Where there’s smoke there’s fire, where there’s fire there better be water…
This is story of Auckland’s first dependable water supply… one that firefighters could rely on to confront the flames. Construction materials – raupo and timber – used for colonial buildings meant that from its earliest days Auckland was prone to damage by fire. Water was (and remains) the best extinguishment. Here’s how a partnership developed in Auckland over the years between two of the classical elements, Fire and Water.
In The Beginning
Auckland was built on the foreshore of the Waitemata Harbour in a valley which in 1841 became Queen Street. Beside it was a creek. This at first ran with copious clear waters – “…small fish were plentiful in the dangerously deep pool behind the Bank of New Zealand, about 6 feet (2 meters) deep… … navigable to the old Courthouse at Victoria Street” – George T. Chapman recollections in ‘Daily Southern Cross’ newspaper.
This was a ready source of water until the growing community, missing a sewerage system, used the creek as a drain. More about this creek, known as Ligar Canal, later.
For daily needs the earliest settlers relied on several freshwater springs – one at the foot of Queen Street, others on the shoreline at Freemans Bay, Official Bay and Mechanics Bay: the last was a source of drinking water for visiting itinerant Maori who brought their produce to town for sale in the markets.
One of these springs was likely to be the first connection between fire and water in Auckland. A colonist, former insurance underwriter, George Graham, recalled a blaze which he said was the first structure fire of note in the fledgling town, when a building in Shortland Crescent (now Shortland Street) caught fire.
Graham said it was arson: the raupo building was destroyed. In the absence of any semblance of a fire brigade, Maori people, he recalled, would empty their calabashes of water on to the flames.
Many buildings in the original town were constructed of raupo: these were bullrushes gathered from the swamp, dried and woven together, then thatched to create walls and a roof. In fine weather all elements were tinder-dry, highly flammable.
Water – Essential Resource
Settlers were looking for more certain supplies of fresh water: they could no longer rely on collecting water from the spring in lower Queen Street… or rainwater from their roofs.
How much could they expect to gather from rainfall? Auckland receives on average (records from the year 1870 to the present) 1,255 mm (50 inches) of rain annually – and it’s easy to see why supplies dwindled in summer when average January figures are just 78mm (3 inches), half the average winter precipitation in July.
Townsfolk, thus, must have welcomed news in November 1841 when colonist Samuel Wood advised he had recently had a well dug “at the highest point of the town”, near his residence in Princes Street, where he struck pure water at 25 feet (7 m). The ‘New Zealand Herald & Auckland Gazette” advised “…those who, therefore, have suffered the hitherto great inconvenience of carrying the water which their families consumed from the creek in Lower Queen Street, would do well to avail themselves of this fact, and have wells dug”. And they did: almost immediately properties for sale were advertised with a premium… water on site.
“A never-failing well” was used to describe a private source available year around.
The presence of a well was a selling-point for early Auckland houses.
The wells, coupled with springs, were to serve Auckland for a decade or two – not only water for domestic purposes but for horses, for livestock and for industry. Some enterprises, such as those established at Official Bay and Mechanics Bay, required copious quantities. Notably the blacksmiths, the rope works and the water mill, all of which regularly went short when sources dried during summer. Waterfront springs also served shipping: vessels sought large quantities of water before departing on long journeys overseas, first for drinking, later for steam engines.
And then there was the creek in the valley almost parallel to Queen Street, once running clear water.
Colonists had recollections of the small bridge over the stream near Wyndham Street and further down Queen Street there was “Vaile’s Pump,” outside George Vaile’s offices sourced from “… a beautiful spring which, years before, had supplied Goodfellow’s bakery. On the side of the pump appeared the quaint injunction, “Let him that is a-thirst, drink”.
But without a sewerage system the creek soon became an open drain.
Settlers disposed of all kinds of unmentionables in the stream, added to which butchers and other businesses found it a handy dumping place for rubbish and waste. The stinking, strangled, creek needed regular cleaning and, ideally, piping – and at last the Surveyor General, Charles Ligar, proposed works to cover over the nuisance.
Both the creek (Ligar Canal) and the district (Ligar Glen) took his name, but his efforts were only partially successful. The creek was cleaned up, let go again, then partially capped and left to deteriorate. In winter it overflowed, in storms it flooded, especially if torrential rain coincided with high tide in the harbour.
Ligar Canal was only fit to provide water for firefighting for a short time immediately after it had been cleaned out: residents would then form bucket brigades to help in times of fire.
“We tremble at the thought of fire….”
In 1846 the newspaper “The New Zealander” repeated in print what many settlers must have been thinking. “We have often trembled for the fate of Auckland, when standing on the rising ground at the back of the town, and looking down upon the closely-packed houses, we have figured to ourselves the awful rapidity with which a fire, if once it broke out, would convert the town into a heap of ashes. A fire engine ought to be procured and arrangements made for a sufficient supply of water”.
The risk of fire went unchecked. Rapid settlement followed with new houses, offices, warehouses and factories… mostly constructed closely together and of timber. The consequences of fire, one that might spread through the town, became more and more pronounced, and still there was no fire brigade nor water supply.
In 1852 the Municipal Council was considering both. Water, piped from the springs in the Domain to Queen Street would provide sufficient for present needs, with branch mains to supply townspeople with “wholesome pure water”. A fire engine by Merryweather in England would cost about £195. In September 1854 the City fathers acted. A bylaw provided for the City Council to collect a special rate to fund and form a City Fire Brigade and, bringing fire and water together in statute, it was decreed that occupiers of premises in the built-up area had to have on hand at least two buckets, easily accessible, for use in the event of a fire. Failure to do so would result in a stiff fine.
The ‘Daily Southern Cross’ newspaper, a few months later, thought a fire brigade and any other public work was very much secondary to obtaining a reliable water supply. “This great work ought to occupy the very first place. And if the Government will only state their unwillingness or inability to bring the water from the Domain, and will put it into private hands, we have no doubt that the work will be speedily accomplished. There is money and ability in abundance amongst the community to do it”.
But in the dying days of 1854 a severe fire in Shortland Street switched attention to the importance of a disciplined fire brigade to replace hit-and-miss citizen’s attempts, assisted by soldiers, naval-men and sailors. The bucket brigade and the army’s small fire pump had only just saved the town from destruction.
In March 1855 three manual fire engines arrived in Auckland – two paid by public subscription, the third financed by the Provincial Government – and within weeks fire engine companies had been formed, their members practising largely as different entities. In March 1857 Walter Brodie said in his letter to the editor of the ‘Daily Southern Cross’ that Auckland had 5 fire engines (pumps). “We have three public engines, one private, and two military”. Providing there was water available this allowed relay pumping, one engine feeding another to provide best pressures for firefighting.
In October 1857 the various engine companies amalgamated under the leadership of Asher Asher.
For years he had been trying to foster a viable fire brigade and, despite a series of enthusiastic attempts, he had not been successful. Past failures were due mostly to poor resources (including water!), finances and support. Now there was another opportunity.
He became the first Superintendent of New Zealand’s first volunteer fire brigade.
Auckland’s water supplies for firefighting now came sharply into focus. The map already compiled by members of the Royal Engineers was invaluable for firemen. It showed every known creek, spring, tank and cistern in the town: wherever water was available for firefighting. The following year the Council used this information to fill in the gaps, constructing more tanks specially designed so that fire-fighters could get ready access. It was estimated, when full, each tank would provide at least an hour’s pumping. Firemen could also use sea-water from the harbour for fires near the waterfront but this very much depended on the state of the tide: good supplies of freshwater would be much more reliable.
But in July 1858 it was each fire engine for itself, the men of the fire brigade fighting flames in different downtown streets as flames spread, seemingly with designs on taking out the whole town.
It was “The Great Fire” of Auckland, by far the worst yet
It enveloped premises in lower Queen Street, Shortland, O’Connell and High Streets, reducing “half the town” to ash and charred debris: 20 shops, 17 dwelling-houses, 3 hotels plus public facilities like the Police Station, theatre, stables, the blacksmith’s and the town’s dispensary. Where there was any chance of success the flames were tackled with jets from the fire engines and by a bucket brigade: a long line of militia and townsfolk passing full buckets to the fire-front and returning empty ones for refill. The tanks and reservoirs had paid off… and someone commented in the Press that the by-law requiring buckets had also helped save the day. It was generally accepted that the fire had been very fast-developing, too big, for any fire brigade to prevent and, in the circumstances, firefighters had done a good job. In “lessons learned” following the tragedy, the ‘New Zealander’ newspaper declared it was time the town had assured supplies of water for firefighting, piped from the Domain.
Luckily for Auckland, on two counts, the town was free of serious fires in years that immediately followed. Lucky because the fire brigade was unreliable, either disbanded or only partially operating, and second, there had been no improvement in the water supply. The springs at the Domain were considered the best bet as a source: a gravity-fed supply down to the township via a 4-inch main (10cm) pipe.
Plans were drawn indicating the Domain reservoir would be 130 feet (40m) above the town, thus giving sufficient gravitational pressure. Money was allocated but the proposal was abandoned in late 1859 when the City Council, while accepting that the source was adequate for the present population of 5,000, questioned capacity for future needs. The Council invited engineers to submit plans for a more-enduring water supply system: the best would be rewarded with £50. Four solutions were forwarded: proposals to tap into McDonald’s Creek (Arch Hill), Oakley Creek (Waterview), College Lake (St Johns), and Onehunga Springs.
Consideration of future requirements was replaced by a much more immediate and pressing situation in December 1859. Wells had dried up in the long hot, dry, summer… causing the ‘New Zealander’ newspaper to ask what would happen should there be a major fire. The tanks were all empty, it said, and thanks to the Council’s inertia there were too few of them and because of the Provincial Council’s opposition, Auckland was without fire protection laws and, therefore, a proper fire brigade. Everyone, the newspaper said, must be on their guard against fire.
The drought dragged on: it was proposed a reservoir be urgently built, filled with sea water, for firefighting. The Militia, in the absence of troops at the front in Taranaki, ordered all available local military men to assemble at the barracks when they heard the bugles, ready for firefighting should they be needed. The town was on edge.
Aside from a house fire in Freemans Bay, the city came through the drought without a major blaze. The on-again-off-again fire brigades continued to manage with cisterns and tanks. The Ligar Canal must have been in one of its cleaner states in January 1863 when engine companies drew from the creek while fighting a fire in a range of buildings in Queen Street near Durham and High Streets. Warehouses, hotels, offices and houses were destroyed. As the Daily Southern Cross reported “… a copious supply of water was fortunately on this occasion obtainable from Ligar Canal and from the effective measures taken to arrest the flames the fire was prevented from extending so far as it was once feared it would – namely, as far as Vulcan Lane”.
It would be the last time this water-course was available to firefighters: mid-1863, the Ligar Canal was at long last diverted from lower Queen Street into a sewer so the creek could be filled in, the terrible stink and eyesore no more.
The loss of this source of water concerned citizens who demanded more static supplies, at the least one reservoir at Wellesley Street, another at Victoria Street. “Our municipal authorities must not lose a moment in preparing for what may take place at any time’, A. Citizen wrote in the ‘Southern Cross’. “The fire brigade, inefficient as it is, would be utterly powerless without water. It behoves the public to demand protection”.
Fiddling While Auckland Burns
At the same time as this concern, authorities were embroiled in arguments about who would finance and control a city fire brigade. They were also haggling over the costs of the reservoirs. The City Board of Commissioners insisted insurance companies help finance fire protection. The underwriters said they would if the Commissioners first provided adequate water. Worse, it was again pointed out, that Ligar Canal had been lost as a source.
Fire does not wait for delayed agendas
In the early hours of 11th August 1863, a blaze broke out in Wyndham Street. The ‘Daily Southern Cross’ newspaper – “… the fire spread rapidly and no one who knows the thoroughly inefficient means we have of extinguishing flies could doubt for a moment the result. The police, under Commissioner Naughton, were promptly on the spot, all the volunteers turned out at the first note of warning, in the most praiseworthy manner; the fire engine came, after considerable delay water was procured from the town pump and the sewer, and at last a feeble stream was brought into play upon the burning houses. Still the fire spread and nothing shortly remained but the flaming timbers of a whole line of buildings”. Private wells were used by the two fire engines in attendance, and this source was commented-on as having to be depended on without community facilities. The ‘New Zealander’ newspaper raised the possibility that the fire might have at first been regarded as deliberate, set by militant Maori as a decoy so that, while townsfolk, militia and firefighters laboured at the fire, the natives would be ransacking the rest of the town. “There was one reassuring feature about the fire: namely that it broke out at an hour earlier than usual Maori tactics: native operations were never being carried out until ‘the hour that is darkest – the hour before day’, and this fire, reassuringly, was much earlier”.
On this occasion the fiddling by City Fathers carried on after the fire. The very next day the tenders for water tanks in city streets were thrown out in favour of drilling wells “because they could be emptied to the last drop… and by the way”, the City Board of Commissioners was told, “the destruction of property on the previous night was due to their foolish action in cutting off the supply of water formerly afforded in the Ligar Canal”. And contemplating the establishment of a city fire brigade, the City Board was told that it was all too difficult – the War Minister’s help was sought to provide personnel from the militia.
More Water Talk and Action
The City Board realised it had to have a permanent water supply and though it had four firm proposals, the talks carried on without any action! Other schemes were considered… grandiose thoughts like dams in the either the Waitakere or Hunua Ranges, and less-adventurous (and closer) plans for the spring at Seccombe’s Northern Brewery in Mountain Road, for the source at Cabbage Tree Swamp (Morningside) and its outlet at Western Springs. While costs were considered, and who was going to pay, it was decided to establish a temporary supply from the Domain.
The Domain Supply
In January 1866 the project to get water from the Domain Springs to the town centre was complete.
A brick-lined reservoir with a capacity of 60,000 gallons (280,000 l.) fed a filtration plant capable of processing half that capacity per day. A 4-inch (10 cm) pipe was laid taking water down to the bottom of Grafton Road near the Bowling Club (which survives) and then up the hill to Symonds Street (near present day St Paul’s Church) and down Wakefield Street to the town centre. There it was connected to an existing pipe in Queen Street with branch pipes installed in a few selected streets.
The total cost was around £1,000: the pipes used had already been paid-for years before when the Provincial Government imported them for just such a project (cancelled). The City Council stressed while there would be “street fountains” where water could be gathered: there was insufficient supply “for house use”.
This was Auckland’s first reticulated water supply
Some 20 outlets, exclusively for the use of the fire brigade, were provided along the network of pipes.
This was Auckland’s first source of running water dedicated for firefighting
Some outlets were above the ground described as “standpipes” or “stand posts”, the larger designed with a cock, or tap, and a nozzle to be connected direct to fire engines or to hoses to fill water carts, the smaller ones with just a tap.
Other outlets, called “fire plugs”, were underground, set into the pipes ready to be tapped into.
Like the streets chosen for first reticulation, locations of these outlets, in hindsight, signal the direction of the town’s development in the mid-1860s, either underway or projected, and the outlets provided in 1866 are worth listing: see Appendix 1.
The City Board was challenged in the newspapers about the smaller standpipes, described as “toys”, and replied: “they were chosen because of their cheaper cost”.
The ‘Daily Southern Cross’, in setting out the new fire protection, advised readers, “We have been careful in affording, the foregoing particulars, to give the precise locality, as far as possible, of the fire-plugs and stand-pipes, so that, in the event of fires, the public and the fire brigade may know the nearest spot whence a continuous supply of water can be obtained. We believe, however, it is the intention of the authorities to have the fire-plugs distinctly numbered and their positions indicated on the adjacent houses”.
Fire plugs have been “sign-posted” in many ways over the years, designed to readily indicate to firefighters where they can obtain water. Latterly, fire plugs as connections to the watermains have been replaced by hydrants, steel boxes set into the footpath, these days their bright yellow lids signal a water supply with a universal, standardised, connection for fire-hoses and sufficient pressure for firefighting)
Consequences of First Reticulated Supply
Although supply was better than first anticipated – and some quantities could be made available for private connections – it was plain from day one there was not going to be enough to sustain the burgeoning town. The Government said that Auckland must be content for some time with the Domain supply, and the public wells. Nevertheless, work began to research additional supplies.
And it was observed that while the city now had water, there was still no fire brigade.
It will be recalled that insurance interests said they would not assist the formation, nor funding, of a reformed brigade until the City Council established a good supply of water for firefighting.
Within weeks of the Domain water flowing there was action, however, when Mr Asher Asher, former Superintendent, organised a new brigade. Some 30 – 40 members assembled one afternoon to test the water supplies and found pressures very suitable for firefighting. An evening test was not so successful because the supply was shut down overnight and it took 20 minutes to get the valves turned on at the Domain : a hopeless delay had it been the real thing!
Another consequence of the Domain supply was the Provincial Council seizing the commercial benefits: it signed up customers willing to pay for the privilege of a private connection to the new network. One of these was an outlet on Wynyard Wharf enabling ship’s fresh-water tanks to be filled before departure overseas. Shipping agents said that had this not been arranged, they would take their business to Waiheke Island where they knew they could get copious supplies of crystal-clear water: ships would top-up there as they departed the Hauraki Gulf. There were also 10 downtown businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, who paid for running water.
This was the first piped supply of public water to private customers
Public buildings were supplied without charge. And finally, as the result of such good pressures on the new network, the thread-bare fire brigade hoses could not cope and at subsequent fires, like the blaze in Hobson Street in May 1866, there were many burst lengths!
Alternative sources to the Domain, as mentioned, were investigated and costed. Onehunga Springs, Western Springs, Waitakere Ranges, Hunua Ranges were all on the list prepared… and subject of dozens of letters to the editors of local newspapers
At this stage the fire brigade was hamstrung without guaranteed water pressure 24 x 7, sometimes finding firefighting operations very difficult. This situation continued when there was a series of fires in the city, all highly suspicious…
String of Arsons
From September 1870 to January 1872 fire destroyed the Choral Hall, then seriously damaged the ship “City of Auckland”, followed by destruction of a warehouse laden with cans of kerosene. And then the new New Zealand Insurance building was badly damaged before the re-built Choral Hall was gutted. All were suspicious blazes.
The culprit eluded detection until Cyrus Haley was arrested in Mt Eden. He was on the run after he fired shots into the interior of Thomas Russell’s mansion, The Pah Homestead, at Hillsborough, narrowly missing Russell’s son.
Haley, it turned out, had a vendetta against Russell: all the fires he had set involved premises with which Russell was somehow connected. Haley received 3 life sentences which he was serving in Dunedin Jail when, in October 1875, he attempted to escape from a working party and was shot dead by a prison guard.
The seriousness of the offending seemed to detract from the basic shortcoming, vital water supplies to fight the fires.
The debate about an alternative water supply was focussed by a long dry spell in the spring of 1872 when Domain supplies dwindled. Pressures dropped in city mains and it was no longer possible to supply shipping. Firefighting was out of the question. A deal was hastily arranged with Seccombes Brewery enabling its supply to be urgently piped from the company’s Mountain Road premises to connect at the domain.
Continuing lack of rain forced expediency. Within days of signing the contract with Seccombes in January 1873, pipes had been purchased from the Auckland Gas Company, installed, and water was flowing into the city system via the Domain with marked improvements in pressure downtown. A spring in Wellesley Street was also pressed into use.
This drought hastened work to decide on a permanent alternative supply. Preliminary costings showed the capital required would be unbearable for the ratepayers to find. The City Council instead agreed in principle to encourage a private enterprise to undertake the project, a water company, to invest. It would have to guarantee a supply of 30 gallons (113 l) per head per day plus public requirements – and, once set up and viable, it may later be purchased as a going concern by the Council. One contractor, John Brogden & Sons, was willing to undertake the project and sought details of the price consumers would be prepared to pay! The Council commissioned the company to investigate three sources, Nihotupu in the Waitakere Ranges, Western Springs (at the time utilised by Low and Motions Mill) and Onehunga Springs.
The report favoured Western Springs, drawing water from the reservoir-lake via a pumphouse, thence piped to a reservoir on Khyber Pass Road. The elevation would allow good flows to the city and to the, now, expanding inner suburbs. Perhaps a reservoir at Ponsonby instead, or as well.
The irony was not lost on observers when, on 18th November 1872, fire destroyed the Provincial Council’s offices, seat of the bureaucrats who had for so long dallied over provision of both fire protection and water supply in Auckland. In the same elegant building, the blaze also took out the Post Office, the Telegraph Office, the Custom House, and then neighbouring shops, offices and warehouses on Queen Street between Shortland and Fort Streets.
The fire brigades’ action on the night was punctuated by periodic arguments between the rival fire chiefs… Messrs Asher (City Engine Company) and Matthews, (Northern Engine Company) whose squabbles entertained the large crowd gathered. The Mayor intervened but fresh differences of opinion arose every time the fire caught another building and then when flames leapt across the road to engulf a whole new block. Newton brigade also attended, but combined efforts merely protected exposures distant from the intense radiated heat given off and, at length, extinguished the pile of flaming debris.
The newspapers summed up. “No adequate provision is made to make even the merest effort to struggle with a fire in the city,” the ‘New Zealander’ said, “no ladders, no appliances, no organization, no authority, no anything which is considered everywhere else to be absolutely requisite in face of conflagration”.
Differences of Opinion
December 1872, rather than being decision time about a new water supply was more confusing than ever.
City Councillors wanted the Domain capacity increased but the Medical Officer of Health condemned the plant and the water as “foul and responsible for the illnesses rampant in the city”.
The Provincial Government voted down a Bill providing for a loan to pay for a new water supply: “members did not think their rural constituents should help pay for Auckland city water supplies”.
In January 1873 the Council was obliged during another drought to renew discussions about a permanent public system. In March proceedings were stalled awaiting “further information about costings”. Then there was a surprise in April when an unsolicited offer arrived from a company in London proposing to raise £110,000 to fund a water project, suggesting several ways of recouping their investment once water was flowing. Private enterprise from afar wanted in!
This offer was voted down in April when the City Council at long last had before it a firm recommendation from its sub-committee to proceed with costings and plans for a municipal undertaking , the Nihotupu proposal in the Waitakere Ranges, and once details were available, townsfolk would be asked to approve the project in a poll. But the blueprint was shelved for a few weeks while Council representatives inspected the sites at Western Springs, Onehunga and at Nihotupu in the Waitakere Ranges. And then a reversal… and action.
All three sites returned to focus in May 1873 when tenders were called by the City Council for works at each site, pipes to Auckland and a reservoir near the city. By the end of December accurate costs and details should be known. Action at long last!
Not so. The tender notice was not genuine. In a unilateral move those councillors comprising the Waterworks Committee took it on themselves to adapt their own specifications and draw up a tender notice for the new waterworks… and to have it published in local newspapers. This had been done without authority of the whole Council. The Mayor was shocked to see the advertisements and he ordered further publication to be “put on hold”. Other councillors were furious the advertisement had appeared. In June, once properly approved, the notices reappeared in the Press calling tenders for a system delivering a daily supply of 1,000,000 gallons (3.78m l). Replies to be in by December.
Meanwhile summertime Auckland had no water at all for a time when the Domain supply failed yet again. This focussed once more on the ongoing wrangle between the Domain Board and the Provincial Government over ownership of the water, which was resolved in September 1873 when the Government agreed to lease the waterworks for £100 a year. It was selling water to shipping for much more than that – so it retained a profitable side-line!
More Fires, Even Less Water
Fire struck again that same month. While the last major blaze had taken out the Provincial Government’s offices… this one wiped out premises belonging to the other procrastinator in the water saga: the City Council. Its leasehold premises were destroyed, the buildings around the new Market House in Queen Street and fronting Wellesley and Elliott Streets. The ‘Daily Southern Cross’, in headlines, counted the loss: “Half of Central Queen Street burned down, 52 buildings destroyed…”
3 fire brigades attended but, critically, the standpipe at the corner of Queen Street and Greys Avenue was damaged and could not be turned on, preventing firefighting. Other sources gave only low pressure, as one newspaper mentioned “the Domain water supply, as furnished through the hoses, was quite incapable”.
A newspaper correspondent asked why the city had no fire engines with steam-powered pumps: “… Auckland is 50 years behind the times!”.
The ‘New Zealand Herald’ summed up the Clarke Brothers’ photo which shows wide vacant spaces caused by the fire which leapt Wellesley Street as “…a memento of the consequences arising from wooden buildings, scarcity of water, and an inefficient fire brigade”. The ‘Daily Southern Cross’ pointed out that “had a pressurised water supply been available in Queen Street when the fire broke out it could have been extinguished easily in 10 minutes, thus many thousands of pounds’ worth of property saved”.
Once more the chorus went up: “time for a proper water supply!”
The following month much better pressure, and reach by fire brigade hoses, was attained when the 4-inch pipes from the Domain were replaced with 6-inch (15cm), a project carried out by the Provincial Council. All very make-do: no additional reticulation was added. The question remained about an improved permanent supply and the cost, estimated at about £100,000, which, a newspaper observed, “was but a fraction of the losses caused by fires in recent years”.
Major fires continued unabated. Within a month of the devastation up-town, McFarlane’s warehouse on the waterfront exploded with its immense store of kauri gum, flames quickly enveloping neighbouring buildings until 11 businesses were destroyed. There was a delay in getting water on the fire because the Domain supply had been turned off. It took a stranger at the fire to borrow a horse and gallop to the Domain to turn on the valve. Meantime, firefighters found, fortuitously, it was full tide and positioned a pump to get sea-water to the blaze.
As if to punctuate matters and remind the citizenry of shortcomings in the water supply – and decent fire brigades – a week or two later the pile of debris re-ignited, with flames 30 feet (10m) high, again threatening adjacent premises until firefighters subdued the fresh outbreak. At the time, mid-morning, there was just 2 feet (.6 m) in the Domain reservoir to draw from.
Hoping the Domain supply would remain available for future fires, the authorities immediately, but belated, shut the stable door, approving three additional fire plugs in lower Queen Street. This was merely salve… outlets for the fire brigade did not ensure any more water in the reservoir!
In April 1874 fire broke out mid-town, in Queen Street, in a pharmacy. Firefighters from Mr Matthew’s team were quickly on the scene and brought the blaze under control, confining it to King’s the chemists. But as they were getting at the last pockets of fire their hoses went dry: the water supply from Seccombes, fed into the Domain, failed. A messenger on a horse was despatched to Seccombes to get water restored – back came the rider to advise “…give it half an hour to top-up!”. But the fire wasn’t waiting and took off destroying 10 businesses in the block between Wyndham Street and the Southern Cross newspaper’s offices, saved only by buildings built of brick which acted as a firebreak. The ‘Daily Southern Cross’ – “Both for health purposes and for fire prevention, the water supply question cannot now be permitted to remain longer than the disgrace it is…”.
The ‘Thames Guardian’ newspaper had its own observation: “…we think Aucklanders ought to be ashamed of the position of their city in respect to a water supply and the means of extinguishing fires. The city has been in existence for forty years… …and yet has not the first necessaries of corporate existence”.
In May the Insurance (or Northern Engine) Fire Brigade under Seering Matthews was disbanded: the intention was to establish a reformed City Fire Brigade with Insurance Companies combining with the City Council to pay its costs. And in the same month work began on drawings for a new water supply sourced at Western Springs.
The city was at this time planning reform for both fire and water!
In May it was Wakefield Street businesses who suffered a fire. Despite connections at 2 standpipes no water of consequence could be obtained. Bystanders believed they had the flames under control, but as in earlier blazes, the fire got way on them. The ‘New Zealand Herald’ reported – “…the appeals for water became piteous. ‘For God’s sake, water!’. But none was obtainable, and for the want of half a dozen buckets an estimated £30,000 worth of property was lost and fifteen business premises were ruined”.
The ‘New Zealand Herald’ resurrected an earlier proposition. “Since neither the Provincial Government nor the City Council has the means of providing a water supply, the public should accept that a short empowering Bill would enable private enterprise to furnish a sufficient supply at reasonable cost: in no time at all the thing would be accomplished”.
In October 1873 the Mayor, Philip Philips, put up the same proposition, originally mooted some years before, that if an overseas company was commercially interested to guarantee the supply of 1 million gallons (3.78m l) of pure water a day, the City Council would guarantee 6 per cent return on the outlay.
This proposition led to an arrangement with Edward Moriarty, Engineer-in-Chief for Harbours and Rivers to the Government of New South Wales, who was shortly to visit Auckland to consult the Harbour Board about construction of a dry dock.
While he was in Auckland he would also be asked to advise the best source and means of a water supply. Meanwhile, another old and recurring proposal, to once more augment the Domain supply from Seccombe’s well, was turned down.
A Firm Recommendation
While for 30 years there had been a succession of reports from various engineers and officials each espousing the worth of their favourite schemes, (Nihotupu in the Waitakere Ranges, the Hunua Ranges, St John’s Lake, Remuera, Western Springs, Onehunga and Oakley Creek) here, in Moriarty’s report (February 1874) was an unequivocal recommendation: Western Springs (Low & Motion’s Mil) with a pumphouse to push the water to a main reservoir in Ponsonby and to a smaller one at Khyber Pass, the latter a reserve supply for firefighting. Mr Moriarty estimated 2.3m gallons were available per day and he put the total cost for pumphouse and engine, works, pipes and reservoirs at £70,000. Low and Motions, millers, would, in addition, have to be compensated when their waterworks were taken over.
A storm of controversy broke out claiming preference of one proposal ahead of another, advocates had their say in newspaper columns and there was an accusation that daily output figures for Nihotupu had somehow been rigged.
30 years’ indecision continued around the Council table in February 1874.
When it came to the vote deciding Western Springs as the city’s water supply, Councillors were evenly divided. The mayor declined making a casting vote saying “…such an important matter ought not be decided in this way…”. The topic was postponed.
After more debate, advocacy and letters to the newspapers the source of Auckland City’s future water supply was finally settled.
On 23rd February 1874 the City Council chose Western Springs
There was another flurry of Letters to the Editors of local papers, arguments about daily flows of water, reservoir capacities and kindred topics. But the Council had decided!
In May there was distinct progress in officialdom. Perhaps fire-losses made an impression. In one day the Provincial Government passed all three stages of a Bill authorising Auckland City Council to raise £100,000 for the purposes of providing a water supply, dependant on the citizenry approving in a poll.
For the first time the responsibility for a water supply was with the Council
‘The Evening Star’ newspaper observed what a difference recent fires and warm agitation of the water question had made, and now it was up to the ratepayers to do their bit to see the project through. The Mayor was right to ask for money for a steam fire engine, though, because the new water supply wouldn’t be operating for two years and a new brigade should be established. But insurance companies declined to cooperate saying there was still insufficient water supply for firefighting.
By August legal niceties about borrowing the money were complete and it was decided to go ahead and seek investment in London.
Confirmed: Auckland’s water supply would be a municipal undertaking
Private enterprise was thus ruled out, the loan would pay for a bore at Motions’ Creek, development of a reservoir (lake), a pumping station housing a beam engine adjacent to the lake and pipes to Ponsonby reservoir, later connected with a second in Khyber Pass Road. It was to be a Council undertaking.
Fire met water in the project when officials pointed out that the lakeside coal-fired steam engine would pump three million gallons (11.5m l) a day and, in cases of a downtown fire, the pressure of water through an inch-and-a-quarter (3cms) nozzle would be capable of throwing five tons (4.5 tonnes) of water a minute on the highest buildings in Queen Street.
New City Fire Brigade
It was with this firm proposition of a decent year-round fresh water supply that the city’s fire brigade was reformed. After decades of squabbling, the City Council and the insurance companies agreed to organise and contribute towards a new volunteer brigade, for the first time to be led by an experienced, paid, firefighter.
Auckland had new fire protection: the City Volunteer Fire Brigade
The Superintendent was James Hughes from Dunedin and on 4th September 1874 he recruited a new team, drafted a set of rules, he set up drills and he overhauled the aging manual hose-reels and pumps.
After a shaky start – the whole brigade resigned (again!) – Hughes persevered, resulting in a worthy brigade but which, for a few years yet, would have testing times, coping with poor water supplies from the Domain at several downtown fires. And no horses: firefighters still had to drag their equipment, hose-reels and carts, to the fires.
Asher Asher, for decades the doyen of the city’s fire services, retired hurt. After enduring crisis after crisis in his bid to protect Auckland from fire, he felt he had been passed over just when there were real prospects of improvement with support from the Council and insurance interests.
Getting The Water
In February 1875 it was learned that the loan floated in London had been over-subscribed: by four times the £100,000 sought. Land along the route of the pipes from Western Springs was leased by the Council and, at length, negotiations were competed with millers Motion and Low for the purchase of their land and mill adjacent to the supply.
With ever-increasing demand on the Domain supply by a growing population, pressures were reduced, so much so that the City Council took the extraordinary action of ordering urban renewal… downtown wooden buildings deemed worst fire risks must be demolished: Coombe’s in Queen Street was one such to be replaced in brick.
In March 1875 the City Council accepted the tender of local company, T. and S. Morrin, for the new waterworks totalling £72,663 with £3,000 to be added if the tramway was required. No time was lost, the contractors organised a ceremony within a week, on Easter Monday, to lay a foundation stone on the site of the future pumphouse at Western Springs. Expected completion was New Year’s 1877.
(The Auckland Star’s same-day account of the ceremony was enabled by the newspaper’s pigeon courier service, the birds flew the report from the distant Western Springs to the Star’s downtown office).
By October 1875 the City Council had in place leases for land through which pipes would be buried, and rules and regulations re connections with the new water supply: no one but licensed plumbers could tap into it. Water rates were set for all those who would be enjoying the new supply of fresh spring water!
And as the water supply materialised with construction at the Springs, in Ponsonby and at Newton, there were first rumblings that other Auckland local bodies might like to buy into the project, especially the likes of Ponsonby and Grafton where the main pipe traversed, and Parnell. And the first of these was agreed in March 1876, an extension main along Ponsonby Road to Hepburn Street to serve customers in that part of town. Fire hydrants were part of the project. Meanwhile the local Turkish Baths, trying to coin the market in advance, advertised that the novelty of hot and cold plunge pools would be available just as soon as the new water supply was turned on! Bath-houses were set to improve public hygiene.
And plans were drawn for existing standpipes to be modified to suit the higher pressures of the new supply.
Fire… let it be the last…
In May 1876 the fire bells rang out in the middle of the night, advising a block of shops in Queen Street was on fire. Superintendent Hughes and his men were soon on the job but, as the New Zealand Herald observed, the blaze was far too advanced for the engines, the outdated equipment and the ‘only just sufficient’ water supply. Buildings on the South-East corner of Queen and Wellesley Streets were destroyed and once again it was a brick building, Montagues, that stopped fire-spread rather than intervention by the fire brigade. But about a dozen businesses were destroyed.
“Let this be the last fire before firefighters have plentiful water “ – N.Z. Herald
The irony was at the time of the fire, city streets were being dug up to install new water pipes.
Last Minute Wrangles
Despite the project’s rapid progress, the wrangling returned, no less sour than the endemic rancour before the tender had been signed. This time charges of irregularities were laid against the engineer-in-charge, William Errington, causing the City Council to convene an inquiry.
After lengthy proceedings all matters were satisfactorily explained and there was no further action.
Provincial Government was disbanded under the Dominion’s new governance, and with it the arrangement for the water supply from the Domain. Frustratingly, just 3 months… summer months at that … and water would be available from Western Springs. But in November 1876 the City Council was pressed to assure worried citizens of a continuous supply from the doubtful Domain.
Auckland City Council took over the Domain water supply
Council purchased the water works and, in case there was a drought, signed an agreement with Seccombes to augment Domain supplies in the drier months. The City Council was now responsible for the supply of water to a burgeoning and sprawling community.
Testing the New Supply from Western Springs
On March 20th 1876 the new water supply’s improved pressure was shown off… by accident. Engineers, happy that the network from Western Springs to Queen Street was complete, charged the system for tests. A ball-cock in a fire plug in Queen Street near Victoria Street was blown out by the sudden charge of water, causing a fountain as high as neighbouring buildings. It took some time to shut the water down and repair the fire plug. But the episode proved the pressure in the mains: it was there for all to see! Those that got drenched knew all about it!
Then it was time to test the whole system. In May 1876 fire and water coalesced again when the fire hydrants were tested. Superintendent Jim Hughes, and the members of the Fire Brigade, used 4 deliveries from each of a number of downtown hydrants. All tests were successful, none the more so in Fort Street where jets were pointed skyward and reached an estimated 30-feet (10m) above the 75-foot (25m) flagstaff and at Government House, where the pressure was “well sufficient to drench the place” as the newspaper of the day observed:
“Mr Hughes has water pressure never before available to firefighters”
Fire protection was to be further improved in August that year when 20 standpipes along with 35 hydrants and valves arrived aboard “England’s Glory”.
The other contact with fire was a challenge to fire insurance companies. Citizens believed their insurance premiums should be reduced now that there was an excellent water supply. The underwriters disagreed saying they had operated without profit over the years because of so many pay-outs following major fires. Notwithstanding, 2-inch (5cm) pipe networks were installed in some buildings, notably Firth’s mill, for use in case of fire: the forerunner of modern-day dry-risers and sprinkler systems.
Superintendent Hughes was present when some of these adaptations were tested. While it was decided they were useful for incipient fires, they were surpassed by water pressure from fire hydrants and the mill’s pump when it came to jets directed at flames.
The Auckland Hotel in High Street was, in June 1877, the first private premises to be connected to the new supply and newspapers were saying the water supply project was now complete. Citizens used Queen’s Birthday holiday in early June, in part, to celebrate the milestone.
The new waterworks were officially opened on July 10th 1877
There was a grandiose ceremony held at the pumphouse, Western Springs, attended by Government, Council and community representatives. The milestone was not lost on anyone present.
After which the official party proceeded to Karangahape Road, Symonds Street and Queen Street where, at each stop, Superintendent Hughes and his men showed off the pressure available in the mains. At their last demonstration in Queen Street the firefighters managed a jet 30 feet (10m) over the top of the clock tower on New Zealand Insurance Company’s building.
The next step was to connect public buildings such as Government House, the Supreme Court and the hospital.
First Major Fire
In September 1877 Fire Chief Hughes had the benefit of the new water supply at a blaze in Hobson Street.
It was the first property fire since the new waterworks had been turned on.
‘The Auckland Star’ describes the situation: “There was a huge match-box burning as furiously us an enormous body of flame could consume it and endangering surrounding property. A moment later, and the flood of water, thrown with tremendous force from an adjacent water-pipe, had battered the fire down. It was put out with a suddenness that perfectly astonished the spectators. It is patent that the water supply has reduced the risk of extensive conflagrations to a minimum”
Which renewed the plea for reduced insurance premiums for those premises served by the new water pipes. “A reduction of twenty per cent is the very least the public may look for …” the Auckland Star encouraged.
In 1880 the City Council, selling the message that a decent water supply had improved the city’s fire protection, added a fire prevention message with the publication of a booklet, “Fire Guide.” It indicated location of the alarm-bells, the signal for various districts, the situation of the Fire Brigade station, where fire extinguishers and fire ladders were placed, plus the position of all the hydrants and the standposts (standpipes) in the city.
The New Water Supply
Western Springs, Auckland City’s first dependable water supply originated in bubbling springs and was held in a 15-acre (6 ha) storage lake containing some 20 million gallons (75.7m l) before being pumped at the rate of 4 million gallons a day (15m l) by a beam engine to reservoirs at Ponsonby (2 million gallons, 7.5m l) and to Khyber Pass Road 1.5 million gallons (5.2m l).
(Today the storage lake is the centrepiece of Western Springs Park while the pumping station building, with its restored and operating steam-powered beam engine, is a feature at the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT), adjacent to the lake)
Selling the Stuff
The new water system turned Auckland’s fledgling local bodies to think about connecting with the City Council’s new supply. Karangahape Highway Board was among the first… the new mains passed under their streets! Eden Terrace residents also registered their interest.
In years to come Auckland City would sell water to other local bodies some of whom had, to date, their own supplies but found demand overtaking resources. For instance, Mt Albert Borough had its own pumphouse at a source near Oakley Creek (abandoned when it was polluted and several people died of typhoid), Otahuhu from sources near Seymour Park and Richmond Domain, Onehunga from its inexhaustible waterfront springs, Devonport from distant Lake Pupuke and Mt Roskill from a well in Three Kings Reserve.
Increasing demand, Auckland-wide, would repeatedly call on additional dams and reservoirs. More streams in the Waitakere Ranges were dammed, supplies from Onehunga Springs were connected to the City network and tapping into Waikato River was investigated. Western Springs helped out during several dry seasons until 1928 when yet another dam was commissioned in the Waitakere Ranges.
The City Council found it difficult to keep up with demand.
Water the Catalyst
Wooden construction in Auckland’s suburbs mirrored the first buildings the fledgling Auckland town and repeated the fire risk: indeed there were some major fires in the hinterland as farmhouses, residences and businesses burned down. Each of these invariably gave communal thoughts of a fire brigade. But, as we saw many times in those early times, it was (correctly) judged that a fire brigade was not much use without a plentiful supply of water.
There was, thus, definite intersection between fire and water as each community council, highway board or borough council established a piped water supply which in turn gave rise to local fire brigades.
A plentiful water supply enabled local fire brigades to be established
Parnell formed a fire brigade within two weeks of turning on its water supply (1884), Onehunga Fire Brigade was held in abeyance until most streets in the borough were connected (1889), Arch Hill commissioned a fire brigade immediately main streets were reticulated (1898) and later, Mt Albert established a brigade when the water supply was commissioned and the main road through the borough was sealed! (1906).
In the late 1890s fire and water got together again, electronically this time, when the two reservoirs and central fire station were connected by telephone lines enabling firefighters to instantly request the turncock to boost the pressure on the mains that were being used to fight major blazes.
And turn of the century, October 1903, Auckland fire brigade at last acquired a coal-fired steam pumper.
Fire and water thus combined on the Shand, Mason and Company’s patented Double Vertical Variable Expansion Steam Fire Engine to power the pump putting out 400 gallons (1,500 l) a minute.
In 1902 further water supplies were added to south-eastern suburbs like Remuera, One Tree Hill, Epsom and Onehunga with the commissioning of a pumping station besides the “everlasting springs” near Onehunga and a reservoir in One Tree Hill Domain which stored 500,000 gallons (1.9 million l).
Other high points provided excellent sites for reservoirs to gravity-feed surrounding suburbs, the likes of Mangere Mountain, Great King of the Three Kings, Mt Eden, Mt Albert and Mt Hobson.
Local authorities who purchased water from the City Council began to bridle at increasing costs to their ratepayers, saying the Council overcharged, sometimes provided unclean water and insufficient supplies. In 1926 a Commission of Inquiry more or less supported the City Council’s administration. Nevertheless, some inner-city boroughs applauded an approach from a company in the United Kingdom offering to pipe water from the Waikato River to the City’s network. This proposition repeated thoughts of more than 60 years before: overseas investment to finance the waterworks. But a Bill before Parliament to allow this private project failed… twice… (the company was persistent!). Auckland City Council continued as the principal provider of water for Greater Auckland.
In 1928 the watershed in the Hunua Ranges was considered as the next source of supply: planning continued at a time when additional local authorities were applying to buy City water and, to meet the demand, a dam at Huia in the Waitakere Ranges was under construction.
There was major change to fire hydrants in the 1940s following a scare that ball-type hydrants were a threat to public health. It was found that as the ball drops in the valve there’s a possibility foul water can enter the mains through the gap, thus polluting drinking water. Indeed, this was the supposed cause of a Typhoid epidemic in both England and Australia. Ball hydrants were outlawed. The new 2.5 inch (60mm) sluice type, or screw down, hydrant was fully sealed: no detritus could enter the waterworks and it was painted yellow to distinguish from the old ball-type which was gradually phased out. Firefighters reported much better flows from the new hydrants.
Despite this, the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board acknowledged many areas in the city and suburbs were not well served by hydrants or working pressures. In 1943 a vehicle was designated a hose-layer, stocked with many rolls of hose which could be rushed to major outbreaks. This additional hose, augmenting local supplies at major blazes, has often saved the day. Long feeds, for example, from Manukau Road to Greenlane Hospital, from Great North Road down Hepburn Road to the industrial estate, from Church Street Penrose to the freezing works and from Jervois Road down Shelly Beach Road. Auckland still has a dedicated hose-layer, the most recent was commissioned in 2018 and carries 4 km of hose plus fittings etc.
In 1943 there was a drought which led to acute water shortages. All non-essential use was banned and as the situation deteriorated the Council was obliged to resurrect, once again, the pumping station and works at Western Springs, with water purified on site. It was only a cloud-burst over the city that saved the situation: the reservoirs were by that stage all but empty.
Drought drove development. Two years later officials said such shortages were overcome with the addition of a further source from the Waitakeres… and the commissioning of Cossey’s Creek in the Hunuas. These were followed 3 years later by yet another dam in the West, the Lower Nihotupu, which allowed Western Springs to be closed.
Western Springs water supply and pump had served Auckland for 70 years+
Another branch in Cossey’s Creek was dammed in 1953, followed by sources at Maungtawhiri and Mangitangi with large-diameter pipes laid to Auckland.
City Council Relinquishes Control
In 1962 the Auckland Regional Authority (ARA) was created to oversee certain public services across Greater Auckland. Water was one-such, added to the list, some said, to give the Authority at least one essential community service, justifying its creation and affording a certain mana. The ARA inherited the Auckland City Council’s considerable water supply undertakings, operations the Council had overseen for about 90 years. The ARA constructed further bulk water storage dams, treatment processes and water distribution works.
It was in the 1960s that the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, recognising the importance of “good water” (referring to high pressures for firefighting) created a Water Office where maps of Auckland streets were catalogued with overlays showing water mains, distribution pipes, their sizes, optimum flows, together with the location of every hydrant. It was a massive task keeping up with urban sprawl as subdivisions and new suburbs sprang up. But the maps and charts meant those firefighters confronted with a major fire could access this vital information by radio-telephone, enabling them to quickly find best water supplies available.
One of the anomalies noted on these maps were the water pipes near the various boroughs’ boundaries which often terminated in a dead end. This prevented a through-flow of water sometimes making it difficult for firefighters to get sufficient “working” pressures.
Today Watercare, an entity of Auckland Council, oversees water supplies, boasting that it is the largest New Zealand company in the water and wastewater industry, providing more than 400 million litres of water to Auckland every day.
It draws water from 27 sources, treats it and pipes it to homes and businesses via a vast network: some parts are presently (2021) being upgraded in multi-million-dollar projects to future-proof supplies. Dry seasons caught up with supply in 2020-21 when Watercare asked for conservation measures until more water could be taken from the Waikato River, a source first tapped in 2002.
Water still meets fire… Watercare maintains 47,000 fire hydrants across Greater Auckland enabling firefighters ready access to water which remains the ideal fire suppressant.
In 2020 the Government signalled reform, known as Three Waters, saying “New Zealand’s water systems are facing a significant crisis and will continue to do so without major transformation. Overhauling our drinking, waste and storm-water services will benefit all New Zealand communities, and four new publicly-owned multi-regional entities will take over the 3-water services”. Consultation with interested parties continues in 2022.
Locations of firefighting facilities in Auckland, January 1866
Large standpipe on Grafton Road near the Bowling Club, lower Domain
Small standpipe on Symonds Street at Abercrombie Street (now St Pauls Street)
Small standpipe on Wakefield Street at Abercrombie Street (now St Pauls Street)
Fire Plug in Barrack Street (now Lorne Street) near entrance to Central Library
Fire Plug in Airedale Street near Queen Street
Large standpipe on Wakefield Street at the corner Rutland Street
Fire at Plugs Wellesley, Victoria, Wyndham Streets and Shortland Cres, (St) near Queen St.
Large standpipe at the corner of Queen Street and Customhouse Street (Customs Street)
Standpipes at the end of Wellesley, Victoria, Wyndham Streets and Shortland Cres (Street)
Standpipe in West Queen Street (now Swanson St) near Chapel St (now Federal St)
Large standpipe on Shortland Crescent (Street) at Princes Street
Fire Plug half-way up Shortland Crescent (Street)
© RCC October 2021, April 2022
Papers Past: National Library of New Zealand
“Decently and in Order”, 1971, Auckland City Council, G.A. Bush
“United to Protect”, 1985, Orion Press, G. M. Gillon
“Some Fires and Emergencies”, 1974, Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, ed N.C. Glen
Watercare Services website
Catalogue, Shand, Mason and Co, 1903
Various items – dispatches.co.nz, R. C. Carlyon