Old Boys of the Fire Brigade

 In 2020 the organisation which was the legacy of the New Zealand Fire Brigade Old Boys Association was wound up, ending an entity that was founded in 1906. These days it had been known as the New Zealand Ex- Firefighters’ Association, now wound up in these times of contact on social media rather than in-person gatherings, alternative on-line groups, an aging Executive and general lack of interest. It was accepted that the organisation’s time had come. It ended early in 2020: 114 years after it was formed.  

The organisation… and its members… share a proud history of service to the community over the decades. The Old Boy’s Association was formed to maintain a unique camaraderie when in 1906 volunteers were displaced by paid firefighters. But the Old Boys rallied again, and were called-on in times of need… and in war… to once more serve their city as volunteers.

Early 1900s

The Old Boys & Honorary Members of the Fire Brigades and Salvage Corps Association of New Zealand, as it was originally known, was formed in 1906 as a social club for volunteer firefighters.

It was an endeavour to retain friendships and camaraderie which had been forged by those who had one similarity: they shared the unique experience of fighting fires – the teamwork and leadership as they battled against a common enemy with primitive equipment.

In the early 1900s volunteer firemen feared that two unprecedented changes in fire protection in Auckland would end their contribution. The Association, they thought, would be a way of staying together, keeping in touch, through an organisation for former brigadesmen… they were the Old Boys.

Two Major Changes

First, the City Council which had mis-managed the City Fire Brigade for decades, ignoring best advice and denying funding, was forced to overhaul operations in 1902. Councillors had been roundly condemned by an Inquiry into the major fire that destroyed the Grand Hotel in May 1901 with the loss of 4 lives.

Grand Hotel the morning after the devastating fire
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

The City Council was compelled to make improvements: a new fire station was opened, horses and a motor vehicle were introduced, along with an electric fire alarm system and better water pressures for efficient fire-fighting.

Long-serving volunteers who had endured the “bad old days” were now caught before the new broom of reform and they were swept aside: dismissed. The reformed Brigade would rely on paid staff at its three stations, its new Headquarters in Pitt Street and at stations on Beach Road, on the waterfront and in Ponsonby in St Mary’s Road. Only a few volunteers, known as Auxiliaries, were retained and had to sleep on-station.

The Salvage Corps, founded in 1876, was also no longer required: disbanded, its equipment auctioned.

Second, the Government moved to improve fire services. In 1906 the Fire Brigades Act created Fire Boards to oversee fire protection and in Auckland this resulted in further reduction of volunteers… the new Board recruited more firemen as full-time employees.

Inevitable – The Past is in the Past

Former firemen and salvage-men realised there was no way back, the face, structure and administration of the Brigade had changed: the day of the volunteer was over. They had a proud, if sometimes difficult, past. The Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, it’s generally agreed, began in October, 1857, after a few false starts.

Asher Asher

Fireman Asher Asher drew together several engine companies before he was appointed Superintendent of the Brigade, the first in New Zealand on October 13th, 1857.

The Salvage Corps had been formed by insurance companies in 1876. Originally the Underwriters’ Patrol Company, these men were sworn as special constables and divided their duties between patrolling the streets at night, looking out for fires and then, in the event of an outbreak, responding to salvage property and goods, thus minimising losses.

The Auckland Salvage Corps’ wagon, MOTAT

But they were often on the scene before the Fire Brigade because under their progressive Captain, John Butler, they had horse-drawn carts long before the Brigade – and engaged in firefighting and rescue, notably at the first major call they attended, the destruction of the Lunatic Asylum at Point Chevalier in 1877.

They, too, were disbanded in 1902.

Progress in fire protection had left a team of fit, willing and experienced volunteers without a cause. In creating the Old Boys’ Association in 1906 they founded a club for former members of both organisations. It was originally known as “The Old Boys & Honorary Members of the Fire Brigades and Salvage Corps Association of New Zealand”, not long after abbreviated to “Fire Brigades and Salvage Corps Association of New Zealand”. Sometime later the name was changed to “Fire Brigades’ Old Boys’ Association” and then in 2008 it was altered again to the more politically-correct “New Zealand Ex-Firefighters’ Association”.

First Meeting  

Almost without exception the monthly meetings of the Old Boys were social events. It seems formal business was quickly dealt with: supper and conviviality were features.

The first general meeting in 1906 was a touch more formal when the Rules were adopted and first officers elected. William Harkins was voted President, O.E. Lee was Secretary, and W. Field elected Treasurer.

First President

William Harkins, J.P., had been a volunteer fireman under John Hughes and Herbert Gladding at Grafton Station, later at City Station, with a total of 14 years’ experience. He brought to the Association’s chair a wealth of knowledge. He commenced business as a tinsmith in Karangahape Road in 1886 and within a year the partnership with Mr. Peter W. Moulden was entered into. Messrs Harkins and Moulden not only carried out their business adjacent to the Auckland Town Hall, but were fellow volunteer firemen, responding together whenever fire bells gave the alarm.

First Social Event

The next big gathering, early 1907, was a totally social affair attended by club members and firefighters. It more or less set the direction for future fixtures. The New Zealand Herald reported “… a large number spent the evening listening to an excellent musical programme, and honouring a short toast list. There was an interesting speech by the Mayor, a presentation of service medals and distribution of prizes won at recent Brigade competitions…”

Sorrowful Occasion

Members were in mourning the next time they gathered. It was to attend the Brigade funeral for one of their own, former Superintendent Herbert Frederick Gladding. Their sorrow was three-fold on the day they marched in the funeral procession to Waikumete Cemetery where Mr Gladding’s remains were interred, 27th December 1910.

First, most Old Boys had worked alongside Gladding who had been “in the job” for more than 20 years. Or they may have been under his direct supervision when he was Foreman at Grafton Fire Station in Khyber Pass Road, and then after he was appointed Superintendent of the Brigade. So the Old Boys appreciated their Chief as one of their own and their worthy former leader.

Superintendent Herbert Gladding,
Auckland Libraries Collection

Secondly, they believed Mr Gladding had been unfairly made the scapegoat by the Auckland City Council in the aftermath of the Grand Hotel fire. Councillors had been told over decades that the Brigade was underfunded, ill-equipped, out of date and without decent water pressure for firefighting. Gladding was the last in a long line of advisers who warned of the Brigade’s shortcomings. Yet when the Inquiry into the Grand Hotel fire, and the loss of 4 lives, echoed all these criticisms, the City Council chose to reform the Brigade with a new Superintendent… Mr Gladding was moved sideways before he resigned. As mentioned, this was also when volunteer firefighters were dispensed with. They could see that Gladding had been unfairly treated. “The men have every confidence in him…”, as the President of the Old Boys Association put it “…all that Mr Gladding required to show his capacity was an up-to-date station and plant, and these had been denied to him, notwithstanding his applications in the past…”.

So members of the Association sympathised with ex-Superintendent Gladding. They believed he had also been hard done by, now commiserated in death.

Thirdly, as a friend, members regretted Herbert Gladding’s demise so soon after his resignation from the Brigade… he had hardly time to set up business as a grocer on his own account  before his death, aged 53 years.

Members would also be reminded at that time of Herbert Gladding’s son, Arnold, who died in 1904 as a result of injuries sustained in the Morrins’ fire.

(Renovation of the Gladdings’ graves at Waikumete Cemetery was a project the Association put in hand to help mark its 110th anniversary. See below)

Other Meetings

Records show that the Association held regular socials and made much of their Annual Meetings.

In 1910 more than 50 members attended the Annual General Meeting at which Superintendent Charles Woolly was elected President. The Executive comprised a shortened roll-call of well-known former firefighters: Messres Frederick Christmas, Peter Moulden, Edmund Archer, Arthur Stewart, William Field, W. Murphy, R. Taylor, A. Hardy, A. Joynt, J. Buckley, S. H. Matthews, G. Strude and W. Colgan.

Executive Members of the Old Boys Association 1910
Back Row: W. Colgan, A. Taylor, A. A. McLachlan, H. Strude, J. Hunt, A. Stewart.
Front Row: Capt. W. Field, George E. Lee, F. Christmas, W. Harkins, Supt. C. A. Woolley, E. Archer. Auckland Libraries George Grey Collection NZG-19100831-31-2

In 1928 there were more than 100 present with a musical interlude provided by James Stichbury, the oldest member aged 86, who accompanied his songs on the guitar. He was the living link with Auckland’s first Volunteer Fire Brigade under Asher Asher, having joined in 1857 when the first fire station (a shed) was in Shortland Street.

James Stichbury

James Stichbury fought in the New Zealand (Maori) Wars, for many years he was City Councillor, member of the Harbour Board and Hospital Board and held many other civic and community positions. In 1915 he built the now heritage-protected Stichbury Terrace in Herne Bay as servants’ quarters. His residence was alongside in Curran Street, where he died in 1932.

In 1932 the annual social was entertained by, among 10 other performers, Norman Tate. He was universally known as “The Fun Doctor” a name given to him after entertaining patients in an Australian Military Hospital. He came to New Zealand to settle and played to several generations of school children, and in hospitals, throughout Auckland, travelling about in his “trademark” Baby Seven Austin car. His repertoire included magic tricks, playing the piano with his nose, and sword swallowing, though this was dropped from school performances after complaints from parents.

The Association’s 1938 social was held in the Auckland City Boys’ Band-rooms which, the New Zealand Herald reported, were “…dressed in massed bamboo palms, large pots of arum lilies and gay balloons, lending an air of festivity…”. Once again the evening’s entertainment had something for everyone, since the Herald also reports “there was dancing, interspersed with items. Songs were sung by Mr. J. Culvert, and Jean de Rose. Miss McGrath danced, the accompanist being Mr. R. Hayes. Members of the City Boys’ Band gave several numbers followed by Mr. J. Smithson, his wife and daughters rendering orchestral items. Conjuring tricks were shown by Mr. O’Brien, and Mr. I. Duncan recited humorous Scottish sketches…” One wonders how they found time for supper!

The Association’s seal

History Reflected

In 1926 the influence in Auckland of its many Lodges and similar fraternities rubbed off into the Old Boys’ Association. It’s noted in the report of the annual meeting that office-holders and others are referred to as “Comrade”.

The Association’s annual report in 1933 could not ignore the financial effects of the Great Depression. The treasurer said funds “…were progressing despite the depression” and it was decided that a social could be afforded. Members took part in a display of firefighting during Prosperity Week, a community-wide festival of all kinds of events to raise money for the Mayor’s Relief Fund to help the unemployed and needy. For most of them it would have been the first time handling firefighting gear in more than 20 years!

1933’s social was “the Association’s 26th and the best yet held”, according to those present. Perhaps it provided a brief respite from the Depression with gaiety and entertainment. Representatives from Hawera and Gisborne Brigades were special guests.

By the time of the 1933 meeting, the new administration of fire brigades had taken effect: the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board was now responsible for fire protection across Auckland suburbs, and was now represented at the Association’s functions. Superintendent William Wilson was, year after year, elected one of the Trustees on the Executive.

Old Boys Invited Back

Superintendent Wilson’s association with the Old Boys led to a number of them being invited to return to the Brigade, not as firemen but as members of a new, special, group he had in mind.

This arose after a major fire in Hobson Street on the night of 16th February 1931. Mr Wilson was in charge of operations and, despite calling on suburban stations to help, almost an entire block of warehouses, shops and offices near the Victoria Street intersection was destroyed.

Buildings in Hobson Street were well alight
Auckland Libraries Collection

Added to the urgency of firefighting was the build-up of a large crowd: an estimated 10,000 spectators gathered, some obstructing firemen in their work, others started looting, breaking into shops and stealing goods. Police and firefighters were outnumbered. The situation was resolved only after a platoon of sailors arrived from Devonport Naval Base and, flourishing fixed bayonets pushed the crowd back.

Superintendent William (Bill) Wilson

Superintendent Wilson did not want a repeat of this. He realised help from armed services may not always be so readily available at future fires and, looking for a solution, decided to start a Fire Police Corps, a team of men who turned out to assist the Brigade and, while on the scene, had the authority of Police Constables. Crowd control was one of their duties. The new Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board gave the green light: in the meantime Bill Wilson lined-up suitable recruits. There were a few false starts when “willing citizens of good standing” were hard to find. Wilson then turned to the Old Boys’ Association. He knew most of its members personally: they all had fire brigade experience, many were not “old as in elderly” Old Boys and would probably welcome a return to volunteer duties working alongside the Brigade. Wilson figured they were just the men for the role and, through Old Boy Harry Jane, invited them to apply for membership in the new Auckland Metropolitan Volunteer Fire Police Corps.

Old Boys – New Roles

Fire Police Corps was formed on June 22nd 1933 and 12 constables were sworn in so that at the scene of emergencies they had the power of police constables.

First cap badge

Of the 12 founding members Messres Archer, Carrington, Jane, Hedlund, McGregor, Meehan, Paterson, Surman are readily identified as being recruited from the Old Boys’ Association – there may have been others. Harry Jane was the first Captain and under his supervision members attended their first major fire at Woolworths’ department store, a major fire in Queen Street, in January 1935. They were complimented on their work.

The Old Boys, who had once been turned away by the Fire Brigade, were back in business.

Shoulder Flash

They held Officers’ positions and membership in the Corps for many years until time, and age, caught up. The last was Cecil Copland, a former President of the Old Boys’ Association, who retired from the Fire Police in December 1988, with a remarkable 47 years’ service.

Today, after 87 years (2020), the Fire Police Corps continues. Its name changed in 2011 to Operational Support, but in 2020 some 60 volunteers, trained and operationally-ready, still respond 24×7 to emergencies across Greater Auckland.

Also known as the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, Operational Support has gone from strength to strength thanks to the solid foundation laid by Superintendent Wilson and those first members he recruited from the Old Boy’s Association.

They left an invaluable and enduring legacy for the community – the Corps they founded in 1933 has evolved into the biggest and busiest volunteer fire brigade unit in the New Zealand Fire Service.

Acknowledgment of Service

Members of the Fire Police were eligible for the Fire Board’s service awards so it was fitting that from 1938 there was additional ceremony at the Old Boys’ annual socials – the presentation of medals and certificates. It was explained on the night that the awards recognised service “in a kindred society, the Fire Police Corps” which appropriately summed up the relationship between the two.

In later years the Fire Police have been entitled to United Fire Brigades’ Association service awards and have held their own honours nights – today the group, Operational Support, boasts 8 present members with Gold Stars for 25 years’ service, 7 of whom have been members for more than 30 years.

Wartime Emergency

The Second World War influenced the activities of the Old Boys’ Association between 1939 and 1945 in two ways.

First, there were those members who were involved.

Some of the younger Old Boys volunteered for fire protection duties in the temporary squads set up in Auckland early in the war under the Emergency Fire Precaution Service. Later 13 Old Boys joined members of the Fire Police Corps to help train the public in household firefighting and evacuation drills. Some Old Boys enrolled in the Emergency Fire Service and joined other citizens, part- timers, on duty overnight at suburban fire stations. These auxiliaries boosted fire-fighting capacity in the event of hostilities. With Japan’s entry into the war, there was further training and drilling about air-raid precautions and their aftermath. Old Boys responded to another wartime request in 1942, to take on the cleaning of fire hydrants. Maps and a roster were prepared so that street-by-street all hydrants or “fire plugs” (as they were often called in those days) would be clean and serviceable in case of firefighting which might be needed as the result of enemy action.

Thus, members of the Old Boys rallied to the call at home during wartime when their country asked.

The second outcome of the war for the Association was that there was something of a bonus for the Old Boys when it was all over in 1945. Those citizens who had enrolled, or were conscripted, for wartime firefighting services were eligible to join the Old Boys and many signed up, giving a fillip to the Association just when the ranks of the originals were thinning.

The Scrap Books

For decades the Association gathered news items about fire-fighting, fire-fighters and fire brigades and pasted these articles in scrap books. The earliest volumes have been lost in time but some 10 books have survived, chronicling fire services, mostly in Auckland, from 1950 to 1965. These are now with the Auckland Fire Brigades Museum and Historical Society.

The Medal Cabinet

Auckland’s Chief Fire Officer from 1956 to 1963, Gordon Drummond, was concerned about the future of a growing collection of medals and awards held by the Brigade. He sought to ensure their safe custody. The collection of medals reflected Royal Honours, Military service, Auckland Fire Board service awards, fire brigade service and competition awards and United Fire Brigades’ Association service honours received by firefighters from the 1860s. Gordon Drummond had a large cabinet built to accommodate the collection and placed it at Central Fire Station in Pitt Street. He later gifted it, in perpetuity, to the Old Boys’ Association. Although a few new medals were added, the cabinet languished for years and, in the forward-looking Establishment, disappeared, placed in storage. In about 2010 the Auckland Fire Brigade Museum and Historical Society researched and listed all the medals and, having refurbished the cabinet, installed it at Fire Regional Headquarters.

Refurbished medal cabinet

Acknowledging the work done, the Old Boys’ Association (by now called the Ex Firefighters’ Association) agreed to place the cabinet, and contents, on long-term loan with the Society. Both organisations realised the collection had outgrown the cabinet gifted by Gordon Drummond, so in early 2013 the Ex Firefighters’ Association agreed to provide a second, identical, cabinet to enable the whole collection to be shown, along with future donations. Association Member Rob Morriss of Te Awamutu built, and donated, the new cabinet which was installed alongside the original at Regional Headquarters late in 2015.

Latter Years

With an aging membership, the Association wound down in the 1950s and 60s. A new generation of Old Boys did not attach the same importance and interest in continuing social contact.

But long-time member, President and Secretary, Dick Reid, ensured the organisation survived. He rallied the dwindling membership for annual meetings and socials. Dick also continued some of the previous competitions, latterly confined to darts and bowls. Dick engendered some support for the Association from Fire Police through his unique position as a member of the two organisations… for many years he was both President to the Association and Captain of the Fire Police.

Symonds Street Grave

When the Old Boys’ Association was preparing for its centenary in 2006 Secretary, Tom Cotter, found an almost-forgotten, well-preserved, photo of the grave of Salvage Corps member William Godwin. 34 year old Godwin had been killed in the execution of his duties when the horse-drawn Salvage Corps’ waggon he was riding on overturned in Wellesley Street, Auckland city.  The memorial organised at the time of his death in 1878 comprised a handsome helmet, axe, belt and axe pouch, all elaborately fashioned in concrete and cemented into the top of the grave. Tom Cotter found the grave with the help of an historian and discovered that, remarkably, after 126 years the concrete work, the helmet, belt, axe and axe pouch were all in reasonably good condition. With financial assistance from the Auckland City Council, arrangements were made to restore the memorial following which a re-dedication of the grave was held. Honouring Godwin’s untimely death while on duty, thought to be the first fire brigade-related death in Auckland, was a worthwhile project in the Association’s 100th year.

See separate story about William Godwin on this website

There was a special celebration to mark the centenary: noteworthy was the attendance of long-time member and former President, Ces Copland, our link with the “early days”.

World War One Memorial Service 

Firefighters were among the first to volunteer to serve in World War One when the call to arms was made in 1914. And, remarkably, of the total number of firemen in New Zealand, 2,600, more than half, 1,553, enlisted and served.

The Association wanted to join in nation-wide Centennial remembrances of those who went to war, many of whom did not return. It was decided to organise a unique memorial service… a commemoration of those firefighters who served in World War One – and all other conflicts. We found the names of firefighters who had served in the Boer War, then those who engaged in the very first episode of World War One in Samoa, followed by action at Gallipoli and in France. Firefighters were in uniform again for the Second World War and subsequent theatres.

Further research revealed that a firefighter, 2nd Lieut. John Grant of Hawera, had been awarded the Victoria Cross for valour displayed during close-up fighting with the enemy in France.

John Gilroy Grant, Hawera Volunteer Fire Brigade

It was decided to hold a service in June 2015, on the 100th anniversary of his enrolment, beside his grave in Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland. A well-attended, solemn, service was held to remember John Grant, VC, and all firefighters who have served their country as members of the Armed Forces.

Grave of John Grant, V.C. after the Memorial Service – Rob Tucker, Tucker Media

John Grant’s sister, Janet Grant, travelled from Taranaki to attend the service and afterwards gifted a replica Victoria Cross Medal to the Association. It has pride of place in the medal collection, together with a portrait of John Grant both as a member of Hawera Volunteer Fire Brigade  and as a Second Lieutenant in the New Zealand Army.

110th Anniversary

To mark this milestone, the Association set in motion plans to refurbish the unmarked grave at Waikumete Cemetery where the Gladding family is interred. In 1904 Fireman Arnold Gladding, aged 20, died of injuries sustained while firefighting. His father, former Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, Herbert Gladding, died in 1908. They share the grave with other members of the family.

In 2016 a special Annual General Meeting was held in Ngaruawahia to mark the Association’s 110th anniversary where opportunity was taken to present scrapbooks, photos and other artefacts to the Auckland Fire Brigades Museum and Historical Society. This began the winding down of the Association.

By late 2019 the unmarked graves of the Gladding family had been given a makeover and with kind donations from the Auckland City Heritage Fund and Bunnings, restoration was completed plus the addition of  a gravestone. The project first planned in 2015 was thus complete.

The plaque added to the Gladding family grave

In 2018 ways and means of invigorating the Association were discussed: it had been associated in recent years with the Burns Trust… a separate Ex Firefighters’ Trust had been raising funds for the special Burns Unit at Middlemore Hospital. But a future for the Association could not be readily seen and the process of winding it up began towards the end of 2018.

It was determined that the Trust remain as a vehicle to assist those who suffer burns, especially firefighters. But in late 2019, in accordance with the Constitution, it was resolved at a general meeting of members that the New Zealand Ex-Firefighters’ Association, Incorporated, be dissolved.

Founding Committee 1906:

President: W. Harkins

Vice-Presidents: J. Harley and A. Brannigan

Secretary: G. E. Lee

Treasurer: W. Field

Committee: R. Robertson, T. Hunt, W. Colgan, W. Murphy, Hon Member, A. Hardy.

Committee in 2020:

Patron: David Neal

Chaplain: The Right Rev Ross Bay

President: Ric Carlyon

Vice-President: Kevin Farley

Secretary/Treasurer: Tom Cotter

Committee: Marcia Baildon, Keith Goodwin, Barrie Martin, Noel Morris, Lynn Morris, Robbie Morriss



Papers Past, National Museum of N.Z.

Hawera Volunteer Fire brigade

New Zealand Old Boys Association minutes and documents

Auckland Fire Police Corps documents

New Zealand Firefighters’ Association records and documents


R.C.C. April 2020 (updated from an article prepared for the Association’s 110th anniversary)