The Story Behind William Godwin: Auckland’s First Fire Brigade Fatality

The New Zealand Fire Brigade Old Boys’ Association was preparing for its centenary in 2006 and found in its records the almost-forgotten, well-preserved, photo of the grave of Salvage Corps member William Godwin. What made it stand out was the elaborate memorial that Godwin’s friends had organised at the time of his death in 1878: a handsome helmet, axe, belt and axe pouch, all carefully fashioned in concrete and cemented into the top of the grave. Old Boys’ Association Secretary, Tom Cotter, wanted to find out exactly how Godwin died and to try to find the grave.


Records showed that one William Godwin had been interred in Grafton cemetery, Symonds Street, in January 1878, and fortunately his grave was still there: it was not one of the hundreds moved to make way for the motorway in the 1960s. Tom Cotter found the grave with the help of an historian and discovered that, remarkably, after 126 years the concrete work, the helmet, belt, axe and axe-pouch were all in reasonably good condition. The wrought iron railings around the grave needed realigning and two were missing. But the headstone was still in one piece with its inscription mostly legible.

The Auckland Star newspaper, June 1878, records that the masonry work was by Mr William Thomas, stone-mason, of Lorne Street, City, and the sculpture was by Mr John Taylor. “The monument includes a headstone and wall, in a cast-iron enclosure. The pedestal is of white Tasmanian stone, and on the stonework appears an inscription, surrounded by a fireman’s helmet, belt, pouch, and tomahawk”.


With financial assistance from the Auckland City Council, arrangements were made to restore the grave to something like its original condition so that it will remain an appropriate reminder of Godwin’s untimely death while on duty, thought to be the first fatality suffered among fire services in Auckland.

 William Godwin’s Fateful Day

Ironically, not far from his resting place, just along Karangahape Road in January 1878 there was a ferocious and all-consuming early-morning blaze that for decades later was recalled as the “Newton Fire”. It had been a real test for Superintendent Hughes and the firefighters in his Brigade.

Captain John Hughes
N Z Graphic – Auckland Libraries Collection

They were assisted by Captain Butler who led the Fire Patrol and Salvage Corps.(The Corps was quite separate to the Fire Brigade, established by the Insurance Companies’ Association which employed Butler and his men because the Brigade, prior to reform of the Brigade in 1874 when Hughes took over, had led a tenuous, off-again-on-again existence).

Karangahape Road in Flames

At 2.20am on January 16th 1878 the fire brigade was summoned to a fire in McAlpine’s house, Karangahape Road, but it quickly spread with a roar to adjacent shops. Once established there, it was an easy leap into the “Rising Sun” Hotel. By 2.40am the fire brigade had arrived. Poor water pressure meant inadequate jets…10 more shops on the Northern side were consumed (These days near the motorway overpass).Then the wind pushed embers and flames across the road where they damaged a number of premises. The fire licked the Newton Hotel and tried to take hold, but the concrete and brick building held them in check aided by a bucket brigade of on-lookers and, eventually, one of the brigade’s better jets. Meanwhile more premises were burnt out on the southern side before fire-fighters contained the inferno. The Auckland Star reported that a member of the Salvage Corps had a severe d fall. “A man named Godwin was at the rear of Hoyes shop standing on a ladder which had an insecure footing, and which a man had promised to keep steady. The latter carelessly turned away, and, it is said, through this the ladder gave way, and Godwin fell heavily. He, however, continued pluckily at the work”.

Salvage Corps & Godwin

After the fire was subdued Captain Butler and Salvage Corps men returned downtown at about half past six in the morning, travelling on their drag drawn by two horses. They stopped along the way to drop crew members off at their homes. At the intersection of Prince’s Street and Wellesley Street, the trap, driven by James Gorman, capsized throwing the 6 or 7 men on to the unsealed, rough-metalled roadway. 34 year old Godwin, the only one seriously hurt, was taken to hospital with head injuries and concussion: a fractured skull was suspected. Two other members, Field and Gough were also badly hurt: others less so. William Godwin died in hospital on the 31st January, 1878. An inquest was held… a verdict of accidental death was returned with a rider from the jury that James Gorman be warned about his fast driving.

Dr Charles Field Goldsbro’
Hanna – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 31-98

The coroner Dr Goldsbro’ told Gorman he could easily have faced a charge of manslaughter.


The Auckland Star reported a very large crowd of some 600 persons attended William Godwin’s burial service in the Church of England cemetery in Grafton Gully. ”In the solemn procession we noticed representatives of the Odd Fellows, Fountain of Friendship, and the Foresters (City of Auckland Court), orders to which Mr Godwin belonged, also members of the Fire Brigade, Salvage Corps, Naval Brigade, and Juvenile Foresters. The deceased was genial-hearted and companionable, and by the exercise of brotherly virtues, won many friends; he was, moreover, an artist of much promise, and has left behind him several creditable pictures. He was unmarried, and had no relations in the Colony”. A large number of firefighters attended the service because prior to joining the Salvage Corps, William Godwin had been a member of the Auckland Fire Brigade.


The Auckland Star’s mention of William Godwin’s artistry called for more research.

He had rooms (we would call it a studio these days) in the present Greys Avenue  and was noticed in the mid-1870s when the Auckland Star said “A very creditable painting of the Providence steamer, by Mr  William Godwin  of Grey Street, (as was) may be seen in the window of Mr Patridge, tobacconist, of Queen Street. The painting is attracting much public attention. Mr Godwin is also the painter of the San Francisco, and, other steamers”.

About six months later, October 1876, the Auckland Star again: “Parading Grey Street the attention of our reporter was drawn to a pair of well assorted oil-paintings representing the “Wooden Walls of Old England,” and the destructive “Ironclad of the Present Day.” On enquiry our reporter learnt that the promising artist bore the honoured name of William Godwin whose paintings display the limner’s hand, and bear the stamp of talent”.

Follow Up 

William Godwin’s artist’s talent became very real when in 2005 Secretary of the Old Boys’ Association, Tom Cotter was casting around to see if there were any of William’s relatives living locally. Inquiries were followed up when Tom received a letter from Mrs Annette Ferneyhough of Remuera saying the family owns one of Godwin’s works “Royal Alfred” and advised Tom of several other of William Godwin’s paintings. They are all of ships.

“Royal Alfred” by William Godwin
Private Ferneyhough Collection

The “Royal Alfred” was a paddle steamer launched  at Beddoes’ yard in Auckland in June 1868. She had a top speed of 14 knots and superior passenger accommodation. She was owned by the Auckland Steam Packet Company for the routes between Auckland and Thames/Coromandel under Captain William Farquhar, coinciding with gold mining days.  Purchased by Captain Heselton, the ship was relocated to Australia in November 1873 for service on the Sydney Harbour. William Godwin depicts the vessel in the inner Waitemata Harbour with Rangitoto in the far distance.

“HMSS Galatea” by William Godwin c 1869

The naval frigate “Galatea” was to bring the Duke of Edinburgh to Auckland in 1868 but Prince Alfred called off his New Zealand visit after he was shot and injured in Sydney and, after recuperating there, he followed medical advice and returned direct to England. The assassination attempt, 12th March 1868, took place at Clontarf, Sydney, when Henry James O’Farrell, a Fenian, fired several shots. He was later tried and hanged for his crime. Although the shot was at close-range the Duke was lucky the bullet was deflected by a rib-bone.

“Galatea” returned to New Zealand with the Duke in April 1869 and, beginning in Wellington, visited numerous ports. Auckland at last received their Royal visitor, the first to venture to New Zealand.  It was this visit when William Godwin painted the frigate, setting it with North Head and Devonport’s Mt Victoria in the background.

SS Stormbird, Captain Doile, by William Godwin, c 1865
Alexander Turnbull Library. Greeting card National Library of N.Z.

Godwin’s watercolour has the ship off Taranaki: an imagined Mount Egmont in the background with the Sugar Loaf rocks to the right. The painting was exhibited in ‘Wide-Eyed: Early Images of New Zealand’ an exhibition of works by settler artists, held at the National Library of New Zealand Gallery, 18 July – 9 November 1997 and has since been reproduced on a greeting card issued by the National Library of New Zealand.

Stormbird ably illustrated the delays of international news in days before the telegraph, telephones and satellite circuits. Commanded by Captain Doile, she arrived at Onehunga on 28th March 1868 bringing to Auckland welcome intelligence of the recovery of the Duke of Edinburgh from the effects of a pistol shot wound suffered in Sydney. Earlier reports said the Duke had been assassinated on 12th March, so news of his survival reached Auckland more than two weeks after the event!

Storm Bird was built on the Clyde and serviced Australia during the gold rushes in Victoria, then plied the New Zealand coast, first as Storm Bird and then as Stormbird, with the occasional government charter including to Chatham Islands. She was a troop-carrier during New Zealand Wars and took Maori to exile in the Chathams.

She was wrecked while trying to clear Wanganui Harbour in September 1916: her loss ended the life of the oldest steam vessel on the New Zealand coast having plied the coasts for more than 50 years.

“H.M. Ships of the Flying Squadron Entering Auckland Harbour” by William Godwin
Auckland Museum

The Special Flying Squadron was a Division of the Royal Navy formed to make goodwill visits to ports around the globe. It arrived in Auckland Harbour on the afternoon of 2nd February 1870 to join the Auckland Regatta celebrating the city’s 30th anniversary. The event was delayed a few days to fit the Squadron’s schedule, enabling the ships to participate… ‘Liverpool’, frigate, bearing the flag of Rear Admiral Hornby, ‘Scylla,’ corvette, ‘Royal Alfred’, frigate, ‘Luna,’ frigate, ‘Endymion’, frigate, ‘Phoebe’ frigate, ‘Barrosa’, corvette, and ‘Liffey’, frigate.  The Daily Southern Cross reported; “Six magnificent Flying Squadron ships of war are at any time a sight worth seeing, but it was such a sight as had never before been seen in Auckland, and such may not be witnessed again for many years to come. The vessels came gliding majestically up the Harbour in two lines, the formidable-looking hulls with their long tiers of guns, and the tall taut rigging becoming gradually more and more distinct”.

It’s this entrance to Auckland Harbour by the six warships that William Godwin painted. And the newspaper was correct: the sight of so many ships in the harbour on a goodwill visit was not seen again for a long time. It was in 1908 Aucklanders  witnessed the arrival of the Great White Fleet, a visit by the United States Navy.


In 2006, the Fire Brigade Old Boys Association refurbished William Godwin’s grave with help from Auckland City Council Heritage Funds. It was an honour for the Old Boys to recall one of their own in this way.

“But, oh, for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still”

– part of the inscription on William Godwin’s headstone



Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

New Zealand Maritime Index

NZETC Victoria University


RCC 2006 updated 2020