Auckland’s Fire Towers and Bells

“The toll rang out its alarm of fire, a ruddy glare upon the sky… the bell on the New Zealand Insurance Company’s Building then took up the cry,  swelling to a chorus as other bells across the city rang out the midnight call. Then the shouts and cries as townsfolk stirred in the streets and the brigade swept to the blaze”. A recollection of bygone fire bells, essential communication of emergency and urgency.  

In Auckland’s early colonial days alarms of fire were given in 3 ways. Citizens coming across a blaze could shout out loudly “Fire! Fire”, often accompanied by a rapping on doors and shutters to gain attention of the occupants and neighbours. Second, soldiers at the Albert Barracks would sound the appropriate “pipe” on bugles signalling a fire, and, thirdly, by the tolling of the fire bells.

At first, without an organised fire brigade, these alarms were to alert the townspeople to a fire… advising that their help might be immediately required to try to check the blaze. Spectators, sometimes in their hundreds, were also drawn to the fire by the sound of the bells. At one stage, as we will find, the citizens of burgeoning Auckland relied solely on the fire bells as a means of giving the general alarm.

Auckland’s first fire bell was on the waterfront… others were erected on the fringe of the commercial centre as businesses and settlement reached out into the surrounding hills above and around Queen Street.

The increasing number of bells, and their locations, traces Auckland’s growth: progress from the waterfront to the hinterland. Development of the suburbs of Karangahape, Ponsonby, Newton, Eden Terrace, Parnell and Newmarket can be traced by the date fire bells were erected and when fire brigades were established to serve these new communities. Such was the expansion of fire protection that in February 1896 the code of tolls was revised: North 1 toll, East 2 tolls, Grafton 3 tolls, Karangahape 4 tolls, South 5 tolls and Ponsonby 6 tolls.

Fire bells as a means of sounding an alarm of fire served the people for decades until telephones, street fire alarms, sirens and electronic (automatic) fire alarms took over.  Later the 111 emergency phone number was introduced and now it’s the cell phone: today practically everyone carries the means of raising the alarm!

Before the Bells

When Auckland was first settled as the new Capital in 1840 there was no fire brigade. The 96th Regiment, from 1843, and the 58th, from March 1845, provided men for firefighting when the need arose, just as the military, and crews of ships in port, had customarily assisted communities over many years. The 58th brought their own manual fire pump which they had deployed while stationed in Sydney.

The militia had its age-old way of sounding the alarm: by bugle. Since Roman times the instrument has been used 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 to be sounded in the event of fire on the post, or nearby. It was this tune the buglers played at Auckland’s Albert Barracks whenever there was an alarm of fire in the town: the soldiers then responding to assist whatever the time, day or night.

Bugle Call – piped for a fire within the station or vicinity

Apart from shout of “Fire! Fire!” this was the way townspeople got to hear about a fire. Here’s how C.D. writing in “The New Zealander” newspaper waxes eloquent about the blaze that destroyed Government House in June 1848: “Fire! Fire! Caught from the voice of sentry to sentry – borne on the alarm of bugles from barracks to barracks, through the town, street and alley, into the lofty mansion through the fastened shutter, into the lowly hut through the broken pane, beside the couch of down, beside the coverlet of raps, mingling with the dreams and startling the ears of affrighted sleepers, diffusing terror in its flight, swiftly spreads that fearful shout – ‘Fire! Fire! ‘”.

The Shouting and the Bugles

The newspaper The New Zealander went on to report the fire in Auckland’s Government House. “The bugles of the 58th having sounded the general turn out, the inhabitants were quickly aroused, the vast concourse which hastened to lend assistance being witnesses of the grand but destructive spectacle. Within an hour the entire structure, with the exception of the chimneys, was burnt to the ground. It seems that about 5 o’clock, or a little earlier, yesterday morning, just before the break of day, one of the sentinels on duty, saw the reflection of a strong light in that part of the building which was occupied as a kitchen. He soon discovered that it was a fire: the bugle sounded the alarm, and the military lost no time in turning out”.

Old Auckland Town

The Fire Bell Chimes In

It was some time after the Government House fire in 1856 that Auckland had the beginnings of a volunteer fire brigade: several engine companies were being formed, some equipped with a manual fire pump. In April that year the first fire bell was erected in the Market Place, now Shortland Street (then Shortland Crescent) just in from Queen Street adjacent to the Customs House.

Auckland, early 1850s. The Custom House is on the left nearest the shoreline.
Auckland Libraries Collection

The Daily Southern Cross, April 1st 1856 – “Within the last few days a large bell has been hung at the market place, for the purpose of a fire alarm. It is a powerful bell and will prove a most efficient means of summoning, in case of fire, the members of the various brigades, and of giving public intimation generally, should such a calamity arise”. The Engine Company Shed, built the following year, was adjacent to the bell.

Early map of Auckland showing Shortland Crescent (left to right) joining Queen Street (right) with the Engine Company between Customs Houses.
Auckland City Archives

After this, fires in Auckland were signalled by both the bell and by bugles, such as a blaze just a fortnight after the new bell was hung. The Daily Southern Cross again – “On Wednesday evening, about half past 9, the sound of the fire bell recently erected at the Market Place, followed instantaneously by that of the fire bugle, spread the alarm throughout the length and breadth of the City and Suburbs, and brought the populace in hundreds to the scene of the supposed conflagration”. But it proved to be a small fire in Shortland Street doused by a few buckets of water”.

It was different two years later when men of the 58th again assisted firefighters at the “Great Fire” on August 28th 1858: Auckland’s biggest blaze 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. And, 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 collective Volunteer Fire Brigade under Asher Asher. “Fire engine” in those times comprised a hand-pump on four wheels. Known as “a manual” it would be dragged to the fire by men 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. Fire engineers and manufacturers, Merryweather of 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 to help maintain supply. Many were later converted so they could be horse-drawn.

Small Merryweather hand-drawn fire engine c 1840

Other Bells Soon Followed

Within months, in May 1856, the first bell in Market Place was joined by another, provided by the Liverpool and London Insurance Company, and erected on the ridge in Princes Street, near the entrance to Government House, adjacent to Albert Barracks (now Albert Park). It was to be known as the Government Gate Bell, the newspaper The New Zealander noting “…the structure is neat and substantial, and together with the bell, from the foundry of Messrs. Russell of Sydney, has entailed an expenditure of £65”.

The two bells favoured the lower parts of town and those to the East: firefighters living to the West of Queen Street complained they could often not hear the bells so the Brigade Secretary wrote to the Roman Catholic Bishop in 1857 asking if St Patrick’s bell could be used, adjacent to the stone church at the intersection of Wyndham and Chapel (now Federal) Streets, up the hill from Queen Street. It would be unlikely that Bishop Pompallier would turn down their request.

It was hoped these “deaf spots” would be further overcome in October 1858 with the arrival of a big, new bell purchased by the Imperial Insurance Association from Shears and Company in London.  This bell replaced the smaller one in Market Place which, within the month, was erected in Hobson Street at the corner of Wellesley Street outside St Matthews Church-room.  The Fire Brigade warned citizens, mid-November, that the bells were to be tested so everyone could “distinguish the different tones” without being alarmed by the trial.

By the early 1860s settlement was extending. A letter to the Editor of the Southern Cross in November 1860 drew attention to “the necessity of erecting an Alarm Bell, at Newton: say at Mr. Brophy’s Store and Post Office, or convenient to it. First, for many months in the year it generally blows from the South and West, and when such is the case, it is impossible for the inhabitants to the West or South, (unless those in the immediate neighbourhood,) to hear the Fire Bell in Hobson Street”. Further afield, in Parnell, there was call in the newspaper New Zealander for a fire bell after a serious fire there in 1863. “The want of a fire bell in this populous suburb was clearly shown on this occasion, for before the fact of the fire having broken out could be communicated to the neighbourhood, it was too late to save any of the valuable property destroyed”.

Limitations

Auckland’s different winds and undulating topography meant the fire bells could not always be heard. Occasionally the bell ropes would get twisted or frayed or, in more advanced mechanisms, the pulley would jam. A bell that became cracked – the cracked pot – was useless and, as we shall see, had to be replaced at great expense. Another hinderance were the inevitable false alarms: by day often given by boys up to mischief and by night drunks staggering home from the pub. In August 1864 it was the Hobson Street bell that gave a brief false alarm. The New Zealand Herald reported that “at two o’clock yesterday morning a foolish person named Walker, gave the rope of the Hobson Street fire bell two or three pulls. He was immediately pursued by the police, and after a sharp run captured. Having expressed great contrition for his offence and. having been kept some hours in the guard-room, Walker was dismissed by the Commissioner with a caution”. This was the first reported interference with a fire bell: there were to be many more over the years.

Bells on the Move?

In November 1865 buildings in Shortland Crescent Street were demolished, including the fire brigade shed, which was resurrected in Fort Street.  The fire bell was also removed. The New Zealander: “Query for the municipal authorities: where has the fire-bell gone? In demolishing the Old Custom-house and Immigration Barracks, the fire bell which stood at the bottom of Shortland Crescent has been removed, but nothing has been done yet with regard to putting the fire bell in position again. The newspaper pointed out anyone giving an alarm of fire would have to run up to the Princes Street bell. “We are taking the liberty of helping the City Fathers with a suggestion and recommend that the bell should be placed at Philips’ corner, so that it may be in as central and accessible a position as possible”. This proposal would have replaced the fire bell almost where it had been, at the corner of Queen Street and Shortland Crescent.

With the disappearance of the fire bell having been drawn to its attention, the Provincial Government, within two weeks, advised that it had been re-erected outside the re-located fire brigade shed in Fort Street.

Fort Street 1865. Fire bell tower right, behind the horse and cart. J. D. Richardson – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

Asher Asher, who had done so much in Auckland over the years to try to stabilise fire engine companies and the fire brigade, was a member of the City Board in June 1866 when he was encouraged to re-site the fire bell in Fort Street “to a more central and convenient locality, near the engine-house at the foot of Victoria-street, which would greatly enhance its usefulness”. There was quite some discussion… a few months later a site at Queen and Customhouse (Customs) Street was suggested and that insurance interests, rather than the City Board, should pay costs. The Underwriters said, yes, they would contribute, on the condition that they chose the site.

Customs Street East 1860s with its fire bell. J.D. Richardson – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

The bell was erected in late 1866. Not sure how the topic was raised, but there was a setback when the City Board received legal advice that it didn’t have the power to erect fire bells in thoroughfares, so it suggested any new bells would be housed attached to lamp posts. Underwriters said this was not a good idea… bells needed to be higher off the ground so their sound would travel to be heard across the city.

Controversy continued about the location of a new bell downtown. The Manager of New Zealand Insurance Company, George Pierce, advocated a bell in Queen Street… and put his money where his mouth was when his company built its new premises in the exact spot he had championed… and at a great height…just as he had espoused. More anon.

In March 1866, the fire bell tower at the Hobson Street/Wellesley Street corner, outside the Prince Arthur Hotel, failed when people tried to give an alarm of a blaze in Baker Street (now Morton Street). The City’s Foreman of Works reported “…the timber is utterly useless being rotten from top to bottom. The bell has not been injured to any serious extent, but fresh framework will be necessary to have it re-enacted which ought to be attended to immediately as the fire bell in that locality is an absolute necessity”. Repairs were quickly carried out. But in the end, despite all discussion, it appears none of the of the suggested “downtown” sites was chosen: in 1866 Albert Street, instead, was favoured and a fire bell was erected near the intersection with Victoria Street. The City Board of Commissioners likely used drawings it had already prepared for fire bell towers and by May 1867 it was in use.

Queen/Victoria Street intersection, the fire bell up the hill (extreme left) at Albert Street. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

New Zealand Herald, 11th May 1867 – “… Constable McGinn, with all possible haste, proceeded to ring the Albert Street fire bell …”. Once installed, it became a land-mark: in January 1868 Turrell and Tonks, auctioneers, advertised bags of prime maize for sale “at our premises opposite the Fire Bell (corner of Victoria and Albert Streets)”. And other newspaper articles of the time report alarms of fire being given by the bell, such as in the Daily Southern Cross, 10th April 1869, – “…Mr Utting, I believe it was, who was proceeding homewards from his office, having observed the fire, hastened with great celerity to the Albeit Street fire bell and he continued to ring it until both Hobson and Princes Street bells responded…”

This began the presence of a fire bell in this locality, on the North-East corner of the Albert/Victoria Street intersection, for many years.

In 1869 Asher Asher centred fire brigade activities on the Northern Engine Company’s station on Queen Street between Victoria Street and Darby Street (next to the then Supreme Court). There’s mention of a fire bell in the vicinity about this time: it was probably associated with the fire station.

Rousing The Essential Others – Turncocks

By this stage … from around 1866… Auckland could rely on a regular water supply from springs in the Auckland Domain, gravity fed to the down-town area in an increasing network of pipes, some 6 inch, (15cm) other 4 inch (10cm). Initially some 30,000 gallons (113,000 litres) were drawn daily. The immediate supervision and maintenance of the system was in the hands of a paid Government Turncock, who was also expected to provide best pressures in the event of a fire.

The pond in Auckland Domain remains a sanctuary for waterfowl

So now the bells were also signalling their alarms of fire to the turncocks so they could assist. Once they knew where the fire was, by manipulating valves and pumps they could considerably increase pressure in the pipes to assist firefighting.

But it was essential, of course, that the Government Turncock could hear the bells enabling him to act. He was often criticised for poor pressures by domestic and industrial users… or sometimes no pressure at all with not a drop of water in the pipes: of concern to those who envisaged a fire at the same time. These closures were generally to make repairs or to extend reticulation. There are numerous reports of the turncock not being readily available to perform duties when there was a fire, or in one case, the turncock’s mad dash to the Domain to turn on the main valve which had been turned off for some reason. At the same time he activated the city’s auxiliary supply there, thus increasing the head of water available to firefighters… once, that is, the water reached the town. On one occasion Parnell’s turncock was missing during a major fire and it was later explained he was absent from the house walking his dog in Hobson Bay, out of earshot of the bells.

So fire bells were essential for these “others”, the turncocks. Later they were rostered on duty around the clock at the reservoirs in Ponsonby and Grafton which were connected to the central fire station by telephone so that firefighters could ask for an immediate boost in pressure.

There were other essential people alerted by the fire bells. The residue of the military in Auckland still turned out to help, the police – either on their rounds downtown or in the police station at Albert Barracks – needed to know about fires so they could mobilise. And then there was the citizenry whose help was often invaluable at the scene, clearing out furniture, personal items and other contents from houses threatened by the flames.  It’s clear from the reports of inquests held to inquire into fires that doctors also answered the call of the fire bells to see if their services were needed.

N.Z. Insurance Company Tower, Queen Street

Auckland had been promised a new fire bell in the tower of  the three-storeyed offices under construction in Queen Street for the New Zealand Insurance Company (NZI). Meantime a bell had been provided at the Native Market on the waterfront and then at Phillip’s Corner, the junction of Queen  and Shortland Streets, followed by a short period on the NZI construction site itself. When the  building was almost complete in April 1871 the city’s latest fire bell was hung in the tower. This was provided by the Company, organised no doubt by the company’s manager, Mr George Pierce, who had been vocal on both the perfect location and height for a new fire bell. He delivered both aspects and, after due warning, the bell tolled as a demonstration for townsfolk on the afternoon of 22nd April 1871.

New Zealand Insurance Company’s building, the new fire bell aloft. Burton Brothers & K. D Richardson

The Auckland Star noted “the tones are unmistakeably those associated in everybody’s mind with a conflagration. They are mellow and musical, but doleful in the extreme, and cannot fail to be heard at a great distance, and when heard swelling on the night air, to produce a veritable alarm”. It remained in service until the building was demolished in 1915.

Ironically, the newest bell on the NZI building became the city’s “mother-bell”. There was, by now, enough others to effectively create a local network. Should one be sounded, other bells would be rung, taking up the alarm to inform townsfolk across the community.

Objection Over-ruled

For some years in the early 1870s Hubert Oram, inn-keeper of the Prince Arthur Hotel at the corner of Hobson and Wellesley Streets, had an on-going complaint with the City Council over the proximity of the fire bell. It was right outside the hotel. In reply to his first letter of complaint, the Council said the fire bell could be relocated across the road from the hotel provided Mr Oram paid the costs. This obviously did not suit the publican. His second letter, a year or two later, repeated the request saying the “the superstructure on which the bell was hung was made a urinal at night, and the bell itself was a plaything for boys during the day”. And then in 1877 perhaps the truth of the matter was revealed when Hubert Oram wrote – “Mrs Oram is of a very nervous temperament, and the ringing of the bell affects her for days afterwards”. The Council resolved, each time, to “receive his letter”.

More Settlement – Essential Bells

Several matters dictated the relocation of an existing fire bell and the addition of others. Pierce’s “big bell” in Queen Street meant the bell in Fort Street could be moved and the bell on the waterfront was not now needed. The city was growing… cottages, shops and commercial premises were moving inland from the waterfront, more streets were formed, municipal facilities and services added.

The downtown fire bell followed this trend and was relocated in mid-1871 “uptown” to the intersection of Queen, Wakefield and Grey Street (latterly Greys Avenue) … the present Town Hall apex.

The bell at the intersection of Queen Street and Grey Street (later Greys Avenue).
Auckland Libraries Collections

The City Board, in approving the move, said a street-light would be provided, shared with a urinal planned nearby, but while the street light is visible, the convenience is not seen in any pictures of the bell tower – perhaps it was discreetly behind the bushes!

This became Auckland’s best-known fire bell, known merely as “the fire bell” for decades. Apart from giving alarms of fire, the spot became a meeting place for church groups, political and union gatherings, the location of soap-box orators and, at one stage, the start/finish point for cycling and athletic time trials. It was notable that the Reverend A. J. Smith and his flock from the Primitive Methodist Church assembled at the fire bell at 6pm every Sunday evening over many years before marching off to their church nearby. The fire bell was a common meeting place for friends, the beginning point for military parades, civic welcomes, and funerals.

It was a false alarm that rang out in July 1873. The Auckland Star reported that “People in town were alarmed about eight o’clock this morning by the vigorous ringing of the fire bell at the junction of Queen and Grey Street. A woman, known by the name of Mary, either under the influence of liquor or insane, was found wildly tugging at the bell rope. Constable Naughton endeavoured to stop her mad career but she turned round on him, and nothing daunted by his size and formidable appearance, made an assault upon him. Overpowered by strength she was conveyed to the lock-up”.

Raising an Audience

Given the bell tower’s familiarity it was probably unremarkable that in November 1878 a young man chose it as the location to make his foray into public speaking. The story begins in the Auckland Star office where a young man requested an advertisement be placed: “The mysterious personage who has been spoken of through the paper recently, will address the Auckland public to-morrow afternoon, at two o’clock, at the foot of Grey-street, near the fire bell. Be in time, or else stay away.” The man paid cash for the advertisement. The Auckland Star reports – “Shortly before the time specified in the announcement, the same individual carrying a Bible, prayer book, and accordion, mounted the fire bell, and having taken up a position, waited for his audience. His recital of a few tunes and reading Scripture had failed to draw the audience he reckoned on, despite his carefully worded advertisement. The preacher apparently reconsidered the best means of attracting a hearing and then without more ado he seized the ropes attached to the fire bell and rang out a furious alarm, which, as may well be believed, was sufficient to cause considerable excitement, and which was not allayed when the alarm was taken up by other bells around the city. Constable Alexander was on duty at the time, and he immediately ran to the spot, and inquired why the bell had been rung. “God has instructed me to do so,” the preacher said. The constable ordered the man to come down. “Don’t touch me, if you do so you will be instantly struck dead!” The policeman was not paralysed by this threat, and he, therefore, proceeded to compel the man to descend, which he did. When the constable was about to seize him, the man again said “I must not be touched. I am the Saviour!” This was “too thin” for the constable, and the next instant the man, who was apparently quite insane, was marched off to the lock-up. He was later committed to the Lunatic Asylum”.

Sinner…

The preacher was probably trying to engage with those types like the person who interfered with the fire bell in October 1885. The Auckland Star – “Some mean thief has stolen the rope out of the fire bell at the foot of Grey Street. It is desired that he will call and take the bell also, as it is practically useless without the rope. If this proposal is not satisfactory, perhaps he might make it convenient to call at the Fire Brigade Station, where Superintendent Hughes is open to supply him with more rope than he requires in the form of a cat-o’-nine-tails”

… And Cure-all

The fire bell hosted many different speakers, protestors and advocates. In February 1898 it was announced that “Mr S. A. Palmer has found the marvellous cure brought about by Vitadatio, a unique Tasmanian herbal remedy. He has incontestable proof that Vitadatio will cure Cancer, Hydatids, Bright’s Disease, Consumption, Gravel, Eczema, Rheumatism, Liver and Kidney Complaints, Indigestion and all diseases of the blood”’ The advertisement concluded:

… and don’t’ ignore the fact that he’ll give away a few sample bottles after his talk!

The fire bell, even when silent, seemed to draw them all!

And a further landmark in February 1901: the bell tower was used as a marker shaping workers’ rights and conditions. It was determined that “… those who perform work more than two miles from the fire bell in Grey-street, in the city of Auckland, shall be considered suburban work, and journeymen employed thereon shall be allowed and paid for the time reasonably occupied by them in walking to and from such work, or they shall be conveyed to and from such work at the cost of their employers”.

About the same time as the Greys Avenue fire bell was erected, July 1871, another was put in place on the ridge along Symonds Street near the intersection of what is now Airedale Street (then Edwardes and later Alexandra Street). It recognised the growth of settlement and industry towards the south east of the waterfront.

The design for this bell follows drawings for the City Board of Commissioners some years before.

Auckland City Board of Commissioners’ plan for fire bell towers. Auckland City Archives

By mid-1871 the fire bell was in place to the east of the town centre at the top of Airedale Street.

The fire bell at the intersection of Airedale and Symonds Streets. Auckland City Libraries Heritage Collection

Replacement Due

By November 1873 “the Government House bell” erected in Princes Street by the Liverpool and London Insurance Company some 20 years before was in need of replacement. Understandable: the structure was exposed to all weathers. At first there was criticism of the company saying it had failed to maintain it, then there were complaints that the City Council wasn’t acting fast enough to renew the bell. And it did take time, more than a year in fact. Meantime a temporary bell was rigged on a giant wooden tripod. There was an argument between the Council and City Improvement Commissioners about the replacement bell’s location. The fence along Government House’s boundary was suggested, as was a spot on the Commissioners’ own ground and… replacing it exactly where it had been. An ornate structure, or pillar, was called for, so Auckland Council’s architects obliged with an option to choose from.

Plans for the pillars. The one on the right was preferred… and built. Auckland City Archives

The drawing has a hand-written note saying either could be built for “not exceeding £50” using the old Insurance company bell.  The right-hand one in the drawing was erected on the corner of Princes and Bowen Streets outside the Synagogue., the insurance companies contributing half the cost.

The “fire bell pillar” in service at the Princes/Bowen Streets corner. H. R. Arthur

The Auckland Star in December 1874 said the new bell pillar “…forms an agreeable contrast to the unsightly three-pole arrangement which has done duty during the last few weeks. The new support takes the shape of a handsome double cross, the shaft is composed of four kauri timber beams 40 feet (13m) high, about 10 inches (25cm) square at the base. The supports incline towards one another till they meet at the top. The branches of the cross spring about 4 ft (1.5m) from the apex, on which is a plain capital. The bell is protected by a metal roof or cap which is again surmounted by a weathercock. The Princess Street fire bell now forms a prominent and agreeable looking object in the neighbourhood”. The unsightly three-poster could be done away with!

Back to Albert Street

In July 1873 Insurance Company interests hired premises for a fire station on the western side of Albert Street just south of Victoria Street… not far from the fire bell at the intersection which continued to serve this part of the city for a good few more years yet. The corrugated iron fire station was later taken over by the reformed Auckland Fire Brigade, a municipal undertaking that had replaced unstable and unreliable engine companies and fire brigades. This move to a city-funded brigade happily coincided with the main militia’s withdrawal from Auckland.

The main body of soldiers had gone, the large team of disciplined men who, since their arrival in their regiments in the 1850s, had invariably turned out to help civilians and firefighters. It was now up to the new fire brigade under Superintendent John Hughes who in September 1874 took over the insurance company’s fire shed in Albert Street as his headquarters.

Albert Street Fire Station. Auckland Libraries Collection

The militia’s bugles as a means of alerting soldiers and citizens of a fire had also gone. Reliance was now on the fire bells. By this time, 1874, Auckland had one big one, Pierce’s Bell in the New Zealand insurance Company’s building, and plans were soon afoot for a new fire bell tower directly across the road from the Central Fire Station in Albert Street. It needed a decent fire bell fire hung in a high tower which could also double as a look-out for fires. It needed to be adjacent to the station, easily accessible to firefighters who would be sounding the alarms. For some years a “code” for fire bells had been advocated: it was suggested that the city be divided into wards and each ward would have its own a sperate chime. For instance, a series of three rings might indicate that the fire appeared to be showing in the ward west of Queen Street. Firefighters could respond directly to the ward indicated. The trouble with this plan was that if a civilian had discovered a fire, he or she was unlikely to know the codes and ring out the wrong, or a muddled, toll in the exuberance to raise the alarm. Firefighters, who knew the code, could be much more useful, thus a fire bell at the fire station would be invaluable.

In May 1876 there’s an account in the New Zealand Herald of a boy, hearing a distant bell, thought he was doing the right thing by ringing the Albert Street bell to alert the fire brigade. To do so the small boy had to climb the frame of the bell tower enabling him to reach the rope and tug on it. Firefighters gathered at the nearby station but they were not needed: it had at first been the Karangahape Road bell signalling a chimney fire which was quickly dealt with.

In December 1878 the City Council ordered the bell at the corner of Albert and Victoria Streets to be relocated opposite the Albert Street fire station. This was to be the first step to improve the bell’s efficacy. And, to ensure “up town” alarms, the bell at the apex of Queen Street and Grey Street (Greys Avenue) was to be recast and rehung.

In mid-1882 the City Council took the first step to improve the bell in Albert Street. It ordered a 7 and a half hundredweight (one third of a tonne) fire bell from Sheffield, England, which arrived aboard the “Ringarooma” in early 1883: a bell, the Council said, “will be heard for miles’ distant”. This bell was to be hung above the fire station to speed the giving of alarms. The New Zealand Herald explained – “…hitherto the man in charge of the Fire Brigade Station has had to partially dress himself on an alarm being given and go out to the fire bell in Albert Street to raise the alarm which involves a delay. The new bell will be over the engine house, with a pull-rope into the engine room, so that once the caretaker jumps out of bed he can pull the rope and give the alarm”.

The new bell was tested on 5th February 1883, hung in a temporary wooden tower opposite the fire station.  Newspapers reported “It could be heard at the extended boundaries of the city. A strong north-westerly breeze at the time prevented people living to the north and west hearing the tolling. The Superintendent of the Fire Brigade received favourable reports from Suiter’s old brewery in New North Road, from Mechanics’ Bay, Khyber Pass and Remuera but it was not heard at Ponsonby. “Not a success,” said Superintendent Hughes and members of the City Council who were at the fire brigade station during the test agreed, saying the bell should be suspended in a much higher tower than the 10-meter temporary structure. Engineers were asked to design a taller tower to be erected opposite the fire station.

Thus in 1883 this new fire bell in its make-do belfry superseded the old one that had given years of service at the Albert/Victoria Streets intersection: it was allocated to the new Ponsonby Fire Station.

Plans for Albert Street fire bell tower, early 1880s. Auckland Libraries Kura Collection

By August 1883 the Council had drawn plans and tendered for the construction of a permanent fire bell tower in Albert Street which was completed before year’s end.

These were still hand-reel days: all appliances were hauled to fires by firefighters on foot. The Auckland Star published a reminiscence in July 1925: “Only the other day so it seems, the brigade, a very modest affair with a couple of hand-reels, and a hook and ladder truck, used to watch over the town from an old, corrugated iron shed in Albert Street. In front of the shed stood the big bell tower, like a Harbour Board pile-driver, and the business of sighting a fire and announcing the fact was a lengthy and noisy one, for while the Albert Street bell was as musical it was clamorous, but it is not everyone that can stand being awakened at dead of night in that. way. After the warning peal there would be a momentary pause, and then, the great bell would “dong” out single strokes to indicate in which ward of the city the blaze was located. It was a sight to see burly (Superintendent) John Hughes and his doughty men come down Victoria Street dragging the heavy reels behind them. Going uphill was not such a rush and a clatter, and by the time the earnest but blown firemen got to the top it took them some minutes to recover their wind”.

About 1886 the newspaper “Observer, Free Lance and Evening Bell” decided, appropriately given the name of the journal, to publish the chart for public information showing which toll was rung on the fire bells to denote the area where the fire was. Readers seeking to interpret the bells were advised to “count the number of tolls, then consult your chart”. It’s noted each toll was followed by a peal to make sure the alarm was heard.

“Where is the fire?”.
Observer, Free Lance and Evening Bell

Following the tragic fire in the Grand Hotel, Princes Street, in 1901 the City Council was obliged to improve the fire brigade’s equipment and facilities. It was recommended that 2 night-watchmen be stationed in the Albert Street tower as lookouts. Renovations were thus  made to provide comfortable conditions atop the existing tower. It was glassed in and a hoist was added near the base, probably to give facility for hose-drying or for ladder drills (or both).

The new Albert Street fire bell tower. Auckland Libraries Collection

Foundations Revealed

In March 2022 relics of the Albert Street fire tower, parts of its wooden foundations, were handed over to the Auckland Fire Brigades’ Museum and Historical Society by officials from City Rail Link. The Kauri timber sections, some still in good order and connected as they were constructed some 150 years ago, were revealed during excavations for the new Aotea Station which will be near the  site of the old fire tower.

One of the tower’s unearthed fragments.
City RailLink Ltd

Pitt Street

The improvements to the Albert Street tower were almost too late: within months the fire brigade’s new central station in Pitt Street was nearing completion and most activities would move there in 1902, although Albert Street Station, with scaled down equipment and staffing, would remain operational for some time.

The Albert Street tower was demolished soon after, taken down piece-by-piece, purchased by a contractor who later offered it as his local Otahuhu fire bell and in 1917 it was erected, in part, on Great South Road at the junction of Atkinson Avenue.

A bell and lookout tower had been provided-for at the new Pitt Street station, part of the design for the new purpose-built premises. The tower, to be constructed of brick in keeping with the rest of the building, was delayed so a temporary steel-lattice tower was erected to serve until the permanent tower was completed.

Central Fire Station, Pitt Street, early 1900s. “Auckland Fire Brigade Centenary 1874 – 1974”

The temporary structure was demolished once the permanent tower was in place on the Beresford Street frontage of the fire station. This had a commanding view over Auckland and suburbs, located as it was, virtually on the “Karangahape Ridge” high above the town.

The permanent tower (left) on the fire station’s Beresford Street frontage.
Auckland Libraries collection

The old Pitt Street Central Station which opened in 1902 was operational until 1944 and remains today. Once vacated by the fire brigade it became HQ for wartime emergency precautions, mostly additional fire crews, then sold to be refurbished as Auckland’s main ambulance station. It has since been converted to offices and apartments: the lookout tower remains. (2022). In 1906 the Pitt Street fire bell was rung for good reason without any reports of fire. Premier Richard John Seddon’s death was mourned by the nation: Auckland’s fire bell was rung 61 times on the afternoon of his funeral, one toll for each of his years.

Collin Brothers’ Tower

In October 1909 firefighters sought an additional lookout downtown and arranged for a “crow’s nest” to be erected on the top of Collin Brothers, the stationers, building in Albert Street between Wyndham and Swanson Streets.

The lookout atop Collins’ Building.  Auckland Libraries collection

The Collins building, on the South-East corner of Wyndham and Albert Streets, was the equivalent of seven storeys high so it afforded a high-point in the downtown area for a fire bell and lookout. The New Zealand Herald, 6th October 1909 gave a good description of the tower, and the watchman’s duties:

Like “Mistress’ Eyebrows”

“Last night, for the first time, the watchman occupied the tower which has been erected on the roof of Collins Brothers’. Private telephonic communication is provided to the fire station. A small shelter, with glass sides, has been erected on the roof, and from this the watchman can command practically the whole of the lights of the city. A short platform is attached to the shelter to allow the Watchman to take the fresh air : if he will –  the air is generally fresh on the top of Collins’ building. An electrical clock, “the switch”, inside the shelter has to be pressed every quarter of an hour to prove the wakefulness of the man on the lookout and powerful glasses are at his disposal to turn on any suspicious light or smoke. A magnificent command of the city is afforded from the shelter.

Watchman’s view towards Albert Park from Collins Brothers: Auckland’s highest building in 1909. Sir George Grey Special Collection, Auckland Libraries

The watchman becomes wonderfully familiar with the lights and smokes of the city. They are his study, and he knows them, as a lover does his mistress’ eyebrows. He comes to look for them and if a lamp goes out he is conscious of a blank, knows that something is wrong in the scintillating world below him. When a fresh light appears, it is a matter of interest, perhaps of anxiety.”

The Demise of the Bells

As has been mentioned, technology gradually took over from the bells. In the early 1880s the “telegraph” arrived in Auckland. Telephones were introduced in the early 1880s (all fire stations had been connected by October 1886) and increasingly phones were a means of giving alarms of fire – and then street fire alarms were installed from 1882. Several brands of street alarms were installed over the years… the system was upgraded in 1904 and again in 1919 as the number of street fire alarm boxes increased throughout the city and burgeoning suburbs. They remained until 1979… by then residential and business telephones were ubiquitous and the 111 emergency phone number had been introduced. In addition, many buildings had automatic fire alarms connected directly with the fire brigade and increasing numbers of radio telephones in fleet vehicles and taxis were another means of giving fire alarms.

While some fire bells were silenced in the inner city, suburban ones had longer lives.

In Memory of the Bells

To remember the bells, and how they worked, here is an appropriate piece from their hey-day, September 1874. “About twenty minutes to twelve the fire bells of the city rang out their alarm of fire. At the first intimation of the fire no indication could be seen from the lower part of the city as to the direction in which the fire was. A short time, however, only elapsed before a ruddy glare upon the sky told plainly that the fire was in the direction of the upper part of Parnell. The fire bell on the New Zealand Insurance Company’s Building then took up the fire alarm, which was followed by the whole of the fire bells in the city. Windows were uplifted, heads popped out, and anxious enquiries made of the passers-by as to the ownership of the property being destroyed. In a short time, a large body of people were on their way to the burning building. The house destroyed in Parnell is a small wooden cottage, of three rooms, and belonged to Mr. Loomb, hotelkeeper of Panmure”.

Another Reminisce    

The removal of the bells was recalled in the New Zealand Herald in an item published in May 1924 – “…then came in time the passing of another of Auckland’s prominent features of earlier days, the old Albert Street fire bell. Never will children of the present day know the thrill with which we youngsters would sit upright in bed on dark, windy nights, wakened by the sudden clanging of the great bell. The swift leap, the rush to windows and veranda and often, and so often, the blood-red glare in a black sky, and borne fitfully on the gusty wind, the jangling of the fire bell, presently swelling to a chorus as other bells took up the midnight call. Then the thunder and clatter of horses’ hoofs, the shouts and cries as the brigade swept down the street. Ah! that was something the children of the present day will never know, something more stirring in the blood, something more lasting than the faded recollection of a hundred modern joys!”

Parnell

The New Zealander, in March 1863, following reports of a fire in Parnell, advocated a fire bell be obtained for the district.   A few fires later in mid-1866 locals took up the cause, agitating for a fire bell… and a fire brigade. At a meeting it was decided to raise funds to pay for both. A suitable bell, with chains and ropes, could be purchased from Mr. S. H. Smith for £7 10s, it was reported, and Mr. Boyd said he would provide the labour necessary for the erection of a belfry if the meeting purchased the bell. It was agreed that a bell would be bought as soon as sufficient funds were collected, and that Mr Boyd’s offer to erect it on a suitable site was accepted towards the end of 1866.

The fire bell was referred-to in August 1868, its location discerned from a Letter to the Editor of the   Daily Southern Cross, referring to “the steep road from the fire bell in Parnell down to the aforesaid lamp, at the Strand”, meaning the bell was at the top of Parnell Rise where it joined the then Manukau Road.

An early 1900s photo of the first Parnell Fire Bell (centre) at the top of Parnell Rise.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

The bell did not have a good tone: a replacement was ordered from the local Phoenix Foundry, Messrs Fraser and Tinne in Stanley Street, and was hung on the morning of 24th August 1878. The vigorous testing of the new bell was, in part, attributed to the death of local woman Mrs Annie Maria Dargaville.

The 46 year old was visiting the local hall when the nearby Parnell fire bell was tested. The woman was startled by the clamour, this generated to shock and panic as she clung to her husband. Seemingly recovered, the couple began the walk homeward when, not long after, Mrs Dargaville collapsed and later died. Doctors said death was due to heart disease.

Her widower, R. A Dargaville subsequently wrote to the Letters to the Editor in a newspaper suggesting a code of tolls be instituted, each toll signifying fire in a particular ward: the editor replied there was a system in place but those members of the public rushing to ring the fire bells often did not know the appropriate code.

Formation of a fire brigade in Parnell was delayed. In fact, it would be 20 years before this occurred, mainly awaiting water reticulation in the Borough which would be sufficient for firefighting.

Almost as soon as the brigade was formed in 1887 firefighters complained they could not hear the fire bell, even in the dead of night, and, therefore, could not turn out. On numerous occasions the brigade responded short-handed – the bell could not be heard to the southern, higher, parts where some members lived.  Repeated apologies to the Borough Councillors for the short-fall in the brigade’s performance led to a second belfry being built near Bishopscourt in St Stephens Avenue. It was up to the Borough Council to provide it. At first there was a delay in deciding its design… would it be based on a wooden octagon, or on a square structure… then one plan had the bell so high in the structure it was thought the canopy might absorb all the sound. Firefighters pointed out that the bells had to ring out to be heard, adding that the method of ringing the bell also affected the tone and sound level. Then the project was put off, with available funding prioritised for the sealing of Alpha Road (now lower Parnell Road linking Beach Road).

But in late August 1884 construction of two bell towers was approved, and tenders called for one at the top of Manukau Road (the present Parnell Road at the St Stephens Avenue intersection, the other at the intersection of St Stephen’s Avenue and Gladstone Road. Both were on Anglican Church land, leased for the purpose, and soon the first became known as the “Bishopscourt Bell” because it was adjacent to the Bishop’s residence. This bell was sold to Te Awamutu Borough Council in April 1915 but it was found unsuitable and “a better bell was purchased from Auckland” and erected.

“Bishopscourt” Fire Bell Tower at the corner of Manukau Road (now Parnell Road) and St Stephens Avenue sometime after 1902. Alexander Turnbull Library

Another view of the Parnell Fire Bell, 1910.
Muir and Moodie – Te Papapa On Line Collection

But the new bells did not end the saga of Parnell’s fire bells. Matters got even more technical. Opinions differed about the position of the bell in the tower, so the bells were tested with borough councillors, Auckland City fire officers, local firemen and others, all listening and judging the tolls. Not only was the position of the bell in the tower considered but the system of blocks, ropes, pulleys and even the amount of play in the tongue… all apparently had a bearing on the optimum sound. In the end, no matter the configuration, it was found the bell’s output was unsatisfactory.

Who could have foreseen the science of the bell!? Yet the answer in this case was simple – get a bigger one!

Makers A. and T. Burt gave advice to fire brigades in 1901 – “… there is only one way to get the full tone from our bells which will carry, and that is to bolt the bell to a wooden beam (as per our plans). The bell should be bolted hard up to the timber and no other stays or fittings used. The bell sounds better when rung by one used to the work and a quick, sharp stroke is best -with a free rebound”.

Fire bell tower on the site at St Stephens Ave/Gladstone Rd corner: now Parnell School.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

 The Auckland Star, 14th December 1912, reported “. ..in the approach to the brigade’s last days it is interesting to note that residents of Parnell will not long continue to be alarmed by the clang of the fire bell. Instead, the electric alarm system of the city area will quietly and expeditiously perform its functions. With the amalgamation of the City and Parnell the fire-fighting system of the former will be extended to what is now the borough”.

Technology had taken over.

Ponsonby

There was an unfortunate, premature, start to the Ponsonby Fire Brigade – and its bell – in March 1884. A shed with a fire bell had been provided next to the then Ponsonby Hall on the corner of what is now Redmond Street and Jervois Road. The brigade’s formation, procedures and equipment were not quite finalised when the Gee family’s 8-roomed home in Franklin Road near Wellington Street caught fire one Sunday night. It was destroyed and the authorities, and locals, wanted to know why.  Another fire in Clarence Street also demanded answers. Writing to the Editor of the Auckland Star, “W.L.”  said “…the present useless fire bell in Ponsonby is a disgrace to this flourishing district. I hear that Messrs Garrett Brothers have imported a bell that when rung can be distinctly heard at a distance of 15 miles (20km). I might suggest that this enterprising firm erect it in a conspicuous place – say over the Three Lamps…” (Meaning the three lights erected in the centre of the intersection of Ponsonby Road, College Hill, Jervois Road and St Marys Bay Road).

As mentioned, Ponsonby Fire Brigade was in the process of being formed but impatient Councillors wanted answers. Why was the fire bell not in order at the time of the fire? (The clapper was broken, two boys went aloft with hammers to bash out an alarm). Why was there confusion about the key to unlock the fire brigade shed? The innkeeper had the key and had been told never to give it to anyone one except fire brigade personnel. Superintendent Hughes, on arrival in Ponsonby, instructed the publican to give the key to the first member of the local Brigade who arrived in uniform). How long was it before firefighters arrived at their shed? (The full strength of the Brigade had mustered 15 minutes after the first bell sounded).  Who was in charge of the shed? (Superintendent Hughes) and what was the value of the property in it” (£251) Councillor Devore  found the answers very unsatisfactory – the matter was referred to the Fire Brigade Committee.

Within a week or two arrangements were complete and Ponsonby Fire Brigade was up and running:  on the evening of April 11 1884 the brigade was formed and once the men had signed up there was no time to be lost. They drilled with their manual reel, hose lines and other equipment and, without connecting hoses to water supplies, went through the procedures as if confronted at a working job: a building on fire. Volunteers of the Ponsonby Fire Station were in business… ready to respond. Within hours, Mr Whitcombe’s bakehouse in Ponsonby Road caught fire. A resident spotted the glare of the flames and despatched two boys to sprint to the fire bell.  The New Zealand Herald summed up: “The value of the new Ponsonby Fire Brigade has soon been tested. They only held their first practice last evening – a dry one – and finished up with a wet one early this morning”.

The site that the fire brigade shed had been built on in Jervois Road was wanted for other purposes so the building, as it was, was moved late in 1889, across Jervois Road and into St Marys Bay Road. The tower and fire bell were also moved. A new brick building later replaced the wooden station… and opportunity was taken to extend the tower making the bell more audible.

Ponsonby Brigade’s station in St Marys Bay Road, a peep of the tower above the roof.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

Freemans Bay

There are numerous mentions of a fire bell in Freemans Bay starting around 1869 when the City Council approved a site near the Blockhouse in Drake Street – with the condition that the Insurance Companies contributed. This may or may not have gone ahead because in February 1978 Superintendent John Hughes recommended to the City Council to build a fire bell tower at the intersection of Drake and Wellesley Streets and equip it with the bell which would soon become available from Hobson Street. In April 1881 there was a major fire in a sawmill which had been built on reclaimed land around Freemans Bay and the alarm was first given by “ringing the fire bell at the junction of Drake and Wellesley Streets”.

Newton/Grey Lynn

This refers to the fire brigade formed in January 1899 by Newton Borough Council (became Grey Lynn Borough Council) which, at this time already had plans underway for a station shared with Council’s offices at the corner of Williamson Avenue and Rose Road. There was also a bonus: a belfry had been incorporated in the design. Firefighters had to wait only until September when the new premises were officially opened.  It was the first belfry custom-built as part of a fire station.

The new Newton Fire Station with its imposing belfry.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

A few weeks later it was decided to make a public ceremony out of ringing the fire bell for the very first time. Newspaper advertisements warned the locals that the new bell would be tested on Saturday afternoon after which the brigade planned a dry practice to show off its skills. Subsequently a large crowd gathered, including local Councillors and firemen from other brigades, to witness the first tolls on the new bell.  With so many people clambering for places to watch, both Captain Fenton and a Councillor had to clear a path out of the station enabling the crew to man-handle the hose reel for the demonstration. Firefighters dragged the hose reel heading for a fire plug (hydrant) some 100 yards (30 metres) distant.  The crowd, mostly children, ran after the reel while others crowded in on to it. A 7 year old boy, jostled in the crowd, lost his balance and fell under the wheel of the 7 hundredweight (one third of a tonne) hose reel. He was run over, killed almost instantly.

For Whom the Bell Tolled…..

By 1910 the belfry had been demolished leaving the remaining building looking a touch lop-sided.

The building was minus the tower for decades. Philip Doyle – Auckland Libraries Collection

In 1914 the Newton Borough amalgamated with Auckland City and fire protection in the area was taken over by the Auckland Fire Brigade: the Williamson Avenue station was soon declared superfluous.  The followed a range of businesses in the premises.  In 1973 Landmark Incorporated, a group of lawyers, town planners and architects purchased the building to ensure its preservation. They rebuilt the tower and hung a bell within it.

A belfry re-instated, 1974. Auckland Libraries Collection

The old fire station’s appliance bay is now (2022) a restaurant.

By December 1904 when the district had better water supplies and there was a building boom, better fire protection was warranted in Western parts of the district. Grey Lynn Borough Councillors realised the absolute necessity for a branch station at Richmond Road and land was acquired for the station from the Grey Lynn Park Syndicate and a suitable building erected.  On 21st December 1904, the Auckland Star reported that the mayor, J. Farrell, officially opened the facility witnessed by a crowd of a hundred. Captain Sandall and Foreman S. Taite gave a demonstration of their equipment… a manual hose reel with ladder, hose and associated equipment, manned by auxiliary volunteer firemen.

In 1904 there were 3 fire bells in Grey Lynn… at the corner of Crummer Road and Harcourt Street, at Richmond Road, and at the Richmond Road sub-station.

Richmond Branch with bell – and crew. “Auckland Fire Brigade Centenary 1874 – 1974”

The Richmond Branch was absorbed by Auckland City Fire Brigade in March 1914 but allowed to continue, with some additional equipment allocated, until 1917 when a motorised fire engine, a Daimler tender, was transferred from Central Station to Grey Lynn Station. This meant the Richmond Road could easily be served by paid firefighters, 24 x 7, from Williamson Avenue.

Karangahape Road (sometimes called Newton)

This area had a number of fire brigades in the early years. The first from March 1869 until May 1874 was an Insurance Company outfit based near Karangahape Road, Newton, primarily serving the “uptown” area with its fire station near the corner of Howe Street,. A new Volunteer Brigade was formed in February 1878 with a station in Hereford Street (Bedford Street that was) near the water reservoir until 18 November 1879. The Municipal Fire Brigade established an out-station at the corner of Hereford Street and Jersey Street (now Mahon Way) in 1886 which existed until 1902.

The first fire bell “uptown” in Karangahape Road coincided with the “new” volunteer brigade’s formation, the bell erected in April 1878 at the corner of Edinburgh Street. The bell itself was donated by Mr Dobson, a resident of Scotia Place, who also donated cash to the fire brigade. The bell was purchased from T. and S. Morrin, it weighed 60lbs (25kg) and was 12 inches (30cm at the mouth), hung in a timber stand. The New Zealand Herald – “The bell is a valuable present, but it is to be hoped that a long time will elapse before its alarming sound rouses the residents of Newton from their slumbers to save their lives and properties from destruction by fire”.

The wooden stand had deteriorated and by January 1885 it was being demolished. Which left questions about a fire bell for the growing district. Locals pointed out they had been promised a fire station… now they didn’t even have a fire bell. Mid-year, and the Mayor announced a fire bell would be erected at the intersection of Karangahape and Ponsonby Roads and there would also be a fire station – “near the reservoir” – at the same location.

In June 1886 the City Council, concerned about the lack of a fire bell in Karangahape Road, asked the engineers to see to one at once… and they did, but within months residents petitioned the Council asking for a louder bell. The New Zealand Herald took up the cause, quite colourfully, in early 1887 – “It is to be hoped that the Newton section of the Auckland Fire Brigade will endeavour to replace the fire bell at their station with a bell which will really, when rung, denote the existence of a fire. The present tinkler, when heard on the night air, gives one the impression that an auction sale is about to commence, or that some stray cow, with its neck-bell, has strayed into the Karangahape district”.

The Karangahape Fire Brigade, realising inadequacies, began collecting funds to replace the bell and in 1887 held a successful concert to swell the coffers. By June 1887 there was sufficient money to buy a powerful fire bell cast by local firm Masefield and Company weighing 3cwt, with which to replace the failed alarm.  In 1863 Thomas Taylor Masefield founded the ironworks and foundry on a block of land between Federal and Albert Streets near St Patrick’s Square.

The engineer’s sign-off for the plans below. Auckland City Archives

The bell was ready to be hung as soon as the 40 foot (13m) tower was built, just east of the fire station in what is now Mahon’s Way off Hereford Street

May 1887: plans for the fire bell at Karangahape/Ponsonby Roads.
Auckland City Archives

(Note in the drawing above how low the bell hangs under the shelter, thus allaying earlier criticism that, bells fitted snugly under the roof could not “get out” to give their widest message)

The Auckland Star, 6th July 1887 noted that – “…workmen are now engaged erecting the tower for the fire-bell at the Newton brigade-station. The new bell will be a great improvement and has the merit of being locally made. Great credit is due to those persons who took this matter in hand some time ago and succeeded in bringing matters to such a satisfactory termination”.

The station and the fire bell served until 1902 when new Central Fire Station opened in Pitt Street, almost opposite Greys Avenue.

Newmarket

In 1879 the annual meeting of Newmarket’s ratepayers was told that a fire bell in the district was a necessity after trouble giving the alarm about a house fire some months previously in Hill Street (now Morgan Street). The local authority, the Newmarket Highway Board of Trustees was going to source and erect a bell.

This must have been followed through for the wooden fire bell tower was erected, situated near the corner of Manukau Road (now Broadway) and Khyber Pass Road.

Early map of Newmarket, the fire bell marked X in the middle of the intersection. Auckland City Archives

The new bell is mentioned in newspaper reports as giving the alert to local outbreaks even though at this stage Newmarket did not have its own fire brigade.

The wooden fire bell tower at the corner of  what’s now Broadway and Khyber pass Road.  
Muir and Moodie – Auckland City Archives

But it was found that the bell could not be heard throughout the district and if a fire brigade was to be formed there would need to be better means of summoning it.

So in June 1886 a new bell was ordered, weighing in at 460 lbs – a quarter of a tonne – and with a diameter of 30 inches – 1 meter – as a replacement costing £27. Hand in hand with this, the Mayor sought to form a fire brigade but, once again, this was delayed.  Meanwhile the old bell was offered to the Education Department as a school bell but the Department disliked the asking price so the Newmarket Council gave it a second life, again as a fire bell, at the intersection of Claremont Street, Park Avenue and Carlton Gore Road, known as the “Domain Bell” because of its proximity to the Domain sports ground.

And Newmarket got its fire brigade, inaugurated on 24 June 1886, with a team of some 16 men under Captain Charles Hannigan and Foreman Harry Morris.

The main fire bell on what’s now Broadway quickly became a landmark for gatherings and meetings. As in other places it became the location for soapbox orators, election candidates and street preachers to address their various audiences. It was also the start/finish point for athletic and cycling races. In May 1899 the Auckland Mounted Rifles assembled at the Newmarket fire bell for their inaugural inspection parade.

In 1913 a new bell tower was required, relocated to the reserve at the foot of Khyber Pass Road near where the fire station had been built between the reserve and the railway line.

1905 Newmarket fire station and tower together with earlier wartime defences. C A Walton , Auckland Museum Collections

Railway Town

By now Newmarket was fully a “railway town”. Not only was it the busy junction between the southern (mainline) and the western line, in 1879 the Government agreed to construct railway workshops in the large area between Broadway and St Marks church. Next were built cottages for railway personnel in Middleton Road and elsewhere with associated facilities such as a hall. Railways had a significant investment in the area. The Newmarket Railway Workshops own Fire Brigade was probably formed after a fire in the blacksmith’s shop in September 1888, damage for which the Government, as per its practice, had no insurance. So in 1910 when Newmarket wanted a new fire bell tower for the Broadway Reserve (now Lumsden Green) it turned to the Railways… engineers designed a 27 foot (10 meters) high tower to be constructed of old railway lines and erected by workshops staff. The same engineers drew plans for a new fire station for the Newmarket Volunteer Brigade.

Newmarket’s fire bell tower drawn by Railway engineers 1913.

Newmarket’s fire bell tower drawn by Railway engineers 1913.

Changes

The new tower and bell near Broadway (together with the Domain bell at Carlton Gore Road / Claremont Street served Newmarket over the years until 1929, together with another bell near Railway Street. They were replaced by different means of giving fire alarms… by phone, by street fire alarm – and by sirens which Newmarket Borough Council was considering installing. An inquiry about purchasing the redundant big bell was received from Southall School in Hamilton so Council decided to get a value on the bells and then, their task over, offer them for sale by tender.

Administration of fire protection in the area changed in December 1931 when the Newmarket Fire Board took over administration of fire protection, signed up Auckland Fire Board to provide firefighting in the area and disbanded the Newmarket Volunteer Fire Brigade. Subsequently

the Newmarket Fire Board disintegrated in 1933 at the time of local body amalgamations in Auckland – the Board’s work taken over by the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board.

Epsom

The Epsom Volunteer Fire Brigade was founded in 1916 after several serious fires in the district and the decision by the Epsom Road Board not to accept protection from the Greenlane/One Tee Hill Brigade’s station located on Greenlane West near Great South Road… and to go it alone.

The new brigade met for the first time on 13th July 1915 when a set of rules was drafted and Robert Cowan was elected Captain, W. H. McDermott as foreman and Arthur R. Rosser, honorary secretary. Advice of 9 additional volunteers had been received, and it was noted that there was a number of vacancies for auxiliary members. The meeting heard that a site has been chosen for a proposed station on Manukau Road between Domett and Bracken Avenue: these days the site of Epsom Library. Council funding provided a shed, a connected recreational room for firefighters, a manual hose reel, all equipment… and a fire bell.

But it is safe to say neither the bell, nor brigade members, gave a good return on the Council’s investment. Epsom Volunteer Fire Brigade was one of the shortest-lived fire brigades in New Zealand, lasting not 2 years, from July 1915 until May 1917, when the political landscape changed with the Road Board amalgamating with Auckland City Council. The brigade was disbanded as a consequence when protection was taken over by the Auckland Fire Brigade.

Epsom has not since had a fire station, the long skinny district served, meantime, from Remuera, Mt Eden, Mt Roskill, Onehunga or Greenlane/One Tree Hill station, whichever was closest to the fire or despatched in support.

Onehunga

In March 1882 fire destroyed Matthew Roe’s Kauri Point sawmill on the foreshore of the Manukau Harbour. The New Zealand Herald commented – “… as Onehunga does not possess a fire bell, the great majority of the inhabitants were ignorant of the fact that a destructive fire was raging in the town, but as they do not possess a fire engine either, the knowledge would have been of little service to them”. Several more major fires followed: the Borough Council decided, rather than to progress a fire brigade, to concentrate spending on completing water reticulation which would enable future firefighters to better battle outbreaks.

Water matters, sometimes argumentatively, took preference over all other Borough facilities for some years but in June 1889 plans were drawn, and funds found, for a fire station (renovations to the old Borough Council building in Princes Street), a hand-drawn hose reel and other equipment. A fire bell was probably part of the total establishment costs of about £100.

There had been one or two false starts in the founding of the brigade…  on 25th November 1889 the Borough Council formally received a letter from Jack O’Hara who wrote on behalf of himself and seven others offering their services as members of the proposed Onehunga Volunteer Fire Brigade. They were appointed by the Council at the meeting: the brigade was formed. (Some authorities give the date of founding – incorrectly – as 1887).

Onehunga’s substantial fire bell tower was located beside the new Borough Council Offices at the corner of Princes and Queen Streets, opposite the fire brigade’ shed.

Onehunga Borough offices and fire bell at the Princes Street / Queen Street intersection, 1902.
N. Z. Graphic- Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

A new fire station was officially opened on Princes Street with due ceremony on 26th November, 1907, a new steel-lattice bell tower erected beside the premises.

The new fire station beside the Carnegie Hall in Princes Street with a peep, left, of the new tower. Auckland Libraries Collection

On the Move

The brigade had two further moves… an “uptown” sub-station was added, a small shed built near the corner of Queen Street (now Onehunga Mall) and Grey Street which gave some relief for firefighters making those energy-sapping callouts all uphill from Princes Street. There was a fire bell to go with the shed. In her book “Families and History of the Onehunga Blockhouse”, Norine Ashe writes that while the Astell family lived in the blockhouse from 1907 – 1919, young Stan Astell was allocated the task of ringing the fire bell which in 1904 was hung in the Blockhouse Reserve (now Jellicoe Park). On hearing Stan’s vigorous ringing, firemen would respond from the shed on Grey Street, dragging a hand reel. They would soon join up with their colleagues from the main station. The branch station continued until 1926 when it was made redundant with the opening of the new main station, up-town, on Queen Street (now Onehunga Mall) near Mt Smart Road – site of the present fire station.

The station in then Queen Street with its tower, right. Auckland Libraries collection

The original tower was replaced at some time by a steel structure, the need for a fire bell probably passed, but it was used to haul hose aloft to dry. And for years it provided the means to catch out unsuspecting new recruits – they would be posted up the tower on “lookout duties”, watching for any smoke in the district, and calling the hour on the hour until relieved of the duty, only to told it was a prank that all new volunteer members endured!

The steel tower was demolished in 2002, the same time as the site was cleared to make way for a new station.

Panmure

Given that the Mt Wellington Volunteer Fire Brigade did not commence operations until November 1931, it is unusual to find a fire bell in the district some 55 years earlier, and a privately-owned one at that.

In January 1876 an Auckland Star reporter visited the flourishing tannery owned by the Ireland brothers, Barton, George and Frederick, situated beside the lagoon at Panmure. The experience was written up in great detail. The ever-expanding business had migrated from Mechanics Bay to its new location where every facility had been included and where “no City Corporations nor Boards of Health retard the free and even course of business”.

Ireland Tannery at Panmure. Howick Historical Village Collection

The article talks of the plant’s own dam for fresh water, several buildings 120 feet (35m) long, a threshing machinery, a wool scourer – and a fire station. “There’s a first-class Merryweather fire engine of sufficient power to force water over the highest tannery building, with a liberal supply of hose and two dozen buckets while outside hang twelve fire-ladders, at the ready. Conspicuous in this modest region is the fire bell, erected high – a monument to this spirited company – shewing that though they hope for the best, they think for the worst and provide for it”

Then the newspaper makes a bitter comparison. “Even Newmarket with all its public spirit has not accomplished this feat of rising a fire bell, although certain vows were made to erect one at the time half the place was burned down, and residents near heard nothing of it until too late to render assistance. We say to Newmarket and to every district without a bell, ’Go to Panmure and learn a lesson of care’.

Mt Eden

Soon after the founding of the Mt Eden Volunteer Fire brigade on June 7th, 1889, the Mt Eden Road Board gave the go-ahead to obtain equipment – appliances, tools, standpipes and hydrants – and it had drawings, set the specifications and invited tenders for a fire brigade shed on Mt Roskill Road (now Dominion Road) between Lisnoe Street and Bellevue Road, beside the quarry, at a cost of £123. Funds were also made available for three bell towers, the bells themselves to be 14-inch (35cm) bells cast by Onehunga Iron Works. One was to be situated at the fire shed.

Position of the former firebell shown on an old  map, the land now Bellevue Reserve on Dominion Road. Auckland Libraries

The second was situated at the corner of Victoria Avenue (now Horoeka Avenue) and Valley Road, and the third on Mt Eden Road between the corner of Edwin Street and Sylvan Avenue.

The positions of these 3 bells may seem concentrated on the inner western slopes of the mountain, leaving out large areas of Mt Eden as we now know it. But in those times settlement was concentrated – it was not until tram services reached the Mt Eden Village in 1908 that the “urban sprawl” extended towards Balmoral, and beyond.

There was almost instant dissatisfaction with the fire bells that had been installed: first of all they were not delivered on time and then there was a problem with their manufacture. Whatever was wrong is not detailed in the Board’s minutes except to say the bells were “returned to the maker to be fixed”.

Second Station

By 1902 there’s reference in Road Board documents to “Mt Eden Road Fire Shed” a second “station” to augment the shed in Mt Roskill Road (Dominion Road as-is) to provide better protection for the District. The new shed was on Mt Eden Road near the corner of Melton Street, sometimes referred to as Milton Street and changed in 1913 to Hillside Road South. This appears a superior fit-out to its older Mt Roskill Road counterpart and housed a hose reel. It had a fire bell tower beside it and, situated as it was on the slopes of Maungawhau, Mt Eden, it was  suitably placed to be well heard.

Mt Eden Fire Station on Mt Eden Road with tower. 
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

The two stations served the district, and in many cases beyond the borough’s boundaries, until 4th December 1924 when a new station was opened in Valley Road alongside the Borough Council Chambers. The aging stations were vacated: the Mt Eden Road premises became a public hall for a time. The Dominion Road site became a public green “Bellevue Reserve”.

Modern, new ways of giving fire alarms meant the new station in Valley Road did not have a fire bell.

Grafton or Kyber (Khyber) Station

This station was established in mid-1884 near the Khyber reservoir on land between Symonds Street, Mt Eden Road and Kyber Road (later Khyber Pass Road). The 60-foot (20 m) tower was built in 1891  on the Mt Eden Road side, the means of the summoning firefighters including those from the Auckland Fire Brigade who received additional pay for “sleeping over” in the adjacent station. It was also a watch-tower, extended to 70 feet later in 1891, to give better views of the surrounding area.

Newton Road/Khyber Pass intersection with, beyond, Mt Eden Road and the fire tower

While the fire station was closed in 1905 the bell and tower had another life… at Mt Albert.

Mt Albert

Acquiring a fire bell tower was the first tangible step taken by the Mt Albert Road towards the establishment of a local fire brigade when in August 1906 it paid Auckland City Council £35 for the purchase of Grafton/Khyber Station’s 75 foot (22 m) tower and fire bell. It had become surplus when the station closed. Then in September another major step was taken when the Board Chairman submitted plans for a fire brigade station and the fire bell tower on a site acquired on what’s now New North Road at the top of McElwain’s Hill, just west of the Kingsland shopping centre.

Proposed Mt Albert fire station,  bell tower ex Grafton/Khyber Station and Road Board office. “In Old Mt Albert” by Dick Scott, Southern Cross Books, 1983

The brigade’s first meeting and drill was on 3rd September 1906 under Captain W. McLachlan. On December 4th 1906 the new fire station was officially opened. “The capacity of the station was taxed to the utmost during the occasion”, the Auckland Star reported, “the fire-bell tower, 75ft (20m) high, is situated in a very commanding position on McElwain’s Hill, New North Road, and forms a very prominent feature in the landscape. The station adjoins the tower and ample accommodation for hose, reel, ladders, etc., and a comfortable social room for the use of the members of the brigade”.

Firemen at drill outside the fire station 1907.
Auckland Libraries Collection

The location of the tower, on the rise above Kingsland shops, meant the bell could be heard over most of the District.

Mt Albert’s fire bell on the skyline – the view from Sandringham Road and the railway line. Auckland Libraries Collections

Until, that is, until there was a fault. The Auckland Star on June 23rd 1912 – “The fire bell on the tower at Kingsland has lost its lung power. On three recent occasions the message did not reach all the members of the brigade, and the musters of firemen were small. It was explained that the clapper was falling out so the arch of the bell was bored through in order to affix the tongue securely. But the bell retaliated by giving forth but a weak and bored tone. The Borough Council has been persuaded to sanction the expenditure of £20 in the purchase of a new bell and to call on the Fire Brigade Committee to consider and report on the feasibility of having two additional alarm bells erected”.

By October 1912 there were 3 fire-bells in Mt Albert, at the fire station, another in Morningside and the third at Glenmore (along New North Road opposite Mostyn Street). On the 3rd of October they were rung simultaneously to test their effectiveness.

In 1913 the fire station was again enlarged with two storeyed sleeping accommodations for firemen and by then the base of the tower had been enclosed to provide more storage.

Enlarged Mt Albert Fire Station on McElwain’s Hill. One Tree Hill in the distance. “The Way We Were”, Moa Beckett

The site was to host a fire station for some 70 years. In September 1925 the New Zealand Herald noting “The Mount Albert Fire Brigade Station at Kingsland is being dismantled to make way for a more commodious structure of brick and concrete. The bell tower, a well-known landmark, will also disappear, as a siren is to be installed in the station”. The bell, and possibly the tower, was among those transferred across town to serve in St Heliers Bay which, a year or two before, had begun a fire brigade.

The “brick and concrete structure” of the fire station served until March 1974 when it was closed, operations transferred to new premises in Balmoral Road, situated between Dominion and Sandringham Roads.

Eden Terrace

A volunteer fire brigade was formed in 1888 and a “fire shed” was erected on New North Road between Charlotte Street and Virginia Avenue East (Victoria Avenue pre-1919). The station latterly appeared to have two fire bell towers. One smaller (older?) to the rear of the property, while a lattice-style tower was built right on the boundary at the entrance: access to the station was gained by entering through the base of the tower. It is said that the bell had earlier served at Albert Street Station, but there are numerous similar claims.

Eden Terrace Station. G. Firth – NZ Graphic, Auckland Libraries Collection

The tower, and the brigade, did not serve long: in October, 1915 the Eden Terrace Road Board joined Auckland City and it was the end of the volunteer fire brigade in the district when the City Fire Brigade took over fire protection. It was soon decided under the new arrangements that a station was not required in Eden Terrace and it closed, subsequently sold. Te Awamutu Fire Brigade purchased a fire bell from Auckland City Council in 1915: it may have been the one from Eden Terrace.

Devonport

In September 1885, following some devastating fires in the district, the Road Board formed a hook and ladder brigade and said it would erect two or three fire bells once a voluntary fire brigade had been formed. The Road Board became the Borough Council the following year and steps were taken to form a fire brigade – the offer of the bells remained.

By November 1887 it was reported that a fire brigade had been founded and it’s apparent the fire bells had been installed. Three months later, 19th February 1888, an unstoppable fire tore through Devonport’s main street taking shops, offices, stables and accommodation. Firefighters blamed their slow turnout on their inability to hear the bells, and then once at the fire, they could do little because of the suburb’s poor water sources (wells). The fire brigade packed it in, the fire bells were not attended-to. A re-formed fire brigade through Mr Lillewall again drew the Borough Council’s attention to the matter in September 1888, asking the Council to install more bells. This resulted in a test, a supposed fire on Victoria Wharf for which fire bells would be sounded so Councillors could themselves judge their effectiveness. The result was further submissions to the Council requesting an additional large fire bell and in December agreement was reached to purchase one.

Fire bell on Devonport’s Windsor Reserve 1895.
Auckland Libraries Collection

The fire brigade was re-constituted on the 5th June 1895 with George Strude elected Captain and soon after the fire brigade was relocated from Windsor Reserve to Kerr Street. But the main fire bell remained on the waterfront with a shed built into the base as a depot for firefighting equipment.

Fire bell on Devonport’s Windsor Reserve 1895.
Auckland Libraries Collection

But there was also a bell tower at the new Kerr Street station, which, on the rise above the shopping centre, was probably more effective than the waterfront bell.

Fire bell tower alongside Devonport Fire Station in Kerr Street pictured in 1901
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

There was trouble in 1909 when the bell in Church Street was found to be cracked and it was not being heard. The Borough Council sought to replace it and, it is said, came up with an historic solution.

The 3-year-old steamer “Aeon” was due in Auckland on August 2nd 1908 on her regular run from San Francisco to Sydney, this voyage with a cargo of Oregon timber. She did not arrive on time. By August 11th she was listed as “overdue” and in the following weeks there were fears for her safety.

The Australian-owned “Aeon”. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

Vessels and island radio stations were alerted but there were no clues about what had happened to the ship.  Then on September 19th word reached New Zealand via the cable station at Doubtless Bay, a message from the Governor on Fanning Island in the mid-Pacific advising the “Aeon” had gone on a reef off Christmas Island on July 18th, a total loss. All 50 aboard were safe living on a deserted island with food and items salvaged from the ship. “Aeon” had several petrol-engines in her cargo so the ship’s engineer installed one of these in a ship’s lifeboat to make the 200 mile voyage to Fanning Island to raise the alarm. With news of the “Aeon”, a syndicate including Auckland mariners purchased the rights to the wreck hoping to salvage the cargo of timber and possibly to refloat the vessel. The salvors were unsuccessful: once they got to the site it was apparent pirates had beaten them to it and the wreck had been dashed to pieces by heavy seas.  Or the pirates, having plundered what they wanted, had dynamited the hulk blowing it to bits. The salvage party found little worth saving.

The exception might have been the ship’s bell. According to the Auckland Star, 25th August 1909 the ship’s bell from the “Aeon” was purchased by Devonport Borough Council to replace the Church Street fire bell. Notwithstanding the fact that the would-be salvors, on their return to Auckland, made no mention of retrieving the bell.

Bells were at various times erected at Cheltenham and Stanley Bay and, in all, six bells served Devonport over the decades until 1926 when the new fire station in Calliope Road was opened. From that time fires could be signalled by a push of any one of the 35 street fire alarms in the borough: the firefighters were then alerted by a siren – although one bell was retained for a while “just in case”.

Northcote

Northcote Borough Council sponsored a volunteer fire brigade established in August 1908 with H. H. Low as inaugural Captain, Richard Henry Petterd as Lieutenant and Mr Alfred Parrish the foreman, while the office of secretary would be filled by Mr B. E. Mountifield. The Council called for a list of the brigade’s requirements, plus estimated costs, arranged a shed for the fire brigade’s headquarters and Councillor John Broady, who had been at the first public meeting to discuss a fire brigade, offered to donate a fire bell for the Borough and the brigade was allocated £7 to erect a bell tower.

Vincent Road/Queen Street, 1911, the bell tower on the right

By 1909 the brigade had a new station at the Pearl Street (later Vincent Street) /Bay Road (now Rodney Road) corner – as well as retaining the old shed.

In July there was a fatal fire which shook up administration of fire protection in the Borough.

A correspondent writing in Letters to the Editor had damning praise for the fire bell tower – “…the emblem of the builder’s art, and although I have become intimately acquainted with the structure in my journeyings, to my knowledge there has been no fire bell to grace it for at least a year…” The Borough Council moved the fire station from Northcote Point to a more central position in the borough, “probably at the rear of the Council Chambers and to further improve matters a large fire bell will be hung adjacent, the one that has been purchased from the City Fire Brigade”.

On 12th February 1913 it was reported in the New Zealand Herald newspaper that there was a delay hanging the bell, one formerly used at Pitt Street Fire Station, the article said, and now, with a very dry season, imperative to have it in full operation.

Fire bell believed to have served at Albert Street, Pitt Street and maybe Ponsonby Stations before being used in Northcote’s bell tower. Auckland Museum Collection

In 1922 Northcote brigade moved into its new station in Vincent Street.

The brigade served two communities for many years… both Northcote and Birkenhead, with Northcote firefighters (before they purchased their first motor appliance in July 1922) hauling their manual hose reel all the way up the sharp inclines of Onewa Road to fight fires in and around Birkenhead. From just a short distance from their Rodney Road station it was virtually all uphill to get to Birkenhead, a distance of exactly 3 kilometres (1.8 miles) to Highbury shops in Mokoia Road. The unsealed road would have been a dust bowl in summer and a bog in winter: the wet months requiring more effort from firemen to drag the manual cart through deep ruts in the mud and slush.

The arrangement for Northcote brigade to protect Birkenhead ended on May 14th 1932 when the Birkenhead Volunteer Brigade had been formed, equipped and trained.

In October the following year Northcote’s Mayor, R. Martin advised Council was investigating electric fire alarm bells which would be installed in firefighters’ homes.

There was further change in September 1941 when it was decided to install an electric siren to replace the old fire-bell. And to prepare for the change the bell tower was moved from in front of the Council Chambers to the rear of the fire station. It weighed about two and a half tonnes, lifted out of its concrete foundation, placed on skids and with the aid of the Council’s road grader it was slowly dragged up the road to its new location. It was an all-day job: complicated, The Auckland Star said, “…by the necessity of having to keep the bell in position so that in case of fire it could be rung without delay”. It was a great case of recycling… the bell had served outside Northcote Municipal Chambers for decades and 30 years before that had given alarms at several Auckland fire stations. The bell, once hung in its new position, was found to be in perfect working order and was “kept on standby” long after an electric siren was mounted on the tower.

The tower was successfully moved down the road to the rear of the Fire Station in Vincent Road.
Auckland Libraries Collection On Line

 Memories

The story of the moving of the bell-tower evoked memories from former Northcote resident George Pearson, of Brisbane, who wrote to The Auckland Star recalling earlier days when as a youth in 1926 he sometimes rang the fire-bell on that tower from a sense of chivalry as well as of duty. At that time, he writes, I was employed as an assistant in T. D. McNab’s store, the nearest shop to the bell-tower and joined the crowd of watchers whenever the bell was rung for an alarm. “Outbreaks of fire in both Birkenhead and Northcote districts”, he continued” were at that time communicated by telephone to the Northcote Council office, where often a girl typist was the only one in attendance, and it rested with her to toll the heavy bell. The sight of the girl bell-ringer on the high platform struggling with the difficulty of sounding the alarm  meant I would take over the duty for her on such occasions. I can also recall helping to crank up the engine of the Ford Model T fire engine”.

After World War Two earlier talks were rekindled about an amalgamated fire brigade on the Auckland’s North Shore. As a result on 18 March 1948 the North Shore Fire Board was constituted under the Fire Brigades Act and within weeks, on 1st April, the Board was responsible for fire protection of the 4 “marine boroughs” – Birkenhead, Devonport, Northcote and Takapuna and a small part of contiguous Waitemata County.

The Board decided that with full-time staffing and modern equipment at Birkenhead Station, Northcote would close. As well as Birkenhead, Takapuna appliances could attend fires as appropriate in Northcote: modern, faster fire engines could cover the ground quicker.

And it did not help matters when it was found members of Northcote Brigade “created” fire calls  and sounded their alarm before informing Fire Control Room, thus beating Birkenhead and Takapuna appliances to the supposed calls!

Accordingly, Northcote Station closed on May 7th 1969 also bringing to an end the 60 year old volunteer brigade. The irony was not lost on some… Northcote firefighters had faithfully and diligently responded to fires in Birkenhead for decades and now, with the stroke of an administrative pen, they were no longer required:  the tide had turned, Birkenhead firefighters now responded to Northcote.

Takapuna

Firefighting equipment was purchased by the Takapuna Borough Council in 1934 and a brigade, of sorts, was established, reconstituted into a more stable and efficient body in late 1934. Its fire station was in the Strand where the Takapuna Library stands today. There was no “official” fire bell but Ken Derrick, later to become the North Shore’s Chief Fire Officer, spent his childhood in Takapuna and recalls that volunteers were summoned to duty by striking a short length of railway line which was hanging up near the station.

On June 30th 1928 a fire bell was “christened” at Bayswater near Feaver’s shop in order to give alarms of fire in that suburb: residents there attempted to form a sub-brigade of Takapuna Fire Brigade about this time.

Otahuhu

The Otahuhu Volunteer Fire Brigade began on December 8th 1914 – after a false start – and the local Borough Council promised to support it, including the provision of fire bells so that firefighters could easily be summoned in times of fire. “Part of our progressive steps for the Borough”, councillors said. But progress sometimes has its own pace.

In August 1916 newspapers reported an outbreak one Sunday, note it was a Sunday, in St. Mary’s Home, Great South Road. The Brigade was quickly on the scene, and the fire was soon extinguished with very little damage being done.

In the same write-up it was mentioned “although the fire brigade has had a fire bell for some months, it is not yet erected, and the English Church bell has been occasionally used to give alarms of fire. But yesterday being Sunday, the church bell was not available, (used for its original purpose), and the brigade members had to be called together by messengers”.

In 1917 moves to get the fire bell mounted were finalised when the Borough Council funded materials up to £30 and the members of the local fire brigade were to provide labour.

Finally the structure, and the bell was in place at the delta, where the Great South Road meets Atkinson Avenue.

Otahuhu’s fire bell tower – dominated the town. Auckland Libraries Collections

From midnight on New Year’s Day 1917 “Big Ben”, for many years the well-known fire bell in Albert Street, Auckland, was at last officially Otahuhu’s fire bell. A local company led by William O’Hara had salvaged and stored both the timbers and the bell from the Albert Street site and now both combined to provide a belfry, a Kauri timbered structure more than 30 feet (10 m) high with the bell hung in the dome. Most of the work was done by volunteer labour, members of the Brigade (as promised) while a local haulage company donated its services to hoist the last of the heavy timbers aloft, and to position the bell itself.

The achievement called for celebration. The Auckland Star reported… “Shortly before midnight (on New Year’s Eve 1916) the Otahuhu Band played a number of selections at the site of the bell tower; and at midnight, in the presence of a very representative gathering, Mr H. J. Hall, Deputy-Mayor, cut a ribbon and declared the bell open for use. Immediately willing hands tolled out 1916 and welcomed in the New Year. Captain Wilson of the Fire Brigade then thanked all those who had so generously helped in the erection of the structure after which the bell was “christened” and a very enjoyable hour was spent by the big crowd.

In 1926 it was decided to re-locate the fire bell on to Council land where new Council Chambers and a fire station were planned. The project was completed in April 1927, the top of the building glassed in to better provide a lookout tower.

In May 1945 a crossroads was reached regarding fire protection in Otahuhu. The Borough Council decided to finalise financial details with a view to having the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board take over the fire brigade. Otahuhu residents decided by poll to make the change – the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board bought the Reo appliance, provided a paid crew 24/7 as a first response using a government pump/hose-layer and a trailer pump from 4/10/1943, while the volunteer firemen were retained  as back-up.

The volunteers disbanded in 1969, having contributed to their community for more than 50 years.

Ellerslie

In September 1922, the New Zealand Herald noted the Ellerslie Volunteer Fire Brigade “…was in very good shape to serve its community”. It had refreshed membership, smart new uniforms, a new station in Findlay Street, a brand new motor appliance … and the fire bell had been relocated. But on 4th December 1928 another bell was used to give the alarm…  at the church.

Lust after 6pm a Churchwarden smelled smoke inside the 45- year-old Christ Church in Ladies Mile and then saw fire in the building. He advised a volunteer firefighter who lived next to the church. With quick thinking, he ran into the burning building to ring the church bell, an ancient means of giving an alarm of fire.

Christ Church, Ellerslie in 1928 before the fire. James D Richardson – Auckland Libraries,

The vicar, the Rev. R. J. Stanton, was visiting parishioners when he heard the bell and thinking that perhaps the vicarage was on fire rushed back to Ladies Mile only to find that the church itself was involved. He joined helpers to remove parish registers, vestments and plate. The fire brigade was quickly on the scene, and Mr. Stanton directed the firefighters – “never mind the church save our precious windows before everything else”. Water was played upon the sashes and this tactic preserved the glass, which, remarkably, was kept from cracking.

Treasures

The windows referred to were gifts to Christ Church by Alfred Bell whom as a young man had connections in the parish. He later founded the firm of famous English stained-glass craftsmen, Clayton and Bell, glass painters to Queen Victoria. Notably their art comprised the west window of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, King’s College in Cambridge and Westminster Abbey. Hearing about the construction of Christ Church in Ellerslie, Alfred Bell decided to gift no fewer than 13 painted-glass windows. His firm Clayton and Bell designed the windows, cut them to the church’s measurements and shipped them to Auckland. Once installed, they were described by the New Zealand Herald as “marvels of art”, “especially fine”, “a beautiful effect”, “the colouring throughout is like that of the best Italian painters of the 15th century” and, “as specimens of modern glass painting, the pictures can scarcely be excelled”. The windows were dedicated by Bishop Cowie in January 1885. They are today recognised as a Heritage treasure.

Precious enough to save, and they were – although flames got into interior walls in one corner of the building and threatened the huge kauri beams supporting the roof. Firefighters moved methodically and in just over an hour the fire was out, leaving at least two-thirds of the building intact.

But it was saving the glass windows that the New Zealand Herald waxed loudest in praise of the fire brigade. “With the exception of some minor cracks in one pane, the treasured windows were untouched” the newspaper reported. “Residents agree that the local volunteer fire brigade effected the finest save in the history of the district”.

And the novel way of giving the alarm, the church bell, was also intact.

West Tamaki/St Heliers

Following the founding in 1922 of the West Tamaki Brigade (later known as St Heliers) there was further immediate steps towards improved fire protection in the district when three fire-bell towers, surplus to requirements at Mt Albert (Kingsland, Morningside, and Glenmore/Eden Terrace), were purchased for £40 by the Tamaki West Road Board. The towers, two complete with bells, were dismantled, moved across town and re-constructed – one at Benbow Street, one in Long Drive and the third at the corner of Kohimarama Road and Holgate Street. A system of “codes” was arranged… the number of tolls indicated the rough location of the fire.

At least one of these bells, probably the bigger at Benbow Street, had served at Grafton/Khyber Pass Station before relocating to Mt Albert, so St Heliers community was the third place it rendered service. A write up about the St Heliers bells noted “… there are 3 bells, half a mile apart, to give the alarm with different tolls indicating in which part of the district the fire has been reported”.

Effective April 1st, 1928 the local Road Board agreed to amalgamate with Auckland City which put the fire brigade under the management of the Auckland Fire Board. It announced plans to divorce brigade and council activities at St Heliers with a new fire station on land acquired for the purpose at the top end of Long Drive near St Heliers Bay Road. It has been the site of a fire station ever since: new premises were opened in 2010.

Avondale

By August 1922 newly-recruited firefighters and other volunteers had erected a fire bell tower alongside the new fire brigade premises on Blockhouse Bay Road (then Manukau Road) at the corner of Trent Street, opposite Rosebank Road.  The Avondale Volunteer Fire Brigade, formed in July 1922, was underway and the fire bell served until the brigade was dissolved when fire protection was handed over to the Auckland Fire Brigade some 6 years later in March 1928.

R. C.Carlyon April, 2020

Sources

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

“The History of Auckland Fire Brigades” C. W. Mears

“United to Protect”, G. M. Gillon, Orion Press, 1985

“In Old Mt Albert” Dick Scott, Southern Cross Books, 1983

“End of the Penny Section”, Graham Stewart, Grantham Books, 1965

“The Way We Were”, Moa Beckett

“Auckland Fire Brigade Centenary 1874 – 1974”, N. C. Glen, Compiler, Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, 1974

“Our First 75 Years Te Awamutu Fire Brigade”, Jack Dalton and Bruce Patterson, 1988