The centenary of the first radio transmission in New Zealand (Professor Robert Jack in 1921) and the first broadcast by a licensed radio station (1YA Auckland in 1923) prompted a look at those pioneers who, through the static and interference of the airwaves, were heard “on the wireless”.

Orators quickly realised they could project their words way beyond the pulpit or soapbox. Instrumentalists, either solo or in groups, and singers, performed in the 1YA “studio”, their sounds instantly heard in far-off places – radio was quickly taking over from recordings.

Research about those pioneers of the airwaves led me to an intrigue about those broadcasters of the times, particularly the music-makers and, to a lesser extent, those who gave talks. One speaker, however, stood out. He was the Reverend Jasper Calder, an experienced Anglican clergyman, who spoke on the station’s opening night, 13th April 1923. He was a keen social worker and in 1920 helped form the Auckland City Mission, going on to found health camps for children and, during the 1930s depression, he set up soup kitchens and emergency accommodation for the poor and needy.

Jasper Calder
Alexander Turnbull Library

Those hearing Jasper Calder and the others on radio for the very first time listened in disbelief – it was a miracle. And so, for 1YA’s inaugural broadcast, Calder chose the topic “A Modern Miracle” for his “wee sermon”, as he called his contribution.  “Anyone who is inclined to doubt the authenticity of the New Testament miracles would do well to ponder on the wonders of this wireless broadcast,” he said, before giving a homily to, especially, those listeners in Canterbury… and, in his inimitable breezy style, taking Wellington folk into his confidence and giving them the name of an in-form galloper – “a certain winner at Trentham races!”. It was the very first tip for horse-racing given on radio in New Zealand… and by a clergyman at that!

“The New Zealand Herald” agreed with Calder about miracles. In its review of the opening night’s programme, the newspaper said “A miracle was performed in Auckland last evening…  a miracle not of superstition nor of rioting imagination, but of clear, cold science  – authentic and completely verifiable. For the air was full of voices and singing and music and strange sounds and those who could hear them realised that the miraculous is nearer to every-day life than they had thought”.

And now to the music. Items that opening night included pieces for saxophone (H. G. Cater) , works for piano, and solos from vocalists Mrs Lewis Eady, Miss V. Lambert and Mr J. D. Swan. Several recitations, as well as Rev. Jasper Calder’s sermon-ette, rounded out the inaugural programme.


Newspaper advertisements had warned listeners that there would be a 5-minute interval, a silence, between performances. What they were not told was that this break in transmission was essential to allow the valves and circuits to cool, thus reducing risk of fire in the studio!

And there were other interruptions, without advance warning, caused by electrical disturbances in the vicinity of the studio. For instance, there was a background swishing noise whenever a tram-car traversed Symonds Street outside the studio, some passing motor vehicles caused similar noises, while the electric lifts in the building next door caused interference which at times drowned out the broadcast altogether. These were not the only technical difficulties. 1YA soon found that those wanting to buy radio receivers were up against a shortage of parts especially valves required for the station’s particular frequency. This must have frustrated the 5 radio retailers who supported the station under the name Auckland Radio Service Limited. 1YA was off the air for some 3 months during which ways were found to exclude the disturbing extraneous noises from the broadcasts. After transmission resumed there was an array of artists waiting to be heard on the wireless… Hawaiian groups, military bands, all kinds of soloists… and then, August 23rd 1923 was advertised as a “Mr and Mrs Cyril Towsey Evening”.

The intrigue grew as I traced this musical couple… Cyril Towsey on the piano that night accompanied  his wife, Mary, soprano.

Their stories are worth repeating, their lives interwoven with extraordinary performers of the time with whom they rubbed shoulders, both in the UK and at home…  notably a prince (or was he a chieftain?) a princess and more than a couple of Madams. And in the tension of live performance there’s evidence that some were, really, temperamental ‘madams’!

Cyril Towsey was born into a musical family: his father, Arthur John Towsey was a well-known musician the length and breadth of New Zealand from the late 1880s until his death in 1931. Cyril’s uncle, Edward, was, almost equally, another household name in musical circles, especially in Dunedin.

 Arthur John Towsey – Cyril’s Father

Arthur John Towsey, (1847 – 1931) was born at Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. At an early age he showed a marked talent for music. At the age of 7 he commenced the study of piano with E. H. Thorne, the organist, and three years later, went to Sir F. Gore Ouseley’s College, at Tenbury. He studied alongside Arthur Sullivan: they became life-long friends and Towsey was later to stage Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. Continuing tuition, he subsequently studied the piano and organ under Sir John Stainer and Langdown-Colborne and had the privilege of receiving lessons in harmony from Ouseley personally. On leaving the college he studied with H. C. Deacon, of London, and held an appointment as organist. In 1866 Arthur Towsey emigrated to Dunedin, engaged as choirmaster and organist at St Pauls Cathedral. He was just 19 years of age. After marrying and having two children he returned to England in 1879 for further study.

Arthur John Towsey
Trove, Australia

On his return to New Zealand he made many church, and lay, connections with music in the likes of Dunedin, Christchurch, Wanganui, Auckland and in the Waikato. In his later years the press said “…his efforts in the interests of music have him now recognised as one of the Dominion’s foremost figures”.

Madame Favart, Arthur Towsey conducting

He was prominent in the Christchurch Amateur Operatic Society, founder of Auckland Liedertafel in 1892 (later became the Royal Auckland Choir), responsible for the early successes of the Auckland Operatic Society, life member of the Cambridge Competitions Society, conductor and life member of the Orphans Club Orchestra and he was musical director leading New Zealand’s contributions at the South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin, 1889.

Giant Incomparabilis

A keen horticulturist, he had a daffodil named after him, one of the Giant Incomparabilis type, described as “of good form and texture: a splendid flower in every way”.

When he died at Cambridge in June,1931, the newspaper “Waikato Independent” declared that there was no better-known identity in musical circles in the Dominion than the late Arthur Towsey, who spent a lifetime fostering the art”.

Arthur married Jesse Mackay in Dunedin in 1876 and they had 2 children, Mary and (Arthur) Cyril.

Cyril Towsey

Born in Dunedin in 1878, Arthur Cyril Towsey (to use his full name) he was imbued with music from an early age: he was 11 years old when he took part in the chorus of Moors, Crusaders and Saracens at the Anglican Fair and just 2 years later he and his father Arthur opened a concert in Dunedin’s City Hall which the “Otago Witness” newspaper said was “a brilliant pianoforte selection, Brahms’ duet, “Hungarian Danses”. Cyril’s career had been launched as an instrumentalist performing in public.

He travelled to London in March 1892 with the idea of studying in Germany to further his calling and, if successful, to return to England’s concert platforms. Back in Auckland in 1894 he began starring as piano soloist in concerts and it was at this time Cyril made his first, and – as far as I can tell – his last appearance in a play. He was Bassanio in “Merchant of Venice”. By 1897 Cyril was accepted as an accomplished pianist in his own right receiving favourable reviews whether playing at a club, in concert, helping a fund-raising event or at a formal ceremony.

In September 1898 Cyril moved to Wellington for further training under Maughan Barnett, a composer and himself a virtuoso on the keyboard, having studied in London. Cyril set up as a teacher of pianoforte and was eagerly sought as a piano accompanist by the capital’s musical community and ventured to regularly play the organ at several churches.

In 1900 he accompanied artists at a ‘patriotic’ recital promoted by Rev. Charles Clark at which Mrs Fanny Howie, contralto from Christchurch, was down to sing two classics. The critic from the “The New Zealand Times” wrote: “Mrs Howie roused the audience to enthusiasm by her admirable singing, remarkable for its power and its wonderful range of effective notes. Mr Cyril Towsey, at the piano, accompanied with excellent perception”.

Fanny’s reputation grew. For her and Cyril it was the first of many performances sharing the concert hall.

In 1901 Cyril Towsey visited Auckland, often performing there with his father, and then at home in Wellington his talent on the organ was increasingly recognised.

In November 1904 Cyril’s engagement to Miss Smith was announced but there’s no mention of marriage. He was, however, sought after for two important “openings” in Wellington.

He was accepted as a progressive on organ, a friend of Arthur Hobday, who manufactured instruments and gave improved voice to old ones. Hobday manufactured the organ for the Basilica in Hill Street, Wellington (now the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart and of Saint Mary) and in August 1905 Cyril Towsey played it for the opening service and concert.

Sacred Heart Basilica, Hill Street, Wellington, 1901 – New Zealand Graphic

“I have no hesitation in saying it’s the best organ in Wellington,” Cyril said, but the “New Zealand Times” newspaper had a superlative, saying “…the 3-manual instrument is not only the finest in the city – perhaps it’s the best  in the colony”. Hobday, maker, had triumphed.

Just a month later the Wellington Town Hall was officially opened, and Cyril was a soloist during the concert that followed the formal ceremony.

Wellington Town Hall, September 1905
Muir and Moodie postcard, Te Papa Collections

This began numerous concerts in the building’s Municipal Concert Hall.

Cyril travelled to provincial centres giving concerts and one of these was a “family reunion” in Wanganui when his sister, Mary Towsey, was part of the programme singing two numbers… she sang so sweetly, the newspapers said, that an encore was a natural course, “Wanganui is indeed lucky to possess such a fine singer”.

Wellington Town Hall Organ
New Zealand Graphic

In March 1906 Cyril gave his first public concert on the new organ in the Wellington Town Hall. The newspapers reported that “not just anyone is offered the opportunity to play the new 4-manual organ, but last night Cyril Towsey mastered it, despite such a short time to familiarise himself with the instrument”. It was a resounding success, closely followed, at the same venue by a “Grand Vocal Recital” to welcome home a contralto soloist who had just returned to New Zealand after years performing in British and European concert halls.

It was Mrs Fanny Howie and the mayor, himself, gave permission for the organ to be used to accompany the diva…or should that be to accompany ‘the Princess’?

She was one of the most interesting with whom Cyril rubbed professional shoulders.

We leave the story of Cyril Towsey to follow Te Rangi Pai’s life: we will return to Cyril later.

 Mrs Fanny Howie nee Porter aka Te Rangi Pai

Born Fanny Rose Porter at Tokomaru Bay in January 1868, (Te Whanau-a-Apanui/Ngati Porou), she also used the maori version of her surname, Poata. Fanny studied music with her family at home and then at school in Gisborne.

Fanny Porter (right) with her sisters Belle, Minnie, and Ada
New Zealand Ministry of Culture and Heritage

And  then she became Mrs Howie when in October 1891 she married John Howie, a public servant.

John and Fanny Howie
Nelson Provincial Museum

They settled in Nelson. Fanny’s training paid off: she was developing as a strong contralto. She continued her singing with the amateur operatic group in Nelson, notably as Katisha in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, repeated to acclaim in Christchurch.

Fanny Howie in “The Mikado” Nelson 1897
Nelson Provincial Museum

Her performance was heard by touring theatrical managers, Robert Sparrow Smythe and the Reverend Charles Clark, who suggested the promising contralto return to Australia with them for tuition, after which, in 1898, she appeared in a series of concerts in many main centres, including Perth where the concert was billed as “the youngest soprano in Australia (Miss Hetty Holyroyd) and the gifted Anglo-Maori contralto (Mrs Howie)”.

Te Rangi Pai

It was on this tour that Fanny Rose Howie chose and adopted a stage name, the maori Te Rangi Pai (the beautiful spirit or the beautiful sky), a shortened version of her mother’s name.

The experience of the successful concert tour in Australia resulted in both singers going to Europe… Hetty Holyroyd to study in Milan where she was later engaged in opera and Te Rangi Pai to take lessons in Britain. Robert Smythe had advocated Fanny travel abroad with him, but she voyaged to England in March 1901 with her husband who took leave from his position to accompany her. Once in England she immediately reached into her maori ancestry and added the title “Princess” to her stage name. She became Princess Te Rangi Pai.  This caused the “Free Lance” newspaper in New Zealand to remark, in August 1901,  “…a large portion of the inhabitants of England believe that this country is governed by a Maori monarch with a large Royal family to help him. A Maori lady in London has been created Princess by the press, and her entrance into London Society is chronicled as an event of some importance. The Princess Te Rangi Pai is her name, and she made her first appearance at the annual New Zealand dinner. Her singing of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ in the Maori tongue, literally brought the house down”.

Mrs Fanny Howie, Princess Te Rangi Pai
Nelson Provincial Museum

She furthered her studies and took to the concert stage in provincial England, starting in Liverpool. And then in April 1902 she sang in a St Patrick’s Day concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall billed as Madam Fanny Howie, the Princess Te Rangi Pai. “The Auckland Star” newspaper reported that her two songs were well received, adding “…by the way, Mrs Howie would do well to drop the Princess Te Rangi Pai title if she wishes to be considered an artist rather than a musical curiosity”.


Her first concert in the Queen’s Hall, August 1902, attracted a raft of complimentary press reviews with one correspondent summing them up – “…it was a genuine artistic triumph… …all eminent critics agreed in testifying the greatest admiration alike for the magnificent voice of the New Zealander, and for the skill and expressiveness of her singing. With the two exceptions of Ada Crossley and Clara Butt, there is no contralto at present singing who can hold a candle to Mrs Howie”. New Zealand Premier, Richard Seddon, was present at the concert to see Te Rangi Pai and other New Zealand soloists plus a contingent of Maori, coincidentally in Britain to perform at King Edward the Seventh’s coronation. The group enacted a Haka which was twice encored by the audience. There was later controversy when it was found the troupe should have returned home rather than incurring more costs delaying their departure to appear in the London concert.

Fanny Howie’s father, Colonel Thomas William Porter, a decorated soldier, also attended the concert, his presence prompting the press to write up his story of life near Gisborne, involvement in the pursuit of the rebel Te Kooti, his part in the Land Wars and his military service in South Africa commanding the New Zealand Contingent. He returned to New Zealand in September 1902: Fanny decided to stay on in England, studying and singing.

In keeping with the title “Princess”, Mrs Howie said, when challenged, that she was entitled to wear a Huia feather in her hair and the press, obliging with an exclusivity, observed that she was “one of the few adorned by the rare feather”.

The Princess and the Chieftain

In June 1903 Princess Te Rangi Pai and baritone, Bantock Pierpoint, went on a tour of provincial England with the Hinemoa Band, or New Zealand Band. Accompanying the band was tenor Edward Tuahina Rangiuia, (Ngati Porou, Te Aitanga a Hauiti) who was said to have been a music teacher in Gisborne and who had achieved some reputation as a ballad singer following his appearance at theatres and music halls in New Zealand and Australia. He was billed as “Chieftain Rangiuia” who was  “apparently noticed while performing for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall during their visits to New Zealand” and decided (or was encouraged) to travel to England to further his singing career. He was a last-minute addition to the passenger list to travel with the Hinemoa Band following an eleventh-hour invitation from his uncle, cabinet minister, James Carroll. Newspapers were critical –  “… The latest Government enterprise is to send home with the New Zealand Band, Rangiuia, an undersized Maori with a thin, piping voice. He was at Rahotu (in outback Taranaki) with a strolling concert company when he was ‘sent for’ by the Hon J. Carroll and packed off to London as a sort of side show in connection with the Band performances”.

Rangiuia (centre)
Alexander Turnbull Library

He was again billed as Chieftain Rangiuia, so the New Zealand touring show he joined now had both a Maori Princess and a Maori Chieftain, the first time the two shared the concert stage. The company set out on a tour, performing for charity, the highlight of which was a command performance before the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Chieftain must have been upset when his native costume did not turn up in the baggage in London and he had to perform in a borrowed Korowai, feather cloak. Perhaps the impressive publicity he was given made up for it: “…the first Maori singer to perform in England”.

The concert tour took in many parts of England and Wales. Cardiff’s ‘Western Daily Mail’ newspaper published new genealogical details revealing that Princess Te Rangi Pai was a direct descendant of the celebrated Maori maiden Hinemoa, from whom the touring band was named, and that “during her performances the contralto wears the exact greenstone charm worn by Hinemoa herself, handed-down”.

While the tour was an artistic success it was a financial disaster. Poor management, inconsistent advertising, and bad vibes among the bandsmen let down the visitors and most returned to New Zealand out of pocket. It was noted that Mrs Howie and Mr Pierpoint were the only ones to receive regular payment, but she told newspapers that she, too had suffered financially: several engagements had been cancelled because agents did not book loss-making artistes.

Rangiuia stayed on after the disastrous tour and, writing home to the local Poverty Bay newspaper, November 1903, he advised that he was studying “under Carter at the Royal Albert Hall,” and asked his readers to  “… remember that there are plenty in London who came expecting to make great hits, and have not so far succeeded. The competition is very keen, and one has to keep the ‘nose close to the helm’”. (The Carter referred to was Hilton Carter, manager and secretary of the Royal Albert Hall in the early 1900s).

Rangiuia, thus, probably didn’t mind extra publicity when he was noticed in the American “Journal Examiner” despite the article’s absurdity, even the more so in New Zealand where his parentage and antecedents were well known. The question is where did the writer source the ridiculous material? Maybe from Rangiuia?

“The New Zealand Times”, September 1904, reprinted the article from the “Journal Examiner”. “Its illustrated sketch of the wandering Maori’s life depicts a person decked out like a Solomon Islander, surrounded by fashionably-dressed females. This individual is said to be Rangiuia, a bare-foot cannibal, who is the newest pet of London society. Another picture represents the “father of the young prince, who has been won away from his cannibal habits”.

Tawhiao, second Maori King
Te Papa Collections

“The New Zealand Times” went on – “The picture of the “father” is really a print of Tawhiao, the grave-visaged old Maori king, who died not long ago. The letterpress accompanying the ridiculous picture is grotesquely amusing. It pretends to set forth Rangiuia’s career, but every line is perjury. It is stated that Rangiuia’s mother is a maiden of the gods, and a Maori Queen, and his father a “mighty power” in the land of crocodiles and coconuts!”

Another representation of Rangiuia – “London’s newest pet”: T. S. Donne’s scrapbook cutting
Alexander Turnbull Library

The “Journal” outrageously continued – “Only a prince of the Royal house of Rangiuia can wear the sacred feather cloak he possesses, attired in which he looks with melting eyes on the great lords and ladies in drawing-rooms”. New Zealand newspapers repeated the ‘Journal’s’ amusing statement concerning the ‘discovery’ of Rangiuia, the tenor, by the Princess of Wales at Rotorua, and the manner in which he studied at Napier under the great Professor Winkleman”. “Truly”, the newspaper concluded, “Rangiuia is getting on since he left Gisborne and Auckland, oh… and this ‘story of his life’ mentions, by the way, that he is an M.A. of “Wellington University””.

Hyperbole in stories about show-business people knew no bounds! The London publication, ‘Sketch’ also obtained fanciful “facts” about Rangiuia. “He is a chief of chiefs, with authority over nearly 10,000 natives,” along with other strange romancing that has no foundation at all in fact.

In 1909 he was being described by London’s “Sphere” periodical as “the Maori Caruso”.

A New Version of Music Hall

In 1911 Rangiuia seemed to be behind a plan for a Maori Music Hall troupe in London. He had assisted a group of 40 Arawa Maori, while it was on a concert tour of England. It included well-known Whakarewrewa Guide, Mākereti (or Maggie) Papakura (Margaret Pattison Thom). Financially, the tour had been a loss. When it came time for the party to return home about 20 members, supported by Rangiuia, decided to stay on in London: they had plans to continue performing in music hall, remaining against stern advice from the High Commissioner and Maggie Papakura. Then there was some consternation in New Zealand when the party returned, minus the 20 who stayed-on in London and another who had died on-tour. Maggie Papakura was left to explain the situation. It appears the music hall venture did not succeed: the only advertisements show the group playing Putney. Maggie, however, did prosper.

Mākereti (Maggie) Papakura
Auckland Libraries Collection

While in England on tour she was engaged to be married to a well-to-do Englishman whom she met when he visited Rotorua. Maggie went back to England in June 1912 to marry him, Richard Charles Staples-Brown, settling near Oxford where she continued work, promoting Maori and studying Maori anthropology at Oxford University. She died in April 1930. Her thesis, published years after her death, uniquely explores the life and customs of the Arawa people from a woman’s viewpoint, debunking much detail which had previously been written by men.

Edward Tuahina Rangiuia died in London on October 18th, 1918, survived by a wife, a son and a daughter. Among his enduring credits are several compositions and adaptations in te reo.

Princess Te Rangi Pai  and Oratorios

Meanwhile the diva changed tack slightly in her studies, training as an oratorio soloist and then appearing in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s  “The Mikado” as Katisha, a role she had played with great success back in New Zealand.  Then, in October 1904, she led the bill in a concert which almost exclusively featured New Zealanders. There were good reviews but one columnist of the New Zealand ‘Free Lance’ called out Mrs Howie. “She still continues to pose before the British public in the absurd role of the Princess Te Rangi Pai of New Zealand.  A cutting from the Court Journal tells of ‘a delightful concert’ given at Steinway Hall by the pseudo princess and other artistes from New Zealand. I expected to find the name of that other bogus scion of Maori royalty, “ Prince ” Rangiuia among them, but it was not there. The Court Journal says: “The Princess is an exceptionally gifted musician and poet, who should be heard in a larger hall by all lovers of music. Her Maori songs are quite beautiful, especially the lullaby, ‘Moemoe Ra e Hine,’ which she composed… and she sings with much charm in Maori, English and German”.

‘Hine E Hine’ –  by Princess Te Rangi Pai

Te Rangi Pai composed this gentle lullaby with original lyrics in te reo in 1904 while she was in England, the song becoming popular after she performed it during the concert in the Steinway Hall in October that year and then published the following year by Beal, Stuttard and Company of London. ‘Hine e Hine’ (as ‘Moemoe Ra e Hine’ became) was said to reflect and console the diva’s loss when her mother died and her suffering homesickness.

The gently-sung lullaby was included in practically all her concerts and its constant request in encores encouraged her to add other maori  songs to her repertoire.

There have been many versions of ‘Hine e Hine’ over the decades, some sung by leading vocalists, others performed by instrumentalists.

The tune arguable became the best-known Maori song in New Zealand when, some 70 years after it was written, TV2-South Pacific Television adopted it in 1975 as the channel’s theme to end each night’s transmission. The music accompanied cartoon characters, a cat and a kiwi, preparing to retire for the night and then switching off the transmitter and going to bed in the satellite dish.

The cat and the kiwi: lulled asleep by ‘Hine e Hine’.

False Alarm

In late 1905 Mrs Howie had been in touch with New Zealand Government officials seeking cooperation for a Maori operetta she wanted to stage in London. She said she was shortly expecting to be asked to perform before the King and a musical sketch with a Maori storyline would be very acceptable. She was asking for 10 maori men to be sent to England for the production’s haka. In May 1906 it was reported in New Zealand newspapers that the performers, to be absent for upwards of a year, had been recruited and were booked for passage on the liner ‘Turakina’. The New Zealand Government, it was reported,  was defraying their expenses.

This was a brave and ambitious venture by Te Rangi Pai: she was yet to receive the Royal Invitation and the financial ruin of the ill-fated tour by the Hinemoa Band must have been fresh in her memory. The ‘Free Lance’ columnist revealed some time later that an excited group of Maori boys left Poverty Bay, got as far as Wellington only to be intercepted by “common sense Cabinet Minister James Carroll” who advised there was no funding, no passage to England booked and no maori operetta. He sent the disappointed men home.

Mrs Howie, feeling recent family bereavements and her own ill-health, interrupted her studies and concert schedule to return to New Zealand for a brief visit in October 1905.  And while home she could, in person, ask the Government to help her create and manage “the entertainment audiences at Home are just yearning for – the Maori operetta”.

Fanny and Cyril Once Again

While home the diva consented to performances in several centres, including Wellington. It would be a reunion with accompanist Cyril Towsey. In 1900, it will be recalled, they had performed together in the capital’s Exchange Hall when the contralto first came to notice, introduced to the audience as Mrs Fanny Howie. Now, in 1906 the ‘world-renowned’ singer, ‘returned from acclamation in the concert halls of Europe’ needed no introduction, billed as Te Rangi Pai. The publicity for her homecoming included all the detail of her career to date: her appearances in Royal Albert Hall, Queen’s Hall, St. James’s Hall, and Crystal Palace, London. They all got a mention in the advertising: notable, then, that she dropped the title ‘Princess’ for her New Zealand tour. Had the ‘Free Lance’ newspaper assisted this move when it chided that “…calling herself Princess Te Rangi Pai is all very well on the other side of the globe, but only raises mirth here in the colony”?

Programme for her Wellington concert: “Princess” had been dropped.
James MacMahon

But Te Rangi Pai had the last word while on the concert platform in Wellington’s Town Hall. “The New Zealand Times” declared “…her voice is something to marvel at. Her compass is, perhaps, not so great as that of some contraltos who have been heard in Wellington, but her intonation is pure, her enunciation distinct, and her expression and phrasing artistic to a degree that no other artist we remember can claim superiority over, and few – very few – equality with”.

The critic did not ignore Cyril Towsey. “The piano accompaniments were played with musician-like skill and expression. There are some pianists who deem it sufficient to play the notes placed before them. This gentleman evidently regards the accompaniment as an integral portion of the composition submitted, which it is, and the instrument under his hands fills its proper place. It is not too subservient nor yet too obtrusive”. The new Town Hall organ was exercised by Mr Towsey accompanying Te Rangi Pai when she sang ‘The Lost Chord’.

The concert was repeated, with variations, in other centres.  In Christchurch, where she had earlier graced the stage before embarking overseas, ‘The Star’ newspaper gave a glowing notice – “Te Rangi Pai revealed the excellences of her art… and the maintenance of the pinnacle she has attained was to be an easy task”. The other city where she had  performed earlier, Dunedin, also gave her a warm welcome. The “Otago Daily Times”  said, “lovers of music will hear one of the finest singers that have visited Dunedin. She has something quite exceptional in the way of voice, and she knows how to manage and use it with telling effect”. In her home province so many fans wanted to hear her in Gisborne’s His Majesty’s Theatre that an extra concert was hastily scheduled.

In Auckland it was a well-received recital in the Choral Hall… and a revealing interview with a reporter from The New Zealand Herald. Te Rangi Pai confirmed she was not staying in New Zealand. “It’s great to be in the Motherland but the travel bug has bitten, and I plan a long trip back to England so I can perform in many different countries”. She reaffirmed that she was preparing musical arrangements which would be included in a programme of Maori items that she had planned to stage in England “…all London will flock to see the show!”

Te Rangi Pai
Tauranga City Library Collection

The concert tour morphed into a series of farewell performances in many North Island towns. In Wellington she was once again accompanied by Cyril Towsey at the organ for what was billed her “farewell performance before travelling abroad”.

In June the diva had reached Sydney to begin the first of her many concert tours en route to England. But this was cut short by an illness requiring immediate medical treatment with a recommendation to return to New Zealand – so she travelled to Greymouth to join her husband. She obliged her many friends with a concert of sacred works in the town in August, she found her health again and proceeded on yet another concert tour of many centres. By February 1907 the performances were once again being called  “a farewell song recital”: she intended resuming her grand concert tour on her way to London.

Te Rangi Pai appeared before a packed house at Gisborne’s His Majesty’s Theatre on June 20th 1907. Shortly after this appearance it was reported she was convalescing after further illness and “it is doubtful she will ever appear on the concert platform again.”  But the diva proved this account wrong and gave further concerts in provincial centres in Poverty Bay. Other reports that she had retired were countered in the Press by notices of further singing engagements. In September 1909 it was reported that Te Rangi Pai was “contemplating an extensive tour of the Dominion”.  Meantime she performed locally, such as the concert in Opotiki in February 1910  to help raise funds for telephones in the district.

It is her last reported performance. Her health deteriorated, likely exacerbated when she led legal action on behalf of the family to contest her father’s transactions involving ancestral lands.

Mrs Fanny Rose Howie, Te Rangi Pai, nee Porter (Poata) died in Opotiki  on 20th May 1916 aged 48. Her grave is at Maungaroa near Te Kaha.

We resume Cyril Towsey’s story.

Mr Cyril Towsey  

He saw in the early years of the 1900s with a series of appearances … his own recitals or accompanying singers on either the piano or organ… and it’s plain (as one columnist put it ‘…he of the shapely mop…” became the ‘go-to’ musician, the accompanist, for these concerts”.

The newspaper “Truth” also remarked on Cyril Towsey’s luxuriant curly hair

In June 1906, not long after Te Rangi Pai’s welcome-home concert, a concert he gave in Wellington was noted as “…being his last before he proceeds overseas to complete his training”.

“The Free Lance” acknowledged Towsey had been a late starter after long academic studies, but “…at length he took the bit between his teeth and the result was a recital given in the Town Hall in conjunction with soprano Amy Murphy. It was a great success and since that time Cyril has never looked back, and only recently he astonished his most enthusiastic admirers by the mastery he so quickly gained over the new Town Hall organ”.

In August Wellington musicians and supporters staged a farewell benefit concert for Cyril. Notably his father, Arthur, conducted the orchestra and in Beethoven’s Concerto in C it was observed that Cyril, on piano, closed his music book, playing from memory to concentrate, to give his best possible interpretation. He succeeded. “The Free Lance” critic wrote “The pianist, feeling that something extra was expected of him, gave a remarkably fine rendering of a difficult piece”.

Cyril Towsey sailed for England mid-August 1906, his departure marked by a large crowd of musicians and fans on the Wellington wharf to see the liner leave. These were the folk who all contributed one way or another towards his successful farewell concert: he benefited by more than £100.

Once in England his first letters home advised that he had been taken seriously ill with an abscess and was in hospital. Then in 1908 word circulated that he had died, only to be corrected by a friend of Cyril’s in London who wrote that the patient had been discharged from hospital in March, much improved.

Cyril went on to accompany many named soloists in tours of England – “the provinces, I hate them, give me London!” he wrote home.

In August 1908 his engagement was announced in London to Mary Cooper whose stage name was Marie O’Connor. Also known as Mamie Cooper, she was a mezzo-soprano from New Zealand studying in England.

About this time Cyril toured with diva Nellie Melba’s company, with violinists Haidee Voorzanger and Joska Szigeti and then he was accompanist for Clara Butt in her London recital. “The Observer” newspaper reported “Cyril Towsey, son of Arthur of that ilk, whose beauteous mop of hair was at one time the envy of Ponsonby maidens, is keeping up the family traditions in the musical world, showing that colonially trained musical talent can hold its own among European artists”. In late 1909 Cyril toured in the company featuring Alice Verlet, the grand diva of the Paris Opera Company.

Alice Verlet
Rotary Photographic Company

From a wintry London his thoughts were turning to home with a return trip to New Zealand, and then news of a “farewell concert” in London’s Bechstein Hall for Mary Cooper, accompanied by Cyril on piano.

Bechstein Hall which became Wigmore Hall… and endures

Did Miss Cooper’s “farewell” also mean her fiancé, Cyril, was also on the move? Yes. From the concert platform she announced that she had been in England for 3 years studying under Mademoiselle Tremelli and Mr Gregory Hast and it was time to take a break.

Mademoiselle Tremelli
Bridgeman Images

It was with the greatest regret that she would be leaving London in April 1910 with Cyril Towsey to make an extensive concert tour of the Dominions. Cyril later added that after the concert tours he hoped to settle in New Zealand.

Miss Mary Cooper… returning to New Zealand
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

The couple travelled on the separate ships and within weeks of their arrival they began a concert tour in Auckland announcing that they would settle in that city, both making, and teaching music.

Cyril Towsey on his return to New Zealand
Auckland Libraries Collection

Cyril, in an interview with “The Auckland Star” on his return said he had brushed shoulders with the best…playing accompaniments for solo work for the classical impresarios Alfred Schulz-Curtius and Lionel Powell, he came in touch with Nellie Melba, the contralto Edna Thornton, the French mezzo-soprano Blanche Marchesi, the Russian pianist Mark Hambourg, violinist Jan Kubelik, pianists Ferruccio Busoni and Vladimir von Pachmann (all internationally-known stars of the time)… and travelled all over the British Isles

Hamilton Years

Cyril went to live in Hamilton where, on Wednesday 9 August 1911, he married Mary Cooper at St Mary’s Church. Within 2 weeks she was using her new  stage name, Mrs Cyril Towsey, at a performance with the Hamilton Orchestra conducted by new husband Cyril. They set up a teaching studio in their home and advertised for students, recruiting from as far away as Cambridge – apt, because that’s where Cyril’s father, Arthur, had coached so many pupils and involved himself in local concerts and shows, many for charity.

On January 13th, 1913, Cyril and Mary’s first son, to be named Arthur Charles, was born in Hamilton.

The Towsey names were prominent in many musical events in Waikato: one such in August 1913 received rave reviews. “The Waikato Argus” – “Rarely has a concert of such merit been given in Hamilton as that of last evening, when those three artists, Mrs Cyril Towsey, and Messrs Cyril Towsey and Barry Coney put on a programme which, for artistry and execution has never been excelled in the town”.

At a Te Awamutu Concert in April 1914 Mrs Towsey was billed as “a dramatic soprano”, in Hamilton she was recognised as “the gifted singing instructress” while Cyril’s leadership was praised by  “The Waikato Times” when it said, “The Hamilton Orchestral Society proved itself capable of giving a distinctly high-class performance. Mr Towsey undeniably is an excellent conductor, and to his handling of the baton much of the success undoubtedly is due.”

In 1914 Mrs Towsey was well known enough to personally endorse a preparation to relieve sore throats:

“Sun” newspaper, Christchurch August 1914

During war-time the Towseys appeared in many patriotic and fundraising concerts: for the Red Cross, for the Soldiers Fund, and hospital services among others. For years Cyril had been organist at St Peters Anglican Church in Hamilton but in July 1916 he switched to Hamilton East’s Catholic Church and then in 1918 he was appointed choirmaster at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland and was named permanent honorary accompanist to the (Auckland) Bohemian Orchestra.

The Family Moves North

On the second of May, the Towsey’s second  son, Cyril Patrick, was born in Auckland just a week or two before there was a grand recital in Hamilton to farewell the couple.

Once settled In Auckland Cyril immediately took up his duties at St Patrick’s Cathedral and engaged with the local music scene, accompanying many artists and conducting various orchestras and choirs. Mrs Towsey was back on the concert platform again in August, singing in a patriotic, war-time, recital in aid of the Red Cross and St John Ambulance. Usually accompanied by Cyril, she starred in many concerts, “evenings” and ceremonies over the years. The two held music lessons in a studio in their City Road home.

In 1919 it was a full house at the Auckland Town Hall for a concert by the Bohemian Orchestra led by Cyril. Soloist on the flute, George Poore, was noticed by the critics making public the name of the Poore family: two generations (Frank, Bonnie, Queenie and then Richard) were to follow George on the stage in Auckland and further afield. Cyril became promoter of concerts… he and Mrs Towsey took part, billed as “Auckland’s most popular performers” along with other notables.

In 1921 Mrs Towsey combined with vocalist Frank Wilson to cash in on the popularity of the Savoy Operas, starting a Gilbert and Sullivan School which they said “…would provide a unique opportunity for those interested, with Mr Wilson the only Savoyard in New Zealand who had studied abroad, including at the Paris Conservatoire”. Mrs Towsey continued in many solo and choir events – in 1921 she was billed as “ Auckland’s Premier Operatic Soprano” while the “Northern Advocate” went one better in a preview of her Whangarei concert “she ranks as the prima donna of New Zealand”.    “The Waikato Times” joined many other critics in praise when it wrote that Cyril “…is that rara avis, a perfect accompanist”.

On the Radio

It was thus a natural step from the concert platform to the new, developing, form of entertainment  – the radio. Station 1YA, the first licensed broadcaster in New Zealand, began transmissions in Auckland on 13th April 1923. Once technical troubles were fixed, management organised further live broadcasts and this is when Mr and Mrs Cyril Towsey took to the airwaves. In August 1923 they presented “A Mr and Mrs Towsey Evening” performed live in the studio in Scots Hall, Symonds Street. Cyril went on to organise a variety of concerts on the radio: these received critical acclaim.

It seems to have been but a brief skirmish with radio: by New Year 1924 Mrs Towsey has resumed teaching music, as well as fulfilling engagements and Cyril is fully-booked as accompanist, conductor, choir leader or adjudicator at competitions.

In 1927 he was accompanist for the famous vocalist Frances Alda during her tour of the main New Zealand centres. Welcomed home as Christchurch-born, the promising soprano had gone to France where she studied under Melba’s tutor, made her debut in Paris in 1904, and then rapidly graduated to the international concert stage, notably singing with Caruso.

Frances Alda, Souvenir Programme 1927
Alexander Turnbull Library

In 1926 she was prima donna at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York… altogether engaged for 18 seasons. Cyril’s “expert accompaniment” on her New Zealand tour was acknowledged by the critics.

 1YA again

It was the Towseys’ first appearance on 1YA radio station in 1923 that drew my attention to the duo and sparked research. They continued to be heard on radio sometime later: in 1928 “Madame Mary Towsey’s Quartet”  and Mary as a soloist was being heard on 1YA again, by now a much more powerful station broadcasting from a roof-top studio on George Court’s building at the Mercury Lane (as it is now) corner with Karangahape Road.

1YA’s mast towers above George Court’s Building
Auckland Libraries Special Collection

There was a unique set-up in 1929 when 1YA temporarily moved to the Auckland Town Hall, transmitting from a studio there for The Exhibition. The Towseys were among those featured in the evening programmes on these special broadcasts and following this venture Cyril was on hand (whenever not otherwise engaged) to play as regular soloist, or as accompanist, on 1YA. He thus became even better known to the public at large: radios became very popular in households during these years and those who were frequently heard on the airwaves became a new kind of “personality”.

On the evening of 17th March 1932 Cyril took a break between orchestral items and apparently left the studio for a breath of fresh air. He was unexpectedly seen a short time later by his son, Arthur, in  Quay Street, along the waterfront – quite some distance from 1YA’s Karangahape Road studio. Cyril, who appeared in good spirits, advised Arthur to go to the Town Hall to collect his mother who was scheduled to finish her performance there. Another man who knew Cyril by sight also spotted him near the ferry wharf and had a brief word before the two parted.

They were the last to see him. Cyril (Arthur Cyril Towsey), aged 53, did not return home that night. Despite one or two subsequent reports that he had been recognised in the city, there was no definite evidence of his whereabouts. He was never seen again despite an intense search by police and helpers. There was a thought that he may have fallen into the harbour. There were also rumours that he had eloped with a woman on a visiting luxury yacht, but this was later discounted when the vessel was intercepted and he was not found on board. Yet another theory for his disappearance was that he found his illness from cancer too irksome, so he chose to end his life. Police surmised that if Cyril did, in fact, end up in the harbour that night, the current of the out-going tide would quickly take his body into the Hauraki Gulf and possibly out to sea.

Madame Mary Towsey or Madame M. Towsey, names she used in widowhood, continued her teaching and stage career and was appointed conductor of St. Benedict’s Choir. She died in Auckland in April 1949 aged 67.

Arthur Charles Towsey 1913 – 1985 – Cyril and Mary’s Son

After schooling in Auckland and several occupations in the motor and film trades, some in Australia, Arthur enrolled for active service in the Second World War serving with the 21st Battalion, first in Egypt and then in Greece.

He was medically evacuated to New Zealand but after convalescing decided not to stay and took passage to England working on a freighter. In London, he took a post with British Council, an organisation which operated under Royal charter, established to achieve closer cultural relations between the United Kingdom and other countries, especially the exchange of individuals engaged in various types of art, as well as the exchange of music, literature copyrights of plays and information as to developments in science and medicine. The 33-year-old Arthur Towsey, as the Council’s Pacific Regional Officer, toured the antipodes in 1944, notably arriving in Sydney in “a flying boat”. Arthur had graduated, travelling above the waves! Post-war he changed jobs… to the executive of the pharmaceutical company Beecham and went to Australia to manage the company’s affairs there. He also added Van to his name about this time. In 1947 he married soprano Peggy Knibb. The newly-weds were described in newspapers as being on an extended honeymoon rather than a concert tour! They settled in Australia where Arthur took over, created or revolutionised several businesses, notably combining his long-time love of boats and yachting with a position with Chrysler, setting up their marine products branches. He remarried and returned to Auckland where he died on 12th February 1985.

Cyril Patrick Towsey (Pat Towsey) 1918 – 1989 – Cyril and Mary’s Son

Pat showed inclination to, and appreciation of, music at an early age and took lessons, achieving top places in competitions and in 1934 he topped North Island candidates in the Royal School of Music (London)’s examinations playing piano: his mother was his tutor. He had obviously inherited the family’s love of music.

A probable music career was interrupted by the Second World War. Pat was posted to England, to Bomber Command in the RAF, rising to Squadron Leader and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and twice Mentioned in Dispatches. He was also mentioned in the press… for various tricky or brave assignments over enemy territory, including sorties when he was based in Egypt. After his return to New Zealand in 1944 Pat was the third generation to teach piano, he played in many concerts (generously participating in charity recitals) and was the second generation to play piano on station 1YA. He married Josephine Reid in February 1947.


During research about the Towseys, Fanny Howie, Rangiuia and others, I was surprised by the number of talented singers and musicians who travelled from New Zealand around the beginning of the 20th Century in the hope of furthering their careers in England or on the Continent.

I guess some were sent by hopeful New Zealand parents, others had been recognised as top performers by their teachers, a few were “noticed” by touring “stars” who had already made it, while a small number were “discovered” by agents or managers of travelling companies.

Destination London was a long and courageous journey in more ways than one in those days. It was a lengthy voyage by sea and for most, once arrived, there was no certainty of lodgings, remuneration or even an introduction to helpful connections such as ‘named’ tutors, the aristocracy, or owners of opera companies. Some New Zealand hopefuls had made arrangements with tutors before they left home, their names often quoted in local newspapers. Fanny Howie had been encouraged when she was just 14 by the English diva, Madame Janet Patey while on a concert tour in New Zealand, so Fanny could expect introductions to tutors on her arrival in London.

Madame Patey, contralto, toured New Zealand in 1891

She was fortunate to train under such teachers as Charles Santly, William Carter, and Dr Churchill Sibley: men of the very highest rank in voice cultivation. In fact, she spent some 5 years studying under these tutors and emerged a much-improved vocalist, ready for practically any concert hall. We also saw Auckland soprano Mary Cooper (Cyril Towsey’s wife) thrive in London, fortunate to have the right connections. Her sister had married into a well-to-do, well-known, London family. Mary’s superb voice must have eased introductions.

Others, many others, no – most others – weren’t so lucky. They did not have the right connections despite apparent good references. Tenor, Edward Tuahina (Prince) Rangiuia, claimed he was ‘discovered’ by Royalty who heard him sing in New Zealand and suggested he should progress with training in London. His was a limited tenure on the bigger stage when he reached London… and he said so in a letter home saying how hard it was with the competition he faced.

It was often said, and quoted in the Press, that in England students would be training under a named tutor. What did that mean? Did they pay for formal tuition?

Not always. In some cases the student would attend lessons and after a while the tutor would select  the pupil for a production or a recital and the resulting payment for participating, in-part or in-total, would flow back to the teacher.

An alternative was for the tutor to arrange for students with promise to appear in a concert at either London’s Steinway Hall or Bechstein (later Wigmore) Hall.

Wigmore Hall today

These were favourite venues to put forward, or “audition”, up-and-coming performers. Newspaper critics would be invited, and it would be left to them to sort out those performers who were worthy of a good notice… and progress, or not. For an outstanding pupil there was the occasional scholarship.

Wybert Reeve, 1831-1906

Wybert Reeve the actor, playwright and promoter, perceived changes in 1904 when he wrote, “A new phase has been created in recent years… considering the class of young people coming on to the stage, instead of being paid, the novices have to pay a premium, and for a stated time give their services to learn their profession as an apprenticeship. In music they have to pay, but in a less satisfactory way. Agents pocket the money, and there is no profitable result to the young singer or musician. The agent knows very well there cannot be. Scores of victims give their concerts and recitals at the Bechstein and Steinway Hall and are never heard of again. It is cruel work”.

And Cyril Towsey, just before he left for home in 1910 having spent 4 years in England, also had some advice for budding musicians. “When I first came to London it was the regular custom for artists on tour to be paid fixed fees. Now a concert party usually tours on sharing terms. It is a sign of the times. It cannot be impressed too strongly on young colonial musicians that it is folly to come to London in the belief that they have only to display their talents to find London at their feet. They must not take too seriously the flattering comments on their abilities made by famous artists who visit New Zealand. Let them remember also that London is the easiest place in the world to starve in. But warnings seem to be useless. Still they come! I suppose they will only learn by bitter experience”.

Ngaire (Nyree) Dawn Porter (1936 – 2001)

Actress and TV star Nyree Dawn Porter’s great aunt was Fanny Howie (Te Rangi Pai).

Nyree Dawn Porter –

Nyree followed in her great aunt’s footsteps to London where she took part in many dramatic and TV productions, notably the BBC television series “The Forsyte Saga” in the mid-1960s. Nyree’s middle name may have been suggested by her great aunt’s stage name, Te Rangi Pai, meaning beautiful sky, beautiful spirit.


Dedicated to the Towseys and to all New Zealanders who, over the decades, have travelled to London to study music.



Papers Past – National Library of New Zealand

Trove – National Library of Australia

National Library of New Zealand

Auckland Museum

Website, Royal Albert Hall

Website, Wigmore Hall


Website – Wikipedia


© R. C. Carlyon December 2021



Asher Asher was a businessman in early Auckland who led the town’s first volunteer fire brigade. But there’s a challenge to this fact in the writings of another pioneer, William Daldy. But based on evidence, its safe to say that Asher Asher was indeed the first fire chief in Auckland with the title Superintendent.

Asher Asher was from London, arriving in Auckland with his parents in 1842 when he was aged 20.

Asher Asher. Tauranga City Libraries

William Crush Daldy, from Essex in England, was a ship’s captain who settled in Auckland in 1846 aged 30.

William Crush Daldy c 1910

There are two instances when William Crush Daldy claimed he was the first to lead Auckland’s Volunteer Fire Brigade. The first was his own writing in what is described as his diary but which were his recollections written when he was aged 83.1 The supposition that he was Auckland’s first fire chief is further carried in a book about Daldy’s life published in 1993. 2

In short, Daldy claims that about 1848-49 the first volunteer brigade was formed and that he was elected Captain. He says he had help from Asher Asher and others. 3.

Daldy also reckons he had firefighting equipment including an engine, ladders, buckets and says all the town’s water wells were marked. 4.

Daldy recalls two specific fires in his diary, one in the new National Bank Building, the other in Coombes’ block. 5.

Some townspeople credited Daldy with forming a fire brigade following a public meeting held in September 1849 because of what they called ‘the present emergency’?” 6

“The Present Emergency…”

But the concern about fire in the closely-settled wooden buildings of burgeoning Auckland was just one of the topics discussed.  More importantly, settlers discussed other matters that night and in the end didn’t bother themselves about fighting fires. Those gathered wanted just one thing – to get rid of the Governor, George Grey.

Governor, Sir George Grey – not universally liked
In oils, painted by Daniel Mundy, circa 1860

The accusing townsfolk were tired of his ‘despotic rule’, which they said was delaying all development in the Colony because he stopped land sales, delayed public works and passed restrictive laws.  They said the over-zealous Grey was dissuading further settlers and demoralising those already here. He had to go. 7.

Various matters along with the dissolution of the Provincial Council, comprised ‘the present emergency’. And they were not solely Auckland’s lack of fire protection. Daldy would have had no authority, nor motivation, to immediately go out and set up a fire brigade at that time.

Military had the Monopoly

There is no evidence that there was an organised fire brigade in Auckland in 1848 or 1849. The military had the sole “fire engine” in town. It was a hand-pump, a cart, dragged to fires by the garrison’s soldiers. They drew water from the sea or from wells and pumped it through leather hoses, directing it on to the flames. The soldiers responded, for example, to the major fire that destroyed Government House in June, 1848. 8.

Government House before the fire.Edward Ashworth, water colour c 1842 – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 5-1376A

It’s recorded that the Governor, himself, thanked everyone who assisted on the night of the fire: the volunteer fire brigade isn’t mentioned: there wasn’t one.  William Daldy is not reported in attendance, and he surely would have been mentioned if he was Captain of the fire brigade, present, and fighting the blaze. 9.

The newspaper of the day confirms that Auckland had only one fire engine – and it belonged to the military. 10

The City Fathers Take Action

Further evidence of this was a resolution passed at a meeting of the Municipal Corporation in early 1852 calling for the purchase a fire engine and equipment from Merryweather in London and that ‘a competent fire brigade be organised’. There was also realisation that a water supply for fire-fighting, in all seasons, was going to be essential. 11

This was before a water supply for the downtown area was piped from the Domain duck pond.

Once again, the military engine was the only equipment available late 1853 to tackle a blaze in the Black Bull Inn in Albert Street. The crew of the navy ship “Pandora” came ashore to assist and their combined efforts prevented the fire spreading. There’s no mention of a volunteer fire brigade.12

The City Council followed up with a By-law in August 1854 which did two things. The Council would collect an annual levy on every building in the town.  (In effect the introduction of annual rates collected by local bodies). The second objective was to provide fire protection: the By-law declared there would be a “City Fire Brigade” funded by the rates collected by the Council.

Then again, in December 1854, the military were at the much more serious outbreak of fire in Fort Street in December 1854.13

Reviewing the damage done by that blaze the “Daily Southern Cross” advocated the formation of a fire brigade. 14 The newspaper would not have said this had Daldy’s brigade already existed.

A Reminder from Abroad

Moves towards a fire brigade stemmed from concern by local businessmen in December, 1853, when attention was drawn to further fires in San Francisco, an earlier major blaze having all but destroyed the city.

Artist’s impression of one of the San Francisco fires

Auckland businessmen said it would be foolish to rely on the military while waiting for the government or council to provide proper fire protection. Auckland newspapers reported that San Francisco had learned the lesson about fire protection, establishing no fewer than 14 Fire Companies with 840 men at the ready.  This prompted Auckland townsfolk to form several sub-committees to collect subscriptions from citizens. They said Auckland, with its mainly wooden buildings – as had been the case in San  Francisco – needed fire protection and the money gathered would go towards purchase of ‘fire engines etc’ 15

This fire brigade equipment – the first investment by the community for such – showed that in 1853 there was no fire brigade in Auckland: the military had the sole fire engine. Thus Daldy could not have led a Brigade with a fire engine 4 or 5 years earlier, in 1848-1849, as he claimed.

Enter Asher Asher

About the same time, late 1853, local businessman Asher Asher began to get interested in fire protection and he imported a quantity of portable fire escapes, ladders and fire buckets, and advertised them for sale in local newspapers from May 1854. He had a shop in Shortland Street. 16

Advertisement in Daily Southern Cross newspaper, May 16 1854

He presented a set of these escape ladders to the City Council in October 1854 which was gratefully received, stored in a lock-up in Market House ready for any emergency. 17

They were stored in the Market House, near the waterfront, because there was no fire station. It’s recorded that the Commissioner of Police was trusted with the key. Had there been a fire brigade then surely its officer- in-charge would have held a key enabling him to access it when required.

Foot of Queen Street 1850s, Market House is left foreground
Auckland Weekly News – ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19400124-40-2

Some townsfolk had short memories about the devastation fire had already caused in the colony and there remained some antipathy about fire protection, especially when they were called on to pay the fire levy. Some refused to pay the small rate the council levied to fund the fire brigade once formed, to build a fire station and to equip it. 18

New Fire Engines

Real progress towards a fire brigade took place In February 1855 when the 2 new Merryweather fire engines which had been funded by townsfolk arrived, ready for service. 19.  And it was always known that the Provincial Government was also buying one, with the understanding that all three engines would combine for fire-fighting. The militia’s engine could also be counted-on in times of need.

Within a month a meeting was called, mid-March 1855, to organise the new fire brigades. While William Daldy was appointed to a committee to oversee funds and administration, it was Asher Asher, along with others, who were tasked with forming the two new brigades to deploy the Merryweather fire engines. 20

Auckland’s Merryweather would have been similar to this.

The claim that these men comprised Auckland’s first fire brigades is backed up in the newspaper of the time with a write-up welcoming their formation as a great improvement for the city. 21

Recruiting began and within a week or so – in March 1855 – all those men interested in joining an engine company gathered. They enrolled on the spot and within days they were practising in Queen Street. 22

And the new firefighters didn’t have long to wait before they were called out to a fire. On 24th March they responded to Chancery Street but the blaze had been extinguished by neighbours and the next day they turned out to a fire in Shortland Street, also subdued without the need for their services. But the Daily Southern Cross praised them for their rapid deployment to both calls.23

The newspaper further welcomed the formation of these brigades. 24.  More recruits were sought in April 1855. 25

Combining Resources to Fight Fire

By May 1855 the combined Engine Companies  were regarded as one fire brigade, acknowledged when it was being proposed that the engine imported by the Provincial Council be handed over to ‘the brigade’.26

So Asher Asher did not follow Daldy as Superintendent of the Brigade as Daldy infers in his recollections. And the date, October 1854, which he recalls was when Asher took over as Superintendent is wrong. 27

There was some pressure on Asher, having helped establish these brigades in 1855, to combine them as one stand-alone brigade. Before going ahead it was essential to have sufficient firefighters and Asher could see a problem with this. By March 1857 there were real fears that those members of the Engine Companies who were also soldiers may no longer be available because, more and more, they were being deployed at the front, defending the threat from Maori dissidents in South Auckland. The fire brigades relied on the soldiers’ help, so Asher took two actions. He advertised a meeting to reorganise the brigade, as the “Engine Companies” were by now, collectively, known. 28

And he asked the Government to ensure militia support, and the Governor, realising the problem, acted. In September 1857 the military formally advised that it realised the town’s fire protection depended on the availability of those soldiers who were also members of the fire brigade. While the soldiers could not be excused active duty at the front, they would be drafted as a ‘fire detachment’. It seems this meant they would be deployed on ‘local duties’ and thus always available in the town to help fight fires. 29

Despite arguments, within a month, in October 1857, the Provincial Government handed over its fire engine along with all its gear and it was re-organised, with 3 fire engines and seeking 100 volunteers, the estimated number required for the 3 engines based on the militia’s experience. This figure was probably recalled by Daldy when he mistakenly wrote in his diary that it was the number of men he led as Fire Chief in 1848.

Asher Asher as Superintendent

Asher Asher officially became Superintendent on 13 October 1857 at a meeting which formally united the 2 Engine Companies and then elected Captains for each. Amalgamation talks had been going for some time and at the meeting Asher was unanimously elected to lead the one organised fire brigade, known as the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, combining all available fire-fighting equipment which was then allocated to each Fire Engine Company, ready for action. 30

It was well-known and widely publicised that Asher Asher was elected on that date – the first Superintendent of Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, the first to hold this office anywhere in New Zealand because Auckland had the first such fire brigade”. 31

Asher’s Fire Helmet. Auckland Museum Collections

The newly-combined brigade wasted no time in practising and by mid-November 1857 they had a well-planned and rehearsed process to find and pump water, two engines  (those purchased by public subscription) often feeding the third (ex-Provincial Government) to provide sufficient pressure for fire-fighting in the town area”. 32

The Great Fire of July 1858

“Townsfolk could see progress and Asher was specially thanked for his work, as Superintendent, at the Great Fire of July, 1858. 32

It was huge fire attended by the 3 engines working together, along with the Army’s outfit. The blaze got an early hold and much of the business district around High Street was gutted with big losses.  Daldy was also there, acting in a private capacity, joining others to help save some premises.

Another aspect suggesting Daldy’s recollections were somewhat hazy concerned the water sources in early Auckland. He says wells and water courses were marked on a map in 1848. But there is documented evidence that it was only in late 1854 that the Royal Engineers were completing their useful project to map all the available local wells and waterholes so that there was a ready reference of their locations, essential in times of fire. 34

And then a year later the City Council began constructing wells at strategic places throughout the built-up area specifically for fire-fighting with attention to ready and easy access for the brigade”.35

Queen Street and the Ligar Canal: source of water or fire-fighting
James D Richardson: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-400

It was only after these sources were available and marked that it was made clear that the brigade had the right to use the water: at long last firefighters could be reasonably certain of supplies for their pumps as of right. Although firefighters sometimes drew on sea-water for waterfront fires, they couldn’t rely on it if the tide was out.

Daldy’s “Colleagues”

William Daldy’s mention of two colleagues assisting him with the early brigade also shows confusion. Asher, named as one, was not part of the brigade at that stage. But in 1858, when he had been Chief, the fire brigade fell apart in disarray so the garrison of the 58th Regiment reverted as the mainstay for Auckland’s fire-fighting.  But the soldiers returned to England in November that year leaving only police to attend to fires.

58th Regiment parades at Albert Barracks, 1858, with other regiments.
Possibly its last before leaving New Zealand

Then, in February 1859 after re-organisation, the fire brigade started up again. Asher was involved, but this brigade, too, was short-lived, with firefighters claiming they were under-resourced by the Council and received nothing but discouragement from the authorities. So they packed it in some 3 months later in May 1859. There’s evidence that this was when Daldy came in – it was August 1860 when he led a reformed brigade and was made Superintendent overseeing the 3 engines. 36

The other names Daldy recalled as connected with the earlier brigade, in 1848, were ‘Rattry’ and ‘Hely, from H. M. Customs’.  37

‘Rattry’ may be traced as probably William (Bill) Rattray who was more than likely there in 1860 because he is listed as a Foreman of one of the engines. 38

‘Hely from H M Customs’ is possibly meant to refer to Thomas Hendry Eley  who was on official, a Landing Waiter, in the Customs office in the 1850s. Eley was one of those helping Daldy, as civilians,  at the devastating fire downtown in July 1858. They were singled out for mention in the newspaper at the time.39

Perhaps it was Angelo Elias, another similar name, a man who had a shop in Queen Street about the late 1850s. 40.   The name Elias was mentioned as a Foreman who volunteered to serve under Daldy for the Northern Engine. 41

But that could be a mis-print, Elias instead of Ellis. Maybe Daldy meant Ellis from Freemans Bay who was on the crew of one of the engines, one of the better Foremen working under Daldy. 42

But its apparent these events occurred a good deal later than Daldy’s claim of 1848: more likely in 1860. Rattray and Ellis, for example, neither had arrived in Auckland until much later than 1848. 43, 44

Other Inconsistencies

Then there’s another inconsistency when Daldy mentions in his reminiscences the fire in the new National Bank as if it was about the time he was Captain, supposedly in 1848. 45

The fact is the National Bank of New Zealand wasn’t formed until 1872 and in Auckland didn’t open its doors until April 1873. 46

And by that date Daldy had gone from the brigade – he left in 1863 when the brigade dissolved for the umpteenth time.

Turbulent Times

Asher Asher was his Deputy when that happened: the turbulent era for fire brigades in Auckland was to continue. There were years of turmoil, arguments about who should have command of the brigades, who should run the engines and who should pay for them. Asher  made several attempts to reshape the brigades: it was obviously difficult leading such troubled outfits.  He helped form a new brigade in May 1865 but it failed and he tried again in March 1866 which had a longer life… but in September 1868 it, too, disbanded.47

Asher was to retain an interest in fire protection with brigades working together with the Insurance Companies’ Brigades. But the relationship between them soured. By mid-1872 there was a falling out:  Asher found there was intense competition between the volunteer brigade and the Insurance brigade. He was moved to advertise in the local newspaper that anyone trespassing in the fire station would be prosecuted and then he had a notice published to say that he had been put in charge of firefighting equipment at 3 depots… at the same time warning off members of the Insurance Brigade.

Auckland Star 11 May 1872

The Insurance Companies’ Brigade advertised in the same newspapers that Seering Matthews had taken over as their Superintendent and he, in turn, advised the “going rates” for anyone who helped his Brigade.

Auckland Star 11 May 1872


Auckland Star 11 May 1872

Despite this initial competition the brigade continued to attend outbreaks  together, both outfits working against the common enemy, fire. The newspapers called them ‘rival brigades’. 48

“A Pretender” emerges

In November that year there was a light-hearted challenge to Asher’s position as Superintendent, a position and rank he had retained. Christopher Greenway, said to be ‘the richest man in Auckland’, had disagreed with Asher’s firefighting techniques at several outbreaks. Greenway wrote to the editor of the Southern Cross newspaper in November 1872 repeating his criticism and, in the interests of improved fire protection, he offered to take over the job of Superintendent of the Fire Brigade – and without any payment. Greenway was described in the Press as a ‘gentleman of Remuera’ before he moved into the city to live, the owner of many downtown properties. The Southern Cross gently mocked his offer saying that if the brigades were placed under his command surely he would generously dip into his immense personal wealth to pay for them. His offer to be Superintendent was not taken up.

But the difficulty of managing fire brigades remained. Asher continued drilling with the brigades. Good numbers had been retained, sometimes 50 men mustered for training, and there were some good saves, attending fires both big and small. Lack of water, rather than a shortage of manpower, equipment or expertise was the main hindrance to providing ideal fire protection for the city. Asher’s firefighting abilities were sometimes questioned, mainly by rivals – Mr Seering Matthews and his insurance friends – with criticism once or twice boiling over into caustic debate through newspaper columns.

Asher Asher Bows Out

Asher Asher was appointed the town’s Fire Inspector and, soon after, a municipal Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed in 1874. A joint committee of the City Council and Insurance Companies was formed to appoint the brigade’s new Superintendent and this may have been Asher’s undoing. The insurance interests on the committee who had earlier criticised his administration and firefighting operations probably voted against him. But he also had his supporters on the committee. Thanks to his later remarks we learn that the committee was evenly divided between him and John Hughes of the Dunedin Fire Brigade. Nothing could shake either side and this inevitable tie resulted in the name of the successful candidate being drawn from a hat. John Hughes was appointed in July 1874. An embittered  Asher Asher moved to Tauranga where for some years he progressed the fire brigade there.   

When he died in 1899 there was further documentation that debunks Daldy’s writings. The New Zealand Herald wrote in an obituary ‘Mr. Asher was the original founder of the Auckland Fire Brigade… ‘. 49

Asher Asher at work
In oils, painter unknown

And the Auckland Star wrote that he ‘… was the founder and first Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, which was also the first in the colony’.50

In September 1874, when John Hughes succeeded Asher as Superintendent, there was a letter to the editor of the ‘Daily Southern Cross’ recalling his service. ‘It is hardly necessary to state,’ it said, ‘that Mr Asher has been connected (and was the first to start) a Fire Brigade in Auckland 19 years ago’. 51

While the correspondent may have been a little generous with the number of years Asher served as officer in charge, the man himself put his service much more accurately at the farewell function the Brigade held for him in 1874 when he said that he had answered every fire bell for the past 17 years, in other words since 1857, the year he was made Superintendent”.52

And again, there was a write-up in newspapers in 1897 when, on October 12th, Asher was receiving congratulations having completed 40 years of service as a fire brigade officer.  ‘Asher was appointed Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, being the first established in the colony on the 13th October, 1857 and then in Tauranga he organised and has led the fire brigade for 10 years’”. 53

In 1903 William Daldy was eulogised in the New Zealand Herald. The newspaper said “…some 40 years ago…  Daldy formed one of the finest fire brigades in the colony, the deceased being appointed its captain”. 54

This, much more accurately, puts Daldy in charge of the Brigade in the early 1860s sometime after Asher Asher was elected as Superintendent of the first brigade.

The Minute Book of the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade is available at Auckland Library, donated by Asher Asher. Its contents also show that, throughout difficult early times, “he was elected Superintendent of the various brigades from the very first”.55


November 2015/September 2020/May 2021


  1. William Crush Daldy, 1816-1903, pioneer Auckland settler:

“1848-49, the first volunteer fire brigade was formed and I was elected Captain. I had associated with me Asher, W. Rattry, H Ely and many other citizens. We had one engine, ladders, buckets and wells marked during my time. Mr Asher succeeded me in charge. I now began to take an interest in public affairs and shortly after this was captain of the first brigade with 100 men” – his diary November 17th 1898.

  1. Captain William Crush Daldy by Lesley N. Dugdale, Heritage Press 1993 among many other publications quoting passages from Daldy’s diary
  2. Diary of William Crush Daldy written on November 17 1898.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Southern Cross Public Notice of Meeting 4 September 1849
  6. Daily Southern Cross 11 September 1849 news article, proceedings of meeting
  7. New Zealander July 26 1848 news article Government House burns down
  8. Ibid
  9. New Zealander 24 June 1848 news article – the military turned out more for crowd control and salvage rather than to fight the fire “…because Auckland, alas, possesses but one of those essentials to the extinction of fire, an engine”.
  10. Daily Southern Cross 24 February 1852 news article reporting meeting of Auckland Municipal Corporation
  11. Daily Southern Cross 8 December 1853 news article Black Bull on fire
  12. New Zealander 20 December 1854 news article re garrison attendance at Fort Street fire
  13. Ibid 20 December 1854 “The results of Sunday night (fire) effectually testify to the great advantages to be derived from the organization of an efficient Fire Brigade…”
  14. New Zealander 24 June 1848 “…because Auckland, alas, possesses but one of those essentials to the extinction of fire, an engine.” (Reference to the Garrison’s engine)
  15. Daily Southern Cross 27 June 1853 advertisement for ladders, buckets etc
  16. New Zealander 1 October 1854 news item report on Council proceedings
  17. New Zealander 22 November 1854 news item and opinion piece on the fire levy
  18. Daily Southern Cross 6 February 1855 Port of Auckland list of foreign imports per “Josephine Willis” arrived 5 February 1855 from London
  19. New Zealander 17 March 1855 news item report that the Fire Prevention Committee is dissolving in favour of committees to form engine companies so as to “prevent procrastination over the formation of an efficient brigade” which will work together with the Provincial Council’s engine.
  20. Daily Southern Cross 19 December 1854 “…a well-appointed Fire Brigade might be rendered one of the most invaluable bands that could possibly be formed for the protection and security of Auckland”
  21. Ibid 23March 1855 news article reporting Fire Brigade is practising and water-testing
  22. New Zealander 18 March 1855 “…we must not pass unnoticed the praiseworthy anxiety that has been manifested by the inhabitants in the formation of Volunteer Fire Brigades… …we rejoice, therefore, to find that the feeling in favour of the formation of Volunteer Fire Brigades is so strong…”
  23. Daily Southern Cross 27 March 1855 news article about two weekend fires
  24. Daily Southern Cross 7 April 1857, notice of fire brigade meeting and seeking new recruits
  25. Daily Southern Cross 1 May 1855 news article reporting Provincial Council business –“…Mr Derrom: There is one volunteer fire brigade and the engines are made to work together…”
  26. “United to Protect” by G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press. Also: “New Zealand Tragedies Fires & Firefighting” by Gavin McLean, 1992, Grantham House
  27. Daily Southern Cross 7th April 1857 Advertising meeting of the Fire Brigade
  28. New Zealander 12 September 1857 letter from Captain H C Balneavis
  29. “Decently and in Order” by G W A Bush, Auckland City Council, 1971. Also City Board Act, 1863, legislated by Auckland Provincial Government. Also “Cyclopedia of New Zealand”, The Cyclopedia Company 1902, accessed through NZETC website.
  30. “A Century of Service to Tauranga, 1882-1982” , by A. C. Bellamy, July 1982 , Publicity Printing Ltd, Tauranga, history of Tauranga Fire Brigade. Also “United To Protect” G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press. Also “timespanner” blog on the internet by Lisa Truttman, reprinted in “Priority Message” newsletter of the Auckland Fire Brigade Historical Society, September 2013
  31. New Zealand Herald 16 Oct 1897 reporting Asher’s 40 years of service in fire brigades. Also NZ League Co NZ website, the life of player Arapeta Paurini (Opai) Asher – “His grandfather was the first superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade”.
  32. Daily Southern Cross 9 July 1858 report Provincial Council proceedings. And New Zealander 10 July 1858 news item detailing a destructive fire in the city
  33. New Zealander 20 December 1854 news item following a fire downtown
  34. New Zealander 24 March 1855 report of Auckland City Council proceedings
  35. New Zealander 24 October 1860 report of fire meeting
  36. “Captain William Crush Daldy” by Lesley N. Dugdale, Heritage Press 1993 among many other publications quoting the passages from Daldy’s diary
  37. New Zealander 24 October 1860 report of fire meeting
  38. Southern Cross 3 December 1861 Obituary – Thomas Hendry Ely: New Zealander 10 July 1858
  39. List of ratepayers with shop frontages to Queen Street, Auckland, 1858
  40. New Zealander 24 October 1861 report of fire meeting
  41. New Zealander 22 January 1862 Oliver Sydney Ellis, Captain of Fire Engine also Jury List for 1860-61, Daily Southern Cross, 7 February 1860
  42. “Asher Asher – His Life and Times 1822 -1899” Nan Payne published by R. C. Payne 1988, also Rattray family arrivals at Auckland aboard “Kestrel“ from Melbourne, March 26 1853, New Zealander 30 March 1853, also Auckland Star 4 August 1932 news article
  43. Daily Southern Cross 19 July 1859 O.S. Ellis arrived at Auckland aboard “Whirlwind” July 16 1859
  44. Diary of William Crush Daldy written on November 17 1898
  45. New Zealand Herald 2 April 1873 news article
  46. Auckland Star 21 January 1873
  47. “United To Protect” G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press page 22ff. Also Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade Minute Book, NZMS 223, held at Sir George Grey Collections, Auckland Library
  48. New Zealand Herald 17 February 1899 obituary for Asher Asher
  49. Auckland Star 20 February 1899 obituary for Asher Asher
  50. Daily Southern Cross 10 September 1874 Letter to the Editor from ‘A Volunteer’
  51. Daily Southern Cross 29 September 1874 news item re farewell function and presentation
  52. New Zealand Herald 16 October 1897 news article re Asher’s 40th anniversary as fire chief
  53. New Zealand Herald 6 October 1903, obituary for William Crush Daldy
  54. Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade Minute Book, NZMS 223, held at Sir George Grey Collections, Auckland Library
  55. Diary of William Crush Daldy written on November 17 1898