Auckland Before it had a Dependable Fire Brigade

Accounts of Auckland’s fire protection before 1857, when a volunteer brigade was established, usually amount to a couple of lines saying that “organised”  fire-fighting in those early days was left to men from the Navy and Army, and citizens. Auckland began to be settled in 1840, so that was 17 years without a fire brigade with reliance on the armed services, and even longer than that because the first volunteers could not be counted on. It was not until 1874 that a Municipal Fire Brigade began and dependence on the military eased.

Auckland’s first fire causing material damage occurred within weeks of its founding. A small advance party of Government officials arrived on the shores of the Waitemata Harbour in September 1840 with orders to create the colony’s new capital, Auckland. Surveyor Felton Mathew was among those set the task. He and his wife, Sarah, both kept diaries and she details the first fire.

She writes on October 3rd, 1840, that she returned to Store Bay (later Commercial Bay at the foot of present Queen Street) to find the area obscured by smoke. She discovered a party of the ship’s company had  been employed clearing manuka, fern and bush and had set fire to the undergrowth about a mile (1.6km) into the hills as part of their work. But a sudden wind-change swept the flames towards the shoreline, the fire racing down a gully, threatening the few buildings and tents on the waterfront.

The bush behnd the Government Store,1840. Original sketch by Dr John Johnston

The men – mechanics, surveyors and sailors – had a tough job cutting off the fire-front. They had no fire-fighting equipment except the hand tools they carried. Ship’s crew, volunteering their help, came ashore. It was good fortune, Sarah Mathew wrote, that the Government Store was undamaged, but “considerable items were lost. Several crates containing ironmongery and all my cooking utensils were destroyed,” she wrote “we have to be thankful no lives were lost”.

It was the first property fire recorded in the new Auckland.

There’s  also a glimpse of the “old days” in a speech given in 1878 by the Master of Ceremonies to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Auckland’s fire brigade. C. S. Graham, Chairman of the United Insurance Companies Association said he had witnessed the first structure fire in Auckland, a raupo (flax) store which stood between pioneering traders’ A Clarke’s and Brown & Campbell’s premises. This blaze, he said was arson, and Auckland’s first firefighters, Maori, turned up to empty their calabashes on the flames, but to little effect. He went on to compare the much more efficient fire-fighting machines and men of the 1870s.  He also acknowledged help, over the years, of the army, the navy and merchant ships’ companies: all had an integral part in the history of Auckland’s fire protection.

Long History of Help

Armed Services were ever-protective of the security of their stores, equipment and munitions no matter where they served. From the early 1800s British regiments owned fire engines which, as a matter of course, accompanied the troops, shipped with them to various theatres of operations around the globe. For instance, it’s recorded that naval men from RN ships used their equipment during the Great Fire of Bombay in 1803, similarly in Valparaiso in 1850, while British soldiers helped fight Montreal’s calamitous fire in 1852.

In Australia, what’s thought to be the first fire engine in that Colony was landed in 1822, known as “the Government fire engine”.

“Fire engine” in those times comprised a hand-pump on four wheels. Known as “a manual” it would be dragged to the fire by soldiers who, once on site, would establish a water supply from a creek, tank or cistern and pipe it to the engine…and then by raising and lowering the pump’s handles (sometimes called levers) water would be pumped through leather hoses to the blaze. Merryweather in London supplied HM Government… the larger engines required hard work by 40 men swinging on the “levers” to maintain a good pressure and some had a built-in tank. Many were later converted so they could be horse-drawn.

Small Merryweather hand-drawn fire engine c 1840

New South Wales – A Blueprint

Australia’s original engine was probably maintained and operated by the Ordinance Section of the Royal East Kent Regiment, joined later by apparatus from other Regiments and based in various barracks in New South Wales, ready to protect garrison and military property.

British armed services, the Royal Navy, first arrived in Australia in 1788, security later taken over by various Regiments posted to garrison duties, some of whom arrived as escorts aboard convict ships. Artillery, Infantry and Engineers wer represented. In 1836 George Street barracks in Sydney housed two fire engines protecting a population of 18,000.

The question whether soldiers and machines could be deployed for all fires in the burgeoning town was answered in October 1838. There was a fire in Macquarie Street and someone rushed to George Street barracks seeking help. But the Duty Officer refused to despatch the military fire engine for what was a “civilian blaze”.  This led to Orders permitting soldiers to respond “Government fire engines” to all fires where help “may he considered absolutely necessary and expedient”. This must have been a relief to the townsfolk: insurance companies owned the few other fire engines which responded only to those who had taken out insurance and showed a plaque on their property.

Early Merryweather fire engine made for Levuka, Fiji’s old capital

The militia’s attendance at fires in New South Wales became commonplace and all Regiments serving in Sydney would have been familiar with the Orders and their additional duties: fire-fighting.

The soldiers brought useful expertise to those fires where it was decided to stop the blaze spreading by creating a fire-break. Soldiers understood the size of the explosive charge required to safely blow up neighbouring buildings, cutting off the fire’s advance.  In other cases they pulled buildings down using stout ropes and military strongmen.

Merryweather “tub” appliance c 1850

Armed Services in Auckland – first fire protection 

Some of those Regiments in Australia were later posted to operations in New Zealand and they brought with them the acceptance of this additional role: that of firefighter. Troops were transferred to Auckland soon after the seat of Government was moved there from Russell in 1841. Their headquarters were in the newly-constructed fort on Point Britomart and, given the militia always guarded against fire in HM estanlishments, they would have had firefighting equipment of the day. This was the first means of proper fire protection in the new settlement.

Reinforcements against native uprisings arrived. For example, the 58th Regiment  (The Black Cuffs) arrived in October 1845 under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wynyard, followed by the 96th Regiment from 1845, then the 65th in 1849 – as well as Sappers and Miners (later Royal Engineers).

Lt Col Robert Wynyard of the 58th went on to high Colonial Office
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A11981

Auckland was confirmed as a Garrison Town. First Fort Britomart, then Albert Barracks which became centre of military operations on the hill above Queen Street (now Albert Park). It dominated the town.

Drawing of the fortified Albert Barracks overlooking Auckland, 1852
Patrick Joseph Hogan, James D. Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-8987

The soldiers’ duties could at first easily accommodate assistance dealing with fires. It was men of the 96th who in June 1845 fought a fire in Mr Buckland’s slaughter-house in Albert Street. They were credited with preventing the flames spreading to adjacent properties.

The Royal Navy while in Auckland also continued its long-established tradition of visiting ships attending fires on shore. Shortly after midnight on an October night in 1847 the officer-of-the-watch on HMS Dido noticed smoke near Flagstaff (Devonport). A landing party was dispatched and it found Lieutenant’s Snow’s raupo hut destroyed, his mutilated body inside along with his dead wife and daughter. A man was later found guilty of the murders and hanged.

In late 1853 the Army and Navy combined to help fight a fire in the Black Bull Inn on Albert Street. The troops of the 58th rushed down the hill from Albert Barracks to the scene with their engine, while up from the waterfront came men from  HMS Pandora, and as the newspaper “New Zealander” put it “… all were energetic in endeavouring to secure the only object attainable -the prevention of any further extension of the fire”. It must have been plain from the outset that the hotel was beyond saving.

Merryweather’s mid-sized manual fire engine

At half past four in the morning of June 23rd 1848 it was the 58th Regiment’s turn to help. A sentry spotted fire at Government House, the message quickly conveyed to the bugler who sounded the alarm to the garrison and to townspeople alike.

Government House c1842 – before the fire
Edward Ashworth, Water Colour, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 5-1376A

Every available soldier was mustered from the barracks by the bugle call and, led by Colonel Wynyard, they attempted to save the nearby Government House, by then well ablaze. They took their fire engine but as the “New Zealander” newspaper reported “…there wasn’t any idea of preserving the mansion, because Auckland, alas, possesses but one of those essentials to the extinction of fire – an engine…”, so troops maintained order and salvaged as much property as possible from the flames.

Soldiers pose inside Albert Barracks: the cannon was captured at the Crimean War
James D. Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-423

Further Fire Protection Measures

In 1854 the military, namely Royal Engineers stationed in Auckland, further assisted the town’s fire protection measures when they deployed their skills to map all the town’s sources of water which might be useful for fire-fighters. The following year the Council used this information to construct tanks near the main sources, specially designed so fire-fighters could get ready access. They could, of course, use sea water from the harbour for fires near the waterfront but this very much depended on the state of the tide – good supplies of freshwater were much more reliable.

There are other reports of soldiers assisting at fires, including on August 28th 1858: Auckland’s biggest blaze up until that time. It destroyed several blocks, taking out all commercial and public buildings plus residences in an area bounded by High, Shortland and O’Connell Streets. Again the bugle, simultaneously with fire bells, alerted men of the 58th who responded with their fire engine, joining other engines that had not long before arrived in Auckland, operated by the new Volunteer Fire Brigade under Asher Asher.

The Bugle has been an instrument used by the military since Roman times to advise troops of events (scheduled and unscheduled) including such activities as Muster, Battle Charge, Reveille and Taps.  Among the 20 or so different standard bugle calls there is a specific tune sounded in the event of fire on the post, or nearby. It was this tune the bugler played at Albert Barracks whenever there was an alarm of fire: the soldiers responding whatever time of day or night.

Bugle call – fire within the post or in its vicinity

For some years the 58th Regiment often fought fires alongside Volunteer firefighters. From March 1855 there had been 3 fire companies, each with their own engine so, with the Regiment’s apparatus, there was a reasonable fire-fighting contingent.

58th Regiment parade at Albert Barracks, 1850
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19100224-2-1

Some members of the military were also members of the volunteer fire brigade which caused problems from around 1857.

There could no longer be certainty that the soldier-members and other troops would always be available, given their military duties and the increasing risk of conflict over Maori lands. The likelihood of enemy action and the need for active service at the front in South Auckland meant military assistance at fires could no longer be assured.

Foreseeing difficulties, the fire brigade wrote to the Governor asking if those who assisted at fires could be exempt from military duty and thus available. The military again came to the rescue: the local Commander acknowledged the importance of his men’s role in Auckland’s fire protection and he instructed that some soldiers were always to be rostered to Barracks duties, thus available to respond to outbreaks of fire. On top of which, September 1857, the local Commander and the Governor showed their further concern by declaring that those members of the fire brigade in the military would be exempt from ordinary military duties and formed into a Fire Detachment. This was a neat arrangement: the Governor said he could not exempt any soldier from all duties, it was beyond his powers. Instead, the men to all intents and purposes would be a fire brigade and available to assist should the need arise. The Brigade Secretary, Sidney Cornish, immediately called for recruits under this new arrangement.

Newspaper advertisement: 15th September 1857 “Daily Southern Cross”

This move also prompted a proposal that the fire engine companies might combine as the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade under Superintendent Asher Asher.

While “The New Zealander” welcomed the reorganisation of the fire brigade in its editorial, it scribe became impatient when, just a few days after the meeting had been held, fire destroyed Mr Charles Davis’s house in Karangahape Road. The military and the re-forming fire brigade turned out, but the residence (the old Government House), was lost. The newspaper said the fire engines were not sent to Karangahape Road because it was believed there was no water available. Which was wrong. The newspaper also criticised a lack of control of firemen and helping hands – “… there can be only one General…” and urged authorities to provide horses, readily available, to haul the fire engines to the scene of fires. “Static water tanks” would help with the problem of poor reticulation, the newspaper opined, and a prize for the first engine company on the scene might help the speed of despatch.

A combined fire brigade in Auckland, such as had been envisaged, was the first in the colony under Asher Asher, formed on October 13th 1857. Asher wasted no time in drilling the men with practical exercises and by mid-November 1857 he reported that they had a well-planned and rehearsed process to find and pump water, one engine feeding two others to provide sufficient pressure for fire-fighting in the inner city. The brigade was acknowledged for its work during the major fire, toted as the “Great Fire”, in July 1858, notwithstanding it took out several city blocks.

But the brigade was not to last. Its members claimed authorities showed no respect and gave little support. The brigade was an on-again, off-again affair, its members constantly resigning as a body, then regrouping, re-forming, only to disband again and then later again resurrecting the brigade. These moves were sometimes led by, sometimes repaired by Asher Asher. During these uncertain times the 58th stood in, providing constant fire protection for a rapidly-growing city. And crews from ships in port were generous in their help. Such as in January 1872 when sailors from  HMS Blanche landed the ship’s fire engine and took it to Wakefield Street where a house was on fire. Fortunately, Aucklnd firefighters were quickly on the scene, they discovered plentiful water nearby and soon had the blaze out before it could spread to adjoiniung buildings.

So from 1857 to 1874 the military provided certain fire protection, along with police, in absence of the “sometimes” fire brigade. There were several attempts by Asher and by fellow townsfolk (notably William Daldy and the City Board of Commissioners) to form a stable fire brigade: all failed. In 1858 the trusty 58th Regiment left Auckland leaving it to their military successors to continue fire protection duties.

58th Regiment parades at Albert Barracks, 1858, with other regiments. Possibly its last.

The Military’s Dual Role

In August 1863 the Auckland garrison’s involvement drew fierce criticism in a “morning after” editorial in the newspaper “New Zealander”, but it was nothing to do with the soldiers’ firefighting abilities. Rather, the much more serious topic of the organisation of the troops during the blaze. By this time the threat of Maori invasion or mischief was very real. The newspaper observed that almost the entire barracks had turned out to the fire leaving insufficient protection for the town’s women and children in the event of a “stealthy night attack by natives”. “It cannot be denied…”, the newspaper claimed, “…that a far from satisfactory state of order existed in the streets – the patrols and picquets, in many instances, came down to look on at the fire”. The remedy was swift. Colonel Carey held a mock emergency within days to ensure everyone knew their places and posts whatever might befall Auckland.

City Fathers repeated the earlier request to the authorities that the militia should provide firefighting resources. In September 1863 Andrew Beveridge, Chairman of the City Board, again asked for 60 soldiers to be exempt from military duties so they may form a fire brigade.  This approach was probably unsuccessful because a year later Samuel Jackson, representing insurance interests wrote to the Military approaching the topic from the other end: he sought anyone engaged in fire brigade duties to be exempt from military duties.

30 Years’ Welcome Service

The military, supplemented with police continued to provide fire protection for the city while the authorities wrestled with costs and the organisation required maintaining a proper fire-fighting force. The Mayor wrote to the Colonial Secretary seeking government funding in 1874, the year that John Hughes was appointed Superintendent.

How the newspaper “Observer” saw Superintendent John Hughes, April 1894 Papers Past – National Library of New Zealand

With support and finance from the City Council Hughes founded a new Corporation fire brigade; one that endured even if, as in the days of Asher Asher, it was inadequately staffed and equipped. It continued at first with volunteers: later fulltime, paid, firefighters were employed.

The Armed Services, staunch protectors of Auckland from fire for some 30 years, were relieved of their onerous duties which had been welcomed by citizens.  The militia reverted to security of their own property, buildings and stores – a situation which continues today. The Army retains Defence Fire Brigades at military bases and while on manoeuvres, the Navy has trained fire parties aboard all ships, including its shore establishments, and the Air Force maintains fire stations, with their specialist appliances, at its airports.  Those involved continue a long, proud tradition.

RCC 26/09/2017