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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

It is unusual to dismiss a fire chief who couldn’t do his job because the equipment he was given was deficient. To discharge two chiefs within three years for the same reason is exceptional. In hind-sight it can be seen for what it was: Auckland City Council was derelict in its care of, and support for, the city’s fire protection over many years in the late 1800s. And then the Council, twice, ignored all the evidence pointing directly at itself, finding instead a convenient scapegoat:  the Fire Chief.

 

Herbert Frederick Gladding joined the Auckland Fire Brigade in 1884 aged 29, rose through the ranks to Foreman at Grafton Station when, in July 1899 he was appointed officer-in-charge, Superintendent.

Superintendent Herbert Gladding took over in July 1899

Gladding must have known it was going to be an up-hill battle to improve the brigade because, as he had seen for long time, the City Council had let fire protection slide with practically no spending. It was going to take a lot of courage, and money, to invest the large sum required to provide a modern fire brigade.

His predecessor Jim Hughes led firefighting at the 1898 blaze in the multi-storey Direct Supply Company (DSC) building on the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street East. Fire-spread was rapid and firefighters were taxed to get the better of the fire before it spread to adjacent buildings.

Superintendent Jim Hughes – career firefighter
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19130423-30-3

Operations were disrupted by unhelpful “assistance” from firefighters who were in Auckland for a Fire Brigades’ Conference and, of course, who had been attracted to the major fire. Their “help” bordered interference, delaying operations. But all the visitors who were watching the scenario unfold were astonished by the primitive firefighting equipment deployed: most of the spectators came from much smaller towns than Auckland and observed they had better apparatus at home.

The morning after: fire Brigade equipment outside the burnt out DSC building
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-18980305-284-1

An inquest into the DSC fire found the fire brigade was ill-equipped. Counsel for the insurance companies, Charles James Parr, said “I think the jury will agree with me that there has been little less than criminal neglect on the part of the authorities”. The jury did agree… but despite this finding the Council overlooked its own shortcomings and blamed Superintendent Jim Hughes. Despite testimonials, references, public meetings and petitions supporting Jim Hughes, the Council terminated his employment; thinly disguising their action by saying it was part of essential retrenchment.

 Major Fires Don’t Wait #1 July 4 1899

Gladding took charge of a difficult fire within days of taking office. Two boarding houses in Vincent Street were alight at one o’clock in the morning, surrounded by blocks of older wooden buildings. Gladding was praised for restricting the flames to, mainly, one of the boarding houses and stopping fire-spread to adjacent wooden premises 1.    

Survivor (1972) of typical large timbered boarding houses found in Vincent Street
L. Downey – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 314-3-5

It was said luck was on the side of the firefighters in Vincent Street that night: an early alarm of fire, no distance for the brigade to travel, little wind and good water pressure. But each fire brought with it a reminder that Auckland’s fire protection as seriously wanting. The City Council was solely responsible for administering the fire brigade and so it relied on Council for funding and support. A glance around the aging fire station and the primitive equipment gave many pointers that the City Council had over many years ignored numerous reports and requests from Jim Hughes, along with much criticism of the brigades shortcomings. It went without: Councillors diverted their attention, and funds, to other civic amenities.

Then, as now, Auckland was the fastest-growing city in New Zealand with an estimated population of 60,000.2 Yet other centres had enjoyed far superior fire protection for many years. Cities and towns, some at that time quite small, had imported fire pumps which were mobilised to a fire either by man-power or with horses and, once in position and with hoses connected, relied on man-power to make the pump work. For instance: Gisborne imported equipment in 1878, Rangiora in 1883, Greytown in 1888, Palmerston North in 1888, Feilding in 1891, Petone in 1892, and Westport in 1893.3

Some brigades ordered steam pumps towards the turn of the century, the first of which went into service about the time Gladding was appointed Chief. Other centres, like Wanganui, were looking at motorised appliances and these arrived in New Zealand in the first few years of the 1900s.

Auckland Fire Brigade, serving the biggest city in New Zealand, had no such pumping equipment, nor any on order. In 1900 it didn’t have one pump – firefighters had to rely on the pressure in the water mains to obtain sufficient jets to, for example, reach the flames on upper floors.

So in this respect it did not measure up to one of six basics required for an efficient fire brigade, as spelled out by veteran New Zealand fire chief Thomas Hugo, who became the Inspector of Fire Brigades in the colony. He said there must be:

  • Adequate plant and resources after arriving at a fire.

His other vital requirements were:

  • A reliable, easily accessible, fire alarm system so fires can be promptly reported
  • A custom-designed station so men can easily turnout within 20 seconds of the call being received
  • Dedicated firefighters available on station 24X7
  • Suitable horses kept on station exclusively for the brigade, and,
  • Sufficient supply and pressure of water at the scene. 4

Auckland Fire Brigade could not score on any one of Hugo’s 6 essential points. Herbert Gladding knew the brigade was deficient before he took office. He well knew unsuccessful efforts by his predecessor, Jim Hughes, to make basic improvements to the brigade with two exceptions… Council approved the purchase of a system of electric street fire alarm boxes introduced in 1883. But these had soon been abandoned,  described as “…a useless toy” by a correspondent to Letters to the Editor.5  Then there was a new extension Merryweather ladder, delivered in 1884, but which did not meet Superintendent Hughes’ specifications and arrived in Auckland having been damaged in transit. Hughes said the ladder was “limp”. Inquiries showed the ladder had been stowed for the long voyage from England in the ship’s hold near the boilers. The timbers of the ladder had been affected by heat and steam which left the wooden ladder sections “as crooked as a dog’s hind leg” according to one newspaper report. On top of which Hughes found it difficult to manoeuvre the appliance in narrow downtown streets and to elevate the ladder because of overhead telephone lines. One report suggests a firefighter on the ladder received a shock when he inadvertently came in contact with a telephone wire.

This state of fire brigade affairs became apparent during a ceremony to mark Herbert Gladding’s appointment as the new Superintendent, held at the fire station in July 1899.6

Gladding thanked everyone for their welcome to his new office and then boldly stated, “I hope the City Council will do its duty by the brigade, and give the plant and appliances which would bring it up to the standard of efficiency of the Southern fire brigades. I know how ex-Superintendent Hughes had endeavoured to get the necessary equipment, but he had not been able to do so”.

In a toast Gladding mentioned Robert Farrell, who was present representing the City Council. Mr Farrell, replying, said “It is quite true that ex-Superintendent Hughes frequently asked for up-to-date appliances, and could not get them. The reason was that the City Council had not the funds to spare. We all saw the necessity for them, and the Mayor was heartily in favour, but the items could not be got till the new loan was floated. Plans for a new fire brigade station had been prepared years ago and I believe the brigade won’t have to wait long now till it was furnished with all buildings and appliances to bring it up to the efficiency, in that respect, of the Southern fire brigades. The Mayor has set his heart on that”.

So here was the new Fire Chief reflecting on the former Chief’s inability to get adequate funding from the City Council and calling out its failure to improve fire protection, followed by a Councillor’s acceptance that the City Council, although well-intentioned, had not moved as it should have.

The brigade, thus, could hardly be blamed, in the circumstances, for any shortfalls.

Gladding tweaked rules and procedures during his first meeting with the Brigade on 14th July 1899 but there could be no announcement about improvements to basic firefighting equipment. This was beyond his control: he was no “new broom sweeping clean”. It was up to the City Council to provide. 7

A New Century

There was a new decade, and a new century with the arrival of 1900.  A convenient milestone to have a stock-take of the Auckland Fire Brigade.

Auckland fire Station with the manual hand reel, 1900. Auckland fire brigades’ Museum and Historical Society.

Fire Station: occupied since 1873, long-since judged unfit for purpose. New premises planned.

Fire Pumps: none. A retrograde step since in 1860 there were 4 pumps available in Auckland

Ladder: Extending Merryweather ladder acquired in 1884 but was unsuitable and reluctantly used

Horse-drawn wagons to transport firefighters to fires: none

Horse-drawn hose reels: 1. Transports Superintendent, horse hired from neighbouring private stables

Horses dedicated to the brigade’s needs 24 x 7: none. In 1867 two horses had been provided by Council

Hose reels drawn by firefighters: 4

Ladder carts drawn by firefighters: 1

Lookout from the Fire Bell Tower: None. Lookouts used to be rostered 24 x 7: since abandoned.

Electric Alarm System: none. The system installed in 1882 was defunct

 

Major Fires Don’t Wait #2 March 2 1900

Fire swept through the Loan and Mercantile’s waterfront warehouse fuelled by wool, gum and flax. Gladding and his men could only protect adjoining buildings before getting hoses into the interior. The building and its contents were lost.   

Loan and Mercantile Company’s warehouse and offices – a total loss
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1-W184

In March 1900 the City Council did not have appetite to fund outstanding fire brigade matters, shelving a report from Gladding who said that a steam fire engine, as that being offered for sale by T. Hall and Company, would be of great advantage in Auckland, as buildings are now much higher and larger than previously  “Had we had a steam engine at the recent Loan and Mercantile fire, the result would have been very different, as we would have been able to make use of sea water’. 8. The report was referred to a Committee.

Prolonged drought in 1900 had reduced the levels in the reservoirs with concern about sufficient supplies for fire-fighting. Conservation measures were put in place across Auckland. And Councillors were also preoccupied with a major fallout over alleged discrepancies in the Council’s accounts with the Treasurer under cross-examination.

 

Major Fires Don’t Wait #3 March 13 1900

Mrs Carter’s 14-roomed boarding house in Waterloo Quadrant was gutted in a blaze so fierce that locals thought Government House was on fire.

Mrs Carter’s Boarding House, formerly Dr Kenderdine’s, was destroyed
Auckland Museums Collection

Major Fires Don’t Wait #4 March 20 1900

Flames took out what was left of a bakery in Airedale Street following an earlier fire in the premises. This time the place was gutted.

In April the City Council’s concentration switched to prevention of the bubonic plaque spreading in Auckland: the fire brigade assisted as a precaution in this by standing-by as a precautionary measure when rat-infested, plague-prone, buildings were burned down under decree by health authorities.

In early November 1900 the City Council revealed it had been considering construction of a new fire station. It did not have a site… Wakefield Street had been mentioned… and resolved to advertise, seeking suitable land with a preference for Pitt Street or Hobson Street. During this discussion there were several other revelations. Councillor Robert Salmon said that “the city’s fire appliances were quite inadequate, and required renovating. They are quite insufficient to cope with a large fire”.  Councillor James Stichbury said “I went past the present station today and I think that the sanitary commissioner should condemn it… the place is only fit for a stable”. The Mayor, David Goldie, then got to the nub – “the difficulty lies in the fact that we’ve been endeavouring to get the insurance companies and the Government to bear a part of the cost of the fire brigade. We have endeavoured to get a Bill through, but the member in charge, Mr. Witheford, has not succeeded”.9

The mayor and council should have known not to rely on a Fire Brigades’ Act to determine funding… it must have been seen as a doubtful lifeline. The measure had been discussed, amended and delayed since 1891: 10 years of political dithering with no result. Other local councils had not depended on the possibility of the Act to provide alternative funding: they had ensured fire protection in their communities by funding facilities from property rates, and in some instances, with contributions from insurance companies and subscription. In this respect, Auckland seemed to be the stand-out: no capital had been made available regularly to update fire engines and equipment, while the bare minimum was budgeted for operating expenses.

Major Fires Don’t Wait #5 January 12 1901

The city’s biggest fire to date destroyed three large buildings … the downtown warehouses of Bond and Bell, L. D. Nathan and Owen and Company, while both Mackey’s and Laurie’s premises were badly damaged. Total loss was some £100,000, a new high for the city. 10

Several warehouses were lost, others damaged
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010118-12-1

The Observer newspaper, 19th January 1901, was moved to asked, in its column “They Say…”,   “…that everyone was asking everyone else who it was that was running the Fire Brigade on Sunday – the Mayor or Gladding?” This was mocking reference to the fact that Mayor went to the fire to, reportedly, “render assistance”.

Following this fire the Fire Brigade Committee of the City Council agreed “to consider purchase of tall ladders”. 11  Later in the month the Council approved Superintendent Gladding undertaking a tour to study southern brigades in New Zealand and to a number in Australia.

On his return Gladding reported that he found all the brigades he visited were far superior to Auckland and he compared them to his Brigade.12

“Wellington …

New central fire station opened” – Auckland has been planning one for years

“4 horses on station day and night at the ready” – Auckland has none

“Electric fire alarm system being extended” – Auckland has none

“Christchurch …

Has 2 steamers and a chemical appliance” – Auckland has none

“Has an extension ladder” – Auckland has one (1884 model) not satisfactory

“Lyttelton…

80 volunteer members”  –  Auckland has about a handful

“Dunedin…

Horse drawn Hook and ladder truck to carry firemen” – Auckland has none  

“Australia…

Full-time paid firefighters, rostered day and night

Firefighters employed in station chores

Most facilities are electric. All appliances are horse-drawn

High pressures in water mains to assist firefighting

Sydney uses, exclusively, steamer pumps

Sydney has telephone system to give fire alarms

At all the places I visited horse-drawn carts are used to transport men and equipment to the scene of the fire – such is not the case in Auckland”.

 Major Fires Don’t Wait #6  April 17th 1901

Lambourne and Dewar’s premises on Ponsonby Road were gutted by fire, consisting their showrooms and several adjacent retail stores. Ponsonby firefighters were already at work when Gladding and his men arrived but “the men who took the hook and ladder carriage had to drag it a mile to the fire up College Hill, and were exhausted by their exertions, and not in a fit condition to fight a serious fire, but did their very best” 13. Others noted it was 15 minutes before Ponsonby Fire Brigade got water to the fire. 14     

Lambourne and Dewar’s shop – just the walls were left standing
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19010426-1-3

Major Fires Don’t Wait #7 March 25 1901  

The aging Army Drill Hall which had served Auckland since the 1860s was gutted in an early morning fire posing risks to firefighters with exploding munitions and red-hot sheets of iron cascading from the roof. Arms, uniforms and military stores, along with records, were lost.

Major Fires Don’t Wait #8 May 13 1901

Fire made a clean-sweep of J D Roberts and Company’s confectionery works. Parnell Brigadesmen were on the scene within 15 minutes but were unable to get to work because their gear did not fit City hydrant fittings. Firefighters from City Station arrived soon after but their fire-fight by that stage was to no avail.15   

Major Fires Don’t Wait #9 May 31st 1901

In the wee small hours an unstoppable blaze swept through the fashionable Grand Hotel in Princes Street .The building was gutted, five people lost their lives and a number of people were injured.16

Grand Hotel, luxury accommodation destroyed
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19010608-1073-1

The course, and cost, of this destructive fire showed that all the major losses suffered before had not been acted upon, the fire brigade remained deficient and that major fires don’t wait. This fire, unlike previous blazes, could not be ignored by the City Councillors who, alone, were those responsible for funding the fire brigade, overseeing water supplies and inspecting/approving hotel fire escapes.

Immediate reaction*

Public outcry was immediate and scathing. Angry townspeople blamed the City Council for failing to provide sufficient funds for the rundown Fire Brigade. Local Members of Parliament loudly censured the City Fathers. Some outraged citizens, wanting to sheet home the responsibility for the Grand Hotel fire, seriously suggested that all the City Councillors should be arrested and charged with manslaughter.

“A Sufferer” wrote to the editor of the Auckland Star, June 3rd, 1901: “ Sir, Is it possible to indict the City Council on a charge of manslaughter for causing the death of Mr Johnston’s three little children and other inmates at the Grand Hotel fire? If a citizen neglected his duty in such a barefaced manner as the City Council has, and showed such utter callousness for the safety of those whoso lives and property were entrusted to his care, it would not be long before he found himself in the dock preparatory to a lengthened term in Mt. Eden Prison.  Why, then, should the City Council escape? Why are the brigade expected to do horses’ work, dragging ladders, etc., to a fire, and then turn to and do a night’s work. It is a standing disgrace to our city authorities, and they ought to be made to account for it, [t redounds to the credit of the brigade that the city has not been devastated over and over again. A braver or more willing lot of men could not be found, and they simply work wonders with the appliances at their disposal”.

An editorial in the New Zealand Herald was very critical of the Council saying it had ignored repeated requests over the decades from various Fire Chiefs to improve the Brigade’s equipment. “It was shown (at an earlier major fire) that the appliances at hand were so inadequate as to be farcical”…. “we are always just about to do something but fire after fire occurs and the better machinery is in the future”… “the history of Auckland in connection with this subject is simply disgraceful, disgraceful in the first place to those who have been in power in civic positions, and disgraceful to every citizen who tolerated such criminal neglect of duty.” 17.  Cartoons in the Press unmercifully lampooned the unready state of the Brigade.

*Some of this text is reprinted from my other item on this site “The Grand Hotel Fire 1901 – A Turning Point”

 

Shortcomings – the luxury hotel was destroyed
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010607-2-2

(In 2018  work began to redevelop the sites of the old Grand Hotel and, next door, the Masonic Building. Their facades were retained, a high-rise block  combining both properties  emerged, completed in October 2020)

Grand Hotel and the Masonic Building, redeveloped. 2020 

Hind-sight

A correspondent with the pen-name “Excelsior” had a letter published in the New Zealand Herald a week before the Grand Hotel fire. It condemned what had been evident at recent fires: inadequate and ancient fire-fighting resources. A few days after the Grand Hotel fire “Excelsior” wrote again: “I have now the melancholy satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so’ and cannot contemplate the scene of the latest fire without feeling that the city fathers are guilty of culpable negligence. I trust the City Council will now ensure the city is made a safe place in which to do business and to live”.

“I told you so” – ‘Excelsior’ prophesied the fire
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010607-3-1

Questions were also asked about installation of the fire escapes that had proven so hopelessly inadequate during the fire. How was it that they had been erected inside the premises when both the Fire Chief and head of the Salvage Corps advised the builder to install the ladders on the outside of the building?  The result was there were no escapes on the exterior of the building.

The Artful Dodgers

The Chamber of Commerce, representing a wide-spread of businessmen in the town, called a meeting to tell those in authority, the City Council, that Auckland’s fire protection just would not do, and demanded immediate improvement. The meeting became heated as those present said who, exactly, they thought was responsible: City Councillors over the years. And then the defensive replies from those serving Councillors who had been caught napping. 18

Why were there inadequate water supplies for firefighting?

No amount of water could have put out the hotel fire.

And why were the City’s waterworks projects running so far behind schedule?

Bad weather has delayed construction and pipes will not be connected with the Waitakere dam until two summers hence.

Next, an effective alarm system was required: there was no bell to signal fires in the East Ward… this was called an “impossible situation”.

The bell has been deployed elsewhere.

How come there were no horses to haul appliances to the fire: this had to be done by the men themselves, sapping their energy? Fire brigade arrangements are behind the times, the meeting heard, especially men pulling that hook and ladder carriage. But the brigade itself was not to blame – the men did what they could with the appliances they had, but was it not time an up-to-date horse-drawn service was obtained for the city?

Council has been remiss in not supporting the brigade for years but it had recently ordered new appliances.

Why had Council not been given specifications for a horse-drawn ladder?.

Nothing further had been heard. It had been shelved.

And what of the promised new fire station in Pitt Street – was it subject to the same procrastination?

The Council had some time ago received designs for a new fire brigade station, and the Mayor assured his intention to carry the matter through.

Then criticism of the fire brigade. Why is the present Council department not “organised in any shape or form?  It should have a thoroughly up-to-date man, capable of organising the whole department, of making every firefighter efficient in every detail, and of running the brigade on the same principles as characterised the greatest fire brigades in the old world”.

Council said it would be making changes.

The meeting asked why the question of fire escapes had not been gone into by the Council as it had absolute power in the matters of design and enforcement?  Why had fire escapes been included in the whole question of inspection of buildings but the Council had come up short at the Grand Hotel?

Council said it had once been the Police’s job: Council took over inspections only very recently and would be getting on with it.

It was pointed out that in other countries Insurance Companies contributed much to the upkeep of fire brigades: why does this not occur in New Zealand?

The response was that the Companies deal in risk and premiums would drop commensurate with a lesser risk when there was a competent fire brigade with proven water supplies.

Finally, the topic came up questioning the calibre of Council members who had allegedly delayed, or made poor decisions, about Auckland’s fire protection.

“I consider”, said one man, “that until we do away with the ward system we will not got the proper stamp of men to represent us in the Council” .

David Goldie, Mayor when the Council had made some of the allegedly bad decisions, spoke up in defence of the city’s fire appliances, rebutting comments made at the Chamber of Commerce meeting.

“There are horses in the stable next door to the station that are always there when required by the fire brigade”.

“If the ex-Mayor had said”, the New Zealand Herald challenged, “a horse instead of horses, he would have been right. One horse, and one only, can be used. That is the arrangement between the Council and a nearby stable. And the horse is not a special one, not kept there for the purpose, and not consequently fresh, but it’s any horse, which perhaps has been out all day and is tired out. The other horses are the members, the men, of the fire brigade!”

More tough talk:  the Memorial Service

A memorial service for the victims was held in St Andrews Church, during which the preacher, the Reverend Mr Gray, was not hesitant in his message to those elected to the City Council. From the pulpit he said “I am sure we wish them to understand that, cost what it may, such a calamity as this must be made forever impossible in the City of Auckland. We demand an end to all delay and procrastination in this connection… … what is money when it is the lives of our little children that are at stake?”  19

The Inquest

As with all loss of life, and serious fires, the Grand Hotel fire was subject to an inquest to determine the cause, whether recommendations for improvement were justified and to decide if any criminal charges should result. 20

There were some telling statements made reflecting the state of the fire brigade at the time:

  • “There’s no one on lookout duty on the tower overnight” – Moss Keesing, Fireman
  • “We rely on bells and telephones to give the alarm, here are no street alarms” – Moss Keesing, Fireman
  • A Juror asked if it was true that Auckland was well behind other centres in the provision of firefighting. Superintendent Gladding replied “Auckland City Council intends largely improving the plant, erecting a new station, and introducing an up-to-date system of alarms” . “In the sweet by-and-by, I suppose,” was the Juror’s lament.
  • “A steam pump is necessary for buildings in the higher parts of the city such as those where the Grand Hotel was” – Superintendent Gladding
  • “Ladders and jumping-sheets are the only appliances we have in ‘Auckland for life-saving purposes” – Superintendent Gladding to which the Coroner said “And this is the 20th century!”
  • A Juror asked : You are entirely at the mercy of the City Council as to whether you get the necessary appliances, or not? Superintendent Gladding- “Yes”
  • “Ladders are taken to the scene of fire by hand on a carriage. The process is necessarily a slow one as the carriage and ladders (six in all, of different sizes) weighed 11 cwt.” –Superintendent Gladding.
  • “Had I been asked if the well was a suitable place for fire-escapes I would have said ‘no – those escapes lead people into danger, instead of out of it’” – Captain Field, Officer In Charge of the Salvage Corps.

The Coroner – Censuring

The Inquest was damning of the City Council.

  • Previous Fire Chiefs had repeatedly sought funds for new equipment, but to no avail.
  • Fire-fighting at the Grand Hotel had not begun in a timely way:
    • There was a late alarm given to the Albert Street station
    • Firemen had to man-handle their equipment, pushing and pulling it up to Princes Street via what’s known today as Victoria Street East and Bowen Avenue.
    • Occupants told how the fire raced along wooden linings and wall-boards, the flames engulfing everything it touched.
    • Firefighters were handicapped by low water pressure: hoses could not effectively fight the flames above street level.
  • Inside the hotel there were confusing signs pointing to emergency exits.,
  • The signs led to an unsafe route – two vertical iron ladders descending an enclosed shaft to the enclosed yard below.

The Coroner’s findings might have been enough to move the City Council to take immediate action to remedy the shortcomings. But there were other accumulated factors also pressuring the Council to act.

Earlier Fires

On top of public sympathy and concern about the loss of life, and 3 youngsters at that in the Grand Hotel blaze, townspeople recalled all the other major fires, all with severe losses.

Council’s Shortcomings

Another factor that the Council had overlooked with its blasé attitude about fire protection was that the city had grown outwards with burgeoning suburbs. And upwards. Auckland city no longer comprised only simply constructed single-storied wooden cottages, shop premises and warehouses. The few ladders the Brigade owned were inadequate for the “high rise” buildings of the day and those ladders that were available were despatched to fires on a retired ex City Council hand cart, dragged along by two firemen running at-the-double until slowed by exhaustion.

Auckland was also growing outwards. It became unreasonable to expect firemen to run the distances to the new areas dragging their reels and carts behind them. It left little energy to fight the fire when they eventually got there.

Ratepayers Pay Higher Insurance Premiums

Agitation for the Council to upgrade the Brigade came from other quarters. The newly formed Ratepayers’ Association, keen for a cause to flex its youthful muscles, loudly condemned the Council’s history of inaction, accurately reflecting wider public opinion which quickly turned to dismay when underwriters, seeing the risk involving poor fire fire protection and the old brigade’s equipment, increased premiums for fire insurance.

Influential citizens lobbied the Council, some of whom had personal experience of the deficient Brigade. The likes of Davis and Nathan, along with other leading businessmen, had seen fire destroy their premises and businesses, with heavy losses, not all of them covered by insurance.

Members of the Masonic Lodge, among them pillars of Auckland society, also spoke up. The Masons realised that had the wind changed direction during the Grand Hotel blaze it would have taken the flames towards their premises, probably consuming their building, too.

All this pressure, coupled with the Inquest’s critical findings, meant the City Council found it had no option but to act.

Overhaul

The result was that the Superintendent of Wellington Fire Brigade, Captain Thomas Hugo, was called in to investigate the Auckland Brigade and advise what was wanted to bring it up to modern standards.

Captain Thomas Hugo was well-known for passion towards fire safety. Free Lance, National Library of New Zealand

Hugo candidly set out his findings which included recommendations for the improvement of every part of fire brigade’s operations: he found that no one element had been properly provided for by the City Council. 20.

See Appendix A, below, for a summary of Hugo’s recommendations.

So it was up to the City Council to face up to the shortcomings in the fire brigade and to consider implementing Captain Hugo’s recommendations to overhaul it. There was a £12,000 price tag.

Reluctance

In adopting the report, Councillors’ discussions still showed some of them were reticent to act.

Mr Hannan: “I think the matter should not be hurried on. We are rushing the whole thing owing to the recent disaster. Prices of material were at present very high, and it would be injudicious for the Council to plunge while the market was in that state.

Mr Court countered this “This is no reason for delay, that the price of materials is high. The difference this would make in the cost of the scheme would be trifling compared with the loss occasioned by a big fire. If another big fire were to occur, what would people think of the Council?

Mr Hannan again “has the Committee considered the possibility of legislation on the matter of fire brigade maintenance?”

On the matter of a look-out at night, Mr Kidd: “Mr Hugo tells us this is not so important as was generally thought. Mr Hugo replied “I said that with fire alarms it was not important, but at present there should certainly be a look-out”.

The Superintendent’s Future

Again there was diverse discussion, but in the end it was agreed Gladding could not continue as Superintendent.

Alfred Kidd: “We are now proposing a large scheme involving the training of 30 men in all departments. It would not be fair to Superintendent Gladding to put him in that position, seeing he has not the requisite knowledge and experience”.

John Hannan dissented. “It’s unfair. Superintendent Gladding has not had a fair chance. The appliances have not been satisfactory, and now he has to be punished for the shortcomings of the Council”.

John Hewson: I want to ask Superintendent Hugo if he considers it necessary to terminate Superintendent Gladding’s engagement. (The question was ruled unfair to Captain Hugo)

Alfred Kidd: “Superintendent Gladding had done fairly good work with the appliances at his command, but the city is behind the times, and it must progress as other cities have done.

John Hewson: It must be said that some time ago the present Superintendent wrote to the Council asking for up-to-date appliances. It is only fair to state this”.

Arthur Rosser: “I feel sure that to put Superintendent Gladding in charge of the up-to-date plant we propose to establish would be unfair to him”.

Honesty

Mr Frederick Baume: “I am prepared to bear my part of the responsibility attached to the report”.

Reality

Christopher John Parr: “This matter must be hurried on. If we do not, we will be hurried out of municipal life ourselves”

Council’s Decision

Captain Hugo’s report and recommendations were accepted: after decades of neglect the Auckland Fire Brigade would at last have a make-over, bringing it up to date with modern equipment and practices.

The Councillors would go to the community with a poll asking for approval to borrow £12,000 to finance Hugo’s plan. 21

They could not see Herbert Gladding leading a reformed brigade. He was relieved of his job, demoted to Deputy and Charles Woolley from Port Adelaide in Australia was recruited for the top job.

Precedent

Gladding’s predecessor Jim Hughes was “retrenched”, retired, after it was alleged he bungled  fire-fighting at the DSC building in Queen Street in February 1898.

It must be observed in hindsight that the only deficiency was the Council’s, which left Hughes with antiquated equipment to fight a fire involving a large downtown multi-storey building.

And then along came the fatal Grand Hotel fire where once again the Council’s short-funding of the fire brigade was crystal-clear to everyone: to the Press, the Chamber of Commerce, the bereaved, townsfolk, the Coroner and Captain Hugo.

But the Council did not shoulder the responsibility. Councillors once again blamed the Superintendent. This time Herbert Gladding was the scapegoat. He was stood down, the Superintendent’s position advertised in Situations Vacant columns.

Footnote

In October and November 1901 Herbert Gladding was farewelled at a series of gatherings with presentation of suitable gifts: within the year he had entered business on his own account, opening a grocery shop. His wife, Emma, died in March 1904 and in July his son, Arnold, aged 20, died of injuries sustained while firefighting at the Morrin’s warehouse blaze. Herbert died on Christmas Day 1908 and rests in the family plot at Waikumete cemetery.

Appendix A.

Summary of Captain Thomas Hugo’s recommendations.

In hindsight his blueprint, and the passing of the Fire Brigades’ Act in 1906 which took administration from local Councils passing it to Fire Boards, were foundation blocks of modern fire services in Auckland.

  • A street fire alarm system installed to give the best means of giving the alarm
  • The site of the proposed fire station in Pitt Street is appropriate
  • The design of the proposed station is not: and Hugo gave his ideas
  • New station to accommodate superintendent, 2 married men and 14 single men
  • Brigade should be staffed – superintendent, foreman, 9 permanent men and 6 auxiliaries
  • Second station in downtown Queen Street, not as planned
  • Third station in Ponsonby
  • All single men to be provided quarters, light, and uniform, bed and bedding
  • The mess to be provided with coal, crockery and cooking etc
  • Auxiliary Staff of 24 men to be paid £5 per annum for the first year, £15 per annum thereafter
  • Nine horses are required, two to be stronger three-quarter-bred animals
  • Requirements are 1 fire engine, 450 gallons capacity, 1 fire engine 350 gallons capacity, 1 two-horse hose reel, 1 two-horse hose and ladder cart.
  • 4,000 feet of new hose
  • capital expenditure required is about £11,000
  • cost of maintenance is about £800 per annum
  • water pressures through Auckland are good for firefighting except in the higher places
  • steam fire engines required as a priority response in these higher areas.

References

  1. New Zealand Herald 17th July 1899
  2. Z. Government – Census
  3. Various Brigade histories and National Library of N. Z.
  4. Hugo – Report to Auckland City Council
  5. Auckland Star 13th January 1883
  6. New Zealand Herald 17th July 1899
  7. Auckland Star 15th July 1899
  8. New Zealand Herald March 23rd  1900
  9. New Zealand Herald 2nd November 1900
  10. New Zealand Herald 14th January 1901
  11. New Zealand herald 17th January 1901
  12. New Zealand Herald 10th April 1901
  13. New Zealand Herald 17th April 1901
  14. Observer 20th April 1901
  15. New Zealand Herald 14th May 1901
  16. New Zealand Herald 31st May 1901
  17. New Zealand Herald 1st June 1901
  18. New Zealand Herald 4th June 1901
  19. Auckland Star 3rd June 1901
  20. New Zealand Herald 6th July 1901
  21.  Auckland Star, 5th July 1901

Sources

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

“United to Protect – An Historical Account of the Auckland Fire Brigade 1848 – 1985”-  G. M. Gillon, Orion Press 1985

History of Auckland Fire Brigade – C. Mears

Further Reading

On this site “The Grand Hotel Fire 1901 – a Turning Point” and “The Sensational Witness – Inquest into the Grand Hotel Fire”

RCC May 2020