Auckland’s Fire-raiser in the 1870s

A Strange String of Arsons – Auckland, 1870s 


A series of suspicious, major fires in Auckland in 1871 frightened the locals, tested the fire brigade and galvanised police to find the culprits.

Before the saga was over there would be a ship scuttled in the harbour, poison-pen letters, attempted murders, shots fired, a violent death and inglorious end for the principal players.

The scenario was almost unbelievable…

 Ship-board Fire

This intriguing story begins with an early morning blaze on 24th January 1871 aboard the sailing ship “City of Auckland”, berthed at the foot of Queen Street. She had been constructed especially for the London – Auckland run and was on her maiden voyage.

The “City of Auckland”
NZETC Victoria University

The blaze aboard the ship involved flammable cargoes of resin, kauri gum, flax, oil and wool which had been loaded for the return voyage. Firefighters could not effectively get water to the fire for some hours, by which time it was beyond their resources. The ship, still ablaze, was towed out into the harbour, a hole was hacked in her side and she was scuttled: an ignominious sight in the port she had been named after! Losses were put at £25,000, mostly insured by New Zealand Insurance Company headed by Mr Thomas Russell.

The ship had carried a young Irish boy to New Zealand as an immigrant – William Massey, who became Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1912-25.

“City of Auckland” was salvaged and completed further trips to England before being wrecked off the Kapiti Coast, on the west coast of the North Island, New Zealand, in October 1878.


Kerosene-fuelled Fire

The day after the ship fire, 25th January 1871, there was a further outbreak when Archard and Brown’s Dangerous Goods Store in Stanley Street, Mechanics Bay, caught alight. Tins of kerosene containing some 10,000 gallons (37,000 litres), went up in flames in spectacular fashion. Intense heat was generated so that no one could get near the place, but inspection afterwards showed there had been forced entry to the premises, probably by an arsonist.  Then the discovery that some kerosene tins had been spiked, so that small streams of escaping flammable liquid had greatly assisted the fire-lighter’s efforts. The City Board offered a reward for any information leading to whoever was responsible and asked police to double their vigilance. The heavy losses, again, were with New Zealand Insurance Company.


Blaze in the Reading Rooms

Some 8 months later, in September 1871, there was huge blaze which took out meeting rooms in the New Zealand Insurance Company’s building in Queen Street.


New Zealand Insurance Company Headquarters, Queen Street
James D Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-943

Again, it was an early morning fire which mostly affected the Exchange Reading Rooms – a downtown lounge for 600 paid-up members of the “club”, mostly businessmen. They had been gathering in 10 well-furnished rooms to meet, to read newspapers and to socialise. At the time of the fire the owner of the business, Cyrus Haley, was in the process of adding a luxury restaurant. It was almost ready to open, designed to cater for Auckland’s well-to-do with no expense spared in decorations, fittings, furnishings, cutlery, crockery and kitchen facilities. Haley could not account for the cause of the fire – the building was thoroughly checked before the last person left for the night. It had been an expensive blaze: the offices of two other businesses were gutted while a further 16 tenancies were damaged by heat, smoke, or water. Once again firemen had trouble getting water to the scene, and when they eventually used a steam pump in a nearby flour mill to get a flow going, it was to no avail: the flames had already done their damage.

Dubbed suspicious, there was no clue as to who was responsible for the fire despite a proclamation published in the New Zealand Gazette: “Free pardon is offered to any accomplice, not being the principal, who will give such information as will lead to the apprehension and conviction of the principal offender or offenders, or any of them, that set fire to Mr Haley’s rooms, in the New Zealand Insurance Company’s Buildings, on the 27th August last”.

In those days there was a Coroner’s enquiry into all serious fires. In this case an inquest returned a verdict that there was no evidence to suggest the fire was accidental or otherwise. Naturally, the New Zealand Insurance Company had cover of the premises it owned: losses ran to thousands of pounds.


Choral Hall Ablaze

In December 1871 the Choral Hall in Symonds Street was also a victim of fire. The premises were brand new, opened just a few months having been rebuilt following an earlier blaze.

The Auckland Choral Hall: replaced one that burned down
Auckland War Memorial Museum C9694

The Hall was a popular venue, used practically every night. The Choral Society mounted numerous musical events, the place was let out to travelling and local performers for a wide variety of entertainments and it was also the popular venue for serious lectures and presentations, for example “Principles of the Electric Telegraph”, “Magnetism to Generate Electricity”, “The Employment of Women” and “Practical Phrenology”, mounted by various  institutions.

The Hall was used regularly on Sundays by evangelical groups.  A public appeal had been launched at one of these gatherings in November 1871 to remember Anglican Bishop, John Patteson, who a few months earlier had been murdered in the Solomon Islands. This appeal began a Memorial Fund to assist Melanesian Missions: it was later joined by other Church initiatives which, over the decades, would make generous financial grants to Melanesia.

But for now, the fire had destroyed the new Choral Hall. The fire brigade arrived on the scene too late and could not find a hydrant in the vicinity.

Asher Asher
Tauranga City Libraries

Captain of the Brigade, Asher Asher, arriving before his men, led bystanders do the best they could… to throw buckets of cooling water over the roofs of adjacent houses. Firefighters got bad press in the New Zealand Herald: “… the building had been reduced to ashes by the time they arrived, an engine with a few of the brigade members in company was seen coming leisurely down, at a steady walk… and …when the fire-engine was brought to a halt amid much laughter from the crowd, one of the brigade men went to the edge of the burning mass, and lifting up small portions of the live embers, coolly proceeded to light his pipe, and then, whilst enjoying the soothing fumes of tobacco, looked calmly on at the fine pile of destructed building…”

There was no doubt that this fire was arson. Bundles of un-ignited kerosene-soaked rags were found in the ruins: an Inquest found a case of “wilful incendiarism”.

Thomas Russell
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1050-4

Mr Thomas Russell was President of the Choral Society, and, once again, cover was with the insurance company he headed. Perhaps a theme was developing!

Inspector Broham

Police, led by Inspector Thomas Broham, were investigating the cause of all the fires. Broham, a red-haired Irishmen, had been appointed in 1870 ahead of others to lead, and clean up, the Armed Constabulary in Auckland. There was some resentment about the way he got the job: his hard-headed approach in the Victorian Force in Australia apparently helped him get the position.

            Thomas Broham
  Alexander Turnbull Library

Now, Broham had two unsolved arsons on his hands (the kerosene store and the Choral Hall), and maybe others (the ship, the Reading Rooms and several recent house fires in Pitt Street). He was looking for answers. Success… or as he put it “clearing up these matters”, would confirm to all and sundry that his appointment had been the right one: that he was the best man to lead the police.

And the Press was also seeking answers. The Daily Southern Cross newspaper put it like this: “… we sincerely hope that… … it will not come to be regarded as an admitted principle that fire-raising in Auckland can be carried on with impunity. After the non-success that has attended their attempts to trace the miscreants, the police are bound to put forth their utmost efforts to trace and convict the incendiary that fired the Choral Hall”.   Auckland was tired of suspicious, serious fires.

But events in the farming district of Onehunga were soon to provide some answers.

Life at The Pah

The night before the Choral Hall fire there had been a serious crime at The Pah, a property farmed by Thomas Russell (that name crops up again!) centred on his mansion-home near where, today, a newer Pah homestead stands, now surrounded by parkland off Hillsborough Road  in Mt Roskill. Russell was a very successful – if sometimes dubious – businessman (a founding father of the Bank of New Zealand, land developer and entrepreneur, he owned shipping operations on Waikato River), politician (one-time MP for Auckland East and Cabinet Minister), insurance underwriter, and a busy barrister with an office in downtown Auckland. He was often referred to as being in the “Limited Circle” of Auckland’s business interests. Russell’s sometimes acerbic business style, his self-serving political alliances and ruthless takeover of Maori lands meant he was not without enemies. His nickname, perhaps among those who thought they had been done down by him, was “Cut Throat”.

He was the second owner of The Pah property, purchasing it in 1860 from William Hart who had erected the fine Regency-styled villa on the knoll, a former Maori Pah site. It was some 400 metres from the road, sheltered by bush and trees. The big house had novel French style casement windows, opening out on to a verandah on all sides. The farm comprised 250 acres (100 hectares) and Thomas Russell ran beef and sheep while growing barley and wheat. A member of the Auckland Horticultural Society, Russell introduced exotic plants… among them Chilean Wine Palms, Bunya Bunya Pines and a circular grove of Holm Oaks.

 Shots at The Pah

On the evening of December 22nd 1872 Thomas Russell was away in Auckland on business.  Mrs Emeline Russell, her children and household helpers had retired relatively early, as they did when Mr Russell was absent. Around midnight Mrs Russell heard noises outside and aroused the young Thomas. Peering out one of the French windows he found he was looking straight into the face of a stranger on the verandah outside. While getting a good view of the man’s clothing and face, Thomas Junior did not recognise the man. Realising he’d been seen, and probably identified, the stranger immediately drew a revolver. Thomas, shocked, quickly pulled back behind the curtain. Several shots were fired through the window into the room, one bullet narrowly missing the lad. The intruder then walked around the verandah shooting at random into the house through various windows. One of the bullets embedded the staircase’s post.

   Trophy from Pah Homestead: the bullet-marked staircase post
 Auckland Museums Collections

When he fired into Mrs Russell’s bedroom she was lucky to dodge the shots. One bullet lodged in the pillow on which, minutes before, she had been sleeping. There was a pause. It soon became plain the man had reloaded the weapon in surrounding shrubbery and gone around to the back of the house where he fired more shots into a bedroom and the kitchen. 8 shots in all, then the night returned to rural silence, the man apparently having left.

Thomas Russell Senior was furious that his family home had been invaded, especially when he found that bullets had only just missed his young son and the lives of his wife and the rest of the family had been in jeopardy. Russell hired 2 burly men for security.

Poison-Pen Letter

Days later, on Saturday 27th January 1872, Russell received an anonymous letter poked under the door of his city office. The hand-written note threatened his life, his family, servants, the family home and his farm. His wife, the poison-pen letter continued, was “… haughty and too proud to those she ought to help…” The menaces carried on, saying there would be “years of retaliation at every opportunity by poison, shooting, stabbing and fire”, because Russell had gained his wealth and prospered by defrauding the humbler classes by manipulating share prices, especially those of the gold mining company, Caledonian. The letter concluded with a dramatic death threat – “Finale within 2 years”. Shaken, Russell was pleased he had hired strong men to help protect his home. He handed the letter to Inspector Broham.

More Fires

On the night of Saturday 27th January 1872, within hours of Russell receiving the letter, the security men noticed a glare in paddocks on The Pah property some distance from the house towards Royal Oak. They found three hay stacks on fire. Situated apart, it was obvious all three had ignited about the same time. The alarm raised, there was an immediate search of the farm but to no avail.  Although nothing could be seen of the person or persons responsible, the whereabouts were known because turkeys, disturbed by the decamping strangers, set up great aggressive cries.

Mr. Russell at once despatched a mounted messenger to Auckland, “gallop all the way, find Inspector Broham, tell him what has happened and ask him to send out some of his men to search for the person or persons responsible”. It was past one o’clock when the messenger reached police headquarters at Albert Barracks in town.

The Chase is On

Notwithstanding the time of day, the Inspector gathered a police party and set out for The Pah, with instructions to the constables, foot soldiers in effect, to spread out across-country, widening the search. Broham, like Russell, knew of the poison-pen letter and now it seemed one of the threats, fire, had been carried out.

Whoever had written the letter was more than likely responsible for the hay stack fire, designed to hurt Thomas Russell.  It appeared the series of previous fires had each been lit for the same purpose – to get at Thomas Russell or the organisations he was associated with.

It was important to catch the fire-raiser and It would be logical, Broham thought, that this person was probably at that very moment returning to town. The Inspector had hopes his men would intercept the offender. Detective Jeffery rode out, heading down Khyber Pass Road while another group of police was told to follow the railway line towards the South. Instructions were to arrest anyone upon the slightest suspicion.

                    From Epsom, looking towards Mt Eden 1870s/80s: area of the search.
           James D. Richardson- Sir George Grey Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-322

Inspector Broham, on horseback, proceeded along Mount Eden Road from Symonds Street. By now, early morning mist and drizzling rain limited visibility. But as the Inspector passed by the road leading to the prison (these days, Boston Road) he observed someone coming from the opposite direction. He at once stopped his horse. The man immediately reacted, leaping a fence and running off into scrub. The Inspector dismounted and gave chase across country. The man had a head-start and ran as fast as he could but the Inspector narrowed the gap. One after the other, the men cast off their heavy outer coats and threw them aside, continuing the chase. It was rough, volcanic, country on the gentle northern lower slopes of Mt Eden and something of a steeplechase ensued. Both had trouble picking their way through scrub and around rocky outcrops. Broham had the better speed and the man being chased realised this, so, without stopping, drew a revolver. A few more steps and he paused just long enough to turn and aim it at the Inspector. But it was the wrong move. In swinging around to take aim, the man stumbled in the uneven scoria, lost his footing, rolled over and dropped the hand gun as he fell. Not done, the man got groggily to his feet and attacked the Inspector with a few well-aimed punches, subdued only after Broham used his riding whip, still in hand, to ward off the unknown man with blows across his head.

The Arsonist Unmasked

Once his captive was subdued Broham was utterly amazed to discover it was well-known Auckland businessman, Cyrus Haley.

           Cyrus Haley

“Take me, Mr. Broham: I surrender,” Haley said and when asked about the haystack fires he replied, “You would have done as much if it had been you”. Broham had a confession. Haley was taken to Albert Barracks and searched. Bullets were found in one of his pockets. It was almost 3am when Haley was put in the lock-up where a doctor attended to cuts on his head. The pistol dropped by Haley was afterwards picked up by the police, minus the chamber. But it, too, was later located.

Haley came to New Zealand in 1870 from India where he held responsible positions, “a man of education and good address” the New Zealand Herald said, “who acquired a standing in the community as a man of affairs”. Until the fire in the NZ Insurance building, he had owned the business carried out there, the Exchange Reading Rooms. When gold-mining investments did not prosper as he had expected, Haley blamed Thomas Russell, chairman of directors of the Caledonian Company, for his losses. Over several years it had become a vendetta. As we have seen, Thomas Russell’s connections, one way or another, had suffered at the hands of the arsonist with every fire. It’s not plain that this pattern was detected at the time, just as there had not been the slightest suspicion that Cyrus Haley, the respectable businessman, had anything to do with the string of crimes.

 The Evidence Mounts

Next day police searched Haley’s house in Newton. Firearms and ammunition were found along with an empty leather revolver case which fitted, exactly, the piece that Haley had used to accost Broham. Moreover, a quantity of fabric was found which matched the appearance of that which had been produced, saturated in kerosene as a fire-starter, at the inquest into the Choral Music Hall fire. Detective Jeffrey also found a set of tumblers, precisely the same size and pattern as one found in the ruins of the Choral Hall fire, apparently used to throw kerosene on to the walls before the place was set on fire. The tumblers were rare… during his enquiries Detective Jeffrey had, without success, searched all Auckland suppliers and shops trying to trace the distinctive pattern. And now, here were matching examples in Haley’s house.

Detectives found a sheet of paper in the house that had been torn in two… and they found the tear exactly matched the paper containing threats which had been poked under Mr Russell’s office door.

Bullets taken from a wall in The Pah mansion were found to fit Haley’s pistol. An expert said, when compared, the poison-pen letter and Haley’s handwriting were identical.

The evidence against Cyrus Haley was stacking up.

He may have set fire to the Choral Hall to satisfy two counts… his animosity towards Russell with his connection to the hall’s insurers, N Z Insurance Company and Russell’s personal oversight of the hall itself.

Insane?The New Zealand Herald at the time noted that the accused had invested unwisely with the proceeds from the insurance for the burnt-out Reading Rooms. “Some business transactions…” the newspaper said, “…plus things said to police and the doctor on the night of his arrest indicates the man is bordering on insanity”. Haley continued espousing his philosophy that the humbler classes in Auckland were suffering at the hands of cheating upper-class, well-to-do, businessmen (he meant Thomas Russell) and that he was leading a movement to stop it, supported by many followers.

Despite strong claims of Haley’s delusions by his lawyer, Haley was committed to the Supreme Court on charges he admitted: attempted murder of the young Thomas Russell at The Pah, the arson of the haystacks and the kerosene store: and charges to which he pleaded not guilty – arson of the Choral Hall and sending threatening letters.

Supreme Court Trial

The jury enlisted to hear the case read like a Who’s Who of Auckland businessmen at the time – names like Daldy (Foreman), McFarlane, Isaacs, De Quincey, Kempthorne, Paton and Wynyard.

Chief Justice Sir George Arney

At the end of a protracted trial in April 1872 the Chief Justice, His Honour Sir George Arney, found the charges resulted from a motive of mania: Haley continued to put forward that he was one of a large local movement intent on exacting vengeance on better-off businessmen. The Judge also reflected that before his arrest the defendant had often been heard decrying those responsible for the arsons, and that he continued to go about his normal business for months, knowing his guilt. The Judge, sentencing Haley, said the “…offences show how a strong will, coupled with an ill-balanced mind, led a man to the commission of a series of crimes as seldom fell to the lot of a Court of Justice to enquire into…”. On those charges he admitted, Cyrus Haley was sentenced to imprisonment for the term of his natural life. The Judge ordered forfeit of his remaining assets to help meet costs of prosecution.  Effectively, given the charges, it was two life sentences.

But, as it turned out, he would not serve either of them.

Broham’s Work Recognised

Before the Court adjourned His Honour applauded Inspector Thomas Broham’s work to find and successfully prosecute the person responsible for Auckland’s arsons. For although there were no charges regarding fires on the ship “City of Auckland”, in Pitt Street houses and at the Choral Hall, most Aucklanders, the New Zealand Herald said, believed Haley was responsible for them all.

Broham was also congratulated in the Press, especially for his tussle after encountering the armed Haley at Mt Eden and, single-handedly, taking him in. The Inspector needed the accolades to restore his indifferent mana and senior position in the Armed Constabulary. He was later promoted to Superintendent in Charge of the Canterbury District but his ill-temper and old, inculcated, ways affected his duties and in 1889, despite public support, he retired medically unfit, in fact a broken man. He took a recuperative trip abroad and died in Rome in 1900.

Haley’s Violent End

Cyrus Haley did not serve out his life sentences.

Just 3 years into his servitude he was transferred to Dunedin Prison along with seven other of the Colony’s notorious criminals, authorities fearing the old Mt Eden Stockade was not sufficiently secure. Construction had just begun on a much more robust prison, built of stone and concrete which survives today, largely disused. Among the so-called “Notorious Eight” was another arsonist, John Elcock (set fire to his house in Chancery Street, Auckland, which spread to many other properties), convicted murderers, those who had attempted murder and burglars.

Their transfer was delayed by an argument with a shipping company over the fares to be paid for their passage to Port Chalmers. The wrangle ended when a prominent Auckland man came forward. Without naming him, the newspapers of the day reported that a businessman, a former Member of the House of Representatives, immediately rushed forward to hand over a cheque for the amount in dispute. “I would be happy to pay double that amount to see just one of the eight convicts out of Auckland Province”. Plainly, it was Thomas Russell who paid the money, and that it was Haley he was so keen to see the back of, transported out of Auckland under escort.

Once in Dunedin prison the 39 year old Haley was hardly a model prisoner.

                     Haley’s new “home”. H.M. Prison, Dunedin.
                  Alexandra Turnbull Library Tapuhi Collection

He was caught trying to escape in February 1873 and sentenced to “6 months in irons”. Notwithstanding, just 2 years later he was classed a “trusty”, allowed to work outside the prison walls. On 4th October, 1875, he was with a group of other hard-labour convicts working at Bell Hill when again he attempted to escape. Warder James Miller first shouted to Haley asking why he had separated from the work party. Haley did not reply, instead making a break for it, running through the grounds of the First Church towards Moray Place and Stuart Street, hotly pursued by the warder. When several shouts to stop and two warning shots went unheeded, Miller took aim and shot Haley in the back. The prisoner continued a few steps, slumped and fell, dead. A jury in the Coroner’s Court not only upheld Miller’s action, doing his duty, but added a rider of commendation. Subsequent editorials and Letters to the Editor in newspapers throughout the country were divided over the severe measure adopted to stop the runaway.

Haley’s death ended the saga of the Auckland arsons connected with Thomas Russell. Well… not quite.


Mrs Haley and children, destitute without Cyrus Haley’s assets which had gone towards the cost of his prosecution, returned to family in England.  But later the family travelled to Dunedin to be near Cyrus serving out his jail sentence. By this time Mrs Haley was a hopeless alcoholic and the children were taken into care, much resented by their father. Emily Haley died on Pakatoa Island in the Hauraki Gulf in 1912.

       Thomas Russell in later life 

The Hon. Thomas Russell sold The Pah in 1877 at considerably less than he paid for it and, with his family, returned to London where he represented New Zealand commercial and banking interests. He returned to Auckland several times to check on farming and land investments, to make further commercial deals and to shore up business relationships. His intricate web of financial undertakings collapsed in the 1890s: he was technically insolvent and after a Court looked into his affairs he was lucky to escape prosecution. Through a series of clever, calculated moves he managed to rescue some of his fortune despite once again being accused of self-interest and commercial crony-ism – his integrity in doubt. He died in Surrey, England in 1904.



RCC December 2015, illustrations added December 2018.


Sources: Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

C. J. Stone. ‘Russell, Thomas’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012

Richard S. Hill. ‘Broham, Thomas’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 5-Jun-2013

  1. C. (Nan) Payne. ‘Asher Asher, his life and time 1822-1899’. Published by the author, 1989.

Illustrations, where known, as credited.