Auckland’s Grand Hotel was destroyed by fire in May 1901 with the loss of five lives. It was the worst in a series of major blazes that plagued Auckland at the time and its consequences forced the City Council to address the hopelessly inadequate fire brigade.
Calamity Equals = Catalyst
Calamity is often the catalyst for progress. The Grand Hotel fire set the scene for today’s modern fire service. The loss, especially the sacrifice of human lives, horrified onlookers and stirred the townspeople. They demanded better protection against fire.Even before the last embers were doused inside the gutted hotel, the heat of public opinion was turned up on the City Fathers of the day, blamed for the tragedy. A Coroner’s Inquest into the fire, commonplace in those days, found the City Council responsible for derelict administration and under-funding of the fire brigade over many years. Manslaughter charges were considered.Firefighters were also caught in the backlash and had to justify their actions at the Inquest. In the fallout, the Fire Chief was replaced, hardly justifiable – but then the Council was looking for a scapegoat.
The plush Grand Hotel in Princes Street was one of the most fashionable turn-of-the-century hotels in Auckland. Built in 1881, of the “Corinthian” or “Colonial Renaissance Ornamental style, it had commanding views across the Waitemata Harbour and out to the Hauraki Gulf. It had been singled out to host His Royal Highness the Duke of York and his entourage during his forthcoming visit, just weeks before the fire.
Additions had just been completed to the original 30 rooms and suites were about to be refurnished to cater for the Royal guest. The Grand was made of brick: it rose three floors from Princes Street and was owned by well-known citizen, Moss Davis.
Luckily on the fateful night of May 30th 1901 there were fewer guests than usual. In all there were 22 people in the hotel at the time of the fire: guests, the licensee’s family and hotel staff-members who lived on the premises.
Late night and early morning passers-by in Princes Street later testified that nothing seemed amiss minutes before the outbreak, except one man who said he thought he smelt burning, investigated, but saw nothing obvious. But the fire was stoking inside the hotel and occupants were awakened at about a quarter to one with the shouts of “Fire! Fire!”, probably (they later thought) from the licensee, Mr Alexander Johnston. A cabbie in Shortland Street saw the flames and galloped up to give the alarm, and a neighbour was also among the first to see the fire.
The fire bell at the Albert Street Station (located on the west side of the street between Victoria and Wellesley Streets) rang out some time around one o’ clock and at a glance firemen could see the glow in the sky, their immediate destination.
They mobilised their available plant. The hand cart, hauled by two men who were assisted with another two pushing it up hill, was dispatched.
As per the arrangement, a cabbie’s horse tethered in stalls nearby was summoned, hitched between the shafts of a trap, and set off for the fire, transporting the Superintendent, Herbert Gladding and a few items of equipment.
Two more men were last to leave the station hauling another handcart carrying ladders. Other brigades from nearby suburbs began pulling their hose-reels to Princes Street to help.
Mayhem greeted first firefighters to arrive outside the Grand. Flames were leaping from every window on all floors on two sides of the building. It was obvious the whole hotel was totally involved.
What was not known was how many of the occupants remained inside. Licensee, Alexander Johnston, could not account for his 3 daughters and others in the street told firemen that guests and staff members appeared to be trapped inside the burning building. Some women staff members had made good their escape by leaping 10 meters from their bedroom windows falling on to stones in a narrow alley between buildings. Doctors were tending to their severe injuries. Johnston and a helper tried to prevent further injury when they held out an overcoat, taut, hoping to break the fall of others who jumped from upper windows. Staff who had been downstairs said the fire appeared in the pantry and kitchen… then spread rapidly.
Firemen established hoses on the flames, and made their way inside the front door, just long enough to see that the main stairway was engulfed in flame before they were beaten back, forced outside by heat, sparks and smoke. Up went the ladders when they finally arrived but could not reach full height because of the flames. The fire-fight was attempted with jets aimed through upper windows, but it was a losing battle. Meanwhile firemen and helpers in the street played hoses on the building from all sides. The Brigade had no pump of any kind, relying on the pressure in the water mains… and as each new hose was connected to the pipes, pressure on all the jets reduced despite the fact that the turncock at Khyber Pass Reservoir had been asked to boost pressure on downtown mains.
At one stage firemen managed to enter the hotel from the rear, but it was found that the flames had already spread to all rooms, including the cellars, and firemen were again forced to retreat. Fire fighting was a task of containing the flames to the hotel, rather than extinguishing them. The Masonic Institute Hall next door was saved from the flames mainly because a gentle breeze took the fire in the other direction, but the hall was damaged when a big chunk of the Hotel’s northern brick wall collapsed.
With some help from the firefighters’ efforts, the blaze eventually burned itself out. Apart from a few items of furniture saved from the ground floor’s front room, the place was a total loss.
As time went by it was obvious the 3 Johnston girls had not made it outside.
The bodies of Leonore, aged 14, Eva, 12, and Nina, 6, were later found in the basement beneath their bedroom. One of the housemaids, Dora Wallace, who had leapt from her bedroom window, died of injuries in hospital. Firefighters called in to search the debris five days later found the fifth casualty, a hotel guest. He was identified as 41 year old bank official, Fred Ayres.
Public outcry was immediate and scathing. Angry townspeople blamed the City Council for failing to provide sufficient funds for the rundown Fire Brigade. Local Members of Parliament loudly censured the City Fathers. Some outraged citizens, wanting to sheet home the responsibility for the Grand Hotel fire, seriously suggested that all the City Councillors should be arrested and charged with manslaughter. An editorial in the New Zealand Herald was very critical of the Council saying it had ignored repeated requests over the decades from various Fire Chiefs to improve the Brigade’s equipment. “It was shown (at an earlier major fire) that the appliances at hand were so inadequate as to be farcical”…. “we are always just about to do something but fire after fire occurs and the better machinery is in the future”… “the history of Auckland in connection with this subject is disgraceful”. Cartoons in the Press unmercifully lampooned the unready state of the Brigade.
A correspondent with the pen-name “Excelsior” had a letter published in the New Zealand Herald a week before the Grand Hotel fire. It condemned what had been evident at recent fires: inadequate and aged fire-fighting resources. A few days after the Grand Hotel fire “Excelsior” wrote again: “I have now the melancholy satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so’ and cannot contemplate the scene of the latest fire without feeling that the city fathers are guilty of culpable negligence. I trust the City Council will now ensure the city is made a safe place in which to do business and to live”.
Questions were also asked about installation of the fire escapes that had proven so hopelessly inadequate during the fire. How was it that they had been erected inside the premises when both the Fire Chief and head of the Salvage Corps advised the builder to install the ladders on the outside of the building? The result was there were no escapes on the exterior of the building.
The Artful Dodgers
The Chamber of Commerce, representing a wide-spread of businessmen in the town, called a meeting to tell those in authority that Auckland’s fire protection just would not do, and demanded immediate improvement. The meeting became heated as those present said who, exactly, they thought was responsible. And when they couldn’t get straight answers from the Council to their questions.
Q: Why were there inadequate water supplies for firefighting?
A: No amount of water could have put out the hotel fire.
Q: And why were the waterworks projects running do far behind schedule?
A: Bad weather has delayed construction and pipes would not be connected with the Waitakere dam for another two years.
Q: Why wasn’t there an effective alarm system: there was no bell to signal fires in the East Ward… this was called an “impossible situation”.
A: The bell had been deployed elsewhere.
And the fact that there were no horses to haul appliances to the fire: this had to be done by the men themselves, sapping their energy?
Fire brigade arrangements are behind the times, the meeting heard, especially men pulling that hook and ladder carriage. But the brigade itself was not to blame – the men did what they could with the appliances they had, but was it not time an up-to-date service was obtained for the city?.
Council had been remiss in not supporting the brigade for years but it said it had recently ordered new appliances.
Q: Why had Council not been given specifications for a horse-drawn ladder?.
A: Nothing further had been heard. Shelved.
Q: And what of the promised new fire station in Pitt Street – was it subject to the same procrastination?
A: The Council had some time ago received designs for a new fire brigade station, and the Mayor assured his intention to carry the matter through.
Then criticism of the fire brigade – why is the present Council department not “organised in any shape or form?. It should have a thoroughly up-to-date man, capable of organising the whole department, of making every man efficient in every detail, and of running the brigade on the same principles as characterised the greatest fire brigades in the old world”.
Council said it would be making changes.
The meeting asked why the question of fire escapes had not been gone into by the Council as it had absolute power in the matter re design and enforcement? Why had fire escapes been included in the whole question of inspection of buildings but the Council had come up short at the Grand Hotel?
Council said it had been the Police’s job: it took over inspections only very recently and would be getting on with it.
Q: In other countries Insurance Companies contribute much to the upkeep of fire brigades: why does this not occur in New Zealand?
A: Insurance Companies deal in risk and premiums would drop commensurate with a lesser risk when there was a competent fire brigade with proven water supplies.
Finally, the topic came up questioning the calibre of Council members who had allegedly delayed, or made poor decisions, about Auckland’s fire protection.
“I consider”, said one man, “that until we do away with the ward system we will not got the proper stamp of men to represent us in the Council” .
David Goldie, Mayor when the Council had made some of the allegedly bad decisions, spoke up in defence of the city’s fire appliances, rebutting comments made at the Chamber of Commerce meeting.
“There are horses in the stable next door to the station that are always there when required by the fire brigade.
“If the ex-Mayor had said”, the Herald challenged, “a horse instead of horses, he would have been right. One horse, and one only, can be used. That is the arrangement between the Council and a nearby stable. And the horse is not a special one, not kept there for the purpose, and not consequently fresh, but it’s any horse, which perhaps has been working all day and is tired out. The other horses are the members of the fire brigade!”
More tough talk at the Memorial Service
A memorial service for the victims was held in St Andrews Church, during which the preacher, the Reverend Mr Gray, was not hesitant in his message to those elected to the City Council. From the pulpit he said “l am sure this community desires to speak with no uncertain sound to those who guide our affairs. I am sure we wish them to understand that, cost what it may, such a calamity as this must be made for ever impossible in the City of Auckland. We demand an end to all delay and procrastination in this connection… … what is money when it is the lives of our little children that are at stake?”
The Coroner – Censuring
As with all serious fires in those times, the Grand Hotel fire was subject to an inquest to determine cause, whether recommendations for improvement were justified and to decide if any criminal charges should result.
The hearing heard damning criticism of the City Council. There was evidence that previous Fire Chiefs had repeatedly sought funds for new equipment from the Council, but to no avail. It was revealed that fire-fighting at the Grand Hotel had not begun as soon as it might have been. There was a late alarm given to the Albert Street station and then the men had to man-handle their equipment, pushing and pulling it up to Princes Street via what’s known today as Victoria Street East and Bowen Avenue. Meantime, occupants told how the fire raced along wooden linings and wall-boards, the flames engulfing everything it touched.
The jury also heard that once on the job, fire-fighters were handicapped by low water pressure and could not effectively fight the flames from above street level. And inside the hotel there were confusing signs pointing to emergency exits, which led anyone who could follow them in the dark and through the smoke, to two vertical iron ladders descending an enclosed shaft to the yard below.
At the end of the Inquest Coroner Thomas Gresham exercised his power regarding his suspicions as to who was responsible for starting the fire. He issued a warrant for the immediate arrest of Jessica Minns, a maid working at the hotel, present at the time of the fire.
Her evidence at the Inquest and her prosecution is another story.
See “The Sensational Witness – Inquest into the Grand Hotel Fire” in the People file
The Inquest’s findings might have been enough to move the City Council to take immediate action to remedy the shortcomings. But there were other accumulated factors also pressuring the Council to act.
On top of public sympathy and concern about the loss of life, and 3 youngsters at that, in the Grand Hotel blaze, townspeople recalled other fires: all, they noted, with severe losses. The Auxiliary Asylum had been lost because no water could be obtained for fire-fighting. For this perceived failure the Fire Brigade drew criticism from no less than the Premier, Richard Seddon. But a Royal Commission absolved the Brigade, instead blaming the Council’s poor suburban water supplies. Then, within months, the Direct Supply Company’s building at the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street was destroyed with surrounding buildings badly damaged. Another inquiry, and the Auckland’s Fire Chief of 25 years, Superintendent John Hughes was held responsible for “unnecessary spread of fire”: he was replaced.
Herbert Gladding took over. But while the Fire Chief had changed there were no improvements to his basic and essential tools of trade, which the records show had not been updated since the Brigade was first established decades before. Back in 1882 a concert had been held, the proceeds going “to purchase horses for the Auckland Fire Brigade”: such a basic necessity relied on charity. Incredibly, the Brigade did not own a pump of any kind in 1901. Which meant the brigade had gone backwards – it had several available when it was formed in the mid-1800s. Brigadesmen had to rely on the water pressure in mains, which, particularly in the higher parts of the city, was not up to fire-fighting. Big fires with huge losses continued. Loan and Mercantile’s building was consumed with its entire contents in March 1900. The same month Mrs Carter’s 14-roomed boarding house in Waterloo Quadrant was destroyed. Soldiers from the Army Drill Hall turned out to assist fire fighters in case the blaze spread to the nearby Government House. In May there was serious damage to the Auckland Club. Early in 1901 the biggest loss in Auckland to date, totalling £100,000 occurred when fire destroyed three large downtown warehouses, L D Nathan’s, Bond and Bell Limited and Owen’s.
Then, within weeks there were three more serious fires.
The first destroyed most of Lambourne’s hardware store at Three Lamps, Ponsonby. The second razed the Army Drill Hall in Rutland Street: ironically the brigade was unable to save anything belonging to the soldiers who had come to its aid so many times at earlier fires. And Roberts’ Confectionery in Stanley Street was gutted. Onlookers were stunned when they saw firemen from Parnell Station unable to get water to the blaze because their hose connections would not fit into City Council fire plugs (hydrants). Parnell firemen had had to wait for the manual reels to be lugged from Albert Street. But the flames did not hesitate: the factory was lost. The next in this series of major outbreaks was the disastrous Grand Hotel fire.
Another factor that the Council had overlooked with its blasé attitude about fire protection was that the city had grown outwards with burgeoning suburbs. And upwards. Auckland city no longer comprised only simply constructed single-storied wooden cottages, shop premises and warehouses. The few ladders the Brigade owned were inadequate for the “high rise” buildings of the day and those ladders that were available were dispatched to fires on a retired ex City Council hand cart, dragged along by two firemen running at-the-double until slowed by exhaustion.
Auckland was also growing outwards. It became unreasonable to expect firemen to run the distances to the new areas dragging their reels and carts behind them. It left little energy to fight the fire when they eventually got there.
Agitation for the Council to upgrade the Brigade came from other quarters. The newly formed Ratepayers’ Association, keen for a cause to flex its youthful muscles, loudly condemned the Council’s history of inaction, accurately reflecting wider public opinion which quickly turned to dismay when underwriters, seeing the risk, increased premiums for fire insurance.
Influential citizens lobbied the Council, some of whom had personal experience of the deficient Brigade. The likes of Davis and Nathan, along with other leading businessmen, had seen fire destroy their premises and businesses, with heavy losses, not all of them covered by insurance.
Members of the Masonic Lodge, among them pillars of Auckland society, also spoke up. The Masons realised that had the wind changed direction during the Grand Hotel blaze it would have taken the flames towards their premises, probably consuming their building, too.
All this pressure, coupled with the Inquest’s critical findings, meant the City Council found it had no option but to act.
Council called a special meeting in July to be chaired by the Mayor, John Logan Campbell, at which the Auckland Fire Brigade would be reorganised. The same bulletin advised that Superintendent Gladding, who had been Fire Chief for less than a year, was dismissed. It appears Gladding, who had repetitively and vigorously asked for funding to improve the Brigade, was made the scapegoat for Council inaction.
In the meantime the Council commissioned Wellington’s Fire Chief, Superintendent Thomas Hugo, to make a full assessment of the Auckland Brigade and his report would be considered at the meeting.
Hugo’s lengthy audit was, in effect, further condemnation of the Council’s ignoring pleas over the years for better equipment. But his professional report, plus invaluable advice peppered throughout, paved the way for the modern fire brigade of today.
Hugo recommended 60 telegraph alarm boxes “more reliable than the telephone” be installed throughout the city to improve the means and speed of the Brigade receiving calls for help. Hugo said the firefighters and their equipment must be conveyed to fires quickly using horse-drawn vehicles and that 9 horses (for which he provided specifications) must be kept readily available in or near the fire station expressly for this purpose.
He congratulated the Council on its choice of site for the new central fire station in Pitt Street (more recently the St John Ambulance Headquarters) but rubbished the architect’s plans and submitted new ones, based on what he said was the widely-acclaimed new Wellington Station. These plans contained another key to his blueprint for better fire protection for Auckland, accommodation on station for at least 16 men so they were instantly available to respond “within 20 seconds of the alarm being given”, day or night.
He made recommendations also about the location of out-stations, staffing, salaries, and told the Council that it had to provide, without charge, the men’s uniform, heated quarters, bedding and mess room facilities.
On water supplies, Hugo found them satisfactory for fire fighting but told the Council it must have turncocks stationed at the main reservoirs 24 x 7 who would be advised by direct telephone of all fires so that they could open valves, boosting pressures in the appropriate water mains. The report also suggested fire safety measures in hotels and other public buildings.
Most of all, Hugo recommended that 2 horse-drawn steam pumps should be purchased, thus bringing Auckland into a new era, but which merely belatedly put it on a par with other brigades in New Zealand who already had these appliances. He also advised that a horse-drawn 65 foot extending ladder should be purchased to effect rescues and assist fire-fighting when there were calls to Auckland’s taller buildings. 1,000 meters of hose completed his list.
Plans Put in Place
And to those who asked “how much is all this going to cost?” Hugo had the answer in his report. He estimated that his numerous recommendations could be met by capital expenditure of £11,000.
And as a footnote, but one that must have irked the Council, he said he did not agree with Superintendent Gladding’s dismissal as Chief. By innuendo, Hugo, was saying that Councillors had tried to shift the responsibility for the sad state of affairs from City Hall to the Fire Station.
The City Council received his report at the Special Meeting. After consideration there was discussion among the Councillors who, remarkably, at first talked about putting Hugo’s blueprint to one side, to ignore it. Instead they favoured making their own decisions about the future of the Fire Brigade. However, by the end of the meeting most of the report’s suggestions were adopted with three immediate actions. Enough fire fighters to make up two crews had to sleep on station overnight, speeding up response to alarms. The Council made sufficient horses available to be used exclusively by the Brigade. And it was decided that ratepayers would be asked to approve a special loan of £12,000 to pay for the modernisation. They did.
A Renewed Brigade
This enabled the renaissance of the Auckland Fire Brigade.
The Chief’s position was advertised and within months the Brigade had a new Fire Chief, Superintendent Charles Woolley, recruited from Port Adelaide, with Gladding continuing as his deputy.
Tenders were called for the new Pitt Street station in November and it opened the following year.
The first Shand Mason steamer fire-pump, capable of an output of 400 gallons (1,500 litres) a minute, was ordered from England along with the telescopic ladder. Two new horse-drawn hose reels were also commissioned and plans were drawn up to replace the station at St Mary’s Bay while redundant stations in Karangahape Road and at Grafton were closed, later Albert Street.
The tragic Grand Hotel fire of May 1901 was the turning point for the Auckland Brigade. Hugo’s report set the foundation for today’s fire services, in the organisation of the Brigade, turn out procedures, back-up by other stations, and the expectation that it should have the best of modern equipment. His report also resulted in an overhaul of fire safety rules in Auckland: among the first signs of these were the fire escapes retro-fitted outside all windows of the classy Central Hotel in Victoria Street.
Hugo went on to become the first Fire Inspector for the whole of New Zealand, an appointment created in the Fire Brigades’ Act, 1906. Auckland City Council lost control of the Brigade when the same Act transferred administration of fire services from municipalities to Fire Boards. In Auckland the new “owners” continued the modernisation, taking delivery in 1906 of the Brigade’s first motorised appliance, an Ariel Simplex, at the time said to be the fastest vehicle imported into the country.
And to prove it, a test was set up. With a crew of 4 aboard, the new hose and ladder vehicle travelled from Central Station, Pitt Street, to Onehunga Wharf in just seven and a half minutes.
Within five years of the 1901 Grand Hotel fire, the Fire Brigade had entered a new era of progress which, with a few hiccups along the way, continued in the century since. Though it’s doubtful whether in today’s traffic even the latest fire truck could equal, or better, the Ariel’s record run to Onehunga more than a hundred years ago.
The Grand Hotel was rebuilt and continued as a five-star hotel until it was demolished, the façade remaining, the building converted to offices. In 2018-19 luxury apartments are being constructed on the site, the facade remaining.
RCC 2016 updated 2019
Papers Past – National Library of New Zealand
Timeline – based on evidence given at the inquest into the fire.
May 31st 1901
Grover, Head Waiter, Grand Hotel, went to bed: saw no fire/smoke
Windsor, a horse-cabbie in Shortland St, saw flames at rear of hotel, galloped up and shouted alarm
Keesing, neighbour, awakened by screams. Saw flames.
A neighbour at rear of hotel in Banks Street sees flames
Fire Chief Gladding: advised of the fire on house-phone
Turncock was called on the telephone, requesting water pressure be boosted at Khyber Reservoir for fire-fighting on the Symonds Street main.
Gladding: arrived on station, first appliance with Foreman Moore and crew had already left for the fire
Fireman Keesing: arrived on site with second cart
Gladding: arrived on site: first hoses already run out/in action
Gladding: ladder carts arrived on site, dragged by firemen, ladders begin to be pitched