This is the unlikely story of two successive Wellington fire chiefs whose personal lives cost them their jobs. It was almost incredible that not one, but two, Superintendents resigned from the same brigade around the same time after falling for women outside their marriages.
The first, in 1912 was William O’Brien and then the same fate awaited the man who took over from him, Harry Tait, who was involved in a scandal in 1925.
William O’Brien was an Australian who was appointed Superintendent of the Wellington Brigade in 1908 and shaped to be the “best firefighter Wellington ever saw” according to a press report of the day. Part of O’Brien’s tasks was to oversee the licensing and inspection of “places of public assembly” and it was while checking on His Majesty’s Theatre in Courtenay Place sometime in 1910 that he met the “house pianist”, Mrs Alberta Mixner.
Despite being married with a daughter, William O’Brien, began seeing the queen of the keyboard and, infatuated, left his family home to be with Alberta who had a son living with her. This did not please Mrs O’Brien’s brother who gave William a beating, trying to knock some sense into him and a return to matrimonial responsibilities. But it did not work – a little later a deed of separation was drawn up and the O’Briens parted with a financial arrangement in place.
On April 14th 1912 Superintendent O’Brien had faced tragedy: the death of one of his own when Third Officer and officer-in-charge at Newtown Station, William Robert McLean, was killed while fire-fighting near Willis Street in the city. The ladder he had scaled touched power lines and he was electrocuted. McLean was accorded a Brigade funeral with full honours. Then followed an inquest as well as an inquiry by the Wellington City Council’s Fire Brigade Committee, both at which O’Brien was a key witness. He told the coroner that, while directing fire-fighting it was he who had asked McLean to get up on to the roof to see what progress firemen were making from that side of the building on fire. McLean arranged the ladder, the top of which was in contact with electric wires stripped bare of insulation by the heat of the fire. The ladder’s ironwork conducted the electricity and McLean was killed instantly when he neared the top of the ladder and grasped its sides.
Some two weeks later, on Friday 26th April, 1912, Superintendent O’Brien did not report for duty. He had not advised illness or other reason for his absence. Newspapers were reporting that he had disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Confronted with this unusual occurrence, Mrs O’Brien, it was reported, believed her estranged husband may have committed suicide. Was he blaming himself? Other scribes, perhaps playing on this, were saying that O’Brien had noticeably taken McLean’s death very badly and it may have had serious mental effects. Yet another newspaper opined that the Superintendent could not stand facing yet further questioning in formal inquiries about the circumstances of McLean’s death… so he disappeared.
In O’Brien’s absence, Deputy Superintendent Harry Tait, was appointed officer-in-charge until it could be ascertained what had happened to the missing Fire Chief. Some folk reported having seen O’Brien on the Friday when he first did not turn up for duty. He was observed in a Willis Street cafeteria having afternoon tea with none other than Mrs Alberta Mixner. Mrs O’Brien reported that the visited Mrs Mixner that same afternoon – O’Brien as with her and he said that he would return on Sunday to see his 10 year old daughter.
That was the last reported sighting of William O’Brien. But within a few days the Town Clerk received O’Brien’s letter of resignation. The postmark was Wellington. But it was soon established that O’Brien had fled, taking the liner “Aorangi” to San Francisco. Speculation was rife about why he had abruptly left town. Until, that is, it was discovered that Mrs Alberta Mixner and her son were also passengers bound for (surprise, surprise)… San Francisco.
Mrs O’Brien had her husband’s sudden departure confirmed on Monday morning when she received a letter from him, preparing her for the shock of his parting and advising there was a sum of money for her lodged with his lawyer. Within days Wellington City Council accepted O’Brien’s resignation and confirmed that acting-Superintendent, Harry Tait, was the permanent replacement in the top job at the fire brigade.
Harry Tait began service with the fire brigade when he was 18 and worked his way through the ranks until, now, in 1912 with O’Brien gone he was appointed Superintendent. The 30 year old had a great physique; he was athletic, very fit and led his men in swimming and diving exercises in the harbour and on runs around Mt Victoria. He was well-liked and a respected leader, particularly during fire-fighting operations.
“Harry Tait’s career suggests a mind as well as a good nerve behind a strong muscle” one newspaper wrote in 1925. Tait had the burdensome and continuous task finding recruits when firemen went off to the front during World War One. Determined to keep the numbers up, he trained men unsuited for military service. Inevitably the inexperienced “newbies”, led by Tait, often faced major fires… including shipboard fires, a factory fire, a block of downtown shops and a timber mill. Tait also had to shoulder shortages in staff caused by the 1918 influenza epidemic. He pressed for construction of the South Wellington station which began in 1918 and supported, then oversaw, the introduction of the Brigade’s petrol-electric turntable ladder with a reach of 87 feet (26.5m).
Tait’s personal life first came to notice in August 1925 when it was reported Mrs Aroada Thursa Tait had taken proceedings in the Supreme Court against him and had been granted judicial separation. It turned out that he had been having an affair with a Mrs Robertson, wife of the Deputy Superintendent, but the matter of adultery had been dropped from the court proceedings. It also became known, that to protect the Tait children, the Judge had heard the case “in camera” so the facts were supressed, not be published.
On 28th August newspapers glibly reported “trouble at Wellington Central Fire Station, the result of which the Superintendent, Mr Tait, has been suspended”.
That rather bland announcement, without detail, signalled the rather incredible lead-up to Tait being relieved of his position and, ultimately, his resignation.
Following the Taits’ separation on 12th August, as might be expected, there was talk, jokes and innuendo among fire-fighters at Central Station. Mrs Robertson was apparently mentioned, and not all spoke of her favourably. Superintendent Tait heard that his partnership with Mrs Robertson was being discussed among his troops and he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.
On the Mat
At 3.30pm the following day, 13th August, Fireman Theodore d’ Mey was asleep in his bedroom at Central Station, resting after attending a fire for most of the night.
(D’ Mey was born into aristocracy… his father was Baron Jean Jacques de Mey d’Alkemade, a descendant of Netherlands nobility born in France in 1882 and a graduate of Lille Military Academy, and Lille University. He was an expert swordsman and athlete and an accomplished linguist, being a master of seven languages. The Baron came to Wellington in 1879, introducing the Swedish form of physical training to New Zealand schools and the military. He enrolled in the Nelson Volunteer Rifles and later volunteered as a member of the party that went to Parihaki in 1881 to arrest the Maori Chief Te Kooti. The Baron retired to Levin)
A colleague awoke the sleeping fire-fighter from his mid-afternoon siesta. “The boss wants to see you… now!” was the message. D’ Mey washed, dressed and went to Tait’s office.
Standing at attention on the mat, D’ Mey was confronted with the accusation… “You have been making slating remarks about Mrs Robertson and me…”
There was a brief exchange of words, voices were raised, blows were traded. D’ Mey complained to police and they charged Tait with assault causing bodily harm, later reduced to common assault.
“A Torrent of Blows…”
In court it was revealed that D’ Mey had been subpoenaed to give evidence against Tait when the adultery part of the divorce proceedings were to be heard. But adultery was dropped as a contributing factor towards the separation so D’ Mey did not have to give evidence.
“But I stand by my statement,” he told Tait during the interview in the office, asking whether he was on the mat for an “official” or an “unofficial” meeting. “Unofficial,” said Tait, “and you have made disparaging remarks about the chastity of Mrs Robertson, a good woman!”
“And I stick by them,” D’ Mey said. He then described in court what followed. “I looked down to the desk whereupon, off my guard, I received a sharp blow below my left ear and this was followed by a torrent of punches, right and left uppercuts from Tait. I was sent spinning into the corner”.
…Then An Axe”
“I opened the office door to make an escape: Tait followed me, still raining blows, shouting out that my actions were contemptible. By now we were in the engine bay. I looked to protect myself so I grabbed an axe off one of the fire engines and wielded it towards Tait. I know the axe was sharp and I admit shouting out, that I would cut Tait to shreds. But he said he wanted to see it out by way of a fight, without weapons, and took of his coat in readiness. At that stage we were both restrained by firemen who came to see what the disturbance was. Once separated, I immediately called my lawyer and went to the doctor for treatment for my injuries. I was in bed for two days recovering… here is the doctor’s certificate which concludes that the injuries were likely caused by blows from a fist.”
D’ Mey said he had his hands in his pockets, defenceless, when the first blow was struck but Tait’s lawyer said firemen were never that casual while on the mat in front of the Superintendent. Continuing, Tait’s lawyer asked if D’ Mey had been in trouble before. “Didn’t you threaten to throw the cook out the window?” he asked. D’ Mey agreed, “I did it because the cook put kerosene in our tea, but that has nothing to do with the present case!” The lawyer called firemen to give evidence on what they had seen and heard that day… they attested to raised voices and the sounds of punches from the Superintendent’s office “and the door bursting open and D’ Mey flung against the running board of a fire engine, after which he seized the axe”.
Now it was D’ Mey’s lawyer’s turn and he asked Tait if he had been in trouble before. “No!” was the response. The lawyer then reminded Tait of evidence in the recently-completed divorce proceedings, and asked if it was true that Tait had previously used force to “persuade” his wife not to give evidence about his infidelity.
This question, (or was it a deliberate expose?) by the lawyer included evidence given in the divorce proceedings which was heard in camera, suppressed by the Judge… but now these matters were out.
The bench, Messres I. Salek and J. Read, Justices of the Peace, closed down the line of questioning saying “No, we shall not have any more of it. We do not want it. What happened in the divorce case does not concern this. We refuse to admit it as evidence.”
In delivering their verdict the Justices cautioned Tait. “It was very unwise”, said one of the J.P.s, “to have summoned a man to your office in the station and introduce so dangerous and delicate a matter. You have a fine record of service in the brigade, and it is highly regrettable that this thing should have occurred – that a man in your position should forget himself so much as to assault someone. The court will have to convict”. Harry Tait was formally convicted, fined £5 and ordered to pay legal, and medical expenses, £6 6s.
Harry Tait resigned and in December 1925 was presented with a gold medal for 25 years’ service. Joseph Creeke was appointed Superintendent, vice Sydney Fire Brigade.
He too faced a scandal in 1932, not over an affair of the heart, but inconsistencies in the accounts for running the Brigade’s motor cars. Creeke had to take some of the responsibility for the shortcomings of his Deputy, Clarke, who was dismissed. Creeke was reduced in rank to Deputy, with Charles Woolley appointed Superintendent.
Ironically in the book “From Bells to Blazes – The Story of the Wellington Fire Brigade 1865 – 1965” the details of the O’Brien and Tait chapter in the brigade’s history are missing, passed over. While other aspects and events are detailed, O’Brien’s leaving the brigade in 1912 is merely mentioned that he “…resigned later that year…” while Tait’s departure is put “… he had a difference of opinion with the Council and he later resigned”. The book misses the point that the Brigade’s destiny might have been very different had either of these capable and visionary leaders served their full term without distractions of the heart and the resulting attached scandals.
Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand
“From Bells to Blazes, The Story of the Wellington Fire Brigade 1865 – 1965”, Rex Monigatti