Police vs Fire – A Public Confrontation – 1883

It must be one of the few times, if not the only time, that New Zealand police have arrested a firefighter while he was on duty, fighting a major outbreak. The sequence of events took place in Albert Street, Auckland, on the night of 10th August, 1883 and it’s a story of violence, envy, retribution and assertiveness that drew much public attention at the time.

 

The narrative unfolds in the form of a conversation with Superintendent John Hughes who was in charge of the Auckland Fire Brigade at the time. It is  based on newspaper accounts of the time and other contemporary sources.

Superintendent John Hughes
Brett – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19130423-30-3

 How was the alarm given?

“The brigade was first aware of a fire in Albert Street at about eight o’ clock in the evening when Senior Foreman Hartley ran into the station shouting out an alert.

‘Smell of smoke at the Wellesley Street intersection,’ he yelled out.

He had been walking along the street and thought the unmistakeable smell of timbers burning was strongest outside the Young Men’s Christian Association’s (YMCA) rooms.

My men immediately responded: we only had to travel half a block from the station and in this brief time we could see it was either the YMCA or Gledhill’s Aerated Water factory on fire. When we drew up it was plain it was neither. A 6-roomed house in Albert Street adjacent to Gledhill’s was well alight and threatening neighbouring buildings”.

 

Who attended?

“In relatively short order we had two other groups follow the Auckland Brigade to assist at the scene. Captain Field and his Salvage Corps, as usual, were quickly on the ground followed by the Naval Artillery, under Captain Emilius Le Roy, with additional manpower and  equipment.

Captain Commandant Emilius Le Roy
NZETC

As it happened Naval Artillery personnel were holding a company meeting at the time the alarm was given, so some 40 men arrived to assist with salvage, which they normally did”.

Did you take command?

“Yes, I immediately ordered two leads into the fire, one to the rear of the house, the other to be deployed in the 6-foot-wide (2m) alleyway between the buildings enabling a deluge along the side of Gledhill’s soda-water factory to prevent it taking fire. The Albert Street hydrant gave good water and I saw off-duty Branchman George Moore there, in civilian clothing.

Branchman George Moore
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A9746

This was not his fault – I knew that he was also a member of the Naval Artillery and guessed that he had come straight from its meeting.  Uniform or not, he was a fireman on the ground and I told him the water source was vital to our operations… he would have known that, anyway. I asked him to look after the hydrant, standpipe and hose before I returned to direct fire-fighting. We soon had control of the blaze, but the fire inside eventually consumed the entire contents. As it happened, we protected George Gledhill’s place quite well – remarkably, the building suffered only water damage. While fire-fighting was underway someone asked if they could salvage furniture from the burning house. I had no objection but as it transpired only a few items could be removed with safety. Furnishings, personal belongings and clothing were all lost… and, I later found out, uninsured”.

 What happened at the hydrant?  

“During fire-fighting I was aware of people in the crowd shouting out that a fireman was in some sort of trouble. I was busy overseeing the Brigade’s efforts so I sent Foreman Clarke at the double to make enquiries. Onlookers told Clarke that a fireman who was attending the blaze had been arrested and was about to be taken into custody and removed to the police station. Clarke could hardly believe his ears so went to make his own enquiries. He found it true: Moore had been arrested during the progress of the fire and was held in custody at the scene. Clarke tried to get Moore away from police to enable him to return to his post at the hydrant but it was impossible – Clarke himself was threatened with arrest for interfering in police matters.

Vintage screw-down standpipe
zeppyi.io

Clarke and Naval Artillery Officers apparently asked the police to refer the matter to me as the man’s officer-in-charge before taking further action.  Clarke came and told me, but the matter had to wait until I was satisfied the fire in the house had been extinguished”.

What had occurred in Albert Street?

“Clarke advised me that police had arrested Moore for a breach of the peace. We later found out it happened like this. A civilian came out of the crowd and began treading on the hose-line near where it left the hydrant. Moore, whom I had instructed to look after that water source, warned the man not to interfere with the hose in any way. He told him to desist in strong language and to get out of the way or he would punch his head. Sergeant Clarke, one of several policemen on hand, overheard the exchange and told Moore ‘your language is too strong, your attitude excessive and it’s likely to cause a breach of the peace’. Moore answered the Sergeant in strong language, ‘I’ll just as soon punch your head in, too, given the same cause, and under the same circumstances.’ The sergeant then ordered Moore to be arrested”.

George Moore – arrested
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A9751

“It was then I was aware of the big crowd – newspapers later reported that there were 4,000 spectators that night and word of what had happened spread among the crowd faster than the fire that destroyed the house! The mob was calling out and chanting, everyone was against the police because of what had happened. I was worried about wider breaches of the peace; I could see the gathering was getting more and more agitated. Then a more serious, immediate concern came along.

What could be of more concern?

Foreman Clarke approached me again. ‘You know Moore is also a member of the Naval Artillery, well, his mates are saying they are so incensed about one of their own being arrested, and detained while he was fighting the fire, that they’re drawing together with the intention of rescuing Moore from police custody’. I recalled there were some 40 of these men on the ground and any attempt to free Moore would lead to more trouble… and that might involve the angry mob, too.

I told Foreman Clarke to go forward and dissuade them from that course of action, that it would just make matters worse.  It happened that shortly afterwards Moore was taken away by Constables Hobson and Burns, under direction of Senior Sergeant White. Part of the crowd broke away, about a thousand I suppose, showing their support for Moore by following the police party, yelling and hooting opposition at the constabulary. I’m told it was quite a scene especially on reaching the police station when Constable Kelly, the acting lock-up keeper, came to the gateway. He received a blow from a stone on the head, but his hat saved him from any severe injury. Inside, Moore was charged with using language calculated to cause a breach of the peace”.

Was the destroyed house really a brothel? 

“Well, naturally we were piecing together what we knew about the house that had been lost. It was owned, we found out, by Mrs Sarah White, proprietress of the City Club Hotel, but she’s at her country cottage at Onehunga just now. The tenant, we’re told, is a woman known as ‘Black Julia’ (Julia Curtis, alias Julia Wilson) who is abroad in Australia on holiday. If you mention her name to police they’ll tell you she’s been known to them for quite some time. Let’s say she’s of indifferent reputation. ‘Black Julia’, let the house fully furnished, to a younger woman, who, with two other young females occupied the place along with another woman employed as a servant. Read the newspapers of the day and you’ll see they describe the place as “the house of entertainment in Albert Street”.  From what we were told, no expense had been spared with handsome furnishings and fittings throughout the place. On the night of the fire the servant returned from shopping to find smoke coming from the back of the house. On investigation she saw that window-curtains in the kitchen had caught fire from a candle, probably caused after a draught blew the curtains across the flame. The back door had accidentally been left ajar and fanned the fire which quickly spread”.

Did you go to the police station that night?

“Yes. When at last my duties were all over at the fire I went to the police station. I spoke with Branchman George Moore who said, ’I admit using the strong language to both the civilian and the police sergeant. I’ve told police that I had been instructed by you, the Superintendent, to protect the hose, and I was obeying orders. If the hose had been burst through people treading on it, in all probability Gledhiil’s factory would have been lost:  I knew the importance of my duty, and I was determined to fulfil it against any man’. I believed Moore, I knew him quite well. He had been a member of the Brigade for three years, and had been a member of the Naval Artillery for much longer.

I asked Senior Sergeant White to release Moore without further action, but when this was refused I sent for the Town Clerk, who is a J.P., in order to obtain the release of Moore on bail.

William Crowther
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-JDR7390

I found City Councillor William Crowther was willing to put up bail. He made the arrangements and, desirous of preventing any further bad blood between the police and the mob, hired a cab to take Moore back to the fire station”.

There was a meeting of firemen?

“Once the men returned from the fire they held a meeting of the Brigade and I attended. The members cheered Mr Crowther for bailing out George Moore and the gathering passed a resolution that I be empowered to employ a lawyer to defend Moore, and to see the matter through. The men said they would meet costs.

I subsequently received word that the Naval Artillery offered to pay half the legal costs, but the fire-fighters, wanting to look after their own, insisted that they would find the total amount to defend Moore”.

What were newspapers saying?

“After the meeting of firemen, the New Zealand Herald reporter, aware of the strange occurrence of a fireman being arrested while on duty at a fire, was waiting to ask me a few questions: my replies would, of course, be for publication. I stated that my powers under the Act make it my business to remove persons obstructing in the case of a fire. I thought the police had no right to arrest a fireman, and remove him from his post, without reference to me as his commanding officer. Further, I believed police do not keep the ground clear of idlers and onlookers as they should do, and I said so. Mr. Crowther was also interviewed by the reporter and he was quoted saying he greatly deplored that this misunderstanding should have arisen, as the Brigade and police should work together at fires for the public good. The whole circumstances of the affair, he noted will no doubt be brought out at the Police Court. Mr Crowther appeared in print saying that ‘Sergeant Clarke, who ordered the arrest, bears the reputation of being one of the most discreet and intelligent officers in the force, with 17 years’ service in Auckland’.

Meanwhile we saw other newspapers report the strange case. “Bad Blood” between the firemen and police was how United Press Association described the incident, while the Auckland Star said it was “A Sensational Scene”.  The Auckland City Council, which received a report on the episode, declined to comment because the matter was still before the court”.

What happened in Court?

“When George Moore appeared in the Police Court a couple of days after the event, he was charged with ‘using threatening words in a public street, Albert Street, whereby a breach of the peace might have been occasioned’.

Samuel Hesketh
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-18980611-734-1

We had engaged prominent Auckland Lawyer, Samuel Hesketh, to represent Moore who pleaded not guilty. The police appeared unready to proceed with the case.

Superintendent John Thomson
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-18970724-137-1

Superintendent Thomson said, ‘In this case, your Worship, owing to the absence of an important witness, and by arrangement with Mr Hesketh, I beg to apply for a remand for a few days”. The police officer went on apologetically… “I may state that I regret exceedingly that a collision should have occurred between two bodies such as the police and the fire brigade, and I regret that the necessity should have arisen for an arrest of this kind”. Mr Hesketh agreed that the case should stand over for a few days… ‘possibly it may end in some other way. I have only now to ask for the release of the defendant on bail’. Moore was remanded on bail of £20, released and, again, we were relieved he did not remain in the lock-up”.

What was meant by ‘It may end in some other way’?

“We were still hopeful that the charge may be dropped. Hesketh was perhaps mentioning another way out for the police, playing upon the Superintendent of Police’s apology in Court. There was much to recommend this course. Apart from the absurd actions that police took in Albert Street, George Moore, you see, was a well-known personality about town. In a small town like Auckland everyone knows everyone! I was ready to attest to Moore’s diligence as a fireman and to his character. The Officer Commanding the Naval Artillery already indicated to me that he was ready to give Moore a glowing reference as a member of the military and as the man. Others would no doubt stand up for him too. Then there was public opinion: another reason police might want to drop the charge. Newspapers remained critical of the police”.

What happened before the hearing?

“Detectives found no evidence of incendiarism in the burned-out house. The main talking point was that police seemed to have made an error of judgement, then and there, by arresting Moore while engaged in fire-fighting and without reference to me, his Commanding Officer. Some were saying this was because he wasn’t in fire brigade uniform at the time, but I know that police were well aware that Moore was a member of the Brigade and at least one constable saw me engaging with him as I gave him his orders at the hydrant. So that policeman would have known Moore, as a firefighter, had been tasked by me and that he was definitely on duty. The New Zealand Herald, I noted, credited Moore when it said… ‘instead of going home to change his clothes and get his uniform, with commendable public spirit he went straight to the fire, content to destroy his own private clothing in the public service. Owing to Moore being in private clothes, the crowd paid little attention to his injunctions to stand off the hose, and his anxiety to keep it protected will be understood. Without it, the Gledhill factory was in jeopardy’”.

And Moore’s senior naval officer spoke up?

“Certainly. Captain Le Roy of the Naval Artillery gave the newspapers the measure of the accused man when he reminded readers that ‘this first class Petty Officer was the hero of one of the most daring acts of self-devotion and gallantry that had been performed in connection with the history of the Naval Brigade’. Le Roy recalled, ‘personnel were out on the harbour in a small craft at night doing gun practice, when somehow the magazine exploded. A panic ensued, and one of the men leapt out of the boat into the sea. Moore, without a moment’s hesitation, jumped overboard into the pitch-black seas, and at the peril of his life held the drowning man up for a quarter of an hour ‘til they were both rescued. For this act of bravery he was presented with a silver medal’.

I thought Captain Le Roy put it plainly in the press when he added ‘…a man with such a record deserves a better fate than to be run-in for a few choleric words to the gaping, idle, hustling crowd at the fire who would neither work themselves, nor permit Moore and his comrades to work. The scene of a fire’, Le Roy concluded ‘… is scarcely the place where a fireman would quote snatches from Chesterfield’s Letters on Politeness, and the only way in which the obstruction nuisance could be abated on Friday night was that adopted by Superintendent Hughes, namely, to douse the obstructive members in the crowd with water, by occasionally turning the branch upon them’.

Did you really order that form of crowd control?

“Well, there may have been some spraying of the crowd which I had better say was accidental or inadvertent! These things happen during strenuous fire-fighting!

But as you know I have already complained about the lack of co-operation on the part of the police in keeping the ground clear, which would have prevented all the trouble. The Albert Street fire occurred early evening (8 p.m.), and the result was a crowd, a sea of faces from Wellesley Street to Cook Street, and with such great numbers, say  4,000, the few police present were unable to deal with the situation. Speaking with an experience of past fires, I can say the police usually cooperate with the brigade very well, keeping the ground clear. And it was the same within a few days of the Albert Street fire – we had a major early morning outbreak in Karangahape Road involving Belcher’s building at the Queen Street corner. There was nothing we could do to save the premises, outbuildings, stables and two horses: all were lost to the flames. Police, again with Sergeant Clarke in charge, were quickly on the scene, and most cooperative despite the recent unpleasantness hanging over our heads”.

But police persisted with the charge against Moore?

“Yes, they did, and by the time of the hearing there were actually two charges – a new one, using threatening language in Albert Street, whereby a breach of the peace might have been occasioned and an additional one, a breach of the Assaults on Constables Act, 1873, by wilfully obstructing Sergeant A. Clarke, while in the execution of his duty. Superintendent Thomson, head of Auckland Police, prosecuted and Edwin Hesketh, as arranged, appeared for Moore. The courtroom’s gallery was packed. I was aware that the outcome of the case was eagerly awaited by fire-fighters … and police… throughout New Zealand. It was a kind of test case. There was also intense public interest”.

How did the hearing unfold?

“Hesketh was quite firm putting the case for the accused. Superintendent Thomson seemed to be on the back foot.  My recollection of proceedings went something like this:

Hesketh: ‘I take exception to the charges against George Moore. They don’t disclose that any offence took place as no breach of the peace was occasioned. I have several times raised the question, and have lent the authority for this at law. There is no case to answer’.

Thomson: ‘I admit that there is no breach of the peace, but the accused by his blustering, violent conduct did his best to create one, and the officer did not arrest him until he was forced to do so, and while in command of the police force I will protect my men when they are in the right’.

Hesketh: ‘But I am saying that at fires the police are subservient to the officer of the Fire Brigade’.  Thomson:  ‘Absurd!’

Hesketh: ‘Well, that’s what the Act says and I’m going to quote the authorities, a case 7 years ago, MacFarlane v. Brett’.

Thomson:  ‘I’m not aware of any such ruling. If so, it was before I had anything to do with the district, and I’m asking Mr. Hesketh to produce the authorities. I’d consent to an adjournment for a few days to give him time to produce that authority’.

The Bench: ‘That won’t be necessary: the mind of the bench is made up. First, on the objection raised by Mr. Hesketh, and second, it’s regretted that any misunderstanding should arise between the two bodies. They ought to shake hands and be friends’.

Thomson: ‘From the police point of view, this course of action has my full concurrence’

But the Superintendent couldn’t take the hint from the Bench and leave it at that. Thomson turned his guns on me!

Thomson: ‘But I do think Superintendent Hughes ought to make some public withdrawal of the statement he had made that the police do not assist him. May I remind the Bench that Mr. Hughes said that since Sergeant-Major William Pardy left Auckland Police in October last year that he finds a great difference, alleging the police are not protecting the hose or keeping the crowd off; he has stated that police at fires stand around in groups of threes and fours, which means he has to place his own men to protect the hose. The dispute or ill feeling was not, I think, between the police and fire brigade, but another body of which Mr. Moore is a member”.

[Was Thomson suggesting in public that police envy, jealousy or just plain bad blood with the Naval Artillery was the real reason Moore had been arrested ?]

Hesketh: ‘Reiterating the circumstances of the case, I allude to the action of the police in taking a fireman away from his duty before the fire at which he was engaged was extinguished, and then placing him in the dock on such a charge as this. I point out again that it was the duty of the police to assist the Brigade….’

Mr Hesketh was interrupted in full flight….

The Bench: ‘It’s unnecessary to go into the evidence.  Both charges are hereby dismissed’.

 And the sequel?

“I was aware fire-fighters at Auckland station met on 3rd September to receive an account from the law firm Hesketh and Richmond for representing George Moore. The company wrote: ‘Seeing that we acted as mediators between parties, rather than in our legal capacity, we have decided to make no charge in this matter’. The letter was received with unanimous expressions of applause and a cordial vote of thanks was accorded to the lawyers.  Edwin and Samuel Hesketh, along with John Richmond, were elected honorary members of the Brigade.

And I saw the article in the Auckland Star that pondered loose talk that circulated for days around town that one of the senior police officers present in Albert Street had expressed regret the constabulary was not armed with its carbines, and had they been so equipped, he would have ordered the policemen to shoot down those in the mob obstructing fire-fighters.

I was not the only one surprised by this over-zealous attitude.

The Star’s columnist ‘Zamiel’, I noticed, was dismissive…  ‘however brave and war-like the sentiment might have been, I have reasons for believing that other members of the force did not agree with it, one of whom is reported to have said that he would be very sorry to obey his superior’s commands unless he was served with blank cartridges. Probably the officer was the same one who mounted guard at the station armed with a baton when the arresting party was approaching, but who made an undignified retreat into the station when some larrikin threw a stone, connecting with Constable Kelly’s helmet, bruising his pride’.

Reviewing this incident at the time, I thought it had so many ingredients that I should never live to see another like it in my time”.

 Footnotes

Brothels

Later occurrences, nearly 2 years after this fire, probably answer the question “was the house destroyed in Albert Street being used as a brothel at the time?”

The NZ Herald on 2nd March 1885 reported a second devastating house-fire, this time in Rokeby Street, premises known as Paddington Villa. It was rented by Julia Curtis, alias Julia Wilson, alias “Black Julia”, the same woman who had rented out the house destroyed in Albert Street. Since that blaze she had moved to Rokeby Street (these days Waverley Street off Queen Street, up from the Town Hall on the opposite side).

When fire struck in Paddington Villa, Miss Wilson, her baby, three young women, plus ‘several visitors’, made good their escape. The house was owned by ‘well-known Madame Valentine Becquet’.  It, too, was destroyed.

Valentine Becquet, of French origin, may have been her real name: as an assisted immigrant in 1874 she certainly travelled under another name, Valentine Francois.  She was one of a group of French nationals who, under false pretences,  managed to join the ship “Queen of the Age” in London and travel to Auckland, their fares inadvertently paid by the New Zealand Government as “selected recruited immigrants”.

“Madame Valentine”, as she became known, managed or owned several brothels in Auckland including Paddington Villa in notorious Rokeby Street.

Newspapers of the day did not mince their words following the fire, saying “…Paddington Villa, the well-known house of ill-fame, was converted into ashes and several men on the premises at the time lost no time making their escape. They were naked and fled over the back fence”.

Madame Valentine was charged with setting fire to the building. She allegedly had been heard to threaten to burn the place down, possibly in retaliation against the police who had given all the “girls” notice to quit the street in attempts to clean up the area.  But the charge against Valentine was dismissed for want of evidence at a preliminary hearing.

The fire, however, focussed on Rokeby Street, “its string of brothels and disturbances night after night” and police combining with landlords, determined to “make a clean sweep”.

(For a detailed account of Madame Valentine and the French nationals who came to New Zealand see “Valentine’s Days in Auckland” on this website)

There is little doubt that at the time of both fires the houses were being used as brothels, operated by “Black Julia” who had close connections with Madame Valentine and others engaged in providing such services at a number of large houses in Auckland in the 1870/80s. Not outdone by a second destructive fire, Julia moved the main business into a brick house in the same street. It became known as “the Brick House”, another notorious city landmark.

“Black Julia”, Julia Curtis alias Julia Wilson, was variously described in connection with her numerous court appearances (either as the accused or a witness) as “a young female half-caste”, “a lady of colour” and “a dark woman and prostitute”.  Sometimes police charged her with keeping a brothel, other times for selling liquor on unlicensed premises. She appeared on the last of these “sly grogging” charges in July 1899. Police, disguised as sailors, purchased beer in the Rokeby Street house – and so Julia was charged again. But she was found not guilty – the Judge said there was inconclusive evidence that she knew others in the house were selling liquor to the “sailors”.

It was during this hearing that it was revealed that she was ailing, with fulltime care ordered by a doctor.

She was involved on the periphery with those responsible for the murder of a farmer on Great Barrier Island in 1886.

(see “Murder, Escapade and Intrigue in Early Auckland” on this website)

Her colourful heydays, which stretched from the late 1870s to 1900, ended with her death at her Rokeby Street residence in February 1900 aged 45. Julia was survived by a daughter and two sons and rests in Auckland’s Purewa Cemetery.

(For a more detailed account of Auckland brothels in the 1870’s to 1900 see “Belles of the Pavement” on this website) 

George Moore

He served many years in the fire brigade, first with the volunteers and, when the permanent brigade was formed early in the 1900s, he became its first foreman under Superintendent Woolley. He retired from the brigade about 1910 and returned to his trade as a shipwright employed at the well-known yards of Bailey’s and then Nicol’s. He was a devoted oarsman in his younger days, taking some of the whaleboats he had helped construct to victory at numerous regattas on the Waitemata Harbour. He died in October 1933, the result of injuries sustained in the boat-yard some years before.

 

Source: The narrative in the conversation above is written based on the columns of the NZ Herald, August, 1883 and March 1885.

 

R. C. Carlyon, March 2014 updated March 2020, December 2021, February 2022