Auckland’s Fire Float

Controversial, troubled and un-named, (except being called a White Elephant) yet it served Auckland’s waterfront as a fire boat for 30 years… and then went on to Napier to, of all things, help inaugurate radio communications in New Zealand.   

Auckland’s Fire Float,  NZ Graphic – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19030228-597-2

Auckland Harbour Board’s fire float was conceived in 1899, but its gestation proved long and boisterous. Its progress, or lack of it, divided members of the Board which resulted in strong debate, often peppered by acerbic personal comments. Many Board members considered it was an ill-planned, poorly designed and an exorbitantly expensive, unnecessary asset. Others members who saw the benefit of such a craft thought the Harbour Board should form a volunteer fire brigade to man it. The public also had doubts about the fire float’s usefulness and capabilities because it came along at about the same time as other Board projects were being questioned, some labelled “over-priced white elephants” and “marine curios”.

So, after an upset beginning, the steam-powered float was built in Auckland and a high-capacity Merryweather pump added. “Missing” components, not ordered from Merryweather Brothers in London had to be made in Auckland at additional expense.   The fire float was placed in service nearly 3 years after purchase was first approved. Once on the water, further criticism when it was discovered t that it took about 5 hours to get steam up to a pressure sufficient to work the pumps. “Most fires would have burned themselves out by then!” the critics cried. Others commented that the vessel used far too much coal for even the shortest distances travelled at most economical speed.

At one stage the fire brigade saw the main chance. There had been an episode of prolonged condemnation focussed on the fire float, which again stung the AHB. The fire brigade thought it could do better if it inherited the Merryweather pump, thus relieving the source of irritation from the AHB. The brigade would fit the pump on a motorised appliance, serving the whole city. No deal.  And at another time the Harbour Board was so tired of criticism about the fire float it considered getting out of fire protection altogether.

For all that, the fire float endured and attended to provide an invaluable source of fire-fighting water at some of Auckland waterfront’s biggest land-based outbreaks. It also went to many fires aboard craft, large and small, mercantile and pleasure, out on the harbour or alongside. The fire float was often credited with good work which had saved the vessel on fire.

This is the chequered story of the fire float which, ignominiously, remained unnamed: a craft that brought heaps of trouble for her owners, but within her limits beneficially served the Auckland waterfront for more than 30 years.

It’s been largely ignored as a contributor to Auckland’s earlier fire services: it’s worthy of a detailed account….


29 Nov 1897        Most serious fire on the waterfront yet, destroys Queen Street Wharf piles and structure along with two of the Harbour Board’s biggest cargo sheds. Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of cargo is lost. In the aftermath the Harbour Board seeks information from  the Merryweather Company in London about the costs of a “fire float” or “wharf fire engine” as it is called locally.


11 Jan 1899         Auckland Harbour Board agrees in principle to procure a fire float, subject to further conditions… which seem to take a long time to resolve.


1 March 1900     Serious fire destroys Loan and Mercantile Limited’s premises on Quay Street, firefighters resorting to pumping sea water after pressure in Auckland City pipes are found to be inadequate. The building (offices and warehouse) and contents (wool, Kauri gum etc) were regarded as a total loss after being allowed to burn out.

The gutted Loan and Mercantile Building: would a fire float have helped?
Henry Winkelmann: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1-W184

Following the blaze it was suggested a fire float, tackling the blaze from the harbour-side, may have been beneficial. London, it was recalled, has a fire float credited with numerous “saves”

Fire Float on the Thames, London,NZ Graphic Sir George Grey Collection Auckland Libraries-19110503-31

2nd Mar 1900     New Zealand Herald remarked:

“The moral of last night’s fire is that Auckland, like Christchurch, should have its steam fire engine (which gets up steam in ten minutes), and like Wellington (which has ordered a floating steam fire engine for use along the wharf frontages) should have its port equipped in an up-to-date style”.


28 Sept 1900      Auckland Harbour Board (AHB) finalises arrangements to procure a fire float, machinery from England, craft to be locally built, cost likely – £1,200 and to be capable of acting as a work-boat, towing a punt.


6 Mar 1901          AHB decides not to order a condenser for the fire float


3 April 1901         AHB decides to call for tenders for the hull of the fire float


5 April 1901         AHB calls tenders for a “fire float and tug”


10 April 1901      Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, Herbert Gladding, notes Wellington has a fire float, used to good effect


Superintendent Gladding
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990623-8-2

AHB advises machinery from UK will be shipped quite soon.

12 Nov 1901        Auckland Star:


(From Our Special Correspondent.)

LONDON, October 4

The machinery for the new steam fire float for the Auckland Harbour Board has just been despatched from their Greenwich Works by Messrs. Merryweather and Sons, of London. The fire pumps are of the Merryweather “Admiralty”‘ pattern, capable of delivering 2,000 gallons of water per minute, and will throw twelve powerful jets simultaneously, or one 2A jet, over 200 feet high.

Components for the fire float at Merryweather’s London factory
“NZ Graphic”, 1902 Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19020104-28-1

The pumps are double cylinder, with two phosphor bronze piston rods to each, and the motion is direct between steam and pump pistons. A steel crank-shaft, driven by connecting rods from crossheads cottered to the piston rods, determines the stroke and actuates the slide valves by means of eccentrics. Large copper delivery air vessel is fitted, and 5-inch delivery pipe is carried to deck, where a valve box is provided, having six screwed outlets for hose pipes. A deck suction pipe is also fitted so that the pump can be used for emptying or filling ships’ tanks or for salvage work. For fire extinguishing suction inlets are provided on each side of the boat below the water line, large sluice valves being fitted to control the flow of water. The pumps are of solid gun-metal, and the valves are of the rubber disc pattern with copper studs and gratings.

The boiler is of the marine return tube type, to work at 120 lbs. pressure, and is of ample capacity to drive both the fire pumps and propelling engines. The latter are of the double cylinder vertical type, having- inverted cylinders, driving- steel pistons of 11 inches stroke. The engines will drive the boat 8 to 10 knots per hour by means of a single shaft and screw. Two donkey pumps are provided for boiler feeding, and the equipment includes 2500 feet of Merryweather’s “Extra Double Substance” brand of handwoven canvas hose in 100 feet lengths. 40 feet of suction hose, branch pipes, nozzles,  dividing and collecting breechings, and a full set of engine and boiler fittings and spare parts.

A similar float of small size has recently been supplied to Georgetown, (British Guiana), and a twin-screw boat of the same power to Mexico by the same firm.


5th Feb 1902        N Z Herald reported:

AHB’s own fire brigade: In view of the arrival of the Board’s fire float, the engineer recommended the formation of AHB’s a volunteer fire brigade. The Chairman suggested that Superintendent Woolley, new head of the Auckland Fire Brigade, should be asked to take the initiative in forming the brigade among employees.

Superintendent Charles Woolley: a reforming fire chief
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010926-2-2

The question was sent on to the Works and Tariff Committee, and it was agreed to ask the Auckland City Council to allow Mr. Woolley to advise the Board.


7 Feb 1902          Auckland City Council agreed that Superintendent Woolley should advise AHB on formation of its own fire brigade.


19 Feb 1902        Local firm Massey Brothers wins contract to provide condenser for the fire float but Board members are unhappy about this additional expense asking why it wasn’t included in the contract with Merryweather Company.


20 Mar 1902       AHB agrees to make a claim on Merryweather re deficient copper pipes it is alleged were provided on the pump


16 April 1902      AHB agrees to purchase copper piping required for the fire float


23 April 1902      AHB Special Meeting erupts in disorder after criticism of the Board Secretary’s (Brigham’s) trip to London which would “conveniently” put him there in time for the Coronation. One member said the Board should have an engineer as Secretary so problems with the new dredge and the new fire float might have been avoided.

John McRae Brigham: served the Harbour Board for 38 years

26 April 1902      Observer column “The Fretful Porcupine”:

“What has become of that fire float that the Harbour Board imported at considerable expense nearly a year ago? Has it been lost? Or is it piled up somewhere in one of the Board’s storage yards? People are beginning to wonder why the float is not available, and where it is, and other things about this latest mystery. Perhaps some member of the Board will be able to resurrect the float from the oblivion in which it appears to be lost”.


14 May 1902       AHB agrees to seek prices for copper pipe required for the fire float


27 May 1902       AHB Meeting:

Auckland Star 28th May 1902 HARBOUR BOARD ENGINEER.

At the meeting of the Auckland Harbour Board yesterday afternoon a letter was received from Messrs Merryweather and Co. with regard to the Board’s claim that sundry pipe, connections and fittings for the fire float machinery constructed by them should have been supplied, that their estimate forming the basis of the order was never intended to include these. The formation, position, and quantity of the pipes depended on the lines of the boat, and could only be supplied by those fixing the machinery once the craft was complete.

Mr Witheford said that this showed the necessity of the Board engaging a first class engineer. From what he had heard on the wharf the engine was entirely unsuitable, and was old-fashioned. The fire float was. intended to put out fires on shipping and in buildings on the foreshore, and he asked how it could get alongside drawing six feet when a vessel drawing three feet six inches went ashore some distance from the water front.

Mr Napier said the float was intended for use entirely among shipping.

Mr Julian agreed with Mr Witheford that the necessity for employing an engineer had been shown by the communication. The secretary when at Home, had interviewed importers, and on his return the Board authorised him to write for a certain thing. That thing seemed to have come incomplete. When it arrived it was found necessary’ to put in a condenser, and now the Board was calling for tenders for pipes for the matter. He asked who was going to pay for this.

Mr Nathan: The Board. Mr Julian repeated that it showed how much they wanted an engineer. The Chairman did not think the secretary could be blamed in the matter.

Mr Julian said: No, because he was not an engineer.

The matter was then referred to the Works Committee, the chairman stating that this committee would thoroughly thrash the matter out.

Fire Float – Messrs. Dunn, Smith & Co. wrote with reference to the Board’s advertisement for tenders for copper pipes, etc., for fire float and tug, protesting against this being done, unless under different specifications, as their private tender was considered at the Board’s last meeting. The Chairman said the Works Committee had received two tenders for the work, and both were considered too high. Mr. Napier said that both tenders exceeded the amount for which the Board could receive private tenders, and therefore had to call public tenders. It was decided to reply accordingly.


30 May 1902       NZ Herald:


TO THE EDITOR. Sir,—ln your report of the discussion On the Harbour Board’s fire float and tug, Mr- Napier is reported to have said the float was not intended to be used in connection with buildings upon land, and that it was a float of the most modern type, and it was absurd to say that the engines were old fashioned. With your kind permission, I will endeavour to show that Mr. Napier is entirely in error. I think the idea of a fire float originated after the fire at the Loan and Mercantile Agency Company’s property in Quay-street, and was intended to be used along the foreshore should necessity arise. Further, she was to be used for towing silt into the shallow bays of the harbour. Thus, owing to her heavy draught, she is totally unfitted for either work. With regard to the machinery, anyone would naturally think that when the Board imported the machinery they would get the most up-to-date. But I challenge any engineering firm in the colony to prove that the engines supplied are not the most obsolete for the purpose, and could have been manufactured here at less cost. Any private firm would ‘have ordered a set of compound surface-condensing engines of marine type, which would have worked the boat on half the consumption of coal, while the cost of fresh water would have been a mere nothing. The contrast between the engines supplied and the above-mentioned would be about the same as Stevenson’s Rocket and an up to date locomotive. To try and prove this, let me tell Mr. Napier that if the present engines were used as they were intended (for they were never intended to he used with a condenser), they would evaporate over 100 gallons of water per hour. Thus it would be necessary to load up a thousand gallons of fresh water, and after pumping on a fire for, say, seven or eight hours, she would have to stop pumping and go and replenish with coal and water. When this mistake was pointed out by the man in the street they tried to rectify their mistake by ordering a condenser. But this does not make it a compound engine, but will, if a success, get over the water difficulty. Still, it is only what is known as a botch job. Yet another mistake on the specification instead of ordering a brass stern tube and propeller, they came out cast iron. The builder, knowing the action of copper on iron, refused to put them in, and they had to order brass stean tube and propeller locally at increased cost to the Board. With regard to the pipes and connections, a plan of the boat should have been sent Home, and they should have been included in the specification. In conclusion, let me advise Mr. Napier to leave the engineering of the Board alone, as it is one of the many things he knows nothing about. l am, etc., Nautious. Auckland May 28, 1902.


11 June 1902      AHB meets to consider prices for copper tubing for the fire float but decides to take the matter no further until there’s an inquiry into all aspects of the project. Harsh words:


Auckland Star 11 June 1902


When the time arrived at the meeting of the Harbour Board yesterday afternoon for opening tenders for copper pipes for the fire float and tug boat, some very plain talk ensued regarding that vessel. Only one tender was received, that of Dunn, Smith and Co, for £298 17/6. Mr Walker said he considered the fire float the most scientific bungle, he had ever seen from first to last. The engine was one that would consume the most coal for the least result. Everything about it was of the very commonest and least serviceable material. In fact, he considered it was the most antiquated thing possible. He was quite sure Merryweather and Company, the firm that supplied it would never, have sent such a thing unless told to do so, especially as they had about the same time turned out an up-to-date float for the Mexican Government. When it arrived here there was no condenser. That was made in Auckland, but there were no connections supplied, or place left to lay them. Then it was found the machinery was five feet too long for the boat, and the men’s quarters were right against the end of the boiler. (“Worse than the Black Hole of Calcutta”, NZ Herald added). Even now the boat sits deep in the water, and when ten tons of coal and ten tons of water were on, she would stand on her head.

Who is to blame?  He did not want tenders opened until the whole matter was inquired into by a committee, to see who ordered the boat, for he was sure the firm it came from would never have sent such a thing unless it was specially stipulated for. He thought that the tender should not be accepted. Mr W. Philson moved “That the matter be referred to the Legal and Finance Committee”. As Mr Brigham was at Home, he might perhaps see the firm who supplied the machinery, to ascertain if anything could be done. Mr Cozens strongly supported spending no more money upon the fire float at the present time. Mr Witheford said he understood their own engineer was not responsible in any way for this float.  He had never been consulted. The boat drew too much water for it to work anywhere from Hobson-street wharf to Freeman’s Bay along the fore- shore. For the same reason it would be no use to tug silt punts. Mr C.C. Dacre objected to any more money being spent on the float until there had been a thorough inquiry into the whole matter. The tender was accordingly referred to the Works and Tariff Committee, with a view to making the inquiry suggested.

Observer. Cartoon depicts the fire float is not suited to the harbour

17th June 1902 Auckland Star Letters to the Editor:


(To the Editor.)

Sir,—Can any of your readers tell us what is coming over our Harbour Board members lately? I see they have made another serious blunder in regard to the new  fire float for Auckland Harbour, and if things go on in this way much longer we shall have quite a number of white elephants to stock, a menagerie of our own bequeathed to us by these 5 intelligent members. What with the Calliope Dock, Admiralty House, and now this fire float, which one member says will stand on its head if ten tons more weigh is added to it, I think we can safely have a splendid display on Coronation Day, If the Admiralty House could be bodily shifted over to the Calliope Dock and the fire float taken in on a high tide, what a splendid aquatic carnival we could have by the erratic movements of this submarine monster turning somersaults in the Dock. While, if the weather was wet, the public could view the proceedings from the various pigeon-holes which are studded round the noble edifice erected for the accommodation of an Admiral who pays us a visit every few years.—l am, etc., JOHN PEARCE


8th July 1902        AHB accepts tender for copper piping required for the fire float.


10th July 1902     NZ Herald Editorial, leading article (abridged):



If the Harbour Board intends to go on misconducting its affairs in the extraordinary fashion that seems to have become almost second nature with it, we would suggest that a fortnightly “Naval Gazette” be established by Mr Napier and his friends, so that full justice may be done to the energy, the resourcefulness, and the financial ability which they have frequently held up to public admiration.

The Harbour Board is going to have an engineer, so that it would perhaps be unkind to point the moral about the counterpoise stage too forcibly. But even if the members of the Board have no engineering experience, they might be expected to take such precautions as ordinary business men would observe in the conduct of their affairs.

The new stages at a very late stage have found to be a site impracticable without the depth of water required.

It may interest our readers to note that the history of the fire-float has advanced another chapter. Even the terrible story unfolded when this marine curio was last discussed does not seem to complete the tale of its deficiencies. The connecting pipes now required are to cost about £300, but Mr Walker most emphatically warned the Board that they must not imagine that this would satisfy tie insatiable vessel. She has an engine, it seems, suitable for fire, but not for towing, and a boiler suitable for towing, but not for fire.

It would take about 3 hours  to get up steam in that boiler, with the necessary result- that anybody who wanted a fire put out would, have to give about three hours’ notice to the fire-float.  Mr Walker further explained that “somebody in the Harbour Board”‘ had altered the fire-float specifications, and got a large marine boiler inserted in place of the small boiler required for fire extinguishing purposes. As no one contradicted this statement we presume it is accurate, and we need hardly add that it indicates outrageous laxity, if nothing worse, on the part of the Board. Surely such a statement publicly made is well worth a little investigation. But the Board went on calmly to consider the possibility of converting the fire-float into a tug- by compounding its engines—at a further cost of, say, £500—and only desisted from its imaginative speculations when reminded that whether it is meant to put out fires or to haul vessels the fire-float can do nothing till the new dredge appears, because it draws too much water to float within reasonable distance of land. Headers of romances are said to enjoy chapters that break of at a thrilling point, so we will stop here for the time, with the earnest hope- but little expectation-that we have heard the last of this queer, but commonly expensive, device.

Admiral’s House, Emily Place – linked with the fire float
as one of the Harbour Board’s costly white elephants
Henry Winkelmann -Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1-W1409

The Admiral’s house, still weighs heavily on the corporate soul of the Harbour Board. They have got as far as erecting fire escapes, so we presume that, from sources of information denied to us, they anticipate the arrival of some distinguished inhabitant. But the question of furnishing, has been unexpectedly blocked with Mr Walker, economic conscience of the Board, quite rightly pointing out that it would cost not 1000 pounds , but probably 2500 to furnish the house, and even then the Board would be no more certain than they are now that anyone would live in it.


20th Aug 1902     Stung by comments about their work, Merryweather and Company wrote to the AHB stressing that they had carried out the AHB’s specifications and had provided up to date machinery. Board members agreed:  there was no blame attached to Merryweather and Co.


15th Oct 1902     Auckland Star reports that Harbourmaster, Captain Duder, suggested further modifications to the fire float so it may be steered from the deck.


3rd Dec 1902       NZ Herald revealed a claim had been made to AHB by Mr. W. H. Brown, contractor for works on the Board’s fire float and tug, for interest on his deposit, owing to the great delay which he had been put to in awaiting machinery, etc. It was referred to the Finance and Legal Committee, the general opinion among Board members being that the claim was a very just one under the circumstances.


4th Dec 1902       Auckland City Council, rather than agreeing to form a separate volunteer fire brigade among AHB staff to operate the fire float and oversee AHB’s wharf-side fire equipment, suggests a 5 year Agreement whereby the Council would contribute towards the cost of operating the fire float and for its use by the Auckland Fire Brigade.


29th Dec 1902     Foreman of Works for AHB reports successful trials by the fire float, including pumping for firefighting purposes. A trial on the harbour for AHB Board Members is planned for February.


20th Feb 1903     Successful speedy run completed to Bean Rock Light and back to Quay Street jetty where it was shown the pump was an asset “capable of attacking any fire”.

The fire float is put through its paces, February 1903
NZ Graphic – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19030228-597-2

Details of the fire float:

Dimensions: Length, 55ft; beam, 14ft; depth 8ft; draught, aft, 4ft.

Firefighting: Maximum of 13 delivery hoses, the engine will enable 1800 gallons of saltwater to be thrown per minute. Reach was 300 feet through an ordinary hose. With a 2 and a half inch nozzle, a stream of water was thrown to a height of 230 feet, and with a three-quarter inch nozzle, to a height of 190 feet. The result exceeded expectations, and Superintendent Woolley of the Fire Brigade expressed his entire satisfaction at the trials.

Speed: the vessel travelled at the rate of nine knots.

Construction: By Mr. W. H. Browne, Auckland boat-builder, the craft is diagonally built, of kauri planking, with two skins placed diagonally across from side to side on the top of the keel from deadwood to deadwood.

Other fittings: Of Puriri, Kauri and Pohutukawa while the deck beams are mild steel, and the decks, Kauri.

Machinery: She has a surface condenser, and is capable of maintaining a vacuum of not less than 26inches when working at full capacity. The engines, boilers, and pump were supplied by Messrs. Merryweather and Sons, of London.


March 1903        Further scorn is poured on the Harbour Board with claims of “waste of money” when the visiting Admiral Fanshawe declines to stay in Admiral’s House which was built especially by the Board for the purpose. Fanshawe says the House cannot be recognised as an official residence for the Admiral, given he is only in Auckland a few days each year.


4th May 1903      Major fire on the waterfront in New Zealand Shipping Company’s multi-story warehouse, the first major blaze overseen by Superintendent Charles Woolley using new equipment he had commissioned.

Auckland Fire Brigade’s new horse-drawn appliance
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A1584

The fire float was brought alongside but was not used. Officially, “…because there was ample water pressure on the land-side…”, but critics said “…the float was not used because it takes so long to get steam up to power the fire pump, that firefighters, meantime, had the worst of the fire out”.


9th May 1903,    Observer, The Fretful Porcupine wrote “The fire float was there at the water-side, handy enough. But, you see, it takes two hours to get up steam before the hose will throw a cupful of water. And fire is one of those unreasonable things that won’t wait for official convenience. That was why the chance of two years was let pass, and the waterfront fire had to be extinguished by landsmen”.


22nd July 1903    The fire float was under-performing. Not two hours to get steam up, but more than double that time…

Auckland Star 22 July 1903: The actual value of the Auckland Harbour Board’s fire float for the work for which it was specially procured may be estimated by the fact that it was stated yesterday that it takes five hours to get up steam in the event of fires not being kept banked. The value of the boat as an auxiliary for the pilot service may also be estimated from the fact that she went out to meet a vessel recently and managed to burn one and three-quarter tons of coal in about two hours. Mr Hamer, the board’s engineer, however, said the machinery in the boat was up-to-date and from the establishments of the very best makers in the world.


16th Sept 1903  There were some positive comments: savings…

Auckland Star 16th September 1903: At the meeting of the Auckland Harbour Board yesterday afternoon Mr W. J. Napier stated on the authority of the Board’s engineer (Mr Hamer), that since the fire float and the new punts had been employed in the dredging, the cost to the board had been reduced so far as the Priestman dredge work was concerned from one shilling and four pence per square yard to two pence halfpenny per square yard.


March 1904        Further comment after the fire float itself caught fire and had to seek help…

Observer, 19 March 1904:  “That the Harbour Board’s fire float seems to have a charmed life. Twice within a few weeks it has attempted suicide by fire, but each time its game has been frustrated”.


26th Mar 1904   Auckland Star, Random Shots column:  Councillor Court decidedly scored with his little anecdote about the fire-float at the City Council meeting. It appears that the other day the fire-float caught fire, and found that it was totally incapable of extinguishing itself: so the man in charge had to send in haste for the city fire engine, which, after some little trouble, reduced the incipient conflagration. But this seems to me a distinctly humorous situation. This fire-float thing, which is too deep in the water to be near the shore, and unable –  so its critics say – to float when it is cooled, might be at least supposed to possess some qualifications as a fire-extinguisher. But no! It can’t even put itself out, and at the first alarm has to call helplessly for the ordinary terrestrial pump to save it from destruction. I think that, is the most ridiculous achievement that even the Harbour Board has ever had to chronicle!”



W. J. Napier, AHB: You croakers say that the Auckland Harbour Board fire float is a failure, and is no good for a fire up Grey-street. Where there’s a will there’s a way and I’m that Will and this is the way. Keep her moving, boys! Clear the course, Jimmy! Hoop-la – Observer, 26th, March 1904


25th Oct 1904      Talk of superseding the Fire Float with another tug:

Auckland Star 26 October 1904


At a meeting of the AHB Mr. Parker moved “That owing to the obsoleteness of the steamer fire float, the Board’s engineer be instructed to prepare plans and specifications for the construction of a steamer suitable for harbour work.” He said it required a little explanation from him regarding the Board’s fire float or any other floats. It was a sad thing to see that boat struggling to try and bring some empty punts across the harbour. He considered the fire float was the worst of the many mistakes of previous Boards. Then the meeting turned personal with accusations of inexpert opinions on tugs and fire floats. Speakers said they must have a larger boat but it was not shown yet that the present fire float needed to be done away with. Others said stronger steamers would be required for towing the larger vessels that were coming to Auckland.  Mr. J. A. Walker moved that this matter be referred to the Works and Tariff Committee. He had never supported that fire float.  It was very expensive. Mr. W. Philson opposed the motion and said Mr. Parker might understand his own business, but who set him as a judge over Harbour Board business? Mr. Philson said he understood the fire float proved particularly useful. Mr. A. E. Glover deprecated Mr. Philson using personal remarks about Mr. Parker. He considered the fire float was utterly unfit for what it was required to do.” Mr. Philson said he must have been misunderstood. What he meant was that he did not value Mr. Parker’s opinions upon engineering matters. Hon. E. Mitchelson, “I think it is time this farce should be stopped. The Board is not in committee, yet members are rising to speak half a dozen times.” “As to the engineer’s opinions,” added Mr. Parker, “he says it is up to date: I say it is a lie.” After a point of order Mr. Parker withdrew the expression. What he wished to emphasise, he said, was that hardly anything they have at this port was up to date. The chairman explained that the engineer had never said that boat was up to date, but that the pump was. Mr. Parker said he did not consider the pump out of date. Referred for further report…


8th Nov 1904       That report seemed to signal the end of the fire float.

9th Nov 1904      N Z Herald: That the fire float and the tug be engaged in towing work as at present, until the engineer’s report on a steam tug has been received and that Superintendent Woolley of the City Fire Brigade be requested to take charge of the fire hose and fire appliances now on fire float.


But the fire float “lived to fight (fires) another day”, but not without ongoing controversy.


10th June 1904    Further criticism of the fire float when it did not respond to a fire…

10th June 1904  Observer: “When the Harbour Board dredge caught fire at the Railway Wharf early on Saturday morning, the Harbour Board fire float was lying in the vicinity, with steam up. Nevertheless, the City Fire Brigade was called upon to extinguish the fire. Nobody seems to be able to explain why the fire float was not allowed to fulfil her destiny after waiting so many months for a further opportunity. The occasion being pressing, however, it is probable that time did not permit the necessary three hours’ notice to be given. If the fire float is not serviceable in an emergency of this kind, would it not be better business to lay her up in the menagerie of played-out fads, and save the expense of her maintenance?


22nd Aug 1906    Fire float in the news when its engineer, George Dean, went to Court after AHB turned down his claim for overtime. Mr Dean had been ill for some time and after returning to work lodged an application for 223 hours’ overtime. He was immediately dismissed without notice but persisted with his claim for overtime. The Judge found there was no agreement for overtime to be paid in the employment contract and found in favour of the AHB.


28th Nov 1906     The fire brigade gets into the act. The AHB received a letter from the City Fire Brigade asking the Board’s help, saying it would be better to provide a fire appliance rather than replacing the fire float. A joint venture was proposed between the Brigade, the City Council and the AHB by the Superintendent of the Brigade, mentioning large firefighting pumps deployed in Spain, Manchester and Glasgow. He said a high-capacity pump in Auckland would overcome his deep concern that he was short of resources in the event of a large fire, relying on the present horse-drawn steam pumper capable of only 450 gallons a minute. He suggested a Merryweather motorised fire appliance, petrol-engined with a pump of 1,000 gallons a minute capacity. The appliance would cost 2,600 pounds landed in Auckland. He advised that rather than restricted to the waterfront like the fire float, the appliance could be deployed anywhere in the city without wasting time for the four-and-a-half-ton steam fire engine to arrive at the scene, be positioned and then get steam up to a working pressure before pumping could begin. “These minutes saved are the difference between big fires and small fires” he persuaded. And the AHB agreed to consider the joint approach to provide a new fire appliance. (The irony was that it was Merryweather pump of the same capacity on the oft-criticised fire float). And Superintendent had not forgotten the fire float. “To protect waterfont properties, the AHB should ensure the float is manned day and night, available to fight fires”.


12th Dec 1906     AHB is cool on the idea, saying the fire float, even if available, was not ideal for firefighting along the waterfront and it would take time to move it to any fire. The City Council, receiving this advice, asked AHB to reconsider.


12th June 1907   AHB agrees to call tenders for a steam tug and work associated with transferring the fire pump and salvage equipment from the fire float to the new vessel, a project estimated to cost up to £17,000. One Board member, probably recalling mistakes made over the fire float, questioned the specifications but relented when it was explained tenderers might make engineering suggestions when submitting bids.


15th June 1907   Observer columnist “The Fretful Porcupine” commented:

“The uselessness of the present fire-float is now openly admitted by the Harbour Board, which proposes to invest in a steam tug and to transfer to it the fire engine and salvage appliances. It would be interesting to know what, in that case, is to become of the dismantled fire-float. Will it be relegated to Shoal Bay, to rust and rot in company with the silt-punts and the floating landing-stage, or is the museum for rejected Harbour Board curiosities yet to become a reality? But what guarantee have we that the proposed new tug will be any more serviceable even than the fire-float? The Harbour Board has established a record in the way of bad bargains, and this may prove to be yet another”.


22nd June 1907   Observer newspaper’s leading article also had questions, recalling that the fire float had become a “white elephant”…

“There is abundant reason to fear that the Harbour Board is going blindly into another investment (a new tug) that will fall short of its requirements. In homely language, that it proposes to buy a ‘pig in a poke’. Its engineering staff ought to be capable of protecting it by planning exactly the vessel that is needed, and should be called upon to do so before the Board commits itself further in the matter”.


29th Feb 1908     AHB accepted a tender from Fleming and Fergusson, Paisley, Scotland to build a new steam tug. It was to have equipment that was intended to replace the fire float. Cost: estimated at £13,850.


24 Sept 1908       AHB’s new tug Te Awhina launched at Fleming and Fergusson’s slipway.


14 Feb 1909        Te Awhina arrives in Auckland via Suez Canal, Colombo, Fremantle and Melbourne, after a, sometimes, rough passage. “It proves she’s a good sea boat” said Captain w. Chapman. Specifications – of 220 tons register, length, 105 feet, breadth, 26ft; and depth, 12ft. She has two sets of powerful triple expansion engines, with cylinders 11 inches, 18 inches and 30 inches in diameter. These are supplied with steam by two boilers, each 12 feet 9 inches in diameter and 10 feet in length, with a working pressure of 190 pounds per square inch. The indicated horse power is 1000 and the vessel is capable of steaming over 10 knots.

Tug Te Awhina
N Z Herald – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1370-0552-05

26 Feb 1910        AHB agrees to pay Fraser and Sons £264 to transfer firefighting                                                                   equipment from the fire float to the new Te Awahina.


2nd Mar 1910      A newly-elected AHB, wary of “white elephants”, rescinds the decision to transfer firefighting equipment from the fire float to Te Awhina .


13 Mar 1909      AHB distances itself from fire protection when it asks Auckland Fire Brigade to service firefighting equipment on the wharves etc and indicates it there will be no motor craft as a fire boat on the harbour.


23rd June 1910   Reports that the fire float is assisting at a fire when it was deployed alongside the steamer “Indradevi” tied up at the Queen Street Wharf.

Weekly News – A. E. Gilling: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19100623-13-4

The blaze was discovered in the forward hold at 1.30am and firefighting continued for 20 hours. At one stage, mid-morning, firemen believed that had the fire under control, but it renewed below-decks and at this stage the fire float began pumping 2,000 gallons (7,500 l) of water a minute into the ship to flood the hold.


Fire Float pumping seawater on to the “Indradevi”
N Z Graphic – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19100629-31-1

The tug “Te Awhina” connected lines to the stricken vessel ready to pump, checking her trim under the weight of the water. Firefighters, blinded by the thick smoke, were taken to City Station to have their eyes injected with cocaine. Other firefighters came up from the holds unconscious and once on deck were immediately revived with artificial respiration. Superintendent Charles Woolley also suffered the effects of smoke inhalation.

The Shand Mason Steam fire pumper at work
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19100630-2-1Firefighting was a combined effort – ship’ pumps, hose-lines from wharf and waterfront hydrants, the Fire Brigade’s Shand Mason steam pump… and the fire float.

(The “Indradevi” was a welcome sight when she arrived in in Auckland on June 21st on a voyage from Liverpool, England. She was more than a week overdue without radio contact and there was anxiety she may have succumbed to bad weather in the Southern Ocean.  Captain Wilks said there had been a series of storms since passing the Cape of Good Hope on May 15th. He was obliged to hove-to in very rough weather and had to sop several times to repair overworked engines. Further storms were encountered including what he described as a cyclone off Tasmania… the rough seas and strong winds persisting in the Tasman. Once he rounded Cape Maria Van Diemen, he said, it was a “perfect run” down the East Coast to Auckland).

An inquiry into the cause of the fire aboard “Indradevi” could not ascertain how it had started. It exonerated the crew from blame but found that “a combustible substance such as charcoal should not be used as insulation in the holds of ships”.  This, perhaps, gives an insight into what was on fire – charcoal, commonly used as a ready fuel whenever extremely hot fires were required by blacksmith’s and other metal workers. This probably explains the long and difficult fire-fight below-decks.


6th July 1910       At a meeting of the AHB’s Board, a long-time member tried to praise the work of the fire float at the “Indradevi” fire, thus vindicating the expense of acquiring the vessel, but he was interrupted with laughter. Nevertheless Mr W. J. Napier continued “it also shows the blatant ignorance of those who label it a white elephant!”

William Joseph Napier
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19050727-4-6

6th Sept 1910      The fire float was sent to Devonport where a large boarding house, Ventnor House, was alight. Auckland Fire Brigade could not, legally, attend so the fire float went in response to calls for assistance when the flames leapt along King Edward Parade taking house after house. But it was dead low tide and the fire float could not get anywhere near the scene: the fire burned itself out after destroying Ventnor House and four other houses, eventually contained by local firefighters and defence personnel.

Only chimneys remain of the houses destroyed along King Edward Parade
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

15th Sept 1910  The crew of the fire float that had been on duty the day of the” Indradevi” fire had taken seriously the claim that “had it not been for the fire float the ship would have had to have been sunk to put out the fire” and now the crew members were considering claiming salvage fees from the ship’s owners, Shaw Saville line. Such a sum, if gained, would amount to five per cent of the ship’s value, some thousands of pounds.


26 Mar 1911      The fire float was called to assist when one of her “sister ships” caught fire at her moorings just off Devonport Wharf on the evening of 26th March. The AHB’s launch and pilot boat “Kuaka” was well alight. A local bucket brigade could do no good, the tug “Te Awhina” dragging the blazing vessel out into the harbour while the fire float poured water on to her. “Kuaka” sank in 10 feet (3m) of water, considered a total loss.


20th Sept 1911    The fire float was credited with another success after a fire in the harbour as the New Zealand Herald reported, 21st September 1911…” fire broke out in the cabin of the scow “Bravo”, which was lying at anchor to the east of the Railway Wharf, shortly after six o’clock yesterday morning. There was no one on the scow at the time, but the fire was seen by a boatman, who notified the City Fire Brigade but who could not render assistance, as the “Bravo” was at anchor, beyond reach. The Harbour Board was advised and its fire float, which fortunately had steam up, proceeded alongside the vessel, and the fire float pumped large quantities of water on to the “Bravo” and by eight o’clock the fire was extinguished, confined to the deckhouse aft, in which are situated the cabins and galley. Everything in the cabins was destroyed, and nothing remained but charred walls. Yesterday the scow was towed round to the Hobson-street Extension, where, the vessel will be immediately repaired”.


20 Dec 1911        Reported at an AHB meeting that the fire float had a new lease of life after                                           alterations in her engine-room.


28th Mar 1913    Endean’s building on waterfront at the corner of Quay and Queen Streets was destroyed by fire: the fire float was offered but city firefighters said they had plenty of water for firefighting.


11th Sept 1914    Fire float assisted firefighters put out a blaze aboard the ketch “Endeavour”, a cement carrier, in which its engineer received fatal burns. The vessel caught fire in Rangitoto Channel and, “Te Awhina” going to her assistance, found that the blaze had been subdued by the crew, and towed the stricken ketch back to Auckland wharves. There the fire float met the “Endeavour” and, together with city firemen, put out the fire. The fire float later pumped out all the water, assisting with salvage.


25th Jan 1915      The islands trader “Kereru” suffered fire after an explosion in petrol cargoes and the fire float got to work with city fire brigade’s Dennis appliance pumped more than 600,000 gallons of water over several days to extinguish the flames. Once out, the fire float’s role reversed and she pumped the holds dry so tins of petrol could be salvaged.

1922 – 1923          The fire float assisted firefighters at several major fires aboard ships. “Raranga” had a blaze in copra, there was an outbreak on the mixed-cargo “Canadian Pioneer” while “Kaikoura” had a fire at sea and put into Auckland for help: the cargo of wool and tallow was involved.

3rd  Sept 1925      An early morning fire was sweeping through the hold of freighter “Kent”, moored in the stream. The fire float was immediately sent along with “Te Awhina”: both commenced pumping water into the hold.

The fire float alongside “Kent”: multiple hoses deliver
Fire-fighting supplies on to the burning vessel
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19250910-39-1

City firemen cut holes in the deck allowing hoses to be lowered between decks. These subdued the fire but could not extinguish it so the decision was taken to moor the ship where the city fire brigade’s Dennis pump could also be used.  Between pumping effort from both the Dennis and the fire float, the fire was prevented from spreading from the number 2 hold. It was extinguished by mid-afternoon. Several firemen were injured in the fire-fight and another had a lucky escape from the hold when the ship’s engineer cut the breathing tube from a disabled fireman and assisted him out into the open… and fresh air.


2nd April 1928        AHB made available its fire float at a major blaze in Winstone’s petrol and oil stores at Freemans Bay. It was one of the longest and most spectacular fire-fights the brigade had in years.

Fire in Winstone’s oil installation
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A9604

The blaze, punctuated by many explosions as the products ignited, lasted several days and the thick, black smoke could be seen from all over Auckland. On the second day, when flames were said to be at their highest, a fireman, Rholda George Beuth, was caught in a flare-up and, burnt, taken to Auckland Hospital where he later succumbed to his injuries. AHB claimed expenses from the city brigade for the deployment of the fire float at the blaze where it must have been judiciously deployed given that water is usually not used on a petroleum-based fire. Notwithstanding, it’s reported the fire float delivered 2,000 gallons a minute (7,600 l) until the tide dropped and the float was obliged to depart.

Firefighters waved away the invoice from the Harbour Board for the fire float’s attendance.


August 1928       AHB is considering selling the fire float because there’s insufficient towing work with the cessation of quarrying on Rangitoto Island. The Board’s Engineer says it would be better to have a fire pump aboard the tug “Te Awhina” which could double as fire float.


June 1930           AHB purchased a new fire pump  which is installed in “Te Awhina” in  the first months of 1930. In a trial of prolonged operation,  the pump met its specifications –    throwing a jet of water 100 feet (30m) high at the rate of 58,000 gallons (220,000 litres) an hour, or, at a considerably lower pressure, at the rate of 90,000 gallons (340,000 litres) an hour.


Sept 1930            AHB offers the fire float for sale: it’s interesting that the Merryweather fire pump is not included in the details of sale.

New Zealand Herald advertisement, September 1930

Early 1930s          Fire float is sold. The Akina Trawling Company of Napier deploys her as a fishing boat, named “Akina”.

Nov 1933             Edwin Lightfoot, long-time waterman on Auckland waterfront, when reminiscing at the time of his retirement said the fire pump from fire float was installed in tug “Te Awhina”. He is mistaken.

Hastings Boys’ High School Badge

Akina means “to strike hard” at the water, asking each individual for a supreme effort, thus appealing to students “to strive hard” giving supreme effort in academics, sports, culture and life.

“To Strike the water hard with supreme effort” seems an appropriate name given the ex-fire float when it became a fishing boat.

The word Akina survives in another way in Hastings, the name given to a neighbourhood to the south of the city near the Boys’ High School.

February 1936   AHB welcomed its new tug “William C. Daldy” which was equipped with powerful firefighting pumps, augmenting  Auckland waterfront’s fire-fighting capability.

March 1938        The fire float, now “Akina”, takes part in the first short-wave radio experiments carried out in New Zealand on a large scale when test are conducted by members of the Manawatu section of the NZ  Radio Emergency Corps using Napier-based boats and vehicles. Sets were installed on the trawlers “Akina” and “Dawn”, and communication was established with the shore station as the trawlers left the wharf. “Akina” steamed straight out to sea and at a distance of 15 miles (24kms) the signals transmitted ashore were still only a point below maximum strength. Press Association news reports said “transmissions were so clear that the sound of church bells and the striking of the clock could be heard on the trawlers, while those on shore could hear the rattle of the ship’s winches and the cry of the gulls. The tests were successful in every way”.

The “Akina” later fell into disuse and was eventually scrapped. The word Akina survives in Hawkes Bay: it’s the Maori motto of Hastings Boys’ High School taken from the chant used on the Waka Taua when extra effort was needed when paddling.

1987                      New Zealand Fire Service introduces a 6 m fire boat on Auckland Harbour, based at Mechanics Bay.

The fire boat ready to launch

For logistical reasons it did not endure, the fire brigade relying instead on police craft, Coastguard and private launches and Port of Auckland tugs


RCC  27/11/2018



Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand, accessed April, 2016.

Pictures etc added to original 27/11/2018

Script updated February 2019 and February 2020, thanks to Forbes Neil ‘s information about the fire float’s Napier days re-purposed and renamed “Akina”.

Hastings Boys’ High School website