made Superintendent overseeing the 3 engines. 36
The other names Daldy recalled as connected with the earlier brigade, in 1848, were ‘Rattry’ and ‘Hely, from H. M. Customs’. 37
‘Rattry’ may be traced as probably William (Bill) Rattray who was more than likely there in 1860 because he is listed as a Foreman of one of the engines. 38
‘Hely from H M Customs’ is possibly meant to refer to Thomas Hendry Eley who was on official, a Landing Waiter, in the Customs office in the 1850s. Eley was one of those helping Daldy, as civilians, at the devastating fire downtown in July 1858. They were singled out for mention in the newspaper at the time. 39
Or perhaps it was Angelo Elias, another similar name, a man who had a shop in Queen Street about the late 1850s. 40. The name Elias was mentioned as a Foreman who volunteered to serve under Daldy for the Northern Engine. 41
But that could be a mis-print, Elias instead of Ellis. Maybe Daldy meant Ellis from Freemans Bay who was on the crew of one of the engines, one of the better Foremen working under Daldy. 42
But its apparent these events occurred a good deal later than Daldy’s claim of 1848: more likely in 1860. Neither Rattray and Ellis, for example, had arrived in Auckland until much later than 1848. 43, 44
Then there’s another inconsistency when Daldy mentions in his reminiscences the fire in the new National Bank as if it was about the time he was Captain, supposedly in 1848. 45
The fact is the National Bank of New Zealand wasn’t formed until 1872 and in Auckland didn’t open its doors until April 1873. 46
And by that date Daldy had gone from the brigade – he left in 1863 when the brigade dissolved for the umpteenth time.
Asher Asher was his Deputy when that happened: the turbulent era for fire brigades in Auckland was to continue. There were years of turmoil, arguments about who should have command of the brigades, who should run the engines and who should pay for them. Asher made several attempts to reshape the brigades: it was obviously difficult leading such troubled outfits. He helped form a new brigade in May 1865 but it failed and he tried again in March 1866 which had a longer life… but in September 1868 it, too, disbanded. 47
Asher was to retain an interest in fire protection with brigades working together with the Insurance Companies’ Brigades. But the relationship between them soured. By mid-1872 there was a falling out: Asher found there was intense competition between the volunteer brigade and the Insurance brigade. He was moved to advertise in the local newspaper that anyone trespassing in the fire station would be prosecuted and then he had a notice published to say that he had been put in charge of firefighting equipment at 3 depots… at the same time warning off members of the Insurance Brigade.
The Insurance Companies’ Brigade advertised in the same newspapers that Seering Matthews had taken over as their Superintendent and he, in turn, advised the “going rates” for anyone who helped his Brigade.
Despite this initial competition the brigade continued to attend outbreaks together, both outfits working against the common enemy, fire. The newspapers called them ‘rival brigades’. 48
“A Pretender” emerges
In November that year there was a light-hearted challenge to Asher’s position as Superintendent, a position and rank he had retained. Christopher Greenway, said to be ‘the richest man in Auckland’, had disagreed with Asher’s firefighting techniques at several outbreaks. In November 1872 Greenway wrote to the editor of the “Southern Cross” newspaper repeating his criticism and, in the interests of improved fire protection, he offered to take over the job of Superintendent of the Fire Brigade – and without any payment. Greenway was described in the Press as a ‘gentleman of Remuera’ before he moved into the city to live, the owner of many downtown properties. The “Southern Cross” gently mocked his offer saying that if the brigades were placed under his command surely he would generously dip into his immense personal wealth to pay for them. His offer to be Superintendent was not taken up.
But the difficulty of managing fire brigades remained. Asher continued drilling with the brigades. Good numbers had been retained, sometimes 50 men mustered for training, and there were some worthy saves, attending fires both big and small. Lack of water, rather than a shortage of manpower, equipment or expertise was the main hindrance to providing ideal fire protection for the city. Asher’s firefighting abilities were sometimes questioned, mainly by rivals – Mr Seering Matthews and his insurance friends – with criticism once or twice boiling over into caustic debate through newspaper columns.
Asher Asher Bows Out
Asher Asher was appointed the town’s Fire Inspector and, soon after, a municipal Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed in 1874. A joint committee of the City Council and Insurance Companies was formed to appoint the brigade’s new Superintendent and this may have been Asher’s undoing. The insurance interests on the committee who had earlier criticised his administration and firefighting operations probably voted against him. But he also had his supporters on the committee. Thanks to his later remarks we learn that the committee was evenly divided between him and John Hughes of the Dunedin Fire Brigade. Nothing could shake either side and this inevitable tie resulted in the name of the successful candidate being drawn from a hat. John Hughes was appointed in July 1874. An embittered Asher Asher moved to Tauranga where for some years he progressed the fire brigade there.
When he died in 1899 there was further documentation that debunks Daldy’s writings. The “New Zealand Herald” wrote in an obituary… ‘Mr. Asher was the original founder of the Auckland Fire Brigade… ‘. 49
And “The Auckland Star” wrote that he ‘… was the founder and first Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, which was also the first in the colony’.50
In September 1874, when John Hughes succeeded Asher as Superintendent, there was a letter to the editor of the “Southern Cross” recalling his service. ‘It is hardly necessary to state,’ it said, ‘that Mr Asher has been connected (and was the first to start) a Fire Brigade in Auckland 19 years ago’. 51
While the correspondent may have been a little generous with the number of years Asher served as officer in charge, the man himself put his service much more accurately at the farewell function the Brigade held for him in 1874 when he said that he had answered every fire bell for the past 17 years, in other words since 1857, the year he was made Superintendent”. 52
And again, there was a write-up in newspapers in 1897 when, on October 12th, Asher was receiving congratulations having completed 40 years of service as a fire brigade officer. ‘Asher was appointed Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, being the first established in the colony on the 13th October, 1857 and then in Tauranga he organised and has led the fire brigade for 10 years’”. 53
In 1903 William Daldy was eulogised in the “New Zealand Herald”. The newspaper said “…some 40 years ago… Daldy formed one of the finest fire brigades in the colony, the deceased being appointed its captain”. 54
This, much more accurately, puts Daldy in charge of the Brigade in the early 1860s sometime after Asher Asher was elected as Superintendent of the first brigade.
The Minute Book of the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade is available at Auckland Library, donated by Asher Asher. Its contents also show that, throughout difficult early times, “he was elected Superintendent of the various brigades from the very first”.55
November 2015/September 2020/May 2021
- William Crush Daldy, 1816-1903, pioneer Auckland settler:
“1848-49, the first volunteer fire brigade was formed and I was elected Captain. I had associated with me Asher, W. Rattry, H Ely and many other citizens. We had one engine, ladders, buckets and wells marked during my time. Mr Asher succeeded me in charge. I now began to take an interest in public affairs and shortly after this was captain of the first brigade with 100 men” – his diary November 17th 1898.
- Captain William Crush Daldy by Lesley N. Dugdale, Heritage Press 1993 among many other publications quoting passages from Daldy’s diary
- Diary of William Crush Daldy written on November 17 1898.
- Southern Cross Public Notice of Meeting 4 September 1849
- Daily Southern Cross 11 September 1849 news article, proceedings of meeting
- New Zealander July 26 1848 news article Government House burns down
- New Zealander 24 June 1848 news article – the military turned out more for crowd control and salvage rather than to fight the fire “…because Auckland, alas, possesses but one of those essentials to the extinction of fire, an engine”.
- Daily Southern Cross 24 February 1852 news article reporting meeting of Auckland Municipal Corporation
- Daily Southern Cross 8 December 1853 news article Black Bull on fire
- New Zealander 20 December 1854 news article re garrison attendance at Fort Street fire
- Ibid 20 December 1854 “The results of Sunday night (fire) effectually testify to the great advantages to be derived from the organization of an efficient Fire Brigade…”
- New Zealander 24 June 1848 “…because Auckland, alas, possesses but one of those essentials to the extinction of fire, an engine.” (Reference to the Garrison’s engine)
- Daily Southern Cross 27 June 1853 advertisement for ladders, buckets etc
- New Zealander 1 October 1854 news item report on Council proceedings
- New Zealander 22 November 1854 news item and opinion piece on the fire levy
- Daily Southern Cross 6 February 1855 Port of Auckland list of foreign imports per “Josephine Willis” arrived 5 February 1855 from London
- New Zealander 17 March 1855 news item report that the Fire Prevention Committee is dissolving in favour of committees to form engine companies so as to “prevent procrastination over the formation of an efficient brigade” which will work together with the Provincial Council’s engine.
- Daily Southern Cross 19 December 1854 “…a well-appointed Fire Brigade might be rendered one of the most invaluable bands that could possibly be formed for the protection and security of Auckland”
- Ibid 23March 1855 news article reporting Fire Brigade is practising and water-testing
- New Zealander 18 March 1855 “…we must not pass unnoticed the praiseworthy anxiety that has been manifested by the inhabitants in the formation of Volunteer Fire Brigades… …we rejoice, therefore, to find that the feeling in favour of the formation of Volunteer Fire Brigades is so strong…”
- Daily Southern Cross 27 March 1855 news article about two weekend fires
- Daily Southern Cross 7 April 1857, notice of fire brigade meeting and seeking new recruits
- Daily Southern Cross 1 May 1855 news article reporting Provincial Council business –“…Mr Derrom: There is one volunteer fire brigade and the engines are made to work together…”
- “United to Protect” by G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press. Also: “New Zealand Tragedies Fires & Firefighting” by Gavin McLean, 1992, Grantham House
- Daily Southern Cross 7th April 1857 Advertising meeting of the Fire Brigade
- New Zealander 12 September 1857 letter from Captain H C Balneavis
- “Decently and in Order” by G W A Bush, Auckland City Council, 1971. Also City Board Act, 1863, legislated by Auckland Provincial Government. Also “Cyclopedia of New Zealand”, The Cyclopedia Company 1902, accessed through NZETC website.
- “A Century of Service to Tauranga, 1882-1982” , by A. C. Bellamy, July 1982 , Publicity Printing Ltd, Tauranga, history of Tauranga Fire Brigade. Also “United To Protect” G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press. Also “timespanner” blog on the internet by Lisa Truttman, reprinted in “Priority Message” newsletter of the Auckland Fire Brigade Historical Society, September 2013
- New Zealand Herald 16 Oct 1897 reporting Asher’s 40 years of service in fire brigades. Also NZ League Co NZ website, the life of player Arapeta Paurini (Opai) Asher – “His grandfather was the first superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade”.
- Daily Southern Cross 9 July 1858 report Provincial Council proceedings. And New Zealander 10 July 1858 news item detailing a destructive fire in the city
- New Zealander 20 December 1854 news item following a fire downtown
- New Zealander 24 March 1855 report of Auckland City Council proceedings
- New Zealander 24 October 1860 report of fire meeting
- “Captain William Crush Daldy” by Lesley N. Dugdale, Heritage Press 1993 among many other publications quoting the passages from Daldy’s diary
- New Zealander 24 October 1860 report of fire meeting
- Southern Cross 3 December 1861 Obituary – Thomas Hendry Ely: New Zealander 10 July 1858
- List of ratepayers with shop frontages to Queen Street, Auckland, 1858
- New Zealander 24 October 1861 report of fire meeting
- New Zealander 22 January 1862 Oliver Sydney Ellis, Captain of Fire Engine also Jury List for 1860-61, Daily Southern Cross, 7 February 1860
- “Asher Asher – His Life and Times 1822 -1899” Nan Payne published by R. C. Payne 1988, also Rattray family arrivals at Auckland aboard “Kestrel“ from Melbourne, March 26 1853, New Zealander 30 March 1853, also Auckland Star 4 August 1932 news article
- Daily Southern Cross 19 July 1859 O.S. Ellis arrived at Auckland aboard “Whirlwind” July 16 1859
- Diary of William Crush Daldy written on November 17 1898
- New Zealand Herald 2 April 1873 news article
- Auckland Star 21 January 1873
- “United To Protect” G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press page 22ff. Also Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade Minute Book, NZMS 223, held at Sir George Grey Collections, Auckland Library
- New Zealand Herald 17 February 1899 obituary for Asher Asher
- Auckland Star 20 February 1899 obituary for Asher Asher
- Daily Southern Cross 10 September 1874 Letter to the Editor from ‘A Volunteer’
- Daily Southern Cross 29 September 1874 news item re farewell function and presentation
- New Zealand Herald 16 October 1897 news article re Asher’s 40th anniversary as fire chief
- New Zealand Herald 6 October 1903, obituary for William Crush Daldy
- Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade Minute Book, NZMS 223, held at Sir George Grey Collections, Auckland Library