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”.
“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”.
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.
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.
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!”
“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.
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.
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”.
“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”.
“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.
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.
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”.
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