We take little notice of fire hydrants… until, that is, they are urgently required when there is a fire. They’re seldom spoken-of yet they are found along the footpaths of every street in Auckland, their history and importance overlooked. This item redresses the balance. 

The official definition of a Fire Hydrant is  ‘…a form of connection in a water main to which apparatus may be fixed which will provide a continuous flow of water for firefighting”*.

In essence, the hydrant is a tap or a valve which firefighters turn on to get water to effect firefighting.

Theoretically every street in our urban areas has fire hydrants, their position and spacing apart, and the size of the water main, is usually dictated by the local authority. While we seldom get to see the underground part of the hydrant (the connection to the main and the valve used to turn on the water), it’s another story above the ground! It is critical that hydrants are prominent so that when there’s a fire they are easily seen and over the years there have been various “signposts”: these days principally the “lid” or “cover”, set flush into the footpath, is painted bright yellow and often marked in other ways which we will see.

Modern fire hydrant, Albert Street, Auckland City, by Skellerns, Patiki Road Foundry, Rosebank

Most folk blithely walk over the hydrant lids: their importance unrealised  there’s a fire!

Auckland’s fire hydrants follow the British “underground” system, unlike the American standard which is all above ground, prominent on all US streetscapes.

Typical fire hydrant in United States

* “Dictionary of Fire Technology” –  Institution of Fire Engineers, 1968

Brief History

In Auckland’s earliest days the water mains were made of wood and every now and then along their length there were wooden bungs. Firefighters carried a tool on their belt to prise out the bung, or plug, to obtain running water: hence the old name “Fire Plug”, abbreviated as FP, the letters still seen occasionally on hydrant lids dating back to the old days).

Firefighters depended on the water pressure in the mains to obtain a flow sufficient for firefighting.

Prior to 1877 Auckland firefighters relied on supplies from a mix of wooden and steel pipes, along with sumps, wells and streams which had been plotted on a map by Army engineers in 1854. One of the earliest sources was a salt water main from the harbour, while others were springs at Official Bay and Mechanics Bay until, in 1866, water was piped from the springs in Auckland Domain, (known these days as the Duck Ponds), the flow gravity-fed to the townspeople.

Reservoir in the Government Gardens, Auckland Domain, 1866
Auckland Museum Collections

This was the town’s first reticulated public water supply which had some 20 access points for the fire brigade. (These days Greater Auckland has some 47,000 fire hydrants).

Then in 1877 Auckland’s reticulation was revolutionised with a new supply sourced from Western Springs. Iron pipes replaced smaller mains affording much better water pressure and at last there were proper cast-iron hydrants, known as ball-type. More importantly, in the event of a fire turncocks could now boost the pressure by opening valves at the nearest pumping station. Installing fire hydrants was part of the reticulation contract: the hydrant consisting of the valve, the cast iron box that enclosed it and the lid which was made prominent by a coating of white-wash. It faded in the sun and washed away with the rain… more enduring white paint was used in later years. In 1882 Auckland City Council’s T. W. Hickson produced a detailed street map of the inner city showing all the fire plugs: invaluable to the fire brigade. In 1914 legislation pointed to the importance of hydrants: it provided stiff penalties for anyone “concealing or damaging a fire plug”.

Local bodies, local government, have always been responsible for purchasing and installing  fire hydrants, thus a wide variety of makers, of shapes and sizes existed over the decades. One feature that was almost universal: the tread or hatching on the outside of the lid was usually diamonds, a pattern that has endured. As borough councils grew in number this posed a problem because there was no universal size:  there were different waterway connections in various parts of Greater Auckland. This stymied assistance when there was a big fire: fire brigades had different sized water-way equipment and could not help each other… Auckland City Brigade was equipped to ship in to 2.75 inch (6.98cms) pipes while Parnell and other districts had various types of hose and connections. In 1923 a New Zealand standard, 2.50 inch, (6.53cms) fitting was gazetted. It took time, and money, to convert thousands of hydrants across all Auckland suburbs to comply.

There was another major change in the 1940s following a scare that ball-type hydrants were a threat to public health. It was found that as the ball drops in the valve there’s a possibility foul water can enter the mains through the gap, thus polluting drinking water. Indeed, this was the supposed cause of a Typhoid epidemic in both England and Australia. Ball hydrants were outlawed. The new 2.5 inch (60mm) sluice type, or screw down, hydrant was fully sealed: no detritus could enter the waterworks and it was painted yellow to distinguish from the old ball-type which was gradually phased out. Firefighters reported much better flows from the new hydrants.

Fire hydrants in New Zealand are now universally  screw-down type, their lids painted yellow (Chrome Yellow): any white hydrant covers remaining have been overlooked, “left behind”,  the hydrants probably unserviceable.

Some hydrants are not ‘beneath our feet” because they are situated in the middle of the road or on the carriageway. Tyres, rather than feet, pass over them and, as a result of the weight of traffic volumes, some lids become broken and sunken.

They’re usually on the road instead of the footpath because at some time the carriageway has been widened and the Council hasn’t had the money or whit to relocate water, gas and sewerage pipes beneath the new footpaths.

This makes it difficult for firefighters to access hydrants in the middle of the road, such as the length of Greenlane West, where hydrants are almost centre-line along the very busy arterial road.

Some of these lids which are situated on the carriageway near footpaths have circles painted around them to remind motorists not to park too close.

Hydrant with yellow-painted ring

Other “signposts” to Fire Hydrants

Over the years local bodies often erected signage to indicate the location of fire hydrants: to assist firefighters when they are urgently looking for supplies of water for firefighting. These additional “signs” are fast disappearing but some survive. The example below was typical of the cast-iron plate used for decades in streets across Greater Auckland, mounted on a post or on a wall etc. adjacent to the fire hydrant. Originally painted white, latterly yellow.

Until recently in Aroha Avenue, Sandringham, now gone

Another example still exists on a shopfront in O’Connell Street, City. This one, like the one above, shows many coats of paint applied over the decades. Local councils were responsible for their upkeep and in some areas firefighters were employed on their days off to paint the lids and the signage. It was beneficial to firefighters… and not only for the pay… they got to know where all the hydrants were in  cases of fire!

O’Connell Street, City – well painted over the decades… and survives!

Appropriately, the steel FP plaque survives on the fence of a historic-listed building, a two-storeyed house at 23 Alten Road, City. It’s thought to be the oldest house in Auckland at its original address, built for John McLeary in 1859.

Plate on the fence, 23 Alten Rd, City

Some Auckland boroughs also marked hydrants with a post on the grass verge or, more likely, on the fence line. They were painted white:  when the ball hydrants were replaced the colour changed to yellow, but the letters “H”, “FH” or “FP” remaining.

Hydrant marker survives in Clevedon


Another survivor: Mt Albert Road, Mt Roskill

Most fire hydrants were also “sign-posted” by a painted kerbstone.

Typical painted kerbstone adjacent to a hydrant: Mt Albert

From earlier days there was a flat half-circle on the footpath known as a “D” Indicator. They were set into the kerb-line, the width and height of the kerbstones, with a marble-like white surface. These are now fast disappearing from the streetscape.

Original “D” indicator: Manukau Road, Epsom

Overpainted “D” indicator, Epsom

This white “D” Indicator originally signposted a Ball-type hydrant, now overpainted yellow to show the replacement sluice type.

Much more recently there have been triangles on sealed roadways pointing to a nearby hydrant. At first they were painted white in different styles according to the types of hydrant: these days they are solid yellow, painted, or concreted, on to the road surface.

They are usually located towards the middle of the road avoiding wear and tear from passing traffic, often accompanied by a blue “cat’s eye” reflector to help rapid location of the hydrant at night.

Centre-line, blue cat’s eye and yellow triangle which points directly to the hydrant –

Underground: The Valve

The valve: underground and unseen – GilliesMetaltech

Here ‘s what’s normally unseen: the underground parts of the modern fire hydrant which is enclosed in a cast iron box. It’s made by Gillies’ Foundry in Oamaru based on a famous Blakeborough design (see below). The base of the hydrant is bolted on to the watermain. The outlet, right, is where the standpipe screws down on and the spindle (top) is where the key is inserted to turn on the valve (the “tap”). See additional diagrams in Appendix 1.

Modern key and bar and, below, a standpipe – PSL

Most patterns of fire hydrants lids have slots enabling firefighters to rapidly insert a lever (the “bar”) to flip open the lid and access the hydrant.

Once opened, the standpipe is screwed on… this is the connection between the valve/waterpipe and the hose. A key is used to turn on the water.

These days fire hydrants are subject to an international standard “AS3996 – Access Covers and Frames” which sets out dimensions and minimum requirements.

Above-ground: The Hydrant Lids

We are most interested in the part of the hydrant that we can see and that we walk all-over every day; it’s the cast-iron lid which sometimes gives away the maker’s name and, for some, their age. A number of makers were pioneer foundrymen in Auckland, and further afield.

Blakeborough and Sons, Brighouse, Yorkshire, UK.

With its origins in 1828, this company patented a fire hydrant in 1875 and went on to manufacture all kinds of valves and associated waterworks equipment, earning world-wide reputation.  The company made essential goods during wartime (submarine parts during World War One, and fire extinguishers among other products to assist the Second World War) and was taken over by other companies in the 1980s.

J. Blakeborough and Sons, makers

The small Blakeborough lid on Pitt Street, outside the Methodist Church, Newton, has remnants of white paint indicating it was a ball-type hydrant and it follows the standard British letters “FH” but in much smaller letters than most other covers.

Charles Judd, Thames, New Zealand 

Charles Judd (1837 – 1924) began his iron foundry in Thames in November 1869, the first such business in the town, which flourished making machinery (stamper batteries) and equipment (motors and pumps) for the Coromandel gold fields. The company had the contract to construct most of New Zealand’s lighthouses and broke into the Auckland market in 1893 making valve boxes for the new waterworks at Western Springs and forming the ironwork for the Herald newspaper’s new building in Queen Street.

The letters FP give its age away: Chas Judd Ltd, Thames

In January 1900 Charles Judd was the successful tenderer to supply water works castings for Auckland City Council… this hydrant lid may have been part of that contract. It’s smaller than today’s standard hydrant.

 B. Proud, Cleave Avenue, off Grey St, Auckland City

George Bell Proud (1838 -1920) was originally in business as a partnership with Stephens, then started his own foundry, 1880s, in several premises in Cleave Avenue, Vincent Lane and Yelverton Terrace, all off Grey Street (now Greys Avenue), the site of the present Aotea Square.

The oval hydrant, painted in the old white livery with FP,  admitted a smaller, thinner standpipe which delivered far less water than modern waterways.

Shaw, Freemans Bay, Auckland

J.  Shaw owned the Atlas Iron Works, first-mentioned in 1912 as situated in Freemans Bay Reclamation, then Halsey Street and later Fanshawe Street, an area that was the Penrose of its time with several foundries, mechanical workshops, ships’ chandlers, timber mills and warehouses full of iron and steel goods. 1912-1920 must have been years of expansion for the Atlas Works with frequent advertisements in newspapers for patternmakers, moulders, iron makers and apprentices. The foundry was still operating in 1947.

J. Shaw’s hydrant: saw service in the older part of Onehunga

This hydrant was the small oval type with FP, originally white but with traces of blue paint. It was in Warangal Street, Onehunga, outside Mitre Ten until 2016 when it disappeared after road works.  Onehunga streets in this area were reticulated in the late 1890s… this hydrant may have been one of the originals.

Unknown Maker

Small rectangular lid on Mount Smart Road near Athens Road, Onehunga sized for the smaller standpipe.

Unique in that the letters FP are portrait-style rather than landscape

Obviously, it has not been in use for many years with just a few spots of white paint still evident.

Unknown Maker

Small, rectangular lid unique in that it’s square and, then, instead of diamond tread it has squares. The letters FP have full-stops after them. This hydrant was also designed for smaller standpipes.

In the midst of most modern facilities, the old hydrant lid

It survives on the concourse at Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s Regional Training Centre at Mt Wellington. Since the hydrant is much older than the establishment (opened in November 1967) it must have been set into the concrete during construction, perhaps to train firefighters from those boroughs, like Mt Roskill, that at that time still had some of the old, smaller, types of hydrant requiring what was known as the slender McNaughton Standpipe.

Unknown Maker 

Examples of a small rectangular hydrant can be found in Mt Albert and Sandringham streets: this one is in King Edward Street near the walkway. It likely dates to the 1920s when the area was subdivided.

Old hydrant, several of which remain in Sandringham

Its white paint endures and notable is that while the diamonds are raised to provide tread while the letters F.P. are, unusually, indented.

 Cory-Wright and Salmon Limited, Wellington and Auckland

Silston Cory-Wright, (1888 – 1976) an English electrical engineer and science graduate, assisted planning, purchase and installation of turbines for hydro-electric power stations in the early 1900s. His work was interrupted by the war and in November 1915 he joined the Corps of New Zealand Engineers. There he served alongside Cedric Salmon (1892-1979) and, post-war, they formed a company based on their extensive knowledge of engineering and they secured the New Zealand agency for some of the overseas companies they were familiar with, notable John Blakeborough In England (see above).  The partners successfully tendered for major works, among them the electrification of railways, sale of locomotives, construction of government buildings and bridges and their specialisation, hydro-electric gear and installation. Alongside the massive engineering works they were engaged in, the company sold “Stella” radios in the 1950s, later adding giant American motor-scrapers and Japanese heavy industrial equipment. The company went into receivership in March, 1988, with a $57 million deficit… its Chief Executive, convicted of fraud and dishonesty, was sent to jail. The name Cory survives in the Sonepar Group after a series of takeovers: Cory’s Electrical.

A well-worn lid: noting there’s no hyphen in the name Cory-Wright

Making hydrants must have been a smaller part of the business: this hydrant is situated in Poynton Terrace, off Pitt Street, Newton.

Gillies Foundry, Tyne Street,  Oamaru

George Thomas Gillies, from Dunedin, began trading during the 1920s in Oamaru as a car salesman, then a garage proprietor (credited with having the first kerbside petrol bowser in New Zealand) and branched into electrics, supplying hydro-electric works. He also owned a hotel in the town, an Oamaru-stone quarrying concern and in 1943 he took over North Otago Engineering Company which made a wide assortment of iron and metal works. George Gillies saw another opportunity post-World War 2, when as part of the motor business, he purchased war-surplus GMC trucks. They were very popular with farmers and forest owners. The profits from the sales funded new methods and up to date equipment in the foundry. Gillies purchased intellectual rights from the Blakeborough foundry in Yorkshire, England, (see above) for its patented design of water valves, enabling Gillies to take a lead in this part of the industry.

Gillies Foundry hydrant in Whittaker Place, City

Gillies Foundry was taken over by the Hynds Group in 2006 and survives, trading as Gillies Metaltech Limited… and still making fire hydrants. Note that diamond hatching has given way in the design to square studs in the tread.

Speedway Products Limited, Great South Road, Penrose. Showrooms in Albert Street, City

A post-war company formed in Wellington in September 1947, it made a wide variety of metal and electrical products ranging from iron works to water heaters. Speedway Products Ltd was better known as makers of electric appliances, especially, post-war, their “EasyWay” washing machines whose motors powered the agitator, the wringer and, in deluxe models, the pump to drain the water. These washing machines became a household name in New Zealand in the 1950s, paralleling the post-war recovery and baby boom. Speedway Products also manufactured their “WonderHeat Air-conditioning Fire” which comprised a firebox with a revolutionary glass-louvered front, adjustable to control the rate of combustion and release of heat. The domestic coal/wood-burning model was accompanied by an oil-burning version for commercial applications with water heating connections optional. In 1940 Speedway marketed their Gas Producer to power vehicles instead of petrol which was rationed during war time, reserved for the military.

This example is in Lunn Avenue, Mt Wellington

Another version of Speedway Products’ hydrant

As an aside and in contrast, Speedway Products were national distributors of “Greenwell’s Vitamin A Ointment”- said to be invaluable for insect bites, cuts and abrasions, and the range of “Kwiko” household products – such as “magic carpet shampoo” to clean and protect floor-coverings. The company merged with National Electrical and Engineering Company Ltd in 1990, the name disappearing in dissolution in 1998.

Hume Industry New Zealand Limited

Originally a family business in Australia from 1920, Humes expanded to New Zealand with a factory in Masterton in 1923. In , featuring the manufacture of concrete pipes, tanks and superstructure.  Humes opened a foundry in Wanganui in the 1950s. It made a wide range of cast iron works, including waterworks fittings, later becoming the specialised Hume’s Castings. Fletcher Challenge acquired Humes in 1997… fire hydrant boxes and covers are still made under the Humes name.

Above the footpath: Humes hydrant in Burnley Terrace, Mt Eden

This picture shows a Humes lid that has been modified. The water pipe, and thus the hydrant valve, is not deep enough under the footpath so the whole box sits high, thus the lid could not be fitted because the spindle protruded.  Workmen cut a hole in the lid  to overcome the problem! And then they found the lid was too big for the box so they crudely trimmed one end (right) to make it fit. “LD” in the lower right corner is the code for the specific casting pattern.

Murphy and Body

A company, Murphy and Body Limited, was registered in 1976  with its office in Levin.

Only example discovered in Auckland so far

John Burns and Company Limited

Founded in 1882 as Wingate, Burns and Company, the firm became John Burns Limited in 1890 with the retirement of Mr Wingate. Wholesalers, the company dealt in iron and metal wares, ships’ chandlery, machinery, and electrical goods: the New Zealand representatives for major American and British brands. Ships bringing merchandise to Auckland for the John Burns carried the firm’s exports – flax, kauri gum and wool – on the return voyage. The company commissioned the building of scows and small ships for coastal shipping services. The firm had a multi-storey headquarters, warehouse and offices, in Customs Street East, City, and extensive stores, foundry and workshops in Stanley Street at the foot of Alten Road. The Customs Street premises suffered a serious, fatal, fire in August 1941.

Maker’s name prominent, hydrant in Princes Street, Onehunga

By the 1960s the company had branches throughout New Zealand but in the early 1980s there was but one store trading as Burnsco Marine in Parnell, Auckland, concentrating on ships’ chandlery.  Today there are branches in more than a dozen main centres.

Mason and Porter, Main Highway, Mt Wellington

Originally City Engineering Limited, Messrs Reuben Porter, Harold Mason and Edwin Jones, founded the company in downtown Auckland in 1910, soon moving to larger premises in Parnell and in 1915 changing the name to Mason and Porter Limited with the trade name “Masport”. They made their first push-lawn mower in 1929, forerunner of many models both manual and motorised. Rotary hoes, mulchers, refrigerators, garden furniture, motor bikes and foundry works followed, the expanding company building its own sprawling premises in Main Highway, Mt Wellington, which opened in 1940, demolished in 2021.

Masport’s pattern in Kingsland, Auckland

Much of Mason and Porter’s production between 1939 and 1945 was part of the war effort. Motor mowers remain the company’s stock-in-trade along with distribution of rotary hoes, ride-on turf and agriculture machinery throughout Australasia and the Pacific Islands. In 2017 the German firm AL-KO Gardentech, a modern manufacturer of high-quality gardening equipment, replaced the Tiri Group as owner of Masport.

Promains , Albany and Papakura, Auckland

Promains, established in 2011, is a manufacturer and distributor of product to the civil and waste- water sectors.

Promains, a hydrant in Glass Road, Mt Roskill

The company also offers planning and specifications for associated projects.  It has retained the age-old diamond pattern on the lid.

Other Lids:

Small “FH”: Mt Albert

Traditional diamonds replaced

Rare hinged lid with word “Hydrant”: Mt Albert

Unpainted, diamonds are replaced. Karangahape Road.

Auckland Harbour Board special: Princes Wharf

Clarke’s lid with standard specification worked in: Epsom

Black was the new yellow: quickly corrected, Quay Street

Speedway Product’s lid in blue!

Portrait-style hydrant made of plastic. On the grass verge, Morningside

Martins of Palmerston North, distinctive cross-cross instead of diamonds

Stonefields, Mt Wellington – “Grey water”, with duplicate fire hydrants, was to be reticulated alongside potable water, but the scheme was abandoned…the grey hydrants remain

3 at once – plenty of resource in Richmond Road


Fire Plugs and Hydrants in the United Kingdom were mentioned in an Act of Parliament in 1708 which stipulated that a mark had to be fixed on the front of the house over or against the place where the stop-cock was located and a later Act, 1875,  was a little more specific when it provided  for a mark to be painted on the building or walls near to fire plugs to denote their location. Fire hydrants were standardised by 1940 but, like Auckland, some of the old-style survive.

In the United States, the first pillar-style fire hydrant was invented by Frederick Graff, chief engineer of Philadelphia’s waterworks about 1801. It stood above-ground and was often covered with wood, and the space within the wood filled with insulation. Unfortunately, Graff’s  design meant the pipes had water in them at all times so they were liable to freezing in the winter despite crude efforts at insulation.


In North America fire hydrants are typically painted yellow (but differ State to State) with different coloured hydrants, or just the tops, according to the size of the water mains: firefighters can thus immediately determine output and judge whether they need supplementary supplies from another hydrant. Hydrants painted red often indicate a privately owned, or non-metro, source and purple paint indicates non-potable water.

Golden Hydrant

Unique is one hydrant nearby Dolores Park in San Francisco’s Mission District which is now painted gold, recalling that it was the only serviceable source of water for firefighting during the 1906 earthquake and fire which destroyed much of the city.

San Francisco firefighters and officials touch up the gold paint – Guardians of San Francisco – Fire Rescue 1

The hydrant, made by local foundry Greenberg, is credited with saving much of the Mission District and remains painted gold in memory of its vital role… and the City’s determination, post-earthquake, to have a sophisticated reticulation system so that never again will they have to rely on a single source of water which “The Hydrant That Could” miraculously and thankfully delivered in the 1906 emergency.


Ball Type Hydrant

Ball-type hydrant

There were six actions by firefighters to access water from a ball-type hydrant. First a skewer was used to prise off the lid. Second the inside of the box was inspected for debris and, if necessary, scooped out. Third the standpipe was screwed on to the outlet, fourth the hose was connected to the standpipe and, fifth the handle on the top of the standpipes was wound. This allowed the ball to rise allowing water to flow from the mains up through the valve and standpipe and along the hose. This sequence was practised and practised by firefighters so they could “get water on” within seconds.

Screwdown or Sluice Hydrant   

Screw-down hydrant

The standpipe is connected to the outlet top left.

The drill with these was: first whip off the lid, second clear the box of any debris, third the standpipe was screwed onto the outlet, fourth the hose was connected to the standpipe and, fifth the key is inserted over spindle and wound thus turning on the valve and allowing water to the outlet and the hose. Once again firefighters became very fast to establish water, especially those participating in fire brigade competitions.



Auckland Fire Brigade History – Cliff Mears

Watercare Auckland




(c) RCC 08/09/2021

This is an account of devastating fires that swept through Napier’s business district following a major earthquake at 10.47am on 3rd February, 1931. Some say the uncontrollable fires caused more damage that day than the earthquake. The story’s told through the eyes of Napier’s Fire Chief, Superintendent William James Gilberd* who led the fire-fight.   

“There was no warning, no pre-shocks… just the big one. We anticipated the inevitable: fires after such a violent ‘quake. By ‘we’ I am including all four full-time and 25 volunteer members of the Brigade. All automatic fire alarms had been disconnected by the violent shaking so we received first word about fires by messengers arriving at the station on foot. We were lucky to be able to respond. Both our Dennis fire engines rolled forward in the station as the earth convulsed, No 1 vehicle^ smashing through the wooden doors, almost crushing one of our crew members, Eddy Symons. We removed the smashed doors and quickly ascertained that both fire appliances were serviceable, and we mobilised. But we had no idea of the huge job ahead”.

Our Response

“We were advised there were fires in three chemist shops in the business area.  I went with Station Officer James Drieberg on our No 1 engine to the Friendly Society Dispensary in lower Emerson Street. The chemist, Ronald Munro, had returned to his shop immediately after the jolt to find it was on fire. We found it difficult navigating through the debris that had fallen, blocking the streets. When we got there we found the Dispensary had collapsed: its contorted structure was now well alight and we immediately got to work with a hose connected to the municipal water main. But heat, fumes and dwindling pressure got the better of us. No 2 appliance^ arrived – I left a couple of firefighters there and took the No 1 Dennis to Henderson’s pharmacy in Hastings Street, also reported on fire. But we stopped on the way at the Masonic Hotel to rescue a woman, trapped on the top balcony”.

“Fire Follows Quake” – Superintendent Gilberd in Hastings Street, Napier. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 4187 j – tinted

At the Masonic Hotel

“There we were told by eyewitnesses that the front of the “fine landmark”, the Masonic Hotel, was the first to fall out during the violent ‘quake and the whole building collapsed before fire began to sweep through the debris.

Masonic Hotel: some lucky escapes – otherwise a tragedy
Alexander Turnbull Library

The publican, Mr Hanlon, was in the bar when the main shake struck and survived, though two barmen he was talking to at the time were killed.   A young woman was near the kitchen and told of ‘huge blocks of masonry falling in all directions around me, there was another girl and we found we were trapped as the huge building crashed around our ears, pillars snapping like carrots. Dust and plaster blocked our nostrils, got in our ears and mouth. We managed to clamber to safety’. Word was that another hotel employee was in her room on the third floor and watched, horrified, as the façade of the hotel tumbled to the street below – she was left sitting in an armchair, pinned, and was later rescued. Dr Gabites and his wife, hotel guests in their room on the same floor, were swallowed into the collapsing structure and fell through the shattered floor. Having gathered their senses, we were told that they saw a shaft of light, and scratching an opening, found themselves out on street level, uninjured”.


“I sent No 2 to Hastings Street, to Henderson’s Pharmacy, midway between Browning and Herschel Streets. Working with both appliances we made some progress at first but then our water from the mains failed, heat and smoke made our work impossible, the blaze got out of control and we abandoned the place: it was unsafe and we lost valuable hose and equipment as we turned our back on it. Luckily we got both fire engines, and the crew, out of there without damage. About this time I noted that some fires, hitherto in separate buildings, were now joining up. Among them, flames following an explosion in Arthur Hobson’s chemist’s shop in the Masonic Hotel block were merging with a fierce fire in the hotel’s kitchen and the entire Masonic was well alight in no time at all. I realised this maelstrom was probably going to leap streets, involve adjacent premises, and then engulf whole blocks of buildings.  Napier’s entire business area was at risk”


“We had been working in a very light off-shore breeze and hoped we could contain the fire to the Hastings Street/Marine Parade area. But then, just on noon, we noticed a change of direction to easterly, and that the wind stiffened.

“… calamitous…”
Hawkes Bay Knowledge Bank

This proved pivotal, and calamitous: the fire, unchecked, picked up speed and taken by the wind, roared along Hastings Street. Again, we were fortunate to escape unscathed. The flames rolled over, and past us, heading towards the Anglican Cathedral where we were advised a woman was trapped inside. With poor water supply we did what we could there until our hoses ran dry… and in the path of advancing flames, the woman was put out of her misery by Dr G. E. Waterworth with a large dose of morphine. She would have been burned alive, anyway”.

Quest for Water

“No 1 engine threaded our way to the Soldier’s Memorial where we shipped into a hydrant and found good water which we used to successfully stop fire-spread along Hastings Street. But then the hydrant reduced to a dribble. Beaten again!”

The granite Soldiers’ Memorial Cross withstood the ‘quake
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1370-92-17

“It was obvious that through the down-town area the underground water mains had collapsed or had become disconnected during the ‘quake. Someone surmised, correctly as it happened, that the municipal pumping station at the Cameron Road reservoir was probably disabled because electrical wires had been brought down. So, looking for a water supply we went to the Municipal Baths right on Napier’s waterfront and set the suction pipes into the swimming pool.

Napier No 2 Dennis pumping at the Salt Water Baths
MTG Hawkes Bay

Meantime firemen unrolled about 1,500 feet (450 meters) of hose and then we began pumping, but the single delivery hose, and its length, meant what we offered against the flames was no match. There was insufficient pressure.

Firefighters drew from Municipal Salt Water Baths…
S. C. Smith

Looking for more water for firefighting, one of the crew recalled an old sump at Clive Square. Although the use of salt water was not ideal, we were desperate. We unearthed the old sump and got organised there with suction hoses and began draughting water. The crew did good work saving buildings in the vicinity, but unfortunately not our fire station: I watched on as our premises, including my adjoining quarters, were engulfed: destroyed”.

Napier Fire Station after the ‘quake and fire

“The two crews moved several times to make a better attack. But practically everywhere we set up, we were beaten back by the all-engulfing flames, even with welcome help of sailors from HMS Veronica which was tied up in port at the time of the ‘quake.  Fires ravaged unchecked all afternoon”.

Demolition Charges

“Picking a path through the debris I took No 1 fire engine to Dalton Street to ship into the main water storage tanks there and used this supply to tackle flames sweeping through the Caledonia Hotel.

Caledonia Hotel in ruins – Hawkes Bay Knowledge Bank

But by now we realised water was not going to be the town’s salvation. We sent for explosives. We knew this would take time so, ahead of the flames, we chose Henry Williams’s shop.  We packed dynamite right around the premises. We soon levelled the building, blowing it to smithereens. The “fire-gap” we created prevented fire getting to the residential streets of wooden houses beyond. Several other buildings were, likewise, blown up to provide fire-breaks”.

Notwithstanding setbacks we continued firefighting, joined by the sailors and an increasing number of volunteers, members of the public.

The Red Glare

But by nightfall, when mercifully the wind dropped, we had abandoned the situation to the fires. Virtually the whole of the business district had been destroyed by fire and what little had been left untouched by the flames was, street after street, reduced to collapsed and twisted debris caused by the earthquake.

Houses, too, burned throughout that first night
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1370-92-5

Someone arriving in Napier that night reported “… a red glare made the approach to the town ominous”, it was flames and embers from buildings in more than 11 blocks that had either been totally or partially burned. We set up a temporary fire station under canvas”.

Who cares about spelling in an emergency? Napier firefighters’ new home in tents
Alexander Turnbull Library

Footnote: The Gilberds

The family name Gilberd is well-associated with membership of fire brigades and in Hawkes Bay it was –known as the company which pioneered steam processes in the manufacture of cordials and aerated waters, J.G. Gilberd and Company Limited.

James Gatland Gilberd (1851 – 1912) after whom the company is named, was a founder member of the Napier Volunteer Fire Brigade around 1882,  of which he was  Captain for 15 years. He was Secretary of the United Fire Brigades’ Association some 27 years so was well known by firefighters throughout New Zealand.  He was born in the USA and arrived in New Zealand in time to take part in the gold rush, mining at Thames before he moved to Hawkes Bay in 1870. James had 5 sons…

in November 1907 three of them – William, Sydney and Frederick – were enrolled in the Napier Brigade under their father the Superintendent . And William James Gilberd (1875 – 1948), rose through the ranks of the brigade and was Superintendent at the time of the earthquake.

And in Auckland James Gilberd (1827 – 1864), apparently no relation to the Hawkes Bay family, was appointed Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade in 1863 to try to reform the organisation and improve fire protection for the city. They were difficult times – the brigade had been under-resourced for years – and James Gilberd was making some headway when in December 1864 he died suddenly of pleurisy aged 37. He had been unable to make real progress in the short time he was in office . James had been son of an immigrant family, among the earliest pioneers who arrived from England in Auckland aboard “London” in 1840. He founded a door/sash making joinery factory before taking on the fire brigade. Without proper funding and adequate support, the brigade again quickly reverted to upheaval after upheaval.


^ The no 1 Dennis had been purchased by the Napier Borough Council at a cost of £516 and it’s believed to have arrived on 8th April 1918.


^^ The No 2 Dennis had been ordered by the Napier Fire Board in August 1920 to the following specifications:

Cost: £2,200 f.o.b. London.

Weight: A approximately 5 tons

Power: 60 horse power, capable of ascending a one-in-six grade with a full load and 12 men

Pump: Gwynne, capable of delivering 450 gallons per minute, with a pressure of 110 pounds, and 800 gallons per minute with a pressure of 180 pounds. Through a 100 ft. hose it will throw a stream between 120 and 150 feet.

Ladder: 50ft. Ajax escape

First aid: hose reel

It was delivered per SS “Ionic” UK to Wellington arrived in May 1921 and thence by  SS “Ripple” to Napier arriving early June.


*The following sources have been drawn on to rewrite events of 3rd February 1931 as seen through the eyes of Superintendent William Gilberd, Officer In Charge, Napier Fire Brigade:

Selected content from Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

“Remembering the 1931 Napier Earthquake” by Matthew Wright

Hawkes Bay Today

New Zealand Herald

Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust

Forbes Neil, fire brigades historian


RCC 2010/augmented 14/09/2020