Eric Sydney Bright’s name has always been connected with a tragic fire aboard the oil tanker “Trocas” on November 15th 1943 at an Auckland wharf. He died below-decks during fire-fighting operations but, because of essential war-time secrecy, all details surrounding the fire and his death could, and did not, emerge at the time.


I have long had an interest in the sad story of the young firefighter’s death mainly because the facts were suppressed in the interests of security of the realm: a confidentiality that was reflected in death notices in newspapers and which then continued during the inquest into Eric Bright’s death – and the reporting of it. I had questions about the event… like how come Bright was at the scene of the fire so soon, alone, ahead of the Brigade? And how was it that the Trocas, when it arrived in Auckland unscheduled and unexpectedly, had a strange, probably secret, additional cargo?

Some information that emerged at the time, and since, has proved incorrect – either misinterpreted when details were able to be published after the war – or distorted in the telling over the decades. With most of the security restrictions lifted and improved digital research, I have attempted to pull together the story of the oil tanker and the brave fireman once wrapped in wartime secrecy. And part of the story is the remarkable discovery the crew of the Trocas made in the Indian Ocean unlocking one of Australia’s wartime mysteries.

Eric Sydney Bright

First Class Fireman Bright was aged 28 when he met his death, a single man who lived in Sandringham and who had joined the Auckland Fire Brigade in 1937 serving at Central Station in Pitt Street. In 1940 he left the Brigade to go on active service overseas with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, serving with the army in Greece, Crete and Libya. He was injured during the final days of the Al Alamein campaign and after initial recovery he was invalided out to Auckland for further treatment.


First Class Fireman Eric Sydney Bright
Auckland Fire Brigades’ Museum and Historical Society

Eventually fit again, he rejoined the fire brigade in July 1943 during wartime conditions. Fire engines were painted an inconspicuous grey, hundreds of auxiliary firemen were recruited and strategically placed at stations and depots across greater Auckland together with augmented equipment for the war effort. Sirens on fire engines were silenced in case they were mistaken for air-raid warnings which were to be sounded in the event of imminent aerial enemy attack. Firefighters practised relay pumping, using sea water sourced on Quay Street and fed through long hoses and intermediate pumps, the jets trained on imaginary fires as far up Queen Street as the Town Hall. It was easier if the tide was in… but at low tide considerable effort was required to draw water up 4m into the pumps.

Firefighters practise during wartime near Auckland’s Ferry Building
Alexander Turnbull Library

The idea was to prove fire-fighting capability even if the city’s usual reticulated water supplies were knocked out of action by bombing. The whole city was on a war-footing in case of enemy invasion.

The Special Duty

One of the additional war-time duties for firemen was assignment to the waterfront, as required, depending on shipping movements and perceived risks of cargoes. The Auckland Star revealed this publicly for the first time in an article published after war’s end in September 1945.

“As a war-time measure steps were taken to place firemen on duty in ships at the wharves on a request being received from the Government, shipping companies or firms carrying out repairs. This continuous watch, which was carried out by permanent firemen, placed an added strain on the staff, whose duties had already increased considerably as a result of the war. It was found that the service was well worthwhile, for the men on duty were able to quell a number of incipient fires without having to call on the brigade.

During the loading and unloading of explosives and ammunition, hundreds of thousands of tons of which were handled in Auckland, the fire brigade provided men and special plant in case of fire.

Huge quantities of wartime stores coming into and going out of the port presented additional problems for the city fire-fighting authorities. Not the least difficult of these was the danger of fire among the huge quantities of petrol stored in thousands of drums close to the city”.

Fireman Eric Bright was one of the firemen chosen for this special wharf duty and in November 1943 he was posted on the Export Wharf where an oil tanker, SS Trocas, was undergoing repairs. Authorities must have thought the ship was vulnerable because of repair work being undertaken: hence his presence. But Bright had no reason to know the ship’s history… its interesting past.


The 10,500 ton oil tanker was built in Holland, fitted with British engines and was launched in December 1926 for the Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company, later known as Shell. 11 similar tankers were built in 1926/7, all named after sea-shells which conveniently matched the name of their owner.

Boasting among the first tankers to have double-acting diesel engines, Trocas could carry 3,000,000 gallons (11,000,000 litres) of product.


Trocas plied the oceans delivering oil and petroleum products and at the outbreak of World War Two became a valuable asset supplying war ships and merchant craft as they fulfilled vital military and transportation voyages.

Trocas in Trouble

It was wartime… in March 1940 when Trocas broke her propeller shaft near Malta. Crippled, she could not anchor because of the depth of water and, stopped, was in danger of drifting, or being blown, towards Italy or Sicily. Flotilla leader, Commander Hector Waller, aboard the Australian frigate HMAS Stuart answered her call for help and proceeded at top speed, locating Trocas within a few hours of the SOS.


Flotilla Leader, Frigate, HMAS Stuart

Stuart was supposed to stand by until tugs arrived from Malta but the weather deteriorated and Captain Waller decided to take Trocas in tow. Attempts were made to get a line established between the two ships but in the rough seas it looked futile: line after line snapped.  Richard (Jerry) Garrard in his book “Remembering ‘Hec’ – Captain H Waller RAN” says big seas were washing right over the tanker. Garrard kept a diary and it recalls several attempts to get a tow line rigged, not only in sharp seas but also in thick fog: “lost in fog until 4pm” the entry reads.

Commander “Hec” Waller on the bridge, HMAS Stuart, 1940

Waller then ordered a most unusual rescue. Stuart would approach the stricken Trocas head on, bow-to-bow. Waller took the Stuart as close as he dared towards the tanker, at last making out the shape of her bow through what Garrard describes as “impenetrable and very cold fog”. A rocket and line was fired from the warship’s foc’sle and it was made fast at the Trocas’s bow. With a four inch (10cms) wire cable finally in place, Stuart then reversed at 2 knots towing Trocas. Garrard recalls it was “a stern sea, most uncomfortable”. At about 6.30pm Respond, a tug from Malta, joined the pair but it was decided that Stuart should continue the tow – it was too dangerous to manoeuvre closely in the pea-soup fog. About 10pm it lifted and the tow was taken over – in much more conventional style – by Respond. For Captain Waller, it was Australia’s first salvage operation of the war, and a notable one at that, and for Richard Garrard he was rewarded with his share of the salvage rights… £125 …when he demobilised some 5 years later.

Trocas Unlocks a Tragic Mystery

Trocas continued wartime duties unnoticed until she came into the news in November 1941. She was 120 miles (200kms) off the coast of Western Australia on the 24th November when she came across a life-raft carrying 25 German sailors. Trocas reported the find by radio, the first real clue about what had happened nearly a week before to the missing Australian Light Cruiser, HMAS Sydney. The Germans were from the German cruiser Kormoran which they revealed had engaged in battle with Sydney.

The discovery of the life-raft and the subsequent messages from Trocas prompted an advisory to the Prime Minister, John Curtin, giving him an initial heads-up that Sydney may have been sunk by the German raider.

Message from Frederick Shedden, Secretary of the Department of Defence Coordination
and Secretary to the War Cabinet
National Archives of Australia

Concerns for Sydney’s safety had already been raised when she didn’t return to port, as expected, from escort duties. There had been no radio message from her so she was listed as overdue. All high-powered Australian radio stations were ordered to continuously call HMAS Sydney. Air and sea searches were underway.

HMAS Sydney… at first “overdue”… then grave fears
Royal Australian Navy

But Trocas’s discovery prompted 7 ships to be immediately dispatched to the area where the raft had been intercepted: a search seeking any further survivors, wreckage, debris or clues as to what had happened to Sydney.

The life-raft alongside Trocas, the Germans are taken off one-by-one
Australian War Memorial

Meanwhile the Germans had been taken, one by one as a safety precaution, from the life-raft on to Trocas, each was searched, detained and questioned. From this, and subsequent interrogation in Fremantle, it became apparent that HMAS Sydney, under attack at close quarters, was quickly overcome by torpedoes  and shell-fire and sank, on fire, with the loss of all 645 men aboard, while the disabled Kormoran, also ablaze, was abandoned shortly before she blew up in a huge explosion and sank. About three-quarters of her 400 crew-members were later rescued.

Auxiliary Cruiser Kormoran

Trocas had thus unlocked the whereabouts of an hour-long, two-ship encounter that resulted in the largest loss of life in the history of the Royal Australian Navy. Sydney was the biggest Allied warship lost with all hands during World War II, and her loss was a major blow to Australian wartime morale. The ship had been the “darling” namesake of the people of Sydney. Ascertaining exactly what occurred was the subject of two formal Inquiries. There has been much speculation and controversy about how a cruiser with heavier armour and superior firing-range could lose out to a modified merchant ship. The exact location of the two wrecks wasn’t known until they were found in 2008.

Trocas in Fremantle. She had wartime armament fitted.
Australian Memorial

Trocas in Trouble, Again

This is the episode that, ultimately, led to Eric Bright’s death when the ship was in Auckland.

But the story starts a long way from the Waitemata Harbour… in fact, 1,300 miles (2,100 kms) north- east of the New Zealand coast in the Pacific Ocean.

Fire Below

In August 1943 Trocas was en route from San Francisco to Melbourne with 10,000 tons of fuel oil and aircraft on deck. (This was the strange additional cargo, wartime expediency with calculated risk: warplanes were being transported from the USA to Australia on the deck of an oil tanker!).

On 7th September 1943 Captain C.H. B. Lovell and his crew of 75 realised they had a problem when, sometime around 9am, fire was discovered in a stokehold. Firefighting was ineffective: worse, steam suppression systems did not work. Parts of the ship were deliberately flooded, including the magazine containing ammunition, in hopes of preventing fire-spread and an explosion.

Within an hour or so the fire was showing all signs of involving other adjacent compartments. Bulkheads were heating and wooden trim smoking. The blaze seemed to be gaining, threatening the whole ship.

It was plain help was needed and mid-morning Trocas broke the usually-enforced radio silence to request assistance. The fire raged all day. Fire-fighting continued, further hose-lines were brought to bear and more compartments were flooded. Flames were finally subdued at 6pm.

Mid-Ocean Help

But Trocas was “dead in the water” without engines, electricity or steerage. The nearest ship to her was the new Liberty Ship Samovar on her maiden voyage from the USA to Australia and, answering the assistance call, was alongside Trocas by late afternoon the following day, the 8th.

New Zealand authorities mustered Wellington’s tug Toia to help and it set off with a view to towing Trocas to Auckland. Toia was maintained by the Wellington Harbour Board with an arrangement with the Royal New Zealand Navy that she be available at short notice for salvage operations.

On scene, it was decided Samovar should attempt to tow Trocas. The words “Sitting Ducks” come to mind…  the South Pacific had been very much part of World War Two since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941. But getting a line between the two ships was difficult. Several attempts were made in successive days and at last the tow commenced towards New Zealand’s Northland coast, made difficult because, without steerage, Trocas followed crab-like: there was nothing streamlined about the tow which must have greatly increased the weight and pull on Samovar.

Toia got fairly close to the two ships when she put back to Auckland for re-fuelling and when she set out again for Trocas she was accompanied by Auckland’s tug, William C. Daldy.

William C. Daldy
N Z Herald Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1370-562-09

The tugs met the two ships met off Opua on the Northland coast. In the event, William C. Daldy took over the long, slow tow to Auckland,  Toia returned to Wellington while Samovar resumed her interrupted voyage.

The fire-damaged Trocas under tow to Auckland: armaments fore and aft and 6 aircraft on deck
V.H. Young and L. A. Sawyer – NZ Merchant Shipping Facebook

The disabled Trocas was manoeuvred into Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour and, with assistance from the tug Te Awhina, was berthed alongside a city wharf. It was 3 weeks since the crippling mid-ocean fire.


Because of wartime security with absolute censorship and enforced secrecy, nothing about the Trocas’s arrival could be published. There was no Shipping Summary in newspapers as there was in peace-time when all the Port of Auckland’s arrivals and departures were detailed. Nothing sensitive was allowed to be broadcast on radio stations: all content was carefully vetted, especially matters about the war, military operations or any material that might be useful to the enemy.

Hence Trocas’s arrival could not be “news” and went unmentioned at the time.

Trocas in San Francisco with the wartime forward armament prominent
Naval History and Heritage Command

It’s a fair bet that the aircraft were the first priority once the ship was alongside. The manifesto listed them as “US Army equipment, 70 tons”. It would surely have been expedient to unload this deck cargo which would have been visible to passers-by.

Investigations into the fire at sea concluded that the cause was a blow-back in the engine room with an accompanying flash. The damage was extensive. Mason Brothers, an Auckland firm of engineers, were contracted to undertake repairs and because work would take some time, Trocas was moved to the Export Wharf.


The successful mission to rescue Trocas was not made public until May 1944: even then the names of the ships involved could not be mentioned.

Newspapers reported that “a feat of seamanship was completed when there berthed at Auckland recently two ships which for three weeks had been battling against almost every peril of the sea for the purpose of saving one of them from the crippling results of a fire which swept its engine room. Into the last few chapters of the story entered three tugs, one the ocean-going Toia from Wellington, and the two others the harbour tugs William C. Daldy and Te Awhina from Auckland. But, the main credit for the success which crowned the efforts of many officers and men, both at sea and on shore, belonged to the captain, officers, and crew of the ship chiefly responsible for the salvage”. Further details about the salvage followed.

“Notwithstanding the success, William C. Daldy’s starring role in this mission, and another later salvage when a grounded freighter was also saved, Auckland’s Harbourmaster was keen to point out that “Daldy” was designed to work best within harbour limits. Captain H. H. Sergeant said that to undertake the work the tug had to obtain additional personnel and communications equipment as well as provisions. “She’s not normally manned or equipped for such operations – she’s definitely not a salvage tug, and was not built for ocean-going work”.

All the more respect for “Daldy” and her crew. She survives (launched in 1935), preserved, now in regular steam on Waitemata Harbour, owned by a heritage trust.


Work was underway to repair Trocas when, at  9.35 am on 15th November, an oxy-acetylene set was being used on upper parts of the engine room. Sparks fell to a lower landing setting fire to oil and waste material. There were several small fires. The alarm was immediately given. Fireman Eric Bright of the Auckland Fire Brigade was on wharf patrol, on the scene in case of just such eventuality. He went belowdecks with his stirrup pump to tackle ‘spot’ fires caused by the engineering operations. Mid-morning, there was a more serious blaze in ullage in the bilge. Dense smoke was generated, probably camouflaging the extent of the flames. Workmen left the engine room on the advice of the Chief Engineer who also made his exit, thinking Fireman Bright was hard on his heels. But Bright either remained to fight the fire – which at that point was probably beyond the first-aid firefighting equipment he had – or he got dis-orientated in the thick smoke and could not find his way out.

Auckland firefighters were quickly on the scene but by the time they arrived the ship’s engine-room was fully involved. They were soon joined by a naval party from Devonport, US Navy personnel, Harbour Board employees and the tug Te Awhina.  Best tactics, with minimal risk to personnel, dictated that holes be cut in the side of the Trocas so hose-lines could be passed through and jets directed straight into the engine room.

The fire was extinguished at lunchtime. Fireman Bright’s body was recovered.

It turned out to be a hot fire, very high temperatures… and then the sudden cooling by fire-fighting water had twisted and contorted steelwork and machinery. In contrast, Intense heat in the confined areas belowdecks was slow to cool… it was days before access could be gained to all affected compartments.

Because of strict wartime security no Brigade inquiry was held into Eric Bright’s death – it was a sore point among some of his fellow firefighters. Feelings ran high about the circumstances, fuelled by mis-information.


Coroner F. K. Hunt conducted an inquest which was reported in newspapers at the time, but without great detail: the hearing was also subject to wartime censorship.

Frederick K Hunt, SM, Coroner

The Coroner concluded that Eric Sydney Bright died after being trapped in the engine room and burned. He said the deceased had been on precautionary duty at the ship when fire broke out in waste materials in the engine room. Workmen present attempted to put it out by stamping upon it. Someone called out “Fire!” and while those in the vicinity made their escape the deceased appeared and attempted to extinguish the fire. A call to the City Brigade was quickly answered, but because of the heat, smoke and flames nothing could be done to rescue the deceased and it was not until near midday that his body was recovered. He had been badly burned on the head and limbs, and was dead.

Deputy-Superintendent George MacKenzie, of the Central Station, told the Coroner that the deceased was a first-class fireman, and a very brave man.

Fireman Eric Bright was given a Fire Brigade funeral at Central Fire Station and there was a long procession of mourners to Waikumete Cemetery for his burial.


Fireman Bright’s funeral procession
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A9702

It was not until after the war, on the second anniversary of his passing that his family was able to spell out detail of his death in a newspaper ‘In Memoriam’ notice. His sisters Vida and Zillah remembered him… “In loving memory of our dear brother Eric (returned 2nd N.Z.E.F.), who sacrificed his life for duty on the M.V. Trocus, November 15, 1943”

Sgt Eric Sydney Bright rests in the family grave at Waikumete Cemetery

Trocas and Trocus

The spelling of the ship’s name became corrupted to “Trocus” over the years, originally thwarting my research into her history.

Repairs to Trocas continued until May 1944 when she left Auckland, some 8 months after the mid-ocean fire. The make-good after both fires, machining and replacement of parts and the importation of others, comprised a marathon undertaking: some commentators have said it was the biggest maritime engineering project ever carried out in New Zealand.

Trocas continued duties in the northern hemisphere and had a new engine fitted in the United Kingdom in 1945. She had two more encounters, a collision with a cargo ship near New York in early 1945 and later had a brush with a US tanker. Repaired on both occasions, she voyaged global routes post-war, visiting Auckland again in 1951. Latterly she became part of stationary bunkering facilities at Gibraltar before being broken up for scrap in Valencia in 1960.

Trocas completed many voyages with volatile cargoes through seas alive with enemy warships, U boats and mines. She avoided them all, yet had an eventful life with fires on board, a close squeak off Malta, numerous collisions… and made a discovery that helped unlock the tragic mystery of HMAS Sydney.



RCC 03.12.2018/23.09.2019


Papers Past National Library of New Zealand:
New Zealand Herald

Auckland Star

Otago Daily Times

“A Chronical of Auckland Fire Brigades 1857 – 1965” – Reg Moore, serialised in “The New Zealand Firefighter”, official journal of the NZ Federation of Fire Brigades Employees’ Industrial Association of Workers, 1975.

Anglo-Saxon’s Tanker “Trocas” and Her Tow to Auckland 1943 – Michael H. Pryce

Auckland Fire Brigades’ Museum and Historic Society (Inc)

National Archives of Australia 2018

NZ Merchant Shipping Facebook

NZ Ship and Maritime

“Remembering ‘Hec , Captain H.  Walker RAN” – Richard Noel (Jerry) Garrard, RANR – Australian War Memorial


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