New Zealand Fire Brigades – “Help Yourself” Beginnings

As is recalled in the histories of so many fire brigades world-wide, it often takes a big fire with loss of life or immense damage to galvanise townsfolk into action to provide organised fire protection. It was no different for many fire brigades in New Zealand.

There was no nation-wide organisation of fire brigades in New Zealand until 1976, thus for more than a hundred years the founding, financing and maintenance of each fire brigade was up to the local community. And in the early days townspeople contributed, or raised, seeding money and equipment while from their number emerged volunteers who readily offered their services. There was a lot of self-help in the formation and maintenance of our brigades. Latterly brigades were administered by Highway Boards, Roads Boards, Fire Boards and Borough/County/District Councils and Rural Authorities until the New Zealand Fire Service Commission took over all urban and volunteer brigades on April 1st 1976, followed in 2018 by the consolidation of all rural brigades into one common organisation, Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

These are the stories of just some of the brigades founded by their communities because they had experienced a devastating fire, or fires, and didn’t want any repetition.


Controversy, lack of funds and equipment, personalities, political intervention and apathy held back proper organisation of a fire brigade in early Auckland. Despite several major fires, including the total loss of Government House in 1848, reliance was on the militia, insurance companies’ equipment and a number of disparate engine companies. Timbered structures with shingle roofs posed a serious threat from fire in the growing town, so there were numerous attempts to consolidate resources. Asher Asher, leader of one of the engine companies, brought together the various strands to form a single entity, the first volunteer fire brigade established in New Zealand, on the 13th October, 1857. It fought a major blaze in July 1858, a conflagration which wiped out 20 shops, 17 dwelling-houses, 3 hotels and public facilities like the Police Station, old Post Office, theatre, stables, the blacksmith’s and the town’s dispensary. It might be expected (as usually happened in other places) that such devastation would have focussed on the need for better resources. But Auckland was the exception… no lessons were learnt. Asher faced continuing opposition and little funding and without support the brigade lurched, on-again off-again, as firemen resigned in a body, then rejoined, and resigned yet again. The brigade more or less survived until the municipal fire brigade was formed in 1874.


In early October, 1913, fire again struck in the Borough and as a result the Council focussed on fire protection. An elderly couple died when their corrugated-iron dwelling in Queen Street was destroyed. Long-time residents, well-known, Mr James and Mrs Anna Given died in the mid-evening blaze. In January 1914 Birkenhead’s Mayor, Mr W. Wallace, proposed the formation of a fire brigade, equipped with up-to-date extinguishing appliances, including a motor reel (fire engine).

Nothing came of this, Northcote Fire Brigade provided cover in Birkenhead until a series of major fires meant Birkenhead was forced to acquire its own brigade… in November, 1928, a cottage and its contents at Birkenhead Point were destroyed, in February 1929, Johnstone’s 7-roomed house was razed and within a week an unoccupied wooden 7-roomed house in Mokoia Road was also lost to flames. This property was owned by Mr E. G. Skeates, Mayor of Birkenhead. Ratepayers insisted proper fire protection was long overdue in the Borough: Northcote Brigade continued coverage until 1st May 1930 when Birkenhead Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed although it did not begin firefighting operations for a year or two.


On 19th September 1885 fire destroyed two cottages in Anne Street, belonging to two well-known identities, Mr Patterson and Mrs Melville. Despite best efforts, the occupants and those citizens attracted by the flames could not save the houses. They managed to protect other properties by tearing down a cottage to stop the fire spreading to other adjoining houses.  Within days interested citizens asked the Highway Board to call a meeting to organise fire protection in the district. It was decided to establish a Hook and Ladder Brigade, the first organised fire protection in Devonport. Townsmen, Messrs Lilewall, T. J .Duder and J. White asked the Road Board to erect three fire bells as a means of giving the alarm enabling the Hook and Ladder crew to be summoned. This was the foundation on which, later, a volunteer fire brigade was founded.


On the morning of March 1st 1915 flames quickly took hold in a range of two-storeyed buildings immediately opposite the tram barn. These were shops with accommodation above, some brand new with living quarters upstairs not quite completed, though the shops downstairs were occupied. Within about 20 minutes the flames had spread throughout the block reducing 7 businesses to embers and damaging 2 more. This “Great Fire of Epsom” in March 1915 was followed by the first actions towards formation of a fire brigade in the District, taking place at a special public meeting led by the Chairman of the Epsom Road Board in June 1915. Nine men who were present offered themselves as members of the new Epsom Volunteer Fire Brigade; it was agreed that 12 would be the optimum number and that they should live as evenly spread through the District as possible. The Brigade was formed with its station in Manukau Road, between Domett and Bracken Avenues., site of the present library.


Serious fires in the district in 1886 (eight shops, six dwelling houses, and a ladies seminary destroyed) and February 1887(seven cottages) plus a number of minor ones about the same time prompted the Eden Terrace Road Board to call for tenders to supply a hose-reel. This was action pressured by public concern when it was confirmed that Auckland City fire brigade would continue its policy not to turn out to fires in Eden Terrace which was outside its area. In May 1888 things moved very quickly. The Highway Board resolved on May 4th to form a volunteer fire brigade at once. Within a week the committee appointed to organise the brigade held its first meeting and resolved to establish a brigade on the volunteer principle. By 19th May 1888 sufficient numbers had offered to enrol and they met: probably the birth-date of the brigade which had its station at the corner of New North Road and (the present day) Ruru Street.


Colonists had not forgotten early fires in the harbour-front town which destroyed some of the pioneering businesses – now in March 1882 Roe’s sawmill lay ruined in the ashes and in November six buildings were razed followed a month later by another major fire which robbed the town of a further 6 businesses, Mrs Clarke’s cottage, Captain Yates’ shed, the Temperance Hall and stables behind the Hibernian Hotel. In December 1885 Matthew Brennan’s house in Victoria Street was destroyed and in May 1887 another of Onehunga’s hotels was taken by flames, the Royal in Princes Street, not long rebuilt after being destroyed in an earlier fire. It turned to tragedy when it was found a young woman was burned to death and when, later, proprietor Edward Hill died of injuries suffered escaping the blaze. Processing sheep fleeces was interrupted in November 1887 when a blaze destroyed the dye works at Onehunga Woollen Mills. These fires pressed Borough Councillors to provide a fire brigade but persistent wrangling prevented progress… some councillors wanted the complete water reticulation finished, and paid for, before funding a fire brigade.

After several “false alarms” a meeting of the Onehunga Borough Council on 25th November 1889 formally received a letter from Jack O’Hara who wrote on behalf of himself and seven others offering their services as members of the proposed Onehunga Volunteer Fire Brigade. They were appointed by the Council at the meeting: the brigade was formed.


A fatal fire in February in the small hours of the February 27th 1884 swept through a two-storeyed building in Manukau Road (now Parnell Road) near Earle Street. Flames spread to a boarding house where the body of a lodger was later found.  The Auckland City Fire Brigade received New Zealand-wide criticism for its refusal to help: it had declined to venture outside its area.

There was, however, local action within 2 weeks. The Parnell Borough Council on March 10th 1884 resolved to form a volunteer fire brigade, to compile a rule book, erect a fire bell, order uniforms and, after a little argument about the exact number required, to recruit 12 men. The brigade assembled and had its first practice on Tuesday, April 15, led by Captain A. J. Walker. Within a month of its forming the Parnell Brigade went to help fight a major fire… ironically, outside its boundaries in Newmarket.


In July 1923 Devonport’s fire engine travelled to Hauraki Road in Takapuna: it was a major house fire and Devonport firemen were credited with saving 2 adjoining houses, one of which was already blazing under the eaves and along a gable when firemen arrived on the scene. This fire gave Takapuna Borough Council the hurry-up in deciding that a fire brigade was essential in the district. Townsfolk could see for themselves the difference a fire brigade made when they saw houses still standing in Hauraki Road, only slightly damaged by fire, the flames having been subdued by fire-fighters even after their journey from Devonport.  It was plain a local fire brigade, quickly on the scene, could have had even greater effect. It was formed the following year.


On July 16th 1872, fire swept through building after building in a roaring inferno along Shortland’s main street. Harrison’s Melbourne Hotel was consumed despite all-out efforts of a bucket brigade, and later by Grahamstown Brigade’s s manual reel.  Men with axes and saws loosened the foundations of Knight’s butchery shop, ropes were fastened, and hundreds of willing hands hauled the shop across the road, creating a fire-break. The path of the fire was thwarted. Nevertheless, 17 buildings had been lost. Ratepayers met on July 25th and decided to form a fire brigade. It was a real community based affair. The priests offered church bells to be used to give alarms of fire, Mr Gentry gave the land for a fire brigade shed, public subscriptions were offered to build it, insurance companies offered support and the local authority gave some equipment. By the end of the month the brigade was formed and, such was the fire-risk, they met nightly.


The most destructive fire in the city’s history broke out on 16th November 1877, destroying 21 premises, among them a bank, hotels, borough council chambers, workshops, stables and houses.

“In true fire brigade style it can be said ‘out of the ashes’ came the Gisborne Fire Brigade” – From the Ashes, 100 Years of the Gisborne Fire Brigade

Within weeks the Borough Council took steps to investigate ways and means of a establishing a fire brigade and once matters were settled a brigade was established in April 1878.


“Following a spate of fires in Papatoetoe in 1927, the worst of which was three houses on fire at once in Kolmar Road, a group of concerned residents met early in 1928 with a view to forming a fire brigade. On 11th April 1928 it was officially established with 15 members, a hand cart, some doubtful hose and a few nozzles – in July they purchased a Guy appliance ex Avondale Fire Brigade. In the rest of 1928 they went to 13 calls and before year’s end they had contracted to cover parts of Manukau County” – Papatoetoe ’78, history of Papatoetoe Volunteer Fire Brigade. 


Numerous fires stirred the townspeople to form a brigade in 1874, but nothing eventuated until further major blazes in 1881 (eleven premises lost including the Workingmen’s Club and Gentlemen’s Club) and 1882 (timber mill and joinery, hotel, bakery, police station, courthouse and shops). Within 2 weeks of the latter fire the Borough Council allocated funds for a fire brigade which, with public support was founded shortly after under Captain James Baillie.


The first brigade in Tauranga was formed in unique circumstances, not because of a fire in Tauranga but a major blaze at Opotiki. Insurance interests noted the damage caused in that fire and questioned likely losses if a similar outbreak occurred in Tauranga. A meeting convened by the Town Board in July 1874 resulted in the purchase of equipment and a brigade was formed, probably in August. But it languished and was not revived until several serious fires in 1877 and 1878 after which it was suggested a retired Fire Chief from Auckland, Asher Asher, be appointed as Inspector. But funds to refurbish the brigade were not forthcoming. There were further attempts to revive it but it was not until in 1880 a disastrous blaze swept along Devonport Road taking all before it. Money was subscribed, Asher was asked to organise matters, two appliances were purchased from England and in April 1882 a new brigade was formed, the fire bell erected in August and a cistern provided, a water reservoir in case fire occurred at low tide. Asher was appointed Fire Inspector by the Borough Council.


Over two decades since colonisation began there were often suggestions about the need for an organised fire brigade, mostly after each serious fire.  But it was a major blaze in Lambton Quay in January 1865 that led to citizens forming the first brigade after the Town Board declined any responsibility, mainly because it had no funds to finance the venture. The Chamber of Commerce held a meeting to take steps towards the formation of a fire brigade. Money and men would be required. Both were secured from within the community and within a month 36 members had been enrolled during a meeting at Crown and Anchor Hotel on February 16th 1865, the foundation date for the Wellington Fire Brigade. Two separate brigades followed – each with several appliances – and it took a major blaze in 1879 (Opera House, Workingmen’s Club,  Wesleyan Church, hotels and shops lost) to consolidate: the Wellington City Council took over all fire brigade assets and after a hiccup or two the municipal brigade was set up.


Although plans were underway by the Provincial Council in 1859 to purchase a fire appliance, and then form a fire brigade in Christchurch, its efforts were hastened after a very dry summer, 1859/60, left vegetation throughout Canterbury tinder dry: Akaroa, O’Kains Bay, Arowhenua, Rangiora, Kaiapoi and Hoon Hay all had serious fires. Christchurch Fire Brigade was formed in 1860, Lyttelton shortly after.


A string of serious fires in 1861 and 1862 focussed minds on the need for a fire brigade. Townsfolk reflected on the terrible loss, in June 1862, of the George Street premises of Fischer and Co. and the inept attempts to subdue the blaze by the Council’s hose reel. An inquest into the fire recommended a volunteer fire brigade be formed: mid-August there was a public meeting to consider follow-up. 50 members were enrolled, funds found, equipment ordered from overseas and a Captain appointed, A. C Rees. He held the brigade’s first training drill on 10th September. In November the appliance, uniforms and associated gear had arrived from Australia and the brigade declared it was ready for action.


Townsfolk moved within days to form a fire brigade following devastating bush fires which swept in and around Norsewood and Ormondville in January 1886. Houses, stock, a saw mill and other property was lost: the message was clear to the Woodville community and its local fire brigade was formed just a month later.


After the Dutch Kiwi restaurant, high in the Waitakere ranges, was destroyed in a spectacular fire in 1970, locals proffered services and donations towards a brigade at Waiatarua which was soon established as an auxiliary to Titirangi Volunteer Fire Brigade.


Meetings of the local ratepayers’ groups considered the need for a brigade given the bush and other fire risks, the long wait from nearest brigades, and “excessive” insurance premiums. In 1949 after talks with the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Brigade and Waitemata County Council, a brigade was formed with a hand-me-down fire engine, equipment and uniform.


The brigade had its origin at a public meeting on June 20th 1902, following several serious fires in the town. In February 1900 fire tore through buildings in the main street occupied by the Argus newspaper, a fruiterer and a bootmaker. The second, in May 1901, destroyed more than 6 shops and other buildings. In mid-1902 it was decided to form a brigade: later that year it was organised with equipment brought from Hawera Brigade


Residents were alarmed at the time taken the nearest brigade, Dargaville, to respond and in March 1957 organised their own fire party. Local handymen converted a 1944 Canadian Ford truck to the town’s first fire engine. The community effort continued with fundraising for equipment and arrangements to house the vehicle.


Local Jim Taafe purchased a dozen fire extinguishers in 1927 forming the backbone of fire protection in the town at that time. He kept up his interest in firefighting and 8 years later purchased a second-hand fire engine from Auckland, built a shed for it and formed a volunteer brigade.


The town lost its Public Hall in a fire in March 1888, one of a series of outbreaks in the district. A bucket brigade was immediately established and although community interests augmented equipment with a pump, a real fire brigade did not eventuate until 1907 under a Fire Board.


Taupo’s volunteer fire brigade was formed in the mid-1940s following the town’s close call when in February 1946 the biggest forest fire in New Zealand’s history ‘Tahorakuri’ or ‘Taupo Fire’ threatened to level the settlement just as it had others along both banks of the Waikato River. It remains the single largest plantation wildfire in either New Zealand or Australia, burning through an estimated 30,730 hectares (76,000 acres) of privately-owned standing pine, but overall it raced across some 250,000 acres of pine, bush and scrub.  Taupo was threatened several times during the firestorm: it was lucky, saved only by last minute changes in wind direction, averting even more serious disaster.  Locals, having seen the risk, particularly during hot summer months, founded their own brigade.


Both brigades were formed as the result of public disquiet in the wake of a serious blaze in Nightcaps in January 1950. Ohai was first to become operational before the end of that year and it agreed to cover both towns, then Nightcaps formed its own brigade some 4 years later.


Between 1875 and 1879 the town experienced several major fires. The March 1875 blaze took out a large part of the business area in the main street including a hotel and many shops. Another fire in 1879 took out a block of premises at the other end of the street. A series of small outbreaks concerned the citizens who agreed to form a volunteer brigade with John Sinclair as Officer in Charge.


Townsfolk decided they had to have a volunteer fire brigade after the Commercial Hotel burned to the ground in January 1868. But the early group formed by the community foundered: organised fire protection was not re-instituted until the early 1900s.


A fire which took out most of the town in 1954 resulted in local action to set up a fire brigade. Rawene, across the harbour, was the nearest help and though the brigade turned out via barge that night in in August 1954, not much help could be given by the time they arrived. Kohukohu people acted swiftly: by September they had the nucleus of a brigade in place, reinforced a year later by the acquisition of a light pump.


There was a calamitous fire in the town’s main street in December 1868 which devastated 14 premises and those not spared from this blaze were taken out in a second fire, just one week after the first. The losses were colossal and the community demanded organised fire protection. In June 1869 a brigade was formed under Captain Hughes.


Some 20 business premises were destroyed in a fire that coursed through Bridge Street, Nelson in August 1886.  3 hotels, a boarding house, 15 stores (some with accommodation above) and stables were destroyed. Citizenry demanded proper fire protection and the Council assisted by calling a meeting at which preliminaries were settled. A fire brigade was formed under Thomas Knight within a few weeks and by mid-October, it’s reported, firemen were responding to calls for help.


An especially dry summer in 1907-8 left the small community fearful that a vegetation/forest fire, or similar, posed serious risk to the township. A public meeting was held in H. F. Fraser’s barber shop (hairdresser’s salon) in September 1908, and not content to face another dry summer and its attendant fire risk to the town, those present decided to form a volunteer fire brigade. Good intentions fell to the way-side, however, and it went into recess before it was resuscitated in 1910, reinforced by a Shand Mason manual appliance the following year. This was no match for the major blaze which in November 1917 destroyed 20 premises and then went into the bush affecting a wide acreage. News reports indicated a hairdresser’s shop was one of the casualties – possibly Mr Fraser’s, who, meantime had set up as a land agent.


When their local hotel burned down in 1949, locals with a passion (and perhaps a thirst!) felt compelled to form a volunteer fire brigade and they did so shortly after a public meeting promised support. 19 men were enrolled under Superintendent Harry Croft.


RCC August, 2014 Updated 2020


Sources other than those attributed –

Auckland’s Old Volunteer Fire Brigades – R. C. Carlyon 2014, unpublished

T. A. Varley – R. C. Carlyon 2014, unpublished

New Zealand Tragedies – Fires and Firefighting, Gavin McLean, Grantham House 1992

Papers Past – National Library of New Zealand

Fire Brigade histories – various pamphlets and booklets