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Asher Asher was a businessman in early Auckland who led the town’s first volunteer fire brigade. But there’s a challenge to this fact in the writings of another pioneer, William Daldy. But based on evidence, its safe to say that Asher Asher was indeed the first fire chief in Auckland with the title Superintendent.

Asher Asher was from London, arriving in Auckland with his parents in 1842 when he was aged 20.

Asher Asher. Tauranga City Libraries

William Crush Daldy, from Essex in England, was a ship’s captain who settled in Auckland in 1846 aged 30.

William Crush Daldy c 1910

There are two instances when William Crush Daldy claimed he was the first to lead Auckland’s Volunteer Fire Brigade. The first was his own writing in what is described as his diary but which were his recollections written when he was aged 83.1 The supposition that he was Auckland’s first fire chief is further carried in a book about Daldy’s life published in 1993. 2

In short, Daldy claims that about 1848-49 the first volunteer brigade was formed and that he was elected Captain. He says he had help from Asher Asher and others. 3.

Daldy also reckons he had firefighting equipment including an engine, ladders, buckets and says all the town’s water wells were marked. 4.

Daldy recalls two specific fires in his diary, one in the new National Bank Building, the other in Coombes’ block. 5.

Some townspeople credited Daldy with forming a fire brigade following a public meeting held in September 1849 because of what they called ‘the present emergency’?” 6

“The Present Emergency…”

But the concern about fire in the closely-settled wooden buildings of burgeoning Auckland was just one of the topics discussed.  More importantly, settlers discussed other matters that night and in the end didn’t bother themselves about fighting fires. Those gathered wanted just one thing – to get rid of the Governor, George Grey.

Governor, Sir George Grey – not universally liked
In oils, painted by Daniel Mundy, circa 1860

The accusing townsfolk were tired of his ‘despotic rule’, which they said was delaying all development in the Colony because he stopped land sales, delayed public works and passed restrictive laws.  They said the over-zealous Grey was dissuading further settlers and demoralising those already here. He had to go. 7.

Various matters along with the dissolution of the Provincial Council, comprised ‘the present emergency’. And they were not solely Auckland’s lack of fire protection. Daldy would have had no authority, nor motivation, to immediately go out and set up a fire brigade at that time.

Military had the Monopoly

There is no evidence that there was an organised fire brigade in Auckland in 1848 or 1849. The military had the sole “fire engine” in town. It was a hand-pump, a cart, dragged to fires by the garrison’s soldiers. They drew water from the sea or from wells and pumped it through leather hoses, directing it on to the flames. The soldiers responded, for example, to the major fire that destroyed Government House in June, 1848. 8.

Government House before the fire.Edward Ashworth, water colour c 1842 – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 5-1376A

It’s recorded that the Governor, himself, thanked everyone who assisted on the night of the fire: the volunteer fire brigade isn’t mentioned: there wasn’t one.  William Daldy is not reported in attendance, and he surely would have been mentioned if he was Captain of the fire brigade, present, and fighting the blaze. 9.

The newspaper of the day confirms that Auckland had only one fire engine – and it belonged to the military. 10

The City Fathers Take Action

Further evidence of this was a resolution passed at a meeting of the Municipal Corporation in early 1852 calling for the purchase a fire engine and equipment from Merryweather in London and that ‘a competent fire brigade be organised’. There was also realisation that a water supply for fire-fighting, in all seasons, was going to be essential. 11

This was before a water supply for the downtown area was piped from the Domain duck pond.

Once again, the military engine was the only equipment available late 1853 to tackle a blaze in the Black Bull Inn in Albert Street. The crew of the navy ship “Pandora” came ashore to assist and their combined efforts prevented the fire spreading. There’s no mention of a volunteer fire brigade.12

The City Council followed up with a By-law in August 1854 which did two things. The Council would collect an annual levy on every building in the town.  (In effect the introduction of annual rates collected by local bodies). The second objective was to provide fire protection: the By-law declared there would be a “City Fire Brigade” funded by the rates collected by the Council.

Then again, in December 1854, the military were at the much more serious outbreak of fire in Fort Street in December 1854.13

Reviewing the damage done by that blaze the “Daily Southern Cross” advocated the formation of a fire brigade. 14 The newspaper would not have said this had Daldy’s brigade already existed.

A Reminder from Abroad

Moves towards a fire brigade stemmed from concern by local businessmen in December, 1853, when attention was drawn to further fires in San Francisco, an earlier major blaze having all but destroyed the city.

Artist’s impression of one of the San Francisco fires

Auckland businessmen said it would be foolish to rely on the military while waiting for the government or council to provide proper fire protection. Auckland newspapers reported that San Francisco had learned the lesson about fire protection, establishing no fewer than 14 Fire Companies with 840 men at the ready.  This prompted Auckland townsfolk to form several sub-committees to collect subscriptions from citizens. They said Auckland, with its mainly wooden buildings – as had been the case in San  Francisco – needed fire protection and the money gathered would go towards purchase of ‘fire engines etc’ 15

This fire brigade equipment – the first investment by the community for such – showed that in 1853 there was no fire brigade in Auckland: the military had the sole fire engine. Thus Daldy could not have led a Brigade with a fire engine 4 or 5 years earlier, in 1848-1849, as he claimed.

Enter Asher Asher

About the same time, late 1853, local businessman Asher Asher began to get interested in fire protection and he imported a quantity of portable fire escapes, ladders and fire buckets, and advertised them for sale in local newspapers from May 1854. He had a shop in Shortland Street. 16

Advertisement in Daily Southern Cross newspaper, May 16 1854

He presented a set of these escape ladders to the City Council in October 1854 which was gratefully received, stored in a lock-up in Market House ready for any emergency. 17

They were stored in the Market House, near the waterfront, because there was no fire station. It’s recorded that the Commissioner of Police was trusted with the key. Had there been a fire brigade then surely its officer- in-charge would have held a key enabling him to access it when required.

Foot of Queen Street 1850s, Market House is left foreground
Auckland Weekly News – ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19400124-40-2

Some townsfolk had short memories about the devastation fire had already caused in the colony and there remained some antipathy about fire protection, especially when they were called on to pay the fire levy. Some refused to pay the small rate the council levied to fund the fire brigade once formed, to build a fire station and to equip it. 18

New Fire Engines

Real progress towards a fire brigade took place In February 1855 when the 2 new Merryweather fire engines which had been funded by townsfolk arrived, ready for service. 19.  And it was always known that the Provincial Government was also buying one, with the understanding that all three engines would combine for fire-fighting. The militia’s engine could also be counted-on in times of need.

Within a month a meeting was called, mid-March 1855, to organise the new fire brigades. While William Daldy was appointed to a committee to oversee funds and administration, it was Asher Asher, along with others, who were tasked with forming the two new brigades to deploy the Merryweather fire engines. 20

Auckland’s Merryweather would have been similar to this.

The claim that these men comprised Auckland’s first fire brigades is backed up in the newspaper of the time with a write-up welcoming their formation as a great improvement for the city. 21

Recruiting began and within a week or so – in March 1855 – all those men interested in joining an engine company gathered. They enrolled on the spot and within days they were practising in Queen Street. 22

And the new firefighters didn’t have long to wait before they were called out to a fire. On 24th March they responded to Chancery Street but the blaze had been extinguished by neighbours and the next day they turned out to a fire in Shortland Street, also subdued without the need for their services. But the Daily Southern Cross praised them for their rapid deployment to both calls.23

The newspaper further welcomed the formation of these brigades. 24.  More recruits were sought in April 1855. 25

Combining Resources to Fight Fire

By May 1855 the combined Engine Companies  were regarded as one fire brigade, acknowledged when it was being proposed that the engine imported by the Provincial Council be handed over to ‘the brigade’.26

So Asher Asher did not follow Daldy as Superintendent of the Brigade as Daldy infers in his recollections. And the date, October 1854, which he recalls was when Asher took over as Superintendent is wrong. 27

There was some pressure on Asher, having helped establish these brigades in 1855, to combine them as one stand-alone brigade. Before going ahead it was essential to have sufficient firefighters and Asher could see a problem with this. By March 1857 there were real fears that those members of the Engine Companies who were also soldiers may no longer be available because, more and more, they were being deployed at the front, defending the threat from Maori dissidents in South Auckland. The fire brigades relied on the soldiers’ help, so Asher took two actions. He advertised a meeting to reorganise the brigade, as the “Engine Companies” were by now, collectively, known. 28

And he asked the Government to ensure militia support, and the Governor, realising the problem, acted. In September 1857 the military formally advised that it realised the town’s fire protection depended on the availability of those soldiers who were also members of the fire brigade. While the soldiers could not be excused active duty at the front, they would be drafted as a ‘fire detachment’. It seems this meant they would be deployed on ‘local duties’ and thus always available in the town to help fight fires. 29

Despite arguments, within a month, in October 1857, the Provincial Government handed over its fire engine along with all its gear and it was re-organised, with 3 fire engines and seeking 100 volunteers, the estimated number required for the 3 engines based on the militia’s experience. This figure was probably recalled by Daldy when he mistakenly wrote in his diary that it was the number of men he led as Fire Chief in 1848.

Asher Asher as Superintendent

Asher Asher officially became Superintendent on 13 October 1857 at a meeting which formally united the 2 Engine Companies and then elected Captains for each. Amalgamation talks had been going for some time and at the meeting Asher was unanimously elected to lead the one organised fire brigade, known as the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, combining all available fire-fighting equipment which was then allocated to each Fire Engine Company, ready for action. 30

It was well-known and widely publicised that Asher Asher was elected on that date – the first Superintendent of Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, the first to hold this office anywhere in New Zealand because Auckland had the first such fire brigade”. 31

Asher’s Fire Helmet. Auckland Museum Collections

The newly-combined brigade wasted no time in practising and by mid-November 1857 they had a well-planned and rehearsed process to find and pump water, two engines  (those purchased by public subscription) often feeding the third (ex-Provincial Government) to provide sufficient pressure for fire-fighting in the town area”. 32

The Great Fire of July 1858

“Townsfolk could see progress and Asher was specially thanked for his work, as Superintendent, at the Great Fire of July, 1858. 32

It was huge fire attended by the 3 engines working together, along with the Army’s outfit. The blaze got an early hold and much of the business district around High Street was gutted with big losses.  Daldy was also there, acting in a private capacity, joining others to help save some premises.

Another aspect suggesting Daldy’s recollections were somewhat hazy concerned the water sources in early Auckland. He says wells and water courses were marked on a map in 1848. But there is documented evidence that it was only in late 1854 that the Royal Engineers were completing their useful project to map all the available local wells and waterholes so that there was a ready reference of their locations, essential in times of fire. 34

And then a year later the City Council began constructing wells at strategic places throughout the built-up area specifically for fire-fighting with attention to ready and easy access for the brigade”.35

Queen Street and the Ligar Canal: source of water or fire-fighting
James D Richardson: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-400

It was only after these sources were available and marked that it was made clear that the brigade had the right to use the water: at long last firefighters could be reasonably certain of supplies for their pumps as of right. Although firefighters sometimes drew on sea-water for waterfront fires, they couldn’t rely on it if the tide was out.

Daldy’s “Colleagues”

William Daldy’s mention of two colleagues assisting him with the early brigade also shows confusion. Asher, named as one, was not part of the brigade at that stage. But in 1858, when he had been Chief, the fire brigade fell apart in disarray so the garrison of the 58th Regiment reverted as the mainstay for Auckland’s fire-fighting.  But the soldiers returned to England in November that year leaving only police to attend to fires.

58th Regiment parades at Albert Barracks, 1858, with other regiments.
Possibly its last before leaving New Zealand

Then, in February 1859 after re-organisation, the fire brigade started up again. Asher was involved, but this brigade, too, was short-lived, with firefighters claiming they were under-resourced by the Council and received nothing but discouragement from the authorities. So they packed it in some 3 months later in May 1859. There’s evidence that this was when Daldy came in – it was August 1860 when he led a reformed brigade and was made Superintendent overseeing the 3 engines. 36

The other names Daldy recalled as connected with the earlier brigade, in 1848, were ‘Rattry’ and ‘Hely, from H. M. Customs’.  37

‘Rattry’ may be traced as probably William (Bill) Rattray who was more than likely there in 1860 because he is listed as a Foreman of one of the engines. 38

‘Hely from H M Customs’ is possibly meant to refer to Thomas Hendry Eley  who was on official, a Landing Waiter, in the Customs office in the 1850s. Eley was one of those helping Daldy, as civilians,  at the devastating fire downtown in July 1858. They were singled out for mention in the newspaper at the time.39

Perhaps it was Angelo Elias, another similar name, a man who had a shop in Queen Street about the late 1850s. 40.   The name Elias was mentioned as a Foreman who volunteered to serve under Daldy for the Northern Engine. 41

But that could be a mis-print, Elias instead of Ellis. Maybe Daldy meant Ellis from Freemans Bay who was on the crew of one of the engines, one of the better Foremen working under Daldy. 42

But its apparent these events occurred a good deal later than Daldy’s claim of 1848: more likely in 1860. Rattray and Ellis, for example, neither had arrived in Auckland until much later than 1848. 43, 44

Other Inconsistencies

Then there’s another inconsistency when Daldy mentions in his reminiscences the fire in the new National Bank as if it was about the time he was Captain, supposedly in 1848. 45

The fact is the National Bank of New Zealand wasn’t formed until 1872 and in Auckland didn’t open its doors until April 1873. 46

And by that date Daldy had gone from the brigade – he left in 1863 when the brigade dissolved for the umpteenth time.

Turbulent Times

Asher Asher was his Deputy when that happened: the turbulent era for fire brigades in Auckland was to continue. There were years of turmoil, arguments about who should have command of the brigades, who should run the engines and who should pay for them. Asher  made several attempts to reshape the brigades: it was obviously difficult leading such troubled outfits.  He helped form a new brigade in May 1865 but it failed and he tried again in March 1866 which had a longer life… but in September 1868 it, too, disbanded.47

Asher was to retain an interest in fire protection with brigades working together with the Insurance Companies’ Brigades. But the relationship between them soured. By mid-1872 there was a falling out:  Asher found there was intense competition between the volunteer brigade and the Insurance brigade. He was moved to advertise in the local newspaper that anyone trespassing in the fire station would be prosecuted and then he had a notice published to say that he had been put in charge of firefighting equipment at 3 depots… at the same time warning off members of the Insurance Brigade.

Auckland Star 11 May 1872

The Insurance Companies’ Brigade advertised in the same newspapers that Seering Matthews had taken over as their Superintendent and he, in turn, advised the “going rates” for anyone who helped his Brigade.

Auckland Star 11 May 1872

 

Auckland Star 11 May 1872

Despite this initial competition the brigade continued to attend outbreaks  together, both outfits working against the common enemy, fire. The newspapers called them ‘rival brigades’. 48

“A Pretender” emerges

In November that year there was a light-hearted challenge to Asher’s position as Superintendent, a position and rank he had retained. Christopher Greenway, said to be ‘the richest man in Auckland’, had disagreed with Asher’s firefighting techniques at several outbreaks. Greenway wrote to the editor of the Southern Cross newspaper in November 1872 repeating his criticism and, in the interests of improved fire protection, he offered to take over the job of Superintendent of the Fire Brigade – and without any payment. Greenway was described in the Press as a ‘gentleman of Remuera’ before he moved into the city to live, the owner of many downtown properties. The Southern Cross gently mocked his offer saying that if the brigades were placed under his command surely he would generously dip into his immense personal wealth to pay for them. His offer to be Superintendent was not taken up.

But the difficulty of managing fire brigades remained. Asher continued drilling with the brigades. Good numbers had been retained, sometimes 50 men mustered for training, and there were some good saves, attending fires both big and small. Lack of water, rather than a shortage of manpower, equipment or expertise was the main hindrance to providing ideal fire protection for the city. Asher’s firefighting abilities were sometimes questioned, mainly by rivals – Mr Seering Matthews and his insurance friends – with criticism once or twice boiling over into caustic debate through newspaper columns.

Asher Asher Bows Out

Asher Asher was appointed the town’s Fire Inspector and, soon after, a municipal Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed in 1874. A joint committee of the City Council and Insurance Companies was formed to appoint the brigade’s new Superintendent and this may have been Asher’s undoing. The insurance interests on the committee who had earlier criticised his administration and firefighting operations probably voted against him. But he also had his supporters on the committee. Thanks to his later remarks we learn that the committee was evenly divided between him and John Hughes of the Dunedin Fire Brigade. Nothing could shake either side and this inevitable tie resulted in the name of the successful candidate being drawn from a hat. John Hughes was appointed in July 1874. An embittered  Asher Asher moved to Tauranga where for some years he progressed the fire brigade there.   

When he died in 1899 there was further documentation that debunks Daldy’s writings. The New Zealand Herald wrote in an obituary ‘Mr. Asher was the original founder of the Auckland Fire Brigade… ‘. 49

Asher Asher at work
In oils, painter unknown

And the Auckland Star wrote that he ‘… was the founder and first Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, which was also the first in the colony’.50

In September 1874, when John Hughes succeeded Asher as Superintendent, there was a letter to the editor of the ‘Daily Southern Cross’ recalling his service. ‘It is hardly necessary to state,’ it said, ‘that Mr Asher has been connected (and was the first to start) a Fire Brigade in Auckland 19 years ago’. 51

While the correspondent may have been a little generous with the number of years Asher served as officer in charge, the man himself put his service much more accurately at the farewell function the Brigade held for him in 1874 when he said that he had answered every fire bell for the past 17 years, in other words since 1857, the year he was made Superintendent”.52

And again, there was a write-up in newspapers in 1897 when, on October 12th, Asher was receiving congratulations having completed 40 years of service as a fire brigade officer.  ‘Asher was appointed Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, being the first established in the colony on the 13th October, 1857 and then in Tauranga he organised and has led the fire brigade for 10 years’”. 53

In 1903 William Daldy was eulogised in the New Zealand Herald. The newspaper said “…some 40 years ago…  Daldy formed one of the finest fire brigades in the colony, the deceased being appointed its captain”. 54

This, much more accurately, puts Daldy in charge of the Brigade in the early 1860s sometime after Asher Asher was elected as Superintendent of the first brigade.

The Minute Book of the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade is available at Auckland Library, donated by Asher Asher. Its contents also show that, throughout difficult early times, “he was elected Superintendent of the various brigades from the very first”.55

RCC

November 2015/September 2020/May 2021

References

  1. William Crush Daldy, 1816-1903, pioneer Auckland settler:

“1848-49, the first volunteer fire brigade was formed and I was elected Captain. I had associated with me Asher, W. Rattry, H Ely and many other citizens. We had one engine, ladders, buckets and wells marked during my time. Mr Asher succeeded me in charge. I now began to take an interest in public affairs and shortly after this was captain of the first brigade with 100 men” – his diary November 17th 1898.

  1. Captain William Crush Daldy by Lesley N. Dugdale, Heritage Press 1993 among many other publications quoting passages from Daldy’s diary
  2. Diary of William Crush Daldy written on November 17 1898.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Southern Cross Public Notice of Meeting 4 September 1849
  6. Daily Southern Cross 11 September 1849 news article, proceedings of meeting
  7. New Zealander July 26 1848 news article Government House burns down
  8. Ibid
  9. New Zealander 24 June 1848 news article – the military turned out more for crowd control and salvage rather than to fight the fire “…because Auckland, alas, possesses but one of those essentials to the extinction of fire, an engine”.
  10. Daily Southern Cross 24 February 1852 news article reporting meeting of Auckland Municipal Corporation
  11. Daily Southern Cross 8 December 1853 news article Black Bull on fire
  12. New Zealander 20 December 1854 news article re garrison attendance at Fort Street fire
  13. Ibid 20 December 1854 “The results of Sunday night (fire) effectually testify to the great advantages to be derived from the organization of an efficient Fire Brigade…”
  14. New Zealander 24 June 1848 “…because Auckland, alas, possesses but one of those essentials to the extinction of fire, an engine.” (Reference to the Garrison’s engine)
  15. Daily Southern Cross 27 June 1853 advertisement for ladders, buckets etc
  16. New Zealander 1 October 1854 news item report on Council proceedings
  17. New Zealander 22 November 1854 news item and opinion piece on the fire levy
  18. Daily Southern Cross 6 February 1855 Port of Auckland list of foreign imports per “Josephine Willis” arrived 5 February 1855 from London
  19. New Zealander 17 March 1855 news item report that the Fire Prevention Committee is dissolving in favour of committees to form engine companies so as to “prevent procrastination over the formation of an efficient brigade” which will work together with the Provincial Council’s engine.
  20. Daily Southern Cross 19 December 1854 “…a well-appointed Fire Brigade might be rendered one of the most invaluable bands that could possibly be formed for the protection and security of Auckland”
  21. Ibid 23March 1855 news article reporting Fire Brigade is practising and water-testing
  22. New Zealander 18 March 1855 “…we must not pass unnoticed the praiseworthy anxiety that has been manifested by the inhabitants in the formation of Volunteer Fire Brigades… …we rejoice, therefore, to find that the feeling in favour of the formation of Volunteer Fire Brigades is so strong…”
  23. Daily Southern Cross 27 March 1855 news article about two weekend fires
  24. Daily Southern Cross 7 April 1857, notice of fire brigade meeting and seeking new recruits
  25. Daily Southern Cross 1 May 1855 news article reporting Provincial Council business –“…Mr Derrom: There is one volunteer fire brigade and the engines are made to work together…”
  26. “United to Protect” by G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press. Also: “New Zealand Tragedies Fires & Firefighting” by Gavin McLean, 1992, Grantham House
  27. Daily Southern Cross 7th April 1857 Advertising meeting of the Fire Brigade
  28. New Zealander 12 September 1857 letter from Captain H C Balneavis
  29. “Decently and in Order” by G W A Bush, Auckland City Council, 1971. Also City Board Act, 1863, legislated by Auckland Provincial Government. Also “Cyclopedia of New Zealand”, The Cyclopedia Company 1902, accessed through NZETC website.
  30. “A Century of Service to Tauranga, 1882-1982” , by A. C. Bellamy, July 1982 , Publicity Printing Ltd, Tauranga, history of Tauranga Fire Brigade. Also “United To Protect” G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press. Also “timespanner” blog on the internet by Lisa Truttman, reprinted in “Priority Message” newsletter of the Auckland Fire Brigade Historical Society, September 2013
  31. New Zealand Herald 16 Oct 1897 reporting Asher’s 40 years of service in fire brigades. Also NZ League Co NZ website, the life of player Arapeta Paurini (Opai) Asher – “His grandfather was the first superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade”.
  32. Daily Southern Cross 9 July 1858 report Provincial Council proceedings. And New Zealander 10 July 1858 news item detailing a destructive fire in the city
  33. New Zealander 20 December 1854 news item following a fire downtown
  34. New Zealander 24 March 1855 report of Auckland City Council proceedings
  35. New Zealander 24 October 1860 report of fire meeting
  36. “Captain William Crush Daldy” by Lesley N. Dugdale, Heritage Press 1993 among many other publications quoting the passages from Daldy’s diary
  37. New Zealander 24 October 1860 report of fire meeting
  38. Southern Cross 3 December 1861 Obituary – Thomas Hendry Ely: New Zealander 10 July 1858
  39. List of ratepayers with shop frontages to Queen Street, Auckland, 1858
  40. New Zealander 24 October 1861 report of fire meeting
  41. New Zealander 22 January 1862 Oliver Sydney Ellis, Captain of Fire Engine also Jury List for 1860-61, Daily Southern Cross, 7 February 1860
  42. “Asher Asher – His Life and Times 1822 -1899” Nan Payne published by R. C. Payne 1988, also Rattray family arrivals at Auckland aboard “Kestrel“ from Melbourne, March 26 1853, New Zealander 30 March 1853, also Auckland Star 4 August 1932 news article
  43. Daily Southern Cross 19 July 1859 O.S. Ellis arrived at Auckland aboard “Whirlwind” July 16 1859
  44. Diary of William Crush Daldy written on November 17 1898
  45. New Zealand Herald 2 April 1873 news article
  46. Auckland Star 21 January 1873
  47. “United To Protect” G. M. Gillon, 1985 Orion Press page 22ff. Also Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade Minute Book, NZMS 223, held at Sir George Grey Collections, Auckland Library
  48. New Zealand Herald 17 February 1899 obituary for Asher Asher
  49. Auckland Star 20 February 1899 obituary for Asher Asher
  50. Daily Southern Cross 10 September 1874 Letter to the Editor from ‘A Volunteer’
  51. Daily Southern Cross 29 September 1874 news item re farewell function and presentation
  52. New Zealand Herald 16 October 1897 news article re Asher’s 40th anniversary as fire chief
  53. New Zealand Herald 6 October 1903, obituary for William Crush Daldy
  54. Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade Minute Book, NZMS 223, held at Sir George Grey Collections, Auckland Library
  55. Diary of William Crush Daldy written on November 17 1898

Accounts of Auckland’s fire protection before 1857, when a volunteer brigade was established, usually amount to a couple of lines saying that “organised”  fire-fighting in those early days was left to men from the Navy and Army, and citizens. Auckland began to be settled in 1840, so that was 17 years without a fire brigade with reliance on the armed services, and even longer than that because the first volunteers could not be counted on. It was not until 1874 that a Municipal Fire Brigade began and dependence on the military eased.

There’s a glimpse of the “old days” in a speech given in 1878 by the Master of Ceremonies to celebrate the 4th anniversary of Auckland’s fire brigade. C. S. Graham, Chairman of the United Insurance Companies Association said he had witnessed the first property fire in Auckland, a raupo (flax) store which stood between pioneering traders’ A Clarke’s and Brown and Campbell’s premises. This blaze, he said was arson, and Auckland’s first firefighters, Maori, turned up to empty their calabashes on the flames, but to little effect. He went on to compare the much more efficient fire-fighting machines and men of the 1870s.  He also acknowledged help, over the years, of the army and the navy: both had an integral part in the history of Auckland’s fire protection.

Long History of Help

Armed Services were ever-protective of the security of their stores, equipment and munitions no matter where they served. From the early 1800s British regiments owned fire engines which, as a matter of course, accompanied the troops, shipped with them to various theatres of operations around the globe. For instance, it’s recorded that naval men from RN ships used their equipment during the Great Fire of Bombay in 1803, similarly in Valparaiso in 1850, while British soldiers helped fight Montreal’s calamitous fire in 1852.

In Australia, what’s thought to be the first fire engine in that Colony was landed in 1822, known as “the Government fire engine”.

“Fire engine” in those times comprised a hand-pump on four wheels. Known as “a manual” it would be dragged to the fire by soldiers who, once on site, would establish a water supply from a creek, tank or cistern and pipe it to the engine…and then by raising and lowering the pump’s handles (sometimes called levers) water would be pumped through leather hoses to the blaze. Merryweather in London supplied HM Government… the larger engines required hard work by 40 men swinging on the “levers” to maintain a good pressure and some had a built-in tank. Many were later converted so they could be horse-drawn.

Small Merryweather hand-drawn fire engine c 1840

New South Wales – A Blueprint

Australia’s original engine was probably maintained and operated by the Ordinance Section of the Royal East Kent Regiment, joined later by apparatus from other Regiments and based in various barracks in New South Wales, ready to protect garrison and military property.

British armed services, the Royal Navy, first arrived in Australia in 1788, security later taken over by various Regiments posted to garrison duties, some of whom arrived as escorts aboard convict ships. Artillery, Infantry and Engineers wer represented. In 1836 George Street barracks in Sydney housed two fire engines protecting a population of 18,000.

The question whether soldiers and machines could be deployed for all fires in the burgeoning town was answered in October 1838. There was a fire in Macquarie Street and someone rushed to George Street barracks seeking help. But the Duty Officer refused to despatch the military fire engine for what was a “civilian blaze”.  This led to Orders permitting soldiers to respond “Government fire engines” to all fires where help “may he considered absolutely necessary and expedient”. This must have been a relief to the townsfolk: insurance companies owned the few other fire engines which responded only to those who had taken out insurance and showed a plaque on their property.

Early Merryweather fire engine made for Levuka, Fiji’s old capital

The militia’s attendance at fires in New South Wales became commonplace and all Regiments serving in Sydney would have been familiar with the Orders and their additional duties: fire-fighting.

The soldiers brought useful expertise to those fires where it was decided to stop the blaze spreading by creating a fire-break. Soldiers understood the size of the explosive charge required to safely blow up neighbouring buildings, cutting off the fire’s advance.  In other cases they pulled buildings down using stout ropes and military strongmen.

Merryweather “tub” appliance c 1850

Armed Services in Auckland

Some of those Regiments in Australia were later posted to operations in Auckland and they brought with them the acceptance of this additional role: that of fire-fighter. For example, the 58th Regiment  (The Black Cuffs) arrived in October 1845 under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wynyard, followed by the 96th Regiment from 1845, then the 65th in 1849 – as well as Sappers and Miners (later Royal Engineers).

Lt Col Robert Wynyard of the 58th went on to high Colonial Office
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A11981

Auckland was a Garrison Town. Albert Barracks, centre of military operations, on the hill above Queen Street (now Albert Park) dominated the town.

Drawing of the fortified Albert Barracks overlooking Auckland, 1852
Patrick Joseph Hogan, James D. Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-8987

The soldiers’ duties could at first easily accommodate assistance dealing with fires. It was men of the 96th who in June 1845 fought a fire in Mr Buckland’s slaughter-house in Albert Street. They were credited with preventing the flames spreading to adjacent properties.

The Royal Navy while in Auckland also continued its long-established tradition of attending fires on shore. Shortly after midnight on an October night in 1847 the officer-of-the-watch on HMS Dido noticed smoke near Flagstaff (Devonport). A landing party was dispatched and it found Lieutenant’s Snow’s raupo hut destroyed, his mutilated body inside along with his dead wife and daughter. A man was later found guilty of the murders and hanged.

In late 1853 the Army and Navy combined to help fight a fire in the Black Bull Inn on Albert Street. The troops of the 58th rushed down the hill from Albert Barracks to the scene with their engine, while up from the waterfront came men from  HMS Pandora, and as the newspaper “New Zealander” put it “… all were energetic in endeavouring to secure the only object attainable -the prevention of any further extension of the fire”. It must have been plain from the outset that the hotel was beyond saving.

Merryweather’s mid-sized manual fire engine

At half past four in the morning of June 23rd 1848 it was the 58th Regiment’s turn to help. A sentry spotted fire at Government House, the message quickly conveyed to the bugler who sounded the alarm to the garrison and to townspeople alike.

Government House c1842 – before the fire
Edward Ashworth, Water Colour, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 5-1376A

Every available soldier was mustered from the barracks by the bugle call and, led by Colonel Wynyard, attempted to save the nearby Government House, by then well ablaze. They took their fire engine but as the “New Zealander” newspaper reported “…there wasn’t any idea of preserving the mansion, because Auckland, alas, possesses but one of those essentials to the extinction of fire – an engine…”, so troops maintained order and salvaged as much property as possible from the flames.

Soldiers pose inside Albert Barracks: the cannon was captured at the Crimean War
James D. Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-423

Further Fire Protection Measures

In 1854 the military, namely Royal Engineers stationed in Auckland, further assisted the town’s fire protection measures when they deployed their skills to map all the town’s sources of water which might be useful for fire-fighters. The following year the Council used this information to construct tanks near the main sources, specially designed so fire-fighters could get ready access. They could, of course, use sea water from the harbour for fires near the waterfront but this very much depended on the state of the tide – good supplies of freshwater were much more reliable.

 

There are other reports of soldiers assisting at fires, including on August 28th 1858: Auckland’s biggest blaze up until that time. It destroyed several blocks, taking out all commercial and public buildings plus residences in an area bounded by High, Shortland and O’Connell Streets. Again the bugle, simultaneously with fire bells, alerted men of the 58th who responded with their fire engine, joining other engines that had not long before arrived in Auckland, operated by the new Volunteer Fire Brigade under Asher Asher.

The Bugle has been an instrument used by the military since Roman times to advise troops of events (scheduled and unscheduled) including such activities as Muster, Battle Charge, Reveille and Taps.  Among the 20 or so different standard bugle calls there is a specific tune sounded in the event of fire on the post, or nearby. It was this tune the bugler played at Albert Barracks whenever there was an alarm of fire: the soldiers responding whatever time of day or night.

Bugle call – fire within the post or in its vicinity

For some years the 58th Regiment often fought fires alongside Volunteer firefighters. From March 1855 there had been 3 fire companies, each with their own engine so, with the Regiment’s apparatus, there was a reasonable fire-fighting contingent.

58th Regiment parade at Albert Barracks, 1850
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19100224-2-1

Some members of the military were also members of the volunteer fire brigade which caused problems from around 1857.

There could no longer be certainty that the soldier-members and other troops would always be available, given their military duties and the increasing risk of conflict over Maori lands. The likelihood of enemy action and the need for active service at the front in South Auckland meant military assistance at fires could no longer be assured.

Foreseeing difficulties, the fire brigade wrote to the Governor asking if those who assisted at fires could be exempt from military duty and thus available. The military again came to the rescue: the local Commander acknowledged the importance of his men’s role in Auckland’s fire protection and he instructed that some soldiers were always to be rostered to Barracks duties, thus available to respond to outbreaks of fire. On top of which, September 1857, the local Commander and the Governor showed their further concern by declaring that those members of the fire brigade in the military would be exempt from ordinary military duties and formed into a Fire Detachment. This was a neat arrangement: the Governor said he could not exempt any soldier from all duties, it was beyond his powers. Instead, the men to all intents and purposes would be a fire brigade and available to assist should the need arise. The Brigade Secretary, Sidney Cornish, immediately called for recruits under this new arrangement.

Newspaper advertisement: 15th September 1857
“Daily Southern Cross”

This move also prompted a proposal that the fire engine companies might combine as the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade under Superintendent Asher Asher.

While “The New Zealander” welcomed the reorganisation of the fire brigade in its editorial, it scribe became impatient when, just a few days after the meeting had been held, fire destroyed Mr Charles Davis’s house in Karangahape Road. The military and the re-forming fire brigade turned out, but the residence (the old Government House), was lost. The newspaper said the fire engines were not sent to Karangahape Road because it was believed there was no water available. Which was wrong. The newspaper also criticised a lack of control of firemen and helping hands – “… there can be only one General…” and urged authorities to provide horses, readily available, to haul the fire engines to the scene of fires. “Static water tanks” would help with the problem of poor reticulation, the newspaper opined, and a prize for the first engine company on the scene might help the speed of despatch.

A combined fire brigade in Auckland, such as had been envisaged, was the first in the colony under Asher Asher, formed on October 13th 1857. Asher wasted no time in drilling the men with practical exercises and by mid-November 1857 he reported that they had a well-planned and rehearsed process to find and pump water, one engine feeding two others to provide sufficient pressure for fire-fighting in the inner city. The brigade was acknowledged for its work during the major fire, toted as the “Great Fire”, in July 1858, notwithstanding it took out several city blocks.

But the brigade was not to last. Its members claimed authorities showed no respect and gave little support. The brigade was an on-again, off-again affair, its members constantly resigning as a body, then regrouping, re-forming, only to disband again and then later again resurrecting the brigade. These moves were sometimes led by, sometimes repaired by Asher Asher. During these uncertain times the 58th stood in, providing constant fire protection for a rapidly-growing city.

So from 1857 to 1874 the military provided certain fire protection, along with police, in absence of the “sometimes” fire brigade. There were several attempts by Asher and by fellow townsfolk (notably William Daldy and the City Board of Commissioners) to form a stable fire brigade: all failed. In 1858 the trusty 58th Regiment left Auckland leaving it to their military successors to continue fire protection duties.

58th Regiment parades at Albert Barracks, 1858, with other regiments. Possibly its last.

The Military’s Dual Role

In August 1863 the Auckland garrison’s involvement drew fierce criticism in a “morning after” editorial in the newspaper “New Zealander”, but it was nothing to do with the soldiers’ firefighting abilities. Rather, the much more serious topic of the organisation of the troops during the blaze. By this time the threat of Maori invasion or mischief was very real. The newspaper observed that almost the entire barracks had turned out to the fire leaving insufficient protection for the town’s women and children in the event of a “stealthy night attack by natives”. “It cannot be denied…”, the newspaper opined, “…that a far from satisfactory state of order existed in the streets – the patrols and picquets, in many instances, came down to look on at the fire”. The remedy was swift. Colonel Carey held a mock emergency within days to ensure everyone knew their places and posts whatever might befall Auckland.

City Fathers repeated the earlier request to the authorities that the militia should provide firefighting resources. In September 1863 Andrew Beveridge, Chairman of the City Board, again asked for 60 men to be exempt from military duties so they may form a fire brigade.  This approach was probably unsuccessful because a year later Samuel Jackson, representing insurance interests wrote to the Military approaching the topic from the other end: he sought anyone engaged in fire brigade duties to be exempt from military duties.

30 Years’ Welcome Service

The military, supplemented with police continued to provide fire protection for the city while the authorities wrestled with costs and the organisation required maintaining a proper fire-fighting force. The Mayor wrote to the Colonial Secretary seeking government funding in 1874, the year that John Hughes was appointed Superintendent.

How the newspaper “Observer” saw Superintendent John Hughes, April 1894 Papers Past – National Library of New Zealand

With support and finance from the City Council Hughes founded a new Corporation fire brigade; one that endured even if, as in the days of Asher Asher, it was inadequately staffed and equipped.

The Armed Services, staunch protectors of Auckland from fire for some 30 years, were relieved of their onerous duties which had been welcomed by citizens.  The militia reverted to security of their own property, buildings and stores – a situation which continues today. The Army retains Defence Fire Brigades at military bases and while on manoeuvres, the Navy has trained fire parties aboard all ships, including its shore establishments, and the Air Force maintains fire stations, with their specialist appliances, at its airports.  Those involved continue a long, proud tradition.

RCC 26/09/2017