The Story of  T. A. Varley,

Father of New Zealand’s Fire Services”

by R. C. Carlyon

Photographs copyright as credited, text copyright R. C. Carlyon

ISBN 978-0-473-71189-4

Published April, 2024


Admiration and respect for Thomas Arthur Varley was shared by those he met during his career in fire services in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand. I met “T.A.”, as he was known, on many occasions after his retirement when he recalled his experiences, intended for publication. The years have gone by, “T.A.” has passed on, and it has taken much longer than originally anticipated to properly and adequately research and reflect his life.

There was a sharp prompt by Allan Bruce in 2009 in his autobiography “Into the Line of Fire” when, in the chapter headed “The Great Man Retires”, he wrote that Thomas Varley was “…without question the Founding Father of our Fire Brigades in New Zealand who warrants a biography of his own, written by a true historian”. I cannot claim that, but I trust “T.A”, and Allan Bruce would have approved of this attempt and that readers will find it an interesting insight into Thomas Varley’s personal involvement bettering fire services on both sides of the globe… influences we see which endure in New Zealand as our fire services undergo constant change.

This project was originally intended as a book (hence its length), but I have decided to publish on the web, available to all.

Thomas Arthur Varley’s remarkable career in fire services began in 1919 as driver of the first motorised fire engine at the Gateshead Brigade. He was a senior officer through the difficult and dangerous wartime years in Britain and after hostilities he concluded his career as New Zealand’s most senior fire officer, rebuilding the nation’s fire brigades in the wake of a tragic blaze that cost 41 lives.

I make no apologies for interweaving an expanded story of firefighting in Britain, especially during World War Two, and detailed accounts of the sometimes-vexed history of New Zealand’s fire services. Unavoidably, it’s all part of Tom Varley’s story. So this is also a chronicle of change and it ends with his likely attitudes to latest developments introduced in New Zealand fire services since his passing.

Those passages where Tom Varley is quoted are taken from a series of my interviews with him.

I have borrowed the phrase “Getting to Work” for the title. It seemed appropriate: for many decades it has prefaced progress reports from the fire-front by the officer-in-charge, messages such as ‘Getting to Work… multiple deliveries in use, building totally involved, protecting exposures…”. Tom Varley was so often getting to work, not only fighting fires but determined to progress fire services wherever he served.

R.C.C., Auckland, April 2024.


Prelude: The tragic fire that resulted in reforms of the New Zealand fire services.

Part One: T. A. Varley’s early life in Leeds, his military service, first days in the fire brigade and his career, which by the time of World War Two, he had been promoted to Commander of all-Wales organising fire service operations on a military-like footing and on a grand scale to deal with the results of enemy action.

Part Two: The history of the stunted, fragmented, and largely neglected fire services in New Zealand, and the unsuccessful attempts to bring brigades together under one nationwide service. Lack of leadership, training and sound operational procedures, as revealed after the Ballantyne’s tragedy and other major blazes, called for reformation. An experienced officer was sought to lead the mission: Thomas Varley in the UK accepted the position and immigrated.

Part Three: Within days of his arrival in Wellington Varley was getting to work to reform fire services and during these endeavours he would encounter political push-back, petty officials, blackmail, fobbing-off, tyranny and reputational damage. But he also found dedicated front-line firefighters pleased at last to have a mentor and be given the lead, the opportunity to train and to better themselves in the protection of their communities. Varley introduced modern equipment, improved appliances… he persisted single-handed against all odds to get the 111 emergency telephone system installed and went on to help develop standards promoting fire safety. His resignation ended a remarkable decade of successful reform.

Part Four:  Discusses changes since Varley’s time, some of it abhorrent to him, and, after he had passed on, the promised overhaul of the Service and the 10 years’ wait to introduce measures suitable for New Zealand fire brigades in the 21st Century. Would Tom Varley approve of the latest 2017 Fire and Emergency Act? His opinions were so well ennunciated when he was alive, it’s reasonable to guess his thoughts.

Followed by a Glossary, Author’s Thanks and List of Sources and References used in researching, collaborating and adding detail to Thomas Varley’s recollections.

Thomas Arthur Varley, Dominion Chief Fire Services Officer. Photo taken in 1958


Ballantyne’s Fire: Beacon for Change

It was New Zealand’s worst fire in terms of loss of life. 41 people died as the result of a fierce blaze which swept through Ballantyne’s department store in downtown Christchurch, mid-afternoon, on the 18th of November 1947. Starting as a small fire in a basement storeroom, flames rapidly engulfed the entire premises which covered just on an acre (half a hectare). Fire quickly spread up lift shafts to retail salerooms, counters and displays on the ground and first floors and then, continuing its rapid progress, flames took hold in the tearooms, also on the first floor. From there fire finally broke through to upper levels – a canteen and amenities for staff, an extensive sewing workroom and the company’s administrative offices.

Effective rescues and firefighting efforts were fraught from the very beginning when Ballantyne’s staff delayed calling the fire brigade. But once summoned, two pumping appliances and a van were rapidly on the scene. Firefighters were responding to what they had been told was a small fire in Ballantyne’s basement.

Fire rapidly engulfed the premises – Alexander Turnbull Library

It was while this was being investigated that fire broke through the cellar and rapidly involved the various connected buildings that comprised Ballantyne’s department store.

Because there was no internal fire alarm many of the 432 staff members did not realise the gravity of the situation. Nor did most of the customers in the store, including those in the café upstairs: they were all unaware of the unfolding scenario. It all happened so quickly. Newspapers of the day tell of ‘…people in the store unconcerned one minute, the next screaming for help…’

In hindsight this was understandable, because when the occupants belatedly tried to make their escape, they became disorientated in the thick black smoke, unsure of the way out. Others suffered fatal burns, their means of egress blocked by flames or choking fumes and searing heat. At least one woman died after jumping from an upper floor. She apparently thought there was no alternative but to risk the plunge from a window, hoping for a safe landing. Two others also saw this as the only way out and were badly injured when they landed on the veranda roof, from which they were rescued by firefighters and civilians. Other frantic occupants were awaiting rescue at upper-floor windows: all hope of saving them ended when a wooden truss ladder, flung up by firefighters, caught fire and fell into the blazing building.

Of the 41 who died in the fire, no fewer than 34 were staff members, and half of these had been working in the Credit Office on the upper floor.

Firefighters and helpers rescue Kenneth Ballantyne
Christchurch City Library

The rescue of company director, Kenneth Ballantyne, was a close-run thing. Believed to be the last to leave, he appeared on the ledge of a third-floor window, seeking escape. Then he disappeared, going back into the burning building to help two women he thought had been left behind. Minutes later he re-appeared at the window. From the street he could be seen through the billowing smoke framed by a wall of flame in the shop beyond. Firefighters trained two hoses on him as he crouched on the ledge until they could hoist a ladder. He was rescued to applause from the assembled crowd of onlookers.

It was abundantly clear, early on, that the brigade’s available resources at the scene had been overtaken by the fire’s rapid progress. The turntable ladder, vital for rescues, was not sent on the initial turn-out from Central Station because the first caller advised that the blaze was in the cellar. The building’s construction style prevented firefighters pitching other ladders above the veranda along the shop frontage where, otherwise, there might have been opportunity to make rescues. Stunned onlookers, estimated in their thousands, had gathered to watch from many vantage points in the streets and from windows of surrounding buildings. They were witnessing tragedy unfold.

It appeared to bystanders that there was a lack of co-ordination among firefighters. Spectators, and it was a spectacle, said later it was obvious that there was insufficient equipment on hand to make initial rescues and to fight the flames – they were correct on both counts – there was terrible loss of life and the fire eventually gutted the entire premises, leaving only the façades, internal masonry and concrete walls standing. The place was a total loss.

Christchurch, and indeed the whole nation, was shocked at the toll: 41 lives lost. Canterbury, in particular, was in mourning. There was a Civic funeral service and mass burial of the victims.

The Government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry ‘into all matters concerning the Ballantyne’s fire’. Its report was released in August 1948, saying it could not find a definite cause of the fire. But its comprehensive findings were highly critical of the Christchurch Fire Brigade, citing a serious lack of both expertise and leadership which meant firefighters contributed largely to the disaster by omission when they failed to effectively cover and surround the fire. Insufficient resources, the report said, were dispatched to deal with the fire which also contributed to the tragic outcome. Accordingly, there were numerous recommendations which, when considered together, amounted to a major reform of fire services. The Commissioners also declared that the design and layout of Ballantyne’s premises had been unsafe, though remarkably no construction or town-planning laws or regulations had been broken, and it drew attention to the need to overhaul legislation to minimise risk from fire in buildings. The Commission slated Ballantynes’ management for not having installed an internal fire alarm which could have, early on, alerted the company’s staff members to the fire, along with the customers. In addition, management had not arranged any emergency evacuation procedures. The Commission recommended, as a matter of urgency, that there should be a code applied nation-wide to provide egress, with sign-posted exits and escape-ways, customised for different types of buildings and occupancies.

It had taken a disaster with terrible loss of life to signal the need for a massive shake-up of fire services in New Zealand which were fragmented, under-resourced, poorly trained, and locally administered in a muddle. It was not just in Christchurch. The Commission of Inquiry surmised it was the same in most, if not all, fire brigades throughout the country.

Help from Abroad

While everyone in the fire services in New Zealand pondered how reorganisation might be tackled, and how it would affect them, there were those on the other side of the world who had been through just such an exercise in restructuring.

Wartime necessity in Britain in 1941 dictated that the disjointed, autonomous, Fire Brigades had to be united into one National Fire Service (NFS), incorporating both full-time and volunteer brigades. Thus, long before the Ballantyne’s fire, this major re-organisation of the British fire services had been successfully completed. Then, during the dark years of war, it was acknowledged as an essential part of the civil defences throughout the many crises. Its proponents hoped that this ideal structure would continue in peacetime. In fact, it did not. Sometime after hostilities ended, administration was transferred from NFS brigades to new County-based organisations. At the same time international fire publications gave details of the situation in New Zealand following the Ballantyne’s fire.

Details of the Christchurch tragedy were already known in Britain apart from news reports. Firefighters who were members of the New Zealand branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) had written seeking advice from the IFE’s London-based Overseas Committee. The correspondents wanted to know what role, if any, firefighters should take in connection with the Inquiry into the Ballantyne’s fire. In their request for help they mentioned with some alarm that they were now realising that the Commission’s report might roundly blame them for what had transpired, condemning them out of hand. And they could see that the findings, and any consequences arising from the Inquiry, would more than likely affect them the most. Should they insist that they give evidence putting their side of the story? Should they engage lawyers? If so, who should represent them? Could the IFE suggest names of suitably qualified persons to be members of the Commission? Some New Zealand firefighters left it to the local IFE branch while others wrote personal, pleading, letters to England. These were received by Thomas Varley, the inaugural Chairman of the then recently set up IFE Overseas Committee. These requests very much met the purpose envisaged by those who founded the Overseas Committee – a conduit to pass on reliable and expert information to IFE members abroad, thus heightening the Institution’s relevance and profile around the globe.

Varley was Chief Regional Fire Officer, No. 1, Northern Region, in the restructured British Fire Service. Wearing his IFE hat he had to consider how best to advise those, half a world away in New Zealand, who were now seeking professional help. He was not to know that later he was to become so much part of the New Zealand Fire Service scene, nor did those who wrote to him. But as chance would have it, there could not have been a more qualified person to give advice to the worried New Zealanders. Both through the IFE, and directly to his correspondents, Tom Varley drew on his long and varied experience in the British fire services and saw that they got the best advice.



Thomas Arthur Varley was born in Leeds, West Yorkshire, on August 26th, 1901. One of 9 children, his parents ran a public house in a 3-storeyed building which locals knew as the ‘Top Shop’ but was formally called the ‘Victoria Hotel’ situated on the main road between Leeds and York, 143 York Road, at the corner of Freehold Street.

Site of Victoria Hotel, Leeds – Leodis

“My parents had been running the hotel for many years. There was a brewery in the cellar where father used to make the beer but in my time supplies were carted in from a nearby commercial brewery. My father, Arthur, died when I was 7: mother continued with the hotel and remained ‘mine hostess’ for many years. Thus, Sarah Maria Varley became the oldest licensee in the Leeds District and the longest-serving in just one establishment”. Her occupation is listed in the 1911 census as ‘beer retailer’.

When it came time for Varley to go to senior school, England’s educationists were battling away at the height of their academic argument about which subjects should be taught in those high schools offering free education.

It appeared logical, and fortunate, that the young Thomas should attend Southern Higher Grade School in Burton Road, Beeston. These ‘superior’ Higher Grades Schools had been introduced in selected locations throughout England as something of an experiment with the doctrine ‘Literature with Science’. The schools were often brand new, they employed the pick of the teaching profession and were led by enlightened principals, preferring to enrol brighter pupils who were encouraged by their parents, attracted by the wider curriculum offered.

Cockburn High School: enrolled brighter pupils – Leodis

By the time Thomas Varley should have entered secondary school the building in Burton Road had changed its name to Cockburn High School, to remember local education innovator Sir George Cockburn, and the experiment in education was launched.  But without Varley. It was not for him.

“School did not entirely agree with me. I was a venturesome type, strongly built, taller than others of my age, and fit. I found, like other youngsters, that I was attracted to the fair-ground when, several times a year galas were staged, providing a few highlights of an otherwise fairly dreary life. I got a part-time job looking after animals in the touring menagerie-zoo while it was in Leeds. I suppose you could say I very nearly ran away with the circus!


World War One began. My brothers were called up and joined the Army. They had all helped my mother in the pub so now, on my retutn home, I had to fill in for those who had gone off to the Front. The ‘Top Shop’ was very popular. By day the off-licence was busy with (mostly) women-folk buying bottles of beer or bringing their own containers to be filled. At night the bars were thronged, noisy, hazy with smoke from cigarettes and pipes, and sometimes unruly. It wasn’t my scene, and I took a violent dislike to working in this atmosphere. On top of which I was expected to keep up my schoolwork. I saw the only way out: I ran away from home.

I wandered right across Yorkshire to Hull looking for an uncle I knew  who owned a bakery there. But I couldn’t find him, so I crossed the Humber and carried on right down into Nottinghamshire. I can’t remember who it was or how it came about, but by chance I met a man who took me in, and he and his wife looked after me for a while.

The Bolsover Co’s Crown Colliery, Mansfield – S. Osler

He was a miner and got me a job at the local colliery, down the coal-mine driving a horse and cart delivering fresh water to various depots where pit ponies were working so that they could be regularly refreshed during their shift underground.

The railway line leading to underground stables

The railway line leading to underground stables”The colliery deployed more than 100 ponies, so I was kept busy. I soon found a short-cut, – despite strict rules strictly forbidding it – I would ride in the empty container on the return trip to the water source”.


“Once mended, I decided to follow my brothers and join the armed forces. I went to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where the recruiting officer from the Royal Marines liked my height, build and fitness and I was taken on, put in uniform and sent to Portsmouth to begin my artillery training”.

“Benbow” and a War-time Secret Mission

Young Varley tricked those military recruiters by putting up his age. On 4th January 1917 when he lined up to enrol in the Royal Marine Artillery he said his name was Arthur Varley, born on 26th August 1899 at Pudsey, between Bradford and Leeds in Yorkshire – on the other side of Leeds to the family pub. He gave his occupation as “collier”, reflecting his brief stint in the coalmines. Rather than his own family he gave his next-of-kin as Rebecca Snoden of Forest Town, Mansfield, described as “a friend”, possibly the maiden name of the wife of the miner who had taken him in. His military record lists no fewer than 5 scars, on his eyebrow, head, fingers and elbow, no doubt the result of wounds suffered in his tumble from the cart in the mine.

After 6 months’ basic training at Portsmouth he was enlisted in the Royal Marines Artillery C Company and in October 1917 he was posted to the Navy’s Super Dreadnought, ‘HMS Benbow’, one of 4 iron Duke-Class battleships. He joined the ship after a long journey north to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands and then a boat trip to Scapa Flow, the Fourth Division’s ‘home port’ where the Grand Fleet assembled.

“I was given the task associated with the ‘light’ 6-inch (15cm) guns, but my time was to be shared in the working chamber and turret of the large armament, one of the ship’s ten 13.5-inch (34cm) guns.

HMS Benbow’s 13.5inch armament – Pinterest

We undertook several gunnery exercises at sea, and it was a most interesting procedure to prepare and load the ammunition, set the guns and then fire them. In addition I was appointed batman for the Admiral, Sir Frederick Sturdee, when he joined ‘Benbow’, his flag-ship. I had to be at his side as his right-hand man ready to carry out his bidding. I can reveal that it always took him a day or two to find his sea-legs: he was by no means a born seaman! Conditions on board were cramped, the lower decks slept in hammocks and there were no proper bathroom facilities. The food was just satisfactory. We carried out our duties and training without knowing what the ship’s wartime mission was. ‘Benbow’ had taken part in the famous Battle of Jutland firing on German battleships: now it seems we were either in port at Scapa Flow or on patrol, or manoeuvres, in the North Sea.

Weeks had passed and I felt guilty about my uneplained absence from home, and being wartime anything could happen”.


It cost £45 to release Gunner Varley who had served a total of some 15 months, but his records show he forfeited 234 days. They did not count because he was ineligible, under-age. He was officially discharged on 29th April 1918: his records note‘…having made a mis-statement as to age in enlistment…’ Notwithstanding, his character was given as ‘Very Good’. On discharge his papers were amended, giving his mother as his next of kin.

“When I returned to Leeds all was forgiven by the family and I returned to ‘Civvy Street’ finding employment during the day and helping out in the family pub in the evenings, still against my wishes.

After several jobs I took a position with Brooke Bond, the well-known tea merchants, cleaning and servicing their fleet of small one-cylinder Opel vans.

1910 Opel: Brooke Bonds Collectibles

They were used by the company’s travelling salesmen on their rounds. As well as looking after these vehicles I managed, on the quiet, to learn how to drive them. When no one was about I would start one in the rear car park, out of sight of the office, and gingerly get around the yard. So, very quietly, a acquired a skill that stood me in good stead.


Restless again, I said goodbye to my family and headed to stay with a cousin in Greenwich, London. I immediately got a position with a firm of engineers as chauffeur, driving the company directors all around London. I quickly got to know the inner city very well”.

But the job lacked the adventure Tom Varley yearned… and the war was still on. No longer under-age, he enlisted and was told the military wanted experienced drivers for a particular mission, details unknown, but it sounded good to him.

“I signed up with the Royal Army Service Corps. 12 young men were taken on and we were told to report to the Tower of London. It was then revealed that we were on a secret mission, confined meantime to the Tower”.


“The mission began to Southern Russia and, despite wartime conditions, we went to Dover by rail, crossed the channel to France, embarked on enclosed railway waggons and travelled to Italy, then south to the Mediterranean and a place called Taranto. We were taken straight to the wharves and put on a freighter… again, secrecy forbade us leaving the ship. It sailed almost immediately on what was an uncomfortable voyage: it was an old vessel and offered no luxuries at all. We eventually crossed the Black Sea to the port of Novorossiysk in South Russia.

In a nut-shell we were to prepare for the arrival of a larger British group, part of a campaign to try to get the Russian White (voluntary) Army to maintain its support for the Allies”.

Southern Russia

 Towards the end of World War One, various political and military factions were filling the vacuum left in the governance of Russia, capitalising on the confusion and looking for opportunity. The British Government, fearful of German expansion and rising Bolshevism, decided to intervene by assisting White Army troops and any similar groups prepared to fight against the Bolsheviks and other Reds.

“As the advance party, we were billeted in an old cement works near Novorossiysk. I was to be the driver for the Quarter Master General, allocated a Ford Model T car which did its best to handle the rough conditions. We clocked up big distances and some of our travels were well off established roads along dirt tracks as we avoided the main routes to keep a low profile. I often had a job finding our way: maps were inadequate.

There was no doubt we were caught up in a developing civil war, trying to win over confidence and support from several disparate groups. The British zone contained important oilfields which I understand in peacetime supplied most of Russia’s needs and exported huge quantities as well. One of our tasks was to protect these assets and accordingly officials had contact with Anton Denikin, who led the White Army, as well as the few Cossacks and other friendly groupings who remained loyal to the Allies.

Anton Ivanovich Denikin – Celebrities website

I transported senior officers to meet various leaders, part of the work to help set up the mission. It was plain there was going to be quite some intervention to assist the White Army with offers and promises being made, as well as plans put in place for a mobilisation that looked very much like putting Russia on a war footing – only the British, technically, would not be fighting. The outcome of all this changed the political landscape for ever”.

The campaign was later labelled ‘Churchill’s Private War’ when Cabinet Minister, Winston Churchill, saw to a massive escalation in support: tanks, vehicles, ammunitions, aircraft, motor-boats and personnel… saying he wanted ‘to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle’. His hatred of communism was well-known and he banked on Cabinet’s earlier rather vague remit for action which, given his own interpretation, allowed him to crank up Britain’s intervention against the Reds, suiting his own personal loathing. He organised huge support for Denikin, in whom he had great faith, to pull the White Army and its campaigns together and, it was hoped, to defeat the Bolsheviks and kill off communism at its source. Churchill’s opponents, on the other hand, rubbished the ideals of intervention saying the supply of military equipment to the White Army was all a ruse to easily dispose of embarrassingly large stocks of surplus hardware, left-overs from World War One. But Varley’s duties were interrupted.

“I became ill, jaundiced and weak and before plans for the military intervention could be fulfilled the medical officer ordered my evacuation and I was put on a ship back to England where I was hospitalised in Cheltenham.

Naturally, I followed events in Southern Russia very closely and I later heard that the White Forces, even though better equipped, trained and disciplined, and notwithstanding millions of pounds invested, lost out to the Bolsheviks. They, with other groups, went on to form the Soviet Union”.

Varley’s release from the hospital in Cheltenham also meant discharge from the Army… on 15th June 1920.

T. A. Varley’s entry in Royal Army Service Corps’ Roll –  Archives

“My two periods with different outfits in the military during the First World War were later recognised when I was (mistakenly?) sent two sets of Service medals!

I returned to Yorkshire and took a job as a delivery driver for a local grocery company with the added duties of maintaining the company’s gas-fired mill. Looking after this equipment whetted my appetite to study mechanics so I started training to be an engineer. During this time I lodged with a family in a small town called Bedale. In summer it was idyllic country-side, and we often had our evening meal outdoors as a picnic. One night while thus dining we saw a red glow in the sky, obviously from a big fire. I think it was a timber yard on fire in Hartlepool and even though this was a long way off, it lit up the sky. This sight was the trigger. I could only imagine the havoc caused by the fire, the dangerous work of firefighters as they fought to put it out… the excitement of the whole scene. I compared this picture in my mind with the quiet rural scene that surrounded us, and I instantly knew where I wanted to be. I’m not one to talk soft but I’m saying it was like an epiphany. I decided then and there to join the fire service”.


“I was surprised to secure an interview at Gateshead. I boasted my driving and mechanical skills, but I found I was very young, applying alongside, and competing with many much older men. But I thought my experience behind the steering wheel, my service in the Army and working with machinery would give me a better chance of employment”.


Varley was right. Now aged just 20, he was taken on as a motor engineer at Gateshead Police Fire Brigade in 1921 and his duty, as a driver, had much expectation: getting the brigade into the motorised era.



Gateshead Brigade’s Leyland Pump-Escape appliance –
Gateshead County Borough website

“At the Leyland factory in Chorley I also had to learn how to maintain and service the vehicles and their equipment. Motorised fire engines were still a new thing. As part of this training I took an appliance for a brief drive within the works to get the feel of it, very nervously at first, but I soon got its measure except I found the solid rubber tyres meant the steering was very heavy, requiring a lot of physical effort with the steering wheel!

Gateshead’s other Leyland appliance that Tom Varley drove –  Gateshead County Borough website

I remember my first-ever fire-call. I’d been at Gateshead just a few days when the Superintendent advised we were off to a fire in a factory. I offered to start the Leyland fire engine, ready to impress with a quick turnout and I was looking forward to drive one of the new appliances. But the Superintendent slowed me down somewhat when he said the fire was nearby so we would respond on foot! He told me to bring a hand extinguisher and a crow-bar. I could not help but note the contrast as together we paced it out towards the factory – I was in the second-hand uniform that I had been issued, tatty and much the worse for wear, while the Superintendent was immaculately dressed, resplendent in frock-coat! We soon arrived at the premises concerned, situated under a railway bridge, a small business that manufactured paper bags. We tackled a fire in timbers surrounding a boiler and after dousing the smouldering wood I hacked away at the charred remains with the crow-bar until the Superintendent was content the fire was out.

The old Gateshead Station, Swinburne Place
Picture from S. Ryan

I rode to a fire on an old horse-drawn steamer for the first, and only, time in my life while I was at Gateshead. We were responding on the Leyland engine to a house fire but, once we reached the main road we could hardly see where we were going in the thick fog. The Superintendent thought it was too dangerous to continue and ordered me to return to station. Immediately on arrival some of us were instructed to fire up the old steam pump while others gathered two horses from the stables at the rear of the station. Once the pair was harnessed in the side-by-side arrangement we were off again: I rode clinging to the side of the pumper.

Gateshead’s old steamer pump – Gateshead County Borough website

With the horses going at pace, the solid wheels and minimal springing it was a very bumpy ride while smoke billowed from the steamer, mixing with the dense fog. It was all a bit un-nerving. We followed the electric tramway line, and all was well until the horses went either side of a pole between the tracks. It was in the middle of the road  holding up the overhead wires. Of course, everything came to a sudden halt, breaking some of the gear.

Accident: the horses went either side of a pole

We were knocked off in the spill, lucky to escape injury. We gathered ourselves and as the house was not much further, we walked through the fog to the fire, which luckily had been confined beneath the hearth of a fireplace. It was fortunate that Gateshead Brigade had retained the steam pumper and the horses otherwise the Superintendent might have made us walk all the way! For me personally, the unexpected ride on the steamer bridged the gap between the horse-drawn era and motorised appliances.

As a member of the Police Fire Brigade I was rostered to walk the beat at night looking out for any suspicious characters in streets and lanes around the Town Hall and the Fire Station. We wore an oil lamp clipped to our belt. As a light it wasn’t very effective, but it was a great hand-warmer on cold nights! I had to keep a keen ear out for the bell on top of the Town Hall… if it rang I was expected to sprint back to the fire station, ready to respond on the Leyland. I also had to take my turn on point duty, directing traffic at a very busy intersection leading to the high-level bridges giving access to the road to Newcastle-on-Tyne. I recall there were many buses jostling to get on their way, the drivers always jockeying as if it was some sort of competition. The main memories of Gateshead are all the things I did for the first time as I got used to the work on a Police Fire station”. Within a year Varley moved to Newcastle.

Newcastle: A Reforming Brigade

“I answered an advertisement for firemen in a recruitment drive, part of an overhaul of the Newcastle Brigade following a serious fire on December 23rd, 1919, involving a seven-storied office block known as Cross House. Ten people had died and there had been a subsequent Inquiry. The blaze had broken out in the basement premises of a motion picture distributor, involving large quantities of highly-flammable nitrate movie film. This gave off poisonous gases, which together with the flames, smoke and heat, spread from the cellar to upper floors via the central staircase. Scores of occupants fled for their lives. Those upstairs could not find a way out; some resorted to jumping out of windows while others tried to exit by using the goods lift. Those who had made their way to the roof or upper windows realised there was no escape route, shouted out, begging those in the street below to rescue them. The desperate among them leapt to safety – they were among the fatalities.

The blazing Cross House in Westgate Street was less than 300 yards (275m) from the fire station so the Brigade was quickly on the scene with their appliances, but firefighters immediately found that the 50-foot (15m) ladders on their wheeled-escape appliances could not reach the upper floors, and certainly not to the roof to make vital rescues. Crowds of onlookers, attention diverted from their Christmas shopping, added to the confusion, many shouting ill-considered ‘advice’ and ‘instructions’ to firemen and to those occupants still inside or on the roof of the burning building. Meantime, someone had remembered an old horse-drawn ladder  stored, almost forgotten in a shed near the Police Station.  

A few firemen and stronger men from the crowd were sent to fetch the ladder, which had a reach of 75 feet (23m). It was dragged to the scene, quickly manhandled into position, pitched against the building and after further delays while the jammed mechanism was freed, firemen got on with their tasks. Meantime, one of their number had climbed a wheeled escape, and, using a small hook ladder that he had taken aloft with him, gradually made his way up the face of remaining floors to the roof. Once there, he calmed the terrified people, prevented any more jumping and, one by one, rescued all sixteen. Some people on lower floors were already being encouraged to leap out of windows into jumping sheets, now held taut by firemen and volunteers from the crowd”.

Firemen practised with jumping sheets enabling rescues like those at Cross House – Manchester Fire Services Museum

The facts which emerged from the Inquiry surrounding this fire left the Brigade with little credit. But the findings also brought about wider reform. A direct result of the tragedy was the enactment of new fire safety law to control the transport and storage of celluloid cinema film in the United Kingdom. Another legacy of the fire was new-found public respect for individuals in the emergency services, acknowledging heroism displayed during dramatic rescues. Police, firefighters and civilians were rewarded with honours and citations. Fireman Thomas William Brown, the firefighter who scaled the façade of the burning building to the roof where he made multiple rescues, received the Albert Medal.

The Albert Medal in Gold
Photograph: RAAF Website

This was a well-established Royal Award recognising heroic acts while saving life. Fireman Brown’s Albert Medal was notable because the award was usually given to deserving members in the military, not civilians. In the citation published in the London Gazette, 8th October 1920, it’s detailed that Brown ascended a 50-foot (15m) ladder pitched against the burning building. He took with him a hook ladder which he fastened on to a window-sill on the fourth floor enabling 13 persons to escape. He then threw the hook ladder onto a cornice above, some 70-feet (21m) above the street, ascended on to a parapet which enabled him to rescue a further three people. One eye-witness account of these rescues says the hook ladder was swaying in the wind and had to be steadied by a fireman to prevent the people being rescued losing their footing on the way down to safety.

Brown’s name was also added to the Carnegie Trust’s celebrated Roll of Heroes. But while individuals were praised, the local fire service was not. It was forced to reform and modernise.

“As well as changes in its organisation and procedures, the Newcastle Brigade purchased 3 new appliances all on Tilling-Stevens petrol-electric chasses. One was an 85-foot (26m) Metz turntable ladder and all three were among the first fire engines in Britain to have the revolutionary pneumatic tyres, retro-fitted replacing solid rubber. There were 12 new positions created in the brigade, as recommended by the Inquiry, to bolster resources.

I was in for one of these jobs. Unemployment persisted in the footsteps of the Great War and I found I was among hundreds applying. But I thought my experience at Gateshead Brigade, plus my military service gave me an edge and I approached the interview and tests with confidence”.

Police Fireman No. 39

 “I was successful, in 1921 I was appointed as Police Fireman Number 39 in the Newcastle Brigade at £3-10-00 a week. It was a ‘continuous shift’ roster with a day off every seven days plus a half-day break during the week. This tough schedule dictated that firemen had to live on station so I was allocated a room in the single men’s quarters.

The Superintendent was Sir Herbert Burrows, better known in earlier days in Lancashire as an expert reins-man, an accomplished driver of horse-drawn steam pumpers. As chief he was now a strict disciplinarian and a real tough individual. He stood absolutely no nonsense and if you were on the receiving end of a telling-off, you knew all about your misdemeanour and, often, the resulting harsh punishment. His Deputy was also a like-minded disciplinarian and outwardly appeared cast-iron. But Burrows would have been mortified had he known that his second-in-command liked nothing better than a drink or two while on duty… worse that he sent us juniors out to buy the liquor and sneak it in for him through the station’s rear door. These booze-ups on station were quite frequent.

It took a lot for me to stomach this misbehaviour. On top of this I was dismayed that though I was rated a motor driver, there was seldom a chance to get behind the steering wheel. Sub-Officer Arnott always took the driver’s seat and he thought it sacrilege if other firefighters considered they were even remotely qualified enough to drive fire engines. Eventually, of course, opportunities came. At times all the motor appliances were needed at a major fire, or we were responding to more than one call.

Panorama of Newcastle Fire Station, Thornton Street,1920s. Morris Belsize appliances second and third from left. Photographer unknown. From Simon Ryan

I seldom drove the new Tilling-Stevens machines on these occasions: invariably I was ordered to take the old 1916 Morris-Belsize engine which had been retained as back-up.

I soon found that with the solid rubber tyres on these appliances (5 inches wide on the front wheels) it was essential to avoid Newcastle’s tram tracks! If you were unlucky, or a bit careless, and found you had a tyre caught in the tracks there was only one immediate way out of it – you had to stop, turn the wheel hard out of the tracks and then restart with sudden acceleration. The only alternative was to continue with the tyres in the track, hoping that you would soon come to a set of points which you could jump, extricating the tyres. After a while I reckoned I knew where all the tracks intersected, and the points, as well as any of the tram drivers!”

The Morris-Belsize fire engine that young Tom Varley found himself driving should not be confused with the successful company, Morris Motors Limited, led by Lord Nuffield that emerged in England in the 1920s. The Morris-Belsize appliances were the result of two Manchester companies combining, John Morris and Sons and Belsize Motors Company Limited.

Proud maker’s plates- Fireground

Morris was famous for wheeled fire escapes and whose founder is said to have invented instantaneous couplings for fire hose which eventually replaced threaded couplings. John Morris believed it was logical that he should manufacture his own fire engine to carry his patented equipment, so he teamed up with Belsize Motors which was making cars for the upper end of the market. The fire engine created was a chain-driven 80 horsepower machine with the biggest motor the company deployed, six cylinders, 14 litres, with two spark plugs on each cylinder, giving a dual ignition to ensure trouble-free electrics and, in addition, there were special cocks through which petrol could be safely poured to overcome any difficulties starting the motor. Morris reckoned the fire engine just had to be dependable in times of fire in city or town, so it was essential to have these extra safeguards. There was a 500 gallon (1,900l) per minute pump at the rear, also chain driven. More than a hundred of these popular appliances were supplied to Brigades around the globe from the small factory in Salford, Manchester, from 1912 until Belsize Motors went bankrupt in 1921. Only 2 examples of these fire engines are known to survive. A 1912 model which served with Southampton Fire Brigade, now owned by the Enfield and District Veteran Vehicle Society, is on display in the Whitewebbs Museum, Enfield, England.

One of two known to survive, the restored Morris Belsize – Whitewebbs Museum, Enfield.

The other, made in 1914, is in the National Railway Museum, New Delhi, India where it was restored following its retirement after 50 years’ service protecting various railway establishments. John Morris and Sons survived, reverting to the manufacture of ladders and fire protection equipment. In the 1930s the company had developed a specialist fire appliance for use at airports. Morris invented and marketed branches (nozzles) that had controls so firemen could choose the rate of flow, the angle of the stream and whether to deliver a torrent or a spray, ‘thus’- the company claimed -‘reducing the losses at ordinary fires caused by an excess of water used for firefighting’. To say nothing of the fact that firefighters often used the spray feature to protect themselves, dissipating heat as they advanced towards the seat of the blaze.

John Morris and Sons held the sole United Kingdom agency for Magirus and continued to supply the famous German-made turntable ladders to be fitted on various makes of chasses until the late 1950s when the company lost the franchise.

It continued making the famous Ajax wooden truss-type ladders even after it was absorbed by Siebe Gorman Holdings Limited in the early 1970s and subsequently forced out of its long-time Salford headquarters. John Morris, or JM, under new owners, moved to Hyde where the company continued manufacture of many items in its long-established catalogue.

The Basics

 Tom Varley paints firefighters of the 1920s as ‘an unsophisticated bunch’, ruled by strict military-type discipline, men who knew the basics about getting water to a fire and little else.

“Our training for the job was merely repetition of grabbing hose and equipment off the fire engine, shipping a standpipe in the hydrant, running the feeder hose to the engine and directing jets of water.

Technical training was frowned on. And there was a regimented pecking order. Like the driving, those who learned how to work the appliance’s pump seldom passed on knowledge. They felt they had to protect their job. The brigades were mostly Police Fire Brigades, a hangover from earlier times when firemen served as a branch of the police.

So from time to time we worked closely with the police. I remember the tragic circumstances of one such call-out. One night we were asked to go to Benwell, in the city’s western suburbs, to assist two constables capture a burglar who had apparently broken into a public house and made his escape by climbing on to the roof of a long row of tenement houses. Once on the scene we pitched our 35-foot (10m) ladder, and thinking our job was over, stood back. But police insisted it was our job to scale the ladder to resume the pursuit on the roof, to try to catch the villain and, if successful, bring him down.I was given the task. I got up on to the slate roof and gingerly made my way along the ridge, looking for my quarry in the dark. At last I spotted him hiding behind a chimney and asked him if he would accompany me back down the ladder. This was a silly question, of course, and I was expecting and ready for the obscenities he spat out at me in reply. Understandably, he was most unwilling to be ‘helped’ down to the waiting, open arms of the law”.


“The dead man turned out to be a burglar with a long list of previous convictions. But by day he was better known as a much more respectable local character, a regular street musician with a popular repertoire, so the death of this Jekyll-and-Hyde, and its circumstances, were headlines in the district newspaper.

Living in single men’s quarters at Newcastle’s Central Station in Thornton Street was handy for a quick response when the calls came in. As well as fire engines there were two ambulances on station in which we responded to emergency medical or accident calls.

I was looking for promotion, but in these Brigades it was possible only after passing Police examinations. Remarkably, we were expected to pass the same tests as constables to qualify for sergeant and detective rankings. It seemed difficult to get schooled in legal matters and police procedures when firemen were not formally trained, nor experienced. Promotion, I thought, would give me more pay and at this time I was thinking about marriage and my future. I resisted sitting the Police examinations.

My salvation lay in a relatively new organisation that someone drew my attention to, the Institution of Fire Engineers, (IFE), which had devised a series of examination papers firemen could sit to gain a diploma and higher qualifications.

With my engineer’s training I knew there could be more to it than those monotonous Station drills, so I joined the IFE and, having passed the initial examinations, became a Graduate Member in 1930 and an Associate in 1931. While preparing to sit these papers I found I had a lot of ground to make up because, regretting it now, I had not completed my schooling back in Leeds. I first had to master basic maths before I could grasp chemistry, physics and, in fact, any topic that called for calculations, tables and problem-solving involving numbers.

Despite congratulations from the IFE on passing those initial papers, there was still no promotion. The Police Union saw to it that these qualifications were not recognised, preferring that seniority came exclusively with years of service. Worse, senior officers on station were openly jealous of the six of us who had passed the examinations. We had to put up with their cold-shoulder tactics and negativity.

Looking at alternatives, I decided to join in Police Union activities and became the local representative leading a campaign for better pensions for police, and for police widows, particularly for those whose husbands had been killed while on duty. I prepared a submission which was adopted by my colleagues, accepted by the district and then by national unions. I presented the case to a Parliamentary Select Committee which was considering new Police legislation and this appearance got me quite well-known in Police Fire circles.

Then, a turning point. As a result of industrial unrest within police ranks, their Union was reconstituted and renamed a Federation. The General Secretary of the new Federation in Newcastle befriended me, and I got interested in its affairs, culminating in my election as Chairman of the Newcastle Fire and Police Branch. It was unheard of that this office was held by a firefighter, and therefore I was not entirely accepted among the members. But it gave me the opportunity to influence improvements in duty hours, in pay and, in particular, pensions for both firemen and police personnel. The office I held also raised my profile.

I bought my first vehicle while in Newcastle, a three-quarter horsepower BSA motorcycle, and often travelled on my day off to see my family in Leeds. I also had some wonderful trips to different parts of Northumberland with my girlfriend of the day.

Restored 1920s BSA motorcycle
Photograph: MaxNorton.co Andy Tiernan Classic Motorcycles

Owning a motorcycle was a bit like having a qualification – you were one up on the officers. This did not sit well with them so they banded together and retaliated, banning the machine from the fire station. One or two of my colleagues also owned motorbikes, and as each of us returned to the station we had to turn the motor off outside (well out of earshot) and carry our mounts downstairs to basement storage where they had to remain until our next day off. We were also threatened this was a privilege that could be withdrawn”.


Hospital, Marriage and Qualifications

“There was a serious ship-fire on the River Tyne and all available resources were called in. I was designated a branch-man and was sent below to tackle the blaze. We were known as ‘smoke-eaters’ and the name certainly applied at this fire. Of course, there was no such thing as breathing apparatus in those days. All we had to protect ourselves against the smoke was a silk handkerchief, part of the kit issued, carried in a particular pocket of the uniform. I recall descending steep, narrow steps below-decks. I needed the protective handkerchief at this point before making my way down a vertical ladder towards the hold where I remember encountering thick black smoke as I entered the dark cavern… and that was all. I was overcome in the hostile environment: I collapsed. Fortunately, colleagues saw my predicament and carried me out. It took some time to recover from the effects of this smoke inhalation, during which I contracted pneumonia and was hospitalised, then spent weeks at the Police-Fire Convalescent Home in Harrogate”.

This facility is formally known as the Northern Police Convalescent and Treatment Centre: it was founded in 1897 and still exists, one of two in the United Kingdom better known as Police Treatment Centres. Between them, each year some 4,000 serving and retired police personnel receive rest, recuperation and treatment following illness or injury, assisting their return to better health.

Northern Police Convalescent and Treatment Centre, Harrogate – Police Treatment Centres website

“My family and my girlfriend, or maybe she was my fiancé by then, were concerned about my ongoing health, and regularly visited me while I was ill. But I seemed to make a full recovery.

Having been in trouble in the smoke and fume-laden atmosphere in the depths of the ship-fire and having to be rescued by colleagues, no one welcomed the advent of breathing apparatus more than me. I was pleased to be among the last of the ‘smoke-eaters’: no longer were we expected to operate in hostile atmospheres without breathing gear, like working in smoke, advancing with hose-lines towards the flames in heat and fumes and attempting rescues from burning buildings.

We soon became quite accustomed to going into the smoke and fumes wearing these huge hoods which enclosed our head and was closely fitted over the neck and shoulders. It had ‘windows’ to look out. It was quite claustrophobic until one got familiar with it. Like the outfits that deep-sea divers used, the headpiece was connected to an umbilical pipe which led out into clear atmosphere where a fireman pumped bellows providing the vital air supply. There was a number of different makes and styles of this equipment: companies diversified and developed their products to chase the lucrative military, mining and underwater markets. Fire services were the beneficiaries when a self-contained system became available.

Fortunately, Newcastle was one of the first brigades in Britain to adopt the new ‘Salvus’ personal sets which provided oxygen from a single cylinder ‘tank’ worn by each fireman, piped into a close-fitting, sealed face mask. The whole apparatus weighed 16 pounds (7kg) suspended by a harness from the shoulders and  clipped at the waist. There was enough oxygen for about 30 minutes: a shorter duration if the fireman’s activities were energetic. I was in the first group to be trained, not only in its safe use at fires and other incidents but how to train others in this break-through for fire services. We were the last generation of ‘smoke-eaters’ and I often thought about all those firefighters who had suffered, having worked in hostile environments which caused permanent lung damage and other health problems. Personal breathing apparatus sets had greatly improved the firefighter’s lot.

Having been engaged for some time I applied for permission to marry – those in service had to do this in those days. Some firefighters on station thought I was a bit daring in my choice of wife-to-be… others reckoned it was an investment in my career: I had been courting and now planned to marry the boss’s grand-daughter! Anyway, the Fire Chief approved. My girlfriend, Evelyn (Effie) Angus Hutchinson, became my wife on July 27th, 1929.

60th Wedding anniversary celebrations in 1989.
Mrs and Mr Varley, centre, with S. G. Lawson (President) and G. J. Wrigley(Executive Director),  Institution of Fire Engineers, New Zealand 

During the courtship and on the wedding day I had to very much mind my Ps and Qs – always be on my best behaviour – because Effie was more or less part of the establishment: her grandfather was the well-known local Police Superintendent.

Once married, I was considered too ‘in’ at Central Fire Station, a sort of conflict of interest with the hierarchy, so I was posted to Arthur’s Hill Station. At first I was very despondent about this: I thought it was shocking victimisation and I considered leaving the job. But it turned out for the better because I could find time for further study. It was a much quieter station with only three of us firemen on duty overnight, and the roster meant we slept on station every third shift.

Crew at Arthurs Hill Station

Together with policemen, our watch manned a Dennis fire engine and an ambulance. The old Dennis was a ‘chemical appliance’. Its copper tank was actually a giant fire extinguisher in itself because it held 40 gallons of water into which had been mixed bicarbonate of soda. There was an inner container of sulphuric acid. When the hose had been run out and we were ready to fight a fire, the motorman pulled a lever releasing the acid into the bicarbonate solution. The immediate reaction, acid versus alkaline, caused a pressure within the copper tank which forced the water out along the hose and on to the flames.

These “chemical appliances” were quite limited in their output and were gradually phased out, or a small rotary water pump was fitted to the appliance to provide a first-aid delivery which gave a continuous flow at reasonable pressure for firefighting.

Newcastle’s Dennis chemical appliances: its copper tank amidships – Dennis Brothers

As mentioned, Newcastle was a Police Fire Brigade, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when, for the first and only time, I wore a full police uniform on duty. It was in October 1928 when preparations were underway for the opening of the new Tyne Bridge. Great celebrations were planned and King George the Fifth and Queen Mary were coming to declare open the 531-foot (162m) structure. Additional police were required to look after traffic and security during the function: I was among several firemen chosen to ‘change hats’, becoming a policeman for the day.

Thomas Varley was on duty on the big day: as a policeman –
picturesofgateshead.co.uk website

The long quiet periods on station at Arthur’s Hill allowed me to get involved with study for the next IFE examination, Associate Membership, which I achieved. And I also had much more time, as it happened, to help with the annual 3-day IFE Conference which was to be staged in Newcastle and hosted by Sir Herbert Burrows, our Officer-in-Charge who was also President of the Institution at the time. As ‘just a fireman’ I was ineligible to attend, so I was surprised when Sir Herbert invited me to one of the social events. He asked me to make an address in reply to the toast to successful candidates in the various IFE examinations. I agreed, and this pleasant duty meant I was seen, and heard, by all the senior officers in the British Fire Service”.

The report in the August,1931, publication ‘The Fireman’ of the address to the Conference’s Official Luncheon says Fireman Thomas Varley thanked the President for remarks made during his toast and then (although largely preaching to the converted) he took the opportunity to promote the value of IFE examinations with a few personal observations.

‘No aspiring fireman should rest content until he has obtained the diploma of this Institution’, Varley is quoted as saying, ‘the up-to-date fireman must possess the knowledge so as to deal scientifically with outbreaks of fire and he must believe in making himself still more efficient in defending lives and the property of his fellow citizens.(Loud and prolonged applause)’. As if following Varley’s remarks, some of the larger fire brigades in the United Kingdom announced that they preferred candidates with IFE qualifications when appointing senior executives.

“My colleagues who passed Associate Membership about the same time as I did were appointed as Chief Fire Officer in Glasgow, in Swansea, in a London division, and as Deputy Chief in Bristol. I was on the lookout for a similar ranking position”.


The Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) had been formed in 1918, about the time Tom Varley chose to become a fireman. A group of senior executive fire officers in Britain had considered it was timely to create an organisation of firefighters, a learned association similar to other professional entities such as civil engineers and electrical engineers where membership was graded according to examinations passed.

The IFE was incorporated in 1924 and within 2 years ten candidates sat the first examinations. In the late 1920s the IFE showed its wider presence as a responsible lobbyist, making some of its first submissions – in the interests of safety, opposing regular movements of ocean-going ships up the Thames to within 14 miles (22 km) of London Bridge. The Institution also expressed ‘supreme importance’, as it put it, of providing ready means of escape from hotels.  By 1930 ‘Colonial Councils’ (later called ‘Overseas Branches’) had been approved in Africa, Australia and New Zealand as IFE activities spread around the globe.

War years would slow, but not daunt, the IFE’s progress: examinations continued, new topics were added to the syllabus and membership exceeded 2,000. 1943 was the organisation’s Silver Anniversary, the second consecutive year Thomas Varley had been elected President, but 25th birthday celebrations had to be curtailed because of wartime austerity. This did not affect phenomenal increasing interest in the IFE: by the time T.A. Varley was elected President for an unprecedented third term the following year, 1944, there were nearly 3,000 members.

Post-war the Institution opened many more branches overseas notably in Canada, Hong Kong, Trinidad and India.  Scholarships were introduced, and the importance of examinations was further emphasised in the 1960s when there were slight changes to cater for updated topics and practices, and in 1972 with a major addition, a fourth paper introduced, ‘Management and Administration’.

By its 75th year, 1993, the IFE was stronger than ever, well-respected as an institution both inside and outside the immediate fire service industry, employers accepted its examinations as dependable benchmarks when selecting staff. Branches had spread world-wide with membership surpassing 10,000.

Subsequently the organisation, which celebrated its centenary in 2018, has kept up to date: it was an early adopter of IT and, progressing benefits for its membership, it has extended scholarships, increased and enhanced publications (making them available on the internet via the IFE’s website), introduced lecture series, championed modern business practices, formed key strategic partnerships and travelled ‘schools’ to assist learning at many of its overseas branches.

 Innovations at Bury

Back in the 1930s Tom Varley believed more than ever that beneficial change would come only by influence from the chiefs of the various brigades, So, despite a reduction in pay he took the position as Deputy Chief of the professional brigade at Bury in 1932. But before he left Newcastle Brigade its Chief Officer Herbert Burrows thanked Varley for his service and presented him with an inscribed gold watch.

“I had not hit it off right away with Sir Herbert. I spoke my mind and I was the voice of the Union. But as time went on we were as close as our different ranks allowed and he could see that more than my own personal progress, I wanted to advance the professionalism of the service, and so he supported my move to Bury”.

Considered a medium-to-small sized brigade, Bury by that stage was ‘professional’, rather than a Police Fire Brigade, averaging one call a day. It was staffed by employees, the Chief Fire Officer, a Deputy Chief, three other officers and 17 firemen, as well as 24 retained firemen, called on when required. The Brigade operated 4 appliances plus a trailer pump and foam-making equipment.

Thomas Varley, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Bury –
Fire Magazine January 1933

“I was lucky – the Fire Brigade Committee had not long before appointed a new Chief Fire Officer who was an Associate of the IFE. Committee members were impressed with the new Chief and decided the Deputy should be similarly qualified… they approved of my IFE graduation and my experience, and I was appointed. I had heard much about the progressive attitude at Bury and, immediately I joined, I liked what I saw.

I pushed for the introduction of the relatively new, advanced, breathing apparatus mainly because of the high risk of fire and explosion in the vast, local cotton mills. Housekeeping in these towering, voluminous buildings was usually poor. Inside, cotton dust had built up over the years, even decades: layers of the fine fibre on ledges, rafters, and coating every surface, posing a very real risk of instant fire-spread. In the right circumstances fire can travel along this cotton dust quicker than the human eye can follow, often resulting in a terrific explosion. If you look at the history books, you’ll see that even before the Industrial Revolution almost every mill town has had a major fire at one time or another. The flames usually spread from the plant, threatening the whole town, later prompting citizens to form a fire brigade or to give their firefighters better equipment.

Pilot Cotton Mill, Bury. Typical of the huge industrial premises – Wikipedia

I tried to minimise these risks by pointing out the dangers, suggesting that mill owners should periodically clean these huge buildings. This met with indifferent success even though management agreed with me about the likely losses to the company and its employees, and the whole community, in the event of a big fire, especially if there were casualties. Profit always influenced decision-making: owners didn’t like housekeeping and cleaning because it meant processes had to be shut down with resulting lost production. As a fallback I thought it imperative to introduce breathing apparatus to the Brigade so that if there was a fire in one of these mills, firefighters could make entry and use water jets to cool the atmosphere and dampen the dust, thus reducing the chance of an explosion while other crews could concentrate on rescues and getting at the seat of the blaze.

Lamp-lighter’s evening task

Belatedly I found I also had another responsibility… the Deputy Chief Fire Officer was in charge of the streetlights in Bury. They were gas-fired and the local council relied on firefighters as lamp-lighters. There was a roster to carry out these onerous nightly duties.

The activities of the IFE in Bury and Manchester were strengthened when Varley helped form the Institution’s first local branch. This innovation was at first frowned on by the IFE’s Council, but soon accepted. The organisation’s constitution was amended accordingly, and branches sprang up, quickly becoming a popular and strong part of the IFE.

For Varley, the enthusiastic innovator, the IFE must have provided great company and an outlet in his quest to keep abreast of developments in technology and science and to use these to advance and enhance firefighting.

Arson… and Innovation

Many fires attended by the Bury Brigade appeared to have been deliberately lit. “Similar to the fire prevention measures we had suggested to the mill-owners, I wanted to extend fire safety initiatives to try to curtail the activities of these arsonists. Their handiwork diverted the Brigade’s services, it could easily result in fatalities and lead to terrific loss. Moreover, these blazes caused anxiety among the townspeople, worried about where the fire-raisers might strike next”.

Following these suspicious outbreaks and a string of 15 hay-barn blazes within a few days, obviously arson, Tom Varley persuaded the local Chief Constable of Lancashire County to allow a few selected detectives to work alongside senior firemen who, together with a ‘buttonholed’ forensic scientist, Dr Firth, would focus on the cause of fires. Each brought their expertise forming a small ‘arson squad’. The team investigated these incidents: firefighters passed on their operational experience of the development and behaviour of fire to police who in turn schooled the fire officers in principles of preserving the scenes of suspicious fires, gathering and recording evidence, considering motive, interviewing witnesses and suspects and then presenting their findings in Court when prosecutions followed.

“Most of the hay-barn fires were solved when this combined team found that a young man had attended most of the fires to assist firemen – and to receive the small payment made in those days to civilians who helped the brigade. Firemen in the squad recalled and recorded his recurring presence and with help from detectives they pieced together the evidence that had the youth convicted and sent to jail for 3 years. He should have known better: he was the son of a former Third Officer of our brigade.

A First 

This initiative quickly showed success with a number of other arrests and a reduction of arson in and around Bury. It wasn’t long before this arrangement became permanent – I realised that in Lancashire we had, in fact, developed and established the first specialised forensic department in Britain to deal with arson. It was to set a pattern for fire brigades everywhere: fire service investigators working as a matter of course alongside police and other specialist agencies, like scientists, to investigate suspicious or puzzling fires”.

Varley’s ‘arson squad’ was far-sighted. Forensics in crime was largely undeveloped in England at the time. Jennifer Ward in her 1993 PhD thesis, at the Open University, ‘Origins and Development of Forensic Medicine and Forensic Science in England, 1823-1946’ says the term ‘forensic science’ was given official blessing and came into common use in the United Kingdom only from 1935.

Varley, in 1932, had been at the cutting edge of this development. He was fortunate in his quest to get local scientists involved with arson investigations: as it happened, he could not have ‘button-holed’ and teamed up with a more progressive academic than Dr Firth.

Dr J. B. Firth, pioneering forensic scientist –
BBC News website

James Brierley Firth has since been recognised as one of the founders of forensic science in the UK, establishing the Home Office’s first specialised laboratory in Preston in 1938. He was inaugural President of the National Forensic Science Society in 1959 and highly sought after as an expert witness in court cases. In 2010 a new £12.5 million forensic science complex was opened at the University of Central Lancashire, named in honour of the pioneering scientist, to be used by students researching forensic science, chemistry and, fittingly, fire engineering.

St Helens and Blackpool

Varley wasn’t a year in Bury before being pursued by St Helens Fire Committee asking if he would take over as Superintendent at St Helens Police Fire Brigade.

“I thought going back to a Police Fire Brigade might have been a retrograde step, I could see the equipment was old and I quickly gathered that the whole brigade needed modernising. During my talk with members of the committee I found that if I took the job I would also become Inspector of Explosives, the Hackney Carriage Inspector and in charge of the Mounted Police who had stables opposite the fire station. I decided to take the job for the challenges and the valuable experience St Helens was offering.

Thomas Varley, Chief Fire Officer, St Helens

The Brigade was reformed and improved during my stewardship. The Head Constable was, overall, in charge and I did not get on very well with some of the police executives with whom, of necessity, I had to have a close working relationship”.


They thus tended to ignore my rank and standing making a hard time of it for me”.

Front doors, old station on The Parade, St Helens –
 from S. Ryan

“With these unsatisfactory experiences at St Helens I gave no thought at all in 1935 of applying for a vacancy at Blackpool, because it, too, was a Police Fire Brigade. Then I heard that deficiencies had been found at several serious fires and the authorities wanted a professional fire brigade, without police oversight. The new chief was expected to make the transition.

With this information I was cheeky enough, though not very confident, to apply for the position of Chief Fire Officer at Blackpool. To my surprise I was among 5 short-listed candidates. I was more than 10 years younger than any of them! After vigorous interviews I secured the job which was regarded as a bit of a plum, England’s best-known and premier sea-side resort which catered to millions of holidaymakers every year. It was a big step up and my appointment was the talk of fire executives throughout Britain”.

Shane Ewen, in his book, ‘Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, 1800–1978’ writes that in the 1930s there was a younger generation of professional firemen armed with their IFE diplomas wanting to assert their full right to professional status. They included, he wrote, ‘…Thomas Varley of Blackpool where the town’s amateurish police brigade had been ignominiously disbanded in 1934. Varley noted himself (that these young officers) were as comfortable discussing the theoretical side of firefighting as they were fighting fires. I believe, said Varley, that the theoretical side of firefighting is becoming increasingly important and that every fireman should be a student as well as a practical firefighter’.       

These changes towards professionalism, along with an emphasis that brigades were an essential public service, meant that Varley had come into his own, already known in national fire circles for his reconstruction of rundown, ailing brigades. Blackpool was to be the next. With its change to a professional brigade, Varley set about a smooth changeover. Diplomatically, he arranged with the Chief Constable to retain a few police to assist during the transition while he was building a modern brigade.

“I had 21 raw recruits to get up to speed but there could be no reduction in standards – I recruited only men who had qualifications in a trade or in other callings considered beneficial to my drive towards professionalism. Among them were worthwhile candidates who had been unsuccessful getting positions at Bury and St Helens. I remembered who they were, tracked them down and signed them up for Blackpool”.

He gave lectures to his men on topics he was familiar with and invited experts from outside the brigade to tutor the men on physics, chemistry, mathematics, hydraulics, reading and writing skills. This innovation, the lectures, plus practical drills and exercises, were compulsory for every member of the brigade. Varley encouraged them all to study for, and sit, IFE examinations. He staged exercises at night, concentrating on the worst fire risks in the city along with the bigger hotels, boarding-houses and places of amusement. When firemen were not training or responding to fire calls Varley used their trades and skills to assist around the station. A new watchroom was built to Varley’s specifications largely using this expertise.

“Blackpool Council insisted on a top public relations image for the resort. The Council ensured regular updates were published locally, but more importantly throughout Britain, to keep the city’s name and facilities before the public as a mecca for tourists, a first-class place to have a holiday. The millions of pounds spent by visitors each year was valuable, if not essential, income for Blackpool. A disastrous fire could undo that carefully-nurtured image! Success as a summer resort depended on year-round publicity and as a member of Council’s management I had to make my contribution. I soon found articles I wrote about the brigade’s activities were widely read, often by those in the industry who weren’t interested so much in holidaymaking! This audience comprised Chief Fire Officers and Fire Committees who liked what we were doing and asked to send their firemen for training in Blackpool. Among the international students we trained were officers from Cairo and Paris. I encouraged Blackpool’s firemen to look after their personal health and I insisted that they try to ensure discipline in all facets of their lives, not just while they were on duty. In return I offered better pay than other brigades, staff welfare amenities and sought top conditions for all those under my command”.

   Fire in Boots’ and on the Pier

Varley’s keen interest in the wellbeing of his men is aptly illustrated in his actions when there was a devastating blaze in the multi-storeyed Boots’ department store, in Blackpool’s central business district, on 7th October, 1936. As Blackpool’s Chief Officer, he was routinely advised of the fire while attending a fire services’ conference in Manchester. Initial news of a major building fire indicated it had spread to involve Council offices in the Town Hall, the fire involving several frontages. Blackpool’s two pumping appliances were assisted by machines from Fleetwood, Preston and St Anne’s brigades. Then word from Blackpool turned far more serious with the additional information that a firefighter was missing, probably killed, during operations. Tom Varley knew at once where he must be, back with his grieving brigade and the late Fireman Raymond Laycock’s family.     

“I surprised many of Britain’s senior fire executives when, just before I excused myself from the proceedings, it became known that I had chartered a light plane to return as quickly as possible to Blackpool. These actions shocked those who never dreamed of air travel in this regard – a charter flight by fire service personnel was unheard of in 1936! I was told later that my flight from conference became a talking point at the gathering, displacing conversation about more weighty and serious topics.

Boots, Chemists: adverisement – amounderness.co

The plane got me back to Blackpool in good time despite encountering several fog banks en route, and once over the central business district I had an aerial view of the seriousness of the situation. The whole building was affected. I thought it fortunate that this happened on a Saturday afternoon when the shop was closed otherwise there may have been many casualties. With all fire appliances committed, an ambulance awaited me at the airport to rush me into the city centre”.


Boots Department Store well alight

“It was apparent the rather inexperienced fire crews had made do with the poor pressure in water mains rather than connecting to a couple of pumps to boost the deliveries, enabling better flows on to the fire. Later I comforted and counselled fire personnel and sympathised with Laycock’s widow and relatives. My enquiries quickly revealed that Laycock, following his task as branchman in the Brigade, had trailed his hose-line and entered the blazing basement trying to get to work with a jet of water near the seat of the fire. He apparently became trapped, the hose tangled, and he was reported missing. His remains were later found buried deep in the debris of the burnt-out ruins.

Fireman Raymond Laycock on his Last Call – Wells Covers, Somerset

An estimated 30,000 people lined the route of Raymond Laycock’s funeral procession as the cortege made its way to the church where, just a week or so earlier, he had married Dorothy, his childhood sweetheart. The couple had just returned from their honeymoon when tragedy struck. The same Minister who married them officiated at the funeral.  Fireman Laycock was regarded as a hero at the time and as recently as 2004 Blackpool Council recalled his place in the city’s history when a plaque was unveiled to his memory.

“Then, there was a most unfortunate consequence when the city’s Chief Constable, well-used to Police Fire Brigades, lost no time to launch a campaign saying the new professional brigade had made fundamental mistakes which meant the fire damage was worse than it might have been and, of course, there was the question of whether Laycock’s death may have been prevented. The Chief Constable’s action was designed solely to discredit me and the new fire brigade: I could see his vengeance was designed to get him reinstated.

Blackpool Council mounted an enquiry. Among others, I gave evidence with facts and figures and a detailed account of exactly what had happened. The brigade came out of it with flying colours: the Chief Constable ended up with little personal credit.

I needed additional support in the Brigade, so I augmented the availability of firefighters by recruiting 12 auxiliary firemen and putting them through the same strenuous training programme as the full-timers”.

Postcard showing the Pier on fire, 1938 – Evening Gazette Blackpool

There was another notable fire in the city in Chief Varley’s time, right on the sands in the shadow of that famous icon, Blackpool Tower. In June, 1938, at the height of the summer season a blaze ripped through the Pavilion Theatre which was situated on North Pier. The fire was awkward; it was right at the end of the pier which was 1,650 feet (500 metres) long and where water mains proved insufficient for firefighting. Varley and his men carted all their resources along the length of the pier to the fire, but with little effect. The delay in getting decent water jets on the fire and a stiff on-shore breeze fanning the outbreak, meant the landmark concert hall was destroyed, reduced to a blackened framework with all contents lost. Stories are told that some of the artistes were lucky to escape.

It turned out this was the second theatre on the end of the pier to meet its destruction by fire – the original, ornate, Indian Pavilion (built around 1875) had been razed in 1921. The theatre’s popular location on the pier meant it had been rebuilt immediately, and so it was after the 1938 fire, replaced once more without delay. But the new theatre also had its moments with a further blaze in 1985. Luckily it was spotted by one of the performers early on, and quickly extinguished.

Varley, Inventor

Chief Varley attracted and appointed high-calibre personnel when recruiting and he bought the best fire engines and equipment for the brigades he led. And if equipment was not available, he showed another side – utilising his mechanical background he designed, invented and manufactured items. For instance, he devised the Varley Spray Nozzle when he saw a gap in the firefighters’ armoury when attacking deep-seated cellar fires.

Always on the march towards efficiency he sought new methods and facilities, part of the push towards a zealous professionalism. While at St Helens in the mid 1930s he experimented to improve basic firefighting equipment, resulting in patents being registered in his name, or jointly with others, for an improved standard fire nozzle and for superior methods of drying canvas hose. The official document of patent for the nozzle (branch) reads ‘…a nozzle for producing a longitudinally and radially regulable fan-shaped spray comprises a tube, closed at one end and an outer movable sleeve breech with an orifice cut in its wall. The orifices may be rectangular, round or oval in shape’.

Then, in the late 1930s, Blackpool Fire Station in Albert Road became the test bed for his inventions, not that they usually needed much proving before being accepted as practical and worthy.

Reliable alloy metals were becoming available, and Varley reviewed all the old heavy-metalled waterway equipment, replacing it wherever possible with the lighter alloy standpipes, couplings and breechings.

Part of the Varley vision of proficiency was a quick response once Blackpool Station’s new state-of-the-art watchroom received an alarm. This led to another invention.

Every second counts…

“I set a maximum lapse of 30 seconds during daylight hours, by which time the men had to get from wherever they were within station premises to the appliance bays, put on working gear, mount the appliances and leave the station. This limit was extended to 1 minute at night, allowing firemen more time to get out of bed and dress. I devised a mechanism, two clocks, to check that my turnout times were being met. One clock recorded the time the fire callout was received; the other showed the number of seconds the men took to respond, automatically triggered to stop as the fire appliance exited the station doors. And if the maximum response time was exceeded, there was an official Brigade inquiry”.

Thomas Varley also had electricians re-wire the fire station lights in special circuits so that once the alarm bells ‘went down’ to summon fire fighters, selected lights automatically went on in the sleeping quarters, corridors, and appliance bays. This lit the men’s way, allowing speedy turnouts with safety at night. The lights were automatically turned off after a few minutes by a time-delay switch. In addition Varley installed a public address system throughout the station so that after the bells signalled a call-out, the watchroom operator announced the address and details of the call. All responding firefighters thus knew where they were going and the nature of the call.

These innovations quickly became the norm everywhere – similar systems, updated, are still found today in fire stations around the world.

He also invented remote controls to open the fire station front doors, thus saving valuable seconds for firefighters who normally did this as part of the turnout procedure.

“I wanted to ensure quicker responses, so I also had switches installed in the watchroom that could automatically start the engines on fire appliances. This meant that as soon as the fire alarm was received the appliances’ engines could be started by remote control, ready to depart immediately the crew was aboard. There was a safety device so that if the appliance had been inadvertently garaged left in gear, the remote control was disabled. We had to alter the procedure, mind, after initial tests when the motors were started before the doors were open. Some of the engines smoked a bit when they fired up… and we didn’t want firefighters overcome, so the rule was doors first, motors second!”

Blackpool’s motto was also Varley’s!

Another of his inventions was a modified charger connected to the batteries of appliances whilst they were on station. The “black box” monitored the charge in each battery and if it needed topping up, the battery charger automatically turned on until normal charge was restored. Cables with special snap connectors were fitted so they easily pulled free of the appliance when it started moving out of the bay on its way to a callout.

Varley thought for a long time that ambulances should be painted in a conspicuous and uniform colour so that they could be readily recognised in traffic when going about their urgent business, especially when arriving on the scene of an emergency. There was a plethora of ambulance operators and all had their own preferred colour schemes. He thought that if ambulances were conspicuous, all the same colour, they would be more easily recognisable by motorists, especially when they were being asked to give way to ambulances on urgent duties. He also believed if ambulances were obvious they could more easily be given priority on the fireground, enabling them to get as close as possible to any casualties. Ignoring initial controversy which centred on each ambulance operator retaining its own preferred livery, he continued to strongly advocate that they should be painted white, or mostly white, putting his idea to various meetings of fire, ambulance and combined emergency services.

“Like many similar matters with local influences, decisions were often being made by committees, members of which had little first-hand or practical knowledge, rather than executives with expertise. Thus, it was often difficult to persuade changes in established colour schemes. But many ambulance operators agreed with the benefits, overcame their self-interest and progressively accepted the proposition, thus pioneering a mostly white colour scheme which was gradually adopted by many ambulance services in the UK and, I note, the trend went global”.

These days conspicuous bright flashing lights easily mark out ambulances so there’s not the need for the uniform colour: many Ambulance Services now have their own distinctive livery.

“Both Blackpool Council and the Brigade encouraged locals to visit the fire station to get advice on any fire prevention or fire safety matters. I allocated senior firemen to deal with these enquiries and the service became very popular. This was the birth of Blackpool’s Fire Prevention Department”.     Conscious of the tremendous numbers of tourists in Blackpool, Varley combined with City Council officials to rewrite by-laws to stiffen minimum fire safety requirements in places of entertainment and in hotels and boarding-houses.

Since the 1800s, even before the Blackpool Tower, Railways
offered excursions to the resort – National Railway Museum

“Everyone coming to Blackpool, and there were tens of thousands of them at any one time in summer, came to enjoy themselves. We had to take account of the fact that they were in unfamiliar surroundings and sometimes suffering the effects of over-indulging in liquor. A device called the Davy Lifeline made by John Kerr and Company of Manchester was recommended as a self-help lifesaver and many accommodation places installed these hoists over the windows on upper floors”.

The device was bolted or hooked above a window, sometimes hidden behind curtains. In the event that evacuation of the premises was necessary the person opened the window, threw out the second reel, put on and fastened the harness, climbed over the sill and would be automatically gently lowered to the ground. As the person was descending, the reel that had been thrown out would rise to the window, ready for a second rescue if needed. Instructions advised that it was designed to take persons of any weight and a smooth,  but speedy descent was guaranteed.

The Longworth hook, harness and reel

“The improved Longworth Safety Line was also recommended – although using a similar principle to the Davy version, it was even better because it had been invented, and manufactured in Blackpool expressly for accommodation places in the resort. Over the years many people in emergencies buckled themselves into the harness and lowered themselves to safety, in many cases they owed their lives to the use of these rescue lines”. These lifesaving devices were marketed by reputable fire protection companies, Minimax and Merryweather with their respective brandings, and survived in Blackpool accommodation until well into the 1970s. “For our part, firefighters inspecting or visiting accommodation places recommended the  Longworth, or similar means of escape”.

Preparing for War

Britain faced major conflict towards the end of the 1930’s and the fire services were told to prepare to meet eventualities. “This work was, by far, the most interesting, and vital, of all my duties while I was in Blackpool. The new Fire Brigades’ Act, passed in 1938, was supposed to revitalise fire services because local authorities, for the first time, had to provide fire protection within their boundaries. Each local council, and there were 1,440 of them, was required under the Act to provide a fire brigade. Smaller councils could buy-in services from their larger neighbours”.

But before the new Act took effect the war clouds were gathering and the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) had been founded. The 1937 Air Raids Precautions Act provided for the recruitment of suitable men who would be trained to assist their local brigades during wartime and, in addition, each fire authority was asked by the Home Office to assess its needs in case of air raids, invasion or conflict.


Recruits for the AFS were sought by all fire brigades – Sutton Beauty and Heritage website

I carefully looked over our risks in Blackpool and decided we would need an additional 21 temporary fire stations, 114 extra fire appliances and 1,400 firefighters to put us on a proper war-time footing. The Home Office approved the scheme and advised what help it would be giving to complete the plan. I realised that while I was looking just at Blackpool’s considerable requirements, the sum total across Britain was going to be colossal. Training of all these men and women was going to be a major task.

In Blackpool I wanted to recognise our expanded role so I changed the name of the Blackpool Fire Brigade to Blackpool Fire Service and I appointed a commandant for the auxiliaries, a very capable man in local dentist, Harry Duxbury, who did a splendid job recruiting, organising and training the extra fire-fighters.

Recruitment Poster – Home Office

Whilst Duxbury was left very much to organise the auxiliaries, everyone in the Brigade was expected to rally to the cause. Together with firemen, I visited many parts of Blackpool on these recruitment drives”.

One of these was recalled in a memory on the BBC project ‘WW2 People’s War’, when Don Aiken wrote that as a 14-year-old in 1939… ‘I was attracted to a nearby stretch of open ground by the sound of a loud-speaker. Many other locals had collected there, and we all listened in awe to the impressive figure of Chief Officer T. A. Varley of the Blackpool Brigade who was making an impassioned plea for volunteers to join the Auxiliary Fire Service. The vehicle from which he was making his speech was a wonderful, modern, glistening, self-propelled fire engine. It was accompanied by a crew of equally impressive firemen, each being superbly fit-looking men, dressed in the smartest uniform imaginable. I wasted no time in enrolling my name as a Part-time Messenger!’

“An Officers’ course for auxiliaries was programmed so they could qualify to take charge of the temporary stations. A new communications centre was set up in the basement of the Albert Road headquarters to cater for all the additional links to and from both established and temporary fire stations. The exterior of the building was sand-bagged.

By the way, mentioning the basement control room, that’s where my wife, Evelyn, served during this time. She had enlisted as a volunteer Auxiliary and was promoted to Sub-Officer.

I decided sites for strategic water tanks which were built throughout the city, the bigger of these contained 50,000 gallons (190,000 litres), together with feeder pipes.

Temporary reservoirs provided water supplies in many cities – liverpoolremembrance.weenby.com

Then we ear-marked those boarding houses near fire stations which we thought would be billets for auxiliary firefighters when the time came to call on their services. But these plans had to be reviewed when we discovered selected accommodation was allocated to airmen sent to Blackpool for basic training… I think some 400,000 before war’s end… while yet other hotels were taken over and converted to offices when government departments moved in, evacuated from London.

Preparations for War: Leaflet No. 1. –
Office of the Lord Privy Seal

Blackpool beach, sands stretching for miles, was considered an ideal landing place for a seaborne invasion. The Fire Service was part of the scheme devised to thwart any enemy landing craft. “The Council provided old tram rails which were cut into short lengths and delivered to the sands. I assigned fire appliances and, using their high pressure hoses we used the jets to dig holes in the sands, workmen implanting thousands of these steel obstructions, end up, along Blackpool’s waterfront. We were happy to contribute in this way to the city’s defences”.

“I recall the day the first additi0nal appliances arrived at Blackpool, made under wartime expediency at the Morris factory in Salford. It was a strange coincidence that I had a reacquaintance with one of these ladders years later on the other side of the world! I was visiting the Tauranga Fire Brigade in New Zealand when I came across one of Blackpool’s former Morris escapes! Tauranga had purchased it, from a dealer in England, shipped it to New Zealand and had it fitted to a modern appliance. While they used it as a valuable resource, I found it jogged a few memories of my Blackpool days!”.

The AFS slowly built its strength across England. Fire Authorities weren’t exactly rushing to fund and facilitate the Service, some perhaps unconvinced of the need. While interest gathered and recruitment rapidly escalated during the tensions of the Munich crisis, hostilities continued to be focused in Europe which meant the readiness was not initially tested in Britain. During this period, called the ‘Phoney War’, some firefighters doubted the need to gear up and they became restless and questioned ‘wartime’ measures being put in place.

But this period continued to be utilised to prepare for the eventualities of conflict. In 1938 there were nearly 1,700 fire brigades in Britain, many of whom had couplings and equipment incompatible with their neighbouring brigades. Standardisation of equipment was laid down, introduced and supplied at this time – meaning, in effect, there would be one big compatible brigade right across the United Kingdom. Through the Home Office, Varley participated in formulating and publishing documents spelling out policy, procedures and offering advice. These documents were sent to every brigade.

Despite these activities, fire services’ journals of the day were critical of the inertia, the lack of action. Among matters canvassed in editorials were the huge numbers of firemen enrolling with the military.  The magazines pointed out that while technical expertise and supply of apparatus has reached its zenith, trained man-power of the AFS dwindles and dwindles, noting that ‘pay and conditions are far more genial in the Armed Forces than the AFS’.

“The occasional visit by the enemy on a single-aircraft reconnaissance flight or daylight raid did not, to many memmbers of the public, seem to warrant the build-up in fire services. Those men recently recruited as AFS firefighters, in particular, became agitated saying they should be allowed to return to their usual daytime occupations and to home life with their families in the evenings rather than having to report to, and attend fire stations. Some citizens misunderstood the role auxiliary firemen would play calling them ‘scoundrels’ and ‘dodgers’ who should have joined the military and, unable to see the necessity for training, thought that the firefighting and civil defence preparations they were taking part in were a waste of time and money”.

Many AFS men, having signed-up, had waited for nearly two years to serve, but found, rather than action, there were endless hours of training and ‘standing-by’. Increasingly, in the face of boredom and public opprobrium, they left to enlist in the military. Others felt they were better off furthering the war effort, working longer hours in factories rather than spending time with drills and training at the fire station.

Vigilium: Secret Correspondent

“Firemen who remained also had a lot of criticisms, comments and questions which could not easily be answered by officials without breaching security. I thought it vital that a line of communication be established, so I established one. The journal read by many firefighters at that time was the monthly publication ‘FIRE’. Its editor, C. Brook, agreed to include a column where questions from readers about the wartime footing could be answered. He sent all the correspondence to me, and I researched the answers which I then wrote up as a secret correspondent.

Varley revealed his part as the columnist when he wrote about it in the IFE’s 75th Anniversary publication, 1993: ‘…considering it injudicious to have my name associated with this regular published assistance in the fire journal, I used the non-de-plume Vigilium. Translated, it means keeping watch. The column was bombarded with letters criticising the Home Office’s fire and emergency planning and the lack of any central guidance on training and technique sought by eager Auxiliary personnel’.

“I know the views and advice I gave in the ‘FIRE’ periodical were welcome, offering a sense of purpose to those involved in what seemed at that time as unnecessary, excessive and expensive measures being put in place. I had to be careful not to detail the scale of preparations for they were being developed in secret, and, anyway, I was not privy to them all. The column did great things for the journal: the circulation went through the roof. The publishers were well pleased, even though large quantities of each edition were distributed without charge. And, of course, I felt like some kind of secret agent, providing information from behind the mask of anonymity”.

In the same IFE publication Varley mentions that his articles in ‘FIRE’ didn’t do his career any harm ‘… it eventually leaked out who the secret correspondent was and I thus became somewhat notorious as a fairly well-known innovator’

“Once in due course there were developments on the war-front, some of the confidential plans soon became apparent and at last they could be actioned. Fire services were told to renew recruitment of suitable volunteers by the hundreds and train them as auxiliary firemen. We took over and converted houses near fire stations as additional overnight accommodation for duty firemen. We looked out for the more powerful privately-owned cars in each district, listing their owners so that we could contact them later if necessary, commandeer their vehicles and fit tow bars with which to mobilise trailer pumps to fires. We shuffled resources several times over, trying to get the appropriate mix across Blackpool and surrounds, matching anticipated risks with suitable equipment and personnel. Some stations found they ended up with a modern motor fire engine for the first time while others had to rely on trailer pumps. Rosters were drawn up so that during week-days fulltime firemen could help staff those stations where volunteers were busy at their normal occupations or assisting the war effort doing other vital work like the manufacture of munitions”.


Blackpool Brigade was well-served by front-line appliances at this stage. Varley had ordered 4 new appliances: enclosed Leylands, or as some people called them, “Limousine” design.

Blackpool’s Leyland Pump/Escape Appliance –
photographer unknown, from Geoffrey Pritchard

Varley says they were the first such enclosed appliances in England, commissioned from June 1936 and creating a lot of interest. The idea was to protect the crew, enclosing them in case of accident and giving shelter from the weather. There were deliberately no doors to save time as firefighters dismounted the vehicle.

The fourth of these became a novel and innovative Emergency Tender. It was rare to find one of these specialist vehicles outside the big cities and its unique design provided space for many of Varley’s inventions. Its acquisition was a bit by chance. In May 1940 a Leyland chassis was received at Blackpool, intended to take a 104 foot (31 metres), 5-section steel turntable ladder which had been ordered from the German makers, Metz. An innovation, a lift cage on the underside of the ladder could accommodate 2 people during rescues from aloft, complete with a folding ramp giving a walkway between the cage and, for example, a window-sill. This ‘Varley’ specification was also a first in England.

The war intervened, however, and the ladder could not be delivered from Germany. Varley handed the Leyland chassis over to Burlinghams (though there is some dispute about this, perhaps Leyland completed the vehicle) with directions and designs to build a Pump Salvage Tender, another rare combination in one appliance, which went on to serve the Brigade for 20 years.

Blackpool’s rare Pump/Salvage Tender in service… -photographer unknown: from Simon Ryan

… and preserved – Fire Service Preservation Group

Burlinghams had become something of an institution in Blackpool. Herbert Victor Burlingham founded the business in Blackpool in 1928. He knew coach-building was traditionally a seasonal business, busy in winter, slack in summer. Blackpool, Burlingham reckoned, was an ideal location for his business because in summer unemployed coachbuilders were likely to get employment locally in the tourist resort.

The fledgling company made mostly buses, quickly adding innovation like built-in toilet compartments on coaches intended for long-distant routes. Business rapidly expanded in the ‘30s. New partners were added, there was a change of name to H.V Burlingham Limited and the firm was forced to occupy extended, and newly acquired, premises. As part of the war effort, two of Burlingham’s workshops were given over to producing airframe assemblies for the Vickers Wellington medium bomber aircraft. Post-war, returning to bus manufacture, the company continued with innovative and stylish designs, construction and features, including double-decker models.

Burlinghams; futuristic “Seagull” –  Non Sequitur Forum

It’s “Seagull” design in the 1950s was a best seller, probably among its better-known models.The company had travel to and from Heathrow Airport in mind: a design to impress tourists! The company continued even in 1960 when Duple Motor Bodies acquired 100 per cent shareholding but the Burlingham brand disappeared soon after.

The description ‘limousine’ given to fire appliances in Blackpool could equally be attached to ambulances purchased pre-war. They were among the very limited number of superior ambulances made by Armstrong Siddeley with 20/25 horsepower engines on special lowered chasses, bodywork by Wilson and Stockall of Bury, Lancashire, long-time specialist providers of ambulances. Following the Varley philosophy, they were, of course, painted white!

Blackpool’s Ambulances outside Fire Station – photographer unknown, from Geoffrey Pritchard


“We all waited, wondering how long we would remain on this war-footing without any action. All senior fire officers were told that an urgent telegram would be sent out by the Home Office advising when full-on wartime mobilisation must be actioned. In my case, I received the telegram at the very end of August 1938 just a few days before Prime Minister Chamberlain formally declared war on 3rd September. On receipt of the telegram the Blackpool Fire Service realised that the waiting, preparations and exercises were over: it was time to act.

A combined exercise of Greater Blackpool’s auxiliaries in 1940  –
Blackpool Gazette

As pre-determined, we took over boarding houses so that, overnight, 200 auxiliaries were moved into billets. All our other plans were actioned. Once the declaration of war was made I received follow-up advice to expect air raids to quickly follow.      We soon found we had outgrown fire headquarters so under wartime regulations we requisitioned Parkinson’s large factory and warehouse complex. Sir Lindsay Parkinson and his brother, Colonel William Parkinson, were long-time Blackpool identities prominent in politics, sports, and civic affairs.

Sir A. Lindsay Parkinson – Painting by Ernest Townsend

They had founded a civil engineering company, the premises of which spread over several acres and which I thought most suitable. All our stand-by vehicles and equipment could be stored there. The space was also useful for drilling and training our firemen and it became headquarters for a brass band I had formed, part of the fire brigade.

Wartime preparations were tested when the Luftwaffe began bombing cities and towns. It wasn’t long before night after night the bombing continued over other cities but, somehow, Blackpool was spared attention from the enemy. I took the opportunity to visit other centres while the raids were in progress, beginning 100 miles (160 km) away at Hull, where I could experience, first-hand, the devastation, the fire service’s response and public reaction. I don’t think people, post-war, think of Hull as a particular target during the blitz but the city was badly damaged on a number of occasions. I’ve heard it said that Hull was second only to London as the most severely bombed city or town in Britain. It was near the coast on the Humber estuary, I suppose so easily spotted by the Luftwaffe from the air with the city centre, its port facilities and industrial factories. From memory, I was there in May 1941 for what became a series of raids with terrific damage and some 500 people killed.

Hull’s docks bombed in March 1941 – ww2today.com

The visits to Hull were invaluable and I immediately put lessons learned into place in Blackpool. This meant changing some of our fire service arrangements and organisation so that we would be even better placed once enemy aircraft came our way. Fortunately, staff members trusted me as one who had experienced the effects of enemy action at Hull and they willingly undertook the complicated tasks and fine-tuning I was insisting on. It meant undoing detailed mobilisation measures we already had in place, replacing them with more realistic and thorough orders and procedures and then updating training manuals and getting everyone in the Brigade up to speed.

My Hull visits showed me a shortage in two areas that needed swift attention – water supplies and experienced officers – and I began the task to remedy these shortfalls. I kept an eye out for professionally promising young firemen, selected some of them and hastened them through Officer Training. This helped, particularly identifying those capable of training others. For more water supplies we followed up on pre-war surveys, systematically searching out every resource in Blackpool, charting each on maps. Then we set about ‘connecting the dots’, adding newly-found high-pressure or high-quantity sources to those already on the map and we had additional surface pipes installed, creating a network with existing static tanks.

War-time reservoirs alongside North Pier – Blackpool Gazette

Large reservoirs were constructed in strategic points, including one on the promenade so that, if freshwater mains were disrupted we could, depending on the tide, use sea water and while this is not ideal, we had to have contingencies.

In Hull I had seen Fire Wardens patrolling streets looking for outbreaks following air raids. Frankly, I thought this was a waste of time and effort but I could not do away with them altogether: ridiculous as it was, they had to be provided under wartime regulations. I believed observation posts would be better, from which approaching bombers could be seen so that we were better prepared for the air raids rather than looking for damage after the event. Thus, in Blackpool we had something of a grandstand seat when the air raids began. I set up an observation post nearly 500 feet (158 metres), I think it was, up on the darkened Blackpool Tower. Its famous ‘illuminations’, thousands of lights festooning the structure, had been doused in 1939 as a wartime precaution.


Observers from the platform were able to give warning of approaching enemy bombers, their speed and direction of travel. This was passed to the authorities.

Blackpool Tower, wartime,  bristling with radio and radar

Liverpool seemed to take the brunt with loss of many lives and terrific damage. Surrounding Brigades were sent in to help. I mobilised from Blackpool with 12 fire appliances and, assigned to the docks, I took command of an area where many warehouses were on fire together with ships alongside. The docks were being used to gather and store wartime supplies ready for export. One night several ships were on fire and it was apparent they had been ready to sail, well-laden with equipment and ammunition. We speculated that, here in front of us, a vital part of the war effort was being destroyed, perhaps supplies about to be shipped for the North African Campaign.

One of the problems I had to overcome was providing suitable ‘digs’- accommodation – for my crews so they could get adequate rest. Each man had his kitbag containing a change of clothes and toiletry items… but no bedding. The men dossed down in warehouses at the end of long and arduous shifts. They tried to sleep in the draughty, rat-infested premises. We were in Liverpool for 10 days, using some food and supplies that we brought with us in our mobile canteens: otherwise we took whatever fresh food and drink was in the offing. It was all a bit make-do, primitive arrangements really, but the best we could do in the dire circumstances.

I led several sorties to Liverpool and districts to assist their local crews including air attacks in early 1941 and then the so-called May Raids”.


SS “Malakand” and Huskisson Docks were destroyed  – Stewart Bale Collection NML

“I directed operations on Huskisson Dock which was on fire: a range of sheds and warehouses. But, before we could get properly established, flames got the upper hand and spread to a ship alongside, the SS ‘Malakand’. The blaze proved altogether too much for fire crews and we had been warned to keep our distance because her cargo might include munitions. This proved correct. Once fire entered the mid-ships hold more than 1,000 tons of bombs exploded. The ship was wrecked and docks disintegrated, spewing debris over a wide area, up to a mile (1.6 km) from the quay. This in turn ignited a series of additional fires which we had to deal with.

Casualties among civilians and damage to the metropolitan areas greatly concerned authorities in Liverpool and they sought more help from the Home Office. Commander (later Sir) Aylmer Firebrace, the Chief Fire Staff Officer came from London, immediately replaced Liverpool’s Fire Chief, ordered additional reinforcements, and took the message back to the Home Office that the resources on hand were no match for the effort required to save lives and extinguish fires during, and after, the sustained air raids.

“We were also very much aware of the fires in August 1940 at the Pembroke Dock in Wales. My recollection is of a single German raider making a pass over the giant fuel tanks at Llanreath: bombers followed to finish the job off”.


“Mobilisation of equipment and 650 men came from all over Wales and some brigades in Southern England. Foam supplies were transported from throughout Britain. This was a massive fire requiring a cooperative effort”.

Pembroke dock oil fire – PENVRO

After the war it was revealed that 5 AFS firefighters from Cardiff lost their lives and 33 million gallons of oil had been destroyed in the fire. It is sometimes described as the biggest fire in Britain since the Great Fire of London in 1666. 3 firemen received the George Medal, the result of their gallantry during this fire.

“In early September the Thameshaven oil refinery and storage depot was bombed, and I recall a land-mark mobilisation message to London Fire Brigade asking for 50 pumping appliances to immediately assist. To me, this attack signalled the beginning of the real blitz, the repeated concentrated bombing attacks which continued a few days later in London, especially involving the docks. From this time on it was not unusual to have 500 pumps engaged at any one time dealing with fires throughout Greater London”.

In his book ‘Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, 1800–1978’, Shane Ewen, quotes James Gordon recounting it was fires such as Thameshaven where those civilians recruited as wartime firemen ‘collectively sensed the fear and adrenaline involved in fighting a Blitz fire, regardless of social class. The promise of death and destruction was everywhere and took no account of status, from the burning oil that threatened to drown them in their concrete pits to the shattering crashes of falling bombs and the spat of mobile anti-aircraft guns’.  Ewen goes on to observe, ‘…exhausted from their first experience of wartime firefighting, firemen had learned crucial firefighting techniques, notably that it was altogether different to peacetime firefighting. Wartime demanded coordinated tactics and a strategic deployment of resources between London and brigades further afield. This involved avoiding continued exposure to bombs as they rained down on firemen who were only armed with a helmet and a hose’.

Inevitably… Wartime Action

“One always wondered, of course, if it was to Blackpool’s turn next. To date Blackpool had not been attacked and we all thought it must only be a matter of time and we would be in for it, having to deal with bombings”.

But it was not to be. It was revealed long after the war, when Hitler’s plans to invade England were discovered, that the Fuhrer apparently planned to make Blackpool his personal playground after he had, as he hoped, carried out a successful invasion. In 2009 ‘The Daily Mail’ newspaper reported documents found which included Hitler’s specific instructions to Luftwaffe pilots not to bomb Blackpool… he dreamed of watching his triumphant army goose-step along the famous beachfront promenade. This, researchers say, is how Blackpool escaped the blitz.

“I did not have to wait long. But it was still not Blackpool in focus. As a mobilising officer I was warned in November 1940 of a likely offensive on Coventry. Intelligence must have been obtained that the enemy was out to bomb this industrial city, trying to cripple its factories, many by now making vital contributions to the war effort. Names like Daimler, Morris, Sterling Metals, Herbert’s Works and Rover come to mind. I took the warning seriously and went to Coventry, ordering on additional firefighting appliances, personnel and equipment from various centres in the Northwest.

Then on the night of 14th November Coventry was hit. I think it was later said that more than 500 German bombers attacked the city in waves, each adding to the widespread devastation. For firefighters it meant great difficulties carrying out their tasks… there was damage to roads, collapsed buildings blocking streets, disrupted water supplies and gas leaks. Hundreds of fires broke out. The famous Coventry Cathedral was a major loss despite firefighters’ best efforts – the only cathedral destroyed in England during the Second World War.

Winston Churchill visits the bombed Coventry Cathedral – supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com

We later learned that, for the first time, the early waves of bombers dropped high-explosive bombs to ‘open up’ the roofs, exposing the buildings. Subsequent squadrons of aircraft dropped incendiary bombs, an estimated 30,000 of them, over these same areas, certain of starting widespread, fierce fires right across the city. If I am not mistaken some 600 people lost their lives in this blitz. Although this night was by far the worst, Coventry took other beatings at the hands of the Luftwaffe.

Firefighters in wartime Coventry. The Dennis appliance, DU179, restored, is in a Coventry Museum – Pinterest

Merseyside, Liverpool and their surrounds, far exceeded the damage I had seen earlier in Hull and with those very heavy raids in December 1940 and May 1941 we had been involved with firefighting in the most bombed area in the United Kingdom aside from London… and there was little let-up until mid-1942. Casualties were high – my best recollection is that more than 3,000 were killed in and around Liverpool.

London Brigade, too, was having its difficulties coping with the effects of repeated bombings. Commander Firebrace was, of course, au fait with the situation there, but I would like to think that it was what he witnessed during his visit to Liverpool that sowed the seeds for major change. I could see the deteriorating scenario for myself, and I had to agree with those who were claiming a National Fire Service was wanted. An increasing number believed that the present “locally administered” fire services were obsolete, dangerous and unworthy of the times now facing the nation. Fire brigades   were absolutely overwhelmed and in a difficult position to continue the tremendous task that they had been assigned. I had begun to think that Britain would suffer such a severe defeat from the effects of fire that it would no doubt lose the war. The press, nationwide, was critical, saying fire services were inadequate: local newspapers often chronicled the shortcomings in detail.

The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, knew something had to be done and convened high level talks. The assembled Ministers and Fire Service officials, which of course included Aylmer Firebrace, considered the total picture and realised that the stupendous, spiralling, cost of fire damage was more than the country could afford and that a complete overhaul of the fire service organisation was required to replace the now inadequate peacetime arrangements. Thomas Varley agreed: times had changed.


National Fire Service

Thus in 1941 T. A. Varley was called on to play a major role in that vital wartime re-organisation, the founding of the National Fire Service (NFS).

“Our planning was initially done with secrecy so that Hitler did not know about the preparations nor realise the terrific damage his air raids were causing. Putting Britain’s fire protection on a full war-footing meant it had to become a nation-wide service without interference from local Councils. There had been several unsuccessful attempts over the years to streamline fire service administration. The present deteriorating ‘emergency’ situation meant reform had to be taken seriously… and quickly”.

New Logo, 1941

“The Home Office took over, devising ways and means of communication systems with, and between, brigades enabling co-ordination and movement of large numbers of machines and personnel to cities where they were most needed to minimise fire damage from Hitler’s aerial onslaught. It had become obvious that water supplies for firefighting were inadequate, and that the hitherto disjointed Service cried out for standardisation of equipment, uniform, training, rank structure, and command.

This massive restructuring was led by Sir Arthur Dixon, and the new National Fire Service came into effect on August 18th, 1941. Those of us who could see beyond victory and war’s end also had it in mind that this set-up might provide a foundation for a renewed organisation of the Service come peacetime.

A week or two before the restructure took effect I was appointed Fire Force Commander, Fire Force 8, based in Nottingham, and told to report there to the Fire Force Commander, Lord Trent (head of the internationally-known retail chain and pharmacists, Boots the Chemists).

After all the work I had done and all the friends I had made, it was quite a wrench leaving Blackpool. There were a number of farewell gatherings and we (my wife was still part of the Brigade) were greatly appreciative of the good wishes received along with numerous presentations.

Lord Trent: had a revelation for Tom Varley
– University of Nottingham

On August 7th I made my way to Nottingham to meet Lord Trent. However, there was a surprise in store. I was in his office to discuss my taking over when the telephone rang. He found it was a call from London. He asked me to leave his office so he could talk in private”.

Back in London there must have been last minute discussions about appointments in the new scheme of things. The question being decided was who was going to be the Regional Fire Officer in Wales. Now, Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, was revealing the answer by phone.

“A few minutes later Lord Trent beckoned me to return to his office and said that it was the Home Office on the line advising there had been a mistake regarding my posting”.


“So one T. H. Patrick was to be Fire Force Commander in Nottingham, not me. Lord Trent congratulated me on my appointment to Wales. I quickly recovered from this startling revelation – well I think I did a good job of it in front of his Lordship – curtailed our unnecessary conversation, told my family of the new destination and headed to Cardiff, headquarters of No. 8 Region. The appointment was formally announced in September 1941.

Wales was reckoned to be the most difficult to amalgamate with geographical, language and other considerations in the way of effectively bringing together 232 separate brigades with 32,000 personnel, mostly voluntary, into one Regional set-up”.

Wartime Wales

“I had only ever been to Wales once before, for a short holiday, so most of it was new territory for me. The family found accommodation in Coryton near Whitchurch, on the outskirts of Cardiff. I quickly found the locals had their own outlook as well as language. I discovered some of the place names listed in the Control Room quite daunting, both the spelling and the pronunciation.

Senior positions for the next tier within the new fire service had been advertised throughout Britain and some very experienced officers were attracted to Wales. But I got a gentle reminder about fierce local sentiment when, on one of my frequent visits to London, I was in Whitehall and bumped into Welsh MP, Miss Megan Lloyd George. She gave me a bruising verbal battering, leaving me in no doubt that she wanted all the top positions in the new Service’s Cardiff Headquarters filled by locals. She was quite a persona, standing there with a ready vocabulary and a very smooth, almost theatrical voice, putting her views forcefully and without equivocation. I think her accent, her delivery and appeal that Welsh people found in her orations were all a bit lost on me, but I do recall she berated me with a speech so pointed it seemed as if it had been rehearsed over and over. It was easy to see, I thought, how she won over the electorate to become the first-ever woman MP in Wales and had been such a strident supporter of a Welsh Assembly. Anyway, I forget now how I fobbed her off, but I certainly made no promises. I knew it would be impossible to appoint only locals, the material was just not there, and that I’d be making appointments from further afield.

I was always on the lookout for officer material, anyway, and found a very capable candidate in the part-time auxiliary brigade at Aberystwyth, Professor Whitehouse. I promoted him and he enthusiastically assisted with volunteers throughout Wales. I quickly realised he could combine expertise in fire brigade matters with his academic background and I interested him in assisting the IFE”.

Varley’s ‘find’ is mentioned in the IFE’s milestones listed on its website: ‘1942 – There now appeared on the scene the first Education Advisor. He was Mr. Wallace B. Whitehouse of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Over the next decade Mr. Whitehouse was to have a profound influence on the examinations generally. An Examinations Board had been established as a committee of the Council and Mr. Whitehouse was co-opted to that Board’.

More expert assistance was recruited by Varley with the appointment of a former Divisional Officer in the Auxiliary Fire Service, Ronald Griffith Pritchard, as Regional Administrative Officer based in Cardiff.

Wartime Wales: Fire Service Executives, Cardiff. Thomas Varley standing on the right – picture  from Geoffrey Pritchard

“The planning, organising, recruiting and equipping of a new Fire Region would have been a major task at any time, but this had the urgency of wartime conditions, with the exact timing and effects of air raids unknown. These often became the centre of our operations but for several vital reasons they could not even be guessed… we never knew exactly what type of bombs, and how many, the enemy was going to drop, we couldn’t tell where they would be dropped – whose turn it was, night after night, to receive the unwelcome bombers and then we could never be certain about just how many fires would result, what the casualties might be, the type of buildings that would ‘catch it’ and the firefighting resources and effort that would have to be mustered.

Recruitment Poster for NFS

All appliances were called in to be repainted in less-conspicuous war-time grey. Usually polished brass and silver work was also masked in grey paint. Additional water mains were laid along the surface of the streets connecting giant steel tanks that were strategically located in commercial and warehouse districts and kept filled with water. We thought about deploying another type of reservoir: filling the cellars of already-bombed buildings with water. Though the structure above ground was destroyed, the brick-lined cellar below street level was often intact and watertight – or could readily be made so with minor plugging.

Cellar of a bombed Liverpool building becomes a reservoir –

Once flooded, the foundations could be used to store thousands of gallons, readily available for firefighting. This practice was fairly common in London and in northern cities such as Liverpool and Manchester and while there were numerous opportunities to copy it in the bombed cities of Wales, we didn’t pursue the idea after we heard the London authorities had gone off it. But we did put into place requirements of the new national structure: elaborate local, city, district and regional command organisations with detailed plans for mobilisation”.

This was designed, in part, to react to aerial attacks. London and other centres had experienced high explosive bombs that destroyed buildings and shattered water mains thus disabling fire fighters’ efforts. Thousands upon thousands of incendiary bombs often followed.

“These made plenty of work for fire crews because they showered flaming fragments over a wide area. Just as soon as one dropped through a tiled roof its spray of fire was certain to quickly envelop the attic or upstairs rooms, spreading to involve the whole house. These bombs, real fire-raisers, often caused multiple major blazes that were dealt with by hundreds of firefighters on the same evening in the same city. Oil refineries, and we had several big ones in Wales, were popular targets, so were the docks”. Planning tried to take in all eventualities.

Thomas Varley (centre) at an on-site meeting, Cardiff –
picture from Geoffrey Pritchard

A staff member who worked in the control room at Caernarfon Station and at Headquarters, B Division, in Bangor during these times says that when there were no air raids the personnel were kept busy with regular exercises. Secret code-words, kept even from other members of the family who were also in the Services, would trigger mobilisation to a simulated fire call, with all watchroom procedures carried out followed by mock firefighting and rescues, devised to train firefighters in diverse Brigade operations using the full range of equipment. This was part of Tom Varley’s plan to ensure utmost efficiency.

Which Way to the Castle?

He had other duties, too. “I received a request from the Home Office to go to Gwynedd in North Wales to look over fire safety measures and make recommendations about fire protection at Caernarfon Castle in view of hostilities. Although we were not supposed to know it at the time, it turned out some of the country’s most valuable, and famous, treasures had been moved from London and from as far afield as Europe, to be stored in the eight-centuries-old castle behind its 10 feet (3m) thick walls, moats, draw-bridges and gates. Local rumour had it that security was tight because the Crown Jewels were temporarily stored in the castle, but I gather their whereabouts during hostilities are secret.

Caernarfon Castle today – Wikipedia

Our journey to the Castle turned very embarrassing when our party got lost, mainly because all road-side signposts were either in Welsh or had been removed by Government Order as a wartime measure to deter the enemy”.

Place names, road signs, mile posts and any commercial signs that included the name of the town had disappeared, by decree, in mid-1940 to try to make it more difficult for spies to find their way around. Any place-name or directional signs that could be read from low-flying aircraft had also been banned the year before for the same reason – to hinder navigation by strangers.

“In this case we turned out to be the complete strangers, lost, so we stopped on a country road to ask for directions from some locals. This turned sour when they scorned our story, indignant with disbelief, saying ‘everyone knows the way to the Castle, such a well-known landmark’. Adding to our increasing discomfort, they said they did not recognise our Fire Service uniforms and insignia. Worse was to come when they said we looked like foreign soldiers, most probably German officers, or members of some other enemy force. Then they said the language we were speaking was a very poor attempt at English, mainly I suppose because they had not heard my Yorkshire accent before. Our concern was further heightened when one imaginatively reckoned out loud that we were on a mission to reconnoitre the Castle prior to blowing it up or something equally sinister. Without adding anything more helpful to these hurtful accusations they promptly left saying they were off to report us to local police! To add insult to injury, we later discovered there was a fire station adjacent to the castle, the more reason we should have known, and easily found, the famous landmark.


Overcoming these trivial setbacks, Tom Varley had almost completed the tasks he had in mind to prepare for wartime firefighting when there was a major fire of another kind, not on land but at sea.

On December 19th 1941 he was on a familiarisation tour and stayed overnight at a small town in mid-Wales. In the early hours he was awakened by a telephone call from Cardiff Control Room advising that a tanker, laden with petrol, was on fire in St Georges Channel, off Cardigan Bay. Admiralty reports put the ship near Bardsey Island. He proceeded immediately to Holyhead, first ordering suitable shipboard firefighting equipment to be assembled there. A fishing trawler and some firefighters had already left for the burning ship by the time Tom Varley reached Holyhead, but the Navy had a minesweeper waiting for additional transportation for the 40-mile (65 kms) trip out to the stricken ship.

“Lucellum” – A J Hawker

It was the ‘Lucellum’, a tanker en route in convoy to England from California, loaded with some 3 and a half million gallons (16 million litres) of petrol.

Heinkel 105 – Wikipedia

A German Heinkel 115 had bombed her with 3 direct hits, killing some of the crew (in all, 8 died in the encounter) and setting her ablaze. The fire, however, appeared confined to the forward tank. Most of those crewmembers who survived the attack and fire had abandoned ship.

“We had to get water jets spraying the ship, to cool her and to put out the flames. But the skipper of the minesweeper would not risk his vessel going alongside, or anywhere near, the burning ship for fear of explosion so a life-boat was launched which ferried men with portable pumps to the ‘Lucellum’. It was apparent that the upper superstructure, bridge and crew quarters, had been gutted by the fire and it was going to be a very long struggle to snuff the blaze in temperatures so hot that firemen’s boots sizzled and melted on contact with the heated steel deck-plates. We used timber planks to provide insulated walkways along the decks but these quickly turned greasy and dangerously slippery. I radioed ashore for more foam-making compound, additional man-power, fuel for the pumps and food for the firefighters. Multiple portable pumps worked around the clock”.


“The main benefit, apart from the ship being saved, was that the remaining petrol (the bulk of the consignment, vital in wartime) was recovered once in port.

Thomas Varley was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for his actions. ‘His Majesty the King gave an expression of Commendation for brave conduct in Civil Defence…’ announced the Second Supplement to the London Gazette, 24th March, 1942. ‘Varley gave preliminary instructions for men and material to be mobilised…’ the citation says ‘…and accompanied by firefighters Farrell and Grimblesdeston, the party reached the burning vessel. Varley, who fully appreciated the risk involved, went on board, quickly assessed the position, stationed the men and directed operations until the fire was completely under control. The vessel and its valuable cargo were saved through the co-operative and excellent team-work of the firefighting personnel under the competent and courageous leadership of Chief Regional Fire Officer Varley’.

Other members of the team were also mentioned. John Farrell, Fire Force Commander, also received the O.B.E.,’…a splendid example to Officers and Men…’  while three others were awarded the British Empire Medal, including Harold Grimblesdeston, a Senior Company Officer, ‘…without any regard for his personal safety, descended below deck up to his waist in water to combat a fire…’ The firefighters also had a bonus… Tom Varley received salvage money which he divided among those who took part. After repairs ‘Lucellum’, only 2 years old, went back into service, saw the war out in numerous convoys and in later life she was converted to an ore carrier. In October 1961 she was wrecked on Cap a La Roche on the St Lawrence River and was scrapped.

“The fact that the Fire Service went out to sea to fight a fire was something of a precedent and created quite a lot of discussion at the time. Legislation, it was pointed out, did not cover this eventuality and so a debate arose as to whether we should have responded in the way we did. But look at what we accomplished. From memory I think just a fraction, 10,000 gallons or so, about 40,000 litres, of the precious petrol was lost, the ship was saved and I should record that this wonderful achievement was accomplished by just a handful of fulltime firemen, all the rest were war-time volunteers, most would had never been to sea before. I won’t forget those days in December 1941: we had a victory in Cardigan Bay, but news reports emerging of earlier events at Pearl Harbour weren’t so welcome. The Japanese had attacked”.

The course of World War Two had changed.

Benevolent Society

The Fire Service National Benevolent Fund (formerly National Fire Service Benevolent Fund) changed its name again in 2008 to The Firefighters Charity.

Its website says firefighting can be stressful, traumatic and dangerous. It was never more so during wartime when the organisation was born in 1943 to take care of widows, orphans and injured firemen. Thomas Varley had a small part in its founding.

Ronald Pritchard, wartime Administration Officer in Wales, in a letter written in 1983 to a former Service colleague sets out recollections of the beginnings of the Benevolent Society. He recalls that a Welfare and Benevolent Association had been formed in Glamorgan soon after the National Fire Service began in August 1941. It formalised assistance to needy firemen and their families formerly funded by the local social club. In Glamorgan, including Monmouth Brecon and Radnor, plenty of hard work was put in to raise money… dances, dramatic performances (including the evergreen ‘Charley’s Aunt’), and concerts. Cricket matches with named players were also organised along with boxing matches and all proceeds went to the Fund. Chief Regional Fire Officer Varley, as President of the Association, would attend Area meetings so he was well aware of the fundraising and the distribution of funds to deserving cases.

One day early in 1942, out of the blue, Varley phoned Pritchard asking him to attend at Regional Headquarters that afternoon and to bring with him the Association’s Constitution. Baillie Andrew Murray, Lord Provost of Edinburgh was with Varley and the trio sat down to thoroughly go through the local Constitution making alterations and additions with the view of creating a document fit for a national benevolent organisation which would help wounded firefighters and provide support to their families during the War. Pritchard remembers they worked until late evening before Baillie Murray left by car for Crewe to connect with an early morning train to Edinburgh.

The idea of benevolent societies was talked over in other regions… probably promoted though the Chief Regional Fire Officers’ meetings (Varley would have been in attendance) and quickly spread except in London which was reluctant to join in at first. It turned out that there was a multiplicity of social and benevolent-type funds throughout Britain and most agreed to unite. The inaugural meeting of the Fire Services National Benevolent Fund was held on 9th August 1943 when Andrew Murray (later Sir Andrew) was inaugural Chairman, Ronnie Greene was appointed Honorary Secretary and Frank Sharples Honorary Treasurer. London Fire Brigade joined and provided offices for the Secretary at Southwark Bridge Fire Station.

Pritchard’s letter says Wales put £4,000 into the fund, other regions also contributed and there was a large donation from Canadian firefighters. The Fund’s present website credits assistance from other countries and notes that Ronnie Greene, MBE, continued his personal service for 35 years until his death in 1978.

The Fund obviously became greatly appreciated and highly valued and lasted beyond the war. It change of name to The Firefighters Charity and new  branding made it more easily publicly recognised. Today it provides numerous rehabilitative and recuperative facilities, as its website says, ‘…helping members of the fire and rescue community who put their lives on the line every day to save others, whilst providing support for their families’. In the 2011/12 year the Fund allocated more than £5 million for its charitable activities and celebrating 70 years in 2013, it set new sights extending even further its services and facilities.

 D Day Preparations

Back to wartime Wales. Tom Varley was made a member of the special committee planning the fire defences of the secret South Wales invasion centres for the D-Day landings. These centres, which became enormous camps, had to be pre-arranged in preparation for the flotilla, ready to receive and hold all the men and machines prior to the invasion. Fire protection had to be provided for about half a million Americans who would assemble in South Wales, along with their vehicles, equipment and ammunition.

Fire safety at sea for this vital venture had not been overlooked. Varley was also called upon to draw up a fire defence scheme for the fleet itself. While others commissioned fireboats for coastal, estuary and canal duties, he oversaw the conversion of three vessels to ocean-going fireboats. According to James W. Kenyon, in his book ‘The Fourth Arm’, both ‘Channel Fire’ and ‘Ocean Fire’ were former fishing trawlers, both Belgian. The Admiralty procured the vessels for the National Fire Service and they were converted for their new purpose. Varley says the name ‘Channel Fire’ was later taken over by another craft that was sent to him for modification at Milford as another ocean-going fireboat. He described the ship as a ‘very fast fishing cruiser’, an American vessel that had travelled from California and had been used as a rescue craft by the RAF to recover airmen who were brought down in the English Channel.

“After conversion for their new tasks the ships’ holds contained massive fire pumps instead of fish, with monitors and deluge sets mounted on the decks”.

James W Kenyon’s book says ‘Channel Fire’ had 4 Sulzer pumps with a pumping capacity of 3,600 gallons (11,000 litres) of water a minute and it was specially arranged so that each pump could feed all 16 jets at once: a deluge set. ‘Ocean Fire’ also had 4 pumps which, with an added feature, could feed a monitor on the forecastle by means of a 6 inch (8cms) pipeline. Light pumps were stowed on deck with cranes at the ready to hoist them into action.

“Like others of her ilk, I had the engineers design the plumbing and the pumps so that within minutes they could change from thrusting jets on to a burning ship, to drawing water out of a flooded vessel using flexible suction lengths.

The build-up of the American Forces arriving in Wales continued and I found that nothing was too much trouble to them; they were totally focused on the war effort. I mentioned only once that I thought telephone communications were inadequate with some of the centres in the South-West, where American base camps had been set up. U.S. resources and manpower were immediately allocated, and telephone lines installed from Cardiff to Milford. The Americans seemed to be everywhere, tackling anything that had to be done.

I was out on the road one day and came across a convoy of their vehicles, stationary, blocking the way. I went forward and found that the Americans were transporting an enormous landing craft on an over-size truck-and-trailer which had come to a grinding halt. The engineers had somehow miscalculated:  there was insufficient clearance under an overhead railway bridge to allow this giant load to pass. It was stuck. The convoy and other travellers had to wait while soldiers cut the bridge’s steel girders and the railway tracks which were then jacked up to allow the over-height load safely through the enlarged gap. This must have resulted in many delayed trains. After all, the soldiers had to restore everything before rail traffic could resume, but the story illustrates the scale of essential wartime operations and that the Americans let nothing stand in their way”.

This extensive concentration of American men and machines was part of Operation Bolero, the name given to the activities begun in April 1942 to assemble resources in England prior to an invasion across the Channel on what was to become known as D Day.

Locomotives gathered in Wales by US Army
to assist the war effort – US Army 

It’s estimated more than one and a half million American military personnel were stationed in England, about a third of them based in Wales, which became almost one giant army camp as they prepared for the big day.

“Norton”: Fire Below!

In October 1942 Chief Varley responded to a call to a ship on fire, the ‘Norton’, off the coast near Fishguard. The ship’s officers said they had a fire in a hold which could have been caused by shifting cargo, dislodged in very rough seas they encountered while in convoy in the Irish Sea. The distressed ‘Norton’ of about 4 thousand tons, left the convoy and made for port at Fishguard, where it was having trouble berthing because of the low tide. On his arrival, Varley ordered the ship stay off.

SS Norton -Clydeships

Admiralty War Diaries, made public in later years, show that “Norton” had arrived at Fishguard on fire on 10th October 1942 and that ‘Mastadonte’ was alongside, a steam-powered tug which escaped from France and was crewed by British seamen, available for wartime work. ‘National Fire Service working under RNP appear to have fire under control’, the entry continues, ‘request a suitable vessel may be sent to Fishguard as soon as possible to take part cargo ex SS Norton still on fire’.

“I asked for the ship’s manifesto and found she was carrying a wide assortment of military cargo, drums of petrol, munitions, bombs, vehicles and sundry supplies. It was an incredible range of flammables and explosives. I considered that if the fire spread it would blow the ship to pieces, and if she berthed the explosion would take out half of Fishguard in the process. So we kept things quiet to avoid local concern.

Arrangements were made to tow the ship to a nearby sheltered, sandy, bay where she could be gently run aground. I believed we would have an easier job if the ship was beached rather than attempting operations afloat. With the ‘Norton’ aground, firefighting could begin but there were difficulties because the ship had a deck cargo of Army vehicles and guns which blocked entry to the holds. At last we found an inspection hatch plate and a couple of firefighters wearing breathing gear crawled down through the gap into the pitch-black, hot and smoky void of number four hold where, somewhere below, the fire was burning. We had no idea exactly what was on fire. I organised trailer pumps to be hoisted on to the ‘Norton’ and firefighting began, using as little water as possible within the ship’s hold. We did not want the ship to settle into the sand unduly because of the added weight of the water.

We guessed where the seat of the blaze was and kept at it until it was out. This took several days with firefighters working in shifts. Those who had been in the hold reported whole trucks overturned which had ruptured drums of a smoke-making compound containing phosphorous. This, they thought, had caused the fire. These men were at risk once they got back up on deck in the open, breezy, air. The phosphorous on their clothing began to dry out and self-ignite: the firefighters themselves were on fire. Each man had to quickly change into clean clothing immediately they emerged. What we could not get over was the jumble of cargo in the holds. Nothing looked organised with dangerous goods packed alongside general freight. Some of those firefighters who had been below-decks reported to me in confidence that the hold was carrying custom-built trailers, ‘like giant caravans’, and it was these that had tipped over in the rough seas, crashing into cans of phosphorous and fuel, probably starting the fire. I felt I had to officially report a cause so I asked military officials what the trailers were. They told me it was part of Lieutenant General (later Viscount, Sir Bernard) Montgomery’s entourage, mobile office and administration vehicles, joining the allies’ campaign (which was by then well underway at El Alamein). ‘Good gracious’, I joked, ‘here we have Monty responsible for the fire!’”.

‘Norton’ was later re-floated and towed to Newport where the holds were re-stowed, repairs made and she resumed her voyage attached to a later convoy. I mentioned the unfortunate, and potentially dangerous, assortment of goods in the hold and it was explained to me in confidence that the cargoes were en route to North Africa, and that it was important that each ship carry a general assortment of equipment in case some in the convoy didn’t make it. The campaign could be in jeopardy if each ship carried only one commodity in which case loss of one ship would leave a shortage of perhaps essential equipment needed for the campaign. This explained the assortment of flammable goods travelling together on the same ship and in the same hold. Several of those involved in our dangerous firefighting mission aboard the ‘Norton’ received royal honours”.

Number 8 Region, Wales

At the end of 1942 the National Fire Service had peaked with 350,000 personnel in 11 regions. Tom Varley oversaw Number 8 Region, with 3 Fire Forces: 20, 21 and 22, in Wales.

“At this stage each Force was divided into 4 divisions with 2 columns per division. Each column had 100 pumps (fire engines) and a reserve of 20. Columns were further broken down to companies of 10 pumps and then sections, with 5 pumps. Personnel included full-time firefighters who became trainers for volunteers, those who manned fire stations overnight after working in essential wartime occupations during the day. Hitler favoured the night-time aerial attack, so for weeks on end the bleary-eyed, mentally drained, tired, volunteer firemen reported for their paid full-time jobs in the mornings after being out fighting fires with us overnight.

Lads had been enlisted from youth groups in cities and towns to serve as our message boys, their bicycles able to weave through bomb-damage debris which often blocked streets to all other vehicles. These youngsters conveyed written messages from officers on the fireground to the nearest fire station, often vital information signalling an escalation in firefighting or rescue operations with a request for more urgently-needed additional resources. I can recall, numerous times, seeing messages which must have been written in much frustration, saying that all rescue efforts had to cease because of the immediate danger from unexploded bombs. More welcome was the ‘Stop Message’ advising a situation was under control with no further assistance required, and shortly after, invariably, asking where the next assignment was”.

Watchrooms were predominantly staffed by women who mobilised the firefighters and appliances, keeping disposition boards up to date and maintaining records of all messages from the fireground. These women had been recruited under the so-called ‘man-power’ provisions which dictated all fit persons of age had to be available for the war effort.

Women staffed control-rooms around the clock – Pinterest

A teenager of the time recalls…‘The choice we were given was the munitions factory or the fire service. I asked to join Fire where my friends worked. After intensive training at an establishment on Denbigh Moor I was posted to Caernarfon Station. We had to follow set operating procedures – they seemed to cover everything we did as well as any eventualities, no doubt promulgated from the top, Chief Regional Fire Officer Varley. I sometimes came in contact with him and other senior officers when I was at Bangor Headquarters. There was a distinct tension in the air when Mr Varley or the others were on station or appeared in the watch-room. Most of us found it an interesting job but when we were extra busy I think we all got tired of the relentless rosters, 12 hours on duty and 12 hours off, one week of day shifts, one week of nights. So when our scheduled days off happily coincided with a weekend it was time for us to relax, often on a Friday or Saturday evening at one of the many dance-halls. We were eagerly sought after as dance partners by uniformed servicemen, some far from home, among them Americans, Canadians, Poles, Australians and New Zealanders’. But this leisure time was often interrupted by the business of war with leave cancelled, extended shifts and time needed at home for well-earned rest between rostered duties. Then there were the preparations and training dictated by the rigorous programme of drills and instruction. It paid off’.

The Blitz

Varley, and his extended team, was ready. “Enemy bombers arrived. Typical among the periodic attacks we suffered was a blitz on Swansea in February 1943. It was not as devastating as the famous ‘three night raid’ 2 years before which resulted in many deaths, including firefighters.

Destruction of Swansea, February 1941

Hundreds of houses were destroyed on that occasion, often along both sides of entire streets, and whole rows of shops were also lost, reduced to rubble.

But this time, two years later, in the course of an hour from 10pm, the Luftwaffe dropped their biggest high-explosive bombs (we later accounted for nearly 40) accompanied by hundreds of incendiaries. At least 30 people lost their lives and more than 100 were injured. It turned out to be the last major raid on Swansea but scores of commercial premises were destroyed, many caught fire, and all hospital patients had to be evacuated after a high explosive bomb destroyed one of the main wards, a direct-hit. Though a little more serious, this night was typical for the firefighters. Besides putting in long hours rescuing people and quelling the blazes, they were often faced with the loss of comrades and the destruction of their fire stations: not only the buildings, sometimes we lost all the vehicles and equipment inside as well.

We were often the only ones with suitable equipment and ready labour available to help clean up after the raids, so come daylight we would be asked to assist. I recall using an appliance to drag a felled church steeple off the roadway to the safety of the footpath, helping shore up collapsed houses, hooking up live power lines and capping gas pipes. It’s no wonder Sir Winston Churchill dubbed wartime firefighters ‘the heroes with grimy faces’ and ‘the Fourth Arm’, alongside the Army, Navy and Air Force.

We were later to experience Junkers 88 enemy planes dropping phosphorous bombs which, because of their composition, had delayed ignition. Some were liquid. Others had an explosive charge built into the tip of their nose that went off long after the initial incendiary elements had been dispersed. I remember the Swansea Brigade being asked to help one day when the phosphorous on the road, residue from one of these bombs, had eaten away the tyres of a hearse en route to the cemetery. The deceased was transferred to one of our appliances, unaware his last journey had been on a fire engine. Mourners and the reverend gentleman were so relieved to get the coffin to the graveyard, even though it, too, had been ruined by the bombing with headstones blown out of the ground, broken and strewn about”.

Celebrated Welsh poet and writer, Dylan Thomas, known for his anti-war sentiment and his haunting poems about victims of the bombings, was upset when he revisited his homeland and saw the wholesale destruction. He concluded that ‘Our Swansea is dead,’ to the friend who accompanied him on the tour of the devastation, a quotation repeated in Daniel Swift’s book ‘Bomber County’, in which relationships are drawn between bombing raids and poetry.

US Tanks and other armaments in Wales awaiting D Day – Pinterest

The preparations for D Day proceeded and Tom Varley thought ahead to the Allies’ push across France. He had personally seen the massive preparations, mainly by American servicemen in Wales, and anticipated the need for trained firefighters to accompany the troops abroad, dealing with any serious fires they may encounter.

The Overseas Contingent

This proposal was not at first welcomed by the Government, but the IFE, led by Varley, got behind the idea.”


“This was one of the IFE’s many activities to help the war-effort and together we changed the official attitude”. It was agreed to prepare 5 columns totalling 2,800 volunteers in this capacity. It would be Britain’s first-ever ‘Overseas Contingent’, a special firefighting force on active service to protect military installations and stores as well as private property.

“In particular, this force was to take the place of fire brigades that would probably be destroyed or put out of commission as the result of the invasion. Recruits considered for this considerable force  had to be trained in both firefighting and military skills. During their training many were made available to supplement local fire services, so communities also benefitted”.

In the event only one column, about 1,000 men accompanied by appliances and firefighting equipment, saw service abroad. This was because the British Army was reluctant, or refused, to acknowledge this new Contingent… it  already had the established Army Fire Service and doubted the need to replace or augment it. Objection overcome, the men were belatedly deployed. Column Number 4 left from Tilbury in January 1945 – not to accompany British forces as had been expected – but they served in Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Germany working first with the Americans and then later with other Allies. The Column was a self-contained unit comprising fire appliances, support transports, hose-laying trucks, mobile kitchens and dispatch riders.

Members of the Overseas Contingent, 1945 –  Firefighter Foundation

It returned to England in July 1945 leaving behind a number of British-made appliances to provide post-war fire protection in beleaguered Belgian, and for other decimated civilian brigades. 441 serving members of the Contingent qualified for British service medals and they also received thanks and commendations from the US Army.

Those men and machines in the three columns which were not deployed overseas with the Contingent were reassigned to the N.F.S. and sent to various locations in Britain. ‘Poor reward’, as one fireman put it, ‘for all the hard training we had put in.’ Tom Varley was also disappointed but saw a brighter note. “The scheme I had advocated to provide fire protection overseas succeeded, and in addition it delivered a bonus supply of ready, trained men to brigades at home at a time of great need”.

(This ‘Overseas Contingent’ was not the first group of firemen to leave home to operate in a foreign theatre of war. The little-known Corps of Canadian (Civilian) Fire Fighters was founded after a promise in 1941 by Canada’s Prime Minister, William King, to assist the war effort in the United Kingdom by providing skilled personnel to help fight the fires caused by the bombings of the Blitz.

The Corps was formed in March 1942 and although not an official part of the military, its leader, Fire Chief Gordon Huff of Brantford, was accorded the rank of Brigadier-General. There was another irony. Although the Corps had the word “civilian” in its title, fire fighters serving in the group signed on, subject to the same conditions and allowances as Canadian servicemen and women. 400 serving firefighters and suitable civilians were recruited, kitted out and after training in Ottawa they were progressively transported to England. Following further training using N.F.S. equipment and local familiarisation at Totton, near Southampton, the first personnel went on active duty in 1942, deployed along the coast, notably in Southampton and Portsmouth.

The Corps was wound down in January 1945. Civic parades and functions were held to thank and to  farewell them. Most returned home to Canada, although some went on to see further service in Europe)

IFE Manual and Miss Lloyd George’s Slippers

“I mentioned that the IFE remained active during war-time and it was at this time that, along with others, it campaigned for an official publication setting out authoritative and useful information which could be easily understood and used by all firefighters. It would lead, we thought, to a set of standards and operating procedures applicable throughout the UK. The Home Office agreed and the IFE assisted with the material which was printed by the Government’s Stationery Office in a series of books which developed into the ‘Manual of Firemanship’, the finest treatise on the subject and still used today in many fire brigades world-wide. Much of the material came from the 1940 syllabus for IFE examinations, and I contributed content which had originally been part of written Brigade procedures, lectures, illustrations and training routines that I had deployed to help the make-over of Blackpool Brigade and its preparations for war”.

Subtitled ‘A Survey of the Science of Firefighting’, there are some 12 parts (books) in the ‘Manual’ including theory of fire-attack, firefighting equipment, scientific topics, hydraulics, communications, building construction, fire prevention, salvage, fire boats and ship fires. The content is reviewed periodically by experts to ensure inclusion of latest technical innovation and updated thinking. The Manual has been reprinted many times over.

“We used to have important officials visit us in Wales from time to time. One of these inadvertently brought me into contact again with local Member of Parliament, Miss Megan Lloyd George. People from the London headquarters of the Civil Defence Ministry decided to do a tour of Wales, meeting heads of Fire Services and military establishments, civil defence workers, and local politicians. I was all set to go to the gatherings in North Wales when I was asked if I would be take care of Miss Lloyd George, providing her transport to the functions. I had well-remembered the ear-bashing she gave me in Whitehall, when she stressed that all senior officers I appointed in Wales must be locals. This had not happened, though I had found, and installed, some officers who measured up for promotion. The other thing that weighed on my mind was that neither of us, my driver nor I, spoke Welsh. This could prove tricky if our passenger stuck to the vernacular. So with little humour we went to pick up Miss Lloyd George from her home only to find that when we arrived she was still having breakfast. I gently nudged her to hasten pointing out that we had a long way to travel with a very strict timetable for the series of meetings throughout the day.

Megan Lloyd George making a wartime radio broadcast – BBC

Finally she got in the car and we set off. I carefully managed not to mention staff appointments, thus reminding her of our last conversation. I had a response rehearsed in my mind just in case the matter came up. And then well into our journey, we must have travelled 40-50 miles, there was a shout from the lady MP. She had looked down at her feet only to see that in her haste to leave the house she had forgotten to swap her fireside slippers for shoes. We had gone too far to double-back to pick up her footwear and I will always remember her appearing in front of the assembly outside the Town Hall for photographs, resplendent in slippers!”

Varley, the Chief who had helped with preparations for D-Day, was not to see, first-hand, results of his efforts. He thought Wales would provide the equivalent of a seat in the front row of the dress circle from which to observe the departure. But he was denied the opportunity of this vantage point to witness that famous, turning, chapter of World War Two.

New Region, more Challenges

Just a few days before the invasion in June, 1944, Tom Varley was transferred to take charge of the No.1 Northern Region covering the counties of Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire, based in Newcastle-on-Tyne. He replaced incumbent Tom Breaks.

“Despite this move I still kept up with activities in Wales and closely followed the work begun there. The Overseas Contingent received highest praise from the United States Army. And just before the invasion the 3 fireboats were sent to their stations, from recollection I think Dover, Southampton and Plymouth, and acted as special safeguards for the invasion fleet consisting more than 3,500 vessels of all kinds; from cargo ships to warships, from fishing boats to landing craft. I received many reports of wonderful work they did recovering vessels damaged by fire or by enemy action”.

Returning to the city he had served years before, this youngest Chief Regional Fire Officer in the United Kingdom now had included in his protected area the giant shipyards of the Tyne-Tees, where navy ships were being built in great wartime haste. He found the fire headquarters at Gosforth inadequate so took over and moved into the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle’s Palace in the suburb of Benwell.

Benwell Towers, from Bishop’s Palace to Fire HQ – 
 Newcastle City Library

There was no proper regional training facility for firefighters so, showing no ecclesiastical favouritism, he turned to a Roman Catholic establishment, a monastery at Minsteracres some 40 miles from Newcastle taking it over and providing firefighting instruction for up to 300 students at any one time. (Minsteracres, still owned by the church, continues as a country Retreat Centre).

Minsteracres survives  as a country Retreat Centre –  www. Minsteracres

“There was no doubt about the major fire risk. Shipyard construction went on around the clock, craft of all kinds from tugs and fishing boats to aircraft carriers. The shipyards seemed at capacity and were very vulnerable targets for enemy bomber planes. The Germans apparently considered that every ship they disabled or destroyed in the shipyards was one less encounter on the high seas. There seemed to be quite a few finished ships, or nearly completed craft and these were earmarked, we were told on the quiet, for the seaborne invasion of Japan.

On one of the enemy’s determined raids the bombers obviously targeted a big battleship, missed their mark, but set fire to the railway station goods sheds and adjacent warehouses. Firefighting lasted 3 days”.

We seemed to have more than our share of Royal Air Force establishments in the Region and consequently there was a fair amount of air traffic coming and going. So I suppose it was only natural that firefighters were often called to deal with the aftermath of crashes involving RAF aircraft. Although not all incidents were mentioned at the time in the interests of security, some of the fires we attended were the result of crashes during training flights with planes sometimes ploughing into buildings. Other aircraft, some crippled after being damaged by enemy fire during their bombing raids returned to England safely, only to overshoot the runway or land awkwardly, crashing. In the winter of early 1945 we had several crashes during takeoff because of excessive ice on the wings. Sometimes in these accidents the entire crew was killed. Enemy aircraft crashed, too, and at these sites I recall that intelligence-gathering by the military could be just as important as rescue and firefighting by the brigade.

I was a regular visitor to London attending fortnightly meetings at the Home Office so I was able to see, first hand, the devastating effects of the air raids and the work of the local brigades there.

I arrived in the capital one Sunday night ready for a meeting first thing Monday morning when I was aware the raid seemed closer and longer than usual. I thought deaths and injuries from the bombing would be limited because there were fewer people in the City and surrounds on a Sunday night. But I was told that the Luftwaffe had worked out that the deserted areas meant there were fewer people to promptly report incendiaries and fires, which likely resulted in more serious damage.

The Government acted to help prevent further fire-loss when it introduced legislation providing for compulsory Fire Watchers to be appointed in all business, heritage and essential buildings. Wherever possible these Fire Watchers were to deal with incendiary and other bombs ‘on the spot’. In London they were thus credited with saving St Paul’s Cathedral after several air raids on the City.

Fires erupted after each air-raid over London – 
Warfare History Network

Towards the end of the war I was attending a special meeting at London Fire Headquarters in Lambeth when, mid-afternoon, we heard the ominous staccato buzz of an approaching pilot-less plane, a V1 or Doodlebug, on its deadly approach complete with a warhead containing nearly 2,000lbs (about 850 kg) of explosives. We had been warned that these were weapons of mass destruction, the likes of which we had not previously encountered.

I accompanied Chief Regional Fire Officer Frederick Delve in his car to Battersea where it was obvious the big power station had been the target. But the V1s overshot, inflicting destruction left and right in the densely populated surrounding residential areas. It was not just a confined bomb-site. We drove for a mile or two through street after street of damaged buildings until we reached the spot where it was thought the V1 had landed. The whole place was organised chaos; it instantly became a hive of firefighting activity to deal with all the outbreaks. Rescue teams with dogs arrived to start searching for people trapped in the debris.  I witnessed one of the dogs sitting on a pile of rubble, motionless, indicating to its handler that someone was buried in the debris below. A team swung into action: a head, torso and limbs were carefully unearthed. Not only was the elderly man alive, but hardy injured. There was room for a little humour when he told Delve and me that he had been visiting the out-house at the time. ‘I pulled the chain and, as if a reaction, all hell immediately exploded around me!’

The German V1: first guided missile – Pinterest

One thing about these Doodlebugs, or ‘Buzz Bombs’, was the unique noise they made as they approached. So residents had a little time to take shelter. If the motor cut out and the noise of the pulse-jet ceased, it was ‘look out’ for those immediately below because these craft did not glide for long, dropping quickly. And when the motor stopped things seemed eerily silent, residents would count the five seconds or so before the next noise was heard, unmistakeably the high explosive going off, jolting the ground all around and causing widespread destruction. These attacks from the air, their death toll, casualties and wholesale damage, as well as the psychological havoc created, was typical of air raids London experienced month in and month out, particularly once these Doodlebugs started in 1944. I think RAF pilots intercepted some of them on approach, making contact mid-air so as to tip them over hoping they’d drop harmlessly into the Channel, while I also heard there’d been a small jamming device invented which, when attached to ammunition fired at the Doodlebug, interfered somehow with its auto-pilot. Anything was worth trying, considering the damage they were causing. They were well named. If I recall rightly the Germans called them vengeance bombers”.

They were soon joined by V2 rockets, beginning their short but terrifying reign of destruction in London and elsewhere.

“These were in fact ballistic missiles, whole new weaponry. We call them rockets today. Unlike the V1s, this new menace generally arrived without warning, twelve or more tons sweeping in from upper altitudes faster than the speed of sound. Again, from memory of my conversations with London firefighters, first came the explosion from the bomb, followed by the “arrival” of the delayed whining noise from the rocket’s motor, topped off by a sonic boom which could be heard for miles, like, right across the city.

I mention these two devastating devices because not long before the surprise arrival of the first V1 in mid-1944 those in wartime intelligence were, in secret, advising top Home Office officers that, following D Day, the war would be winding down, the enemy gradually overtaken, reducing hostilities. We accepted this prognosis. Then, contrary to this forecast, here was Hitler’s new tactic. The impact of the first V1s meant new protocols were written and distributed for firefighters… directing that additional crews should be responded to help deal with the devastating effects as well as outlining immediate steps to be taken if an unexploded V1 was found”.

It was not just London that suffered. Some of the V1s ran out of fuel, dropping short of their intended destination with disastrous results. The rather crude on-board navigation system sometimes failed – again unintended targets were destroyed. Between them, the V1s and V2s caused massive damage adding to that already caused by conventional bombs and incendiaries – terrific loss of life, destruction of many heritage, commercial and government buildings and damage to more than one and quarter million houses in London alone, a staggering figure. There was also intelligence that Hitler might step up this part of his campaign, arming the rockets with materials to enable germ warfare or radio-active attacks.

Seeing and hearing all this confirmed to me that everything undertaken at considerable cost to prepare the fire services on a war-footing was justified and had paid dividends. Sometimes this was not always apparent when you heard about lost and ruined lives and buildings destroyed, but just consider the countless people who were rescued from the rubble and the enormous number of fires successfully contained”.

Fire On Board

In 1944 Chief Varley took command of yet another ship fire, this time on the Majestic-class aircraft carrier, ‘HMS Hercules’, being built at Vickers Armstrong, Walker on Tyne. She was afloat and almost ready to be commissioned. “By co-incidence I was aboard one of the sea-going fire boats down the River Tyne when the alarm was raised, so I proceeded up to Walker on Tyne. Fire crews were already at work including firemen from the shipyard’s own fire brigade.

HMS Hercules, moth-balled after the fire

I was informed that a firefighter had died while trying to find the seat of the blaze below decks. Looking at the bigger picture I had to consider an ever-present problem with all shipboard firefighting: pour too much water into the vessel while trying to extinguish the blaze and she may become unstable or sink. Any problems in this regard with ‘Hercules’ would have far-reaching repercussions because the Tyne at this point is quite narrow. Had the fire-damaged aircraft carrier gone down or flipped over, she would have blocked the channel, closing the busy, narrow, water-way. This, in turn, could have delayed the departure of the many wartime craft being built there, to say nothing of other traffic using the busy Tyne. However, after a long battle the fire aboard ‘Hercules’ was put out, her own internal pumps coping with the water we used for firefighting. Ironically, the cause was later traced to workmen welding a bracket to hold a fire extinguisher, part of the finishing touches before handing the ship over to the Navy!”

In the 1945 New Year’s Honours List it was announced that Varley had been awarded the King’s Police and Fire Service Medal,(K.P.F.S.M.). Recommendations he made that other officers involved with ‘Hercules’ be recognised were accepted… several others also received honours, one officer was awarded a gallantry medal.

Final commissioning for ‘Hercules’ came too late in the war; unused, the Royal Navy mothballed the ship which was subsequently modernised and sold to the Indian Navy in 1957, renamed ‘INS Vikrant’. After 30 years’ distinguished service the ship was decommissioned in the late 1990’s, preserved as a floating museum in Mumbai (Bombay) until she was declared unsafe and, in 2014, sold for scrap.

“Like ‘Hercules’, other craft were also commissioned too late for active service, caught up in the general winding down of wartime activities. By September 1944 Home Guard, Civil Defence and Fire Guard duties were being curtailed in many places within our Region and the blackout was lifted except along the coast. It wasn’t quite the end of hostilities. We still had the odd night-time enemy aircraft pay us a visit wreaking havoc. And as late as March 1945 we had one or two surprises – it was the Blitz all over again when in the middle of the night scores of aircraft appeared together dropping their bombs and raking the landscape with their cannon. There was invariably a lot of work for the brigades in the wake of these raids. But gradually war operations tailed off and in August the end of hostilities was announced followed soon after by public victory celebrations”.

The other old enemy, fire, was still lurking and showed up on 24th May, 1947, at its menacing best and provided a long job for hundreds of firefighters deep in the bowels of the liner ‘Monarch of Bermuda’.

Luxury liner turned troop ship, “Monarch of Bermuda” on fire

She has an interesting history. Commissioned in 1931, she was originally a luxury passenger liner designed for the wealthy, particularly honeymooners, who took cruises out of New York staying at Bermudan resorts. ‘Monarch’ was one of the first passenger ships to have en-suite bathrooms, which, with her luxurious state rooms, her sleek lines and three massive funnels were features that earned her the label ‘millionaires’ ship’. She operated weekly cruises from New York to Bermuda and return with accommodation for more than 800 first class passengers. On September 8th 1934 the ‘Monarch of Bermuda’ was one of several ships answering a distress call from another luxury cruise ship, the ‘Morro Castle’, on fire in storm conditions off the Jersey coast of the U.S.A. with 549 passengers aboard and a crew of 120. ‘Monarch’ was accused of delayed reaction to the SOS because her owners liked to keep to a tight schedule, impressing wealthy passengers who themselves often had timetables to meet. The ship arrived quite late on the scene and despite rough conditions managed to get within a few hundred metres of the stricken vessel. Crewmembers from the ‘Monarch’ found passengers still aboard the burning ship. It appeared they had been abandoned, left without lifeboats or other help. Some 70 people were rescued and taken aboard ‘Monarch’. 135 passengers and crew members either died or were lost in the tragedy. ‘Morro Castle’ was a total loss racked by fire, later beached, and scrapped. Subsequent formal enquiries into the calamity led to tightened marine regulations applied to all shipping – including improved lifeboats, the use of fire-retardant materials, stem to stern fire alarm systems and crew training to meet emergencies, particularly fire at sea.

‘Monarch of Bermuda’ continued her regular voyages until the outbreak of war when the Admiralty requisitioned her as a troop ship.

“Now, in May 1947 she was in trouble. Her war duties over, she had been returned to her owners and was in dry dock at Hebburn-on-Tyne being refitted. We were told this conversion was intended to enable her to return to one of her former, lucrative routes, the trans-Atlantic run providing an up-market passenger service. But while in the dock she caught fire, the blaze spread between decks, and it was quite a job: breathing apparatus was essential for all hands which meant there had to be a steady and regular changeover of men working below, often in confined spaces. Once the fire was out we were quite despondent when we heard she had been declared a total loss”.

Perhaps those who fought the fire on the ‘Monarch of Bermuda’ were unaware that their efforts had not been entirely in vain. She was not lost, after all. Her remains were subsequently reappraised and purchased by the Ministry of Transport: the hulk went to Southampton, to be rebuilt as an emigrant ship. Renamed ‘New Australia’, and emerging from her makeover with just one funnel, she took thousands of U.K. emigrants to their new life in Australia over the next ten years.

“New Australia” became an immigrant ship -www.rymaszewski.iinet.net.au

On return voyages she reverted to the role of troopship transporting post-war militia and peacekeepers. She was later sold to Greek interests, refitted and renamed ‘Arkadia’. She then plied European ports until retired for scrapping in the mid 1960’s.

Dr Beecham

At war’s end Varley returned to his fix-it, trouble-shooting role for which he had become so well known before hostilities began. He had been nicknamed ‘Dr Beecham’ after ‘Beecham’s Pills’, a palliative for unpleasant symptoms, which became internationally known as a laxative. But its inventor, Thomas Beecham, claimed more than this in 1860’s advertisements:  ‘the pills are the best in the world for bilious and nervous disorders, wind and pain of the stomach, headaches, giddiness, fullness and swelling after meals, drowsiness, colds, chills, loss of appetite shortness of breath, etc. etc.’ The pills were claimed to be a ‘fix-all’. It’s not known whether those who coined the nickname for Varley connected the fact that Beecham’s Pills were made in St Helens where, earlier, Tom Varley had served in the town’s fire brigade. Perhaps this made the moniker all the more apt.

Beecham’s Pills were also popular in the US – Pinterest

Now Tom Varley, alias ‘Doctor Beecham’, was sought-after and enlisted by authorities to cure a similar wide variety of ills, Some requests came from the IFE, others directly from struggling brigades and some from overseas. His ministrations during this period improved the health of many  Fire Services.

With man-made hostilities over, Mr Varley turned to the other enemy he had continually faced and with which he always claimed he had never shown compromise – fire. At every blaze he attended, whether big or small, he was repeatedly reminded about its potential danger and devastation, its constant hunger to consume all, to take over, to be the master. Showing another, perhaps unexpected, side of his personality, he held intentions for many years to somehow try to capture the essence of fire in a lasting work of art. He commissioned British sculptor, Lawrence Rogers, to create ‘fire’ as a stylised person. Using West African Teak, Rogers carved a devilish life-like, slightly grotesque, figure and named it ‘Pyromaniac’. Varley bequeathed the work to the Fire Art Collection at the Fire Service College, Moreton in Marsh, Gloucestershire, England.

‘Pyromaniac’ by Lawrence Rogers –  The Firefighters’ Memorial Heritage Collection

The figure has oversized hands, the fingers are curled flames enveloping a church building as if in fire while the feet are trampling on buildings, further destruction by Varley’s nemesis, fire. Tom Varley bequeathed the work to the Fire Art Collection at the Fire Service College, Moreton in Marsh, Gloucestershire, England.

Prior to 1948, when the National Fire Service was to be disbanded with control vested back to resurrected Counties and County Boroughs, Tom Varley was offered the Chief’s job in several large city brigades but he turned them down, applying instead to the Blackpool Brigade, hoping to return to familiar ground.

Varley won the position, but the post-war grading given the Blackpool Brigade meant it could not offer the salary that he was guaranteed in terms of the Articles that broke up the National Fire Service.

“Meantime, I had overtures suggesting I should apply for the Chief’s job in London and there was also a request from the Home Office to interview for the position of HM Chief Inspector of Fire Services. I was keen on neither. Then Dorset County Council approached me”.

Its post-war grading meant Varley’s entitlements could be met… he was subsequently appointed the first Chief Fire Officer for Dorset County, to be based in Dorchester, and took up the position on April 1st 1948, the date re-organised fire services took effect. His salary band was £1,100 – £1,300 per annum.

Varley probably didn’t know it, but his ministrations as “Dr Beecham” were going to be called upon as soon as he took up his new position. The reason was that there was expectation among interested parties in Weymouth and Poole that, post-war, local bodies such as Borough Councils would resume control of their local fire brigades. But the legislation was clear – Counties and County Boroughs were to take over fire services. This was going to mean disappointment for those organisations and individuals expecting to return to the ‘old order’. They believed in, and wanted local control. They said fire services must be headed by those with intimate knowledge of Dorset County. This also applied, of course, to Varley’s appointment as Chief Fire Officer at the expense of local officers who had assumed the position was theirs, as of right.

Notwithstanding, the Dorset County Council formed an Interim Fire Brigade Committee which was to put in place plans for the County’s post-war fire protection. In the prevailing climate Varley must have known he was under test when he appeared before the Committee to present his blueprint. The ‘outsider’ was bound to be challenged: he could expect the ‘third degree’. He got it.

Colonel Alfred Douglas Pass –

County Chairman at the time, Colonel Alfred Douglas Pass, long-time councillor, Army officer, astute businessman and progressive landowner, said after the meeting that he had never known a committee to go more thoroughly into their business than consideration of the scheme, remarking ‘it was our Fire Chief’s first attendance and he had a very heavy grilling’. Varley’s plan survived, it was adopted with one or two minor changes.

“I noted at that first meeting I attended of the Fire Authority that of the 24 members no fewer than 19 were titled gentry one way or another. Dorset was a rich county with an interesting history. There were many landed families and celebrated residents. This was very apparent in local government circles”.

But those opposed to County control of fire services remained vocal. Weymouth Borough Council, for one, was dismayed that it would not get back control of its local brigade. Urgent meetings were convened with other aggrieved councils and they resolved to protest and resist the changes. Weymouth Borough Council was to lead a deputation to London but the Home Office turned down such a meeting.

Varley successfully recruited the man who, for most of the war, had been his right-hand Administration Officer in Wales. Ronald Pritchard agreed and joined the team in Dorset. Originally cast as a civilian position, Varley believed this was wrong and soon had its status changed to uniformed with the rank of Station Officer and with operational responsibilities added. Pritchard arrived in Dorset from Cardiff ahead of his family. As Pritchard  recalls, Varley thought he might be at a loose end at weekends, so together they visited every fire station throughout the County on consecutive Sundays in a Humber Super Snipe staff car. It was not all business, however. One weekend their familiarisation inspections stretched over the border into Devon to take afternoon tea with Varley’s relatives, a Devonshire Tea!

Meantime Dorset County Council formed its permanent Fire Brigade Committee in July 1948 comprising the Chairman and Vice Chairman, 13 members from the County Council and 13 representatives from district councils within the County. Among them were some of severest critics of the scheme and their influence caused disharmony in the formative stages of the new order.

But it must be remembered that ‘Dr Beecham’ was at work. Varley had obviously presented a well-researched and considered blueprint which had been adopted. He had toured the County, as mentioned, inspecting every fire station while no doubt at the same time picking up local knowledge about people and places. And he had won the Council over with a change of location for his offices. Dorchester did not have premises suitable for conversion to County Fire Headquarters and an appropriate, and affordable, site for new buildings could not readily be found. Varley looked for an alternative and decided to locate at the busy port of Weymouth, where he thought it would be easier to administer fire services in the sprawling County. Weymouth also had him stationed close to the big Naval Base, with its attendant fire risks.

Western Division Headquarters had been combined with Weymouth Fire Station when they were built in 1939. From 1948, under the new regime, the complex also housed County Headquarters in rather cramped conditions.

Accommodation formerly assigned to Weymouth’s Chief Fire Officer was taken over and converted to offices for Varley’s modest team comprising a Deputy Chief Fire Officer (with the rank of Divisional Officer) a Senior and a Junior Staff Officer, an Administration Officer, and office assistants.

Varley obviously impressed Councillors and staff alike. The dissenters were largely won over. An exception was Edgar Dawe, the former Chief Fire Officer of Weymouth Brigade, and one of those upset that the Service did not resume as it was before the war. He thought he should have been County Chief Fire Officer but instead was appointed Divisional Officer of the Western Division. He found it difficult to reshape loyalties and follow the Varley Plan. Attempts to seed non-cooperation among fellow firefighters mostly fell flat: Dawe was not as popular as he perhaps imagined. He had seen service in Southampton during the war – in January 1945 he was awarded the King’s Police and Fire Service Medal,(K.P.F.S.M.), sharing the same New Year Honours List with Varley. In his new position in 1948, like it or not, he occupied offices sharing the same complex as Varley.

Dr Beecham’s remedies had paid off once again!

Post-War Weymouth

“When things had settled down this period at Weymouth became very pleasant. I was what you might say ‘battle weary’ after wartime operations, as were many Britons, and following my role in the peacetime reorganization of the Fire Service. My family joined me in Weymouth where we had a nice house overlooking the Channel”.

This was ‘Moorlands’ in Southdown Avenue, Preston, a residence purchased by the County to house the Chief Fire Officer and his family including Varley’s mother-in-law, Mrs Hutchinson.

“We went to the Channel Islands for short breaks: it was easy with the ferry terminal at Weymouth. Later I bought a motor cruiser, a fine sea-going boat, and arranged for moorings in the inner harbour, in fact right outside my office! As a family we often went on trips, either fishing in the Channel or calling at coastal villages, sometimes cruising up various rivers into Dorset hinterland. This was just the tonic I needed”.

And there was a surprise or two. Ronald Pritchard recalled accompanying Varley on an evening’s fishing trip off Portland in August or September, 1948. While waiting for the mackerel to bite they were amazed to see a submarine emerge from the depths and surface nearby.

The first summer proved very pleasant with a long, warm spell. In the prolonged dry conditions farmers made the most of it, hay-making. But this lead to a swarm of calls to fire brigades when haystacks caught fire. Varley researched data, saw most of these outbreaks were alongside the railway line between Weymouth and Bournemouth, caused by sparks from passing steam locomotives. He undertook a publicity programme pointing out that farmers wouldn’t lose so many hayricks if they sited them further away from the railway lines. Consequently, he said, brigades wouldn’t have to respond to these fires which were so easily avoided. The fires, and the call-outs, abated.

Varley’s post-war blueprint for Dorset was delayed by the continuing straitened times. He had suggested an immediate programme to replace aging and unsuited vehicles and equipment inherited from wartime. In January 1950 he recommended the County Committee purchase three Leyland Comet fire engines and Land Rover support vehicles but they weren’t approved, much beyond the County’s budget. He then put in place a rolling programme to replace vehicles which was instituted in the 1950s. Poole acquired a new purpose-built Dennis F12 pump-escape. Progress was even slower replacing fire stations, despite Varley identifying a number as aged, inadequate or that had been conversions of other premises, hardly fit to be fire stations. In his time at Dorset he was not to see movement on the building programme: the first at Bere Regis was opened in 1951 when the post-war economy began to improve.

Varley was busy beyond Dorset. He sat on numerous Government and other committees dealing with fire protection and Civil Defence as well as plans to refine the post-war, de-nationalised Fire Service in Britain. He was also prominent in numerous organisations connected with the fire services. He was frequently in London at the Home Office advising government officials or he was busily occupied on IFE business.  His reputation had spread further afield through his unprecedented 3 terms as President of the IFE, elected annually between 1942 and 1944. It’s a tenure not since equalled.

As IFE President he was in a perfect position to drive reforms within the organisation, realigning branch committees to coincide with Regions, introducing a new Examinations Committee and establishing an Editorial Committee to produce improved technical bulletins. Through the IFE’s Overseas Committee he strengthened relationships to help firemen abroad.

“I knew that New Zealand firefighters, some senior officers, were concerned about two things. First they sensed poor administration at government and local body levels: it seemed people in places of responsibility knew nothing about fire protection and what little direction there was did not match up with what firefighters knew of overseas procedures and progress. Secondly, many in the Service in New Zealand were feeling apprehensive with the announcement that there was to be an Inquiry into the disastrous Ballantyne’s fire”.

Their correspondence had been received and replied-to by Varley, someone who had ‘been through the mill’, well-experienced and who was in an ideal position to help through the IFE. The organisation’s New Zealand Branch was well-established having been formed in 1930 and now comprising enthusiastic members, many of whom had taken examinations, attaining the Institution’s various grades.

But T. A. Varley knew about the situation in New Zealand from other sources. He had been kept up to date with newspaper cuttings and editorials, including accounts of the earlier serious fire at Seacliff Mental Hospital, near Dunedin, which in December 1942 claimed the lives of 37 female patients, locked in their ward and unable to make good their escape from the flames.

Fire-damage at Seacliff Hospital near Dunedin, New Zealand -Auckland Libraries Collection

“An Inquiry into this tragic fire found inadequate supervision, I think caused by a wartime shortage of nursing staff, but more importantly it recommended changes in the design of this type of institution to improve fire safety and it also said that fire sprinkler systems should be mandatory in all mental hospitals. I exchanged letters with the then Inspector of Fire Brigades in Wellington, Mr Roy Girling-Butcher, about these, and subsequent matters, post-war. The picture I was getting was not a happy one.

I also had another Kiwi contact, the New Zealand High Commissioner to the UK, (later Sir) William Jordan, who was a frequent visitor to Weymouth, his favourite place to take short breaks from London.

Sir William Jordan: Varley’s early conduit to New Zealand –
Auckland Libraries Collection  

We met nearly every time he travelled to Dorset, and of course conversation often turned to events in New Zealand.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Ballantyne’s Fire held a series of lengthy hearings and then, in August 1948, it handed down its findings. It was roundly critical of many aspects which it said contributed to the fire and loss of life. It slated firefighters’ actions right from the time they arrived at the fire, it condemned the Fire Board’s administration and management and found a raft of inadequacies in building standards and regulations, followed by astonishment that there was no school for firefighters and no system of examination towards formal qualifications.

“I was well aware of the severity of this fire and loss of life. News of it was in the UK newspapers and someone drew my attention to a wire-picture showing the building, a total loss. Then there were records of evidence, and these, plus the Commission’s findings and recommendations, confirmed my preliminary views”.

“I remember telling someone at the time that I thought the fire services in New Zealand were not at all rosy. In fact, they were black. It stood out a mile as I read through the documents that there had been an absolute lack of efficient leadership in the fire service for decades and that the consequences of the Ballantyne’s fire all stemmed from this”.


100 Years of Complacency

 What led to this unfortunate situation in New Zealand’s fire services? It was down to neglect, complacency and parsimony by successive governments over many decades. Where was the Department of Internal Affairs, the government department responsible for advising the Minister of Internal Affairs about fire services?

The department had seldom been able to focus concentration on fire brigades and firefighting since it was born in the 1840s as the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Kororareka, (Russell) in the Bay of Islands, the foundation of formal administration in New Zealand. It is a department that, ever since, has overseen a rag-bag of assorted responsibilities. For example, over the years it has overseen the nation’s archives (the Alexander Turnbull Library), historic places, the hygiene of all Government-occupied buildings (a nation-wide cleaning staff), literary grants, organising itineraries for important overseas visitors (including Royal Tours), wildlife (acclimatisation), raffles and gaming, licensing land agents, issuing passports, publishing the government’s ‘Gazette’ and, the sector that arguably took up most of its energy, administration of local government. Little wonder in Michael Bassett’s aptly titled history of Internal Affairs, ‘The Mother of All Departments’, fire services are hardly mentioned, lost in the morass of other roles. Bassett’s book also reports a senior Departmental official calling Internal Affairs ‘a hotchpotch of insoluble ingredients’ while another named it the ‘rubbish bucket’ – implying a receptacle for government business other departments didn’t want to deal with.

As early as 1857 the Secretariat was encouraging local bodies to establish volunteer fire brigades, but when it came to several Statutes in the late 1800s to legislate for fire brigades it was local government law that was used rather than a Fire Brigades Act, or similar. This meant that the earliest fire protection measures around 1867 were instituted as part of the Municipal Corporation Act: local government got a foot-hold in administering fire services.

The United Fire Brigades’ Association (UFBA) was on the scene from 1878, wasting little time to assert the views of its fast-growing membership which comprised, exclusively, fire brigades… understandably all looking to have their say in the development of fire protection. By 1880 the firefighters, through the UFBA, had beaten government draftsmen with a measure designed to wrestle matters from local bodies.

The document’s title… the Fire Brigades’ Bill… said it all. It proposed a force of men and equipment to be deployed, paid for by borough funds and through insurance company levies. The Bill languished. It was revived, then deferred and formally thrown out. But it re-surfaced and was re-drafted, only to be withdrawn in 1883. 10 years later, abandoning an independent approach, the UFBA joined with local government to promote a new Fire Brigades Bill. But this, too, was delayed year after year until, 26 years after its first draft, the much-revised Bill passed into law in 1906 after personal support by the Prime Minister of the day, Richard Seddon. Even then it was found wanting and was amended the following year, and rhen ‘consolidated’ the next year. Generally, the measure provided for the establishment of fire districts administered by Fire Boards with funding provided by both government and insurance interests.

T. T. Hugo

A well-experienced fire officer, Captain Thomas T. Hugo, was appointed Inspector of Fire Brigades in 1908. He was to continue in office until 1931 during which time the fire service comprised a growing number of independent, un-coordinated brigades left largely to their own devices: most struggling with a shortage of resources, funds and an overall sense of direction. In his Annual Reports to Parliament Mr Hugo included a paragraph commenting on the performance of each brigade, the result of his personal inspections. He wrote candidly, pointing out where improvement was necessary or, perhaps, noting progress since his previous visit.

In 1914, for example, he noted that there existed 22 proclaimed fire districts with 28 eight fire brigades and 2 fire police corps… and that he had inspected them all twice during the year. In addition he made further visits to some brigades and to local bodies giving advice about water supplies, construction of fire stations and purchase of fire appliances.

In the mid-1920s and early 1930s, before Hugo left the position, he oversaw the drafting and process of several Fire Brigade Amendment Acts, designed to consolidate earlier legislation. In particular, these measures reorganised urban fire brigades and fire boards and arranged their funding with a mix of government, ratepayer and insurance company contributions. This led to local bodies and underwriters believing that – because they were paying – they should have most of the say about their local fire services. This often stymied development: the Boards kept expenditure to a minimum, thus containing rates and premiums. Notably there was nothing in the amending legislation to give a lead with fire services’ training, standards and operational efficiency.

That was left, increasingly, to the only nation-wide entity involving fire services, the UFBA, which in 1921 took steps to fill obvious gaps. First, they appointed Thomas J. Watts as the UFBA’s ‘Travelling Advisory Superintendent’ at £500 a year. Watts was well-experienced for the new position: he was UFBA’s Secretary and also Officer in Charge of Newmarket Volunteer Fire Brigade. He took on a liaison role with fire brigades up and down the land. He assisted them with their internal administration and organisation and, even more importantly, provided training towards competency. This UFBA initiative plugged a shortcoming that more properly should have been managed by Internal Affairs.
Another move the UFBA made towards nation-wide unification was to ensure Brigades could readily source quality hose, stand-pipes and brass couplings. The UFBA set up The Depot, a shop in Auckland which guaranteed brigades prompt delivery at best prices. The UFBA negotiated with suppliers in England – probably this was another task Internal Affairs officials should have been doing – to get the latest designs and modifications to waterway equipment as well as discounted rates for bulk orders. The Depot had the effect of supplying all Brigades with the ‘UFBA standard’ – in the absence of any other specifications. This was a start towards unification of equipment carried on all appliances, enabling one brigade to assist another without wasting valuable time deploying adaptors between different-sized hose and couplings. The shop also returned the UFBA a tidy profit for the first few years as Brigades replaced old gear and invested in new. Then there was a lull because all brigades, it was thought, had stocked up. But in the following years there was an increase in turnover with massive sales of hose, along with new lines, such as helmets, axes and other articles, added to the catalogue.

By 1926 UFBA delegates seemed ahead of the play when they urged Internal Affairs to move on 3 basic nation-wide requirements: the designation of a standard telephone number throughout New Zealand for the public to use when calling in fire alarms, a uniform design for the bodywork on fire appliances and the publication of a common instruction book for firefighters – to be compiled, printed and distributed to all brigades.

Fortunately, there were two other organisations willing to help fill the vacuum left by Internal Affairs and Fire Boards when it came to training for firemen. Both the IFE and, from 1931, the ‘technical arm of the UFBA’, the New Zealand Fire Brigades’ Institute, provided correspondence courses and examinations for firemen who wanted to better themselves by undertaking personal studies, sitting exams and in many cases (in the case of the IFE) attaining internationally-recognised qualifications and, through the Institute, local graduation.

In 1931 there was something of a milestone when government, local authorities, fire boards and insurance companies banded together to hold a nation-wide Fire Prevention week. The British ‘Fire’ journal said New Zealand was the first in the British Commonwealth to stage such a campaign with …’a bold attempt to reduce the heavy drain on national life, health and wealth made by uncontrolled fire…’

Roy M. Girling-Butcher

In 1932 Roy Girling-Butcher succeeded Thomas Hugo as Chief Inspector of Fire Brigades. Perhaps he was able to instil better influence within the Department of Internal Affairs? At least he managed to tie together two of its many responsibilities when the Minister announced a £500 grant to Fire Brigades through the UFBA from the profits of the Great Easter Art Union Raffle. (Lotteries and raffles were also overseen by Internal Affairs).

Firefighters at the UFBA’s annual conference in 1934 felt upset at the Government’s lack of financial commitment towards their Association, resolving to send a message to the Department of Internal Affairs pointing out member-brigades were poorly rewarded given the many years of fire protection they had rendered Government Departments. Apart from another attempt at a nation-wide Fire Prevention Week in 1935, it seems Girling-Butcher was content to let things ride in the wider industry. Annual inspections of fire brigades were curtailed from 1934: Girling-Butcher said he was pre-occupied organising the fire prevention campaign. But he reported that where he had seen Brigades in action ‘training had reached a high standard’. Girling-Butcher uses the phrase ‘the conditions found were generally satisfactory’ which have been cut-and-pasted (but long before the days of the computer!) and repeated in his Annual Report word-for-word, year after year, until 1939.

By then there had been progress on a move to amalgamate all fire brigades within New Zealand under one country-wide Board, a Dominion Fire Board. The blueprint showed the new enterprise would take over all assets of existing Fire Boards, it would have a general supervisory capacity controlling the Brigades with monetary savings foreseen in combined operations and bulk purchasing of goods and services. There was an advantage, the architects of the scheme claimed, of one authority collecting the fire service levies on insurance premiums and there were great opportunities for standardisation of organisation, plant and equipment, with mutual assistance built-in, under which Superintendents of large brigades could go to the assistance of rural and lesser fire crews. Soon after the Minister announced his grand plan, he diluted it more than somewhat when he announced that Fire Boards in main centres should remain. Most local authorities throughout New Zealand voiced opposition to one aspect of the plan or another… but while they were considering their objections and committing them to writing, there was a rude interruption. War was declared in September 1939.

The world was now on a very different footing, there were many more pressing topics in the fire protection of a nation than debating cosmetic changes to the organisation and Girling-Butcher’s cursory tours of inspection. There was a war on… everyone became concentrated on, and fully occupied with, preparations and activities associated with the hostilities and threats posed by the Second World War.

Wartime N.Z. – opportunity for change?

There were few changes to fire services for the first year or so after war had been declared… in 1939 and 1940 enemy action seemed a very long way from New Zealand and although the War Cabinet was satisfied the risk of invasion was slight, it ordered fire prevention to be strengthened at ports and in larger cities. But in 1941, with heightened threats, regulations were introduced establishing an Emergency Fire Service, a para-military fire force working alongside established fire brigades for training and operational mobilisation. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, at year’s end brought conflict in the South Pacific much more front-of-mind to the people of New Zealand, confirming the need for added precautions and readiness.

Roy Girling-Butcher was named as the wartime Dominion Fire Controller and his challenging task was to add, in haste, essential wartime measures to the country’s loose-knit structure of fire protection which at the time comprised individual fire brigades each independently administered. His mission was not helped by the mixed standards of preparedness, command, equipment and training.

He was also engaged with such things as drafting and imposing emergency precautions, ordering hundreds of new trailer pumps and other appliances to re-equip existing brigades to help put them on a wartime footing. He focused on protection at ports and a host of new defence establishments. He had to arrange liaison with the military’s Home Guard, train Auxiliary Firemen, find replacements for scores of firemen who went overseas on active duty in the Forces and to re-paint all fire appliances with a coat of grey paint: less-conspicuous to the enemy. He commissioned trailer pumps, the Colonial Fored Company set up a production line in irs dactory near Wellington.

Standard wartime Trailer Pump – Colonial Motor Co.

After hasty planning, wartime protection took shape. In Wellington, for example, as part of wider preparations, the railways formed a volunteer firefighting unit of more than a thousand uniformed men equipped with trailer pumps and hoses, while water pumps on steam shunting locomotives were adapted to take fire brigade couplings. They became ‘fire appliances on the tracks’. In the event of fire the railwaymen would put aside their usual duties, turning to firefighting. Also in the capital, the Fire Brigade and Emergency Fire Service were each supplied with additional sand boxes and sand, shovels, hoes and buckets, ready to deal with incendiary bombs. In Auckland there was an exercise that assumed municipal water supplies normally used for firefighting had been disabled by enemy bombs.

Training session for EFS personnel on Auckland waterfront – Auckland Libraries

Firemen drew supplies from the harbour near the Ferry Building and by a series of pumps proved that, within 15 minutes of the alarm, adequate water at appropriate pressures could easily be made available for firefighting in the central business district as far as the Town Hall, with some 5,000 feet (1 and a half kms) of hose laid out from the waterfront.

In Auckland 450 men in the newly formed Emergency Fire Service paraded outside Central Fire Station in September 1941. 26 Officers and leaders who had been training for 6 months were presented with their proficiency badges before various groups demonstrated hose drills and then marched off to their stations.  Under Adjutant Robert Houghton Allen the men struck quite a sight and after inspection they were told that they were obviously in the service to do a job of importance as part of the war effort. The men met regularly and continued with their training.

Newspaper advertisement, February 1942 –
Auckland Star

Firefighters from the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board assisted with training, some putting in their own time to help maintain skills among Emergency Fire Service personnel.

Wartime grey paint and military helmets in Auckland 1942 – Auckland Libraries

The other arm of wartime preparedness was the Emergency Precautions Scheme, (EPS). It had been founded in the mid-thirties as a civil defence strategy to help cope with natural or man-made disasters, but now in 1940 it was reorganised and given wide-sweeping powers to respond to wartime eventualities.

Armband: initial i/d for EPS personnel

Enrolment in the EPS was compulsory for all able-bodied ‘male British subjects between the ages of 18 and 65 years, inclusive’ who were of sound mind and not otherwise involved in ‘essential’ war-effort work. New Plymouth was one of the first EPS units to recruit and train firefighters to augment the local fire brigade, a move followed by the EPS throughout the nation.

Wartime fire protection measures were also prominent topics at UFBA conferences, items including worries about fuel shortages and whether volunteer firemen were considered part of ‘an essential industry’, thus excused active duty in Defence Forces. Fire chiefs flexed their muscles, determined to retain command over ‘temporary’ EPS firefighting units. Delegates at the 1942 UFBA conference in Wellington adjourned to the Tivoli cinema to view training films ‘Air Raid Precautions’ and ‘Incendiary Bombs’: they were getting ready to respond to aerial attack.

“Are We Ready?’ – Wartime Audit

The Wartime Cabinet had misgivings about the state of New Zealand’s fire services so Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, asked the British Home Office to send a senior officer, Angus Wilson, to travel to Wellington to report on New Zealand’s wartime fire protection measures. Wilson was a New Zealander who had held various senior positions in the Fire Service in the United Kingdom. He must have had some “unhelpful advice” as he studied the local situation because his 26-page report, furnished in October 1942, was prefaced ‘… any attempt to influence this report by interested persons or bodies on the grounds of personal or other interests can only be regarded as an infringement on my status and I have regarded all such attempts in this way…’ In a separate document he also reported on ‘Fire-watching in Wartime New Zealand’.

It was expected that Wilson would mirror the British wartime blueprint: fire services restructured by Government order with unified, nation-wide command, control and support.

Here was opportunity, they thought, for one nation-wide, unified, fire service… and that’s what Angus Wilson recommended. The War Cabinet referred Wilson’s report to a committee of 9 comprising local body representatives and those from the wider industry. While the committee accepted technical matters, sectional interests took over and raised numerous reasons why centralisation of fire services would be difficult to carry out. The war effort, they said, had more important things to worry about. The administration proposed was top heavy and they were adamant that Wilson’s recommendation, the training establishment – a Fire Service College, ‘is not warranted’.

Cabinet had before it Wilson’s options for the reorganisation of fire protection, reform that had been long-awaited by the industry in peace time, but now took on a new urgency in wartime. What would come of the recommendations and advice?

(Angus Wilson’s expertise organising fire services was also sought by the Australian Government. It hoped he would investigate and report on wartime readiness in Australia, but the Home Office required his immediate return to wartime essentials in the United Kingdom).

The Salute

Firefighters, newspapers and others, unfortunately, highlighted one small part of Wilson’s report which overwhelmed its main, and essential, thrust. Wilson was looking for a bit of class, more recognition of fire services as the ‘Fourth Arm’ in addition to the Army, Navy and Air Force, as had been sought, and ultimately realised, in wartime Britain. He believed discipline, standing and efficiency would improve, and be seen to improve, if firemen saluted officers, much as was done in the military. Wilson pointed out that saluting was already in the New Zealand fireman’s book of rules, and he expected greater pride for the service if it was carried out. ‘Our standing is immeasurable in the United Kingdom,’ he said, ‘the public has far greater respect for the Service as a result of going about our duties in a business-like manner, including saluting’.

“Should a fireman salute?” Cartoonist Gordon Minhinnick’s political interpretation – Evening Post 

Firefighters, like many others in New Zealand, had traditionally not saluted their officers. ‘The rule seems to have been in abeyance for more than 20 years,’ said the Superintendent of Auckland Fire Brigade, W. L. (Bill) Wilson, ‘and though I understand saluting is carried out in Wellington, that’s not to say firemen there are any more efficient than those in my team!’

Angus Wilson’s suggestion was put in place: firefighters everywhere were told to salute officers properly while on duty. But the dictum was not welcomed in New Zealand’s largely-egalitarian society. In Wanganui an Auxiliary Fireman was dismissed when he refused to salute an instructor at the end of a training evolution. The fireman’s brother resigned in protest. There was similar sentiment in Auckland where First Class Fireman, Albert Clarke, decided to resign when he saw the new order promulgated. ‘I refuse to salute anyone except a King’s commissioned officer,’ he said, handing in his resignation. But wartime conditions meant he could not easily leave the fire brigade which was classified an ‘essential service’. His resignation was turned down by his employers, the Fire Board. He appealed before the Man-Power Committee where the reasons for his resignation emerged in public. Clarke’s appeal was dismissed. He carried on in the Service, one of two firefighters killed when, in December 1949, the appliance they were on collided with a telegraph pole in Freemans Bay and overturned.

 A Minister’s Blueprint

 This diversion, along with the Angus Wilson’s unwelcome report, put discussions about fire service reform on the back-burner.

But in January 1943 there seemed a Ministerial appetite for major and wide-reaching changes to the fire services.

Hon David Wilson, wartime Civil Defence Minister –
 Papers Past

The Minister of Civil Defence, David Wilson, wrote to the Minister of Internal Affairs, William Parry, suggesting a nationalised, unified fire service – ‘… changes I favour are put forward entirely to secure a firefighting organisation to cope with fire resulting from enemy action and to fit in with the Emergency Precautions Scheme’

Hon. William Parry… urged to unify fire services –
Auckland Libraries

Both Ministers, Parry and Wilson, were being worn down by continuing and escalating unrest in war-time fire services throughout New Zealand, largely the result of hastily planned wartime fire and civil defence organisation.

When asked to comment on these concerns, David Wilson, Minister of Civil Defence, replied ‘it should all be unified’ while his Cabinet colleague Bill Parry announced that he was taking another look at Angus Wilson’s blueprint proposing one national fire service. He teased out those elements of change that he considered manageable and in late January 1943, advised that there would be ‘nationalisation of all fire services’. All except one aspect. Parry wanted to protect Roy Girling-Butcher’s position as Dominion Fire Controller, an office which had disappeared, re-assigned, in Angus Wilson’s plan. When Girling-Butcher saw this in the document he was dismayed and wrote to Bill Parry, defending ‘my supervision of wartime preparations and my very position – with all modesty it can be claimed that the standard of organisation achieved is definitely in advance of Australian States… … and I have done this practically without any assistance’

Putting aside the question of Girling-Butcher’s position, here at last was an opportunity to centralise governance of wartime fire services, not forgetting Minister David Wilson’s added suggestion – that it might also be a blueprint which would carry on into peace time. This, too, had been spoken of as a possibility when the National Fire Service was being established in Britain.

In March 1943, David Wilson told the UFBA’s annual conference that he had asked the War Cabinet to reorganise the fire services under a National Fire Council. Not only did UFBA delegates enthusiastically endorse the proposals, but they displayed impatience for reform. They took the Minister to task, asking why various promises and undertakings made by the Government at the previous year’s conference had not been fulfilled.  Minister Wilson, from the conference dais, promised to investigate.

Roy Girling-Butcher threw cold water on the whole proposition. In his Annual Report to Parliament he was bold enough to say ‘…such reorganisation has been discussed since 1933 and it’s accepted now, with wartime experience, that there are considerable disadvantages with extreme decentralisation of control of the fire services’. But then, so as not to fall out with local bodies (and perhaps those of his close colleagues in the Department of Internal Affairs who oversaw local government?) he hesitated, acceding that some ‘local administration is desired’ adding a list of those aspects he thought were best administered locally by Fire Boards. Mr Girling-Butcher appeared to be having an each-way bet: trying to please everyone with alternatives in his report!

“National” – But Only In Name

The UFBA, and everyone else, did not have a long wait for wholesale reform. Within 3 months, despite ongoing misgivings, the new body, the National Fire Council was established in May 1943. Chaired by its architect, Minister of Civil Defence, David Wilson, and comprised seven other members, three nominees representing Fire Boards, one representative each from the United Fire Brigades’ Association (volunteer fire brigades), from the Municipal Association (local bodies) and from the fire brigadesmen’s union. Minister Wilson gave the new Council a long list of specific tasks but ended with the mission statement ‘to make recommendations to the Government in relation to all the above (tasks) and any other matters affecting firefighting services both for regular or emergency operations’. Fire Boards would remain under the scheme. They were to collect revenue for operating and capital costs, account for expenditure of these funds, act as the local Emergency Fire Service Committee and advise the Minister on all fire matters in their District.

This split in responsibilities, as well as the vital fact that the new National Fire Council had no legal authority, proved a handicap. The Council was created a light-weight entity of confused objectives and without any means of insisting on, or enforcing, its decisions. It found the administrative difficulties overwhelming and, not surprisingly, asked the Government for help saying legislation was essential to its formal constitution. The simple action of this appeal to the lawmakers was its undoing. The world was still at war. The New Zealand Government was busily focussed on other, more important, matters in Europe and, much closer to home, Japan’s invasion of South Pacific islands. Fire services were of much lesser consideration.

Without legislative “teeth” the Wilson initiative for a unified, centralised, fire service had little chance of success. Indeed, it fell apart in September 1943, just 4 months after its founding. The Minister announced ‘…the National Fire Council is disbanded, administration is to be continued at local level by Fire Boards and in places where there is no Fire Board, fire protection will be overseen by Roy Girling-Butcher’.

Wilson’s unification plan was in tatters, putting on hold – or in doubt – any possibility of a viable, nation-wide fire service in the near future.

The failure, however, did not dishearten those convinced that a major change of fire services was essential. Many in the industry, some influential within the UFBA, were asking ‘what will replace it?’ and ‘what’s next?’ The UFBA Conference in October 1944 again gave the Minister its support in principle for his next proposal for change, this time called the ‘Reorganisation Scheme’. Delegates protectively tagged their approval with a rider: ‘providing that the UFBA must be the paramount body for all fire brigade negotiations and approaches regarding the proposals’.

Seeking Consensus : Over and Over Again

Reform, however, found a cosy home in the ‘too hard basket’ of the bureaucracy in Wellington. It languished there for 3 years, bogged down in prolonged debate awaiting unlikely, or impossible, consensus.

This was a repeat, exactly, of insoluble arguments advanced by several sectional interests half a century earlier which, year after year from 1890 until 1906, delayed introduction of legislation setting up and enabling fire brigades. And this theme would play out more than 60 years later when, again, local authorities and insurance companies, obstinate in their own self-interest, prevented reform in the early 2000s. Consensus seemed impossible.

Post-war, however, the UFBA had not given up, hopeful of progress. It refined its earlier submissions, trying to read the mood of the industry, and politicians. Perhaps the Association should not have been disappointed when amendments could not overcome partisan concerns. Girling-Butcher summed it up in his Annual Report ‘… the Government indicated it would not proceed with the legislation unless the conflicting interests could compromise their major differences and come to agreement, at least, on the principles involved’.

It was obvious that once again lobbyists and stakeholders were having a lot to say about the design of a new Fire Service and that the government was listening, but at the same time holding out for a politically agreeable and acceptable solution. History had shown it was not going to happen.

Notwithstanding, agreement was later reached on most matters but leaving largely unresolved the questions of industrial relations and payment for auxiliary firemen. Meantime, Girling-Butcher’s attention was diverted: he was busy re-assigning firefighting equipment at war’s end. So for yet another year there were virtually no inspections of fire brigades. This added up to almost a decade when there had been few formal inspections of brigades – ten years when no one person visited stations to gauge firefighting proficiency, look over the condition of fire stations, appliances and equipment as well as checking drills and skills. Fire protection, post-war, continued without real sense of direction…

In his book ‘Into the Line of Fire’, Allan Bruce concurs, saying ‘the central authority for New Zealand’s fire services at this time was the Office of Inspector of Fire Brigades, headed by the Chief Inspector R. Girling-Butcher. With limited authority post-war, this was never destined to be a competent government department for the nation’s fire brigades’. Allan Bruce, who had a distinguished career in the Service both here and in Australia, began as a recruit with the Wellington Fire Board post-war in 1947 and served with the London Fire Brigade before returning to executive positions in New Zealand.

Allan Bruce

In his book he paints a disciplined and efficient post-war Wellington Fire Brigade but there was little training, the equipment had not caught up with considerable wartime advances and there was an obsession about station cleanliness, carried out by firemen under a strict regime: scrub the toilets and bathroom, polish the linoleum, tidy offices, empty rubbish bins and clean senior officers’ helmets, belts, boots and axes. ‘It was widely felt that this was an underlying problem in the lack of knowledge of modern fire technology by the great majority of officers…’, Bruce writes in his book, ‘…they had neither the confidence nor ability to lecture or instruct so they could avoid embarrassment by keeping us (juniors) occupied with unnecessary and repetitive station-cleaning duties. The system did not know how to handle it any other way’.

There is a similar picture painted by veteran firefighter Gordon Walker in his book ‘The Ballantynes’ Fire Disaster’ who also describes repetitive and mundane duties. In the Christchurch Brigade it was an unending round of cleaning, cooking in the mess, scrubbing hoses, shining the brasswork, maintenance chores and yet more cleaning. ‘… there were years of tradition to reinforce these procedures’, he wrote, ‘tradition consolidated since 1900 in Christchurch and by 1947 most senior officers, who had commenced their careers in the 1920s, faithfully adhered to this tradition… the whole system existed throughout New Zealand, ill-organised and most unsatisfactory…’

Thomas Varley put it in a way that followed his keen interest in gardening, something like this. “Fire brigades were like self-seeded vegetable plants, tolerated in the back corner of the Department of Internal Affairs’ otherwise busy garden, left to their own, remaining uncultivated season after season in the unlikely event that at some stage they just might reward with a bountiful crop. Sooner or later this kind of neglect will catch up!”

“And it was apparent things came to a head, well… twice over… in two major fires. I could see time had finally caught up with the Government, with the Department of Internal Affairs, with the run-down inspection system, the wartime wrangles, the much-discussed but unrealised ‘Reorganisation Scheme’ and the continuing lobbying and argument among the industry’s sectional interests. Years, no, decades, of procrastination, disagreement and indecision among local bodies, underwriters, the Fire Boards’ Association, the UFBA, the unions and government entities were about to catch up. These were two serious fires, in their own way, the worst New Zealand had ever seen.

Fiery Intervention 1: Taupo

Complacency was vigorously shaken when fire services were called to deal with a massive vegetation fire near Taupo in February 1946, which burned out of control for more than a week, destroying all bush, trees and buildings in its path.

This was to become known as ‘ Tahorakuri’ or ‘Taupo Fire’ and was by far the most significant forest and scrub fire in recent history. It was for more than 50 years the single largest plantation wildfire in either New Zealand or Australia until the 2009 commercial forest fires in Victoria, Australia. The Taupo blaze followed a prolonged dry spell and burned through an estimated 30,730 hectares (76,000 acres) of privately-owned standing pine, but overall it raced across some 101,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of pine, bush and scrub. The towns of Taupo and Atiamuri were threatened several times during the firestorm: they were both lucky, saved only by last minute changes in wind direction, averting an even more serious disaster.

Flames swept up valley after valley, destroying forests – 
Auckland Libraries

Tom Varley in England had been thoroughly briefed by firemen in New Zealand, some of whom had attended the major blaze.

“I kept the letters and newspaper accounts as part of IFE correspondence. There were numerous stories of people who made last minute dashes to escape the roar and heat of rapidly advancing flames, the smoke so thick that locals, even though they knew the area like the back of their hand, described how easily they had become disoriented. One article I recall told how the fire crossed the Waikato River, involving vegetation along both sides for many miles. I thought at the time that this all seemed exaggerated, perhaps over-written in the press clippings but then, with so many sources reporting similar events, it all became credible. And then there was the correspondence from firemen who had been on the scene. I came to believe the severity of the blazes and the apparent lack of properly organised firefighting”.

Desperate moves to try to meet the unfolding emergency during the fires are told through recently unearthed accounts of Police Constable Thomas Cotter who was stationed at Putaruru at the time. On Saturday night, 9th February 1946, he was asked by forest owners, N.Z. Forest Products Limited, to urgently muster 20-30 men for firefighting in the Tahorakuri Block. Cotter knew where most of the young men would be – at the local picture theatre. He had a notice put on the screen and a short time later 22 men, their evening’s entertainment interrupted, were despatched on a truck: others were picked up on the way out of town. Cotter could not believe he would be playing a part in what became a major emergency, recalling there were no plans or procedures about dealing with forest fires. He received numerous reports about the severity of the fires overnight and then late afternoon the next day he had been advised a state of emergency had been declared and asked if he could provide at least another hundred able-bodied men for firefighting near the banks of the Waikato River at Atiamuri. There was a real threat, he was told, that the blaze might jump the river, setting other adjacent forestry blocks alight. Cotter consulted his superiors in Hamilton: they confirmed there was no blueprint for fighting forest fires: but agreed he should assist as required. Next, Cotter was asked to travel to Atiamuri and evacuate people from the sawmill settlement. Meantime he set about looking for more men to act as firefighters. He had a message broadcast over local radio asking volunteers to gather at the police station and, in addition he repeatedly sounded the town’s fire siren. All of Putaruru were thus aware of the emergency on their doorstep. Within an hour and a half more than the hundred men had mustered… townsfolk, farmers, mill workers and bushmen alike… were on their way to the fire, dispatched in commandeered school buses. PC Tom Cotter also sourced a number of trucks, ready to be sent to any settlement where household contents and furniture might have to be removed in the event of further evacuations.

Evacuations: residents near Taupo ready to move – Auckland Libraries

Next day he received word that the fires had broken through into native bush near the Waotu Block, threatening farmhouses. Another 23 men were instantly recruited and sent out on another ‘borrowed’ truck. Further news of more devastating fires… and yet another truckload of firefighters responded, along with the town’s fire engine and crew. Cotter went with them and found that settlers, thankfully, had contained some of the outbreaks by judicious back-burning.

On 11th February, Tom Cotter reported that he had met with an unusual request. Men working the night shift had to go along pitch-black forest trails on their way to and from the fire-fronts. In the interest of safety electric torches were urgently required. Sufficient numbers could not be purchased so again Cotter turned to the local radio station, making a plea for donations of battery-powered hand torches. Within an hour a large quantity had been handed in by local townsfolk and sent on.

But ongoing operations meant assistance had to be made available from far and wide: local firefighters such as those organised by P.C. Cotter had been quickly overwhelmed by the relentless battle which continued day after day, around the clock. Servicemen from Waiouru Military and other Defence establishments were sent. Fire engines, (wartime Fargo appliances in the main), personnel and equipment were dispatched from as far away as Auckland and Wellington. All told, 1,600 personnel were engaged in front-line firefighting with many others called in to support their efforts providing meals, shelter, transport and precautionary ambulance services. It was reported in newspapers as New Zealand’s first national fire emergency. But others called it ‘a national calamity’.

Subsequent tracking showed the fire had been swept along by stiff breezes for some 40 miles (64 kms) between Atiamuri and the northern approaches of Taupo, more or less following Waikato River.

Inspector of Fire Brigades, Roy Girling-Butcher, in his Annual Report noted that 7,500 man-hours had been expended during firefighting, with one fireman badly hurt, several fire appliances damaged and a huge loss of fire hose. He said that command, control and communication infrastructure had been found wanting and that ‘the available fire protection was totally inadequate to meet an emergency on this scale’. There were no plans for a major fire, as Government, fire services, civil defence and Constable Cotter had found.

The United Fire Brigades’ Association agreed there were serious shortcomings. Just a few weeks after the fire, delegates attending the organisation’s annual meeting in Gisborne decided to complain to the Minister about the lack of organisation and control at Taupo. They wanted assurances that there would be no repetition during any future emergency that might arise.

The forestry industry found itself the focus of criticism and comment, and immediately began an overhaul of fire protection for plantations and their surrounds. The result was the Forest and Rural Fires Act in 1947, legislation designed to protect forests and prevent consequential losses which, in the Taupo fires, had been enormous: standing timber, crops, vehicles, sawmills, houses, commercial premises and their contents. The huge costs of ‘Tahorakuri’ had been counted; those insured against fire were paid out, but many lost everything to the flames.

Fiery Intervention 2: Christchurch 

The second fire that shook the very foundations of the fire services in post-war New Zealand was the blaze, already mentioned, that swept through Ballantynes’ Department Store in Christchurch, November 1947, with the loss of 41 lives.

This tragedy shook all New Zealanders. It was boldest headlines in the local press, news which quickly spread abroad in the world’s newspapers, and, for the first time from New Zealand, the text was accompanied by wire photos. Post and Telegraph engineers in Wellington had just received the equipment from overseas which enabled photos to be scanned and transmitted using telegraph or telephone lines. The engineers were asked to urgently complete their testing of the apparatus and to set it up so that pictures of Ballantyne’s fire could be sent around the globe.

Articles, with somewhat blurred black and white pictures, told of a stage set for disaster: some 400 staff members, as well as shoppers, in the department store who suddenly and without warning were overtaken as flames rapidly engulfed the premises.

Flames destroyed the entire building – Wikipedia

Reports said that the fire brigade had been in attendance from early on, yet there were 41 deaths, many other people injured and the company suffered total fire loss of about £500,000. William Ballantyne’s art collection, works shown in a gallery near the tearooms, was destroyed.

The immediate repercussions of this tragedy have already been mentioned. The sentiment of the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s findings was reflected in its comment – ‘…so much literature is available concerning fire brigade organisation and training, it’s somewhat astonishing that the principles of organisation and firefighting have not more thoroughly permeated through all Fire Boards, officers and men in fire brigades in New Zealand… there’s no prospect if things remain…’

The one agent, the only agent, which could have, perhaps should have, been carrying out these duties was the Department of Internal Affairs. But, preoccupied with its many other responsibilities, it let fire services slip in its order of priorities. Post-war the department had added even further tasks to its diverse portfolio – Patriotic Funds, War History, War Graves and Physical Welfare and Recreation. The Ballantynes fire, and its consequences, had provided the complacent Department with a wake-up. Now, it was time for a major shake-up of fire services.

 Reform, but Diluted

Out of the Inquiry came the proposed Fire Services Act, designed to overhaul fire-related legislation in New Zealand, putting into law most of the Commission’s recommendations. Critical among them, the appointment of three Fire Service Commissioners, who were to govern, rationalise and improve fire protection throughout the country. But drafting the Bill became protracted. Part of the delay was pressure from a significant lobby group, the insurance industry. It told the Government that underwriters must have a bigger say in the administration of the fire services. Collectively the Insurance companies pointed out that they stood the cost of much of the fire loss and that since they would be contributing 48 per cent of Fire Service budgets (funding the fire brigades) they were entitled to strong representation on the policy-making and governance body of the Fire Service.

Thomas Varley, looking through correspondence from New Zealand, understood the mood.

“1946 and 1947 had been expensive years for the insurance companies with Ballantynes’ fire and the earlier Taupo forest and bush fires. With those big pay outs, and other settlements for claims following a string of serious property fires around this time, I could see it was natural that the insurance lobby’s voice was one of the loudest. The industry argued that the proposed administration of the fire services with its three governing Commissioners should be replaced by a Council on which the insurance industry, and other industry stake-holders, would be represented. The Underwriters’ Association, representing insurance interests, envisaged it would have members on the proposed Council, emphasising that these people would not need to be directors or staff of insurance companies, but they would nevertheless, as representatives, keep a watching brief. The underwriters’ objective, and lobbying for it, was obvious. My strong advice to those drafting the legislation was to retain the three Commissioners, as had been originally recommended, ensuring that at least two of them were experienced fire officers. Others observed, and I agreed, that whoever was appointed by the insurance lobby would vigorously pursue this sectional interest”.

In fact, the insurance companies were desperate to ensure their views prevailed because they all feared that improved fire services would cost more to establish and maintain, in turn increasing the amount they would have to pay to meet their 48 per cent contribution, which would impact on their business… higher costs to their clients through increased premiums and possibly lower profits for the shareholders.

Local bodies also strenuously supported the idea of a Council. They thought they’d lose independence and administration of local fire brigades if they were not adequately represented. Like the insurance industry, they were also quick to point out that they provided some of the funding – 40 per cent, and thus they wanted a say as to how it was spent. (The Government paid the remaining 12 per cent).

Towards the end of 1949 the new Act was passed into law. The legislators had been won over by the lobbyists. The new law included their submissions, replacing the Royal Commission’s recommendation for 3 Commissioners with, instead, a governing body, to be called the Fire Service Council. It would comprise 7 members – 2 political appointees and one each representing the insurance industry, territorial local bodies, urban fire authorities, the firefighters’ unions and the United Fire Brigades’ Association,(UFBA), on behalf of volunteer firefighters.

Many people in the fire service, allied industries and local government believed this was the wrong move, saying it was a flawed composition. There were too many stakeholders on the Council, each with their own barrow to push, which would constrict and hamper progress of future fire services in New Zealand.

But a few others thought the new Act was progress. Several brigades and rural fire parties welcomed the move telling the new Fire Service Council that ‘we will register as industrial or auxiliary brigades, validating our organisation and operations previously covered only by gentlemen’s agreement’.

Notwithstanding, most involved in fire services were dismayed, saying politics had been allowed to intrude which meant a vital opportunity had been missed. They reckoned that they had waited decades for reform and now it would be handicapped by the Fire Service Council with its partisan members.

Fire Service Council: Beginnings 

The new Fire Service Council came into existence when the Act took effect on November 1st, 1949 and its members met for the first time on December 13th in Wellington. The founding members were Roy Girling-Butcher, (former Chief Inspector of Fire Brigades) and Michael Connelly (both Minister’s appointees); Stanley Dean (Council of Fire and Accident Underwriters’ Association); E. H. Ferguson (New Zealand Fire Boards’ Association); W. C. McDonnell (Federation of Fire Brigade Employees’ Industrial Union of Workers); Thomas J. Watts (United Fire Brigades’ Association) and Ernest Wise (Municipal Association). Roy Girling-Butcher was the first chairman and much work lay ahead as the Council ‘found its way’ in terms of the brand-new legislation and as tackled the tasks expected of it, principal among them the formation of a united and improved New Zealand fire service. The inaugural meeting began with a description of the Council’s duties and responsibilities, outlined by Mr (later Sir) Arthur Harper, Under-Secretary in the Department of Internal Affairs. Having had their role spelled out, Council members progressed to numerous ‘housework’ items required to formally establish, and provide for, the new entity.

Members then also acknowledged the importance of finding and engaging a new ‘Chief Officer’ (as the position was referred to), a person to lead reforms among fire brigades. Their recommendation – ‘…that an appointment be made as soon as reasonably possible, that a determination be made on some basis of salary to recommend to the Public Service Commission (P.S.C.) and suggesting that the position be advertised in New Zealand, Australia and England’.

Stanley Dean moved at the meeting, seconded by Ernest Wise, ‘that the P.S.C. should be told that the Council requires a first-rate man for the position of Chief Officer, and it should also be pointed out that a good officer could not be obtained under £1,400 a year, and that without this kind of salary, the right kind of man will not be attracted’.

This got the members of the fledgling Council off to a bad start with the conservative and independent P.S.C. which did not like being ‘told’ to do anything. The wording of the Council’s motion was interpreted as dictatorial, creating friction, and giving rise to a tussle over deciding the duties and grading of the new Chief Officer. This led to a delay in procedures, yet there could be little argument about the process and where responsibilities lay: the Fire Services Act stated the new Chief Officer was part of the Public Service and, in turn, the Public Service Act said that it was up to the P.S.C. to set a grade and salary for each employee. Although the Council was impatient to appoint a new Chief, more than a year was to pass before the position would be filled. The Council eventually had to agree with a determination that was a little short of the salary it wanted, accepting the P.S.C.’s benchmark ‘at a range between £1,150 and £1,250 per annum, according to qualifications’. A draft specification for the position was produced and it was decided that the vacancy should be advertised in South Africa as well as the other 3 countries.

At the Council’s May (1950) meeting it was reported there were 6 applicants from within New Zealand, but the overseas applications had not yet arrived, so any consideration must be held over.

Veteran firefighter Thomas Watts, a member of the Council, died in June 1950. Nat Buick was appointed in his place, a long-time fire officer, including national responsibilities during wartime and later as Deputy Inspector of Fire Brigades.

Council members were advised in July that while applications had been received from Australia, South Africa and local candidates, those from the United Kingdom were still awaited. It was not until August that 6 candidates were short-listed and advised.

The Council made arrangements with the New Zealand High Commission to convene an interview panel in London, which was to include Mr Angus Wilson, the New Zealander who had considerable experience in brigades in the UK and had been to New Zealand to help with the re-organisation of fire services in 1942 (as has been detailed). By mid-1948 he was Fire Services Inspector in Scotland.

Meantime, much to everyone’s surprise, one of the local applicants, the recently-appointed Superintendent of the Auckland Fire Brigade, Gordon MacKenzie, had spoken out revealing that he was seeking the position. This strange break with protocol was even more curious when he made it publicly known that if he was chosen as Chief Officer there would be certain conditions because, he contended, he would be disadvantaged when compared to applicants from the United Kingdom. The conditions he would be insisting on were never made public. The Council discussed this unusual approach and strange logic, but nothing came of the application along with its ‘attached conditions’ because Superintendent MacKenzie withdrew from contention before any interviews were arranged. He remained Officer in Charge of the Auckland Fire Brigade until March 1956 when he stepped down, as described later.

 The Persistent Harper

Under-Secretary, Arthur Harper, was going to Britain to make initial arrangements for the royal visit to New Zealand of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. This visit did not eventuate. Their tour of Commonwealth countries was suddenly cancelled when, having reached Kenya, the Royal couple received word on 6th February, 1952, of the death of King George the Sixth. The Royal couple immediately returned to London. Queen Elizabeth subsequently toured New Zealand for the first time, accompanied by the Duke, in 1953-54.

Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Harper
 – Alexander Turnbull Library

During his stay in England Mr Harper was also commissioned by the Fire Service Council to help find a suitable Chief Officer. In London he attended the interviews of those from Britain who had been short-listed and later he went to Dorset to offer the job to one of the candidates, Thomas Arthur Varley.

“From the moment I knew Arthur Harper was coming to Dorset to see me I had an inkling as to why he was making the journey. I also knew the New Zealand scene through those letters, newspaper cuttings and the Royal Commission’s report. Arthur Harper was well aware of the restructuring work I had done in Britain. I guessed that he must have been comparing this work with what was widely realised now needed doing in New Zealand. He spent two days in Dorchester during which we had several meetings. He was a great diplomat, quietly putting to me the task ahead in New Zealand and at the same time using his not inconsiderable persuasive powers to convince me to take the position.

Then the Home Office, no doubt acting as agent for the New Zealand Government, contacted me suggesting that I was the man for the job and that I ought to take it. Officials were quick to point out that the recently-announced pension scheme seemed to be made for me. At 49 years I was just the right age under the new scheme to retire and enjoy a pension of something like £650, and with the right to start again, elsewhere. And Arthur Harper supported me.


But at the back of my mind I remembered the contents of all those reports and letters. And first-hand accounts continued to circulate of how bad it all was in New Zealand. I heard about it from Angus Wilson who had been there in 1942 to report on wartime fire protection measures. He told me, and it was on the grapevine as well, how shocked he was at what he had seen and that he was appalled, particularly, at the absence of any organised training. I did not get the opportunity to talk this over in detail with him. Had I done so and heard his criticisms in detail, I might have turned down, flat, those persuasive overtures by Arthur Harper”.

Historian Michael Bassett, in his book ‘Mother of All Departments’, says ‘Arthur Harper took an instant liking to Varley at the interview, offering him the job at a salary of £NZ 1,250’.

Tom Varley was stunned and dismayed when he heard that the new Fire Service Act did not include the 3 Commissioners. “The Act had been watered down and altered from what it should have been, and one of the fundamental recommendations of the Royal Commission involving governance had been ignored. It was to be nearly thirty years before this ground was made up and Commissioners were appointed to head the Fire Service.

Mr Harper’s persuasion was persistent. Despite my misgivings about the radical variations to the Royal Commission’s recommendations, after due consideration and discussions with the family, I accepted the position. I resigned from the British Fire Service and began packing to prepare for the sea voyage to New Zealand to take up the new position. I had decided to go not only for the post offered but also to re-settle my family there. I had heard much about the place from my many correspondents, I knew its geography, and thought about the opportunities particularly for the younger members of my family… all this very much appealed to me”.

In November 1950, after protracted correspondence and much angst, the Fire Service Council was advised by the P.S.C. that it had approved the choice of Thomas Arthur Varley as Chief Officer. His appointment was publicly announced on December 1st by William Bodkin, Minister of Internal Affairs, the position couched by some for the first time as ‘Dominion Chief Fire Officer’. Despite the announcement, the opweverHremuneration set by the P.S.C. was still bothering some Council members and in February 1951 they wrote to the Commission again, saying ‘the salary is too low, the position is to be considered at next re-grading’.

Meantime, Varley had resigned his position in Dorset and severed connections with the many committees and organisations he had served on. He packed the family’s belongings and purchased two motor cars, arranged their shipment to New Zealand and made bookings for passage on the sea voyage.

Passage was booked on RMS “Rangitoto” – www.newzealandshipping.co.nz

It was farewell to friends and colleagues, among them Ronald Pritchard, who, over six years in both Cardiff and Weymouth had been Varley’s senior administration officer and had assisted with the formulation of founding documents for the Benevolent Fund.

(Geoffrey Pritchard says his father, Ronald, and Varley became close friends and remained in contact for the rest of their lives. The Pritchard family observed Varley as a tall, distinguished-looking man who was obviously quite somebody but had the common touch. Varley must have had deepest respect for Ronald Pritchard because soon after taking up his new position in New Zealand he wrote offering Pritchard a position on the team in Wellington. But family reasons precluded the proposition. In 1976 Thomas Varley and wife Evelyn toured Great Britain and visited the Pritchards: it was a long and happy reunion celebration. Geoffrey says that Varley, in persuading his father to give away his pre-war position as accountant with a Building Society, was responsible for his father’s successful 33-year career administering fire services)

Preparations completed, Varley was on his way to New Zealand, his title now being mentioned as Chief Fire Officer of the Fire Service Council.

Delegates attending the United Fire Brigades’ Association Annual Conference at Christchurch in the early days of March, 1951, were advised by the Fire Service Council that the new Chief Fire Officer would be arriving within weeks ‘to take control of Fire Services in New Zealand’. Members of the UFBA Executive told members they recognised that the new chief, T. A. Varley, had a difficult task ahead of him but they were sure that with his wealth of experience and with the co-operation of fire brigades, he would soon become acquainted with the fire services in New Zealand. The new man quickly found out that there were plenty of people only too willing to help him with local information.


Wellington… Welcomes Unbecoming

It was an extended family of eight that sailed aboard the liner RMS ‘Rangitoto’ and after a 5-week voyage berthed at Wellington on Easter Saturday, March 24th 1951. They had arrived in the throes of one of the worst industrial disputes the country had ever known: conflict on the waterfront involving cargo-handlers. This delayed the unloading of the Varley family’s worldly goods.

Port of Wellington 1951: crippled, at a standstill, every berth taken

But it did not prevent a rather surprising welcome for the new Dominion Chief Fire Officer. Mr Varley could hardly believe his eyes.

“Right there on the wharf to meet the ‘Rangitoto’ as it berthed was a couple of men waiting at the foot of the gangway asking if they could come aboard the meet me. Not knowing who they were, I agreed to see them. The first visitor was the New Zealand agent for the British fire protection company, Merryweather. I gave him short shrift saying this was neither the time nor the place for his salesmanship. I found this ‘welcome’ far too familiar – the senior uniformed fire officer has to remain at arm’s length from all these interested parties. The second caller was a representative of the local IFE branch wanting to brief me on the situation in New Zealand. I listened politely until I had picked up his theme of trouble in the fire services and deteriorating conditions. Then I had to interrupt him saying that we had to disembark, and that I had to attend to documentation, mainly because I had been warned that owing to the industrial dispute the two cars I brought from England may not be unloaded but carried on to another overseas port unaffected by the troubles. Fortunately, Army soldiers assisted getting the cars off the ship.

We left our floating home of nearly six weeks, ‘Rangitoto’, and within a few minutes of clearing Customs and Immigration formalities there, on the wharf, other individuals approached me. They separated me from my family and, in what I can only describe as a bombardment, wanted to introduce themselves, to pass on all kinds of information, to put their particular points of view and in many cases, offer unhelpful advice. I dismissed them all, ignoring what they had to say. I told them that the proper time to canvass these and other matters would be much later, after I had settled in, once I had attended my first meeting of the Fire Service Council and got the lie of the land”.

But when the time came for the Council’s inaugural meeting a few weeks later there was another surprise and Varley began to doubt whether it was, indeed, the proper forum to air his concerns about the unfortunate ship-side ‘welcome’. It was a specially convened meeting of the Council, late March, to welcome him and discuss mutual matters.

Arthur Harper briefed Council members before the new Chief arrived for the meeting. Mr Harper backgrounded the interview panel’s work in London, explained the reasons for recommending T.A. Varley and outlined his career. Obviously still troubled about the salary for the position, Harper told the Council that although the Chief was actually a public servant under the control of the Public Service Commission, it was the Fire Service Act which, properly, placed him under the control of the Council. He said if it was found that the recent 15 per cent general wage rise did not apply to Mr Varley, he should apply to the Commission for reclassification.

Tom Varley didn’t yet have a New Zealand uniform, so he wore his British one with the rank insignia of Chief Fire Officer. He had been invited to meet the Council members over morning tea where the only face he really knew was Arthur Harper who made the formal introductions. Council members found they were meeting a tall, lean man immaculately turned out who spoke with a broad accent and sported a small moustache. Each member in turn had time for a brief personal chat, with the conversation mainly a series of welcomes and congratulations on his appointment. He replied with an assurance that the Council had his fullest loyalty and cooperation.

Small talk, socialising and the morning tea concluded, it was now time for the formal part. The meeting resumed, and the new Chief’s first session at the Fire Service Council was to be a remarkable experience.

“A Boxing Match…”

 No sooner had members taken their place around the table than a battle royal erupted. I had not seen anything quite like it before. It wasn’t so much the ‘urgent business’ which the Chairman, Roy Girling-Butcher, allowed to be introduced, without notice, that perturbed me, but the subject matter of the points being argued in raised voices, with no meeting procedure and plenty of personal abuse being hurled back and forth across the table”.

Unbeknown to the newcomer, just before his arrival in New Zealand, members of the new Council made a tour of inspection of fire brigades in the South of the South Island. Members offered advice on operational aspects of firefighting in the course of discussions with the various brigades. But when Chairman Roy Girling-Butcher reviewed the value of the visits he realised that much of the guidance given had been quite wrong. So he secretly made follow-up visits to correct the situation giving the brigades information which he considered was correct… more helpful advice… which he urged them to follow. He thought the visiting Council members had put firefighters wrong on so many aspects of their operations, drills and equipment, he believed that it was imperative to set matters right, which he had done.

Some Council members were livid when they found out about Mr Girling-Butcher’s surreptitious repeat visits. They claimed it negated their correct advice, gave a bad impression of the new Council and, more importantly, personally belittled and undermined them. What did Chief Fire Officers of the various brigades think when two sets of advice, one contradicting the other, had been given by this new organisation which was supposedly overseeing brigades, nation-wide? These thoughts resulted in the bitter exchanges now unfolding as ‘urgent business’ in front of the brand-new Chief.

“The words being flung across the table became more vitriolic as tempers rose. I had never seen such behaviour by a statutory body. I recalled meetings I had attended at the Home Office and in Whitehall which were often ‘robust’, I had often been challenged during forums discussing complex technical matters and, of course, there had been that intensive interrogation during the job interview at Dorchester. But what we had here was something quite new to me. I thought to myself what is this? Here I am the new boy. I don’t know any of these people very well and they don’t know me. Perhaps I should leave the room and let them get on with it. Being neutral in this battle, should I intervene? It wasn’t a case of calling for a Point of Order because the Chairman himself was engrossed in the verbal barrage. So I just observed all this for a while, bided my time and then, when I got a chance in a break between the angry exchanges, I plucked up enough courage to speak for the very first time at a meeting of the Council”.


“Members must have seen how the abusive wrangle appeared to the outsider, and the bitter exchanges stopped.

In reply to my official welsome I said that I was anxious to get on with the job and that I was keen to make a brief tour of New Zealand to meet the Brigades and to get a measure of existing conditions. Arrangements were made for visits to Christchurch and Dunedin to coincide with an IFE conference. The matter of my uniform was left to Mr Girling-Butcher and me to arrange”.

This first encounter with the New Zealand’s new fire chief would have left members of the Fire Service Council with the impression of an authoritative person, long accustomed to leading and being in charge, a slight hint of a military air, and his tall physical stature and smart appearance contributing to his ‘presence’. They would have found him well-spoken, one who carefully chose his words and who had an accent and turn-of-phrase reflecting his native Yorkshire. His methodical, well-rehearsed thoughtful and calm approach had been demonstrated during the contretemps at that very first meeting. Council members would quickly become acquainted with the uniformed head they had chosen to professionally oversee essential changes in fire services, changes now widely anticipated – and expected – by the Government and many other interest groups, including, probably most of all by those who did the work on the fireground – firefighters, both employed and volunteer.

“I suppose these Council members, my new employers, were sizing me up but it didn’t take me long to see where the real power lay in the Fire Service. It was in the financial self-interests of the lobby groups, the Government, the local authorities (Councils) and, in particular, the fire insurance companies. Those unwelcome overtures on the wharf the day I arrived and then the bitter argument at that first Council meeting were just preludes of what was to come; embedded self-serving attitudes which could deny change, stifling progress. I knew I would have to begin shaping a course to steer my way through all this if there was going to be essential improvement within the Service.

And in conversation after that first meeting, I discovered that the ‘welcoming party’ on the wharf had been more or less orchestrated. One of the lobby groups, insurance underwriters, mentioned to another interested party that they thought it would be fitting to greet me at the ship’s gangway as I set foot in New Zealand. Not to be outdone, other groups who heard about this joined the crowds on the wharf. I thought this was unhealthy, unwelcome, and unbecoming.

All in all, I left the office after that first Council meeting with a sense of foreboding. My task appeared overwhelmingly impossible. I would talk with my wife, Evelyn, telling her of the day’s events. That conversation ended when I told her that I was seriously considering pulling out of all this and returning to the UK. I am sure she could see my despair. That evening I kept a pre-arranged appointment with several representatives of the local IFE. I told them, straight up, that this position wasn’t for me. I said I didn’t like the atmosphere. I had already come to the conclusion that I couldn’t deal with some of the people I would have to work with nor could I abide the shortcomings in administrative and operational matters.


The IFE officials were visibly shocked to hear this. They said they had been counting the days until my arrival and in their desperation they encouraged me, quite forcefully, to stay on to help improve their lot. I talked things over with the family, took stock overnight and decided that I had probably burned my boats, there was no going back to the UK and I had better get on with the job which I had come to New Zealand to do.

Apart from those three IFE people and my family, no one else knew the severe knock my own confidence suffered and of my serious doubts about staying… until now”.

Getting to Grips

 In the next few weeks Tom Varley called on some of the brigades near his Wellington office to try to gauge the state of preparedness of men and machines, to see what equipment they were using and to find out what training both the full-time and volunteer firemen were getting. “I had brought out from England two cars, a Humber Hawk and a Morris Minor, so I was reasonably mobile from the time of my arrival, able to get my bearings and to visit fire stations.

Naturally, one of the first I called at was Wellington’s Central Station, and it was there I got quite a shock about procedures. I was chatting with the Chief Fire Officer, Charles Woolley, in his office when we were interrupted by loud ringing bells. It was the ‘generals’, alarm bells throughout the fire station, summoning firemen to respond to a fire call.

Charles Woolley – Auckland Libraries

Chief Woolley immediately telephoned the Watch Room to enquire about the alarm. I couldn’t hear the conversation, of course, but he rapidly dealt with the matter, seemed happy enough and resumed our conversation. During our talk I waited to hear the tell-tale sound of a siren, a fire engine setting out from the station on its way to the call. Minutes went by and nothing happened. Eventually my curiosity got the better of me so I again interrupted our conversation to ask the Chief how the call was being handled. He said another automatic alarm had been received from the National Museum. It had an unreliable fire detection system, he explained, and this was probably another of the many false alarms recently received. He explained it wasn’t worthwhile sending even one fire engine, so a fireman on a bicycle had been despatched to the Museum to check it out.

Wellington Fire Brigade’s Control Room 1950s – Alexander Turnbull Library

I was shocked at this inadequate and unwise response to a fire alarm, especially to the building that housed the nation’s priceless treasures. To me it was a horrific breakdown of what any brigade must do – turn out promptly with appropriate response to every alarm of fire. It was an example of sloppy procedure. I recalled at this point that Charles Woolley had been a member of the Commission of Enquiry into the Ballantyne’s Fire, chosen as one expected to be well-versed in the ways and experience of fire brigades and able to advise the Commission in these matters.

I also recalled that Woolley was a ‘returned man’, that is he had served overseas in the Army”.

Charles Alexander Woolley came from a “fire brigade family”: his father trained in London and was a senior officer in Adelaide Brigade before being appointed Superintendent at Auckland in 1901.

Charles, aged 13, joined the brigade as a messenger. He enlisted in the Army in 1915 and served, among other operations, in Matruh near Alexandria where, as a member of the 1st New Zealand Rifle Brigade, he engaged with the enemy on Christmas Day 1915 in what’s known as the Affair of the Wadi Majid, a surprise attack afterwards described as the turning-point in the campaign that ultimately brought the downfall of the enemy Muslim group, Senussi. Woolley was later injured in action and was evacuated to England for treatment. Once fit he was appointed to a machine-gun battalion at Grantham in Lincolnshire, promoted to Temporary Staff Sergeant-Instructor. But in March 1918 he returned to the front, transferred to Camiers in France where he obtained a commission in the Tank Corps, about the time the Armistice was signed.

Woolley returned to New Zealand at war’s end, resumed with the Auckland Fire Brigade, rising to Third Officer. In 1927 he became founding-Superintendent of the new Mt Roskill Fire Brigade and in 1932 he was appointed to head Wellington Brigade.

“Before my first, informal, meeting concluded with Charlie Woolley we made arrangements for a later, official, visit to other Wellington fire stations.

The day arrived, and together with members of the Fire Board led by its Chairman, Mr Stanley Dean, I toured the stations, a little bewildered after the parade at Central Station where I saw something quite novel. When the firefighters were standing at attention on parade, the commander gave the order ‘Preee-sent Axes!’ and in a single practised movement in unison, (like the ‘one, two three – one’ drills I had endured in the Army), axes were withdrawn from belt pouches and held in front of their faces, the edge of the blades pointing straight ahead. Right at me! Astonished, I remember thinking just how threatening this appeared and wondering whether they were ready to chop off my head or something! Eventually, on further command, the axes were restored to the safety of the belt pouches. This drill, I thought, might be manifestation of Chief Woolley’s military experience.

Our official party went on to the Wellington South station in Constable Street. I was not impressed with the facilities there. After a tour of inspection there was a muster of firemen and Board members at the front of the building. During his speech Chairman Dean asked what I thought of the station.

Stanley Sydney McPherson Dean
– National Library of N.Z.

I decided to remain temperate, replying that the station, being at the top of a hill must have suited the horse-drawn era very well, giving a good start for each call-out. The remark was not lost on the Chairman, whom I knew by then was quite a power-base within fire brigades. And of course he also represented the insurance lobby on the Fire Service Council”.

South Wellington Fire Station in Constable Street –
Alexander Turnbull Library

(The station had the date 1918 on its facade and was officially opened two years later, long after horses had been replaced by motor appliances. No doubt Varley deliberately worded his insulting taunt to cruelly imply to Mr Dean that even for 1920, he considered the station’s design had been behind the times, from the bygone horse-drawn era. Varley’s remark hit home. Motor appliances had been introduced in Wellington in 1905: by 1918 they had long taken over and there was no provision for horses or horse-drawn vehicles in the design or construction of the Wellington South station. Moreover, the ‘Dominion’ newspaper, previewing the new station in its edition on 17th February, 1920, paints a picture of modernity with only ‘fire engines’ mentioned and the fact that there’s a workshop ‘for any fire engine requiring repair to engine trouble’. Not a horse in sight!)

By the time of the Fire Service Council’s April meeting, Varley had travelled to ‘heartland’ New Zealand to inspect a number of Brigades. The likes of Thames, Whakatane and Palmerston North were among the first to be visited.

“In many of these centres I found a contrast in spirit to that in Wellington. I was impressed with the willingness and comradeship among the volunteers which was so prominently displayed. I also found some of the brigades were rundown, they lacked even some of what I call the basic necessities and I got the picture they were being operated on the cheap. I could see where investment and improvement was essential. I perceived that many brigades were not able to help themselves progress: they were powerless in the current set-up”.

During a visit to Northland late in 1951 Varley called on the Dargaville Brigade where discussions centred on plans for a new fire station in Normanby Street. Members of the Fire Service Council had made an inspection the year before and agreed a new station was warranted and gave approval in principle to proceed with drawings and said they would support a loan to finance the building. Now, on site, Varley was looking over final plans and specifications. It’s not recorded in the brigade minutes but it’s probably more than coincidence that last minute additions were made – hose washing facilities and a drying tower – as a result of advice he gave during his visit.

“I had planned to call in on Rawene brigade and then motor north. Members of the Dargaville Brigade recommended I take the ferry across the Hokianga Harbour to shorten my travels. I decided to do this and once with members of Rawene Brigade I told them my intentions. They said it would be no trouble to arrange, that a phone call would fix my booking for the crossing. I thought it all sounded a bit causal. And my suspicions were justified. I found the town’s jetty without any problems and the A.A. sign indicating where to queue for the ferry, but nothing else. There were no cars waiting nor, as had been promised, the ferry. I watched an old barge pull into the bay. It more or less beached against a ramp beside the wharf and the crewman tethered it. Then it suddenly dawned on me. This was the ferry! I had expected something like the size of the vehicular ferries in Auckland, or those I had seen overseas.

The Rawene Car Ferry took Varley across the Hokianga Harbour – Alexander Turnbull Library

It was an aging wooden flat barge, much repaired and patched, with rickety railings around the sides and no shelter for either passengers or the boatman. It had definitely seen better days conveying freight and stock-on-the-hoof. It was attached to a motorboat, providing a ferry service plying across the short stretch of harbour between Rawene and Kohukohu. I thought that if anything went wrong during the crossing, like the motorboat breaking away or the thing capsizing, it was going to be a case of the late Thomas Arthur Varley! However, following directions from the young crewman I positioned my car at the top of the concrete slipway, carefully engaged low gear, eased my way down the slope, then cautiously crossed the rickety ramp connecting the barge and drove on to the floating platform! Without further ado we were underway for the short crossing. I then found out that brigade members had, indeed, ‘booked’ the trip. They had arranged an ‘on demand’, non-scheduled crossing just for ‘the chief fire engine man’ as the boatman addressed me! Thankfully it was a calm crossing on a high tide. I had much overestimated the time it would take: in fact it took just a few minutes. And once on the Kohukohu side the earlier embarking manoeuvres were more or less repeated the other way around and I gingerly drove across the ramp and up the landing on to West Coast Road and proceeded north”.

While in Auckland on his way back to Wellington Varley met with Superintendent George MacKenzie and toured the city’s suburban stations.

“I thought Parnell was a quaint station. It was a converted bungalow so the fire appliance backed into what would have been the front sitting-room or parlour. But the open-type Ford V8 that was on-station the day I called was too long for its accommodation: the bonnet protruded out over the footpath”.



“Quaint” Parnell Fire Station, converted from a house in 1916 – Auckland Fire Brigade Historical & Museum Soc. 

On a later trip Varley travelled to Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf, responding to the local Roads Board’s request for advice about fire services on the island. He made his recommendations, saying once they were in place he would see to it that the five fledgling fire parties already established would be given proper recognition. The Waiheke Volunteer Fire Brigade was thus officially formed in May 1952.

But plans to visit other provinces were interrupted when the Minister of Internal Affairs, (later Sir) William Bodkin, unexpectedly summoned him and asked him to go to the town of Bluff at the Southern extremity of the South Island. It turned out that the insurance lobby had been urging the Minister to have something done about fire protection in the wool stores on the wharves at the port there. The waterfront dispute that had affected the Varley’s arrival was continuing and bitterness among the water-siders (cargo handlers), and their supporters in other Unions, was such that it was feared the wool stores might be torched in an act of sabotage.

The stores were jam-packed with thousands of bales of export wool, which, boosted by demands of the Korean War, had fetched record-high prices. (The industry was not to enjoy the likes of these prices, and the total value of the wool-clip, for another 20 years). The loss of the stockpile held at Bluff would have been disastrous to New Zealand’s post-war economic recovery.

Classers evaluate a record wool clip in  the early 1950s – Alexander Turnbull Library

“To make matters worse, the insurance lobby escalated fears when it lobbied the Minister saying it believed some members of the volunteer fire brigade at Bluff had connections with water-siders and, given the intense industrial situation, their reaction to a fire alarm could not easily be contemplated. The suggestion was that some members of the Brigade had divided loyalties and might not respond to a fire in the wool stores”.

Special transport was arranged for Tom Varley, accompanied by Roy Girling-Butcher, to travel south and opportunity was taken for hastily-arranged introductory meetings with various Fire Boards as he passed through cities and towns.

“We arrived in Christchurch on the same day the local IFE Branch was holding its meeting. This was already in my diary, so my attendance wasn’t surprising to the gathering. It proved to be a great introduction to the city and I was mindful, of course, that where we met was not far from the site of the Ballantyne’s disaster. It was, I reminded myself, the reason behind why I was here in New Zealand, and now in Christchurch. While being driven through inner city streets I had observed something new to me: verandas built over the footpaths in all the shopping areas to provide shelter for pedestrians. These verandas were supported by posts and pillars. Then I observed the many power and telegraph poles, the red post office pillar boxes and the posts bearing street fire alarms. Having described to the meeting how strange all this was to me, I was later asked what I thought of the city. ‘A paradise for dogs’ I said, changing the mood of the gathering. It took a while until the penny dropped and those present shared the joke. But there was serious talk, too. I learned of the training undertaken in the city by Angus Wilson, the former New Zealander, a senior fire officer in the UK who had visited New Zealand and had led concentrated training courses in Christchurch. I also quickly saw unsatisfactory aspects which had undoubtedly contributed to the tragic fire: it was clear they still existed. I made notes for follow-up and promised immediate action on some of the more urgent topics needing attention.

At Timaru, during a meeting I attended there with the Fire Board, I noticed that from time to time someone was opening a side door just wide enough to peep through. I thought this was a bit odd. After all, the meeting was serious enough and the topics demanded no interruptions. However, I ignored the ‘peeping tom’ only to find out later that he was, in fact, the man who was to take me on the next leg of my journey, the Superintendent of Dunedin Brigade, Fred Laidlaw.

I also found out later that Fred could not help himself. He said he just had to peep through the door to see what this man looked like, the man from Britain who had come to lead the New Zealand Fire Service, the ‘new boss’, as he put it. Fred evidently thought my uniform was grandiose because I later discovered that he had described it to his colleagues as that of a ‘Swiss Admiral’.

Despite the long drive to Dunedin it wasn’t until we reached the city’s northern outskirts that we were able to strike up easy conversation. Fred revealed that he had been talking to Chief Fire Officer Morrison of Christchurch and they had both come to the conclusion that I had come to New Zealand to make a clean sweep – and for officers like them without IFE qualifications it would be the end. I tried to put Fred Laidlaw at his ease on that score and our chat must have been on the right note after that because despite the ‘peeping tom’ episode and the belated introduction, we became firm friends. Just about every time I went to Dunedin after that first visit I booked out of my hotel to stay with the Laidlaws in their family home, at their insistence”.

Bluff. What Mr Varley found in the Brigade there was typical of just about everything he had seen wherever he went. Despite the bulging wool stores valued at a small fortune, fire protection was inadequate and primitive.

“The Brigade members were called together by their Chief, Alf Budd, (who was a former All Black) and I found them a friendly group, obviously pleased to meet me. They assured me that in the event of fire they would be faithful to the job as volunteer firemen: the bitter industrial dispute would not affect their Brigade duties. I noted that it was unfair to expect them to manage any fire with the equipment they had. I could see that the backbone of the brigade’s pumping capability was well below standard by any measure, merely a trailer pump. Its rubber suction hoses had perished and there were insufficient lengths of canvas delivery hose. There was no roll-book to record musters, no register to show training the firemen had received and no maintenance logbook showing when equipment had been checked and serviced”.

These shortfalls Mr Varley ordered remedied at once. He made arrangements with the Chief Fire Officer of nearby Invercargill Fire Brigade to lend Bluff a pumping appliance, to replace and augment hose supplies and at the Fire Service Council’s behest, under section 13 of the Fire Service Act, to personally inspect Bluff Brigade each week.

“I left Bluff with the same thoughts that I had as I departed every brigade over the weeks since I arrived. The Fire Service in New Zealand was shockingly rundown: basically it lacked men who knew what they were doing. Only a precious few had proper working knowledge of firemanship and therefore there was no one to pass on expert advice. Each fire brigade or fire board was fighting for itself – with politics often overshadowing the reason for the brigade’s existence. It was inevitable that I gave the Fire Service Council a bad report about Bluff, a bit unfair because it was in the limelight, but really it was no different to what I was finding at many other Brigades”.

Meeting the Front Line

Back in Wellington, Varley ventured into the region to visit brigades, sometimes in the company of Roy Girling-Butcher, whose expertise was held suspect by some of those in charge of the brigades. As the former Inspector of Fire Brigades, appointed 20 years earlier, he had been calling on brigades periodically, on what he called ‘inspections’.

“Girling-Butcher’s unannounced inspection visits were not what they seemed. The inevitable ‘grapevine’ meant his movements were always known well in advance of his arrival. As a result, he seldom saw brigades in their true colours because they had time to prepare with a tidy up and a well-rehearsed drill in time for his visit. And when he did find inadequacies, he did not have personal up-to-date expertise or knowledge to properly rectify them. His inspections were hardly an audit, and I found that these visits gave Mr Girling-Butcher a build-up he was not equal to. It became a false reputation, and to make matters worse, his only real qualifications were those connected with his previous position, Inspector of Explosives. I thought the two offices incompatible.

What I do remember in a much more positive light was my first official call on one particular Brigade which proved a much happier occasion. I travelled to Hastings in Hawkes Bay, to present the Brigade there with a plaque that I had fetched from England, on behalf of the Hastings Fire Service.

Superintendent Robert Henderson of Hastings Fire Brigade receives the plaque from Thomas Varley – “Fighting Flames. A Century of Firefighting in Hastings 1886-1986”

The solid silver plaque was a token of appreciation for the many food parcels sent from the Hawkes Bay brigade to its namesake in Sussex during, and after the War. Food was rationed because of war-time shortages, this continued while Britain’s economy was recovering, and the most welcome gifts of New Zealand produce ‘from Hastings to Hastings’ had continued right up until my departure from England”.

Between appointments in Wellington Mr Varley continued his official visits throughout the land, taking more than six months to get around the metropolitan and main provincial brigades. Today’s retired firemen easily recall the day that the nation’s new Chief Fire Officer arrived on station for the first time. Invariably there was a parade of firefighters for Mr Varley’s inspection, followed by a check of fire engines and equipment. In Auckland, anticipation among the troops turned to trepidation when one fire- fighter said he had been alerted from a colleague in a station already visited by Mr Varley that it was not a matter of just a formal parade.

With his inside knowledge he cautioned his colleagues that Mr Varley usually asks each fire fighter a question or two as he goes down the line-up. ‘So I hope you have brushed up on your hydraulics, chemistry and physics,’ warned the fireman. He asked one of his mates ‘do you know the rate of friction loss as water passes through a hundred feet of three-and-three- quarter inch canvas hose?’ Turning to another fireman he asked ‘and what about the voltage your rubber-handled axe can withstand before you get an electric shock? Be ready – these are the sorts of questions’. It was an anxious crew that paraded in Auckland’s Central Fire Station. But they need not have worried. Mr Varley, accompanied by Superintendent George MacKenzie, closely inspected each man, but asked no questions.

‘We were all relieved when he got to the end of the line without any problematic questions being posed’ says a retired officer who was there on the day, ‘because most of us just weren’t up with the rates of friction-loss in hoses and other things that Mr Varley perhaps thought we should know. But we were not entirely off the hook. Along came the difficult bit when Mr Varley wanted to inspect the appliances and began asking the Superintendent where certain items of equipment were stowed. I, as Equipment Officer, was beckoned behind Mr Varley’s back to come forward as the local ‘expert’ and I soon pointed out the items he wanted to see. He disagreed with the way we stowed lifelines on the appliances, in a locker underneath some other gear, hidden from sight. Mr Varley loudly proclaimed that the lifeline must always be in the same locker on all appliances, close at hand, in full view and obvious, because if it’s wanted to rescue somebody and save life, it will be needed in a hurry. Our life-lines were stowed in a prominent place in the lockers after that’.

The Fire Police Corps paraded specially to coincide with Mr Varley’s first visit to Auckland. The Corps’ Minute book records that members were all impressed by the stature and presence of the new Chief. And he must have been similarly struck, because after being given a run-down of their duties he told the assembly that he championed Fire Police, he was pleased to see they were supported in legislation and that he hoped they would become part of the Service throughout the country. He gave a similar message to Wellington Fire Police when he met them. And in later years, when he saw members of the Auckland Fire Police in action during his annual audit exercises, he regularly commented favourably on their work.

Mr Varley’s first visit at another station, on Auckland’s North Shore, is well remembered by a retired fire fighter. ‘It was a tense time on station when Mr Varley arrived. We were lined up and during the inspection he looked very carefully at our working uniform. I had just joined and wore a hand-me-down tunic, frayed a little around the collar. Mr Varley noticed it. ‘Who issued you that tunic?’ he asked me. I could not tell a lie, even if I could have thought of one on the spot. ‘He did, sir’ was my reply, nodding towards our Chief Fire Officer. Mr Varley turned to the Chief and suggested that it was time for him to get me a new one and, mercifully, moved on to the next man’.

Varley joined the front line when, as he was about to start one of his inspections, proceedings were interrupted by the general alarms: the brigade had received a fire call. Firemen scrambled, donning tunics, knee-boots and brass helmets and adjusting their axes and belts as they jumped on the open well-deck of the Ford V8. Having observed their rapid readiness, Varley jumped on to the back of the appliance and went with them to the call. An old hand who was there that day said onlookers, attracted by the street sirens at various intersections, must have found it strange to see a civilian travelling on the fire-engine, someone in a smart business suit and black homburg hat sitting alongside firemen, in sharp contrast to their uniforms and shiny helmets.  ‘If Varley was hoping to judge our efficiency by seeing us get to work at a fire, he was disappointed. It was a false alarm and we soon returned to the station to resume the line-up and inspection’.

Some stations, knowing it was nearly their turn for a visit from Varley, would rehearse a few scenarios so they could impress him on the day. But there were so many routines that it was unlikely firefighters would be asked to complete one they had practised. Anyway, as one retired firefighter said … ‘it didn’t really matter how much you rehearsed, there was always an element of fear that you were not going to get it right in front of Varley… fear of failing, a nervousness, and that went hand-in-hand with the respect we had for the man’.

After a parade during his visit to Hamilton Fire Station, Varley got firefighters to name and describe items of equipment which he chose at random from the fire appliances. He picked up a hose coupling, a double adapter. ‘What’s this called?’ he asked the nearest man. Quick as a flash, eager to show his knowledge, the firefighter answered with the popular, but indecent, Service jargon which implies that the coupling is usually deployed to overcome a bad mistake, like running the hose out from the pump the wrong way. The firefighter’s obscene word got an instant rebuke from Mr Varley. ‘What?’ he thundered, which, it is said, could be heard throughout the entire Waikato district, followed by a quick lesson in the coupling’s proper name and use.

Varley was on a more serious mission when he sent a telegram to the volunteer brigade at Waipa State Mills, saying that he would be paying a visit to investigate a letter of complaint which had criticised the brigade’s management and efficiency. Part of New Zealand Forest Service’s fire protection, the brigade provided cover for the Bay of Plenty lumber mill and the nearby township, population 460 in the early 1950s, while total assets on site, including stocks of logs and sawn timber, totalled more than £1 million.

Waipa settlement and mill surrounded by the forest –
Whites Aviation,  Alexander Turnbull Library

On his arrival Varley confronted members with the detailed allegation but did not reveal who had made the accusations. Then he was introduced to members of the Brigade during a parade, and as might be expected, he posed one of his choice questions to each man in the line-up. He followed this with a request for an immediate two-part exercise, a turnout of the Brigade followed by a getting to work routine, simulating fire-fighting. ‘The Brigade passed with flying colours’ a member who took part recalls, ‘and the nasty allegations were firmly put down. But ‘T.A.’ would still not tell us who had made the complaint in the first place. This upset us a bit. It was not that we had a blaze that got away on us or anything like that – we hadn’t had any fires worth mentioning around that time. From the questions he put to us and the request for an instant exercise, it was clear someone had alleged we were incompetent or below the standard expected. But we were more than happy when someone with Varley’s reputation went away well-satisfied with our performance. After all, we were accomplished at drill and under Chief Bert Mueller we went on to do very well in district and provincial competitions. Although we had our suspicions, we never did find out for sure who made the allegations against us’.

In the South Island it was another mill town that Mr Varley was visiting in the normal course of his inspections, this time the home of a paper mill, Mataura.

Mataura , paper mill town, Southland – Whites Aviation,  Alexander Turnbull Library

He arrived at the fire station a bit early and to get comfortable before the official proceedings, he paid a visit to the station’s toilet. Then, later, in reply to speeches by the Mayor, the Chairman of the Fire Authority and the Fire Chief, Tom Varley remarked that he’d had a unique introduction to the Brigade. ‘Mataura obviously leads the whole world in one respect. No other brigade can possibly match you’.

The puzzled Mayor was immediately anxious to know how the brigade in this small town excelled all others so he politely interrupted Mr Varley to ask how Mataura, in the heart of rural Southland could possibly be unique. His Worship had played right into Varley’s hands. ‘Oh! You are definitely number one in this regard, Mr Mayor’, he taunted, ‘internationally, no doubt a leader, no one can eclipse you!’ There was a pause. Absolute silence, and then ‘…it’s the size of your toilet rolls!’ Male members of the Brigade, in on the joke, erupted in prolonged laughter and clapping. But others in the audience were left still wondering so their visitor went on to explain that he had already encountered the station’s toilet rolls which, at around four feet (120cm) wide were ‘the biggest on the entire planet, without equal’. They were, in fact, the short ends of newsprint paper rolls disposed of by the mill, the big wooden core held in brackets made especially for the purpose, bolted to the fire station’s toilet wall!

“I made great friends at this brigade, and I had cause to remember them for a long time. They presented me with one of these short ends. I took it home (with some difficulty because of its size!)and for years my wife Evelyn and I used it as wrapping paper. When we gave away surplus fruit and vegetables from our garden, neighbours and friends always commented that the produce was always wrapped in the tell-tale trademark ‘Varley paper’. We also found it ideal to help preserve vegetables for out-of-season consumption. All courtesy of Mataura Volunteer Fire Brigade!”

“By the way, I always sought a meeting, or a greeting, with the Mayor of a town or city I visited… it was an opportunity to ask, first hand, about changes in the town, varying industries (and therefore fire risks) and in those settlements where there was dwindling populations, how the community might help to sustain a local fire brigade. For the same reason I took time out to talk with Fire Boards: hearing it from locals sometimes gave a different perspective from Head Office beauracrats”.

Further North, word of Varley’s scheduled visit had apparently not reached Naseby Brigade. The station, an old shed, was all shut up, no one around, when he arrived in what was New Zealand’s smallest borough and famous as a centre in the gold rush days back in the 1860s.

Naseby Post Office, a heritage building

“I  went to the Post Office and was intructed to ‘pull the chain’ to summon the fire brigade. I found the chain across the street. It operated the fire alarm: I gave it a good yank and the siren wound up to crescendo. The whole town instantly came alive, heading for the fire station, the old wooden shed which, it turned out, had been in use since shortly after the brigade’s founding in the mid-1870s. Eventually the officer in charge came along, he held the rank of Captain, and I introduced myself. He had not received my advisory telegram so was somewhat surprised by my visit and quite astonished that I had used the fire alarm as a means to locate him.

By now someone had opened the doors of the fire station in readiness for a dispatch. I went over to the old timbered shed, advised firemen that there was no fire and told them the purpose of my visit which they should have been notified about by my telegram. I found an elderly vehicle inside the building; it looked like a retired baker’s van, hitched up to a V8 trailer pump. I had a good chat about all sorts of things with the Captain and his crew – they seemed to have plenty of time – and noticed during our conversations an inscription in Latin intricately carved in a highly polished wooden rafter. This seemed out of place in the surroundings of the old wooden, dusty, shed with its dirt floor and cobwebs, housing the very basic firefighting gear this small brigade possessed”.

Naseby firefighters were about to get a touch of the Varley philosophy – if something looks wrong, speak up, investigate, and if necessary get it put right.

“I studied the Latin words but they didn’t seem to read right. I asked the Captain about this obviously prized feature and was told the phrase spelled out their proud motto, long-ago incorporated in their badge and printed on their letterhead. The Captain produced a copy of the letterhead, and it was my sad and reluctant duty to point out the difference between the spelling of the motto on the letterhead and the words so neatly and elaborately carved into the polished timber beam. Bewildered, the Captain sent for the local schoolmaster to translate the Latin. To everyone’s amazement and despair he confirmed that the motto on the letterhead said ‘Ever Ready, Ever Faithful’ while the carving read (as I had suspected) ‘Never Ready, Never Faithful’.

I felt a bit awkward having pointed this out but took the opportunity to make up for it when the Captain explained that from time they still sluiced for gold in some areas behind the town.

Gold had been sluiced at Naseby since 1863 –
Auckland Libraries

I promised to find a ground monitor, one of the bigger fire “nozzles”, amongst old waterway gear in Wellington. I sent it to him and he later told me they did quite well using it to wash ‘more than few traces’ of gold from the spoil, thus contributing a little to Brigade funds”.

Varley took every opportunity to engage with firemen as well as making formal visits. He was invited to attend a function at Stratford at which local Deputy Superintendent, D. S. Butcher’s, Gold Star was presented. Varley knew large numbers of brigadesmen would attend, and he was not mistaken. They came from throughout Taranaki and in addition, as a report of the evening mentions, ‘from a variety of points in the North Island’. In his remarks Varley observed that in the 3 months since his arrival he had visited 79 fire stations and had learned ‘how fortunate New Zealand is to have such excellent volunteer brigades. And, as for money’ he continued, ‘I am planning to make certain that it’s wisely spent – but there’ll be no cheese-paring – I haven’t come with a new broom sweeping something out, rather I’m here to help your brigades and build them up’. And then he made reference to the old position held by his predecessor before the new Act… ‘Please don’t think I am an Inspector. That term is done away with… I’m here to give help and advice’

In November 1951 the inaugural issue of ‘N.Z. Fire Service Review’ appeared. It was published by the UFBA, a quarterly journal of news, views and technical topics which was distributed to most fire brigades. Varley took the opportunity to address the nation’s firefighters in that first edition – ‘all can be assured’, he wrote, ‘that every effort is being made to advance the progress of the Service and to see it is equipped with all the latest equipment to have the most advanced technologies in firefighting’

“During my first year I also encouraged and promoted the recruitment of auxiliary firemen, particularly in metropolitan brigades – an idea that was a sort of hangover from World War 2. Some fire stations had single-men’s quarters which were vacant, so I thought it sensible to engage auxiliaries, train them and house them so they could be utilised at big fires. They could also make up the crews in the event of sickness, leave and the like. Some of these auxiliaries taken on were night-shift workers who didn’t mind interrupting their sleep to turn out during the day. Others were students. Some brigades did not charge rent for the accommodation, others received minimal payments. I’m skipping ahead a year or two here, but one of these young men who was studying at Victoria University and staying on Northland Station returned to his quarters one afternoon to find the appliance gone, the place deserted. He rang the fire brigade control-room and was told that all the city’s available resources were at Aotea Quay dealing with a major blaze. (More about this fire later). The student gathered his gear, hailed a taxi and went to help at the fire.

A few days later I had a phone call from the Superintendent of the Wellington Brigade, Harry Bruce, who said the bill for the taxi fare had arrived on his desk.

Superintendent H. Bruce –
Alexander Turnbull Library

I could see he was probably looking for someone else to pay so I interjected saying the young man showed plenty of initiative and it proved that auxiliaries were worthwhile. I also reminded Mr Bruce that he had reaped considerable benefit from auxiliaries who went to the fire to relieve exhausted firemen after the initial fire-fight. I quickly told Harry he better get the account paid as soon as he could and then to avoid an argument about who would pay the fare, I found a reason to curtail any further conversation and to hang up the phone!”                          

A Death and Setback

Varley believed the Fire Service Council lacked leadership at the top, at the Chairman’s level. He was not convinced at first that Roy Girling-Butcher was up to the task, nor appropriate, but after a year in the job Varley began to think that he had won over support from the Chairman.

“Girling-Butcher was at long last apparently appreciating those aspects which had for so long been neglected in the Fire Service but which I considered essential for progress. This must have been difficult for him… most were measures he had not, or could not, promote.  But they were all matters  he had been pressing since my arrival in New Zealand… training, communications, operational and administrative improvements. I felt that with the help of at least one member of the Council, Girling-Butcher – and the Chairman at that – that I was no longer alone in my efforts towards improvement. The combined approach was beginning to look good. I felt real progress was being made and when I looked around I could honestly say I could see the benefits”.

But this was short-lived. Roy Maltby Girling-Butcher died suddenly in office in 1952. In fact, his demise was in the early morning on the day of the Council’s regular meeting, October the 1st, 1952. Members were told of the sudden death and gathered as usual. They arranged for formal notification of his death to be distributed and then as a mark of respect adjourned until mid-afternoon. Mr Girling-Butcher had been Inspector of Fire Brigades in New Zealand from 1932 (enduring, – perhaps surviving – Ballantyne’s fire), interrupted by his wartime appointments, until he retired in 1949 and was made Chairman of the Fire Service Council. While this long-time civil servant must have at first been worried about the speed, scope and extent of some of the Varley reforms, he apparently agreed with the majority of them, since latterly Varley thought he had Girling-Butcher’s support.

“His death, for me, was a calamity. All the rapport we had built up was lost and so was the considerable understanding we had of each other. His death was a setback to me and my plans and consequently it delayed development of the Fire Service. Not only was it the loss of Mr Girling-Butcher which was so desperate, it was the anticipation of the man likely to succeed him, Mr Stanley Dean, who was deputy-chairman and now immediately became acting-chairman”.

S. S. Dean, took over as Chairman – Waibush.co.nz  

Mr Varley knew Mr Dean very well because he was already prominent in Fire Service administration, but it was the manner of his involvement that was the problem as Varley saw it. He had also heard about the way Mr Dean had carried out his administrative duties in pursuit of his life-long interest in, and deep involvement with, rugby football.

Who was this man, already a powerhouse in the industry in Wellington, who was likely to take over reformation of fire brigades throughout the country?

A Steam Ship Sails In

Stanley Sydney McPherson Dean was born in Auckland in 1887 and showed he was an above average student when, at Newton Central School in 1899, he was granted a scholarship to attend Auckland Grammar School. He played his rugby with the Grafton Club. He took a job in insurance and soon after joining the South British office he applied for a position in the Company’s operations in South Africa which offered an overseas opportunity to combine business (insurance) and pleasure (rugby). Dean’s application was successful and he was transferred to the office in Johannesburg which meant that shortly after arrival there he joined the local Mines Rugby Football Club.

Back in New Zealand before World War One broke out and still in insurance, Stan Dean served in management positions in several of the South British company’s provincial offices, including Poverty Bay.

While on the East Coast he became something of a pioneer motorist. On 8 November 1916 ‘Poverty Bay Herald’ reported Stanley Dean, accompanied by a commercial traveller, had returned from the rather remote Te Araroa settlement on the East Coast where he ‘enjoyed the distinction of being the first motorist through from Gisborne this season’.

His business acumen was apparently acknowledged – in 1917 he was assisting in the formation of an Industrial Organisation centred on Gisborne which was lamenting lack of man-power for farming because so many able-bodied locals had joined the war effort. Dean’s matter-of-fact approach surfaced at one meeting when he said ‘natives on the Coast who are doing nothing should be conscripted to farm work’.

Dean was appointed manager of South British Company’s Wellington branch in 1919 but did not cut all ties with Poverty Bay. Although living in Wellington, he was selected as Gisborne Borough Council’s representative on a deputation from the Province pressing the Government to initiate public works, notably hydro-electric dams, in the area. He was made the first life member of the Gisborne Chamber of Commerce.

Dean the Club rugby player and referee had become Provincial selector in Poverty Bay and with the move to Wellington he not only joined the Poneke Club but his administrative qualities were quickly recognised and in 1922, when the incumbent resigned, Dean was elected Chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, a position he held for the next 25 years, a record tenure. He also held a string of executive positions over the years, including President of Poneke, President of the Wellington Union, and member of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union’s Management Committee.

In 1922, Dean managed the All Blacks’ travels in Australia and then he was manager of the famous ‘Invincibles’, the All Black team that in 1924-5 earned legendary status at home and abroad when it toured, undefeated, through Britain, France and Canada. It was members of this team who, in a play on Dean’s first two initials, gave him his lasting nick name, ‘Steam Ship’. As Chairman of the NZRFU, Dean the delegate spoke up at the various Imperial Rugby Conferences he attended, advocating New Zealand’s membership of the International Board. His submissions succeeded: membership was granted in 1948. His team leadership and administration, however, was peppered with grievances, clashes of opinion and aggravation.

Early in the tour of ‘The Invincibles’ Dean was keen to change the line-up of players, replacing the captain Cliff Porter with Jack Richardson: fortune intervened on management’s side when Porter was obliged to stand down, injured. Replacement Richardson proved his worth and even though Porter recovered, team management questioned whether he had regained full fitness and kept him on the bench. Porter was not reinstated; he did not play in any of the Test matches. This resulted in contretemps between Porter and management – Dean. Porter remained virtually a non-playing skipper for the remainder of the tour.

In his book ‘Heritage, Golden Years of All Blacks’, Paul Verdon says ‘In 1930 Porter was still crossing swords with old adversary Stan Dean, now Chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union’. Dean backed Union officials who, because of unprecedented public demand for tickets for the 4th test, reduced the All Blacks’ traditional supply of complimentary match tickets. The players complained. But Dean, the Chairman with the last word, was uncompromising and would not give in. Porter then led a threatened mutiny, Dean was forced to back down and the team got its full allocation’.

Frankly, S.S. Dean

‘Capitulation’ was not in Stan Dean’s dictionary, but he wasn’t frightened of other words, of saying his piece: sometimes clumsily, other times controversially. But it was always plain-speaking: Dean invariably said what he thought. He didn’t seem to care that his candid remarks sometimes got him into trouble. And he thought that if he had a proposition he fervently believed in, it should be adopted.

Dean was never more forceful wearing his Rugby administrator’s hat when he took to a fundamental of the game, the rules.  Singlehanded, it seems, he was intent on changing the formation of the scrummage, reducing numbers in the traditional New Zealand front row from 3 to 2, as played abroad at the time. His proposition foundered: all discussion was dropped after his motion was ruled out of order.

Not beaten, terrier-like, he came again with the proposal some 10 years later.  This time he went as far as saying rugby should become fourteen men a side. But, as before, hardly anyone agreed with him. Newspaper columnists like ‘Drop-kick’ writing in the Evening Post in January 1932 observed that the position of wing-forward had ‘produced some of the finest players ever to step on to the rugby field’ and that a good wing-forward ‘has been an important part and parcel of New Zealand’s game’. Various provincial unions opposed the changes, and though voting was fairly even at a meeting of the Union’s Management Committee, the matter was dropped.

Whilst on tour in England with the All Blacks in 1924 Dean was  outspoken at an after-match function in Lancashire while replying to the toast to ‘The Guests’. He said some of the play had been ragged which would have been prevented had the referee been much stricter in the opening stages of the game. The tourists had beaten Lancashire 23 – Nil.

He was again blunt when he wrote to a newspaper in England during the same tour complaining about the reception the traditional haka had received. N.Z. Truth’s columnist, 27 September 1924, wrote ‘this was a bit of a surprise for a man in such a responsible position – it’s the last thing he should do. Here’s hoping it won’t be repeated!’

S. S. Dean –

On 5th September 1931 a Letter to the Editor from ‘WJEL’ appeared in the Auckland Star complaining, in the depressed economic times, about the excessive new admission prices of 2 shillings a seat at an Eden Park Test Match. Dean, as Chairman of the NZRFU, supported the controversial cost of tickets. He probably had a hand in setting the prices. ‘Famous rugby names, all stars’, WJEL continued, ‘never even dreamed that Stan Dean would ever become the Mussolini of New Zealand Rugby. That he has done so will, I am sure, some day lead to tragedy, and the Auckland Rugby Union will be partly to blame’.

In February 1940 in a wartime statement cabled to all New Zealand newspapers, the Chairman of the NZRFU, Dean strayed from sport to give another personal opinion. He reassured the nation that rugby would continue despite so many young men being called to serve overseas. ‘There certainly will be football, it won’t be discontinued on account of the war… it was curtailed last time (World War One) but that was a mistake. There are any amounts of players available in reserved occupations (those not eligible for active war service) who shouldn’t be deprived of their football’ adding ‘I’m in favour of conscription, the sooner the better, it’s the easiest way of avoiding any heart-burning’.

In several of his books the long-time rugby observer and commentator, author T.P. McLean, (Sir Terence McLean) mentions Stan Dean, perhaps giving additional insight into his ways as an administrator. In McLean’s ‘Rugby Legends’ there’s a chapter tellingly called ‘Ruler of the Roost’ in which McLean explains that Dean’s success hinged very much on his style as ‘a one-man band’, albeit leading New Zealand to the forefront of rugby-playing nations in the 1920s.

McLean writes that Dean was expert at shutting down any opposition to his views or authority, effectively countering challenge after challenge over the years. He very seldom backed down or turned away from an argument. ‘Ever the shrewd head, always better informed than anyone else in the game, Dean beat his adversaries’.

S. S. Dean ‘ always better informed…’

McLean goes on to observe that Dean’s autocratic rule and dogmatic ways were disliked in some quarters, yet year after year he was re-elected to the highest office in the Union until 1947, in his 60th year, when he resigned and was immediately made a Life Member. He was named, soon after, an Officer of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for services to rugby. He died in Wellington in March, 1971.

Another Chairman

Stanley Dean’s background is spelled out in detail because in 1952 he was being considered to fill the Chairman’s position left vacant by Girling-Butcher’s demise. The possibility of Dean leading the Fire Service Council was strongly opposed by T. A. Varley.

“I realised there was a generation who remembered Stan Dean’s management of that remarkably successful New Zealand rugby team, the All Black Invincibles of 1924-5. Its unbeaten record lived on and Dean was still associated with the stories, told over and over again, of the overseas matches and the unforgettable welcome home (from what I had been told) and all still very much part of local rugby legend.

All this aside, I did not think he would make a good Chairman of the Fire Service Council. In fact I was horrified that he might become Chairman because he was not forward-thinking. He opposed me every time I suggested innovations for improvement in the Service and he criticised those constructive changes that I did make. In short he did not like me. It would be a serious backward step for the Service if he was appointed. He was already Chairman of the Wellington Fire Board and was known as a powerful influence in the Fire Boards’ Association: he had been a member of a number including Feilding, Petone and Palmerston North.

Dean had already been seen putting the brakes on progress in those positions he held because he never forgot his insurance interests. He could not be objective. I also heard about his hard-headed, prickly, dogmatic, attitudes as a rugby administrator. Was he going to bring these personal attributes to his new position? I was convinced it was unavoidable; more reason that he was the wrong person to lead the Fire Service Council.

I wrote a letter in utmost confidence to the Minister of Internal Affairs setting out my concerns and suggesting an independent chairman be appointed. Much to my surprise the existence of my private letter became common knowledge in the wider Fire Service. And immediately there began a round of soft-soaping, making up to me, glad-handing and everyone saying what a good idea I had put forward. Even the unsuitable successor, Stan Dean, was putting this line about. But I did not believe his sincerity”.

So Mr Varley wrote another confidential letter to the Minister, this time carefully listing his concerns, and making it very plain where he stood.

“First, there’s Dean’s undetachable alliance with the insurance industry. If he moved up to Chairman he was expected to be even-handed, a chairman of a statutory body, not the voice of the insurance industry. Someone else would be appointed to Council to be that mouthpiece. My point was that Dean could not possibly divorce himself from the insurance lobby which meant not only was he unsuitable as Chairman, but with the new member coming in there would be two advocates for insurance, creating an imbalance, an unfair advantage on the Council to the insurance industry, which was well outside the intention of the legislation. I also put in my letter the fact that I had been taking diplomatic steps directly with the Wellington Fire Brigade on delicate matters of damage control, some directly of Dean’s making as Chairman of the Wellington Fire Board. This embarrassed me. I wrote ‘within the service and employing authorities there is a growing feeling that insurance interests are predominating at Council level to the detriment of local interests’. Regarding my personal relationship with Mr Dean, I went on to say in the letter that because of Dean’s ‘indecisiveness, impetuosity, and tendency to alter from time to time his decisions, I have been brought into conflict with him. I find it impossible to reconcile some of his actions with the measures I have to use in my day-to-day relationships’. I advocated greater value put on the Board’s governance of fire services, setting policy, and leaving operational officers to get on with its management. ‘The Chairman should bring an independent mind to bear, being entirely divorced from Fire Service or employer interests who could therefore better weigh up conflicting interests and bring forth an impartial decision’. I suggested an appointment as quickly as possible of a retired magistrate or someone who, as Chairman, would bring objectivity to the head of the table – and progress”.

Resignation On The Line

This time Tom Varley put his position on the line, saying in his letter that if the Minister was going to appoint the inappropriate candidate ‘I must take this opportunity of indicating that I would be obliged to reconsider the continuation of my employment unless he (Mr Dean) is prepared to divorce himself from his present conflicting interests and gives his fullest allegiance impartially to his responsibilities’.

“I meant what I wrote. I would resign before serving on a Council chaired by Dean. But I was flabbergasted when again, news of this second letter leaked out, followed by further courting and flattery. As well as Mr Dean’s smooth-talk, I was eventually promised his full support in all my endeavours. So in the interests of continuing progress in the Fire Service I subsequently accepted that fact that he would be the Council’s next Chairman.

I withdrew my threats of resignation, but not without making two conditions. Mr Dean must first relinquish his position as Chairman of the Wellington Fire Board and quit his representation of Insurance interests. If he could shed these two positions towards showing some objectivity and then promise me his support, I thought I could live with that and stay on”.

Stanley Dean was thus appointed Chairman in May 1953.

“And the rot set in. From that time on I found it very difficult to make any progress. Within twelve months he was describing me as the most expensive acquisition New Zealand ever came by. He had not kept his end of the bargain. The new Chairman was soon trying to influence his colleagues on the Council to restrict capital expenditure. Mr Dean was parsimonious by nature and now he was busy trying to persuade Council members to prune Fire Service costs. Stan Dean could not forget his friends in the insurance industry. A reduction in overall spending meant that the insurance industry didn’t have to pay any increases: their costs were contained. But reduced budgets curbed my progressive upgrading of the service. Mr Dean so readily showed his insurance colours that everyone quickly realised that the reservations I had voiced about him before his appointment were both well-founded and fully justified”.

Hotel Fires

Despite unfortunate earlier revelations like that in Naseby, Mr Varley found that his best way to favourably influence the Fire Service was via the Chief Fire Officers in the various brigades. He often reiterated his remarks that he was there to help them and that their requests for assistance and advice would be promptly and correctly followed up. He felt he was making headway on the operational side with urban and rural brigades… “I was visiting brigades nation-wide and an excellent relationship was building up, removing widely-held misgivings about the new central governing body, the Fire Service Council. Chief Fire Officers were recruiting a better calibre of recruit with much better prospects of promotion and I found the volunteer brigades in excellent spirit and very enthusiastic towards the changes”.

On the other hand, he found there were so many other fire authorities and allied fire organisations that it was impossible to make progress with them.

“I counted 14 separate agencies that had fire brigades or fire-allied responsibilities and tasks, including the government-run Forestry, Defence, Civil Aviation and Ministry of Works. The Department of Health also had some responsibilities for fire safety in hospitals, in some cases this was deputed to local Hospital Boards. I doubted if any real expertise resided in these 14 agencies, but I decided to ignore these in the meantime, concentrating on the brigades directly under my control. As events turned out, however, I did get involved in one or two.

There had been a series of major fires in some of the South Island’s bigger tourist hotels, almost all of them in isolated scenic locations, far from any fire brigade. The Milford Hotel, at the head of the Sound, had been seriously damaged in 1950 and by this time had been quickly rebuilt, ready to reopen to meet the demands of a new tourist season. I was invited to coordinate my visit there with the Licensing Control Commission which had to inspect the rebuilt premises and consider the hotel’s application for the renewal of its licence to sell liquor before it could reopen. The formal hearing underway, I toured the premises, looking around the building.


I decided not to tell the members of the Licensing Control Commission about the fire for fear of jeopardising the hotel’s licence. The hotel manager was grateful; we both mused how it would have looked had the brand new replacement hotel suffered the same fate as its predecessor. Given the record of fires in hotels, I supposed this was always on the cards.

And, indeed, this experience could well have been repeated at the Hermitage tourist hotel at the base of Mount Cook. Years later, it may have been 1959, while staying overnight there I noticed in the enormous public lounge that the timber roof beam carried through into the chimney stack serving the big open fireplace, thus exposing the wood to heat and fire. I pointed this out to management and suggested that the fireplace should not be used again until remedial action. I could not let this go unmentioned. No wonder there were serious hotel fires!”


The 22-roomed annexe at the Franz Josef Glacier Hotel had earlier been destroyed in July 1947 with the loss of 4 lives, then in August 1954 its replacement suffered a similar fate with just six chimneys left standing.

Fire destroyed the rebuilt Franz Josef Hotel in 1954 –
Postcard, Alexander Turnbull Library

The Hermitage had a destructive fire in September 1957 (repeating a devastating blaze in the early 1900s), the Buller Hotel in Westport burned down in May 1958 (also a rebuild after an earlier fire), followed a month later by the Wanaka Hotel, and a month after that by the Lodge at Hamner. Needless to say all these fires amounted to loss of valuable assets and also upset tourists’ travel plans until they could be rebuilt.

The Hermitage, Mt Cook, was among hotels destroyed –
Alexander Turnbull Library

“Most of these places were remote resorts owned by the Government so I arranged to meet the Dunedin Manager of the appropriate department to tell him what I had seen at the Hermitage. He told me in no uncertain terms to mind my own business because his department relied solely on the Ministry of Works for fire protection advice. He made it very plain that the Fire Service was not welcome to proffer fire prevention measures. Back in Wellington I tried to take up this matter regarding hotel fire safety. I called on the Government Architect, but he also gave me the cold shoulder. I was vocal about some fire risks I had seen in other Government-owned buildings. But this must have touched a raw nerve – for it was then that I was summoned by the Public Service Commission and, again, told in no uncertain terms not to interfere in fire safety matters regarding Government premises”.

After the series of hotel fires in the 1950s there was a general investigation carried out, not by the Ministry of Works, but by the police in case there’d been an arsonist at work. The Government asked detectives to ‘resurvey’ earlier hotel fires in the South Island: all had been expensive losses. But in November 1958, police reported to the Minister that they had found nothing suspicious to link the events, neither the more recent fires nor the earlier blazes.

“There was also quite some public anxiety voiced about fire protection in schools after a number of serious blazes in various parts of the country. Fire safety in schools was overseen exclusively by the same ‘fire officers’ in the Ministry of Works. Education Department executives approached me asking advice about what could be done to try to prevent further fires but I had to tell them it was out of my sphere. Anything the Fire Service Council, or I, said about fire prevention in schools or any other Government-owned buildings was continually met with hostility. I found the official in charge at the Ministry of Works increasingly very difficult to get on with. And, anyway, I did not look forward to another visit to the P.S.C. to be reprimanded again, but I did speak out when I thought it essential to draw fire safety matters to the public interest.

Manchester Street School, Feilding 1954: one in the series –
Manawatu District Libraries

After a few more school fires I did the least I thought I could get away with. I wrote to every Fire Authority in New Zealand suggesting that they request their Chief Fire Officer to visit schools in their District to see if anything could be done to improve fire protection. This was a bit of a risk, but I hoped taking matters locally might successfully by-pass Wellington bureaucrats.

However, it was very noticeable that any adverse reports or comments I made following fires in schools, or in other government buildings, were kept quiet. We could not make any real headway. I had to wait 10 years for this to be taken seriously, and even then there was a reluctance to refer fire safety matters to the logical agency to deal with them: the Fire Service”.

Mission to Samoa

But one Government agency had turned to Mr Varley for help, the Department of Island Territories, which administered all New Zealand’s responsibilities in the South Pacific. In 1952 he was asked to go to the small island of Upolu in Western Samoa to advise locals how to establish a fire brigade there.

“It started off badly. I was supposedly booked into the famous Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia but when I arrived I found no rooms available so I was taken to alternative accommodation which was in a much poorer part of the town and had nothing like the facilities at Aggie Grey’s. I had also overlooked the need for a ‘tropical kit’ so arrived with clothes I normally wore in New Zealand. In Apia’s heat I very soon felt uncomfortable’.

Guy Powles (later Sir Guy), New Zealand High Commissioner and Governor of the Territory, welcomed Chief Varley and arranged a tour of the island so he could see the fire risks, first-hand. A hike up a mountain near Apia was included as a side-line to the tour enabling a visit to the tomb of well-known author Robert Louis Stevenson at Vailima, behind Apia town.

“I readily agreed to Guy Powles’ suggestion, I welcomed the opportunity to pay tribute to the author whose works I had read and so enjoyed. But I didn’t quite understand what was before me! We could only go part way by car and when we reached the end of the road we were joined by a group of ten prisoners, ‘trusties’, who had been assigned to accompany me on the trek, each armed with a jungle knife to help clear the overgrown track. It was tough going on the rough track, quite a steep climb in very hot temperatures. And, of course, I was wearing inappropriate clothing. During one of our rests some of the men wove baskets out of palm leaves and then shinned tall trees beside the track, throwing down coconuts to their fellows below. The bounty was stuffed in the baskets.



Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave, Mt Vaea, Samoa –

Once recovered, I paid my dues to Robert Louis Stevenson and we beat the retreat leisurely down the hill.

I made recommendations about how to start a Fire Authority in Apia, and followed this up on my return to New Zealand with more detailed plans together with the suggestion that the Chief Fire Officer of Timaru, Harold Genese, be sent to start a Brigade there. A short time later a fire engine was sent from New Zealand, assistance was given with a new fire station in Apia and fire hydrants were connected to the municipal water reticulation. Locals thought CFO Genese was being over-zealous when he ordered a separate vault for flammable film be built alongside the town’s cinema. Normally the film was stored in the projection room inside the premises. Genese’s insistence paid off when one night nitrate film ignited within the vault. It was destroyed: the cinema remained untouched. Later, officers from Samoa Fire Brigade were among the first from overseas to participate when formalised group training began in New Zealand. I wanted to finish off the job I had begun”.

Getting It Together: One Fire Service

Mr Varley now geared up the priority to design a unified fire service throughout New Zealand. One of these endeavours was to grade all brigades according to the risks they protected and the number of personnel enrolled. This, once complied, would then determine benchmarks for resources, operations, administration, and financing.

The result was a Memorandum of Standards which for the first time in New Zealand outlined responsibilities of each Fire Authority and Fire Brigade. It also gave a lead of what municipalities should be providing and, given this information, property owners could gauge the fire protection they were entitled to. 6 categories were created with, at one end multi-storeyed downtown buildings and at the other remote, rural farmland. ‘A simple reference will enable every building owner to determine what brigade attendance might be expected and within what response time’, Tom Varley wrote in his 1952 Annual Report. Given this information, he reckoned that developers and architects could plan the design and construction of premises to afford best built-in protection.  For instance, buildings or occupancy with special risks (invalids in old peoples’ homes, chemicals in factories, heat processes in manufacturing), the sheer value of the building’s contents or its distance from the nearest fire station, might warrant the installation of sprinklers, automatic fire alarms or specialised fire prevention measures.

He also set about shaping a nation-wide assistance scheme for brigades, the Co-ordination and Mutual Aid Scheme, which became a little controversial. This plan would mean that instead of being confined to their own districts, the brigade of one town could go to assist neighbouring brigades when required. Thus brigades needing help could seek extra resources and expect to get them promptly. This scheme took, literally, years to put in place and was never to be universally accepted by some fire authorities. Right from the time Varley began initial discussions in November, his scheme drew criticism and doubts that it would work. Some Fire Authorities thought their fire brigades ought to be readily available at all times in their own community, serving the people who paid for the service rather than leaving town to assist others who did not contribute. And what would happen, they asked, if their brigade’s only fire engine went out of town to help someone else and there was a local fire at the same time? There would be no one to respond.

Thomas Varley lobbied for amalgamation…

Varley thought his scheme would have included fire appliances operated by Government agencies other than the Fire Service Council: those fire engines stationed at prisons, mental hospitals, mining communities, airports and railway workshops. I would also include forestry fire parties. He believed all these ought to be made available to neighbouring towns or in rural areas as part of the mutual assistance scheme: there was no question that a local volunteer brigade would turn out, for instance, to assist at a hospital fire. But the Ministry of Works, who managed most of the appliances at government-owned institutions, could not be counted on to co-operate. Commissioner E.R. McKellop advised that ‘while I agree in principle with mutual assistance, this may not be possible’

“His uncertain reply left me with only one road to take… we could not count on these fire parties as part of the national fleet, so with great reluctance they were written out of the mutual aid scheme”.

Then there was the question of whether volunteer brigades were, in fact, capable of helping one another once they arrived at a fire. To date there had been little consultation between brigades about purchasing equipment with the result that many had waterway equipment (hose connections, couplings and pumps) incompatible with their neighbours’. So Varley drew up a standard for all waterway gear with the priority on instantaneous ‘clip-in’ couplings, replacing the old threaded ones. Once brigades in an area had changed to the new standard, they would be much more useful to the ‘Mutual Aid Scheme’, capable of backing-up neighbouring brigades.

“This was the first move towards any form of standardisation of equipment in the New Zealand Fire Service. Unfortunately such a basic and essential decision for the fire services was much delayed by the Standards Association taking its time to decide and announce the New Zealand standard for waterway equipment. During testing there were discrepancies found in the Ministry of Works’ design and prototypes which resulted in 2 and three-quarter inch diameter being investigated and adopted rather than internationally widely-accepted standard, 2 and a half inch. Nevertheless, the new waterway gear was quickly and widely adopted. I knew it would be successful for two reasons, apart from the obvious efficiencies I had been advocating. First, in June 1952 there had been a survey of all brigades asking whether they favoured the introduction of instantaneous couplings and the vote was overwhelmingly positive.

Then in 1953 the UFBA decided that all future events would use instantaneous couplings. This move proved a good driver towards the new fittings”.

Light-weight alloy instananeous couplings

When the UFBA was formed in 1878 it said then that its purpose was ‘to forward the interests of fire brigades, generally’. 75 years later this objective perfectly lined up with Varley’s endeavours, which he unhesitatingly pursued through the Association, by that time well and truly the acknowledged representative of volunteer firefighters. In 1953, for instance, working with this organisation gave him access to its membership of 213 brigades.

“The UFBA had increasing influence on changes I was advocating. While not all the members of the Fire Service Council, and its staff, agreed with my proposals, those in charge of fire brigades and those who manned the appliances could see the benefits and were ready to embrace innovation. Most brigades in New Zealand were members of the UFBA, so I often pursued ideas and ideals through UFBA executives, its publications, meetings, its ‘grapevine’ and, importantly, its annual conference.

This, after all, was the brains-trust of those who administered brigades, leading the teams that fought the fires throughout New Zealand, so it was important to persuade them that there were better ways towards a modern fire service. I willingly put in time to get alongside the UFBA and its members: it was always worthwhile advocating this or that with them – they were keen listeners and, once convinced, proved to be men of action”.

Varley used this network to tackle, especially, those matters he thought should be unified from one end of the land to the other. He was intrigued at the variety of titles given to the Officer in Charge of various brigades. Some were called Chief Fire Officer; others took the title Captain while some were Superintendent. In the ranks some men were called branchman, motorman, lieutenant, overseer, foreman and fireman. One or two brigades retained the rank ‘engineer’, a position more appropriate when fire pumps were powered by steam, back at the turn of the twentieth century. All these rank titles were regularised and Varley published the structure and the rank insignia, which he introduced late in 1952. They were the topic of great discussion at the UFBA Conference in 1953 in Hastings. Delegates seemed to accept Varley’s suggestion, the term ‘Chief Fire Officer’, when he pointed out to any dissenters among those assembled that he had chosen it rather than the name ‘Superintendent’ because ‘in England these days that’s the title reserved for the head of a mental or prison institution’. That quietened any debate!

“Uniforms for firefighters were not ‘uniform’, anything but, with each brigade having its own apparel, badges and insignia. It was a living example of the uncoordinated development of fire brigades in New Zealand. I first experienced this at the UFBA’s 1952 conference in Palmerston North when I witnessed the Church Parade. All those at Conference participate in a street march on their way to Sunday Service. I never saw such a motley lot: the different uniforms, and what was worn with them, looked a shambles. This was in sharp contrast to the big brass band that led the parade with Salvation Army bandsmen resplendent in their well-tailored uniforms. I stood watching the passing parade with Fire Service Council Chairman, Roy Girling-Butcher and I could not believe my eyes!”


I had seen time and again annual reports from brigades saying they were having trouble finding funds for uniform. Words like ‘unserviceable’, ‘seen better days’ and ‘shabby’ were often used in those reports. A Bay of Plenty volunteer brigade pointed out in early 1953 that ‘the condition of uniform is not so good, items have changed hands many times since we procured them in 1946 as used clothing from the wartime EFS and now they have gradually worn out’.

In 1953, when I took the changes to the UFBA Conference, I got a far more enthusiastic reception than I could imagine. There was instant, universal, acclaim from conference delegates who later said they were surprised that nation-wide standards extended, so soon, to uniforms. My response was that I didn’t want fire brigade uniforms mistaken any more for bus drivers or brass bandsmen. They had to be all the same, and distinctively fire service. There was further benefit, I thought, ordering in bulk might bring the price down.

Hastings firefighters who had been the ‘models’ for the new-look uniforms were reluctant to hand the samples back, asking if they could keep them so that they would be the first in the country to wear the new style. There seemed no doubt that the proposed uniform was not only acceptable, but appealing. Incidentally, the very first time the new uniform appeared, with its insignia, was nothing short of a sensation. It made its debut at a function in Onehunga, Auckland, to farewell veteran fireman and long-time Treasurer of the UFBA, C.A. (Ossie) Osborne. Halfway through the evening senior officers L.G.R. (‘Tiger’) Harlen and Nat Buick appeared in the hall, wearing the ‘new look’. There was instant acclamation and many compliments: I knew I was on the right track.

It was also at the Hastings Conference that I indicated my strong support for the UFBA’s biennial national waterway competitions. These must continue and go from strength to strength, I said, and that I would be pleased to assist with anything that would promote these contests. This UFBA-organised activity suited my objects very well. I could see that every time firefighters practised for an event, and then while they were competing, that they were building competencies, following standard routines and creating valuable teamwork within their Brigade. Each man had to be mentally and physically fit to compete, so this was a bonus, on top of which they were all exposed to healthy rivalry while contesting local or national competitions. Further, I realised that when firefighters got together to  participate in the competitions and mixed socially, they could see the unity and experience the camaraderie of our new nation-wide fire service. This was invaluable in helping achieve my aims”.

Greytown fire-fighters competing in the 1950s –
Wairarapa Archive

Nomenclature, too, was standardised so that all firefighters in New Zealand were using the same names for equipment, vehicles and operational procedures. Mr Varley was puzzled to find the letters ‘FP’ (for Fire Plug) still in use in most cities. He found this abbreviation commonly in use, the letters painted or formed on short wooden posts, etched into concrete posts and in raised lettering on metal covers set into the footpath. He, of course, knew what the letters stood for, albeit used incorrectly.

“So one day, early in the piece, I asked Wellington’s Chief Fire Officer, Charlie Woolley, what these letters ‘FP’ stood for. ‘Fire Plug’ was his immediate reply. I asked him to show me one and he took me out into the yard behind Central Station and pointed to a ball hydrant set into the asphalt. I had to tell him that it was not a fire plug, and that the only ones I had seen were in the older parts of Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore, and I didn’t think they should be used to draw water for firefighting on the grounds of public health.

A section of old wooden water pipe with a steel binding band –
www.sewer history.com

I was sure I did not have to explain to Chief Woolley that fire plugs are really tapered bungs inserted into holes in older wooden underground water pipes. He probably remembered his earlier days when firemen always carried a spike in a small scabbard on their belts, the spike was forced into the wooden plug and skewed, thus withdrawing it, a bit like a corkscrew easing the cork from a bottle. Firemen then inserted a tapered tap or standpipe into the bung-hole and to ensure it was firmly inserted they also carried on their belt a small lead hammer to tap the standpipe home. To the standpipe they either connected a hose, or used a funnel moulded into the base of a canvas or rubber dam. The pressure in the main thus gave instant water for firefighting, either through a hose – a delivery – on to the flames or to the ‘instant’ roadside reservoir from which water could be drawn through suction hose using the fire engine’s pump.

The old fire plugs had a health risk because the public water supply could be contaminated by this intrusion directly into the flow. And it was the same with the ball hydrants, still being used in many places in New Zealand. I discovered authorities here had overlooked long-standing legislation in Britain outlawing ball hydrants, a measure taken after a serious epidemic in Crichton, South West of London. Numerous deaths resulted, the cause traced to this type of hydrant which allowed sewage to enter the water mains.

Tom Varley was later instrumental in the introduction of Water Supply Protection Regulations, which among other safeguards to public waterworks, prohibited the installation of ball-type hydrants and recommended replacement of those still in service.

“In 1952 I was dismayed when I oversaw the draft budget for a central North Island brigade which had funds set aside for ‘FP signs’. I intervened, denying allocation for ‘FP signs’ but agreeing money for ‘FH signs’. I added a suitable note. Education had to start somewhere!”

Wooden water pipes also existed in other parts of Auckland’s North Shore. In correspondence between the North Shore Fire Board and several local councils in 1953, there’s a request for “new fire plugs” to be provided, including a number in the wooden water main serving Kauri Glen Road, Northcote. Interestingly, the Waitemata County Council’s clerk, E. G. Fuller, must have heard the various names for these fittings, and perhaps uncertain of the correct term, he replied in August 1953 to the request describing them as the all-inclusive ‘fire hydrant plugs’.

“I was so bemused about the misnaming of fire plugs and the almost universal, incorrect use of the letters ‘FP’ that I decided to step up my ‘campaign’ and have a bit of fun with it. Apart from the letters indicating the location of these ‘fire plugs’ for firefighters in need of water, the sign also indicated to motorists that it was illegal to park vehicles over or near the ‘plugs’. By law vehicles had to be parked clear of ‘fire plugs’ in case, at any time, firefighters needed immediate access.

So, tauntingly, I encouraged the authorities to correct the misnomer by encouraging parking near the ‘plugs’. I said that the signs ‘FP’ must mean ‘free parking’. After all, there were no fire plugs in modern waterworks systems so it could not possibly mean that!

An old roadside FP sign in Mt Albert, Auckland, 2010

This ruse got everyone that mattered calling these access points, correctly, fire hydrants and gradually the letters on the signposts changed to ‘FH’. My campaign was greatly assisted by comments from a Magistrate. It happened like this. I got to know of a man charged with parking his car too close to a ‘Fire Plug’. I offered him the ‘free parking’ explanation and he advanced it in Court in his defence, adding that, despite the sign ‘FP’, he knew there were no fire plugs, as such, in Wellington. An element of doubt having been raised, the Magistrate found him not guilty, publicly commenting on the wrong name given to fire hydrants. It could not have been better for my campaign! I then used these comments to point out the anomaly to local authorities. I am sure this helped in the proper naming of hydrants and a replacement programme for the dangerous ball hydrants. I then got to work on firefighters who were so often heard saying ‘standpipe’ when they really meant ‘hydrant’. This perfectly illustrates how entrenched the wrong names and procedures had become. They had endured as correct by people who did not know any better since they had been wrongly introduced to New Zealand many, many years before”.

Tom Varley’s standardisation of all these aspects, and a great deal of consultation and persuasion, meant that by 1954 his Co-ordination and Mutual Aid Scheme was ready to be introduced nation-wide. Those who had not embraced the scheme voluntarily were about to have it enforced upon them.  It had been a long time in the preparation and there was one final plea to those representing various Urban Fire Authorities at their Association’s 1954 conference. Perhaps Varley saw this platform as a last-ditch effort to try to press home to fire service administrators everywhere, urban as well as rural, the benefits of his scheme. His address included what should have been obvious to his audience at that stage of his reforms. He gave his oft-repeated line – ‘it’s out of the question for any fire authority to maintain a Brigade capable of dealing with the most severe outbreak of fire. So it’s essential that Brigades can go to one another’s assistance immediately they are called without having to seek authority’. His scheme more or less guaranteed mutual assistance for serious fires which were beyond the resources of the local brigade. ‘There are no additional costs: the arrangements are mutually advantageous, the occasions when they will be used, rare’. Finally, he pointed out that ‘no officer seeking mutual assistance will be considered weak or incompetent; rather he will be congratulated for pre-empting serious situations by seeking help’.

The final form of the scheme to be introduced was announced by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Sir William Bodkin, in March 1954 to coincide with the UFBA’s annual conference. The scheme’s Code of Practice was issued to Fire Authorities by the Fire Service Council on the 21st June 1954, backed up by Regulations.

“No one I personally spoke to was against these measures. But there was reluctance out there by some Fire Authorities and Chief Fire Officers to implement them. We felt regulations were necessary”.

These compelled neighbouring Fire Authorities and Fire Brigades to engage in the scheme and make arrangements to back up each other at serious fires. The regulations also ensured fire brigades extended their protection to surrounding rural areas and made certain that nominated regional officers would organise and implement mobilisation of Fire Service resources in the event of major fires and other emergencies like explosions, forest fires, earthquakes, enemy action or natural disasters.

‘Implement these measures forthwith’ was the instruction – time had expired on 3 years of consultation, argument and an unsuccessful voluntary trial which had shown that mandatory Regulations were necessary. And, together with the many other associated moves at the time, this was a giant leap towards Varley’s one, unified, fire service.

But it didn’t happen overnight in all regions. Nearly a year after the scheme was introduced Rotorua’s Chief Fire Officer Clark was ready to put in place a local coordination and reinforcement system. He convened a meeting on 2nd March 1955 in Rotorua of 7 surrounding fire brigades… Kawerau, Mount Maunganui, Taupo, Tauranga, Te Puke, Waipa Mill and Whakatane… to obtain cooperation and arrange the details. Other industrial brigades were invited to participate but they thought their participation was optional.

Chief Clark’s planning was well-timed. Within a month, 15th March, Rotorua Hospital suffered a serious fire: the scheme was activated resulting in surrounding brigades, including a crew on Waipa Mills’ appliance, mobilised to the hospital. All 180 pateints were evacuated as firefighters worked to save the main wards, but not before the emergency department, dispensary, kitchen and stores were destroyed.

A Royal Standard

 Another Code of Practice that had the Varley stamp on it was one issued towards the end of 1953. Plans had been underway for some time for the visit to New Zealand of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. All government departments were embroiled in intense and thorough preparations for the five week visit of the young, new queen, the first time New Zealand had hosted a reigning monarch. Mr Varley was a member of one of the committees overseeing arrangements. It was not until the Royal couple’s itinerary was publicly announced that the scope of the event was revealed. The marathon was to include visits to 46 cities and towns throughout the country from Northland to Invercargill, and more than 100 official events. The Government, through Cabinet, was determined to get everything ‘100 per cent right’, even the most minute detail. Mr Varley took advantage and recommended as many new appliances as he thought he could squeeze funding for.

“My submission to officials was that we had to ensure adequate fire protection for the Royal couple. I realised, of course, that although purchased for the Tour the new fire engines would still be here long after the visitors had returned home, so this was a bit of a windfall for my replacement programme. I did rather better than hoped because Cabinet agreed to exempt sales tax on appliances and equipment that we purchased for the Tour. This allowed us to buy a little more equipment for the same outlay.

My task was to ensure that fire protection was adequate in every building the Queen was to visit, paying particular attention to accommodation where the Royal party would be staying. I was also asked to check fire protection measures in every place of public assembly to be used in conjunction with the tour. It was arranged that local brigades would provide firemen to be on hand at practically every place the Queen and Prince Philip visited and where there was no brigade we moved nearby personnel and equipment to provide temporary cover.

At the last minute before the Queen’s arrival some County Councils felt a little nervous about arrangements for fire safety during the Royal couple’s stay, and asked me whether I thought local resources were up to it. Perhaps past neglect of their local fire brigades was catching up! Some of these anxious Councils asked the Fire Service Council if it was providing all fire coverage for the Tour: they must have had in mind a sort of travelling fire party.  Perhaps they had doubts about local firefighting expertise, maybe they were looking to ease their responsibilities, but the answer from Wellington Headquarters was a definite ‘no’. Some new appliances had been provided as planned but it was up to local fire brigades to do the job. In the event, a few trailer pumps were moved around, on loan, to augment some brigades’ resources”.

In his preparations, Varley showed that he was not about to have the Royal entourage delayed or alarmed by fire appliances responding to calls. He issued instructions to every fire brigade in New Zealand that, in the event of an emergency turn-out near the route at the time the procession was due to pass, appliances were to proceed without sirens. If the leading car in the Royal motorcade was sighted, the fire officer in charge was to ensure the fire engine pulled over out of the way and stopped. The crew was to dismount the appliance and line up, standing at attention until the first three cars had passed. The appliance was then to carry on to the call, but without siren until well clear and out of hearing of the Royal route.

In retrospect, despite having the potential to cause delays in responding to fire calls, Varley’s direction not to be rushing around near the Royal Tour route was well-considered and turned out to be fully justified. Even in the most remote rural areas the Tour was an unexpected, sometimes overwhelming, success. Crowds gathered hours before the Royal couple was due, well-wishers at even smallest settlements lined the route, all clambering for the best vantage points to get a glimpse of the Queen.

Crowds in Invercargill greet the Queen – Alexander Turnbull Library 

In cities and larger towns, enormous crowds gathered along the route wherever the Queen went, numbers well beyond anyone’s imagination. Civic receptions and special events were thronged and in many places the sheer size of the crowds delayed Royal progress, upsetting timetables. Commentators later said that three out of four New Zealanders had seen the Queen.

And were the fire safety measures put in place tested? They were, according to Tom Varley’s 1954 annual report, when he writes ‘in at least two cases potential fires were averted whilst the Royal party was in residence. A fire did break out in one hotel where Her Majesty was shortly expected. It was discovered by a patrolling fireman and promptly dealt-with, while the local fire brigade quickly ventilated the smoke-logged premises’.

 The Bomb

Mr Varley was still unhappy with the state of efficiency of many brigades. He considered far too few were ready to meet the test of operations at a major blaze, let alone adequately cope with the added risk of earthquake that is found throughout most of New Zealand. He had studied the effects of the devastation following the 1931 Napier earthquake and had seen photographs of the damage. He believed brigades were not well prepared to properly meet the risks of earthquake and the fires that often follow. And he wondered to himself how they could possibly cope with another type of risk, manmade, which he had especially studied just before he left England. Because he was about to emigrate to take up his new post, he had been asked to represent New Zealand at a top-level Commonwealth Civil Defence conference at Britain’s Civil Service College in Sunningdale, Ascot, Berkshire. Discussions focussed on the Atomic Bomb, particularly its likely after-effects.

Sunningdale Civil Defence Staff School – Postcard

“What we had seen after bombs were dropped on Japan at the close of World War Two spoke for itself, and now it was known that communist Russia had atomic bombs in its possession”.

This was now the Cold War and Britain’s Fire Officers prepared for the new threat by modelling likely effects of damage and fallout on cities and towns, lending realism as they rehearsed their own brigade’s anticipated response. At the IFE’s annual conference in 1947, an atomic scientist gave his audience a stern warning.

‘On the highest scientific authority there is no defence against the atomic bomb’, Dr H.L. Riley predicted, ‘and if war comes and atomic weapons are used on a wide scale against large centres of population, there is no doubt that civilisation as we know it today would end which might mean the rapid growth of a single world state with full authority in its hands, controlling the supplies and sources of atomic energy’. In contrast he went on to outline how atomic energy might be put to beneficial use during peacetime.

Fire Services began researching firefighting methods in the aftermath of an atomic attack and documenting water supply sources, evacuations and other civil defence topics. By mid-1952 fire officers from throughout Britain were training with ‘before’ and ‘after’ table-top models, graphically showing a city before atomic attack and then after bombs or missiles had done their damage. Personnel had to plan firefighting, rescues, first aid for bomb-inflicted injuries and sicknesses, and evacuation. Across the Atlantic, New York State authorities produced a public information booklet which explained to citizens what happens when an atomic bomb bursts, and then advised about public safety, together with the reassuring message ‘it will not mean the end of our city, our state or our country’.

Although most people in New Zealand felt the threat of atomic bombs was a long way from their shores, the Government had shown foresight and some concern when it requested Mr Varley to attend the conference in Berkshire on its behalf while at the same time he was representing the County Fire Authority of Dorset. Soon after his arrival in New Zealand he reported to various officials in Wellington on proceedings and the exercises carried out. They were taking the possibility of this type of attack seriously. They had seen Civil Defence legislation introduced overseas and Home Office Training Manuals from the UK setting out details of what might be expected, including chapters such as ‘Methods of Attack’, ‘Estimating Casualty Numbers’, ‘Radioactive Poisoning’ and ‘Effects on Public Utilities’. An appendix provided an elementary lesson in Atomic Physics, explaining the structure of the atom, neutrons and fission.

Home Office advice, 1950 –
His Majesty’s Stationery Office

In 1953 the officials’ work culminated with the Local Authorities Emergency Powers Act becoming law in New Zealand, designed to deal with disasters but focussing on perceived effects of nuclear attack.

“But this Act was weak, leaving Civil Defence to territorial local authorities, such as city, borough and county councils. Everything was optional, including what I saw as vital: adequate plans and preparations for communities in case of disaster of any kind. According to the Act, the local authorities could please themselves – they could choose to do absolutely nothing until there was a disaster and even then they did not have to do anything unless the Minister instructed them to act in writing. The shortcomings in the Act were obvious and there was an attempt to patch them up when the Government, about a year later, compiled plans which it said all Government Departments must follow, nation-wide, in the event of a major emergency. This was in contrast and a bit more meaningful to the Act’s local, ‘please yourself’, elective measures”

Mr Varley had the remote possibility of nuclear war very much in mind when he used the ‘scare’ to push for another of his innovations.

The Battle for Triple One

“The means of giving an alarm of fire was of great concern to me. It’s one of the basic elements in fire brigade communications, and of course an early alarm generally means a better chance to save life and property. In different parts of New Zealand, or even within each city, there were many and varied methods of raising the alarm at the local fire station. Some telephone books had great long lists of numbers, one for each fire station, so the page had to be searched by callers, some panic-stricken, to find the correct number to call for local help. What if it was at night and the caller was in a darkened telephone box and couldn’t see those vital numbers? Pity help the blind or older people with impaired eyesight. And what about the valuable seconds lost while the lists were perused to find the right number to call?

No universal emergency number – Kete Horowhenua

What if they were strangers to the area? How could they possibly guess the name of the nearest fire station? In some rural areas you had only to call the operator at the local telephone exchange, staffed around the clock, to lodge a call for help. The operator would then switch on the town’s fire siren, summoning firefighters to the station, the first of whom to arrive would phone the operator to get details of the call. But those in urban areas wanting to report a fire had to know the number to direct-dial the nearest fire station. The alternative was to run out of the house, find the nearest street fire alarm, break the glass on the round, red “box” and push the button to summon the nearest brigade.

Typical Street Fire Alarm

Time could be lost searching the streets for the vital alarm box and, anyway, not all towns and cities had installed this type of alarm system.

I was advocating a much simpler solution, a nation-wide emergency telephone number, like Britain’s famous 999, but no one in authority would support the idea. Some of the old-timers told me that the U.F.B.A. had tried, unsuccessfully, to get the same phone number for all brigades back in the 1920s. Undeterred, I first got backing from members of the Fire Service Council and then went to see the Post and Telegraph Department (P&T) engineers who were in charge of this kind of technology. They said it was impossible. That was late 1951.

Undaunted and more determined than ever, I wanted to put the proposition during my next regular meeting with Wellington’s Police Chief. But I was somewhat hesitant because of what had happened at my introductory meeting. Soon after I arrived in Wellington I called on him to, as it were, present my credentials. On being ushered into his office we shook hands and as soon as he heard me speak he let out ‘oh, God, yet another bloody pommie!’ I took a poor view of that officer and was very sceptical about going any further with him. However, my mission for a triple-one system meant much to me, believing that anyone wanting emergency help from police, fire or ambulance ought to be able to dial one easily remembered number. My request for police support was not forthcoming, as I had anticipated, so I thought about going to the Ambulance Service until I found that it was even more split up than the fire services. Each district seemed to be served by its own St John or Free Ambulance, with not much dialogue between them. In some districts the ambulance would respond only after being called by a doctor! I could see how ambulance services and the public would also benefit from the scheme I envisaged, but it was difficult to find one person in charge to talk to. Meantime, ‘an insider’ engineer in the P&T assured me that, technically, a 111 service was possible and that I should ignore the ‘flannel’ and continue my efforts.

I was so convinced in my own mind that this basic service was essential I decided to go it alone, make my own running, without the other emergency services. Perhaps they would come around to my point of view in the future. Meantime I was planning what action I would take, these days I suppose you’d call it a campaign! I decided to pursue it with a Cabinet Minister, the Postmaster-General who was responsible for those who would have to provide the engineering and technical side.

‘Did we have to wait’, I asked the Minister, ‘for other tragic fires like ‘Ballantynes’ where 41 people died or such as the 1935 blaze in a house in Wimpole Street, London, resulting in the deaths of 5 women?’ In both cases there were inordinate delays getting Brigade assistance because there was no emergency number and all other telephone lines were overloaded. ‘In the London case’, I told the Minister, ‘a neighbour who was trying to give the alarm found himself held in a queue by the exchange operator and during the Christchurch fire it was a firefighter who could not get through as he tried to telephone the fire brigade control-room with a call for further assistance’. I reminded the Minister that as a result of the Wimpole Street tragedy the authorities in the UK introduced the 999 system in 1937, and I asked what could be done here before another disastrous fire? He said he could see the benefits but I could tell he was not overly enthusiastic. Maybe the same engineers who earlier told me it was technically impossible had already soured his view.

Playing the Trump Card – the Cold War

So it was time to play my trump card, the Cold War:  that continuing, often provocative, political stand-off existing between the Soviet bloc countries and the West. I told the Minister about the preparations underway in Britain where the authorities were maintaining hundreds of additional appliances (among them, the famous specially-commissioned Bedford fire appliances, the Green Goddesses), establishing auxiliary brigades and improving, adding to and stream-lining emergency communications throughout the land. I reiterated earlier advice I had given earlier to New Zealand government officials.

While I conceded that all of the protective arrangements being put in place in the United Kingdom were not necessary in New Zealand, I considered the introduction of an emergency telephone number was one measure that we should have to help cope with any eventualities… and that it would be valuable, anyway, for all time in the future. I thought the familiar triple nine would become the standard number, copying Britain. But because numbering on the dials is the reverse in New Zealand, triple one would have to be the number. At last the Minister acknowledged the Cold War, but said he thought my idea had merit, anyway, and agreed to a Ministerial push. This bulldozed the reluctant engineers towards the introduction of the service. Once this was underway there was a turnaround: it only took one conversation with Police and Ambulance Services and they quickly became advocates, agreeing to join my campaign for the scheme. I welcomed support from these quarters: unfortunately I soon found it was left to me to keep battling”.

In 1952 the Fire Service Council said top priority must be given to improve the existing arrangements which were not sufficiently reliable for “transmitting a call of fire”. Street fire alarms were being phased out in some urban areas and those that remained were getting more expensive to maintain. P&T engineers began a progressive project to relocate overhead wires to underground cables with higher rental costs. The Council believed one way out of these costs was the introduction of the standard emergency phone number: it would bring to an end the need for expensive street fire alarms.

Street fire alarms: on the way out -Puke Ariki

Within a year, Tom Varley was a little cautious about an early introduction of the 111 service, reporting the P&T was taking steps to install special apparatus, but its design and supply would take some little time before it would be in general use.

In early 1954 it was announced at the U.F.B.A. Annual Conference that several towns were about to trial the ‘proposed universal 111 telephone number’ but this turned out to be premature. The P&T was still desperately trying to catch up with a post-war communications boom and focussed its engineering priorities on the conversion of manual exchanges to automatic and on attempts to shorten the formidable waiting lists for business and household phones. A few months later, when it came time for Tom Varley to write his annual report, he must have had serious misgivings about the triple one service. It’s noticeable there’s no practical progress mentioned in his 1954 report although he does say that policy for the scheme had been agreed with the P&T and a Code of Practice prepared.

By 1955 the type of exchange equipment required for the new emergency system, having been determined, was ordered from England destined for the new automatic exchange planned for Masterton.

“Frustration built up with delay after delay. I seem to recall that the British equipment was not compatible with New Zealand conditions or infrastructure so we waited again while suitable technical and electrical gear was designed and manufactured, locally I believe. While I was getting anxious about how long this was all taking, I really had nowhere to go. We thought about complaining to the head of engineering at the P&T, his manager, or even the Postmaster-General, but to criticise these people might have resulted in a falling-out, and, after all, they were the sole agency that could help us with this project”.

Accordingly, Tom Varley’s report on Communications for 1955 begins ‘Considerable difficulties continue to present themselves…’ about the 111 service but goes on to thank P&T officers for their helpful and co-operative attitude towards improving communications, dwells on the necessity for a national policy (again) and concludes that all the technical problems have been solved and that the 111 system in urban automatic telephone exchanges ‘would now appear to be largely an administrative matter’.

“I felt I was a dog with a bone which I had been worrying for a very long time. Just when I realised there wasn’t much meat left on it, a P&T report or request for information would pop up, giving me renewed hope and energy to see this project through. Mind you, at this stage I had been talking about it for so long, frequently saying the new 111 service was about to be introduced, I realised that some people in the fire service, among them senior officers, didn’t believe me anymore. They doubted that triple one would ever be introduced in New Zealand”.

In 1956 Tom Varley dispelled these doubts when he reported that considerable progress had been made, advising that the first set of equipment to provide the 111 service ‘will be available shortly’, followed with latest details about how easy it will be for those reporting fires: by dialling 111, without charge, being given priority over all other callers on special circuits to speak to the operator to raise the alarm.

“But, much to my impatience, delays continued. Engineers were still designing circuitry and switching gear to suit existing local technology”.

Despite earlier optimism, Mr Varley was forced to follow-up a year later a little less positively. ‘In my last report I intimated that arrangements were well in hand…  …unfortunately, because of various technical difficulties, progress has been slow and scheduled commencement has not materialised.’ The report went on to cool any over-enthusiasm that it would be a nation-wide roll-out from day one, saying the 111 system would only be available ‘in those areas where the telephone exchange had compatible equipment installed’, although the Post Office Department (the P&T had changed its name in the interim) ‘it would progressively modify existing exchanges”.

New name, new hope – musickpointradio.org

In some places it would be many years before necessary equipment was added, thus the 111 scheme could not be nation-wide for some time.

Belated Break-through

 “I regretted these delays and having to say that some districts would get the new system only after many years. Then, some welcome, positive, action. The first real sign that the 111 facility was about to be introduced was in late 1957 when a conference of emergency services was called by the Post Office. Engineers advised ‘…we have designed and we are installing equipment to receive emergency calls – now we need to provide circuits to your control-rooms, ensuring calls can be immediately passed on. And you will have to ensure that in each control room there will be someone on duty to receive the calls and take appropriate action’.

I had already made certain the Fire Service was ready, with procedures for both urban and unmanned rural volunteer brigades, but at that meeting I could see police and ambulance had different, but adequate, routines in mind. As expected, they were now supportive of the scheme and rapidly settled on procedures to suit their requirements – after all, we’d all had plenty of time to prepare”.

The system was finally introduced, as a trial, on 22nd September, 1958 in those Wairarapa districts served by the new Masterton automatic telephone exchange. There was a wide publicity campaign telling callers when they should use the new service, including the Fire Brigade’s plea to report even the smallest outbreak of fire. The theory was ‘The earlier the call, the better the save – Dial 111’.

“This meant every telephone now became a fire alarm readily available in home, office and factory and via public call boxes from which emergency calls could be made without payment. Gradually, as we had planned, where the 111 service was introduced we phased out street fire alarms which were prone to two types of ‘nuisance’ call-outs. Sometimes the aging circuits gave “line faults” which appeared in the Control Room as a genuine alarm so a couple of fire engines would have to be despatched to investigate. And, increasingly, there were false alarms from idle and bad types who would maliciously break the glass and press the button, then wait to see the ensuing confusion when firefighters arrived and could not find a fire. The triple-one system meant that street fire alarms had outlived their usefulness and we were well rid of the false alarms, but it must be remembered that the red boxes on the corner lamp-post had served communities well over many decades as front-line fire protection.

The number of phoned alarms to fire brigades increased with the 111 system. As expected, some calls were made by misguided pranksters. There was evidence, too, that ideas of what constitutes an emergency differed more than somewhat, but I was confident this would settle down soon after the service was up and running. These matters aside, I always thought the increasing number of calls indicated a ready public acceptance of the new system and it confirmed the community’s unhesitating reliance on the Fire Service in times of emergency. And the good news was that, technically, the Post Office was satisfied with the Wairarapa experiment and immediately advised us of ten or twelve other districts where they would provide the triple one service before the end of 1959”.

The battle for 111 was over.

“It took about seven years of my fairly constant reminding and enquiring – I shan’t say pressure – until it was finally up and running, and successful, which meant it could be progressively introduced throughout New Zealand. Within a remarkably short time it became the prime method of instinctively summoning help in emergencies and it was with personal pride that the Fire Service had been behind its introduction. Without a doubt it was the most important advance in New Zealand Fire Service communications since the adoption of the VHF radio-telephone”.

By 1962 some 50 centres were dialling 111 to connect with their emergency services: the scheme was introduced in Christchurch in 1964 and Auckland four years later.

More recent poster for 111

“I found it remarkable how police and ambulance services had changed their attitude: having turned down, even vilified, my original efforts to introduce the triple one service, they were now readily sharing its benefits”.

 The Radio-Telephone

The Dunedin Fire Board lays claim to have been the first in New Zealand to use radio-telephone communications in the Fire Service. In 1946 it had licences for 3 two-way radios, one at Headquarters Station as the base-station and two on appliances.

Among Tom Varley’s priorities soon after he arrived in New Zealand was to accelerate and extend the use of this essential tool to all brigades.

“But there were many obstructions put in the way of brigades obtaining their own frequencies in each area. There were trials in Auckland in 1947, but, as in Wellington, brigades had real problems getting exclusive channels. I tried to hasten progress, I got the impression we had come into this slightly ahead of time and the bureaucracy wasn’t quite ready for us! Eventually the specifications were agreed by Post and Telegraph regulators in July 1952 and no time was lost in seeking allocation of further frequencies, the purchase of radios and their installation on appliances and in control rooms.

Early radio-telephone by PYE – pyetelecomhistory.org

There was a further glitch when radio manufacturers were reluctant to redesign and manufacture equipment which would meet Fire Service requirements. “This attitude was most unfortunate as radio was fast becoming indispensable in times of emergency; particularly between brigades when working together under the mutual assistance and reinforcement scheme we had planned.  I was determined the equipment should conform to the highest technical standards, assuring contact between fire brigades. It would be worth waiting for the manufacturers of radio-telephones to meet our specifications. But some Chief Fire Officers felt they couldn’t delay and, keen to equip, they accepted and installed substandard equipment on the understanding that the radios could, later, be made to comply by adding components. Other brigades, sad to say, used local funds to buy ex-army walkie-talkie sets, only to find that they operate on frequencies allocated, post-war, solely for international communications. Subsequently, P&T authorities would not license them.

In June 1953, I showed these regulators that we intended to be disciplined while using radio-telephones. I gave them copies of the Fire Service’s radio operator’s list of routine messages, a template developed to shorten and standardise traffic, which, again, was important when different brigades were attending the same major incident.

The template I devised had 4 main types of message: Arrival (advising the appliance was in attendance), progress (brief details of what was on fire and resources being used), Assistance (requesting more firefighting resources) and a message advising the outbreak was under control (the Stop message, with brief details about what had been on fire and resources deployed). Messages callling for back-up or involving risk to life or rescue would be prefaced with the word “Priority” to ensure immediacy. I did not invent these messages, mind: they were adapted from standard UK procedure”.

Progress messages usually began with the words  ‘Getting to Work…’ indicating the brigade was at work tackling the situation confronting firefighters, sometimes strenuous, physical and tiring labours, often risky and of long duration.

‘Getting to Work’, such a well-known fire brigade phrase, has been aptly used in the title of Varley’s biography telling of a man 0n-the-job, often facing adversity in the reformation of New Zealand’s fire services.

(The basic radio messages introduced by Varley are still used in the New Zealand today, some in shortened form (the K Code) and nowadays conveyed digitally and electronically on a variety of devices).

“Then in 1952 I asked the P&T officials to issue guidelines for correct radio procedure. They were surprised at this request, had nothing suitable on hand and had to prepare a document aimed at our ‘part-time’ radio operators. It was later confirmed that the Fire Service was the first to ask for a Code of Practice. This seemed such a simple document for the experts to develop, but it did not eventuate. I could only conclude they had been preoccupied putting all their energy into drafting and introducing the 1953 Radio Regulations”.

Meanwhile, without guidance, firefighters’ radio procedure did not improve. In March, 1954 Mr Varley reported that ‘the standard of wireless operation in general continues to be deplorably low’.

“And then we learned why P&T officials were so slow to meet our request. And I was wrong. They had not been overwhelmed piecing together the Regulations. At a meeting with Fire Service representatives early in 1955 they revealed their embarrassment, saying that they were hopelessly overwhelmed because of the huge number of applications for radio-telephone frequencies, far beyond wildest expectations and certainly overtaxing existing P&T facilities. They had thus ‘been a bit slow’ on developing a Code. But we welcomed the discussions on three counts. We offered to assist them write a code in everyday language, we were able to claim our prioritised place in the queue as providers of emergency services and, thirdly, we learned that VHF radio may not suit all our rural operations. More powerful transmitters and receivers might be required and a joint, P&T and Fire, study group was formed to investigate”.

By 1958 new frequencies had been allocated to the Fire Service for use nation-wide and it was expected Palmerston North, followed by Auckland in a year or two, would be the first to use the new system.

“As we all now know, radios have proved invaluable for co-ordination and to enable further help to be summoned during firefighting. The national frequency meant that as soon as an appliance from a neighbouring fire district was within radio reach, instructions could be relayed to the crew about deployment when they reached the scene. This would be especially valuable if the appliance was mobilised to a major forest fire, earthquake or natural disaster.

The installation and use of radios gathered momentum and I found that, to a certain extent, they helped break down barriers between Fire Districts. I discovered that Chiefs would call for assistance, using the ready means of the radio to call up neighbouring Brigades without the feeling that they would be seen as incompetent, or had failed in their task, not being able to handle serious fires without help. At first I thought this was just the novelty of the new resource but radio requests for assistance from other brigades continued. Happily, it became commonplace: routine.

And with everyday use of radios, especially at those calls where more than one fire appliance was working, we found a winning solution in the standard message procedure, which we had written and promulgated, together with the Code of Practice developed in conjunction with the P&T”.

Bribery and Accusation

Tom Varley’s next major improvement was to have surprising reaction.

“By now the standardised waterway gear was accepted and being used by many brigades. The next task was to modernise and upgrade. The age of alloys had long arrived. Some of the usual cast iron or brass standpipes weighed in at about 83 pounds (38 kg) while the new alloy ones tipped the scales at just 11 pounds (5 kg). So if we were to make the change it would help the fireman’s everyday task of unhitching the standpipe from the appliance, lifting it and carrying it (on the run) to the hydrant and shipping it (connecting it to the water mains). And, of course, when we replaced the heavy waterway equipment with lighter alloy gear it greatly reduced the weight carried on fire engines. This capacity was replaced by that other vital tool of the trade: additional water, in bigger tanks which themselves were being made of the lighter alloy metals – and rustproof, too”.

The availability in New Zealand of samples of the new alloy waterway gear coincided with the second time Varley attended the UFBA’s annual conference. He was scheduled to address the Conference, so he took along examples of the lightweight equipment.

Vintage standpipe : gave way to lighter alloys – Worthopedia

He got two surprises when he unveiled the new gear. “The first was when a comparison in weight was being made of the old with the new. I set up a demonstration on the stage in the hall which could not have worked better. I found a chair on which I perched the old heavy equipment. It proved too heavy for the humble wooden structure and 38kgs of standpipe crashed through the seat to the stage floor, the chair left at my feet in several pieces. It was almost as if it was a put-up job to emphasise my point, which was well made on all those watching. I felt I had accidentally rather comically ‘sold’ the idea of new lightweight, alloy equipment”.

The second shock “… was much more sinister. It was apparent to all those in the Assembly Hall at Hastings that day that time was running out  for the old, heavy equipment. Among those witnessing the dramatic comparison with alloy items was a man who watched with keen interest. He had no intention of welcoming the new equipment because he represented a company that manufactured and sold the old, redundant brass and ironware. With my demonstration so dramatically and determinedly promoting the new alloys he could see that his business was doomed. So he later sought me out. When we were alone he made me an offer in the hope of retaining his business, continuing to manufacture and sell the old, rapidly outdating, heavy equipment”.

This person was bribing the Dominion Chief Fire Officer. He offered Mr Varley £50,0000 who, in return, was to put in his resignation, quit the position and leave New Zealand for good, obviously taking with him any moves to convert to alloy-based, lightweight waterway equipment. Thomas Varley was stunned.

“I was absolutely dumbfounded – it took me just a moment to realise what was, in fact, happening. It was such an unusual and forthright suggestion, completely abhorrent and when I had time to reflect on it I thought it even more objectionable because obviously the man had carefully planned his actions, together with ‘the arrangement’. What he had perhaps failed to take into the calculation was the relentless march of progress:  firefighters the world over were changing to lightweight, alloy metals. New Zealand would be no different, whether it was me or someone else leading change.

The more I thought about it the more incensed I felt – that a member of a well-known company could make such a terrible error of judgement as to offer a highly placed senior public official a huge sum of money (as it was in those days) in the hope that I would resign my commission, pack up my family and leave the country. I thought the man’s offer might be a criminal offence. And then there was the angle that this man, in protecting his own ailing business was at the same time trying to deny the Fire Service the new type of equipment set to revolutionise fire-fighting operations. I kept this outrageous offer to myself until after the UFBA Conference, and then decided to take action. I was not sure who to tell. It was weighing on my mind, such a terrible thing to have happen, and here I was keeping it to myself.

Eventually the outrage within me took over and I decided to report the bribe to the Fire Service Council and told the Chairman that I expected some urgent action against the person who offered the money. There was some reluctance on the part of Mr Girling-Butcher to act, so I forced the issue. I suggested that it might, more properly, be a police matter. I told him that if this had happened in the United Kingdom it would be a criminal offence, so it was almost certainly no different in New Zealand. It was obvious Mr Girling-Butcher did not want the police involved, probably thinking about the resulting unwelcome publicity. There was rapid action. The Chairman convened a special sub-committee of Council members to investigate my allegations, which of course were found fully justified. This resulted in the directors of the company being invited to the next meeting of the Council. My anger had not cooled. I was still furious that anyone would consider that I had my price: that I could be bought off. I found myself asking whether this was the New Zealand way. Were bribes a way of life in this country? Was it common-place here for senior Government executives to be on the take? I had not seen or heard anything suggesting this behaviour was the norm. If it was a common occurrence, I was out to show that, this time, the wrong target had been chosen.

The company directors joined the meeting when it was time for the business of the bribe to be discussed. But before I had the opportunity to explain the full circumstances of the ill-judged conversation to Council members, all discussion on the topic was effectively closed down. One of the company directors interrupted, immediately apologised to me, most profusely, blaming the company representative who had made the approach. I was assured he had been acting on his own without direction from the Company and he had since been told the error of his ways. I was a little disarmed by this pre-emptive strike and, despite disbelieving that the employee had offered such a large sum without company approval, I found no immediate alternative but to accept the apology which had been tendered.

Nothing of this was made public at the time, nor has it been revealed until now. But it shows the desperate lengths at least one employee of one company was prepared to go to preserve its share of the fire equipment market in the face of major change”.

This episode rocked Tom Varley, but there was another on the horizon which he found no less sinister and again it was angled at the supply of equipment. He was preparing new specifications and designs for fire appliances which would result in a lot more imports, both built-up fire engines and suitable chasses, giving an inevitable boost to the order-books of the supply companies.

“It was at this stage that one of our own, a member of the Fire Service Council, put the boot in. He accused me of having financial interest in one of these companies. It showed the lengths one person was prepared to go to in an attempt to rein-in capital costs in the Fire Service which, of course, meant financial contributions by insurance and other interests would be contained. This was a fine, if misguided, example of the selfish, protective attitudes found among some members of the Council. Before he made his allegation, the accuser had been casting around trying to prove my personal business ties with a manufacturer. His dirty work tried to link me with the company, claiming that I was a shareholder and personally stood to gain from the increased business. I got to hear about this ‘research’ in advance because, unbeknown to the member, I had a good contact in the Companies Office and it was passed on to me that the member had been scrutinising the list of shareholders in this particular Company.

His searches were fruitless, of course, but his determination resulted in the hiring of a lawyer, commissioned to double-check the Companies records. Again the search was unrewarding. Once I had proof of this underhand dealing I cut it short when, without prior notice, I brought the matter up before a full meeting of the Council. The member concerned was at first startled, speechless, when I unexpectedly levelled the allegations against him. He began trying to deny any mischief-making. But I had the upper hand: I had hard evidence and I gave it chapter and verse: dates, times and who had been visiting the Companies’ Office searching records. I went on to list the names of the records they had been searching and then the return visit to re-check all the documents. As with the bribe incident I felt my reputation was questioned, my integrity at risk so I was determined to have it out and clear my name. Eventually the surprised member recovered his composure and found his voice: there was an instant apology from an obviously very humbled man and there the accusation was let die. But the ready apology was, to me, and for the other members to see, an admission that he had been out to get me. Again, this dirty dealing has not been aired outside the Council to this day. I accepted the apology and nothing more has been mentioned until now.

In hindsight, the allegation was probably understandable. I was ordering such big quantities of waterway gear and hose, to say nothing of fire engines, and suppliers were going all out to get the business. My critics, some of them Council members, said I was overdoing it, that I was costing a lot of money, but I was determined to satisfy the many essential requirements to meet the demands of upgrading the Fire Service”.

 Training and a Sense of Unity

Proper training of all firemen was another Varley priority. Mainly because wherever he went… in city brigades, rural centres and outlying areas… there was little sign of programmed training and, moreover, few qualified and competent officers to lead it. There had been some organised training in Christchurch following the Ballantyne’s fire where the brigade wanted to be seen to be making some effort to try to put their operations on a professional footing and to meet obligations set by the Royal Commission. Angus Wilson’s return to New Zealand to carry out training had been part of this, but as already mentioned, his role in this was short-lived with his return to Britain.

Mr Varley started moves towards proper training by drawing up a Drill Book, with the first edition published in 1954. He was no stranger to authoring such publications. In 1938 he had compiled and published a Fire Service Manual in England, the first comprehensive book of service glossaries, routines, training, administration and discipline and much of this material was included in the authoritative Manual of Firemanship. Other books followed, updating and improving procedures. There were also technical bulletins issued by the IFE. His publication, the Boy Scouts’ Fire Manual earlier earned him the Baden-Powell Scout Award of Merit which he received personally from the founder of the movement, Lord Baden-Powell.

Baden Powell Medal of Merit – World of Scouts

The New Zealand Drill Book was compiled by a panel of fire officers and firefighters chosen and led by Tom Varley. “I wanted to ensure a guidebook in simple language rather than a text book, a publication that was easily understood by volunteer and paid firefighters alike, and so it was important to get local input when deciding content. We also wanted it to be meaningful wherever it was used, whether in well-equipped and busy metropolitan fire stations or by remote rural brigades which had perhaps recently acquired their first resources, just a ladder, a trailer pump and a few lengths of hose”.

The first edition of the Drill Book included illustrations –
New Zealand Fire Service Council

The handbook set out various training drills and safety procedures in text and illustrations so that all Officers, even those not skilled in the finer points of firemanship, could use it as a basis for on-station training in everyday fireground routines. Formal, centralised training was to come later.

The book’s prelude featured the new Fire Service badge, crossed axes surrounded by an eight-pointed star and fern leaves.

First nation-wide insignia

Tom Varley devised this badge.


The word ‘SERVIMUS’ also represented the first letter of the eight attributes championed by fire brigadesmen:  Strength, Efficiency, Resourcefulness, Valour, Integrity, Mobility, Unity and Service.

The training book was prefaced with the advice that the routines were to be adopted as standard New Zealand Fire Service practice and established as firefighting methods. The book rapidly became the firefighters’ ‘Bible’ because its content illustrated tried-and-true procedures and methods brought by Tom Varley from Britain, adapted for New Zealand conditions. For members of many Fire Brigades it was the first authoritative text they had ever seen.

The use of Breathing Apparatus (BA) was included as a supplement in the second edition of the Drill Book, backed up with other literature, because although BA sets were becoming widespread, Tom Varley found as he went about his station visits that there was a disturbing lack of knowledge of the correct use and maintenance of the breathing gear.

“Firefighters’ lives are never more at stake than when you send them into a hostile environment wearing breathing apparatus: they are totally dependent on it working properly. As well as knowing how to don and use the equipment, it’s equally important to maintain it immediately after use during re-commissioning, and periodically between occasional usages. I got together illustrated training notes that were distributed to all fire stations and we set up a spare parts service for brigades requiring replacement items for those found faulty or damaged. We felt we had to get into this business, because it was vital to keep every BA set in New Zealand right up to standard. We also promised a quick turnaround between receiving the order and despatching the goods… we knew most brigades at that stage had only one or two sets they relied upon for rescues and the like, so it was important to get spare parts to them as quickly as possible”.

The Fire Service’s new insignia which had been shown just inside the front cover of the Drill Book was widely accepted. The design was included on the badge to be worn on all firefighters’ peaked caps, and the badges were gradually distributed, replacing a myriad of local brigade, county or district designs. This was another of Varley’s determined moves towards a united service.

Brigades included their own names in the cap badge – nzmuseums.co.nz

“This new badge was popular beyond belief. Smaller replicas of the cap badge were made, designed to be worn on the lapel of firefighters’ civilian sports jackets or suit coats. These were an instant winner and the makers could not keep up with demand”.

(It was reported at the 1954 U.F.B.A. Conference that more than 1,700 badges had already been sold and that nearly the same number had been ordered with further supplies awaited from the overwhelmed badge-makers).

Tom Varley tapped into another branch of the media to help train firemen when he asked the Government-owned National Film Unit to produce a series of instructional movies. “I oversaw the making of these to ensure the routines shown were correct in every detail and could not be confused or mistaken. We had to remember that for the most part these films would be screened at brigade training nights where there wouldn’t be experienced instructors present to answer questions or correct any wrong interpretations. We showed some activities on film twice, the second time using close-up lenses so that important details could be seen more easily, for example where fingers are placed while holding and manoeuvring ladders. These films were lent out to brigades. They proved very popular, we could not keep up with requests and waiting lists were commonplace for the 6 or so titles. Often fire brigades did not have projection equipment to show the 16mm films. Not wanting to miss out, I heard of brigades going to their local school, RSA, hall or cinema to see the training films, the more enthusiastic officers taking notes about the procedures they saw. Then, returning to the fire station, they would immediately exercise, putting into practice what they had seen while it was fresh in their minds. I followed up, funding a few more titles centred on technical topics which seemed most popular”.

Varley also promoted the I.F.E., and its examinations, as worthy extensions to training on the wider topics that he considered essential for senior officers. As he went around the country he encouraged firefighters to join the local I.F.E branch, to study and sit the exams. Membership in the Institution increased and he was soon to introduce its Diploma as a pre-requisite professional qualification for those seeking senior positions in the Service.

 Progress. Well, some…

“By this time fire officers could see the light. Operationally, I was very pleased with developments and progress taking place. The UFBA was right behind me. There had been sufficient comment to indicate to me that the momentum for change was well underway, needing persuasion, not pressure and that all the moves were resulting in a better fire service. The trust had been built up. Morale was good and it improved again when there was tangible reward in the offing: the introduction of the Queen’s Fire Service Medal (Q.F.S.M.) for long and meritorious service”. (In 1944 Tom Varley had been awarded its equivalent, the King’s Police and Fire Medal)

He originally attempted to introduce the equivalent of the British Exemplary Service Medal, awarded after 20 years’ service. But the UFBA did not like the idea once it was explained that this medal would be ‘instead of’ rather than ‘as well as’ the Association’s service awards. The UFBA wished to retain its own long-established medals, etc. (founded in 1892) but gave approval for an alternative decoration.

“So I asked the Government to get approval from England for the warrant of the Queen’s Fire Service Medal. Once obtained, I recommended the two inaugural recipients, the Chief Fire Officer of Hamilton, Angus Craig and Chief Fire Officer Taylor of Blenheim. Both had long and meritorious service, as required to qualify for the award. Chief Craig had been Hamilton’s Fire Chief for, remarkably, 31 years and I attended his retirement function, but this became a very sad event when, during the proceedings, he collapsed and died.

In the latter part of my tenure, some 20 years later, I also persuaded the Government to take steps to introduce the New Zealand Fire Brigades’ Medal for Long Service and Good Conduct (which has become known as the Queen’s Long Service and Good Conduct Medal).

It’s awarded after fourteen years’ service with a bar (or clasp) added for each further seven years’ service. This recognition of service also boosted self-esteem in the Brigades”.

The example, left, represents 21 years’ service

“There was another innovation I made which, strangely, had a positive effect on spirits within the Service, and it was quite by accident. On my recommendation, backed by police and transport officials, the Fire Service Council agreed in December 1953 that fire appliances should have twin red flashing lights showing to the front as a warning to traffic, particularly at night, and used in addition to their sirens. Two red lights side by side, above or just below the windscreen, were unique to fire engines.

This 1937 Ford V8 appliance had twin red lights retro-fitted – Deals on Wheels NZ Ltd

Police and ambulance vehicles had a single red light. I could hardly believe it when I heard from several quarters that this had taken on among firefighters as a rather special ‘trade mark’, a branding, on their vehicles which generated pride within the Service and took on a certain air of exclusivity. Some brigades, taken with the idea of dual red lights, couldn’t wait for the appliance’s service-check or replacement. They obtained the specifications from Headquarters in Wellington and purchased and installed the lights themselves. This enthusiasm, and the trend set by adopting twin lights, I thought was a worthwhile bonus towards my ideal of unity.

But I wrestled with one handicap, centred on Canterbury. I had come to realise that in terms of morale in Christchurch and surrounds, the Ballantyne’s Fire was still like a ripe boil in a tender spot. I tried to persuade personnel there to put the fire and its repercussions behind them. This seemed impossible from what I could glean superficially. And then, with more thought, I grasped that while Superintendent Alex “Ike” Morrison was still in charge, the stigma of the Ballantyne’s fire would remain. His continuing presence, as the Chief responsible for the Brigade at the time of the fire, was a constant reminder of the tragedy.

Alex Morrison had begun his fire service life with the Hillside Railway Brigade in Dunedin. He was a keen and successful competitions man and it was largely out of his prowess at the various events that in 1924 he was offered the position of Chief Fire Officer, Hawera, to fill a sudden vacancy there. He was well known in Dunedin and Greymouth, where he had also served, and on a broader plane he was involved in the United Fire Brigades’ Association, rising to President in 1924-25. He was later appointed Deputy Superintendent, Christchurch, and then in 1937, Superintendent”.

In February 1953 Varley considered that the catalyst towards shortening the memories in Christchurch would be the retirement of Chief Alex (“Ike”) Morrison. The odd hints were tossed in the direction of the Christchurch Fire Board suggesting that it was time to find a way to persuade Ike Morrison to hang up his white helmet. These ignored, Mr Varley tried the personal approach with some very persuasive words put diplomatically to the aging Chief.

Alex Morrison – Fire Services Historical Soc.

“Aged 68, I think he was, Mr Morrison was well and truly beyond normal retirement age. But there was no way of simply pensioning him off because there was no such scheme in place. So I had to find a way to encourage him to retire. And I did, with the support of the Christchurch Fire Board. But there was a delay because it wanted to appoint Morrison’s successor without advertising the vacancy New Zealand-wide. This difficulty overcome, Ike Morrison retired honourably in June 1953 and L.R. Osmond who had been Morrison’s Deputy was appointed. With the new man coming in, out went the ingrained memory of the Ballantyne’s fire and it was readily apparent that the Christchurch Fire Brigade had now, thankfully, had a burden lifted from it and faced something of a renewed mission under a new Chief Officer”. “I thought the Ballantyne’s tragedy took another step back into the past”.

Chief Osmond wasted no time, embarking on a programme of renovating older fire stations and planning new ones, he also oversaw renewal of the fleet In 1952 he ordered one of the first, if not the first, Land Rover appliance in New Zealand, taking delivery of the all-terrain vehicle in September 1953.

Christchurch’s Series 1 Landrover – Peter Hughan, 111emegency.co. nz

This was followed by several Dennis F8 pumps and later a Karrier with innovative high-pressure hosereels. taking delivery in September 1953 of one of the first, if not the first, Land Rover fire appliances in New Zealand, followed by several Dennis F8 pumps and later a Karrier with innovative high-pressure hose-reels. He expanded the Fire District to include surrounding counties and boroughs, including, (not without some controversy), Lyttelton. Having researched progress in breathing gear he introduced the latest Mark 4 Proto sets.

“Of course, I didn’t always succeed in my suggestions for efficiency in the Service. Amalgamation of Hutt Valley brigades was one. I understood how this area had grown very rapidly in the post-war boom, but there had been no forward-thinking about efficient fire protection. The Fire Service Council got behind my proposal to improve services from Eastbourne, well, it was Day’s Bay at the time, to Upper Hutt by amalgamating, or combining, brigades. I think there was something like 11 fire stations in the Hutt Valley, an area that from memory was less than 30 miles long by about five miles wide. You could not convince me this was the best use of funds and resources, so I planned relocation of some stations, closing others, while the remainder would be kept as they were. Despite promises that we would properly resource the revamped brigades, we ran into a lot of opposition to the scheme. Volunteers defended their patches, communities thought their fire services would somehow be detrimentally affected, there was quite a bit in the local press against the proposals, and one or two local MPs also opposed our plans. Council Chairman Girling-Butcher attended one of the meetings called to ‘express views’. I remember he left the gathering that night in no mistake about the vehement opposition. We quietly dropped the proposal.

As I went about the various brigades I often heard Chief Fire Officers’ concerns about poor water supplies for firefighting. They said pressure and flows in underground water pipes, maintained by their local council, was sometimes not sufficient. I registered their worry because it was no good providing up-to-date appliances with improved pumps if municipal water supplies were inadequate. I asked the Standards Association to set minimum specifications for flow rates, graded appropriately for big cities, provincial towns and small boroughs. Impressing the importance, I mentioned that without the essential commodity to fight fires, all other efforts towards fire protection were worthless.

I took my ideas about improved water supplies to the Fire Service Council and the message, in turn, was passed on to local bodies and Fire Boards. I knew it was going to be difficult because each borough and town council seemed to have its own arrangement, even in Auckland where there was multiplicity of councils cheek-by-jowl: each seemed to have its own supply, typically a reservoir on one of the volcanic hills and piped reticulation throughout the suburb. I also knew councils would be reluctant to replace aging water mains with bigger pipes because it was an expensive and disrupting business. It wasn’t something I kept track on until much later when there was quite some publicity generated in Auckland about inadequate water supplies for firefighting. I welcomed this and agreed with – and supported – those trying to make improvements”.

These moves began in 1957 following a number of serious fires… a 5 storey building in downtown Auckland, a Westfield warehouse, a large bush fire in Mount Wellington, destruction of a Penrose factory, a blaze at a Mount Albert school and fires in two premises occupied by Fletcher Holdings.

Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board’s former chairman, Stan Gleadow, in an article in ‘Auckland Fire Brigade Centenary, 1874 – 1974”  said that ‘1957 was quite a year when the Board’s Water Officer drew attention to the inadequate water supply for firefighting across the Province’.

Stanley Gleadow

‘This included most local authorities, responsible for providing reticulation with adequate pressure. The situation could not be ignored… a conference of those concerned was called and the end result was an upgrading of mains in a better awareness of the need for ample water for firefighting. Modern (fire brigade) equipment provided at considerable expense’, Gleadow continued, ‘is of suspect value if adequate water is not available’.

“The issue was well publicised and the meeting was somewhat contentious: criticism doesn’t sit well with elected local councils. No doubt that old chestnut ‘if we boost water pressure there’ll be too many leaks in aging pipes’ was raised. Newspapers had a field day with the story-line. N.Z. Herald’s cartoonist, Minhinnick, likened Auckland local bodies to Nero with a violin: fiddling while the city burns down around them. Another cartoonist depicted a deficit in the nation’s public accounts by showing firemen trying to extinguish a blaze labelled ‘Government expenditure’ with empty hoses from a dry hydrant marked ‘Income taxes due’ with the caption ‘We’re expecting more next week!’

The problems of inadequate water for firefighting purposes had been known in Auckland for decades… it was only the series of major fires that brought the subject to a head. Some pipes had not been enlarged or extended to cater for the post-war urban growth and water pressures were often very low, insufficient, at the councils’ boundaries where pipes terminated with no through-flow. The piece-meal approach to water supply across Greater Auckland arguably ended in 1963 when the Auckland Regional Authority took over responsibility for reticulation across Greater Auckland.

Essential Reporting

“One of my earlier concerns was that there weren’t any accurate records available for fire brigade activities. No one knew exactly how many fires had been attended, where they were, response times, what type of fires they were and how long firefighters had taken to deal with them. There had been a report form introduced by the Fire Service Council in 1950 but as there was no insistence that it must be completed and returned, there was no opportunity to collate the forms for research. How could we at a national level canvass this, advocate that, or ask for extra funds if we did not have such basic information about Fire Service activities?

So I devised a simple Fire Report form. It took me more than a year to get agreement on it, which surprised me. Something so straight forward, I thought, but some concerned members of the Council envisaged there might be legal ramifications arising from information supplied if it got into wrong hands, particularly about the cause of fires and where people were involved, perhaps blameworthy. Anyway, eventually a template for the form was agreed and copies were sent to all brigades in March 1954. I considered this so important it formed part of the first Technical Bulletin I issued, addressed to all Chief Fire Officers, stressing the importance of sending reports about each and every call-out they made. The Bulletin suggested the task be delegated to a senior officer, encouraged to complete the form which, using a simple questionnaire, prompted relevant details about each turn-out, including false alarms. The completed one-page document was then folded and sealed to form a self-addressed, pre-paid ‘letter’ which could be posted to Fire Service Council Headquarters in Wellington. No stamp required.

 We soon found most Brigades were happy to cooperate because the forms could be completed quickly and were easily despatched. The records, once compiled, proved invaluable when I was writing my Annual Report and they were also of interest to the Insurance Underwriters and to the Building Standards Association.

For the first time we had an overall picture of fire service operations… and there was an unexpected bonus. My personal perusal of these reports uncovered several trends, and I was able to ensure that remedial action was taken to reduce, or eliminate risks. I found a series of fires which had started in the carburettor of a certain make and model of car. I drew it to the attention of the nation-wide distributors. Then, over one winter I discovered that there had been many house fires caused by a popular type of kerosene heater: in fact, on closer enquiries it was found that several people had nearly lost their lives when these heaters exploded. I was able to present the evidence to the correct authorities for appropriate action. By the way, those Technical Bulletins – I found after a while that these periodic publications were widely sought after by fire brigades, a useful method of further spreading ideals of good practice and assisting uniformity.”

Additional Services

 “I think it was at the UFBA’s 1954 Conference in Hawera that I first mentioned to a group of senior volunteer officers that, with the Fire Service Council’s blessing, I was looking to expand the work of brigades beyond firefighting to officially include all kinds of rescue work. I had read some of the official reports of the Christmas Eve, 1953, railway accident at Tangiwai, Central North Island, where a crowded express train plunged into a flooded river costing 151 lives.

Firefighters were among volunteers on the search and rescue mission at Tangiwai – Alexander Turnbull Library

I noted that firefighters assisting at the scene had acted more as individual helpers than as part of the Fire Service and considered they would have been more help had they attended as crews with their appliances and with appropriate back-up and support. I noticed other events, some tragic, where I thought the Fire Service ought to have played a bigger part, working in with police and other community services.

If we were to expand our services we could use our unique qualities: a rapid response of appliances and expertise, which could be of immeasurable value for other emergencies quite apart from our traditional roles – preventing, and extinguishing, fires. The small group I spoke to in Hawera thought it was a good idea but they hesitated and posed two questions – where was funding coming from for the additional equipment and how would firefighters be trained for their new duties. I assured them that this would not be an overnight development but training would be offered at stations and through the pages of the popular Technical Bulletins. While funds would be available for elementary tools, I suggested that perhaps the communities could raise funds to help purchase specialist equipment. The firefighters were very keen, so on my return to Wellington I created a new type of response called ‘Special Service’ which enabled any brigade to respond to a call for help of any kind if the Chief Fire Officer believed his resources could lend assistance. I had in mind road accidents, especially where people were trapped in the crashed vehicles, trench collapses and subsidence, civil defence emergencies and spillages of hazardous substances, particularly toxic chemicals… and flooding, because we had the pumps to assist get rid of the water.

As I had told members of the Fire Service Council, no one else in the community was geared up for, nor seemed responsible for, these duties and it was a natural extension of what fire brigades already did. I explained now that we were on a national footing there could be gradual training and equipping to deal with these extra tasks and I expected the next amendment of the Fire Service Act to legitimise and reflect the additional duties we were prepared to undertake. As I expected, most Special Service callouts were to motor vehicle accidents – car crashes, mostly to free trapped victims or to make safe resulting fuel spillages. I had not counted on, but should have realised, the relatively high number of rural incidents given New Zealand’s agriculture-based economy, like tractor accidents, topdressing plane crashes and chemical spillages in orchards”.

These additional services were welcomed by some volunteer brigades who otherwise did not receive many fire calls and gradually all brigades were utilised for Special Services as the worth of their readiness, expertise and additional equipment was realised during emergencies, especially in the more remote parts of New Zealand. These calls grew rapidly year-on-year, brigades dealing with a wide range of tasks. For instance, the brigade rendered rescue and pumping services during severe flooding in Whangarei district in May 1956 and the following year Matamata Volunteer Fire Brigade’s trailer pump was used for 12 days to maintain a bypass when the town’s sewer pipe broke.

“And it was quite right to put trust in fire brigades for these duties. The notable increase meant we had been accepted with the right teams in place who, with the increasing unification of the Fire Service, were enthusiastic and skilled enough. We were able to fill a vacuum, finding a niche which, with justification we were quickly able to call our own. We were providing a valuable public service and at the same time adding to the prestige of the brigades as an all-round emergency service. This went well for many years but in the mid-1960s I was horrified to hear from a reliable source in Auckland that there was a chance we might lose our lead-role in rescue to St John Ambulance. It was revealed that, ironically, while there were plans to convert a Dennis appliance to a new Emergency Tender at Central Fire Station in Pitt, straight across the road at St John headquarters a rescue vehicle was being built, based on a 4 wheel drive Landrover chassis. It towed a trailer housing a powerful generator. It seemed ludicrous and expensive to duplicate equipment and staffing”.

St John Landrover Emergency Rescue Tender: recovery operations, December 1970 – Stu Brandt,  Auckland Fire Brigade Museum and Historical Society

The Landrover did not last long: St John opted out of rescue services shortly after and the vehicle was inherited by the Fire Service and redeployed as an emergency tender, latterly a command unit.

Still on the look-out to provide additional services, Mr Varley had not overlooked Fire Police Units, as provided for in the Fire Services Act, and he set out to harness this resource with nation-wide specifications set out in a Code of Practice he wrote and promulgated late in 1954. The Code encouraged Units to seek and appoint appropriate people from the community who could provide support services. He listed these as control of traffic and spectators, salvage, protection of premises and security of chattels, first aid and communications. The document advised that Fire Police were to be enrolled, sworn in as special constables, and then re-sworn taking the oath annually. While there is no mention of uniform, the Code of Practice provided for the issue of armbands with the letters ‘VFP’ in red letters, to be worn on the upper left arm. The code also suggested that a means to summon Fire Police was to ‘give intermittent blasts on the station siren’ to differentiate from fire calls… ‘which are to be signalled by one continuous activation’

A Nation-Wide Scheme

Still ill at ease with some members of the Fire Service Council, Tom Varley ignored animosity and accepted the fact that he probably would never entirely see eye-to-eye with the Chairman, Stan Dean. Varley ploughed on with his reforms as best he could. He finalised the classification scheme covering all areas in New Zealand, grading them from high risks in metropolitan centres to lesser coverage in rural districts. For this he devised a standard of fire protection cover to every place from category A (High Risk) to category F (Semi-Rural Risks). This list indicated appropriate levels of personnel, both full-time permanent men and volunteers. Research before implementing this scheme revealed that many smaller, mostly rural, communities were not getting the level of protection that they were paying for (and deserved) through taxes, rates and fire insurance levies. Some 70 new brigades were needed to meet the Varley plan.

“Fortunately the U.F.B.A. was a hundred per cent supportive of the scheme, saw the need to regularise fire protection nation-wide and took in its stride the rationalisation and the big increase in the number of Brigades. The U.F.B.A., through its members, was all set to embrace these small, scattered brigades giving them a sense of belonging and a place in the scheme of things. The U.F.B.A. Executive was aware of the benefits I was gradually implementing, including the mutual assistance scheme which could only flourish as more resources were provided, standardised and the scheme’s intentions became better understood.

By now I was ready to enlarge the scheme… so gradually I introduced the theme that it was not just neighbouring brigades who would cooperate in this way, but distant appliances were also available for major events. For instance, men and machines would travel from city stations to assist in rural areas or resources from one metropolitan area could be deployed in another city. The mutual aid system, applied nationally, really meant that all of New Zealand was becoming one big fire brigade. In this way I used the scheme to create, operationally, a national fire service, even if administratively it remained divided and parochial”.

Varley also tapped into the U.F.B.A.’s networking to give all firefighters access to, and explanation of, the Codes of Practice that he had put in place. The U.F.B.A. had a well-established round of meetings, contacts and newsletters that acted as an efficient conduit for his series of improvements. One such had been the push to get the Drill Book launched, distributed, read and understood by every firefighter in New Zealand. This helped a unified Service with proper training and attitudes”.

But the increased number of brigades, and in some cases, a new-found importance for existing brigades under the Varley plan, meant more equipment was needed along with modern fire engines and improved fire stations. How to convince reluctant and penny-pinching Council members to spend more money to realise the plans? Mr Varley already had the U.F.B.A. on-side, but support closer to the Wellington power-base was required. Varley spread his message via lobby groups, persuading them to adopt and endorse his ideas. Sometimes back door methods were deployed in the face of opposition from the Fire Service Council. He knew that if existing brigades were going to be improved and new brigades were to get decent equipment, he would have to apply whatever pressures he could to obtain budgets to realise his plans.

There were other signs of a developing united fire service.

“You can get the overall picture of a single Fire Service and can start talking about common achievement when you know what it’s delivering to the public.  And you must be certain you have accurate statistics. In 1955, for the first time, I was reasonably satisfied that the new Fire Reports submitted to Headquarters reflected a true picture. They revealed a total of 11,677 call-outs, 3,500 of which were property fires. Of these, a large percentage occurred in factories and I put this down to the local, rapid post-war growth of industry. The large number of chimney fires, 2,000, surprised me but most of all I was concerned when the statistics revealed the terrific number of false alarms brigades were attending. Carelessness, workmen cutting cables and technicians working on automatic fire alarms, was causing disproportionate attendance. I was, however, happy to see that responses to the new Special Services category, formally introduced just a year earlier, were being recorded and there had been 107 responses.

The effective work being done by our Fire Service was confirmed in the statistics. By far most property fires had been ‘confined to the compartment of origin’, resulting in less than 20% damage. This was a solid result”.

Another indication of ‘one fire service’ was the notification of all vacancies for senior officers. These positions were notified to Headquarters and advertised nation-wide: in the paid service this had the effect of building a Service with perceived career paths for those officers prepared to move around and progress.

“This also signalled to staff that they did not have to work for the same fire authority awaiting promotion. There were now many more opportunities notified within the Service, everyone knew about them. This had the result of Fire Authorities reporting surprising levels of interest with greater numbers of applicants. This competition was healthy”.

Taking Stock

“It was the 5th anniversary of the Fire Service Council and the completion of my 4 years in the position of Chief Fire Service Officer when, in early 1955, I decided to put together a stock-take of fire services in New Zealand. It was presented at the UFBA’s Conference in March and published in the N.Z. Fire Service Review, the UFBA’s journal”.

This overview would be the first of its kind, delivered directly to what today we would call the stakeholders – the firefighters themselves. It was a snap-shot, an over-view, of fire protection, fire-fighting and the prevention of fire in New Zealand. Apart from annual and statutory reports, never before had there been such a detailed account of where the fire services were at, a ‘sit-rep’ taking 6 pages in the Review. Thomas Varley allowed a brief look back in history, but he quickly turned to the country’s fire services of the present, a detailed stock-take of changes and innovation he and his team had achieved in 4 years. He touched on standardisation of many aspects – people, procedures, training, technical, and appliances – across New Zealand, resulting in a much more capable, united, fire service.

Standardisation enabled one brigade to more easily assist another and Varley’s paper once again encouraged fire chiefs to seek help, when required, from adjacent brigades. This Mutual Assistance Scheme was an asset he was keen to see implemented, but was finding reluctance by some Brigade Officers.

“You now, as of right, can call on neighbouring brigades for assistance when faced with a serious fire which may appear beyond your resources to cope with. Equipment is being installed in the new Regional Controlrooms to assist with this type of response, but more importantly ready to deal with other emergencies, for example, earthquake, major explosion, forest fire and air attack. It’s of course to be hoped that these will be rare occurrences: meantime we will deploy the Regional facilities for serious fires so the procedures don’t fall into neglect through lack of use and proficiency.”

Among the topics of his paper, Varley reviewed Technical Training (more than 1,000 visits to Brigades), the need for adequate urban water supplies for fire-fighting, improving building regulations regarding egress and fire prevention, changes to communications (including the proposed 111 emergency phone number and radio-telephones on appliances), and the development of the designs for local fire appliances.

He concluded his dissertation “I have endeavoured to portray this for the information and encouragement of all who are taking part in the ever-glorious story of this great Public Service which has so much to face in the future.”

“The following year, 1956, I told a meeting of the Fire Service Council that I considered the first stage of my planned development of the Fire Service had been more or less completed. This was the organisation and unity of the service, a plan which everyone, I suggested, could see clearly emerging. I told Council members that stage 2 will be completion of a Training Centre, now being built, a facility catering for all firefighters to become familiar with Codes of Practice, to undertake formal practical training and, through refresher courses, to keep abreast of developments in the industry. In stage 2 I also had in mind accelerating a nation-wide fire prevention campaign, taking fire safety to the public by selected officers who would be trained for the purpose at the College. I began budgeting and putting together a plan which I hoped would further curtail wastage by fire”.

The Cut-Down School

A centralised training establishment which the Fire Service could call its own was a high priority for Varley, taking up one of the recommendations of the Inquiry into the Ballantyne’s fire and satisfying the Fire Service Council’s obligation under the Act. A search began for a suitable site in Wellington, ideally with existing buildings and a yard area. All prospects considered were too costly. There was a suitable property in Khandallah: Fire Service Council members visited it and agreed to purchase the property but loan money wasn’t approved and the search resumed. Funds were tight but eventually in March 1952 a site was found within budget in the suburbs at the corner of The Parade and Dee Street, Island Bay. Varley knew it was not ideal but he considered the approval to acquire the land was good progress towards his goal: a modern residential training school providing practical training for 30 live-in students. He immediately conferred with Ministry of Works officers and architects who had been commissioned to design and oversee the build of the School. The idea of a centralised facility was not readily accepted by everyone in the Service. At a meeting of the Fire Brigades’ Institute at Palmerston North in 1952 there was a call for travelling instructors to visit Brigades, rather than having to send firefighter students to school in Wellington. Other brigades, Auckland in particular, voiced concern about the proposed School, citing time off-station for students, and asking what they would learn in a formal setting that couldn’t be taught locally, on-station. Members of the Fire Service Council, themselves, doubted whether firemen wanted to train and wondered aloud whether Fire Boards would co-operate by nominating students, and, if they did, could they afford the costs of travel to and from Wellington? The answer was yes, they would cooperate but only if all costs were borne by the Fire Service Council. Thus travel costs and allowances had to be added to the School’s overall recurring annual budgets.

News of an indifferent attitude to the proposed training school spread overseas. In March 1953 the Chief Officer of Surrey Fire Brigade, CFO A. M. Johnstone, was in correspondence with Auckland’s Chief Fire Officer, George Mackenzie. In an aside to the main topic of his letter, F8 appliances, Johnstone says ‘I was interested to learn that proposals to establish a training school had not been enthusiastically received in New Zealand: there is not the slightest doubt that the establishment of a training school, or schools, pays very high dividends in fire service development and standing, and is a most important feature’.

Money for the new complex was tight: continuing post-war strictures reduced, and in some cases, ruled out Government projects. It was in this climate that, twice, the Fire Service Council reduced the size of the proposed Island Bay buildings. Perceived extravagant additions and ‘luxury’ extras were pruned, justifying the cuts. In August 1953 an eventual budget was agreed, £55,000, and the Ministry of Works got the ‘go ahead’ to finalise drawings for a lesser number of live-in students, from 30 to just 20. The project was handicapped right from the start from poor estimates: in October planners advised that £82,000 would be a more realistic cost.

Work was delayed while an occupier on part of the construction site was compensated and moved off. Items, some geo-structural, had not been allowed-for on the plans or in the budget. The exchange of designs, quotations, and specifications between interested parties, architects, consultants and quantity surveyors seemed never-ending.

Tenders were called and in August 1955 A G Wells Limited was awarded the contract for £82,000. Fire Service Council Chairman, Stanley Dean, gave a press statement saying the signing of the tender ‘brought us one step closer to one of the prime recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Ballantyne’s Fire, to provide a new establishment with the emphasis to provide technical and practical training for all firemen – firefighting today is a specialist job’.

“The Chairman’s positive statement ignored items and facilities that I considered essential, but which had been deleted or severely reduced as part of his cost-cutting”.

But construction didn’t get underway because further design changes were being made. By August 1956 the cost was nearly double that mooted 3 years before. Notwithstanding, there was some progress on the complex when it came time for Tom Varley to make a return visit to England, his first trip back since immigrating. He made sure before he departed that  the project would be in good hands so it could continue in his absence. He briefed his deputy, Terry Crafer, to specifically oversee the works. Varley had persuaded Crafer to immigrate to New Zealand to take the job: the two had worked together in Devon.

“But while I was in England on leave, I heard rumblings that the concept I had drawn up for the school was again being drastically altered. Imagine my anger when I returned to Wellington to find that the scheme had, again, been scaled down, virtually cut in half. Instead of accommodating 20 live-in trainees, the revised School – now nearing completion – provided for only 12. And this would have to make do to meet the needs of a Service now comprising some 9,000 men, many of whom were yet to receive their first formal lecture-room tutorial or practical drill. I could hardly believe the short-sighted approach. I was bitterly disappointed. And not only because the plans I had carefully drawn up were so savagely cut back, but because the man I had left to oversee the project had, in the meantime, resigned. It turned out that as soon as I had left for overseas he had been so harassed, brow-beaten and ill-treated that he quit”.


Varley challenged the Council’s decision, arguing that, overall, the difference in construction costs had not been great, but almost halving opportunities for students to participate in residential training was a major setback. Something of a compromise was arrived at… construction would be such that another floor of bedrooms could be added later.

Research of Fire Service Council files show progressive attacks on the budget with removal of the likes of a hoist to haul wet hose aloft in the drying tower, there would be no taps over sinks in the lecture rooms where experiments in chemistry would be carried out and an over-size drain in the sprinkler testing bay was axed. The files also show that, despite the fact that a sub-committee of the Council had been formed to oversee the project, nothing could be approved without the personal approval, and signature, of the Chairman, Stanley Dean. He ensured he was across every last detail. For instance, he advised the contractor by formal memorandum that he would be the one, the only one, to approve the provision and location of a pay telephone in the students’ lounge so they could call home in their time off. This is an example of the over-zealous project management by Dean, given that the telephone was not costing the Council anything since installation and maintenance would be met by the Post and Telegraph Department and that it would be user-pays, coin in the slot.

“The Fire Service Council had a lot to answer for over this disaster and I began to ask myself if its members had really been whole-heartedly behind the essential training facilities. It was so fortunate, and I was so pleased, I had done the right thing when, early on, I made certain that I obtained members’ approval to order two fire appliances, one of them a wheeled escape, which would be appropriate for the completed college. I don’t think I would have got approval so easily, if at all, once purse-strings had been tightened so much and, of course, there could be no going back on that decision. Out of all this I realised I needed a strong deputy to see to matters in my absence and to generally assist the progress of the Service.

I canvassed a few senior local fire officers, but none seemed keen. I think they realised it wasn’t easy dealing with the present members of the Fire Service Council who, in effect, would have been their boss. This suited me because I considered there was no one in New Zealand with sufficient background, training and experience to successfully carry the position”.

Varley contended it must be advertised in the United Kingdom. The Fire Service Council disagreed but begrudgingly allowed suitable notices to be placed in appropriate “Situations Vacant” columns. In the event no one was engaged as a result of these because the man who was eventually to get the position was overseas and, fortuitously, already planning to come to New Zealand.

Varley’s Deputy and Staff

William J. Henderson had been Assistant Fire Inspector at the Home Office in London and a senior officer in Liverpool. He joined the fire service in Liverpool in 1939 and after two years’ probation achieved first place in the final grade examination. Under the new war-time National Fire Service he was appointed staff instructor at various regional training schools and then returned to the Liverpool Fire Service as an officer. When   Normandy landings were being planned, he was assigned to advise on fire protection measures for all craft being prepared for the operation. Following the Allied landings, Bill Henderson again returned to the Liverpool Brigade until he was appointed commandant of a new ship firefighting school. This was established post-war to try to reduce the growing number of fires aboard passenger liners, many of which had resulted in loss of life. In 1955 he was made Assistant Inspector of Fire Services at the Home Office, a post he held until 1957 when he accepted a post in New Zealand as Station Officer at New Plymouth. Mr Varley, alert to the imminent arrival in New Zealand of this experienced officer, sought to intervene and he recommended to the Council that Henderson be offered a position on the new Headquarters staff in Wellington as Senior Staff Officer. Henderson was to have a dual role, deputy to Tom Varley and Commandant of the School.

William J. Henderson – 
Alexander Turnbull Library

“New Plymouth Fire Board was told by the Fire Service Council that it could not appoint from overseas and although upset because it had been robbed of a valuable officer, it had to give way to the greater good. The Fire Service Council agreed the salary and terms and the appointment was made”.       Enter into the New Zealand Fire Service a very experienced fire officer in Bill Henderson who was to have many years’ notable service ahead… all in Wellington.

With the certainty of the School, albeit truncated, it was time to seek the nucleus of the first Headquarters Staff to serve with Bill Henderson. Tom Varley chose a young officer, Allan Bruce, who had already been to the United Kingdom for experience and training.

“Allan Bruce showed he wanted more than went with the fireman’s lot when he was employed by the Wellington Fire Board. I was made aware he was looking for personal betterment before he travelled to England in 1954 seeking an operational position there. I seem to recollect I provided him with a letter of introduction at that time. Allan Bruce was accepted into the London Fire Brigade, graduated from the recruits’ course, and acquired useful experience serving in a number of London fire stations. I wrote to him asking him to return to New Zealand as an Instructor at the School, part of the Headquarters Staff. When he accepted, I arranged a short familiarisation cum study tour of some major fire brigades in England before he returned to New Zealand

I also selected Jim McKessar who had long experience in fire protection with the Christchurch Brigade, as Firemaster at Burnham Military Camp and as Fire Inspector with the Forest Service. Arthur James and David Stickings of Wellington Brigade were on my list along with K. Peacock, an immigrant who came from an industrial brigade at a chemical works in North England and Nobby Clark, also with British experience.

These appointees had little experience in teaching: I had to recruit those I thought would make the best of it in the new surroundings. They spent some months deciding the type of courses, the scope of each, and then preparing teaching materials, drawing up timetables and deciding who the tutors for each topic would be”.

The facilities at Island Bay took shape, the two-storey buildings housing school classrooms, administrative offices, a board room, library and then, semi-detached, the living accommodation, dining room and a communal lounge. The two-bay replica fire station housed the School’s appliances and there was a separate drill tower (for ladder exercises) and a smoke chamber (for breathing apparatus training). There were several houses to accommodate instructors and their families. Total cost was put at £100,925 in March 1957.

In early 1958 the inaugural students arrived for a Train the Trainers-type course, designed for instructors who would take what they had learned back to their own brigades, teaching their colleagues.

Fire Service Training School, 1958 –
National Library of NZ

The end of the course coincided with the official opening of the School on March 11th 1958, a formal ceremony accompanied with a spectacular demonstration by graduating trainees. National Film Unit coverage shows crews going through various routines in front of a large crowd of guests, officials, uniformed officers from other emergency services and the military, as well as civilians – probably family and friends of the proud graduates. In a great display of water-power, including a jet from Wellington Fire Brigade’s borrowed turntable ladder, there was no doubt the Training School was well and truly open.

A Successful Venture

Thomas Varley, through his perseverance, could take a good share of the credit for the establishment of the school. Lack of formal training had been identified as one of causes of the Ballantyne’s fire: it had been emphasised by the Commission of Inquiry which said it must be addressed. Now, some 10 years later, the Training School at Island Bay was a reality, notwithstanding that cost-cutting had reduced its size and facilities, and thus its capacity and usefulness as the fire services’ only training facility.

Main entrance, Fire Service College 1970s – Wellington Libraries

While overseas experts had repeatedly and enthusiastically advocated such a school, local administrators often voiced their doubts about its worth, its cost and whether firemen would willingly attend. Indeed, after Angus Wilson’s wartime report it will be recalled that top officials vilified the idea, saying centralised training, and a school, was not necessary.

Despite, (perhaps because of), detractors and difficulties, the completion of the project together with the development of a standardised curriculum, was the Fire Service Council’s single biggest achievement.

The facility went on to be a winner. Within 3 months of its opening there had been 6 courses, some up to 4 weeks’ long. David Stickings, from Christchurch joined the school adding his rounded brigade experience to the instructing staff. There were soon waiting lists of applicants for all courses offered. Varley was proud of this, pointing out that firefighters had readily accepted the School and, universally, showed an enthusiastic approach to formal instruction and learning. He often observed that those who were among the School’s first students rose quickly to very senior officer positions.

Thomas Varley, Island Bay HQ and Training Centre, 1958

“It came not a minute too soon and rapidly proved its value to Fire Service officers and personnel who attended courses from throughout New Zealand. Those members on the Council, and others in the wider industry, who had cast doubt about the worth and acceptance of a dedicated, centralised, training facility could see they had been well and truly wrong. The demand for places and courses was overwhelming. We were suffering because of the reduced facilities, the result of the Council’s unfortunate penny-pinching. This unquenchable thirst for training also highlighted an element which I could not, hitherto, make any traction with among members of the Council. Their focus was entirely on the Training School: there was little enthusiasm for my other suggestions for decentralised training, taking formal instruction to brigades and other methods of tutorials. I was forced to agree with critics who, while welcoming the School, noted that it was virtually the first attempt of serious training in the seven years that the Council had been in existence”.

Allan Bruce in his book ‘Into the Line of Fire’ recalls that Commandant Bill Henderson’s office overlooked the drill yard at the School. If Henderson glanced down and saw any aspect of the training, drills or behaviour that he did not agree with, he would summon instructors and, in private, put them right.

Those on the receiving end of the training in those early days recall enjoying the courses, despite the regimentation that some did not expect, while others remember the thoroughness of tuition in both practical and classroom lessons. They did not know quite what to expect: ‘we were the guinea pigs on those early courses’ one retired Executive recalls, while another long-time firefighter reckons the discipline at the Training School was the toughest he experienced in his entire career, describing it as ‘strictest military-style’.

He continues…‘not all the instruction was held within sight of the Commandant’s office, and it was on these exercises that we were really driven hard, sometimes towards exhaustion: drills that probably wouldn’t be allowed in these days of Occupational Health and Safety. I personally found working with hook ladders difficulty: I was never sure I had hooked a firm anchor point I could put my trust in!

Fire Service College students drill with Hook (or Pompier) Ladders

When we trained in the smoke chamber the heat would be turned up by the instructing officer, trying to simulate the effects of a real fire. I remember it was so warm at one stage during an exercise that the metal clips on my breathing apparatus head-gear got so hot they began to burn the skin just behind my ears. It was doubtful whether, in the real thing, we would be called on to enter premises that were so hot, but I suppose it prepared us for what to expect if ever we unexpectedly got into trouble, caught inside a burning building’.

 Another of the School’s students, who attended a few years after it opened, recalls his own hell while gaining personal confidence, working in confined spaces, ostensibly in foul air, wearing breathing apparatus.

‘For this training the School used a massive underground drain which ran the length of The Parade, the road leading for several kilometres from higher residential suburbs to the seafront at Island Bay. It’s a concrete structure, from memory not 2 metres square in size, which meant most firemen had to stoop while walking inside it, movement made more difficult with the constant additional weight of breathing apparatus on your back. It was pitch black inside. We had to rely on our hand torches. Search and rescue exercises were often thwarted by our instructors who doubled as patients, well familiar with the tunnel’s layout who hid in impossible recesses and on ledges, never to be found, left un-rescued by students as we groped our way through the drain. To make matters worse, there were many water and gas pipes running across it, all at different levels above our heads – obstructions we had to look out for, and dodge. In places we had to crawl on all-fours.

On one exercise we had been told to find a shaft of light, a manhole, which would signal our exit, where there would be a vertical ladder up and out into fresh air, a welcome conclusion to the drill. We frequently turned our torches off in order to find the shaft of daylight; at long last I spotted a pin-prick of light in the far distance. Each student grappled along the drain. We were in dirty, ankle-deep, water. It was then that instructors really tested our self-confidence. The shaft of light disappeared. How come? Until we concluded that the manhole cover had been deliberately closed. Without that peep of daylight we had no idea where the exit was. Disoriented, we were unsure which way to proceed. Maybe the correct call that the instructors were looking for was the decision to retrace our steps to the entrance? Then, sometime later, they opened another manhole further along the tunnel, we saw the speck of light which, when found, proved our real ‘escape’.

The other unexpected ‘test’, which we had received some advance warning about, was a sudden inflow of water through the drain. Instructors had arranged with the City Council to empty holding tanks used to flush the system and the trainees were suddenly aware that a surge of water was rushing down the drain from behind them. The level quickly increased to about knee level which gave each trainee a real challenge to maintain the objectives of the exercise while worried about one’s own safety, and others in the group, in those cold, dark, foul, wet and slightly alarming circumstances. Somehow, the instructors thought we had all done enough on these, plus all the other practical exercises and tests, and gave everyone on my course a pass mark’.

A course was introduced to bolster Varley’s additional Special Services, exercises using specialist equipment and deploying new techniques to extricate trapped people, either from under heavy machinery or (mainly) from crashed vehicles. The latter was to become a regular, and expected, task of fire services throughout New Zealand and many brigades were issued with Rescue Tenders, carrying rescue gear such as the “jaws of life”.

The invaluable Island Bay establishment provided the focus for training for many years, but it was not to last. In the early 1970s its success proved its downfall in that the small number of rooms available for visiting students far outstripped demand. This was created by the Fire Service’s renewed push for standardised and progressive training, plus additional personnel required to fill the new 56-hour-per-week rosters.

The Island Bay facilities were devoted to training for Officers, while others used regional centres, created as part of a revolutionary decentralised approach to training. This, it was said, was cost effective – ‘local training saved travel time and costs incurred by firefighters going to Wellington’. A large truck was commissioned as part of ‘travelling trainers’, the vehicle transported training aids from brigade to brigade. Accompanying instructors provided on-the-spot tutorials, drills and exercises. But Tom Varley was not to see the wheel turn full-circle when the Fire Service renewed interest in centralised training and constructed a new National Training Centre in Rotorua. Stage 2, opened early in 2012, completed the complex with tailor-made facilities to provide a total package of comprehensive courses in all fire service subjects. Total cost was $20 million. It probably resembles the type of facilities Tom Varley had in mind in his original plans for a national training school, some 60 years before!

 Tauranga… Landmark Operation

Three of the operating procedures that Tom Varley had instituted – the  requirement that Wellington Headquarters must be notified of ‘major working jobs’, his scheme for mutual-aid mobilising and thirdly, availability for special, non-fire, emergencies – resulted in what the New Zealand Herald newspaper described in January 1959 as the ‘first operation under the Fire Service Council’s reinforcement and emergency scheme’. But it wasn’t a fire. Tauranga Fire Brigade had been asked to assist a ship in distress, beached on a sand bank, part of Matakana Island on the approaches to Tauranga Harbour. It was the Norwegian freighter ‘Golden Master’, deliberately grounded on a sandy beach after earlier hitting rocks near Motiti Island. She had been badly holed and was taking water.

“Golden Master”

“After being alerted by the local brigade, I made a few inquiries; found the ship was just a year old, en route to unload phosphate at Mount Maunganui, that a salvage-master, Captain J. Forbes from Auckland, had been appointed and that he would welcome further help from the Fire Service. I decided to transport portable pumps from Wellington, so in the middle of the night a scratch crew, including Allan Bruce, Jim McKessar and my son Derek, set off for Tauranga in the Fire Service Council’s big appliance.

As the salvage unfolded in the Bay of Plenty, it turned out to be a lot more difficult than it first appeared, and took much longer than anticipated. We found we were part of a large, developing, mission to save the ship. It was not just our presence that was novel: we were to see many innovations deployed before it was all over.

On arrival I accompanied firemen taken out to the stricken ship by launch and after weighing all the circumstances, and drawing on my wartime experiences with numerous shipping incidents, I thought we could get the portable and submersible ejector pumps on board and systematically pump out each compartment in the damaged forward hold. This might allow ‘Golden Master’ to float off with a bit of help from sea-going tugs which had been summoned from Auckland and Wellington. I proposed some of the phosphate cargo should be jettisoned to help raise he bow. The Salvage Captain agreed; he thought lightening the ship may also allow repairs to her damaged hull”.

Essential to all this would be the stern anchor. It had to hold to keep the stern out, preventing the ship going broadside-on to the beach. Should this occur and conditions deteriorate there was grave danger of capsize.

Scene at the Control Room, Wellington during the “Golden Master” operations – Alexander Turnbull Library

The weather turned, seas were 6 feet high (2m) with broken tops and 20 knot winds. This disrupted operations at several different stages of the salvage attempt. Launches and pontoons loaded with pumps and pipes could not leave port, the stern line parted three times, on one occasion injuring a crewmember as it snapped. At one stage during particularly strong winds the ship’s engines were started to ensure her bow was kept firmly in the sand. The days went by without sufficient clear weather to mount a full salvage operation. But this waiting time allowed additional pumps to be gathered from Auckland, Wellington, Hawkes Bay, Kawerau, Te Aroha and other North Island centres. In unprecedented endeavour, this pool of pumping power was contributed by private companies, government departments, the military and the Fire Service and transported to Tauranga. The aim was to have enough pumps to lift hundreds of tons of water in one giant effort and re-float the ship.

The seas  moderated from time to time allowing food and fresh water to be delivered to ‘Golden Master’ along with fuel for the pumps. But these deliveries ceased when the conditions worsened again and a pump was lost overboard in a hoisting mishap. 14 more portable pumps were requested from Rotorua, Taupo and Auckland. Pumping continued around the clock below-decks trying to keep the water level down. By now it was estimated that the water was 32 feet (10m) deep in the number 2 hold. Fumes from the pumps’ exhaust pipes in the confined spaces below-decks became a problem so Varley sent for breathing sets to assist firemen working in the inhospitable atmosphere. He also got the ship’s crewmembers to rig wind-sails above the decks, trying to direct fresh air down into the holds.

One week after the ship had been beached the weather took another turn for the worse: rolling surf parallel to the shore buffeted the vessel, breaking the stern line once more. The stern instantly rose, the bow dropped and the sudden in-rush of seawater through the gaping holes quickly filled the hold before the pumps could be removed. In a temporary setback, 9 were disabled and had to be sent ashore for repairs.

Salvage equipment, fuel and food were not the only items being taken out to the stricken freighter. In a novel twist, one of the work boats transported two crew members who had been declared ‘deserters’. They decided to quit the distressed ship and swam ashore, only to be discovered on Matakana Island where they were arrested. At a subsequent court appearance they were ordered back to their ship, even if it was disabled and in peril. They arrived back on the ‘Golden Master’ under police escort.

A salvage expert acting for insurance interests, Captain Leif Sandtorv, had flown from Oslo to Auckland where he transferred to a small amphibian plane for the flight to Tauranga. He flew over the stricken ship en route and said from what he saw he was not hopeful of a successful salvage.  The vessel, worth £1 million, might be lost. He could not immediately get out to the ship because of the rough seas.

Innovation again – while a helicopter was being fetched to Tauranga by road, the ship’s rear upper structure was strengthened. In a rapid welding job, it was converted to a landing pad, enabling it to take the weight of the helicopter. As soon as it was ready and there was a brief lull in the bad weather, Captain Sandtorv was ferried out to the ship on the chopper so that he could get a first-hand survey of the situation and attend an on-board conference about next moves. He agreed with the plan locals had recently hatched. It would take a few more days to prepare, but it was to be an ‘all-out effort’ as the Press labelled it. First an extra 6 anchors and a five-and-a-half-inch (14cms) thick stern cable would be deployed to keep the ship’s position steady, then the massive, combined pumping effort would begin, assisted by a new salvage technique using compressed air. This entailed roughly sealing or plugging the gaping holes and then piping compressed air into the hold under pressure, forcing out the water and sand. A giant air compressor was sourced and transported to Tauranga and then taken out to the ship on a work boat, shared with welding equipment.

In preparation I re-positioned all the fire service and other pumps to best advantage, fuelled and lubricated them, stocked up fresh water supplies for coolant and allocated personnel as pump operators. I drilled it into the firemen, and others working the pumps, to keep them working at all costs. We had to spell the men on deck in the fresh air as best we could, but this, I told them might be difficult once the task was underway. And I saw to it there was plenty of milk available, to be consumed as an antidote for carbon monoxide poisoning by those firemen working in fume-laden confined spaces ‘tween decks”.

Two weeks after the ship had been grounded the big push was mounted in calm seas and fair weather. It began on Sunday 25th January at 3.30am so that by the time the ship had been pumped out it would be high tide with a better chance of success. After 2 hours the level of water in one hold was reduced below the damage and temporary patches were hastily applied.  Compressed air was then piped into this and other forward holds, expelling water and debris. Meanwhile the big ‘attack’ was mounted on the badly damaged Number 2 hold. 9 fire pumps, 1 giant Ministry of Works pump, and 9 ejector-type fire pumps raised an estimated 15,150 gallons (57,438 litres) a minute, or put another way by a ‘New Zealand Herald’, 60 tons of water a minute. After little more than an hour the bow lightened and rose out of the sand. The 2 waiting tugs gently dragged on the lines. ‘Golden Master’ glided off the sand and after all the anchors were weighed, she was en route to the wharf at Mount Maunganui.


Once alongside the wharf, minor pumping had to continue for some days to keep water levels reduced while a diver who was to become well-known in New Zealand for his salvage jobs, Les Subritzky, fashioned and fixed temporary patches to go over the four holes in the hull. Permanent repairs would come later.

Captain Sandtorv had no doubts when he said ‘central to the successful salvage was the effort by the 10 firefighters working all those pumps down in the difficult confines of the fume-filled Number 2 hold’.

“Two, Sub Officer N.L. Jillings of Hastings and Staff Officer Dave Stickings of Wellington, were overcome and had to be revived with oxygen equipment. Although the firefighters were not engaged in their normal vocation, they worked in fumes far worse than those experienced during any firefighting operation. I congratulated and thanked all those in the Fire Service who had contributed to the happy outcome. I think 20 brigades had contributed to the effort, probably the first time so many had cooperated like this, proving beyond any doubt the value of the mutual assistance scheme”.

‘Golden Master’ had further temporary patches applied at Tauranga after which she sailed for Auckland, and dry dock. It was only then that the severity of the damage was apparent: practically the entire hull was damaged with gashes, holes and scrapes. There were many dents, some 15 metres long and a metre deep. After further patching to make the ship seaworthy for a longer voyage ‘Golden Master’ left for Manilla – and permanent repairs.

“Some weeks later there was a sequel when the Salvage Captain awarded a sum of money to me on behalf of the firemen who had taken part. I listed the names of all the men who worked onboard and split the money equally. I was just about to pay out when the Fire Service Council said that it was against policy for personnel to receive such reward. I contested this. Members of the Fire Service in Britain had enjoyed similar ‘bonuses’. I went to the Public Service Association (the civil servants’ ‘union’) seeking support for my point of view, only to find that it had already advised the Fire Service Council that payments of this kind should not be made. I sought legal advice. My lawyer’s letter to the Council produced results and I think I got £250 as my share of the salvage money”.

There had, perhaps, been other questions posed in high places about actions taken by the Fire Service at Tauranga… whether firefighters should have been involved in the first place. Tom Varley, in his report to the Fire Service Council merely notes ‘that while the Service acted with considerable merit during salvage operations aboard the ‘Golden Master’ it appears there’s no legislative authority for the Service to be employed on such occasions. The Council has, therefore, recommended to the Government the introduction of amending legislation to cover all Special Services, including both humane and public, which brigades are presently undertaking’

Not only had Tom Varley proven beyond all doubt the value of his mobilising scheme, there were several other successful outcomes for the Fire Service. The different brigades contributing to the success had been seen as combining in one unified New Zealand Fire Service effort, it had plainly shown that firemen were usefully equipped and trained for emergencies other than firefighting and there had been considerable media interest in the salvage operations over two weeks which had reflected the Fire Service in a very positive light.

 Enter a Future Prime Minister

”A Mr Norman Kirk, then Member of Parliament for Lyttelton, was also a member of a local fire authority there. Kaiapoi townspeople wanted better facilities for their local brigade and applied to the Fire Service Council. The matter was referred to me and I had no hesitation putting together recommendations for improvements at Kaiapoi. I advocated that the enhancements would benefit not only the town itself, but the surrounding area. I think we were all surprised and disappointed when the Fire Service Council turned down the proposal. Norm Kirk, MP, took up the cudgels.

Norman Kirk 1954: future Prime Minister – Wiki

He was a big man in all senses of the word. And young, I thought, to be a parliamentarian. I learned later that he did, indeed, start public life early in life – he was just 30 years of age when he became the youngest mayor in New Zealand, elected by the people of Kaiapoi Borough. Concerned about the turn of events, he came to see me at the Island Bay Headquarters. The M.P. was ready to go into bat on behalf of his constituents. He asked if there was anything I could recommend that might be added to influence the Council when he asked members to reconsider their decision.

I, in turn, had to front up with the fact that I had recommended the upgrade, and I could only regret that my advice had been ignored. I pointed out the politics within the Council. I explained to Mr Kirk that what was seen as good for a brigade, or for the service as a whole, was often not considered as being worthwhile by the partisan, sectional, interests represented on the Council. I was pleased to help the M.P. Quietly I gathered all the ammunition I could suggest in order to get the improvements: it became a combined campaign, Norm Kirk and me… for what had been my suggestions for Kaiapoi in the first place!

Mr Kirk accepted he had a battle on his hands as he took on the fight trying to get the Council’s decision reversed so that the local brigade could obtain the extra facilities. The representations he put together to try to beat the sectional interests within the Council made him very aware of fire service politics at the highest levels. Perhaps the shortcomings he detected at this early stage of his political career might have been the seeds planted which bore fruit later”.

Meantime, one of Norm Kirk’s parliamentary colleagues, Henry May, MP, was on a mission to reform the fire service. May was a long-time volunteer firefighter with Petone Brigade, and one who had been involved in fire service activities throughout the Hutt Valley and in neighbouring Wellington. As both Member of Parliament, first elected in 1954, and firefighter he had watched with interest the effects of the 1949 Act and the activities of the Fire Service Council. He could see there had been some improvements but realised that the fundamental problem preventing real progress was the disjointed fire service – administered by local boards and local government – which was in need of major overhaul. He was looking for an ideal prescription. It was to take time…

His search, many years later, took him to England in 1972 carrying letters of introduction from Tom Varley, giving him access to Home Office officials. Sir Henry Smith, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Fire Services at the time, gave Mr May not only a warm welcome, but also a very strong message. (Sir Henry Martin Smith, OBE, was a fire officer of long experience. He had been one of the top executives in the wartime National Fire Service until his appointment as Chief Inspector on April 1st 1948).

Perhaps someone in New Zealand had briefed Sir Henry in advance of Henry May’s visit. Tom Varley? Whatever, the Minister was given the word by Sir Henry: that there had to be a change in the top administration of the Fire Service in New Zealand, that the Fire Service Council was not a suitable body to properly govern the Service and he asked ‘why not turn back to the Royal Commission’s recommendation, and the idea of a Commission comprising experienced fire officers?’

Henry May apparently took on the suggestion. Maybe this was a blueprint for the ideal structure he sought?

“… a most miserable experience…”

      “If I ever heard anyone doubting that reform of the Fire Service was overdue, I had a first-class example to illustrate how administrators had let the side down. There was the sad story of events that unfolded in the mid-1950s in Auckland.

I was shocked and dismayed about the way the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board treated its Chief Fire Officer, George MacKenzie, over the purchase of Dennis fire appliances. In my mind he was one of the best officers this country had”.

George Alexander MacKenzie was a Scot, born in Glasgow. He was a notable athlete in his youth and joined the Wellington Fire Brigade in 1925. He moved north in 1935 to take up appointment as Deputy Superintendent with the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board. Known as a no-nonsense strict disciplinarian, he also earned a reputation among firefighters as a Senior Officer who didn’t shirk hard work at the front-line of a tough fire-fight.

George MacKenzie

For years he insisted that he rode on the first fire engine responding to calls from Central Station. His rough temperament showed – one old timer related – when he was often first on the appliance and got irritable await for the rest of the crew to scramble, dress and mount the vehicle. On one occasion his sense of urgency (or perhaps impatience) got the better of the situation and he slid across into the driver’s seat, started the motor on the Ford V8 appliance and drove to the call without the duty-driver, in other words, one crew member short. According to the witness telling the story there were two consequences: the tardy driver was well-disciplined, the Deputy less so, rebuked by his Chief, Bill Wilson, who reminded MacKenzie that driving was not his job.

George MacKenzie’s experience as a ‘smoke-eater’(as firemen were called before efficient breathing apparatus was introduced) and willingness to fight fires from the front nearly cost him his life at a blaze in an upstairs commercial photographer’s studio and darkroom in Karangahape Road, just around the corner from Auckland Central Fire Station. George was among the first on the scene. He vaulted up the stairs into the burning premises right behind firemen hauling first hose-lines to be played on to the flames, then he went to another part of the building to investigate fire-spread. Alone, he was overcome by fumes given off by burning photographic processing chemicals. He collapsed. Fortunately he was soon missed: firemen began a search, found him in the thick smoke and acrid fumes, dragged him out to fresh air, resuscitated him and dispatched him to hospital. Despite breathing toxic fumes and being listed as seriously ill for some days, MacKenzie fully recovered. In a letter to Varley in March 1952 he advises he’s ‘recovering but from time to time I still suffer ill-effects’.

He became Superintendent in Auckland in difficult days, contending with the new order of things after the Fire Service Council was introduced in 1949, and leading a Brigade which mourned the death of two firefighters killed in December 1949. The fire engine they were riding hit a power pole and overturned in Freemans Bay: First Class Firemen Albert Clark and George Oliver died at the scene. Their deaths came within recent memory of others when George Mackenzie was Deputy. In November 1943 First Class Fireman Eric Bright died fighting a fire belowdecks aboard the ‘Trocas’ berthed at an Auckland wharf. Then, in 1945 there was further tragedy in the Brigade when Roydon Victor Hugo, duty driver of the Fire Board’s truck was killed in a collision with another truck while he was making deliveries in Onehunga. He was the son of the well-known former Inspector of Fire Brigades, Thomas Hugo.

MacKenzie was also Chief Fire Officer (the new name for the Officer in Charge) when the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board set the scene for big-city fire protection. He travelled abroad on a study tour in 1952 and innovation quickly followed his recommendations, supported by an adventurous Board. High-capacity pumping appliances, among the most powerful in the land, and a handful of medium pumpers were ordered along with a Dennis-based 125 foot (37 metre) Metz turntable ladder. There was progress, too, with breathing apparatus, purchase of additional hose and foam-making equipment, and all to protect a burgeoning city, with the Board signing more and more formal agreements with local bodies to provide cover in ever-sprawling suburbs.

Several other Fire Boards, also looking to renew their appliances, asked George MacKenzie for advice about new models. His replies give a snap-shot of the fire engine industry at the time. He reported that a healthy 21 quotations were received in response to the Auckland Board’s invitation to tender for new appliances. (Varley’s efforts to stir up interest among local motor companies may have been responsible). Average price of an appliance was £3,800 and MacKenzie noted that some locally built makes were more expensive than those imported fully built-up. ‘Dennis was so far in advance of others’, he concluded, ‘the (Auckland) Board did not hesitate’. The F12 model was priced at £NZ5,740, the F8 at £4,100.

The Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board ordered two new Dennis F12 fire engines and five F8s. They were the more popular fire appliances in the long-running ‘F’ series produced by Dennis Brothers after World War Two, models which the company’s executives said resulted in ‘years with splendid (commercial) results’ for the Guildford-based manufacturer.

Aficionados of fire engines all agree to this day that the F12 is a classic fire engine of its time, often describing it as ‘bespoke’, ‘limousine’ and ‘coach-built’. Dennis Brothers planned it as a pumping appliance fitted with either a ladder or a wheeled escape. It emerged from the factory with clean lines and a slightly streamlined design, fitted with a powerful petrol engine and a side-mounted main pump capable of a useful 1,000 gallons (4,545 litres) per minute.

Firemen liked the comfort and safety of an enclosed cab. After all, or many of them these F12s and F8s would be the first appliances they rode ‘in’ instead of ‘on’, with protection from the weather and from accidents, hence the ‘limousine’ label. In addition, the comfortable interior fit-out was a notch up from wartime austerity found in other vehicles.

Brigade drivers relished the F12’s energetic performance from the 5,996cc Rolls Royce B80 8-cylinder engine which developed 160bhp enabling the appliance to get along at reasonable speeds despite the added weight of firefighting equipment packed in every locker.  They found the 4-speed gearbox comparatively easy and, overall, said that handling the big vehicle was a pleasure.

From 1950-59, 336 F12s were made and sold to fire brigades throughout the world. The F7 and F8 models looked similar to the bigger F12 and were offered by Dennis Brothers with even more ‘bespoke’ specifications: F8s proved most successful export models while British brigades found the F7 preferable, which they bought in big numbers.

George MacKenzie was typical of Chief Fire Officers who asked Dennis Brothers to make modifications to suit local requirements. When he was considering purchase of a number of F8 models he figured a way to alter the rear of the appliance to provide two ‘essentials’: easily accessible standpipes and the stowage of flaked hose enabling it to be trailed from the appliance while it was mobile. Dennis Brothers’ engineers agreed that Mackenzie’s drawings for the design of the flaked hose locker were feasible: some British and New Zealand brigades liked the arrangement, subsequently ordering F8s with the same ‘Auckland’ modification.

A Dennis F12 was commissioned in Auckland in September 1953. The first of the F8s appeared in September 1955: others followed.

One of the first Dennis F8 appliances in question –
Nigel Capon, www.111emergency.co.nz

Then, some 2 years after the F12 was introduced, suggestions began to emerge, and escalate, that the pumps on the Dennis appliances did not meet minimum specifications.

The reason for this speculation has been revisited with the re-discovery of documents in May 2016 by Auckland fire historian, Forbes Neil. He found papers in Theo Heighway’s collection which tell this part of the story. In post-war years Theo, long-time Onehunga fire fighter, tried to get better water pressures from first-aid/hose-reels on Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board’s war-time Fargo appliances which had been assigned to Onehunga Station in 1953. Theo took the pump, skid-mounted behind the cab, and built it in at the rear of the appliance, connected to a power take-off. He increased the size of the outlet to the hose-reel. His personal understanding of hydraulics and engineering meant his modifications achieved remarkable working-pressure on the Fargo hose reels. They gave far superior output to the new Dennis F12 and F8 appliances. The comparison was so readily seen and this discrepancy helped fuel controversy that the Dennis pumps nowhere-near met expectations.

MacKenzie himself was in some doubt about whether the Dennis’s pump was delivering the required water flow to the hose reels. He thought this may have been caused by the Dennis works fitting the wrong type of pump – and that a higher-powered model was required – or that wrong, smaller,  outlets had been installed. He sought help from Tom Varley.

Mackenzie contacted me and I wrote back to say I thought the first aid (hose reel) pumping capacity on the Dennis was correct for this type of appliance, and in any case it met the specifications stipulated by the Board. But in the meantime word had got around Auckland about the ‘inadequate’ performance and moves were made to ‘rectify’ the pumps at a cost of hundreds of pounds.

Already there were those who made much of the situation. Those having the most to say, the Chairman of the Fire Board and the Deputy Chief Fire Officer were working in double harness. It appeared they had a campaign, using this issue to unseat MacKenzie. Yet I rated him as a most accomplished and competent fire officer, one of the best in New Zealand”.

The questions raised by the Fire Board were answered by a number of interested parties who quickly became further embroiled in the matter.

Dennis Brothers promptly defended their fire appliances and their patented pumps saying of all the customers throughout the UK and the world – ‘and 622 fire engines of this design had been supplied’ – the Auckland Fire Board was the only customer to criticise or question its performance.

Rolls Royce wrote to say the famous marque’s ‘straight eight-cylinder motors’, as found in fire appliances, would not be to blame and the New Zealand agents for Dennis Brothers, the New Zealand Express Company, championed the long-held and world-wide Dennis reputation.

The British Home Office, which had been asked for advice about the pumping capacities, advised that the models the Auckland Board had purchased met all UK standards. Locally, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Ministry of Works had their own differences publicly aired about the pump’s capabilities when they challenged each other’s testing methods, procedures and results. Inconclusive and muddled in controversy, their surveys were discounted, set aside.

Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board employee, Station Officer Noel Glen, (later Divisional Officer) had given the pump its definitive test in August 1953 and the official results showed that it met all specifications. But Board members, seeing the output for themselves and recalling the improved pressure Theo Heighway had achieved on the Fargo, held their position that there should be a better flow enabling a more powerful initial fire knock-down.

Meantime, as shown in one of the documents found by Forbes Neil, there was something of an inquisition with searching, critical questions being asked like ‘Has the Fire Board tried, and found guilty, Chief Officer MacKenzie based on evidence given by his subordinates?’, ‘Were those subordinates actuated by honesty or in fear and with malice?’, ‘Hasn’t the Fire Board chairman got a conflict of interest – he’s been Secretary of the Firemen’s Union until recently?’, and ‘Should there not be a public inquiry?’ with suggestions there might need to be a police investigation as well.

“…no natural justice…”

A sub-committee of the Fire Board arranged to travel to Wellington to meet members of the Fire Service Council to put its views about what it claimed was the inferior performance of the Dennis appliances.

“I tried to find out exactly why they wanted to come to see us at the Council, but the deputation would not say in advance of its arrival what was to be discussed. Without an agenda, the stage was set for a difficult session”.

Official minutes of the meeting and verbatim reports of discussion reveal that the Auckland Board members arrived in Wellington with a detailed defence of their attacking position which, incredibly, had not been revealed in advance to their own Chief Fire Officer, George MacKenzie. They maintained the hose reel pressures were inadequate, and what’s more they blamed MacKenzie for the apparent shortcomings.

‘You have come to the Council today looking for ammunition against your own Chief Fire Officer’… declared Tom Varley… ‘this is against the natural course of justice’.  Technical matters were getting in the way of the meeting a little later and things got testy.  Council member Cliff Bishop: ‘If I was Chairman, the Council would deal with the matter here and now…’

Chairman Stan Dean, as usual when challenged lost no time with a cutting rejoinder: ’Well, you are not the Chairman. I am. It’s a technical matter and I think the Council should get a report on it’.

Bishop, in reply: ‘But I am a member of this Council and if Thomas Varley is going to go on, I must say I refuse to sit at this meeting. Half our business is done outside the Council…’

Whatever the Fire Service Council was going to say, and no matter that Varley had earlier signed off acceptance tests on behalf of the Council, the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board had made up its mind.

“I believe the Board hoped that during the meeting in Wellington it would put its point of view and that its explanation would be accepted, the end of the matter. Far from it… unfortunately it was far from finished”.

Rumour had it that Chief Fire Officer MacKenzie was to be suspended, pending removal from office. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Sidney Walter Smith tried to intervene, no doubt briefed by the Fire Service Council. He sent a telegram to the Fire Board saying that it had been brought to his notice that Auckland’s Fire Chief was to be disciplined, and that while he, as Minister, had no statutory power to intervene, he said that facts in his possession indicated disciplinary action was not justified without further investigation. ‘I want the Fire Service Council to investigate…’ he added, ‘… and I ask the Board to defer immediate action to enable this to be done’.

Despite this, Auckland Fire Board members were unmoved. At a special meeting held in late November, 1955 they asked George MacKenzie to resign. He engaged senior counsel and the exchanges which followed continued for months… until March the following year when he tendered his resignation. It was accepted.

“It was plain to me that members of the Board believed they had somehow been deceived by their Chief. I heard later he may have been mistaken about the pump’s output, or altered the results of the tests, but anyway, unfortunately my supporting letter did not help him, nor did my strong words when the Board sent its deputation to Wellington. We all knew that the Chairman of the Auckland Fire Board was a very difficult man to work with. I took exception to my name being dragged into it and for a while I dug my toes in to stand my ground but in the messy situation I was told by my superiors that I could lose my job if I held out – that’s how serious it became. I decided to keep my peace, meantime”.

The Chief Fire Officer’s position in Auckland was declared vacant. The Fire Service Council agreed to waive the usual rules of recruitment and selection of executive fire officers in the extraordinary circumstances and a few weeks later, towards the end of March 1956, the Chairman of the Board, A.L. Montieth, announced that Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Gordon Drummond, had been promoted to Chief Fire Officer, while George MacKenzie had been reduced to Deputy Chief.

“Still, there was talk about duplicity. Our names, MacKenzie’s and mine, were always mentioned in the same breath, alleging we were both mistaken and probably in league with the fire engine manufacturers, Dennis Brothers. I turned to the British Home Office Inspectors in efforts to educate members of the Auckland Fire Board, pointing out that it was wrong to expect more than was spelled out in appliance specifications. Shortly afterwards I was in England and called at the Dennis works in Surrey, but executives there, who knew all about the claims and counter-claims, did not want to get caught up in the mischief-making 12,000 miles away. I was relieved to find that good relationships with New Zealand had not been damaged by the episode.

The Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board did not escape from this without adverse comment from the Fire Service Council when the Council wrote formally in May 1956 saying it thought the Board had handled the matter improperly. The Council also wrote a letter to Dennis Brothers which was designed, notwithstanding the Auckland episode, to ensure continuing good business relationships with one of the principal suppliers of fire engines to New Zealand.

But the Auckland Board seemed determined to have the last say and in November 1956 it brought the curtain down with what became the final document to be found in the official file about the affair. The Board’s letter first acknowledges that it had been a protracted matter, for more than 3 years. ‘We want to refresh the memory of your Council…’ it starts out and then continues with a broadside ‘… Thomas A. Varley certified these appliances as satisfactory, within the specifications, then said they were not up to standard and, later, that they complied. From his contradictory references it is apparent little notice can be taken of what he says’. The Board went on: ‘…tests by the Ministry of Works were misleading’ and continued with criticism of the Council‘… specifications need to be concise, not the bulky affair you envisage’ and ‘when we purchase further appliances a good supply and jet of water on first aid equipment will be measured at the nozzle’, the letter concluding with finality: ‘this closes the matter’.

Looking back, it appears the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board went public on the topic before the facts were known. The Board publicly announced that the first-aid hose reels on the new Dennis appliances did not meet specifications: that they should give a much more powerful jet. When Board members found they were mistaken, they could not accept their error. Behind the scenes they tried all kinds of excuses to hide their mistake and embarrassment. Their ultimate scapegoat was George MacKenzie who was forced to shoulder the blame.

Demoted, George MacKenzie continued as Deputy Chief Fire Officer until 1961. He died 10 years later.

“I was sorry that his reputation, and then his health, suffered.


Long-time fire officer and past member of the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, Reg Moore, in his ‘Chronicle of the Auckland Fire Brigade, 1857-1965’ writes ‘… One thing is certain in my mind – George Mackenzie was without any doubt the most forward-looking Chief Fire Officer this country has ever had. His methods of training, and in particular of officer training, were the best I have ever seen. Contrary to many opinions, he contributed in no small measure to the beneficial aspects enjoyed by present day firefighters’.

More Support, Wider Reform …

The Kaiapoi and Auckland incidents were typical of the actions Varley found he was obliged to deal with to try to better the Service.

“It was not altogether a happy time, administratively, but out there among the brigades, in the stations and at incidents on the fire-ground, there was a rallying. I was seen not only as Chief, but as a help-mate, ready to go into bat for them to make things happen. Another political pressure I turned to in the 1950’s was the Fire Brigade Union, and its illustrious Wellington secretary, Toby Hill.

Toby Hill, Trade Unionist – Alexander Turnbull Library

Not everyone agreed with this approach, but I could see he was a dedicated unionist. In fact, he had led the Waterside Workers’ Union in the bitter nationwide dispute in 1951 that brought all the nation’s ports to a standstill. And it was this protracted disruption which, we had been told on the way out to New Zealand, might affect our arrival in Wellington aboard the ‘Rangitoto’. I surmised Toby Hill was probably looking for progressive ways to improve the lot of his membership and it was with this in mind I made my overtures to him.

After several meetings I ascertained that he could see what I was trying to do. Further, he endorsed many of my plans, and appreciated that all this would have far-reaching effects for the good of the union’s membership. He, too, wanted the prestige I sought for firefighters, together with improved training and better working conditions. One of the first innovative measures I signed off was the recommendation to all employing Fire Authorities that the standard retirement age for firefighters should be 60, a decision helped by the superannuation scheme. The Union quite liked this move, saying it paved the way to open up senior positions more rapidly, assuring promotion and regular replacement by new recruits.

Toby Hill realised that the new Code of Practice gave the men appropriate, achievable goals in training and operations, making them proficient firemen. This gave them enhanced opportunities for promotion within a brigade or between brigades. Mr Hill could see that a brighter public image would result, so he was often on my side. I sometimes asked him to add ‘union muscle’ to my propositions going before the Fire Service Council in an attempt to get them approved. He had his reasons for motivation, I had mine.  But this joint approach helped and sometimes meant the difference between progress or standing still”.

Next, Varley turned his attention to fire stations. Many brigades were still housed in tin sheds, in ‘borrowed’ garages, hand-me-down Borough Council premises, huts or buildings gradually adapted and renovated over the years, many marginally improved since the horse-and-cart era. Model plans for modern fire stations were drawn up with the help of Ministry of Works architects, with several designs decided to suit the classification of the brigade, its size and any special operations it provided. Many fire stations were built using the basic model plans, altered to suit location and funds available. Not all the money came from the Council. Communities, responding to a need, frequently raised funds to build larger stations than the Council’s budget allowed and to buy specialist or additional equipment for their local fire brigade.

Fire cover was further regulated and standardised so that brigades had to answer alarms at the extremities of their districts within time limits appropriate to the mileage, terrain traversed and the fire risks according to classification.

By 1955 the nationwide scheme meant that urban areas either had their own brigade or could depend on fire protection under an agreement with the nearest brigade, whether for initial firefighting or as back-up. And where sparsely populated areas and very small communities did not have the ready availability of a brigade, the locals were encouraged to form brigades or Rural Fire Parties.

Auxiliary Fire Brigades

An amendment to the Fire Service Act in 1953 provided for the establishment and funding of a new entity, the ‘Brigade Auxiliary Unit’.

Having created the climate, and the legislation, for these small brigades, Varley was obliged to provide firefighting equipment, notably pumps. He also knew there were other, established, brigades without adequate pumping ‘fire power’. He turned to the surplus of trailer and portable pumps available, post-war, in England. Looking at his list of fire stations and the new auxiliary brigades he categorised their needs, heavy and light trailer or portable pumps and placed several orders over 3 years with British fire services for, all told, 230 trailer pumps, all ex-wartime equipment, and 80 portable pumps. Using his prioritisation charts, he selected the locations for these pumps throughout New Zealand, sending them either to replace hopelessly rundown and out-of-date models or to give brigades a decent pump, which for some was the first basic essential firefighting tool they had ever worked with.

Standard Gwynne Trailer Pump –

‘The light Standard-Gwynne trailer pumps…’, Varley wrote in 1953,’… are easily man-handled and can be got to work from hitherto inaccessible water sources like domestic tanks, streams, wells etc, as well as being able to boost low-pressure municipal water mains. The trailer is a complete carry-all (even to a ladder) and other than the fact that it’s not self-propelled, it can be described as a complete fire engine. These trailer pumps have proved an unqualified success affording fire protection in areas otherwise without protection… anywhere where a suitable towing vehicle’s available, service can be given over extensive areas’

“About this time, I heard that some fire authorities wanted to upgrade their appliances. I knew Land Rovers, built and fitted out as appliances, were available in England, surplus to requirements, and, though small, these vehicles would particularly suit secondary and rural brigades with their cross-country capabilities. I negotiated the deals… prices were favourable and a number of Land Rovers were imported and served for years to come.

Land Rover provided versatile fire appliances

Between trailer pumps and Land Rovers some of the more remote townships and districts had a form of fire protection for the very first time. Primitive, yes, maybe. But I found even the most remote fire parties became efficient. They thought about local risks and pre-planned where to get water for firefighting: from rivers, ponds, dams, irrigation races and nearest town-supply pipes. They regularly trained together so that they could get to work quickly and they often formed liaisons and practised with their nearest permanent or volunteer brigades. Small town New Zealand was well served by these dedicated fire parties, in some places augmented by forestry personnel and equipment”.

While practical, the scheme was not over-generous. Those brigades clamouring for better resources gave Varley opportunity to preach two of his most often heard sermons. ‘No one gears up with expensive assets for the biggest fire they might have once every 20 years: instead they arrange for assistance when they get the big one’ and secondly, ‘we can’t afford everything you want just yet, so, meantime, it’s essential that brigades go to one another’s assistance. Rapid mobilisation is the key’.

Increasingly, more remote brigades realised they could count on this mutual aid arrangement when requiring help, knowing their neighbouring brigade would immediately respond, whether it be from ‘up the road’ or ‘over the hill’, to render help with personnel, added expertise and whatever equipment they had. Some adjoining brigades periodically trained together, their exercises designed to coordinate combined resources.

Varley’s idea was that the auxiliary brigades would grow in confidence, they would obtain better facilities and ultimately leave the “parent brigade” with autonomy and responsibility for protection of their own designated fire district.

(Varley’s scheme worked. With Fire Service help, local support, ongoing training and solid leadership most auxiliaries became brigades in their own right. Te Kopuru, a remote township on the Pouto Peninsula in Northland, was a case in point. Formed as a rural fire party in 1957, it belatedly became an auxiliary of Dargaville Volunteer Fire Brigade. Chief Fire Officer O.E. Olsen says in his annual report in April, 1963 that ‘Te Kopuru sub-brigade is much happier since they came under Dargaville Brigade’, mentioning equipment and uniform passed on and regular, combined training and exercises. Other examples include Patumahoe (an auxiliary of Pukekohe Brigade), Laingholm (partnered with Titirangi) and four Canterbury auxiliaries “parented” by Darfield Brigade – Coalgate, Hororata, Kirwee and Sheffield. From small beginnings they, like many other auxiliaries, have all become vital assets in their communities).

 Turning to Fire Engines  

Now it was time for fire engines to receive Mr Varley’s attention. There were still far too many older models in service for his liking. He found it irksome that their replacements took so long from the time of ordering from mainly British suppliers until the day they were eventually delivered to New Zealand brigades.

“Back in 1952 I began developing a set of designs for fire engines suited to some of the unique local conditions and operations found in New Zealand. Naturally, as time went on I became aware about exactly what was wanted so I updated the designs, mostly detail, but the specifications were also drawn with the idea of giving local companies the opportunity of work, building the appliances here in New Zealand on imported chasses. While traditional makers such as Merryweather, Dennis and Leyland would continue to supply heavy pumping appliances and turntable ladders of orthodox design, I was encouraging the likes of Bedford, Karrier and Commer to join long-established brand names. Ford needed no encouragement – the company was ready to do business”.

In his book “Ford Ahead, a history of the Colonial Motor Company Limited”, author Roger Gardner points out that Ford’s representative in New Zealand, the Colonial Motor Company Limited, (Colmoco), was gearing up belatedly, post-World War Two, taking advantage of the Government’s preference to licence vehicle imports from England rather than from other countries. In 1957 truck chasses for the Thames Trader range, from 2 to 7 ton, arrived with the promise of much more power than earlier Thames models.

Along with other makes, this ideally suited Tom Varley’s programme to take the imported chasses and design and build appliances locally to suit New Zealand conditions, meeting specific needs of each brigade.

Ford already had a long and solid reputation connected with fire protection in New Zealand. In the first decades of the 1900s some brigades purchased their first motorised vehicle, a Ford Model T or Model A truck, and converted it to serve as an appliance. Later, in the 30s, Ford and Fordson appliances were popular. Imported chasses were built up at Colmoco’s Wellington subsidiary, Standard Motor Bodies, often custom-made to the purchaser’s specifications. By the mid-1930s Ford V8 engines gave fire appliances better power, improving both response times en route to fire calls and, once arrived, greater water pressure from the pump. Wellington Fire Brigade ordered 5 of these fire engines.

Wellington Fire Board invested locally with Ford – Wellington Fire Preservation Soc, 111emerency.co

At one stage, reports Gardner, it was estimated half the Dominion’s fire appliances were Ford V8s, locally built by Standard. Colmoco also combined with the Forest Service to make 4×4 all-terrain fire units complete with pump and on-board water tank.

Locally manufactured 1938 Ford V8
Colonial Motor Company

In 1936 Ford contributed another useful firefighting tool when engineers in Colmoco’s Wellington workshops designed and developed a 400 gallon-per-minute water pump powered by a 90 horsepower V8 motor mounted on a trailer designed so it could be towed behind a car. Naturally it was known as the Colmoco pump, one of the few medium-pressure water pumps made in New Zealand. Colonial Motor Company also made a full range of water-way equipment: standpipes, couplings, branches and dividing breechings.

Colmoco’s trailer pump – Colonial Motor Company

Gardner, in his book, points out that manufacture of fire engines increased to meet wartime requirements, especially for the military: the Army and the Air Force. Trailer pumps were also in keen demand: powered by the slightly later and stronger Mercury Ford V8 engines. Hundreds were made by Colmoco, some used to bolster local wartime precautions, many more shipped overseas as part of New Zealand’s contribution to the war effort. Colmoco’s experience with fire pumps resulted in ongoing contracts to machine and fit high-powered 2-stage Sulzer pumps on ships. The pumps together with diesel engines to drive them, were supplied from overseas. Colmoco would install the equipment and hoses on US Navy troop ships, freighters and warships, with fit-out reduced to just a few days while these craft were briefly in a New Zealand port en route to action in South Pacific trouble spots. The US Navy recognised the greater risk of ship-board fires in tropical temperatures and, rather than delay convoys in the North, found it more expedient to have the pumps and equipment fitted during brief stopovers ‘down under’ in New Zealand.

With this background, Varley was confident local industry could help modernise the fleet.

“When it came to replacing and updating fire appliances, I didn’t have any qualms about leaving behind some of the familiar, trusted and well-tested names. And others in the fire service and wider industry soon realised that they needn’t be tied to traditional designs, makes, models and materials. The New Zealand fleet needed modernising. Too many brigades still relied on very old vehicles as their front-line appliances”.

Hamilton’s 1917 appliance: still operational in 1954 –
Hamilton City Libraries

Hamilton was a good example. In 1954 the Fire Board there was advising the Fire Service Council it was budgeting to replace its 1917 Dennis 50-foot Bayley Wheeled Escape, well past its “best by” date.

“Many appliances had been purchased or passed down from urban brigades, while others had been a legacy from World War 2, either left behind after American wartime efforts in New Zealand or inherited from the local military.

And, of course, age caught up. They were inefficient. My specifications for fire engines, as well as suiting New Zealand requirements, had to keep pace with continuous mechanical and technical advances: the introduction of light-weight alloy panelling, for example. I developed what I thought were ideal models for urban and rural situations. When I visited England I called at several larger fire appliance manufacturers where I tested some of the newer types and I came away satisfied that at least two companies were turning out models that were as good as, if not superior, to those commonly in service in New Zealand. I told them I was keen to import just the chassis and have the appliances built up locally. I put New Zealand firms in touch with these makers so that local engineers could liaise and get good advice about what was wanted. The UK companies appointed representatives in Wellington and as a result there was increased competition in the trade. Costs were contained, delivery times reduced (even for those imported as chasses and built-up locally) and with regular innovation, we were keeping abreast of international developments. It was a success story and I was invited abroad to speak about adapting and customising designs and moves towards developing a local industry: making fire engines. A group of experts from Australia arrived here not long after to see, first-hand, the changes we were making, not just in fire appliances, but across-the-board. News of our progress in New Zealand was spreading overseas”.


This progress was blemished by one bitter disappointment. Varley considered he had advanced on many critical fronts, but had made little headway with fire safety matters.

“All manner of measures in fire prevention and public safety needed to be put in place. The Royal Commission following the Ballantyne’s fire recommended urgent modernisation, of model building by-laws. Yet nothing much had been done with no reform in immediate sight. Most people agreed without hesitation that it was better to spend a little money preventing fires than suppressing them and then counting the relatively huge losses. But common sense fell on deaf ears.”

And then in December 1959 it happened all over again. Fire swept through Arthur Barnett’s department store in George Street, Dunedin. A Commission of Inquiry noted that there was an absence of proper fire protection measures as required by the local authorities’ building by-laws.

Arthur Barnett’s department store destroyed by fire, 1959 – Otago Daily Times

Tom Varley used his 1960 Annual Report to point out that it was much more than a coincidence that the recent fire in Arthur Barnett’s shop was similar to the tragic 1947 Ballantyne’s Department store, where in both cases there was a lack of proper fire prevention measures. ’I feel constrained to ask the question – what has been learned from Ballantyne’s tragedy and Barnett’s fire?’ ‘Surely’, he wrote,’…it does not require these disastrous incidents to bring realisation of the importance of fire prevention’. Barnett’s fire, he argued, ‘has clearly indicated the fact that fire protection standards as a whole in this country are far from satisfactory… and it’s rather an extraordinary situation that, though the Fire Service has a vital role to play, it’s not generally considered as having any useful practical function in this sphere despite the fact that legislation specifically places such a duty of fire authorities and Chief Fire Officers’. He went on to say how he thought the Fire Service was best placed to provide advice, ending with the declaration’… it will be necessary not only to insist on fire prevention edicts, but to insist also that the Fire Service is consulted in all fire prevention planning’.

This was Tom Varley saying, as politely as he dared in a public document, that he felt he was banging his head against a brick wall on matters of fire protection, particularly those centred on building and emergency egress bylaws – those most harshly criticised by both Inquiries.

The hard fact was that the Fire Service Council had no power to adequately deal with the technical aspects of these important measures… they were the responsibility of the New Zealand Standards Association. Varley was a member of one of the Association’s committees to give advice on fire safety requirements with the aim that these would be written into a new building by-law which, once agreed, would be adopted by every local authority in New Zealand. This would give absolute uniformity for fire protection in all new or renovated buildings. The plan was to then follow-up with minimum fire safety standards for existing buildings, beginning with those of public assembly, like halls, cinemas, stadiums, and where there were additional risks like hospitals, rest homes and prisons.

“I was no stranger to this kind of work; I had represented the IFE at the British Standards Institute. However, I found the New Zealand organisation pedantic, its deliberations slow, biased and without finality. Well… there was one notable decision when the Association settled on a standard for light-weight alloy, instantaneous couplings for hose connections, branches (nozzles) and other fire brigade waterway equipment. But, and it’s a big but, we had to wait an inordinate long time to get the answer even though everyone knew in advance what the recommendation would be. My predictions, which had been backed up by my enthusiatic advocacy, were correct: the UK standards used by the Home Office were eventually adopted for New Zealand. This was an ideal decision because it meant equipment supplies were readily available from England. The down-side had been the waiting, caused in part by problems with advisers at the Government agency, the Ministry of Works. These delays had a bearing on compatibility between fire brigades, threatening progress with the nation-wide coordination scheme I had introduced. At long last, now that the standard had been decided and promulgated, Brigades could start buying and using the equipment with confidence. Commonality across the Fire Service was essential if the coordination scheme among brigades would succeed.

As for the new building code being considered by the Standards Association, it was plain that the local bodies did not want to have to adopt model by-laws because they sensed a loss of independence and the ability to make local variations. Moreover, the Government seemed to have no intention to ensure Councils adopted the model by-laws, and even if they did, there would be no priority to enforce compliance. Frustrated, I called up the management of the British Institute and got copies of its standards sent to Wellington, hoping these might suggest a scheme for New Zealand. Even then, even with this template, there was little progress. Vested interests in the building industry and reluctance by Councils to introduce new by-laws frustrated all progress.

This was fast becoming the last straw with me. We had suffered with the delays introducing standards for instantaneous couplings. I also recalled that the Royal Commission into Ballantynes’ fire had been assured by the secretary of the Standards Association that a model by-law could be completed within 6 months. The Commission had thought this measure was so urgent that it recommended the Government ensure legislation was introduced and that all local bodies be told they must adopt it within 3 months of its passage into law.

Now, more than 10 years later, we still had delay after delay. I decided I’d had enough… so I walked.


My employers, the Fire Service Council, quickly, and formally, made it plain to me in no uncertain terms that I should not have resigned from the Standards work, thus ceasing my contributions to help draft the new by-laws. In my defence I explained the unsatisfactory progress and the attitudes within the Association. I should have gone on to draw attention to the fact that Fire Service Council members, through their indifference, were themselves dragging the chain rather than giving a much-needed strenuous push.

I appointed my Deputy, Bill Henderson, as my replacement because he had considerable experience and background in fire safety in Britain. It wasn’t long before he, too, became frustrated by the snail’s pace within the Association. However, the Model By-law 1963 finally emerged. But we thought the final version was so difficult to interpret that most local bodies would ignore it. And so it was. This unfortunate, unsatisfactory situation was allowed to continue way beyond my retirement. Until, that is, another Inquiry, this time into a fire in a Wellington old people’s home, Sprott House, on 26th July, 1969, in which 7 elderly women lost their lives.

Sprott House, Wellington: 7  women died – The Encyclopaedia of NZ, Te Ara

I was, of course, a much-interested bystander when a Committee of Inquiry, chaired by Jack Hunn, held an investigation into this fire. I suppose it was inevitable that the Inquiry found inadequate fire safety laws contributed to the tragic outcome, exactly the same shortfalls raised after the Ballantyne’s and Arthur Barnett’s fires. And among the recommendations were the very measures that both Mr Henderson and I had strongly advocated during numerous, protracted meetings of the Standards Association”.

Subsequently, 23 years after the Christchurch tragedy, the 1970 Fire Safety Evacuation and Buildings Regulations and changes to the Municipal Corporations Act were introduced, the first steps which involved the Fire Service inspecting premises and giving advice about fire protection and safety.

Some of these measures were compulsory, particularly in residential premises like hospitals, hostels and homes for the aged. And some years later new laws further stiffened safety requirements and led, in the most severe cases, to the Fire Service taking legal action against building owners who ignored warnings to comply. Legislation provides for dangerous premises to be vacated until remedial work is satisfactorily completed.

Auckland: Growing Pains

Early in 1961 the Local Government Commission was considering a master plan for the reorganisation of local authorities in the greater Auckland area. City and Borough Councils plus numerous ad hoc authorities were being reviewed by the Commission which held the view it was time to streamline local government in Auckland by reducing the number of councils, boards and authorities administering the isthmus. This shake-up would affect the fire services because among the ‘ad hoc organisations’ up for review were Fire Boards and Urban Fire Authorities (the latter were actually local councils acting under this name to administer their local fire brigade).

Tom Varley persuaded the Fire Service Council that it should make a submission because, in his view, efficient fire protection formed an integral part of any unification of local government services, but particularly in Auckland ‘where’, he said, ‘there’s grave danger if fire services are allowed to grow piecemeal’. The resulting document which Varley prepared was a snapshot of Auckland’s fire protection in 1961 and his blueprint for development. ‘Auckland’s extraordinary rapid urbanisation has dramatically increased the fire risk,’ Varley wrote in 1961, ‘weaknesses now exist and they increase each year that remedial action is delayed. So it’s now important to solve existing and foreseeable problems in Auckland’s fire services’

While he understood how fire brigades had evolved in Auckland, historically established and maintained by local bodies to protect their own district, Varley said ‘each fire authority looks after its own patch without thought to the overall protection of its neighbours nor of the sprawling city and suburbs’. He repeated his line, which earlier had helped him win over brigades hesitant about joining his mutual-assistance scheme, ‘that no fire brigade can be self-sufficient: the costs of this are prohibitive and, anyway, local resources can easily be overtaxed in the event of a major fire’. ‘Each Fire Chief’, he contended in the submission, ‘should expect to be able to summon immediate help from neighbouring brigades and, in the urban environment ask for assistance from specialist appliances, like turntable ladders’.

Varley went on in the submission to propose sweeping changes for Auckland. In many ways he foresaw the advent of the Super City which was created by legislation in 2010 – his plan for fire protection caters for an area subsequently declared one huge city. He contended that the Harbour Bridge should be no barrier with fire appliances crossing in both directions, responding to fire calls.

Varley’s blueprint, viewed 50 years after it was written, shows remarkable foresight. Many additional fire stations that he proposed have, in fact, materialised, including Mt Wellington (re-sited 1963), Mangere (1970), Otara (1977), Te Atatu (1969, relocated to Te Atatu South in 2012)

Te Atatu’s second fire station 1980 -2011

In South Auckland Varley foreshadowed Wiri (by, twice, re-siting the old Papatoetoe station); but other places, like Maraetai, do not have a station in his plans. This growing ‘suburb’ is, instead, served by a 2-appliance all-volunteer station at nearby Beachlands, another seaside ‘village’ that over the years has experienced unpredictable but steady growth as part of the Super City.

In 1961 few forecasters, among them Tom Varley, could foretell Auckland’s phenomenal growth. In hindsight, his prognosis had a lot going for it and, in many cases, proved correct despite the fact that he did not have computer-driven modelling which is used these days to determine ideal fire station sites: calculating risks, travelling times in congested traffic, population growth patterns and other social factors. Many of his proposals were implemented over the years and in his advancing age he must have looked back, perhaps with some satisfaction, comparing what he had envisaged with what was actually occurring.

Tom Varley could only have had an inkling of the stations required on the periphery, like Clevedon, Kawakawa Bay, Hunua, Waiuku, Waiau Pa, Patumahoe, Pukekohe, Kumeu-Huapai, Waiatarua, Piha, Silverdale and Manly… all of which, with ever-increasing strategic importance cater for a rural-urban mix as the Super City inevitably continues its reach into the hinterland. Varley could not foretell the steady growth in population, currently (2018) in excess of 20,000 annually.

[Appendix 2 sets out a fuller account of T.A. Varley’s 1961 submission and a review of it 50 years later]

Another Special Service…

By mid-1961 Tom Varley reported to the Fire Service Council that there had been 312 Special Service incidents in the preceding year. ’Fire Service personnel were particularly suitable to deal with these incidents’, he wrote ‘and, using their normal firefighting equipment, were able to render effective assistance’. The number of these calls had increased year on year.

“The Fire Service was now acknowledged as an effective provider of services other than firefighting and it was being called to a range of incidents, many of a humanitarian character, such as effecting rescues. I expect these calls will increase and we will need to gear up with specialist equipment in the future to ensure we meet public expectations. Together with the regionally-based mobilisation plans, enhanced since their introduction and in light of our experience with the ‘Golden Master’ salvage, and the now-accepted mutual-help system, I felt the Service was well prepared. But others were not. Despite my best efforts, and those of the Fire Service Council, the Government was still slow to move on Civil Defence. Remarkably, by 1961, there had been no formal talks between the Fire Service and Civil Defence. There was no over-arching organisation comprising those like the Fire Service who would be vitally involved in the event of war or earthquake or other natural phenomenon. Yes, Regional Commissioners had been appointed and, true, a booklet had been issued detailing how to set up local civil defence organisations, and then… nothing. I had serious doubts, often voiced. New Zealand was not prepared with sufficient organisation to adequately respond quickly with necessary resources to be really effective at such events”.

Historian Michael Bassett agrees when, writing in his history of the Internal Affairs Department, ‘Mother of All Departments’, he says the appointment of the Regional Commissioners was to get better ‘buy-in’ from local authorities, but observes Departmental files show that it was to be many years before local authorities took their civil defence responsibilities seriously.

Tom Varley became a little more hopeful. “I thought there might be a turning point when in May 1960, I think it was, that we were suddenly, if somewhat casually, informed by radio and press that the whole of New Zealand’s eastern coastline was threatened by a tidal wave (tsunami) sparked by earthquakes near Chile. One fire brigade, on its own initiative, organised evacuations of low-lying areas. But action by Civil Defence? Nothing. They were not ready for it and it was lucky the tidal surge was much smaller than predicted.

But then there was action after another wake-up call, literally, in the early hours of 9th of March, 1961, when Napier Fire Brigade was alerted to an emergency that was going to quickly escalate and require mutual help, regional assistance and Civil Defence involvement. And, again, it wasn’t a fire, but a Special Service, just the type of event we had been gearing up for”.

An estimated 54,000 gallons (about 250,000 litres) of petrol had escaped from a tank at the port near Ahuriri, on the northern outskirts of Napier city, forming a lake within the bunded, or dammed, area which surrounded the huge storage tanks. Initial calls were to strong smells of petrol, then, on investigation, the revelation that one of the biggest storage tanks had overflowed as fuel was pumped ashore from ‘Camilla’, an ocean-going tanker berthed at the wharf. Fire Officers realised that if the spilled product was ignited it would threaten the whole complex with its 2,250,000 gallons (about 8,500,000 million litres) of stored fuel. A state of emergency was declared by police after consultation with Napier’s  Chief Fire Officer Turner. Fire Service Headquarters in Wellington was advised while, locally, a wide area of Napier was cordoned off by police, traffic officers, fire police and military personnel. Factories were closed, planes forbidden to fly over the scene, residents evacuated: the fumes were a health hazard as well as highly explosive. Stringent precautions were taken to eliminate any possible sources of ignition. Surrounding fire brigades were immediately summoned to the scene or were put on standby, ready to fight a major blaze. All available supplies of firefighting foam in Hawkes Bay was dispatched to Napier, while further supplies, and flame-proof pumps, were rushed to Napier by a special charter flight. Long hose-lines were laid throughout Ahuriri to provide adequate water, while all North Island fire brigades prepared further supplies and equipment for air-freighting if required. Tom Varley, together with the Chief Inspector of Explosives, flew to Napier to take charge of operations. ‘The situation is the most serious of its character that I have seen in my 10 years in New Zealand’ he was reported in the press at the time.

Thomas Varley at the Napier Emergency – “Fighting Flames. A Century of Firefighting in Hastings 1886-1986”

At the scene firefighters surrounded the bunded area at the ready with foam, pumps and hose-lines. Oil company staff began pumping the product back into tanks, work that continued all day and night until next morning. Tom Varley declared the emergency over.

It had lasted more than 24 hours, and for the national Fire Service it was a Special Service involving mutual cooperation, regional mobilisation and nation-wide preparedness. But, what of Civil Defence? Mr Varley carefully wrote in his Annual Report ‘We, and the Police, were fully alive to the potentialities of a disaster. The assistance of other organisations operating in cooperation could have been urgently required’. This probably meant he thought Civil Defence wasn’t ready for the Napier emergency.  Local Mayor, Peter Tait, agreed that there were gaps in procedures, when he was reported as saying ‘It’s obvious now that with the large petrol installations in Napier, provision must be made for a flash-proof motor pump to be available at all times’. A case of buying a pump after the petrol has escaped!

However, there was some movement in Civil Defence the following year when the Minister asked Chief Fire Officers in major centres to act as liaison officers with local Civil Defence Regional Commissioners, part of a working committee which, assisted by Tom Varley, would plan a fire defence to be adopted by the Fire Service Council. ’It’s now evident the broad outline of planning that will be necessary’ he wrote in March 1962, ‘and it’s also abundantly clear that the Fire Service has a vital role to play, whether an emergency resulting from natural phenomena or war….’

These words must have been ringing in his ears when he observed at least three major events in later years, all of which again showed that civil defence, in its widest meaning, was still not ready with a blueprint for adequate coordination and deployment of emergency and other services.

Mutual Aid 

While Civil Defence might have been wanting, Tom Varley thought the fire services were well-placed and points to three events which proved his mutual aid scheme came into its own: firefighters had shown their ability and willingness to provide capable, and essential, services at a range of non-fire emergencies and events. In contrast, the three occurrences pointed up the community’s lack of overall ‘readiness’: no comprehensive Civil Defence plan.

A Committee of Inquiry into the Parnell Fumes Emergency in 1973 found deficiencies in the community’s response to chemical spillages at several sites in Parnell, Auckland, following leaks in damaged drums off-loaded from the freighter ‘Good Navigator’. Fumes from the spillage caused the evacuation of the port and parts of Parnell.

Parnell Fumes Emergency 1973 – Auckland Fire Brigade Historical and Museum Society

More than 600 people were referred to hospital suffering ill-effects (including 30 firefighters) and the Fire Service was engaged for 3 weeks with decontamination and clean-up duties. The Inquiry found improvements were required in all aspects of licensing, handling, transporting, storing and recording hazardous materials. It also pointed out short-falls in the overall response to the emergency and recommended a more definitive role for the Fire Service, suggesting relevant legislation should be amended, to clarify the authority of fire brigades to deal with non-fire emergencies, to give them adequate powers to deal with such events and to define the responsibilities of fire brigade officers.

(Some 44 years after the Committee of Inquiry’s recommendations, the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Act, 2017, provides legislative authority for fire brigade personnel to take the lead at hazardous material emergencies, to save lives and property in danger, to order evacuation of anyone at risk and stabilise the situation.)

The second event where gaps in emergency response were apparent was a fire which in December 1984 swept through a warehouse occupied by ICI on the shores of the Tamaki Estuary in the Auckland suburb of Mt Wellington. The building contained chemical products, many of them toxic, with large quantities involved in the blaze. A staff-member who tried to tackle the fire, early on, received fatal burns. Subsequent concern arose about the possible contamination of some 340 firefighters involved in fire suppression and clean-up of the site. Toxic substances in the plumes of smoke that billowed across Auckland’s south-eastern suburbs, and chemicals in the runoff flowing into the Tamaki estuary during and after the fire, became matters of public enquiry. Within months it was ascertained that about 200 firefighters had been diagnosed as suffering ‘chemical poisoning’ and in 1988 one of their number died of leukaemia, his death linked to the effects of the ICI fire. A Ministerial Investigation was held nearly 5 years after the event, principally into the consequences to health as the result of the blaze. Although Civil Defence, perhaps surprisingly, was not activated on the day of the fire, the investigation mentions that lack of coordination of health services at the time and criticises the fact that over 4 years had elapsed before a review of the health aspects was held. Again, it had been found that the community hadn’t been ready to adequately cope with a major event.

In 1989 Thomas Varley must have been rewarded to witness another example of his mutual aid scheme come to life, and again it was a non-fire emergency. Appliances were mobilised to the Bay of Plenty to assist after an earthquake on March 2nd. It was 6.2 on the Richter scale and although no one was killed in the ‘quake it caused widespread damage to buildings, overturned a railway locomotive, took out roads, bridges, utilities and caused a huge rent across the landscape. When local Fire Brigades were overtaxed, the mutual aid system kicked in: provincial resources were sent to Whakatane, Edgecumbe and neighbouring towns, and these firefighters were soon joined by a Task Force from Auckland. Teams, augmenting Civil Defence operations, assisted with response and recovery phases including demolition of the most dangerous structures, providing water supplies and other duties while the Auckland Fire Police mobile canteen supplied meals for patients and staff at Whakatane Hospital, its kitchen damaged, disabled. The Task Force remained for a week.

These days brigades throughout New Zealand participate in Tom Varley’s mutual aid scheme without knowing it or giving a second thought about turning out to back-up neighbouring stations or brigades. It’s accepted as a normal, everyday occurrence. There have been numerous examples of major mobilisations, such as for floods (Southland 1994, Manawatu 2004, Whakatane 2004, Edgecumbe 2017), storms (Canterbury snowstorm 1992, Hauraki/Coromandel 1996), fires (Central Otago rural blaze 1999, Auckland Southdown fires 2008 and 2010, Port Hills, Canterbury in 2017), cyclones (‘Bola’, East Coast, 1988, ‘Hilda’, Taranaki, 1990)and a mine disaster (Pike River, 2010).

There was the biggest mobilisation ever in response to the earthquakes which struck Canterbury in September 2010 and February 2011. The former left a trail of damage mostly in rural areas around Christchurch. The latter struck at the heart of the city centre and devastated eastern suburbs, killing 181 and leaving hundreds injured. The New Zealand Fire Service proved, without doubt, its national, unified, infrastructure and capabilities, when it mounted a nation-wide effort responding personnel and vehicles from all over New Zealand to assist at the major emergency.

Two of Thomas Varley’s aspirations came of age in the wake of the 2011 earthquake tragedy in Christchurch – an efficient single, national fire service and a mutual-aid scheme. The two go hand-in-hand and both proved themselves in the many services successfully delivered by firefighters in their response to the biggest and costliest natural disaster to hit New Zealand, both in terms of human loss and damage.

Varley’s Vote of No Confidence

By the early 1960’s Tom Varley must have weighed up the successes he had reforming the Service, those matters still being tackled and those locked in stalemate. His frustration was mounting about those aspects which he felt were essential for progress but which were proving difficult to implement. He had repeatedly included these items in his annual reports to the Fire Service Council, he had warned about their importance in special reports and he had included them in submissions to Parliamentary Select Committees and Enquiries.

Fire safety, campaigns and publicity aimed at reducing fires, was one – together with what he saw as the delayed setting of Standards specifications and the need to take over unprofessional, incompetent, fire protection services provided by the Ministry of Works to Government Departments.

Varley made comprehensive recommendations for nation-wide fire prevention programmes following the major fire in Arthur Barnett’s department store in Dunedin, but there had been little action on this despite a sub-committee’s work over some 2 years to initiate programmes. Varley maintained that the pending legal action being brought by Barnetts against the Dunedin Metropolitan Fire Board was no reason for his report to ‘be treated in an indifferent and vacillating manner’. He thought a fire prevention programme was well overdue. New Zealand was yet to formulate and then act on a co-ordinated, organised programme.

Varley’s patience was tried again when he found he was at odds with the Fire Service Council over the fleet replacement policy. Members ignored his technical advice and had other ‘experts’ draw up a different set of standards and specifications for new fire engines. This rancoured with Varley because Chief Fire Officers, rank and file in the Service and delegates at the UFBA conference were complaining about inadequacies in the ‘new look’ design for appliances.

“In defence, Chairman Stan Dean was denying the Council’s own precisely-set policy, blaming other authorities like the Customs Department for dictating the rules. But it was a double blow for Dean and his Council when firefighters themselves delved into the matter and found out the Council had indeed made questionable policy decisions and that some of its explanations didn’t quite stand up to scrutiny: the Customs Department had played no part in the proposed designs.

These findings were quickly shared among the fraternity and I saw invaluable goodwill slipping away between the Council, the Chairman, myself as Council’s officer, and the firefighters who thought they had been deliberately misled by the Council’s mis-information. On top of which some of the ‘facts’ about fleet replacement were, plainly, impracticable: impossible to implement or just plain wrong”.

Then there was a wrangle within the Council when Varley found out his position about re-grading fire officers had been misrepresented at a Council sub-committee meeting, and at subsequent negotiations, with further loss to his reputation and standing among operational officers. “I finally got this put right within the Council, but the real damage had been done outside and this took much longer to rectify than it should”.

Frustration about these matters was mounting. Varley was more than willing to take responsibility for these activities and make changes where he could, but he also harboured an attitude born of impatience, and an impotence, to take remedial action in the professional, proper, way that he was used to.

“Stanley Dean seemed impervious, beholden to no one”.

These thoughts gnawed away until June 2nd 1961, just a week or so after the Council’s regular monthly meeting. There is nothing in the Minutes to suggest anything took place at that gathering which might have triggered Varley’s action to finally voice his pent-up frustration. But subsequently it’s been revealed that it was during that meeting he found out he had been maligned over his position regarding a scheme to re-grade Fire Officers. But this, in itself, was probably not sufficient to push him to reach for pen and paper: rather it was the long list of unfinished or unachievable items on which he felt he was making no headway without support he felt was his due.

He wrote some of them down in a long letter which he sent directly to the Chairman of the Fire Service Council, Stanley Dean. The document was on Fire Service Council letterhead, headed ‘Personal’ and began:

‘Dear Mr. Chairman
I feel I must draw your attention to the increasingly serious situation that has   developed in the Council due, quite frankly, to your being unable or unwilling to control Council meetings and the conduct of some of its members. The result of this failure, as you would be aware, has produced a lack of confidence on the part of the fire service and the fire authorities in the ability of the Council to carry out its duties in accordance with the Fire Services Act…’

As will be recalled, Tom Varley strenuously opposed Mr Dean’s appointment in May 1953, opposition that became publicly known. Now, in 1961, Varley was in a sort of ‘I told you so!’ mood, blaming the Chairman for lack of progress of New Zealand fire services. These accusations were made in the letter, pointing out that the ‘increasingly serious situation’ had ‘produced a lack of confidence on the part of the service and Fire Authorities…’ After building an efficient Service, which the public had come to rely on, Mr Varley contended that this was being seriously undermined by Mr Dean’s ‘partisan leadership, and went on:

‘The disgusting behaviour during meetings of members threatening one another, using expressions of an ungentlemanly character to one another, making wild accusations, unwarranted criticism of the staff, disorderly conduct in constantly interrupting and generally disregarding the Chair…’

The letter went on to call for ‘an urgent investigation and action on a national basis’, and, regarding the Council’s fire appliance purchase policy, Varley accused Dean of disregarding advice about suitable replacement vehicles and misleading the industry about what the Council had laid down, continuing…

‘It’s an impossible task to maintain goodwill between the fire authorities and the brigades and the Fire Service Council and the staff. Worse still, it is now quite clear that one Council member at least has divorced himself from the Council’s policy and publicly declared that the Council’s policy in this matter is wrong…’

A further personal broadside was launched when Mr Varley’s letter continued, pointing out that Fire Safety and Prevention programmes had not been progressed and Chairman Stanley Dean was himself to blame. Varley alleged Dean had been making misleading statements.

‘You have been making public statements about matters that have not been finalised and may not actually prove to be practicable, thus creating false impressions. You have stated that the Council has agreed to the appointment of Fire Prevention Officers on a regional basis, the establishment of a fire prevention bureau and a public campaign on fire prevention. The Council has reached no such conclusions’.

Varley ended this series of barbs, and the letter, with the observation that he would…

‘…continue to be frustrated as the head of a vital public service with the Chairman in whom I have no confidence. It is my intention to take further action unless I can have an assurance from you an unbiased and impartial outlook, and a positive approach and control of Council affairs and behaviour of its members’.

Stanley Dean’s immediate reaction to the contents of the letter are not officially recorded.

And Varley, for his part, at no time mentioned the existence of his letter of no-confidence to me as we traced the history of his time with the Fire Service Council.

Although he recalled other, even  intimate, details of his employment, the letter was not mentioned: it surfaced only during my research.

Dean was no doubt angry that the Council’s senior executive, the Chief Fire Service Officer, had gone into print with such an unbridled attack, and most of it aimed personally at him, as Chairman.

Dean’s initial hope of recruiting and retaining what he, himself, had described as ‘a first-rate man’ must have now been testily recalled. As is known from earlier controversy, there was no love lost between the two and, in fact, they were probably equally strong-willed, resolute, personalities. Stanley Dean had been described as ‘autocratic’ and ‘a martinet’ by his rugby colleagues when recalling his roles as manager of touring teams and, later, as Chairman of the Rugby Union. Dean believed his views always prevailed. On the other hand, Tom Varley, as a senior officer, was accustomed over many years of having his advice accepted, getting his own way and having his fire-ground commands obeyed, his administrative demands met. His was a steely temperament: he could be head-strong, passionate and insistent. Those who knew him say this was usually patiently contained, without demonstrative or noisy display.

In these times there was still a strict business-like approach to official correspondence: not only carefully typed on letter-head paper but the content was structured and strictly to the point. So it’s unusual when a personal observation or an aside is included in the text. One such comment perhaps helps understand Varley’s approach, and frustration. Auckland’s Chief Fire Officer, George MacKenzie, writing to the Chief Officer of the Surrey Brigade, A. M. Johnstone, in early 1953 responds to Mr Johnstone’s enquiry who had asked ‘…how’s T. A. Varley’s health since he emigrated to New Zealand?’. MacKenzie replies that Varley is well and observed ‘…he glories in his constant ‘brushes’ with the powers-that-be who are so slow at moving’.

Frustrations, differences, clashes of personalities – Dean and Varley were almost certainly on a collision course.

There is neither official receipt of, nor response to, Mr Varley’s letter in the minutes of the Fire Service Council. In fact, the letter is not officially mentioned until much later, and then only once.  To all intents and purposes the records show business as usual for the Council with both men continuing their roles, apparently without noticeable changes. But, for more than eight months two head-strong personalities must have been bubbling away in the back-ground over that provocative letter as they considered what might be done about it, if anything.

Aotea Quay Fire and Outcome 1

Despite the clash of personalities and a difference of opinion in Wellington, work ‘out there’ in Fire Districts continued normally: business as usual.

And in Wellington, mid-July 1961, a little over a month after the Varley letter, brigades were fully taxed fighting a massive blaze at the downtown Aotea Quay.

Flames sweep through the waterfront buildings –
“Bells to Blazes”, Rex Monigatti

Fire took over a building occupied by the Post Office Parcels Branch destroying hundreds of bags of  mailed packages and then spread to the headquarters offices of New Zealand’s domestic airline, National Airways Corporation (NAC). A strong southerly wind quickly whipped the flames into a wool store managed by the Railways and then into neighbouring warehouses. Despite all-out efforts by firefighters, a range of wooden buildings covering more than half a hectare (one and a half acres) was destroyed. Flames leapt across a four-lane road to involve railway waggons and their freight. Crew members from the Sussex, berthed nearby, manned additional ship’s firefighting equipment to help bring the blaze under control. Meanwhile, building after building was consumed. Mail and parcels in transit were lost to the flames along with Government vehicles, including the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s brand new outside broadcasting unit which, recently unloaded from a freighter the day before, was being garaged before continuing its delivery journey to Auckland next day. Its stopover in Wellington led to its destruction. The Post Office Records Office housed historical Post and Telegraph Office documents dating from as far back as 1887 and of great heritage value, were all destroyed in the fire. The history of Wellington Fire Brigade, ‘Bells to Blazes 1865 – 1965’, says ‘… in property damage, this is Wellington’s most expensive fire’.

Unbeknown at the time, this blaze was to give Tom Varley more ammunition for another attempt in his long-held, determined efforts to replace Ministry of Works’ officers with Fire Service personnel for fire protection inspections, advice and risk analysis on all buildings owned and/or occupied by the Crown.

Almost all premises involved in the massive fire on Aotea Quay housed Government departments or enterprises. Their fire protection measures, therefore, had been overseen by Ministry of Works. Tom Varley saw this as an opportunity to escalate matters… the enormous loss was sufficient to capture his attention together with politicians, the press and public opinion.

“Were all the fire protection and prevention measures that had been recommended by Ministry of Works in place? And had it been good advice? I doubted this would be the case. But that would keep until later: the variety of assets lost, and their value, put at more than £1 million, became the immediate focus”.

The Minister of Internal Affairs, Hon. Leon Gotz, made a statement about the seriousness of the fire and to show that he was mindful of the great losses , he added that he had called for a report on the blaze.

Leon (later Sir Leon) Gotz – Alexander Turnbull Library

This played right into Tom Varley’s hands. He could not move quickly enough to capitalise on this good fortune, albeit born out of a destructive fire. “The Minister’s statement was as good as a gilt-edged invitation to put my point of view in writing”.

Within days he had sent in his report – not that he had been officially asked for one. The document not so much answered questions about the fire itself. As might be expected, it was more Varley’s treatise on the history of fire protection in Crown-owned and occupied premises in a document he called ‘Fire Protection of Crown Property – Synopsis of Fire Records Showing Endeavours Made to Effect Improvement’. He outlined his contretemps with Ministry of Works officials, the side-lining of agreements reached on fire prevention and then he detailed numerous complaints and requests that the Fire Service Council had received about fire protection, all matters which had been overseen by ‘an inadequate’ Ministry of Works but which he saw as the Fire Service’s responsibility.

Most of these matters are so fundamental it’s amazing, in hindsight, that they had been allowed to continue in the 1960s. In his letter to the Minister, Varley points out gross deficiencies in hotels (the question whether all hotels must have fire alarm bells installed), in railway stations (Railways Department had not been able to produce a fire prevention policy), in schools (debate over the use of school bells as evacuation signals for fire or earthquake), in hospitals (dubious advice and expertise on such matters as evacuations of bed-ridden and disabled patients) and within the Treaty House at Waitangi (arguments about the ‘heritage look’ spoiled with retro-fitted fire protection).

‘Lack of policy’, Varley said in his report, ‘means the Labour Department cries out for fire safety advice so it could update legislation, the Electricity Department finds it more convenient and preferable to deal with their local fire brigades, while many other Government departments and agencies had made numerous requests to the Fire Service Council for help. We have endeavoured to meet these”.

But he turned up the heat when it came to mentioning the most recent fire. Investigations played into his hands when it was found the expensive fire on Aotea Quay began in Post Office premises. Capitalising on this, Varley took his campaign and related it directly to the event.

“It appearsd the Post Office Department’s own technicians decided, without advice, where to position fire alarm detectors in the old building. They got it very wrong. And then, despite building alterations, detectors were not re-located to suit new configurations and occupancies. All this, it seems, without Ministry of Works… or anyone’s… oversight”.

Thus Tom Varley added to his long-time lobby advocating the replacement of the Ministry of Works with the Fire Service as the lead authority responsible for inspecting government premises and offering advice. He took the opportunity to tell the Minister, directly, that the Fire Service could, and would, do it better. ‘We should have been performing these services’, he opined, ‘rather than the 14 mostly-unqualified staff members in the Ministry of Works’.

The Minister, Mr Gotz, rather diplomatically thanked Varley for ‘the report I asked you to prepare in connection with the fire at Aotea Quay last Friday morning’, adding ‘I suggest that you make copies available to the Fire Service Council and also to the Secretary of the Department of Internal Affairs’.

Aotea Quay Fire Outcome 2

“There was another opportunity to further the Fire Service’s reputation and standing in the public’s eyes, particularly about fire safety and prevention in Government buildings. It came in early 1962… 10 years after I first tried to intervene in this sorry saga of many Government departments having their own, exclusive, fire safety advisers. It was a phone call which resulted in another chance to put my point of view to a senior official who had unique standing. And it came unexpectedly, seven months after the Aotea Quay fire.

It was the Controller and Auditor-General, Archibald Burns, telephoning to invite me to an urgent meeting.

Archibald  Burns –
NZ Controller & Auditor-General website

He said that while preparing his annual report for Parliament he found an inordinate increase in fire losses involving Government buildings in the previous 12 months or so. The inference I took from the tone of his conversation was that he thought the Fire Service, somehow, might be to blame: that inadequate firefighting resources or lack of expertise had led to the losses. He mentioned the Aotea Quay blaze during his phone conversation – perhaps he wanted some explanations from me as the chief operational fire officer? I agreed to attend that same afternoon and once in his office he revealed his concern about fire-loss involving government-occupied buildings with an estimated monetary loss of much more than a £1 million. He singled out the Aotea Quay fire on Wellington’s waterfront. Again there was a hint in his approach that he was looking for reasons for these fire losses, and maybe any shortcomings, perhaps someone to blame, as part of his audit. Mr Burns was startled somewhat when I shifted the discussion, challenging the value he had put on lost and damaged State assets. ‘It’s understated’, I said, pointing out that the total loss at Aotea Quay – buildings, state-owned equipment, vehicles and stores – must have itself far exceeded the total figure he had allocated.  Burns said he would check on the value of the losses but, meantime, he seemed to have dropped all element of blame and I thought at the time that the conversation was somewhat inconclusive when discussions ended. I returned to my office.

But then a few days later he stunned me with a follow-up letter, warning that in his report he would be reprimanding the Fire Service Council and me, not for any shortcomings in firefighting operations (as I had surmised might be the case), but for not being proactive in fire protection and prevention in these Government-occupied premises. He asked me in the letter if I had any comment to this criticism before he finalised his report. I could see that he was obviously under the mistaken impression that the Fire Service Council, somehow, was responsible for overall fire safety and prevention measures in these Government establishments.

As one can imagine, I quickly put pen to paper to correct his view. It played right into my hands: I was quick to point out that it was the responsibility of the Ministry or Works and because I felt so fervently about this, I was able to give him chapter and verse about the Ministry’s role over the years. It was a bit of repetition, following the earlier letter on the topic to the Minister, Mr Gotz. I included Parliamentary reports from Mr Burns’ predecessor, then my Annual Reports to the Fire Services Council, my attempts to offer advice to hotels and schools and the retribution, rebukes and chastising I had suffered in reply. And then, similarly, I outlined the repeated rejection and contempt by Ministry personnel when Fire Brigade personnel tried to inspect Government premises, to test alarm systems or to offer advice. Chief Fire Officers, I mentioned in no uncertain terms, were being warned off, abused, threatened and belittled despite the Act which gave them responsibility for the inspection of all buildings.

Mr Burns reacted immediately he received my letter, apologising for his misunderstanding and expressed his astonishment at the situation. He asked if he could incorporate the information in his reports. I immediately agreed, of course. I believed at long last someone in authority was taking up my long-held views and that the identity would be revealed of those really responsible for the inadequate fire protection, and thus, perhaps, for the increasing fire-losses”.

Auditor-General Archibald Burns delivered. In his 1962 annual report he detailed the serious fire losses in government buildings, particularly the Aotea Quay blaze, and went on to offer a suggestion that might prevent further major fires. ‘The problem of fire protection can be tackled in a realistic manner’, he wrote, ‘only by the recognition of one authority with the necessary powers to ensure that adequate protective measures are taken in respect of all property which, if destroyed by fire, must be replaced from public funds’

This must have been a breath of fresh air to Tom Varley. At last here was a senior official championing action along the lines Varley had been canvassing for years.

The Auditor-General’s report was taken up by Parliament’s Public Expenditure Committee made up of Members of Parliament from both sides of the House. A sub-committee was formed to investigate the recent destructive fires in government buildings and to establish which body had the necessary authority to properly protect Crown property. The sub-committee decided to study in detail the causes of the Aotea Quay fire and heard evidence from the Railways, Post Office, Ministry of Works and the Fire Service Council. While this was underway there was another fire in Wellington, destroying the Government’s Public Service Garage, so this fire, too, was added to the investigations.

The sub-committee found there had been a woeful lack of liaison between government departments over many years, long before the recent fires, and concluded that fire prevention safeguards in the destroyed buildings had been inadequate. Not mincing words, the sub-committee noted that several shortcomings forcibly illustrated the point. ‘Fire detectors installed after an earlier fire in 1959 on Aotea Quay had still not been connected to the main fire alarm when the devastating fire swept through the complex on 14th July 1962. The spacing between fire detector heads in the area occupied by the Post Office did not match standards required, the Railways preferred a night watchman over automatic fire detection systems and in the Public Service Garage the fire protection installation had not been properly inspected and maintained and it was proven that even if detector heads had activated the poor state of the system meant an alarm could not have been transmitted to the fire brigade’.

The sub-committee went on to criticise lack of coordination between government departments, it suggested that the Ministry of Works had insufficient staff to carry out fire protection duties and that it didn’t have the authority to ensure that the fire protection measures it was recommending were, in fact, installed. Then the sub-committee had its attention drawn to the fact that the Ministry was recommending and installing a fire detection system that was out of date and for which the Underwriters’ Association had long since withdrawn its approval.

Varley’s View Prevails… But Does It?

The telling recommendation was that fire protection in the government sector should be carried out by one authority, the Fire Service Council, and that the State Services Commission should immediately investigate giving the Council the necessary authority for its new role and if amendments to the 1949 Fire Service Act were necessary for this, so be it. Rebuke pointed at the Ministry of Works was driven home with a warning that it must not install any more antiquated fire protection systems.

Tom Varley must have been elated with these findings and progress. It was repetition of matters he had canvassed for years. But there were signs that the State Services Commission was not making headway among the government agencies as quickly as the Committee might have liked. One would have thought that all those officials responsible for following up its recommendations would have given their tasks the urgency requested. After all, any delays on their part would be immediately apparent should there be another major fire involving government premises. Indeed, fire struck again… and the officials were found to be dragging their feet.

The Auditor-General, in a sort of ‘told you so’ section in his 1963 Annual Report, told of not one, but two more major fires… buildings at the Waitaki hydro-electric development site at Benmore in February 1963 and the Post Office Workshops on Wellington’s Waterloo Quay in March 1963. The combined loss was more than £200,000. ‘At the workshops the alarm system was detector only, without sprinkler, and due to its age may not have been fully efficient’ Burns reported, ‘while at Benmore there was insufficient water supply for firefighting, and fire protection installations were lacking’

He went on to repeat the point he made the year before; there must be one standard of fire protection across all government departments, overseen by one authority. The continuing incidence of inadequate fire protection, with resulting losses, seemed to prove his point.

The year’s delay in carrying out its recommendations was not lost on MPs comprising Parliament’s Public Service Committee, including its chairman, Robert Muldoon, future Prime Minister.

Robert (later Sir Robert) Muldoon – Wikipedia

In its 1964 report the Committee says it deplored the lack of action. It thought the recommendations should have been urgently implemented… yet officials said there would be further delays in making provision for the Fire Service Council to be the one authority to oversee fire protection in government premises. The Committee said its earlier decision should be actioned and it wasn’t impressed that further investigations, as suggested by officials, would add up to delays for another year.

It was obvious that the sectional interests which Tom Varley had come up against for nearly a decade were still clinging to defences, busy protecting their own patches and unable to accept that one entity, the Fire Service Council, should take responsibility for fire protection in government-owned and occupied premises. The self-interest expressed by each department, and their reluctance to give up control, is implied in the next annual report of the Public Expenditure Committee when in 1965 it states that the State Services Commission advised there had ‘been much better inter-department liaison’ on fire protection measures. The Ministry of Works, Post Office, Defence, Railways, Fire Service Council, Internal Affairs, Electricity Department and Treasury were talking, along with other departments and the Commission said that ‘following these interdepartmental discussions all user departments expressed satisfaction with the Ministry of Works… so the Ministry will retain this work. The Fire Service Council will have its authority extended to provide fire prevention training at government institutions’.

But once again members of the Public Expenditure Committee were dissatisfied with progress by the officials and wanted a better solution. ‘We are still not satisfied that these will be fully effective and propose to look at this again in the future. We are concerned that after all this time no further progress can be reported. Meantime we recommend that the Fire Service Council should have an advisory role in the planning of all buildings with the right to report independently to the Minister if its advice is not accepted’.

The bureaucrats were under notice… take another look for more specific answers.

It was to be yet another year before the Public Expenditure Committee was satisfied when, in its 1966 report, it advised that members had seen a draft standard specification for automatic fire alarm systems in Government buildings which had been drawn up by the New Zealand Standards Association.

Further, it was directed that the Ministry of Works must submit plans to the Fire Service Council for all proposed Government buildings with a value exceeding £250,000, or which did not comply with local bylaws or had a potential for unusual risks to life, property or contents.


The persistent Public Expenditure Committee had won out. It had taken more than 3 years but it had finally set a seal on improved fire protection in government premises, it had obtained a standard specification setting minimum requirements and it enlisted the Fire Service Council’s expertise in giving advice on fire protection measures. No wonder Tom Varley, a loner without authority, with no standing or the push of a parliamentary committee had made such little progress against those opposed to change – those who went all-out to protect their own sectional interests.

“Lost sight of in all this delay had been the loss of publicly-occupied buildings in major fires that could so easily have cost lives. I was not to see further changes in my tenure, but these things were eventually corrected. The Fire Service, and Fire Brigades, took their rightful position as the best and proper place to obtain accurate and practicable fire safety advice and to inspect and approve drawings and plans as part of the application process for building permits.

And what of the Ministry of Works? Well, I was around in the late 1980s to see it disestablished as part of the Government’s moves towards privatisation. Closure of mental hospitals in the 1960s meant no need for their separate fire stations. Later all hospitals were run as State-owned enterprises and former Hospital Board fire prevention officers disappeared. Happily, this reduced the number of fire protection entities in the community, many of whom (as I have said before) were not up to the task. This left Military fire brigades at some Defence properties, industrial brigades trained to deal with specific risks in their factories and premises and, of course, fire and rescue services at the country’s airports. We must not forget rural fire protection. The well-established and maintained forestry services seemed to diminish after the New Zealand Forest Service closed in the late 1980s, to be taken over by the Department of Conservation, forestry owners and local authorities. Rural protection, for now, remains a separately funded entity, often seen as a poor cousin, side-by-side with its urban counterpart. But it’s ripe for reform”.

As a post-script I asked Varley if his first-hand experiences at Milford and the Hermitage, plus his findings of incompetency at the Works Department, answered the question as to why there so many of these major, expensive, fires in post-war New Zealand?’ “Yes, undoubtedly!” he replied.

What Might Have Been

Ironically there had been an earlier opportunity to divest the Works Department of its fire inspection and prevention roles. Records in Archives New Zealand’s Wellington repository tell of what might have been. Whether Tom Varley knew about this is unclear: it was before he came to New Zealand. He did not mention it, and given the tough line he took on this topic, I think he would have spoken of it had he been aware of this lost chance… for the fire service to take over all duties carried out by Works.

In April 1948 the Public Service Commission suggested that the Department of Internal Affairs should take over the planning, implementing and testing of evacuation schemes in all buildings occupied by Government Departments. The Works Department (which became the Ministry of Works) had been unwilling to take on these responsibilities. Internal Affairs Department was approached but Under- Secretary, Arthur Harper, replied quite strenuously that he could not agree to this move, given there were just 2 staff members in the Fire Division and one of those, a clerk, would be occupied fulltime with the Ballantyne’s Enquiry for many months. (The other person must have been the Inspector of Fire Services). The answer was ‘no’ and he concluded his reply slightly apologetically: ‘I am sorry I have to take this attitude, Yours etc, A. C. Harper’

Had Arthur Harper somehow agreed to this, perhaps further inroads could have been made 3 years later, after T. A. Varley arrived, to fulfil another of his planks in the grand plan, to wrestle all fire-related duties from the Works Department along with all those other government agencies which had a stake in fire protection and firefighting.

However, an even greater opportunity was in the offing – one that Varley would surely have grabbed with both hands. The Works Department, apparently upset when its suggestion to transfer evacuation schemes was turned down, came back with another letter saying it was time Internal Affairs accepted responsibility for all fire protection services (not just evacuation schemes) in buildings occupied by the Crown. Not only that, but to get around Internal Affairs’ problems of staff shortages to handle these duties, Works Department was offering to transfer a number of staff headed by George Dunnachie, ‘suitably qualified, an architect, former fireman and IFE graduate’.

Arthur Harper, by now Permanent Head of Internal Affairs, again turned down the overture – ‘… Mr Dunnachie’s appointment would not be accepted by some of the main fire interests; there would be repercussions to the department’, he wrote, ‘Internal Affairs could not handle this matter… the duties should remain with Works Department’

So twice there was opportunity for change, turned away by Arthur Harper. And there the matter lapsed, the proposals probably unknown to T. A Varley when he arrived in New Zealand. In December 1951, the Ministry of Works (as the Works Department had by then been renamed) reversed its attitude, the  Acting Commissioner advising ‘all Government-occupied buildings are the responsibility of the Ministry of Works’, followed by a list of complete fire protection, advisory and prevention services as well as maintenance and testing of all alarm systems, ‘… and though not responsible for evacuation schemes’, Acting Commissioner F. H. M. Hanson added expansively, ‘we will oversee them, anyway’

Thus was lost any further opportunity to easily transfer these services to the Fire Service Council. If only Arthur Harper had agreed to either of the earlier offers – as uncovered in the Archives files – T. A. Varley would have been saved years of angst. And, with proper preventive measures in place, those major fires may have been averted.

 Business As Usual?

But what of Mr Varley’s June, 1961, letter roundly criticising the Chairman, Mr Stanley Dean? Nothing in any minutes of Council’s monthly meetings make reference to the document itself, its sentiments or any reaction. What, then, was going on in the background? It was unlikely the harsh accusations in the letter would be brushed under the carpet. The temperament of the two personalities concerned meant that this was not a possibility – sooner or later the matter would re-surface. The two head-strong men could not both continue in office given the close relationship their positions necessitated. Did T. A. Varley regret his personal attack on the Chairman? Did he really expect Mr Dean to announce a new objectivity on his part?

Untypically, this is a chapter in his life that Mr Varley did not later discuss. It was obvious from his letter that he was concerned with the running of the Council, aggravated by his growing frustration because he felt the same body, his employer, was blocking his attempts to improve fire services. Then there were specific matters over which he believed his views were either ignored or mis-represented. The fire engine replacement policy, the re-grading of fire officers, fire safety and prevention, the ongoing campaign against the Ministry of Works and his refusal to continue to work with the Standards Association… all must have registered with the Fire Service Council.

He always thought he was under-paid (and ironically, so did the Council at the time of his appointment). His resentment probably grew when he was overlooked in the salary review undertaken in early 1961. Perhaps this was because, by this time, the Council did not recommend an increase: its members possibly thought Varley’s remuneration was appropriate and even if they thought an increase was justified, perhaps they were reluctant to make a recommendation.

Varley, possibly unwittingly, made enemies around the Council table when he furnished a report about finding a successor for his deputy, William J. Henderson, who was appointed Wellington’s Chief Fire Officer. In December 1961 Varley told the Council that filling Mr Henderson’s position ‘requires very special consideration’ to obtain an officer ‘with adequate experience, ability, background and standing to enable me to maintain standards at the Training School’ and ‘an appointee who in the ordinary course of events should be my successor’. Varley went on to point out that when this position was advertised twice previously there was a paucity of applications from New Zealand ‘inevitable because it must be realised that the qualifications and experience required are far beyond that which could be expected from members of our Service’, therefore ‘opportunity should be taken immediately to advertise the position overseas’. This was repetition of Tom Varley’s theme when seeking a Deputy some 4 years before.

His persistence in this showed he had misread, or ignored, the changed and progressing climate of the New Zealand Fire Service. His report could easily be interpreted as a put-down for all local senior officers, adding insult to injury when he listed the duties he felt they were not yet capable of and the qualities they could not match: ‘authoritative knowledge, the ability and patience for a job which is often of a repetitive character (with) a well-established background and be an officer conspicuously superior to that of the people he is training’. It ended with a reflection rather more of a gap in his administration than those officers that had been under his tutorage… ‘I had hoped to produce from our Fire Service one or more officers who could be outstanding to the extent of filling senior posts on the staff and eventually becoming my successor. I regret that this has not been achieved primarily because those few who possess the potentiality have either not developed the aptitude or have not shown a liking for staff and training work’.

This report, to those who read it, had all the hallmarks of a ‘patronising immigrant’ when Varley questioned the capabilities of the country’s top fire officers – those serving at the School and those managing metropolitan brigades up and down the land, among them some very competent men who would soon be showing their colours and contributing much to New Zealand’s fire services.  Varley’s report might also be seen as little more than self-serving. Was he saying that because no local officer had yet emerged as his successor he had better be kept on, (despite his acrimonious, criticising letter six months earlier), until someone from overseas could be recruited and trained as his deputy? This report was apparently not widely circulated or discussed. Just as well, perhaps – fire officers would no doubt feel angered, their capability having been questioned, reputations besmirched and careers in question.

There are also signs that Varley had been acting outside strict Government protocols. When the Minister of Internal Affairs was acknowledging, in writing, receipt of Varley’s report about the Aotea Quay fire, it must be remembered that the Minister added to his letter the suggestion ‘that it be made available to the Fire Services Council and also to the Secretary of the Department of Internal Affairs’. This indicates that Varley had not, as might be expected as a matter of course, kept crucial Council people in the loop with a copy of his report, either before, or at the same time he sent it to the Minister. Then there was the conversation with, and resulting submission to, the Auditor-General, Mr Burns. Council’s officers or members may not have been aware of this. The document addressed to the Auditor-General, notably, does not record ‘ccs'(copies) to anyone. Council members should have been given the courtesy of a copy when it is considered that Varley was dealing with a special officer, not of Government but one who’s independence and statutory responsibility means he reports directly to Parliament. The situation between the Council and Varley was probably further stretched when in a subsequent report to Council he outlined his activities with Mr Burns, and suggested that ‘the whole matter (about the Aotea fire and alleged inadequacies within the Ministry of Works) might have some political significance and Mr Burns might therefore feel it prudent to examine the matter, independently of myself or the Fire Service Council’. Members, especially the Chairman, must have had an unpleasant surprise when, belatedly, they found that this matter might be taken out of their hands without their direct input. And what, exactly, were the political implications?

Mr Varley’s continuing employment by the Council, in all the circumstances, must have been an unhappy situation and uncomfortable all-round. It was to come to an end. Without any record in the Council’s Minutes or Correspondence as to why, an extraordinary meeting was called for late February 1962.

The Father Bows Out

 At two o’clock in the afternoon of 28th February 1962 there was a Special Meeting of the Fire Service Council in Wellington. The 6 members present had before them just one item on the agenda: the Chief Fire Service Officer’s employment. Mr Varley was seeking retirement. Before the resolution was put to give effect to his request he was invited to speak.

‘I do not wish to traverse old ground nor engage in recriminations. I have decided to retire with the utmost goodwill. My reasons are firstly my age, I desire to take up other activities now, rather than later. There’s my state of health and then the discovery that I was the only member of the technical staff not included in the Public Service classification list as due for an increase in salary as from March the 1st, 1961. Having said that I will take permission to withdraw from this meeting’.

The members apparently ignored his controversial remarks and resolved to ask the Public Service Commission to give effect to Mr Varley’s wish to retire. It was further moved that the Commission terminate his services in three months and that he be treated generously regarding retirement leave in view of all the time he had put in outside normal working hours. Chairman Stanley Dean moved, seconded by Cliff Bishop, that a draft advertisement calling for applications for the vacant Chief’s position be drawn up and referred to the Commission with a request for urgency.

Thomas Arthur Varley was going. The Council’s extraordinary meeting was obviously strategically timed. The UFBA’s Annual Meeting was being held the very next week in Westport where Mr Varley announced to the whole Fire Service that this would be his swansong as Chief Fire Service Officer.

Just exactly what had been going on behind the scenes is not mentioned officially, but there’s a hint indicating there was more than a little fallout after Mr Varley wrote that letter in June 1961. And that he had attempted, at least once, to pour oil on troubled waters, trying to withdraw the harsh criticisms he made in his epistle. In March 1962, a month after the announcement of his retirement, the Council’s Minutes reveal that there had been an earlier ‘damage control’ letter from Mr Varley. Apparently realising his hopeless swim against the tide of Council politics and personalities, he sought a life-line to try to patch up affairs.

The relevant minutes record ‘That the Chief Fire Service Officer’s letter of 19th November 1961 withdrawing his letter of 2nd June 1961, making reflections on the Chairman and Members of the Fire Service Council, be rescinded’.

This entry in the Minute Book apparently discloses that Tom Varley attempted to withdraw his accusations 5 months after he made them. The Council subsequently resolved that the letter trying to withdraw the vitriol was nullified, as if it had not existed. No further need for niceties, the original, attacking, letter was to stand, but two members asked it be recorded that they had abstained from voting on the motion regarding the follow-up letter. There was to be no grand farewell tour by the departing Mr Varley. The Council put paid to this when Members agreed ‘that in view of his pending retirement his visits be restricted to as few as possible’. This move was probably the Council’s way of avoiding dissent, criticism or questioning among brigades in heartland New Zealand where Tom Varley was generally held in very high regard.

Thomas Varley (left) visits Hastings Fire Brigade  early 1961

It was left to the President of the United Fire Brigades’ Association, Chief Fire Officer C. A. Nightingale, to thank Varley at the UFBA’s Westport Conference for ‘his tenacity of purpose in his efforts for the Fire Service’ which was endorsed by acclamation.

In his formal address to the Conference Tom Varley mentioned his regrets about the slow replacement of the fleet. ’On new appliances, it is a sorry picture which I can only describe as a serious blunder from which I can see there is great danger of the Service going back to the pre-1951 era, which in turn can only mean a serious reduction in efficiency and a lessening of pride of service. The period of stagnation in this connection shows some signs of coming to an end, but I regret to say we are faced with having to pay considerably more for fire engines, some of which may well be less efficient, unless the position’s watched carefully’. In his swansong report he did see some brighter horizons – ‘the availability of ultra-light pumps to replace obsolete trailer pumps’ and ‘my delight to see the way the Service is making available its skills and resources in the aid of humanity as distinct from the extinguishing of fires: it is simply amazing the lives that are being saved and what succour is being provided by fire services to people in distress’.

Varley had one further opportunity for a last word, which he took when penning his section of the Fire Service Council’s Annual Report for year ended March 31st, 1962. He repeated opinion voiced in his June 1961 letter, but watered-down, about the composition of the Council and the unlikelihood of good governance of the fire services while sectional interests were promoted by some Council members. He warned that Urban Fire Brigade Employers were affecting the efficiency of the service by acting unilaterally without reference to the Council ‘with serious detrimental effect’. Fire Authorities, he maintained, were circulating training information which was not suitable for New Zealand conditions and was contrary to the syllabus being properly taught at the Training School. Continuing his swan-song, Varley went on to question the need for two Acts to provide for fire services, the Fire Services Act 1949 and the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1947 ‘in many aspects they conflict with each other and create serious anomalies when both were designed for the extinguishment of fire’. He mentioned the ‘no fewer than 13 Government departments having fire protection responsibilities, which leads to duplication of effort and in the case of the Ministry of Works, professional rivalry and waste of technical resources’. And so he repeated once more several of his long-held opinions ending with the hope that ‘some notice will be taken of them, part of my last report, lest the various fire protection empires become unwieldy and reflect on the efficiency of the Fire Service itself’.

Putting all this to one side, Varley (in his retiremet) summed up the teamwork during his time in office.


End of an Era, May 31st 1962

Tom Varley’s service is not mentioned nor acknowledged in the Minutes of the Fire Service Council, though the Council was scheduled to meet on his last day of duty, May 31st 1962. There was no valedictory and it’s notable there is no official record or entry that he had left the service.

For all that had gone before, Varley says he retired with few regrets.

“I enjoyed making the innovations I introduced to improve the Fire Service in New Zealand. While I was doing this I saw many catastrophes and calamities. There were setbacks. But I saw them all in the same light. They were all pieces of the jigsaw which, when jiggled into place, gradually gave rise to a proud, efficient and effective nation-wide Fire Service. And while my comparative junior age was often commented upon, I feel I proved that the New Zealand custom of seniority of rank with years need not always put the best man in the position of leadership.

And talking of appointments, I despaired when my successor was announced. I had seen nothing about Gordon Drummond that meant he was anywhere near qualified nor experienced to successfully carry out the tasks of the country’s senior fire officer.

The other senior position, the Chairman of the Fire Service Council, changed hands when Stanley Dean stood down. Perryman was appointed who, with a background as Inspector of Explosives and Dangerous Goods, had no experience in fire services whatsoever. This was another backward step”.

In 1990 Varley’s friend and long-time Administration Officer in both Cardiff and Weymouth, Ronald Pritchard, died. Geoffrey Pritchard, wrote advising of his father’s death and received a revealing reply from Varley about his early days in New Zealand: ‘… a very big adventure which at first was very trying but once I had gained the confidence of the Service and got down to curing their weaknesses with a modern outlook, I began to find there was a realisation of my background experience and powers-that-be gave up describing me as an ‘expensive acquisition’ to the country. I served for eleven and a half years after producing officers with the ability to command and keep up to date’.

Of Tom Varley’s time at the helm, Allan Bruce, in his book “Into the Line of Fire” says it was fraught with a relentless domination of vested and sectional interests on the Fire Service Council which interpreted the 1949 Act to the letter so that it did not do any more than it had to. The Fire Service Council, and the Department of Internal Affairs, opposed rather than supported Varley over many aspects – as Allan Bruce puts it ‘… fighting him all the way, his vision was cut short. It went unachieved’. Notwithstanding, ‘the climate and restrictive legislation within which he had to operate, Tom Varley had without question done a remarkable job in taking our fire brigades, and most importantly the thirst for training and knowledge of firemen, to a high it is doubtful any other person could have achieved’.

Tom Varley, the Beecham’s Pill of the United Kingdom Fire Service, had worked his remedies over eleven years to greatly transform New Zealand fire brigades, adding to his title of Doctor Beecham that of Father of the Modern New Zealand Fire Service.

It was a remarkable achievement by a man without formal education who, self-taught, turned out to be a respected leader. Among New Zealand firefighters he had been assertive but not overpowering, towering of stature but retaining goodwill and friendliness. Most people found him approachable and he, them. He had a sense of discipline but with decency and a touch of immodesty. He earned plaudits for his concern and awareness of people. As was seen in both Great Britain and in New Zealand, Varley held genuine care for firefighters and recognised their work. T. A. Varley was still in good health and it was expected that he could find meaningful activities to keep him occupied.

In his retirement he was to see the 1975 Fire Services Act made law, putting into legislation some of the recommendations made 27 years before by the Royal Commission into the Ballantyne’s fire.

Retirement? Not Quite

Tom Varley turned to community contributions in retirement. In 1963 he was named the Government’s appointee on the Wellington Metropolitan Fire Board which governed all fire brigade operations in the Wellington City Council’s territory. Typically, he spoke out when he saw something that he thought needed putting right.

This time it was about false alarms, even though it affected mostly the Government which, perhaps ironically, he represented on the Board. Wellington Brigade was responding to more and more false alarms to commercial premises, particularly those occupied by Government departments or agencies.

Varley pointed out at a Board meeting that most of the false alarms were caused by poor maintenance, saying the fire protection companies that installed the systems did not follow up, leaving the equipment poorly serviced. He pointed out that the systems were designed to be fail-safe, so that the fire brigade was automatically called if circuitry broke down. ‘The Brigade is being used as a kind of ‘fault-finder’ for the ailing and aging systems’ Mr Varley said, and that ‘the real problem is that there is no Standard Specifications for Automatic Private Fire Alarms. The Government should insist a model specification is introduced as a matter of urgency’.

Perhaps his concern was fired by recollection of earlier days when he found out that the brigade, frustrated by repeated false alarms from government buildings, used to respond inadequately by sending a fireman on a bicycle to investigate and report back.

Varley escalated the matter at a later meeting of the Fire Board because the number of false alarms, especially to government premises, kept on increasing. He again warned that because there was no standard specification the systems could not be approved by the brigade nor by underwriters which, in turn, meant insurance cover on the buildings could be affected if there was any loss by fire. In other words insurance companies may not pay out. Wellington’s Chief Fire Officer shared the concern and the matter became a campaign by most Fire Authorities in New Zealand, petitioning the Government and the Standards Institute to act.

Tom Varley was a member of the Wellington Metropolitan Fire Board until December 31st, 1965. But his community service had not finished. He was instrumental in establishing the Wellington Sea Rescue Service (now the Wellington Volunteer Coastguard Incorporated).

This organisation was born out of the tragic loss of 51 lives when the inter-island passenger ferry, ‘Wahine’, foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour during a severe storm on April 10th, 1968. In July a public meeting was held at Eastbourne to thank those residents who had played such a big part rescuing passengers out on the harbour and assisting those who were washed ashore along the suburb’s waterfront beaches.

Lifebelts washed up on the
Eastbourne shoreline –
Alexander Turnbull Library

The same gathering decided there should be better sea rescue services and Varley was a member of the founding committee to raise funds for, and purchase, a suitable craft and train volunteers. The new service was up and running in August 1970 and within days was making its first rescues.

Varley had first-hand experience of sea rescue services like this, albeit decades before in Britain, where the local brigades he commanded often worked hand-in-hand with the Royal National Lifeboat Institute’s crews when dealing with fires and other offshore emergencies. Or perhaps he was remembering, and thankful for, enjoyable and trouble-free days spent fishing aboard his cabin cruiser out of Weymouth when he was stationed in Dorset during those years immediately before moving to New Zealand.

In retirement Tom Varley also kept close to the Fire Service. He was contracted as a consultant by Government and private sector members of the industry. He was often invited to Fire Brigade and Fire Service functions. As Patron and Life Honorary Member, he was in touch with the UFBA. “I was very proud to have the honour of being Patron. The UFBA has played a very, very important part in the development of the fire services in New Zealand. Over the years men of substance have been involved and I think of long-time Secretary Tommy Watts, formerly Captain of the Newmarket Brigade who served the organisation for nearly 40 years. He was just before my time in New Zealand, but his good work lived on. Then there was C. A. (Ossie) Osborne of Onehunga Brigade who was the Association’s treasurer for more than 40 years and was chosen as its first-ever Patron. And H.L. Warner, Third Officer of Hawera Brigade, was Secretary for some 14 years. He had a bit of a ‘Sergeant Major’ attitude, but the results he achieved for the Association spoke for themselves. It was the following Secretary, Senior Station Officer E.F. Quinlan of Te Awamutu, who set up permanent offices for the UFBA in that town, premises the Association owned. This made sense because the organisation had grown considerably and then when it was decided to move the offices to Wellington in the early 1990’s, this gave assets to be sold to help pay for the move.

The UFBA’s educational arm, the N.Z. Fire Brigades’ Institute, has for decades provided fire fighters with opportunities to enhance their knowledge by qualification, a valuable asset alongside the IFE’s examinations.  The UFBA’s annual conferences have, since 1878, provided a meeting place and forum for firefighters from throughout New Zealand.


In addition, the UFBA’s biennial waterway competitions provide both good spectacle and keen contest. Correctly, they have changed over the years to keep pace with modern techniques and equipment”.

And his connections continued with the local branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers, the worldwide organisation he headed in the 1940s. Thus, in retirement – technically, his second – he frequently found an audience to hear his comments, and sometimes criticism, about developments in the Fire Service.

Law Reform at Last

In 1972 submissions were invited by the Local Bills Committee of Parliament which was considering amendments to the Fire Service Act. Varley took the opportunity to appear before the Committee to again air his long-held views, his ideal governing body: a three-person, independent, Fire Service Commission with experienced and unbiased members, who had no connection with Insurance and Local Authority interests.

Varley told the select Committee that the draft Bill did not go far enough to meet modern firefighting needs, nor did it remedy the wrongs and ‘costly failures’ of the 1949 Act. He submitted that it did not reduce the many Unions, gave no provision for a better pension scheme for firefighters, had no clause enabling the Fire Service to train outsiders at the College (he had seamen and civil defence personnel in mind). He pointed out that the Bill did not ensure that Harbour Boards were included in Fire Districts so that they would have to pay for fire protection, correcting an inequity. Besides, he told the Committee, the Bill contained no clear direction for the Fire Service in the event of major civil defence emergencies.

But the Committee persevered with the Bill in its original form, with governance unaltered.  The topic which was of most interest to the wider service and industry – the Fire Service Council – was to continue.

However, Tom Varley, along with everyone else, didn’t have long to wait to see further reform when there was a change of Government following the 1972 General Election when the Labour Party was elected to office. The former Mayor of Kaiapoi, Norm Kirk, the man once so concerned about fire protection in his electorate, was now Prime Minister and he appointed Henry May as Minister of Internal Affairs, in charge of the fire services. May, the veteran volunteer firefighter, was now in a position to reorganise the fire services – which he did starting with legislation, effective August 1974.

This sweeping measure abolished the Fire Service Council, the very body that years before had upset Mr Kirk by turning down improvements at Kaiapoi fire station. The Council, it will be recalled, was a substitute for the 3 governing commissioners that had been recommended by the Royal Commission into Ballantyne’s Fire. It had said at the time that reorganisation of the fire services had been ‘a major matter demanding instant attention’. Now here was Henry May, 30 years later, putting the recommendation into law. The Fire Service Council would disappear, replaced by a Fire Service Commission comprising 2 experienced Fire Service Officers, W.E. (Bill) Henderson (former executive with the Council), and F.A Hardy (former Chief Fire Officer, Christchurch) with a layperson in the Chair, Jack (later Sir Jack) Hunn (long-time public administrator).

The Minister’s message to the Commission was unambiguous – prepare plans to do away with local body administration of fire brigades and replace it with a national, unified service. This signalled more legislation to come to give effect to his edict but first the Commission had to prepare the groundwork among Brigades and local authorities. This was done in relative haste, pushed by the Minister and dubbed “Operation Phoenix”. Henry May’s new order of things was enshrined in law passed in September, 1975. And just in time. Within a few weeks his party, Labour, was soundly defeated in the General Election.

There had been wide-spread rumours before the election saying that the National Party, if successful, would implement its own changes to fire service administration. So there was a nervous period while the new National Government settled into office and decided its attitude.

There was widespread concern among all firefighters about just what the reforms, either Henry May’s or any new National Government proposals, would mean for them. Speculation was rife, particularly among volunteers, about their future in the new scheme of things. The Chairman of the Commission, Jack Hunn, tried to clarify matters for the volunteers when he addressed the United Fire Brigades’ Association conference in Christchurch in March 1975.

But he started by raising further alarm bells when he said the future was about changes made now, and went on to say that ‘New Zealand has 277 fire brigades for 3 million people while Britain has just 40 for a population of 55 million. So it’s rather surprising there’s anyone at all who thinks ours is a sound and sensible system for the demanding needs of our times’. He stressed to Conference delegates that the Commission’s views were still proposals because the new National Government had not yet decided whether to accept them.

Jack Hunn continued by outlining the scheme for national governance of the new fire service with decentralised Regions, Areas and Districts, a service that would be financed by a combination of public funds and insurance contributions, and would have nation-wide training, works and fleet programmes. ‘The occasional coolness between permanents and volunteers can invariably be put down to personalities and would, if anything, be dampened down, certainly not exacerbated, by Area co-operation. Volunteers are indispensable… and, quoting Roosevelt, I am saying they have nothing to fear but fear itself’.

He told the conference that, so far, reaction to all the Commission’s proposals had been favourable, in varying degrees, to the concept of a New Zealand Fire Service. He asked the UFBA to give its blessing… this, he said, would well-nigh assure its success.

Varley, the onlooker had already mentioned his doubts about the new arrangements. The UFBA reserved judgement until the Government announced whether it was going to go with the blueprint.

Internal Affairs Minister, D. A. (Alan) Highet, soothed the whole industry when he announced that he would, meantime, accept the changes proposed by the Fire Service Commission and arrange for their implementation… but reserve the right to intervene later if they did not meet his satisfaction.

A Flaming Duck

 The Fire Service Commission, having gained the green light from the Government, continued detailed planning and began introducing its concept for reformed services throughout New Zealand. But those critical of the Commission’s actions did not have long to wait for it to make a major public relations blunder which offended almost every single one of the nation’s firefighters.

Varley found he had plenty of support when he launched a scathing attack on a new badge introduced by the Commission late in 1975, designed to replace the one he had helped create. The make-over showed a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Varley’s personal interest aside, perhaps the Commission had taken too seriously the name given to its restructure, ‘Operation Phoenix’, but it was ill-advised in its attempt to completely re-brand the Fire Service. Maybe the Commission’s members didn’t realise the real value of public recognition and community trust that the old brand represented and which they now ‘owned’ in New Zealand. With its crossed axes and helmet it was a long-established, internationally recognised logo of fire services and thus was a very worthy asset, a ‘trade mark’ so well known it would have been the envy of any commercial interest. In effect the old badge and what it stood for was priceless, an asset beyond dollar value. And here was the Commission scrapping it.

The new badge: unacceptable to most firefighters

Varley found no shortage of support to back up his criticism. “The new badge had numerous, agitated detractors. These individuals lost no time in taking their objections to Brigade meetings, resulting in many Brigades saying they would challenge the Commission and not wear the new emblem, choosing instead to retain the old badge with the crossed axes and helmet surrounded by the familiar eight-pointed Servimus star. Opposition grew and in their anger and disappointment some Brigades took the opportunity to design, manufacture and wear their own badges, discarding the Phoenix, which they called ‘rubber ducky’, ‘flaming duck’ or ‘Kentucky Fried Duck’. It was a step backward: like the old days, there was no longer one uniform badge worn by all members of the Fire Service nation-wide. In its attempt to introduce a nation-wide logo, badge and symbol, the Commission had caused just the opposite: dissent and divergence”.

Members of the Commission, and their advisers, had completely misread the mood within the service and were roundly ridiculed for their choice of the Phoenix badge. The Commission could only retreat in the face of overwhelming and almost universal opposition within the service. It announced that personnel could wear the old badge until another design was decided. The replacement was introduced in 1984 and was instantly accepted. It retained the eight-pointed star surrounded by leaves, readily identifiable as New Zealand fern, and it has the crossed axes and helmet, surmounted with a crown.

The word ‘Servimus’ that Varley had introduced was also reborn when it was given as the name to the Commission’s monthly magazine, distributed throughout the Service. The eight letters, and the merits they represent which all firefighters should possess, were spelled out inside the front cover: ever timely.

T.A. Varley was very vocal in 1990 when new law changed the composition of the Commission. It provided for 4 part-time Commissioners. Three, not necessarily experienced fire service officers, were to be appointed by the Government and the other, ex officio, would be the Secretary of Internal Affairs. Mr Varley saw this as flying in the face of good sense, undoing what he considered was the ideal composition of the Commission, created by Henry May and first recommended much earlier after Ballantyne’s fire.

“Without the need, by law, for operational fire service experience to be represented on the Commission, wise and practical advocacy would not be readily available. I could see there would be a re-emergence of the problems I had suffered because of members’ sectional interests and personal agendas. This is what had hamstrung my reforms back in the 1950s”.

Controversial Changes

 The 1990s saw the fire services in turmoil. The new law, the Fire Service Amendment Act 1990, enabled the Government to pursue its campaign to reform fire services with the aim of reducing costs, a policy no doubt dictated by those in industry and commerce who contended that cheaper fire services would result in reduced insurance premiums.

The topic had been stirred by a paper, the Strategos Report, commissioned by the New Zealand Fire Service Commission. A panel had been asked whether overall fire services could be provided at less cost if fire sprinklers were widely adopted, perhaps as mandatory fire protection, in all premises. And if so, the panel was to examine and determine whether this would result in net national or community benefit. The Report gave an unequivocal “no” to the answer to the first question. But instead of leaving it at that, the panel strayed from its brief and went on to comment on other matters. The report said the Consolidated Fund should pay for fire services, while further work was required to determine costs of non-fire incidents attended: whether fire services should respond to these, and who should pay. Remarkably, the Report included a finding that that fire service legislation was inadequate and unrealistic and needed to be changed to better reflect what was expected of it. It also proposed that some fire brigade services should be let out by tender enabling private competitors to provide firefighting (presumably at less cost?) under contract.

These far-reaching thoughts and proposals riled firefighters, and they had just recovered from the Strategos study when Minister of Finance, Ruth Richardson, dictated cuts in the fire service budgets and, on behalf of the government together with the Minister of Internal Affairs, Graeme Lee, sought an urgent external review of fire service management.

The government’s amending law had shifted the goal posts for fire services governance and management, allowing the appointment in 1993 of the first civilian Chief Executive of the New Zealand Fire Service, Maurice Cummings. He was joined by new Chief Fire Service Officer, Kerry Everson. Their first day in office on 1st April 1993 must have been memorable: on that day they learned that the Government planned an external review of the Fire Service. It was later decided this would be an internal review and in due course it proposed administrative and operational changes, many radical, involving most, if not all, parts of the Service. Within a year, February 1996, Chief Executive, Maurice Cummings was reporting progress towards a new shift system for firefighters, training a new type of firefighter in Community Service Teams and, generally, a flattening of  mangement structures. Cummings acknowldeged mounting opposition to change when he ended his report with ‘ … we understand the concerns of firefighters about changes in their terms and conditions and we will work our way through the problem with as much consideration as we possibly can. But the world has changed… …and firefighters, too, must realise that they must change if we are to be successful in our task of saving more lives and reducing injuries…’

Maurice Cummings assured volunteer firefighters ‘…will be even more important than ever…’ in the restructure, ‘…but they, too, will have to make changes’. He told a gathering at Tawa Volunteer Fire Brigade in October 1994 that volunteers will be empowered, devolved down the organisation as far as possible to let decisions be made in the community. ‘Dsmantling the heirachy of the old Fire Service will remove levels of administration which just won’t be required. The hard and fast rules and manuals will go. We don’t need books of rules. Instead there will be objectives and reponsibilities supported by guidelines and best practices. Once local services of fire protection is agreed, it will be up to each Brigade to decide how it goes about its business to deliver’.

The theme of the reform was aptly summarised by one of the Strategos panel members, Roger J. Estall, a fire engineer hell-bent on reform, seeking big savings in costs.

Roger Estall

He demanded, as he himself put it, ‘wide-ranging radical changes, including a review of staffing, performance and accountability’. He was later appointed as a member of the Commission under the new law and later became Chairman. His was to be one of the loudest voices, one entirely in tune with the Government’s policy of reform with lower costs.

Business Roundtable, a powerful lobby group representing those paying highest insurance premiums, had prepared its report on fire services, as expected, advocating cost-cutting changes. Then the Minister Graeme Lee issued his strident report which queried costs of new fire appliances, claimed firefighters did not work hard, questioned whether they should be paid to sleep while on duty, suggested the standard crew of 4 to an appliance could be reduced to 3, and, in general, said the fire service’s operational structure might not be best for the times.

Thus, from reports and studies by external stakeholder interests and from the internal review, there were numerous cost-cutting proposals, some radical, others hardly prcaticable. For instance, funding along the Crown Enterprise model for three independent, separate, regional enterprises to manage and operate fire services (the demise of a single nation-wide service) which later could be corporatised (in private ownership with a profit expected for the shareholders). Firefighters were to be upskilled to carry out elementary ambulance duties.  There was also  detailed recommendations to reduce the role and staffing of national headquarters, a flattened rank system, service level agreements and contracts for all managers, and a return to the 56-hour week for firefighters from the present 42-hour week…  a move bitterly opposed by career firefighters who had fought hard for 42-hour rosters in the early 1970s.

The Union Speaks Out

The Professional Firefighters’ Union by this time was a well-oiled and keenly sharpened organisation geared to protect its members’ terms and conditions. Anger grew in Union ranks when Chief Executive, Maurice Cummings, chose a public telecast, rather than face-to-face meetings, to announce a far-reaching restructure which included the 56-hour working week, the loss of hundreds of jobs and early retirement for those over the age of 50. He told a captive, but disbelieving, audience that there would be a regionalisation of the service. Those in charge would be civilian-type Managers with no operational experience, nor responsibilities. He also reiterated that restructuring also left the door open to contract out firefighting to private enterprise ‘if the Fire Service did not provide good, cost-effective service’.

The Union escalated its opposition, threatening total strike action and criticising every step taken towards remodelling the administration of fire services. The Union then sought a Citizen’s Initiated Referendum and went about getting the required number of signatures to force the government to conduct a nation-wide referendum seeking support for the status quo. Despite setbacks when the Fire Service tried to curtail canvassing in uniform, some 350,000 signatures were collected, more than enough to trigger a referendum, the first such to be carried out in New Zealand. The result was support for the firefighters by a wide margin.

While this main action was underway, reform of non-operation aspects went ahead behind-the-scenes with staff reduced by nearly 200. Procurement of goods and services was revolutionised: uniforms, building maintenance, appliance and equipment servicing were out-sourced.

Tom Varley Speaks Out

Tom Varley had been closely watching each and every turn in the ongoing saga of what one fire officer described as the Government’s determined reforming action, to ‘slash and burn the Fire Service Commission’. Varley had spoken out once or twice. He had also been consulted by some parties and asked for advice by others.

But enough was enough. At an I.F.E. conference in Auckland in 1994 an aging and emotional Tom Varley took to the stage vigorously opposing the new law and its consequences. His audience listened to his views just as intently and sincerely as he spelled them out. Je proposed a joint … IFE and UFBA… move to potspone the review. His son, Derek, lent his own considerable experience in fire services to support his father’s contention with a well-measured and thoughtful speech.


“I was disappointed with the IFE, the organisation I had been so closely connected with for more than 60 yearsL it had let me down”.

A dsishevelled Varley withdrew from the dais visibly dismayed, upset, distraught.

But there were plenty of controversial actions left in the unfolding dramas of reform which he lived to see and must have found abhorrent.


Mid-year the Business Round Table had another jab at the ribs when it furnished a much more comprehensive report than its earlier one, with further, more wide-ranging suggestions to cut fire service costs (and therefore insurance premiums). It proposed fire services on a commercially competitive basis and that companies should be allowed to provide their own fire protection (to an agreed minimum standard), rural services should remain volunteer, under local body oversight, and once again the matter of the number of firefighters crewing an appliance was raised: ‘the matter should be subject to a detailed review involving experts who are independent of the Fire Service Commission, the NZFS and the Union’. This begged the question of just who the experts would be… perhaps someone from overseas?

Another lobby group, much closer to the action, was the Insurance Council which wanted fire services to be financed by levies on property owners and a levy on motor vehicles. This view was shared by Federated Farmers, an organisation lobbying on behalf of farmers. But the Government waved away the proposition.

The Fire Service Commission tried to sell the 56 hour week to executive officers in the Service, hoping they would take the proposal to the men, persuading them it was a good move. This put the fire officers in an invidious position; they had been directed to advocate something they did not believe in, and it was a proposal that came between them and the men. But the Union heard about these meetings and, wherever they were held, firefighters mounted rowdy protests outside the offices. Some meetings were curtailed.

Revolution: Community Safety Teams

One of the many proposals emerging from the Commission’s 1995 Internal Review was the introduction of a revolutionary new type of career firefighter which would comprise Community Safety Teams,(CST) originally proposed to help out volunteer brigades on the periphery of metropolitan centres where, increasingly, volunteers had difficulty mustering day-time crews. CST personnel would preferably be locals, trained to staff fire stations day-side and, if they were also volunteers, could turn out at night and over weekend with their volunteer colleagues. They would be paid employees but they would be on a different shift pattern to other, existing, staff. When not at fire calls they would, it was envisaged, engage the community with fire safety messages, inspections etc. Critically, they would not be members of the PFU. The union roundly condemned this proposal, seeing it as the thin end of the wedge eroding its members’ terms and conditions, even though the scheme looked fanciful at best.

But the CST scheme went ahead with hundreds trained, notably at non-Fire Service facilities in the privacy and security of military camps. The CST personnel then took their place on fire stations amid bitter resentment by unionists who shunned, ignored, ostracised and abused them on the fireground… and off it… not helped by CST firefighters wearing a different, distinctive uniform: easily identified they stuck out in any crowd. The scheme was designed to save money and show ‘another way’ to employ firefighters but soon failed, later abandoned. Unionists have not forgiven those who converted to, or enlisted under, CST: ‘…they had no future in the fire service…’, an attitude that has endured among the entrenched membership to this day.

Thomas Varley died in 1996 so he was spared further reports, papers, and blueprints for the fire services… and the Commission’s actions struggling to restructure, contain costs, retain personnel, battle the Union and try to manage morale. And, at the same time, trying to maintain “business as ussual”, responding to emergency call-outs.

Another Chairman

Varley did not live to see long-time campaigner Roger Estall take over as Chairman of the Fire Service Commission in July 1997, immediately charting a new, even more controversial course towards meeting Government’s objective: cost savings. Within weeks both the Chief Executive, Maurice Cummings and the National Commander, Robert Baillie, had resigned. Estall had made it plain that they were no longer wanted: that there was no place for them in plans for a restructured fire service. Estall became even more outspoken, a highly-visible advocate for change. It was obvious the various lobby groups had persuaded the Government to appoint him, ensuring that further policies of reform, restructure and cost-cutting would be put in place. And Estall made it his personal zealous campaign.

His revised budgets caught up with the Fire Service Training College at Island Bay, Wellington, which Varley had inspired and fought for the funds to build it, then was dismayed when it was reduced in size… but elated when he saw personal development and expertise it gave younger, up-and-coming fire officers. It closed in January 1998 leaving the Service without a dedicated national training facility.

One can only imagine Varley’s comments when the Commission, under Estall, released a plan which said all firefighters’ positions would be dis-established and, over 3 weeks, contractual commitments would be finalised for newly-established positions. This meant that, for about a month, individual firefighters would not know whether they had a job or not. An impossible situation. Estall denied they had all been sacked, but everyone was saying that ‘disestablished meant termination, plain and simple’, and Estall had trouble convincing otherwise. The PFU took the Commission to the Employment Court which awarded the Union a permanent injunction against the Commission, forbidding it to disestablish firefighters’ jobs. There was further litigation and again the PFU won, the court preventing further restructuring moves. But not before union members took their vitriolic opposition out on Estall personally, with verbal and all but physical assault outside meeting venues where he was putting his case. He fell out, publicly, with both the Chief Executive and the National Commander when it was alleged he well and truly exceeded the boundaries of his office when he secretly made under-hand changes to operational manuals, attempting to write modifications to suit his own plans for a new regime.

After all this rough-and-tumble there were some strong words at meetings with Estall who was called to the Beehive: Government Ministers were unhappy with the way matters were unfolding. On 18th May 1998 Roger J. Estall resigned.

Dame Margaret Bazely was appointed Commission Chair, there was a new Chief Executive, Alison Timms, while Ken Harper (vice Northern Ireland Fire Services) remained as National Commander. Recovery began: Dame Margaret’s long service in several top public service positions brought stability, practicality and progress to fire services and she held office until 2011. In retirement she was elected Patron of the United Fire Brigades’ Association.

Passing Thoughts

In his retirement Tom Varley could not overlook some of the reforms he would liked to have achieved, others which in latter years caused him to ponder.

“There’ve been at least 5 major reviews of the service in recent years since I retired and none, in my opinion have come anywhere near a proper workable blueprint for the future. Some were conducted by uninformed people, one of these tried (hopelessly) to compare the service here with the biggest fire departments overseas, and others did not come to much. The Strategos Report of 1989, was really empty of worthy suggestions, a wicked waste of half a million dollars, and Dr Michael Ashby’s findings on behalf of the Business Roundtable offered privatisation of the service or strictly ‘user pays’ through insurance levies.

I was asked to contribute to some of these inquiries, in others I have made my views known without invitation. All this repeated questioning and probing, with the subsequent reports and proposals, caused unrest and doubts about the worth and direction of the service. Most of them did nothing for public confidence in our fire brigades and left firefighters worried about how the new directions being proposed might affect them.

I have given considerable thought of what’s needed to meet modern requirements and have come to the conclusion that the service should be taken away from Internal Affairs. This is a throw-back to the days when brigades were run by local authorities but now a nationwide service should be under a Ministry in its own right, with its own Cabinet Minister, and renamed and given a new direction…”Fire, Rescue and Emergency Service’, a title becoming common overseas. This new Ministry should also take over Civil Defence, an organisation that’s at very low ebb at present and of doubtful worth in, for example, a serious earthquake. The new name also better reflects the wider range of responsibilities and activities now undertaken.

To this end, it’s worthy to consider the Fire Service taking over the ambulance service for accidents and emergencies, other than transporting out-patients to and from hospital. Specialist fire appliances carry rescue equipment and cutting gear to trapped victims at road accidents, and without proper authority to act and with no recompense for Fire Service budgets. This should be mandated and firefighters ought to be trained and carry out the ambulance service, occupying personnel more usefully than just firefighting.

There is some suggestion that the present 6 Fire Regions should be reduced to, say, 3. My advice is to leave well alone. It’s important for the senior officers to get to know personnel at all their subordinate stations, and this is not possible if the Regions are any larger.

To correct the imbalance on the Commission of those with firefighting experience, I believe the top man in the operational service, whatever his title, should as a matter of course be a member of the Commission, displacing if necessary, the position held on the Commission, ex officio, by the Secretary of Internal Affairs.

The separate National Rural Fire Authority is a mistake. Legislation should be introduced to incorporate it into one seamless Fire Service. At present there is a wide diversity of resources available in different areas, depending on local authority attitude and input.

Let the various Brigades, Rural Fire Forces and fire parties be combined into one Service and ensure they have adequate funding enabling them to upgrade their facilities and equipment. Provide Chief Fire Officers with specialist appliances and resources they require to cater for risks in each of their Districts and let them respond to non-fire emergencies if they are trained and properly equipped.

Unfortunately I was not able to influence the United Fire Brigades’ Association to alter its Constitution to do away with the annual elections which results in a change of President each year. Twelve months in the chair does not give enough experience as the head of this organisation which comprises some 11,000 firefighters in its member brigades. I have been suggesting that the President be elected from time to time at the wish of the Annual Conference, but also with a Chairman in a semi-permanent position who over time will gain intimate knowledge of the Association’s day-to-day business and requirements”.

Time will tell whether all these items in Tom Varley’s latter-day ‘agenda’ will become reality. Some have, at least in part, been realised. The United Fire Brigades Association at its 2007 Annual Conference in Palmerston North, recognising the need for modernisation, resolved to make bold constitutional changes to its rules providing for a new Board of Directors. In a move to separate the organisation’s governance from management, some Directors (who need to be members of fire brigades) will in future continue to be elected at Conference, while others (not necessarily members of a brigade) will be appointed for a two-year term for the expertise they bring to the organisation. The President will continue to have a year-long tenure and retain the traditional task of overseeing ceremonial matters and chairing the annual conference, while governance will be led by the Chairman of the Board of Directors. The Chief Executive continues to manage the Association’s day-to-day affairs. This is very much along the lines of the model T.A. Varley had been advocating.

What, perhaps, is not as clear would be ‘T.A.’s’ view on the demise of Fire Police, (much later) in November 2010. He whole-heartedly supported these members, always acknowledging their presence and the assistance they gave to their brigades and communities. He said that the part in the Fire Service Act 1949 providing for Fire Police was one of the most sensible clauses in the legislation. In his mind they were very much part of the scheme of things and made useful contributions on and around the fire-ground. The New Zealand Fire Service Commission signalled in 2009 that changes were in the wind: the title and role of ‘Fire Police’ was an anachronism, it believed, and the title would disappear, replaced by ‘Operational Support’ personnel. Warrants as special constables would be cancelled – in future Operational Support would perform their duties at emergencies under the Chief Fire Officer’s wide-ranging authority and powers provided in Section 28 of the Fire Service Act. Nomenclature and documents were changed to ensure that the words ‘Fire Police’ disappeared, uniform issue for Operational Support was updated, a list of duties drawn up and there was the promise of training for all members to help arrive at national proficiency standards.

Thus Fire Police disappeared from the landscape after a presence of more than a hundred years. In some districts like Christchurch they pre-dated New Zealand Police, having been formed in 1867, joining with militia to protect and support local brigades at major fires.

Palmerston North Fire Police Corps, 1901 – Auckland Libraries

Since Tom Varley’s arrival in New Zealand in 1951 he had actively encouraged Fire Police, set their standard operating procedures and during his inspections and training exercises always looked out to see that Fire Police were involved and supported as part and parcel of fire services.

Recognition at last

New Zealand waited a long time, until 1991, to tangibly recognise Tom Varley’s services to the nation. He had arrived here in 1951, the uniformed head of the Service until 1962 during immense change and improvements he introduced and then he had continued as consultant after retirement. He also retained his keen interest in everything ‘fire’.

As Patron of the U.F.B.A. he attended its annual conferences without fail, his address always topical, inspirational and well-received. Younger, or first-time, delegates were perhaps unaware of his background but, inevitably, they quickly enquired who he was after they heard his words of wisdom, vision and encouragement. This epitome of a gentleman was obviously a straight-talker who still spoke with his unmistakable English accent and with a projection that could be heard by everyone, even in the largest auditorium. Certainly, there was never need for a public address system when T. A. Varley was addressing his audience.

He was a presence: immaculately dressed, his tall stature ramrod-straight despite his advancing years and he had obvious mana among all those was who knew him, or knew of him. Whether speaking from the stage or mixing with Conference delegates between sessions and at social events, Varley stood out. But at the same time he was friendly, approachable and talkative. Known as ‘T.A.’ throughout the Service, he continued to receive invitations to Fire Service and Honours functions the length and breadth of the country.

He had seen 10 years of the ‘new’ administration when in 1986, as the Association’s Patron, he addressed the U.F.B.A. Annual Conference. Dignified, and as enthusiastic as ever, he obviously felt right at home among the volunteers of the fire service when he told delegates that the service had gone from strength to strength.

‘Your flag has gone to (the) top of (the) mast’, he told the conference, and ‘I can only feel that as the early foundations were being laid I did not make too many mistakes and some of the seeds I sowed have flourished. The appearance of the Service today, with the men wearing a uniform they can justly be proud of, is something New Zealand can be grateful for. The appearance matches the expertise, bringing acclaim from the public. It’s a great thrill to stand here on the platform and to see a united service. Mind you, I had to knock a bit of sense into people in authority to get it, and sometimes it took a bit of doing. Now the Service is reaching an acme of efficiency and I look at the small part I played with considerable pride’. His address won a standing ovation.

Perhaps belatedly, it was announced in the New Year’s Honours in 1991 that he had been awarded the Companion of the Queen’s Service Order for community services.

Thomas Varley, Companion to the Queen’s Service Order

Apart from the Coronation Medal he received in 1953, New Zealand had at last recognised his personal service nearly 30 years after his retirement and 20 years following Stanley Dean’s death in 1971 when any opposition to recognition from that quarter would have long dissolved.

He resigned as Patron of the U.F.B.A. in 1992 and began to enjoy what he described as ‘real retirement’ at Waikanae with his wife Evelyn. His son, Derek Varley, Q.F.S.M., was at the time Regional Commander in Auckland, having spent most of his service in Wellington Brigade. Derek was a past-President of the I.F.E.’s New Zealand Branch, the professional body that his father fostered in Britain in the 1930s and then championed in New Zealand in the 1950s. Needless to say Tom Varley was very proud that son Derek had followed in his footsteps, choosing a career in the fire service. Derek, like his father before him, was decorated for bravery for saving life in 1965. And Varley senior saw Derek rise through the ranks with distinguished service, reaching the rank of Commander in New Zealand’s busiest Fire Region, Auckland.

In 1966 the New Zealand Branch of the IFE made Tom Varley an Honorary Life Member, eclipsing this in 1973 when he was named Honorary Life Fellow. In 1985 the I.F.E.’s international rules were changed to provide for a new ultimate grade, Life Fellow, and Mr Varley was named one of four inaugural Life Fellows, honouring his lifetime’s service to the Institution.

Allan Bruce was on the IFE’s local Council, elected the youngest Branch President in 1959. He pays further tribute in his book ‘Into the Line of Fire’ saying that Tom Varley’s arrival in New Zealand, a past-president of the IFE, proved to be the catalyst that would take the New Zealand Branch from strength to strength, becoming one of the Institution’s strongest overseas affiliates.

Since 1951 Tom Varley had been Honorary Life Member of the British Fire Services’ Association and in 1982 he received its Centenary Medal.

As has been mentioned earlier, he had been awarded the Order of the British Empire. He was one of the few living survivors holding the King’s Police and Fire Service Medal. He held the Baden-Powell Scout Award of Merit, and was rewarded with the Royal Humane Society’s Gold Medal for his rescue of pit ponies from a coalmine fire in England. In 1966 he contributed the Fire Services section in ‘An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand’, tracing the history of the service and outlining its administration until that time, and in 1993 he was chosen to write the sole dissertation for the I.F.E.’s 75th Anniversary publication.

His resignation from the U.F.B.A. in 1992 prompted recall of what he had done, particularly, for volunteer brigades in New Zealand.

Thomas Varley c1992

And many of those who were in the Service when he was the nation’s Chief Fire Officer reflected that the advances he instigated were not always appreciated at the time, but in hindsight as the years rolled by, the full impact of his administration could be seen.

‘He set tough professional standards,’ said one contemporary, ‘but always in a helpful way, gradually improving the Service. Once ‘T.A.’ overcame the initial Kiwi-style antagonism and opposition to a ‘Brit’ or a ‘Pommie’, he produced a united fire service which had world-wide respect. Sometimes he was misunderstood, other times he was a bit short with those he disagreed with. But there was never any doubt that he was dedicated to the uniformed personnel, and he was never fazed by politicians, local body officials and members of Fire Boards’. And praise from another officer of the time… ‘In those days, as front-line firemen in a provincial Brigade we could not see his achievements across-the-board. It’s only now you can look back and marvel at the improvements in appliances, equipment, organisation, training, staffing – well that’s the entire Service, isn’t it? And he did it, and you can look around now and still see ‘T.A.’s stamp on the foundations of the present Fire Service. When I say we now ‘marvel’ at his achievements, we could not know the difficulties Varley faced at the time as he made the changes but we knew he was a battler! You can see his influence everywhere… and we must be grateful to him’.

And Fire Boards – how did they see Varley in retrospect? Here’s the view of a member of the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, a man who served nearly 20 years on the Board, a body which had frequent differences of opinion with Wellington and often sparred with the Fire Service Council and Varley. Stanley Gleadow, Chairman of the Board for 10 years writing in ‘Auckland Fire Brigade Centenary 1874 – 1974’, said ‘I was elected chairman in 1949… …and about this time all past fire service tradition was jolted by the establishment of a Fire Service Council and the appointment of an operational head in Mr T. A. Varley, subsequently known as the Dominion Chief Fire Officer. Whilst many Boards did not see eye to eye with all the sweeping changes that resulted, there was no doubt that the Dominion CFO was a man of tremendous ability, energy and enthusiasm who introduced the service approach which set a very high standard in all ranks. Furthermore, a much-needed principle of standardisation was religiously followed and this could obviously only result in the best interests of the service as a whole’. This tribute is somehow all the more fitting because of its irony: it’s written by one who was both chairman of the Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, and a leading light in the insurance fraternity, both positions Varley had little time for.

One of Tom Varley’s regrets was the Fire Service Council’s refusal to back his programmes promoting fire prevention. He believed that as well as extinguishing fires the Council should be trying to prevent them. He saw prevention as a vital core activity. But funds that he requested for public fire safety campaigns were always denied, cut, or diverted to pay for ‘priorities’.

“I recall this country once led fire prevention activity when there was a trend-setting nationwide campaign in 1932. Heralded abroad, it proved to be short-lived.

Wellington Fire Brigade participated in the first Fire Prevention Week – National Library of New Zealand

In my time I couldn’t get traction, it was a strange attitude – you’d have thought the insurance interests on the Council would be interested in this aspect because fewer, or less serious, fires meant reduced claims. But I could make no headway on a public fire prevention programme”.

Serious attention to fire safety had to wait until the 1969 Sprott House fire when flames swept through a home for the elderly in Wellington, leaving 7 women dead. More rigorous fire safety legislation led to a strengthening of Fire Prevention Departments and increased inspections of at-risk buildings. But a real focus on fire prevention with commitment to realistic funding had to wait some 50 years, until another millennium, when in the early 2000s the Fire Service Commission, determined to reduce the numbers and impact of fires in the community, added fire prevention as a dedicated plan of action. These activities have since been given priority with tens of millions of dollars funding media campaigns, television commercials, pamphlets, Open Days, visits to address at-risk groups, inspections of vulnerable premises and installation of smoke alarms. In 2008 this particular campaign began with 30,000 smoke alarms distributed or – for the elderly – installed by firefighters in their homes without charge.

The Commission has been well-rewarded for its investment with, year on year since 2008, a marked reduction in the number of fires. The campaign was set to continue with further fire safety programmes – the Commission’s Summary of Intent for 2013-16 had as its number one goal ‘fire-safe behaviour and practice through proactive education and rural fire co-ordination programmes’. And the importance of fire prevention and fire safety measures were at last formally recognised in the Fire and Emergency Act 2017, legislated as the fire services’ top priorities, the number one objective.

Had it borne fruit, Varley’s vision would have given this programme a  head-start by some 50 years: there’s no way of reckoning the value of lives and property unnecessarily lost to fire in the intervening period.

The IFE publication, Fire Engineers’ Journal, in March 1987, paid glowing tribute to Varley in a 2-page article headlined ‘T. A. Varley – almost a synonym for professionalism and high standards’. Chief Fire Officer Andrew Hogg went on: ‘professionalism, fostered in all aspects of his service life, has always been his hallmark. T.A. Varley is a great man. He has been an outstanding fire officer and one of the greatest members of our institution (IFE)’

Allan Bruce, with firefighting experience in Wellington and London, one who had studied fire departments world-wide and had been a senior executive of fire services on both sides of the Tasman, includes a tribute to Varley in his book ‘Into the Line of Fire’.

‘…The Fire Service Council had a hotchpotch representation and very limited powers (and) was only ever destined to succeed in part. In fact, I believe there would have been very little progress at all had there been a person less dedicated and determined than T. A. Varley at the helm…’

Often referrred to as ‘the Father of the Fire Service in New Zealand”, Varley wore the mantle with pride.


Thomas Arthur Varley, the man who helped, twice, to reform the British Fire Service and who fathered the renaissance of the New Zealand Fire Service, died at Waikanae on the 6th of August 1996 aged 94. ‘T.A.’ had passed on, mourned by his widow, his immediate family, and a much-extended one: the fire services in two countries, half a world between them.

Thomas Varley’s headstone, Waikanae Cemetery – Kapiti Coast District Council

The IFE journal published an obituary in its September 1996 edition, saying that Varley ‘… generally known as ‘T.A.’, was highly respected and looked up to with affection… a man of vision with the knowledge and drive to see his vision become reality. It has been said of him that he became a legend in his lifetime’.


Post Script

Tom Varley’s legacies remained in a New Zealand Fire Service that in recent years has repeatedly been beset with challenges, some of the same difficulties he encountered, as determined and dogged attempts of further modernisation continued. The goal was to review, restructure and to rewrite a Statute to take the fire protection services well into the 21st century. But over the years these drawn-out processes resembled what Varley had experienced in the UK in the late 1940s: indecision and procrastination, moves repeatedly handicapped by sectional interests, constant petitioning, canvassing, lobbying and barricading. These were the same influences which stymied progress of fire services in New Zealand for more than a century.

In the early 2000s the fourth attempt towards major reform of fire services was signalled. But it, too, was beleaguered with the same difficulties faced in the late 1890s/early 1900s, then again during World War Two, repeated in the post-war 1940s and revisited in the 1990s. Maybe it would be different in a new millennium? And if there was reform, would it deliver fire services anything like the model Varley had so vehemently and passionately pursued?

In March 2004 the Labour-led government enthusiastically announced its intentions for far-reaching changes in fire and rescue legislation when then Minister of Internal Affairs, George Hawkins, announced ‘a review that aims at developing comprehensive new fire and rescue measures to replace the 1975 Fire Service Act and the 1977 Forest and Rural Fires Act’. ‘It will also establish appropriate funding sources. Consideration of submissions was interrupted by the General Election in October 2005 when a Labour-led government returned to office.’

Rick Barker was appointed Minister of Internal Affairs in the new Cabinet. Bogged down with a barrage of diverse opinion and ideas he announced a further ‘stakeholder forum, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to contribute’ and in July 2006 he gathered what was labelled as ‘leaders of the Fire Service’ for further discussion. But, in fact it was a meeting of representatives from a wide range of stakeholders. Some apparently gate-crashed, insisting they attend and be heard.


The report of the gathering, titled ‘Review of New Zealand Fire Services, Leader’s Forum’, by facilitators Jenkins and Mills, says, (with no surprises), that there was no clear consensus around any particular option or combination of options. Nearly 2 years later, in March 2008 the Minister told the annual conference of the UFBA that he was sorry to say that no final decisions had been made on the review ‘…we are struggling to reach a consensus with all stake-holders on the way forward. This is indeed unfortunate. Consultation shows that this consensus is difficult to achieve. Some views remain entrenched’, he said, and ‘…the time is not right’.

One of the stumbling blocks apparently came from local authorities with the proposal to transfer collection of fire levies – the means of funding fire services – from insurance premiums to local authority annual rates accounts. ‘We will not collect the levies unless we have a much bigger say in governing and managing the fire services’. This was unpalatable.

It was evident these discussions had not borne fruit when, in November 2008, the Labour government was voted out of office.

Dr Richard Worth was appointed Minister of Internal Affairs in the 49th Parliament led by the National Party. There is little record of progress in the reform of fire services during the 7 months he held office until June 2009 when the Prime Minister John Key announced Worth had resigned from Parliament ‘for personal reasons’.


The office was taken over by Nathan Guy and he convened several meetings aimed at reform of the fire services, but stakeholders again took the opportunity to express sectional interests. An impatient UFBA requested further meetings, saying review of fire services had come to a standstill. Meanwhile Minister Guy introduced a mission to encourage, with incentives, the country’s Rural Fire Authorities (RFAs) to amalgamate as Enlarged Rural Fire Districts. In 1995 there were 121 RFAs: by the end of 2014 this number had been reduced to 52, well wide of the target that there should be fewer than 30 by 2015.

There was another factor that perhaps put fire services on the back-burner. The Department of Internal Affairs, living up to its reputation of having responsibility for a mix of endeavours, further diversified activities early in 2011. Fire services remained in a ministry of diverse and disparate activities, each vying for the Minister’s attention.

Following a Cabinet shuffle in December 2011 Amy Adams received a Departmental briefing when she was appointed Minister in December 2011.‘You must review operations and performance… …consider policy and operational issues involving fire and rescue services…’.

But within 4 months there was a cabinet reshuffle, so another Minister received much the same briefing paper.

This was Chris Tremain but his National government showed little appetite for revisiting reform of fire services, probably reflecting the failed attempts of earlier Ministers. Until June 2012 that is, when cabinet approved a proposal by Tremain for a review of some of the functions of the fire services. A four-person panel was named, as the Minister put it, ‘… to provide advice on how New Zealand can have a 21st century fire service which operates seamlessly with the roles performed by other emergency service providers. This will include identifying any gaps or overlaps in emergency services and options for the future role of the fire service’.

But those looking for an across-the-board study of fire services were left puzzled when the Minister added embargoes to the Panel’s work. ‘Don’t suggest anything but a national fire service similar to the New Zealand Fire Service. Don’t give any thought about the Crown funding fire services in any way. Rural Fire Authorities must remain and, further, don’t get involved  with the industrial relations framework applying to career firefighters’. However, the Minister did leave scope in his brief to enable the Panel to suggest ‘ways to present a mandate and operating platform for the non-fire functions firefighters are presently undertaking’.

The Panel, chaired by the former MP and Cabinet Minister, Hon. Paul Swain, QSO, reported on time late in 2012 and, notwithstanding the strictures, its comprehensive recommendations provided a blueprint for the future of New Zealand’s fire services.  The so-called Swain Report suggested many changes in governance and administration, but the separation of rural and urban brigades should be retained – albeit with improved coordination and cooperation. The Report also recommended changes to the way fire service levies are calculated and collected through insurance premiums, with suggestions to weed out ‘free-loaders’ and to broaden the base of payers, thus reducing the dollar amount of the levy and therefore the cost to each premium-payer.

Minister, Chris Tremain, followed through with what all other ministers had done before him on this topic: he set about consultation with interested parties to try to shape this latest attempt in what looked like major reform of New Zealand’s fire services. After some months of discussion he announced only partial consensus about the reforms: ‘I am going to progress the matters where there is agreement and park the others until next year’. This had been suggested, it may be recalled, by the UFBA some 4 years before!

In August 2013 the Minister took to Cabinet a package of proposals which more or less followed the Swain Report’s far-reaching recommendations. Tremain made much publicity about this move “I am asking Cabinet to agree with my proposals after which I will begin processes to draft a Fire Services reform Bill’. But it’s apparent that for some reason Cabinet did not give approval and there was no action on Tremain’s master-plan. The possibility of real progress stalled again: procrastination escalated when in September 2013 Chris Tremain announced he was quitting politics.

Enter Peter Dunne

In December Peter Dunne, an independent Member of Parliament, was allocated the portfolio. The new Minister made no public comments about reform of the fire services for almost a year. Then in August 2014, on the approach of the General Election, the Insurance Council of New Zealand published a report it had commissioned with the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research. It echoed other voices over the decades, advocating a fairer way to finance fire services which would better reflect the public good they provide for all New Zealanders, not just those who currently fund the service through insurance premiums.

The release of the report prompted Minister Dunne to make a comment, even though it was on the eve of a General Election when, by convention, Ministerial announcements are kept to an absolute minimum.

‘The way the fire service is funded is under consideration, still, and no decisions have been made yet about whether there will be changes or not’, the Minister said in a statement. ‘Cabinet has agreed the Department of Internal Affairs will conduct a review of the service’s funding model in 2014. The review will consider various options for reform, and there are no preferred options at this stage’

The month-long election campaign ended and a National-led Government was returned to power.  Peter Dunne, now leader of the United Future New Zealand Party, retained the portfolio of Minister of Internal Affairs, and in late October 2014 he announced his programme. He told the UFBA conference in Tauranga that one of his top priorities was the reform of fire services and that he wanted measures ready for Cabinet’s consideration in the ‘very near future, a review that will be broad-based,’ he said, ‘involving both urban and rural services, and I’ll be working through the terms of reference in the next few months’.

Chairman of the Fire Service Commission, Hon Wyatt Creech, also spoke at the Conference about the need to reform fire service legislation, saying it was urgent from the point of view of sufficient funds. ‘Present legislation,’ he told the Conference, ‘no longer provides enough revenue to sustain, let alone develop a modern fire service – the Commission urges reform’.

“We Are a Patient Lot…”

Here at last was new possibility of renewed attempts towards reform. If rural and urban fire services were to be combined, as rumoured, it would be a move towards Thomas Varley’s ideal nation-wide administration and operations… ‘one fire service’. And if there were changes to the funding model there was every chance massive budget cuts might be avoided, like those he suffered which had over the years seriously affected progress towards better equipment and improved, efficient, operations.

Minister Peter Dunne was signalling an end to the inertia at a time when some were in despair saying ‘reform might not be happening, nothing’s been heard for so long, we may have missed any opportunity to have our say on proposals towards change…’.

After all, reform had been promised by a succession of no fewer than 7 Ministers, across 4 Parliaments led by both Labour and National. And… apparently without significant progress.

The UFBA, in its newsletter, early 2015, had its say when it published an article ‘We Are a Patient Lot’, a brief chronicle on the lack of real progress towards reform over some 10 years. The article was a bold contribution to the newsletter, semi-political in sentiment, ending with an assurance that stakeholders in the industry (notably the UFBA) were very closely watching the new moves being taken by Minister Dunne because a decade had been a long time to wait for promised reform and ‘…we’ve been a patient lot!’

While the Minister’s statements improved outlook, there wasn’t much from the major player. The New Zealand Fire Service chose to keep its powder dry, giving very little detail about its views or aspirations in any new scheme of things. It had carried out its own earlier nation-wide restructure, followed by further changes in 2012 which it called ‘a realignment’: measures it said were ‘designed to contain administrative costs’. The latter changes resulted in a reduction of the number of senior executive positions at Headquarters, including – remarkably – the officer with the responsibility to maintain relationships between volunteer firefighters and the Fire Service hierarchy. Also thinned were those personnel in the regions employed specifically to assist and support volunteer brigades. These actions seemed to fly in the face of the promise from Headquarters that the Executive was working to improve support services, and sustainability for volunteers. The moves also apparently contradicted what several Ministers had been saying… that the volunteer firefighter was an essential ingredient serving communities the length and breadth of the nation… and always would be.

Further funding cutbacks by the Government were probably in the offing in the straitened economic times. Perhaps these were avoided by a deal sometimes done between Treasury, Ministers and Government Agencies whereby budgets of government entities are not cut in exchange for increased output. In other words, in this case, firefighters would provide additional services for existing dollar budgets.

Medical Co-Response

Any such done-deal surfaced, out of the blue, in New Plymouth at the UFBA’s 2012 annual conference. It reflected Tom Varley’s vision, taking to new heights his repeated advocacy that firefighters should attend non-fire incidents.

National Commander, Paul Baxter, surprised delegates with the announcement that, because the number of responses to fires had fallen sharply, firefighters would in future be helping St John Ambulance, turning out as a joint response to serious medical cases.

This was a major change affecting all front-line personnel in the Fire Service and it did not take long to find out that the number of these ‘acute’ medical turn-outs had been thoroughly underestimated thus adding a burden for brigades, especially smaller ones.

That same UFBA Conference in 2012 anticipated major changes in fire services and agreed to sharpen the Association’s advocacy role. ’UFBA thinking and proposals are already well ahead of NZFS initiatives for reform’, delegates were told, ‘but it is essential the Association has the tools to properly represent the membership, our volunteer firefighters, and to press home their views’.

A Gentle Nudge…

The Department of Internal Affairs, (DIA), like the New Zealand Fire Service, largely maintained a silence about how officials saw changes as the result of revised fire services. What, if anything was happening behind the scenes? Was UFBA thinking and planning for reform really ahead of the Government’s blueprint? Delays in announcing were beginning to tell. Concern, mixed with impatience, was beginning to be felt by those in the Service. Many had been primed for reform with promises over more than a decade during which, several times over, they had submitted their ideal blueprint for change… without results. They surmised there might be little appetite for change among Fire Service executives who, after all, had twice recently made their own changes to the organisation. They asked whether officials had, again, put detailed reform in the ‘too hard basket’ or were they waiting for a lead from politicians? They were also asking where the blame rested for the inertia… was it an individual, a group within Government agencies, the Fire Service executive, or an outside group with a vested interest?

Time was ticking by. No answers, no action. The UFBA decided to intervene in an attempt to draw attention to the apparent procrastination, to ensure progress. The UFBA contended it was important to ensure the future of volunteers was pushed to the front: they had been largely unrecognised and poorly supported to date. There had been no action on the numerous recommendations on this aspect in the 2-year-old Swain Report. The New Zealand Fire Service, having promised support for ‘Volunteer Sustainability’, set up a stand-alone project with research and reports. There had been follow-up presentations year after year at UFBA Conferences… and promises of action. But no outcome: little to show for the effort.

The UFBA’s ‘gentle nudge’ was a carefully-considered and composed document to the DIA Review Team setting out propositions which, to at least some of the Team’s members, must have appeared as revolutionary, changes in fire services particularly promoting and overhauling the lot of volunteers, and of volunteering. The New Zealand Fire Service, which would have been forwarded a copy of the document as a matter of course, must also have had a jolt, such was the depth and range of the material submitted by the UFBA.

UFBA representatives subsequently met with the DIA Reform Team. The ‘gentle nudge’ document and submissions had stirred a hornet’s nest, the UFBA document took officials a long way ahead of their own deliberations, putting forward fresh-thinking and innovative measures for volunteers. A leap forward. The UFBA believes in hind-sight that its document was a bit of a wake-up call to the Team: it ‘pushed the envelope’ on behalf of volunteers who, it was plain, would continue to make a major contribution in any new fire service: the community could not afford it any other way’, as one of the UFBA representatives put it. ‘After these discussions with the Team, which were prompted by our paper, we deduced from officials that there was lack of political mandate for reform, there was no sense of progress and timing and no funding plan: altogether a disconnect’.

…and a reaction

On 27th May 2015 Minister Peter Dunne ‘kick-started’ matters when he released a discussion paper calling for submissions on reform options for fire services, proffering three versions that might form the basis for comment. Dunne was quick to say he wasn’t wedded to any one of the three, and he acknowledged some submissions might suggest a combination of, or between, the three.

Stakeholders and other interested parties dusted-off and updated their submissions and once again advocated their preferred model for development of fire services. The UFBA, acknowledging the Minister’s avowed intention to go ahead with reform and ‘to get it right’, began intense canvassing of its members’ views. A small team from the UFBA was organised to telephone the Chief Fire Officer of every brigade in the land to ensure awareness of the reform, to draw attention to the Association’s information pack and to encourage completion of a questionnaire to test preferred options. In some cases the Chief Fire Officers expressed opinions at one of many meetings the Minister convened in town and country where he detailed his three versions for reform. At these gatherings the Minister got grass-roots’ views first-hand… and then they were added to the UFBA, and others’ response.

 Plans Unveiled

On 13th November 2015 Peter Dunne unveiled his plans at the UFBA’s annual conference in Wellington. He said he had listened to submissions and these had been incorporated in a blueprint for reform which had recently been approved by Cabinet with the green light to proceed. The Minister was thus presenting reform of the fire services which, with cabinet approval, had advanced further than the failed attempts by 6 other Ministers over more than 10 years.

The Minister said the goal was to provide stronger support for volunteers at all levels, to ensure fire services met community expectations and to modernise management of the Fire Service in the 21st century. He said new enabling legislation would mandate firefighters to provide all their present services, and more, and at the same time personnel would be indemnified against legal action.

But the main point of the Minister’s announcement was the integration of career, volunteer, urban and rural firefighters into one new national fire service under a revised central governance and management model. ‘This will be augmented by regional advisory committees,’ he said, ‘their input will protect regional and community-based perspectives in the new arrangements’.

Peter Dunne said leadership at Brigade level was to be retained under the new regime with ranks recognised… part of the blueprint that must have resonated with all those volunteer officers attending the UFBA Conference, as they heard the Minister’s plan for the first time in detail. He also advised that, meantime, the new fire services will continue to be funded through levies on insurance premiums; final details to be resolved. And he hoped to introduce legislation to parliament in 2016 with a new Fire Service operative in mid-2017.

The Minister’s reform, in dismantling rural fire services as a separate entity, spelled the end of administration of Rural Fire Forces which to date had been operated by Local Authorities. Peter Dunne’s move meant that these local authorities (city and district councils) lost their “ownership” of rural fire: the last vestige of their direct management of fire services was gone. Their earlier involvement through city, borough and county councils, as well as fire boards, had been taken over by the Fire Service Commission in 1976. Now that rural fire was also to be taken from local government it meant that after 150 years it would no longer have direct management in any of our fire services.

Progress Towards Reform

In March 2016 Minister Peter Dunne made several announcements to progress the review. The timing indicated that he was keeping to the schedule that he had earlier outlined to all interested parties: legislation enacted by mid-2017. He espoused a philosophy – “… the new organisation will be flexible, modern and efficient, one that values and supports its volunteer and paid workforce”.

Peter Dunne also signalled progress with the vexed question that had stalled earlier attempts to repeal fire services – ‘I expect to have funding arrangements for the new organisation confirmed in the next couple of months…’ And the Minister named the new Board, the governing body for all fire services which took office on April 1st 2016. It was to be chaired by Paul Swain who led the Review Panel in 2012. Peter Drummond, also a member of the Panel and former Chairman of the Board of Directors of the UFBA, was appointed to the Commission along with Dr Nicola Crauford of Wellington as Deputy Chair. Te Arohanui Cook of Hawkes Bay was a member together with Angela Hauk-Willis of Kapiti Coast, bringing expertise in governance and change management.

Had Tom Varley been around to see this, he would have relished the Department of Internal Affairs being reminded that fire services were part of its portfolio and it now had to step up to the plate. The Minister was making the running at a pace probably not experienced by Departmental staff during earlier reforms. Of all the Department’s responsibilities, the spotlight and effort was, for once, focussed on fire services.

The next steps followed: announcements about how the new organisation would be financed and a new name for fire services – Fire and Emergency New Zealand. There was to be $300 million allocated over 5 years to combine urban and rural fire services into one organisation from mid-2017 and a change in insurance levies to better reflect the diverse work of fire services.

Reform at Last

On May 4th 2017, coincidentally International Firefighters’ Day, the Fire Emergency New Zealand Bill was read a third time in Parliament, debated and voted into the Statute Books with cross-party support,  except New Zealand First.

In their speeches in the House, most Parliamentarians recognised that the Bill was playing catch-up, a well overdue reworking of both the organisation and its operations. Some noted that it was ‘the first effective reform since the 1940s’: that it was ‘owed to the 14,000 personnel in the service to provide fit-for-purpose law in the 21st century’.

Other MPs were wary that the permissive measures left a lot to be determined and legislated by regulation without the need to refer these matters, some of them fundamental, back to Parliament. Some MPs were particularly concerned about setting the fire levies by regulation, without opportunity for further scrutiny in the House. As one Member put it: ‘…my preference is always for us to have worked these things out before the legislation passes and for it to be part of that public consultation within the legislation…’

All speakers acknowledged firefighters’ service to the community and welcomed legislation that belatedly incorporates the range of non-fire tasks they have long-since been undertaking… and now with indemnity.

The passing of the Bill concluded attempts to reform fire services since George Hawkins, the then Minister, announced his proposed shake-up in March 2004. In the following 13 years there have been two formal reviews, hundreds of submissions, much anxiety in the industry about change… and 6 Ministers.

Peter Dunne brought his own determined approach. He first worked through and reviewed the recommendations of the Swain Report. He selected those he wanted to implement and added others. He then consulted widely with stakeholders, harnessing and augmenting staff at the Department of Internal Affairs for the project. Having persevered to, largely, obtain buy-in and acceptance of the reforms, he drove the drafting of the Bill, won Cabinet approval and transitional funding, and saw it through to Law.

Reform at last.

Would T. A. Varley have approved?

Has the Dunne Reform approached anything like Varley’s model governance when, in the late 1940s, he advocated an organisation headed by three commissioners, at least two of whom were experienced fire officers, and that they would govern without the unwelcome, unhelpful, influence of local body and insurance interests?

In his day Tom Varley probably envisaged the Commission would comprise middle-aged males, almost certainly long-serving, experienced, fire officers who had reached senior executive status in busy metropolitan brigades, and (of course!) graduates of the Institution of Fire Engineers. Varley believed his ideal had not been met in the 1949 shake-up and he had forcibly and emotively reiterated his values again, unsuccessfully, at the 1994 IFE Conference in Auckland.

So what of the 2016 Commission, the inugural governing body charged with shaping major change across the industry, a whole new organisation called Fire and Emergency New Zealand?

Notably, there was a mix of male and female Commissioners which Varley could never have imagined in his time of men-only fire services. But he was an inveterate progressive, so given his sense of modernity he would almost certainly approve of this.

Of its 5 members, while not well-experienced operational fire officers, 2 have had hands-on fire service experience, contributing their wide range of rural and urban, fire engineering and training expertise. On top of which another member has detailed knowledge of the volunteer sector through long association with the UFBA and who worked together with Paul Swain on the Reform Panel. And the other member already has experience as a member of the Commission’s Board.

Overshadowing any disappointment Tom Varley might have with the composition of the new set-up, I am sure he would be offering loud applause of approval with at least six aspects of the reform.

Firstly there’s the absence of those stakeholders who, Varley so often maintained, had handicapped development of fire services in New Zealand. Insurance interests and local government representatives (jointly, ‘the wreckers’ he often called them) are no longer at the Governors’ Table.

Second, one of the vital planks of Varley’s ultimate blueprint from way back in 1949 has more or less been achieved. He espoused that “… all fire services in New Zealand must be under the one organisation, administratively and operationally, with the one badge and singular objectives and values…”. This is achieved in the new legislation to the extent that urban and rural brigades amalgamate; leaving Defence Force and Industrial Fire Brigades outside FENZ jurisdiction, but with their roles acknowledged in the new arrangements.

Thirdly, T.A. Varley would be well-satisfied to see the clause which for the first time enables the proposition he made in the mid-1950s: that fire services should be equipped, trained and encouraged to respond to those non-fire emergencies where they consider they may be of assistance. This was an aspect he gradually introduced, together with his mutual-assistance scheme. Thomas Varley would also welcome indemnity for firefighters while they act in good faith assisting their communities in all kinds of emergencies.

Fourthly, Varley always championed volunteer firefighters, so would be thrilled to see the opening clause in the new Act which says ‘The purpose of this Act is to (a) reform the law relating to fire services including by strengthening the role of communities and improving the support for volunteers in the provision of fire services…’ and goes on to reinforce this with further provisions to support volunteers. FENZ, noting these measures, said it was the first time that New Zealand legislation guarantees the place of volunteers: their involvement, care, maintenance and sustainability.

Fifthly, Tom Varley would be cheering out loud that the new Act addresses fire safety and fire prevention, two aspects he fought tooth-and-nail for in his time: on several occasions his devoted actions while driving this reform resulted in him almost being dismissed by the Fire Service Council. Tom Varley’s unrealised push for these aspects is vindicated, now prioritised in the new order of things, as legislated.

Lastly, an aspect Varley would have, particularly, approved is the introduction of the new FENZ logo. While the surmounting crown on the old badge has gone, the eight-pointed star has been retained surrounding (as it always has been) by crossed axes: one traditional hatchet-style, the other now replaced by the rural Pulanski axe, symbolising the FENZ amalgamation of urban and rural services. Fern leaves surround the star.

Unveiling the new logo, Chairman of the Board, Paul Swain, said ‘… the gold SERVIMUS star stands for the value of Service, Efficiency, Resourcefulness, Valour, Integrity, Mobility, Unity and Strength’. ‘The logo’, he said, ‘puts our tradition of serving our communities firmly at the heart of our identity for the future’.

Tom Varley would be delighted that the eight-pointed star has been retained, and that Chairman Paul Swain took the opportunity to again remind firefighters of its relevance. Varley brought the star with him from the UK.  He created its theme ‘Servimus’, ‘We Serve’, and attached firefighters’ ideals to each point of the star: it was born-again by the new organisation. Varley would have deep approval that, 55 years after he introduced it, the 8 merits which he believed were central to model firemanship are still recognised as ideal qualities.

Given requirements of the wide-ranging reform, the provisions in the new Act, and with 21st century values assured, I think Thomas Arthur Varley, the visionary, would wholeheartedly approve. I also think, now several years since FENZ was created, that he would share the impatience of many in the service to fully recognise the contribution by the organisation’s 14,000 volunteers, and, as the Act says, to properly support them. One of the shortfalls is the lack of an independent entity to resolve behavioural and discipline matters. Varley’s insistence on fire services’ close communication with local communities hasn’t yet been realised: Regional Advisory Committees need to be sharpened to reflect the intentions of the legislation, terms of reference redrawn allowing the committees to have opportunities for meaningful liaisons and to contribute community views about their local fire services.

Reform takes time, and no one knew that better than Thomas Athur Varley!



 T. A. Varley’s Letter to Chairman, Fire Service Council, June 2nd 1961

S. S. Dean, Esq, OBE, Chairman, Fire Service Council, 2 June 1961

Dear Mr. Chairman,

I feel I must draw your attention to the increasingly serious situation that has developed in the Council due, quite frankly, to your being unable or unwilling to control council meetings and the conduct of some of its members. The result of this failure, as you should be aware, has produced a lack of confidence on the part of the Service and the Fire Authorities in the ability of the Council to carry out its duties in accordance with the Fire Services Act.

At this stage of this letter, I would remind you of the terms of my appointment as Chief Fire Service Officer wherein I was specially appointed to be the Council’s technical advisor due to long and conspicuous experience in the organisation and control of fire services in Great Britain. Bringing to New Zealand that knowledge and experience, I have applied myself conscientiously to the task of building up an efficient service at, i may say, considerable personal effort and sacrifice on my part with the result that with pride I have been able to indicate in my annual reports over the years the increasing inefficiency which has resulted, I believe it is correct to say, that the council has reflected in that success as has the Fire Service as a whole and, no less so, the general public who have come to recognise the high standard of efficiency.

In recent years there has been distinct evidence of this efficiency being seriously undermined by the actions of the Council itself due primarily to a lack of impartial leadership on your part and irresponsibility on the part of certain members of the council. While I do not desire to dwell too closely on these matters in support of my contentions, as you are in fact well aware of the same. I would, however, draw your attention to more immediate matters of serious moment concerning the council and, no less so, the future of the Fire Service, as follows:

  1. The disgusting behavior, during meetings, of members threatening one another, using expressions of an ungentlemanly character to one another, making wild accusations, unwarranted criticism of the staff, disorderly conduct in constantly interrupting and generally disregarding the chair.
  2. You as Chairman making public speeches embodying statements claimed to be Council policy when, in fact, the matters referred to had not been finalised and actually may not prove practicable thus creating false impressions. I refer, in particular, to fire prevention matters wherein you have stated that the Council has agreed to the appointment of fire prevention officers on a regional basis, the establishment of a Fire Prevention Bureau and of a public campaign on fire prevention. I would here remind you that following the Barnett fire, December 1959, I submitted to Council in May 1960 a full report on fire prevention as a whole and in particular the lessons to be learned out of the Barnett fire. This report emphasised the national weakness in fire prevention. The Council’s subcommittee has met on at least 4 occasions since that time and has reached no conclusions, being presumably influenced by the threatened lawsuit Arthur Barnett v Dunedin Fire Board. I contend that the whole question of fire prevention calls for urgent investigation and action on a national basis as recommended in my report to Council and should not be treated in the indifferent and vacillating manner as has been the case to date.
  3. Without going into full details I would also remind you of the serious situation that has arisen in regard to the supply of fire appliances to the service. The Council made certain decisions contrary to my technical advice. You personally ignored the advice of our Secretary, Mr. Brown, and myself which, if taken, would have avoided the situation of the Council being a party to the views and actions of commercially interested parties. Despite the precisely declared policy of the Council on this question, which was contrary to the needs and standards of efficiency of the fire service, you have personally expressed views which were contrary to the Council’s actual decisions and policy on the matter, in other words deliberately avoiding giving the facts, thus leading interested parties to believe that the Customs Department is entirely responsible for the position in which the Fire Service finds itself when requiring new appliances. You are, no doubt, aware too that I have personally been accused of having a major responsibility for the Council’s actions and policy decisions in the matter and I suspect that it has been a matter of convenience to foster such an impression. At the recent UFBA Annual Conference and also at the New Zealand Urban Fire Authorities Conference you misled the firefighters on the facts of this matter to the extent that they have now apparently ascertained the facts for themselves with the result that their confidence in the Council has become so seriously impaired that, apart from the Council standing in the eyes of those whose allegiance is so vital, I am finding it an impossible task to maintain goodwill between the Fire Authorities and the brigades and the Fire Service Council and its staff. Worse still, it is now quite clear that one Council member, at least, has divorced himself from the Council’s policy and publicly declared that the Council’s policy in this matter is wrong.
  4. In regard to the regrading of Officer posts, despite the advice I gave to the Councils subcommittee on this matter, the subcommittee has produced a regrading which in my view has, in the main, been arrived at having regard to personalities and certainly not having any logical basis. I was astonished at the Council meeting on Monday last to learn from you and one other member of the subcommittee that I was in full support of the subcommittee’s decisions. Whether these statements were a matter of convenience is one of conjecture to me, but the facts of the whole matter are that I strongly advised the subcommittee to either recommend bringing into consultation the employees’ union or remit the matter completely to that body. Being the author of the existing scheme of officer grading, I was alive to the complexities of the matter and the attitude and aspirations of the officers concerned to the whole question of their status. Apart from refuting my supposed concurrence with the new proposed, I feel I am at least entitled to have my Chairman’s indulgence, which I have not had, in ratifying the truth of my advice given to the subcommittee.

I could go on to considerable length outlining facts in support of my complaint herewith, that many of the Council’s activities have reached a stage of irresponsibility primarily due to your weakness as the Chairman and whilst I very much regret having to write to you to convey my sentiments on such matters and in such vein, I must perforce do so in the interests of myself, the Council’s staff, the Fire Service, the Fire Authorities, the Government and, indeed, the populace of this country. I came to New Zealand to give the country the benefit of my unique background and knowledge and I find it extremely difficult to continue to be frustrated as the head of a vital public service with a Chairman in whom I have no confidence. It is my intention to take further action unless I can have an assurance from you of an unbiased and impartial outlook and a positive approach and control of Council members and behavior of its members.

Yours truly,

Chief Fire Service Officer.



Varley’s Blueprint for Auckland, 1961 and a Review 50 Years Later.

 His 1961 Blueprint

After researching the situation in the early 1960s and looking ahead, Varley suggested a new Auckland Fire District (stretching from Torbay to Papakura and from Henderson to Howick) which would be divided into 5 Divisions, centred at the present stations Pitt Street, Takapuna, Henderson, Otahuhu, and the fifth at a new station he proposed at Greenwoods Corner, Epsom. This location, he submitted, would provide strength to the increasing industrialisation in Penrose, Mt Roskill and parts of Onehunga. And with this resource in place he believed both Mt Roskill and Onehunga stations could be manned entirely by local volunteers.

(Ironically, Varley’s choice of Greenwoods Corner as an ideal location had earlier been suggested in 1928 when the then Auckland Fire Board, contemplating a merger of brigades and boards, was considering strategic stations to give overall best protection for the city and suburbs. The amalgamation took place in 1933… but the Greenwoods Corner proposal did not go ahead).

In his 1961 scheme Varley acknowledged some stations needed refurbishment or replacement (like the new Mt Wellington station already planned for the Pilkington Road site) and that living quarters required improvement ‘to ensure attractive working conditions for firemen.’ In addition to the recently formed Fire Districts at Beachlands and East Coast Bays he proposed new Districts be declared to meet the demands of burgeoning suburbs in Otara, Wiri, Maraetai, and Te Atatu. There were two special cases for new stations – Laingholm because of spectacular growth in settlement at the popular seaside suburb and Mangere because of urbanisation and its proximity to the International Airport, with its attendant risks. Varley suggested that Mt Eden and Western Districts (Ponsonby) fire stations should be closed, these areas to be covered from ‘nearby’ Pitt Street, Mt Albert and Remuera stations. Northcote Station would also close, to be included in Birkenhead’s responses, and so, too, would Herald Island Station – the community could be covered from Greenhithe via the planned causeway.

In all, 29 fire stations were envisaged with a total of 67 vehicles.

In his scheme, Varley offered not only efficiencies in providing fire-fighting services for the people of Greater Auckland, but he also spelled out real savings in expenditure. He would centralise a control room and offices at Pitt Street, there would be savings when specialist appliances need not be duplicated, and he would combine purchasing, stores, workshops, a fire safety and prevention department and a common in-service training programme, delivered locally. He especially championed the cause for one centralised watchroom at Pitt Street Headquarters, connected with each fire station so fire alarms could quickly be communicated. He enthused about this aspect most of all because he said ‘that in the near future when the emergency phone number,111,is introduced in Auckland, this central watchroom would be staffed by experienced attendants who will receive and process all calls from those who are seeking help right across Auckland’.

What was left out of Tom Varley’s blueprint was the detail about staffing, both in the administration and operations of the proposed enlarged Fire District. He draws attention to this aspect in the preface to his report saying that there are 2 primary obstacles in the way which often delay implementation of planned unification – one is deciding the personnel status of serving officers and the other is usually each local authority’s reluctance to amalgamate. Notwithstanding his signalling that human resources are often a stumbling block he chooses to leave out rank structure, establishment numbers of both paid and volunteer crews, and numbers required to administer the organisation. ‘I have deliberately excluded reference to these matters… … they remain to be worked out locally.’ But he did suggest there’d be one Chief Fire Officer for the whole of Greater Auckland.

Ever the helpful, and hopeful, executive, and showing he had the bigger picture in view, Tom Varley concluded his report with the expansive remarks ‘I have no hesitation in concluding that this report may… … solve the existing and foreseeable fire service problems occurring in the Auckland Urban Area… …and might well assist the Local Government Commission and the local bodies concerned in reaching a solution to inherent local government problems of the area in question’.


1961 plus 50 Years: A Review

With the benefit of hindsight and after 50 years of Auckland’s unbridled growth since Tom Varley’s blueprint, it can now be asked – had his plans been put in place would they have succeeded? Did he get it right… and what has transpired?

On the local government front, he hit the target with his prediction about self-interests within local authorities often being obstacles towards unification. The review of Auckland’s local bodies undertaken in 1961, during which the Fire Service Council submitted Varley’s proposal, did not come to much: it was not until 1989 that scores of local bodies and agencies in Auckland were forced to amalgamate. And then in 2009 the government of the day announced the use of the blunt instrument, legislation, again: this time to create one Super City. Consequently, in November 2010, Auckland Council was created which by statute took over the functions of the existing regional council and the region’s seven city and district councils.

Ironically, it was not reform by the Local Government Commission that led to a shakeup of fire brigades in the region (and nationwide), but the reforming amendment to the law in 1975 which effectively nationalised all fire services. In April 1976 all Fire Boards and Fire authorities had been abolished: governance of all fire protection was then in the hands of a Fire Service Commission.

Varley’s contention in 1961 ‘that with the Harbour Bridge the North Shore should not be treated any differently’ was on the right track, but took more than a little time to realise.

While Auckland City and the North Shore had been physically linked by the bridge since 1959, the water between the two continued to act as political and psychological separation for fire protection. Unbelievably, there was no co-operation between the Auckland Metropolitan and North Shore Fire Boards, not even on a ‘knock-for-knock’ basis with no money changing hands, as had been instituted for firefighting in some South Auckland districts. The missed opportunities for coordinated protection, particularly tackling major fires, are ably illustrated by quoting Allan Bruce again. In his book ‘Into the Line of Fire’, Allan Bruce says that while he was Deputy Chief Fire Officer on the North Shore he realised the Greater Auckland community was not getting the standard of efficiency and fire protection it should. There were several notable fires he thought that North Shore appliances ought to have been mobilised to attend. One blaze, on 16th August 1960, engulfed a five-storey warehouse in downtown, Auckland. The mushroom cloud of smoke was easily visible from Bruce’s office window at Takapuna Fire Headquarters. ‘It was indeed a spectacular fire that pushed Auckland’s resources to the limit’ Bruce observed, ‘but, as usual, no call ever came to assist… we had six fully crewed appliances within 5 minutes travelling time to the scene of that blaze and they were not even considered for use’.

Bruce contends there should have been a national requirement for North Shore appliances to be included in an automatic, pre-determined attendance plan for major fires.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until Nationalisation in 1976 that fire appliances were crossing the harbour bridge (in both directions) to render assistance. Amalgamation of the North Shore and Auckland fire services was not formalised until 1981. This move was the cue for the Service to introduce Divisions, another of Varley’s proposals. Instead of his 5 divisions, 4 were formed (North Shore, Central, Western and Southern) each with new positions, Divisional Commanders, working out of their headquarters, the stations at Takapuna, Pitt Street, Avondale and Otahuhu.

So, what of Varley’s 1961 blueprint for Auckland? By and large most of the stations he envisaged came to pass, required to cater for an exploding population.

To the North, Greenhithe endures along with East Coast Bays (a new station, relocated to the north of Browns Bay was opened in 2021. Cover of the fast-growing northern suburbs, industrial areas and academic institutions has been bolstered by a station at Albany. (Ironically North Shore Fire Board predicted tremendous growth in and around Albany and purchased land for a station at Snapper Rock Road. The property was later sold: Albany station was established in leased premises in the industrial area).

Both Herald Island and Northcote were closed as proposed by Varley, the former taken over by a new station, Waitemata in 1980 (later renamed West Harbour), the latter absorbed by Birkenhead which moved to a new station in 1971. Takapuna remains as contemplated by Tom Varley althougha new station was commissioned in Wairau Valley in 2018 after the Fire Service vacated Killarney Street Station and Headquarters. Area Headquarters for the North Shore and West Auckland now occupies part of the complex at the Wairau Valley station. Other Area Headquarters are at Pitt Street and Papatoetoe stations. Each has its own Districy Manager, administrative staff, fire safety/investigation personnel and support personnel for volunteer brigades.

Henderson station (there are also plans for its relocation) for a time became a Divisional Headquarters as Varley had planned but has reverted to a fire station with one appliance staffed 24×7, the other by volunteers. Te Atatu, opened as a volunteer station in 1969 in Te Atatut South was relocated to Te Atatu North and then, in 2012 back again to the southside. A staffed appliance, 24×7, was added to the volunteer appliance and a Lighting Unit. Titirangi and Glen Eden have remained… and Laingholm, as promoted by Varley, opened its new station in 1972. Waitakere rural fire station has been re-built: members of the Rural Unit first trained and responded to a full range of emergencies then converted to a volunteer fire brigade.

Avondale continues, rebuilt in 1985 on the same site with plans, 2024, to replace facilities at the same location.

But Varley’s dream of a new divisional headquarters centred at Greenwoods Corner, Epsom, has not been realised. Onehunga (replaced, 2003, on the same site) and Mt Roskill (moved to Dominion Road Extension, completed in May  2009) both continue to protect inner South Eastern suburbs, and staffed by career firefighters 24×7 rather than by volunteers, as Varley had surmised. Ponsonby (known then as Western Districts) survived in defiance of Varley’s suggestion that it be closed. It was rebuilt in 1980 on the same site at the corner of Ponsonby Road and Lincoln Street. Instead, it was Pt Chevalier that got the chop, closed in July 1985: protesting residents complained they were left without proper fire protection. These concerns were perhaps somewhat placated much later when, in 2016, Ponsonby station was closed, re-sited westwards towards Grey Lynn shopping centre in Williamson Avenue, and therefore closer to Pt Chevalier. It’s known as Grey Lynn Station.

Varley’s decision to close Mt Eden station was the right thing to do, but for different reasons. Varley surmised Remuera and City stations could adequately cover the area. But in 1970 Mt Eden’s appliance was positioned at Mt Albert station awaiting a new station to be opened in Balmoral Road near Dominion Road, and from 1974 this Balmoral Station, as it was named, provided coverage to the East, much of Mt Eden’s former patch. Mt Albert was closed.

Remuera (a new station opened in 2004) and St Heliers (rebuilt in 2012) both survive on the same sites despite plans in the late 1990s to close them with a single substitute station located at Meadowbank shops. The plan was abandoned. Ellerslie remains on site but in a new station completed in 2002, Parnell had already relocated to Balfour Street nearer the waterfront where it continues (though (2024) a replacement on the same site is under construction.

In the South the station at Otahuhu remains, as do all those stations that Varley envisaged would be absorbed under amalgamation, Papatoetoe, Howick, Manurewa, Papakura (although all four have since been re-sited within those suburbs).

Many additional fire stations that Varley proposed have, in fact, materialised, including Mt Wellington (re-sited 1963), Mangere (1970), Otara (1977), Te Atatu, Wiri (but overtaken by a move back to Papatoetoe): but other places, like Maraetai do not have a station. This growing suburb is, instead, served by a 2-appliance all-volunteer station at Beachlands, another seaside ‘village’ that over the years has experienced unpredicted, but steady, growth.

The “control room” was retained, updated and moved to new spacious facilities in Regional Headquarters in the early 1970s but moved to purpose-built premises in Grey Lynn, shared with police, where 111 calls were received, and fire/rescue services mobilised. A new joint facility, police and fire, moved to Otahuhu in late 2020.

In 1961 few forecasters, among them Tom Varley, could foretell Auckland’s phenomenal growth. In hindsight, his prognosis had a lot going for it and, in many cases, proved correct despite the fact that he did not have computer-driven modelling which is used these days to determine ideal fire station sites: calculating fire risks, travelling times in congested traffic, growth patterns, demographics and other social factors. Many of his proposals were implemented over the years and in his advancing age he must have looked back, perhaps with some satisfaction, comparing what he had envisaged and what was actually occurring.

Tom Varley could only have had an inkling of the stations required on the periphery, like Clevedon, Kawakawa Bay, Hunua, Waiuku, Waiau Pa, Patumahoe, Pukekohe, Kumeu-Huapai, Waiatarua, Piha, Silverdale and Manly… all of which, with ever-increasing strategic importance cater for a rural-urban mix as the Super City inevitably continues its reach into the hinterland.

In 2018 the Fire and Emergency Act reorganised fire services: among other reforms it relieved local government of the funding, administration and operational responsibility for rural fire brigades and fire forces, putting these often-impoverished units under FENZ.  In Greater Auckland the 3 Area Managers took them over. Varley would have applauded this. He always advocated for “one fire service embracing all New Zealand’s firefighters”.

On top of Auckland’s 26 paid/composite stations this move swelled the number of volunteer stations to 39. Varley could not have foreseen this and (like everyone else) could not foretell Auckland’s steady growth in population, In 2023 there was an increase of 21,000 taking the Super City to 1.7 million.


Grateful thanks to former New Zealand Fire Officer Max Barker who in 2013 heard about the manuscript for  this biography and forwarded cassettes of Varley’s narrated reminiscences which had been recorded in 1991. Excerpts of these have been included in the text as sound tracks. The  casettes an also enabled ready confirmation, and provided assitional material, to the accounts told to me by Varley. Thanks also to the United Fire Brigades’ Association of New Zealand for transcripts of some of these tape recordings. Selected material has been included, and this, too is in quotes attributed to Tom Varley.

I appreciate assistance from Sandy Lawson, a former officer in New Zealand Fire Service who knew Tom Varley, and who checked the manuscript and offered invaluable advice.

Thanks also to Geoffrey Prichard of Weymouth, Dorset, who contributed material about, particularly, Tom Varley’s service in Dorset County taken from an account he wrote in 1992, “Fire Services in Dorset 1947 to 1951”. Also appreciated were photographs and additional material about Varley’s time in Blackpool which Geoffrey summarised from “Shout – a short history of Blackpool Fire Brigade” by D. J. Bonney and information from Roy Blatchford prompted by a letter Geoffrey wrote on the subject to “Fire Cover”, the Fire Brigade Society’s magazine. Geoffrey also forwarded invaluable content, recollections of his late father, Ronald Griffith Pritchard, who had served alongside Thomas Varley in Wales and Dorset, and allowed their inclusion… particularly a letter he wrote in 1983 on his part in the formation of the National Firefighters Benevolent Society.

I am also indebted to Simon Ryan, Director at Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service, who assisted with new material and photographs and who was kind enough to review the manuscript of UK events, checking facts and figures and suggesting changes.

 R. C. Carlyon © 2024


AFS         Auxiliary Fire Service, UK fire service organisation during the first years of the Second World War before National Fire Service took over

Appliance    Fire engine/truck

Auditor-General   An independent officer of Parliament in New Zealand who oversees public accounts

Auxiliary    Party of volunteer firefighters attached to a Volunteer Fire Brigade

Auxiliary Firemen    Part-time personnel in UK paid to augment career staff in  wartime

BA             Breathing Apparatus

Billet         Temporary accommodation, usually board or lodging

Blitz          Short form for German ‘Blitzkrieg’, meaning ‘lightning strike’ (usually aerial) attack

Branch    Waterway equipment, “nozzle” at the head of a hose-line

Branchman    Firefighter holding and directing the branch, usually closest to the fire

CFO        Chief Fire Officer – officer in charge of a brigade, city, district or region

CFSO     Chief Fire Services Officer – officer in charge of N.Z. fire services in earlier days

Control Room   Brigade nerve-centre receiving alarms and coordinating mobilisation, etc

Council     New Zealand Fire Service Council 1949 – 1974

Delivery    Hose-line delivering water from the pump, or source, to the fire

Digs           Basic accommodation, in wartime sometimes as boarders billeted in private houses

Duke Class   Iron Dukeclass comprised 4 dreadnought RN First World war battleships

Emergency Tender     Appliance equipped with rescue/extrication equipment, lighting, etc

Feeder          Hose-line delivering water from a source to the pump

Fire Brigade Committee   Committee of a Local Authority responsible for local fire brigade(s)

Fire Hydrant    (FH) Access in water mains to insert a standpipe to obtain supplies, earlier known in New Zealand as a Fire Plug

Foot              0.304 metre

Gallon            4.5 litres

GPM               Gallons per minute

Grand Fleet   Naval fleet, deterrent against large-scale attacks against Britain by sea

Hose-line       Feeder or delivery hose, usuallly charged under pressure used to fight fires

Hosereel        Low pressure small diameter hose on a reel fixed on an appliance

HQ                 Headquarters

Hydrant        (FH) Access in water mains to insert standpipe to obtain supplies, earlier known in New Zealand as a Fire Plug

IFE               Institution of Fire Engineers, United Kingdom, established 1918

Inch              25 millimetres

Instantaneous     “Clip-in” couplings, colloquially ‘male’ the other ‘female’

KPFSM         Royal Honour – King’s Police and Fire service Medal (UK)

Litre             0.26 of a gallon

Luftwaffe    German Air Force before and during World War Two.

Manual Reel    Hose-reel on wooden wheels dragged by firemen on foot

MBE         Royal Honour – Member of the British Empire

Mutual Assistance       One brigade going to the help of another

NFS           National Fire Service, UK fire service organisation during wartime

Nozzle       Branch – Metal fitting at end of the hose to control flow

NZFBI       New Zealand Fire Brigades’ Institute Inc, established 1931

NZFS         New Zealand Fire Service

OBE          Royal Honour – Order of the British Empire

P&T          Post and Telegraph Department, New Zealand

Postmaster-General     Minister of the Crown in New Zealand responsible for postal, telegraph and radio services (former title)

Pound       British Pound sterling, currency in UK, £

Pump        Appliance with pumping capacity

Pump/Escape       Appliance with pumping capacity and wheeled ladder, usually 50 feet plus

QFSM         Royal Honour – Queen’s Fire Service Medal (N.Z.)

UFBA          United Fire Brigades’ Association of New Zealand Inc.

Superintendent    Officer in charge of a fire brigade (Pre-1950s in NZ when the term became Chief Fire Officer)

EFS            Emergency Fire Service, UK and NZ fire service organisation during wartime

Fire Hydrant      (FH) Access in water mains to insert standpipe to obtain  supplies

Fire Plug         (FP) A bung in water mains (originally wooden pipes) to obtain firefighting supplies, lately a Fire Hydrant

Smoke-eater   A veteran firefighter before the introduction of Breathing Apparatus

Standpipe        Waterway pipe inserted into hydrant and connected to delivery hose/s

Steamer           Horse-drawn steam pump: fire appliance before motorised  vehicles

Trailer Pump     Water pump for firefighting mounted on a trailer, towed to fires by an appliance, car or truck etc

TTL – Turntable Ladder, a ladder (typically about 30 metres) on an appliance used to effect rescues and as an aerial platform to fight fires

Waterway      Collective term for items such as standpipe, hose, couplings, dividing breechings, etc

Wheeled Escape    50 foot+ ladder on wheels usually mounted on the rear of a Pump/Escape fire appliance

References and Sources

Recollections and events have been checked and augmented using the following references:

100 Years of Voluntary Service, The Story of the Wellington Volunteer Fire Police/Operational Support Division” Wellington Operational Support Division, 1999.

1933-1993 60 Years Auckland Fire Police”, Auckland Volunteer Fire Police Unit, Pacific Publications, 1993.

“The All Blacks” T. P. Mclean, Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1991  

Annual Report, Wellington Metropolitan Fire Board, 1964

A Century of Fires and Fire Brigades in Dunedin, 1848-1948”, J. S. Little, Dunedin Metropolitan Fire Board, 1948.

“A Chronicle of the Auckland Fire Brigade, 1857-1965”, Reg Moore, serialised in “New Zealand Firefighter” magazine, 1960s-1970s

Archive Files from 1950, Hut County Fire Authority, presented by the Hutt Archives, Department of Internal Affairs, Archives New Zealand, presented by the Wellington City Council to the Alexander Turnbull Library   

“Auckland Fire Brigade Centenary, 1874 – 1974” compiled by N.C. Glen, Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board, 1974  

Bomber County”, Daniel Swift, Hamish Hamilton, 2008

“The British Intervention in South Russia 1918-20” Lauri Kopisto, Dissertation, University of Helsinki, 2011.

Chariots of Fire – A pictorial history of the New Zealand fire engine”, Brian Denton, IPL Books, 1995.

Circulars from the New Zealand Fire Service Council, 1949 – 1962, presented by the Insurance Council of New Zealand to the Alexander Turnbull Library

“Civil Defence in New Zealand – A Short History” Ministry of Civil Defence, 1990

“Dennis”, Pat Kennett, Patrick Stephens Ltd, Cambridge, 1979

“Dennis – 100 Years of Innovation”, Stewart J. Brown, Ian Allan Publishing, 1995

“An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand”, New Zealand Government, R. E. Owen, Government Printer, 1966

“The Encyclopedia of New Zealand Rugby”, R.H. Chester, Ron Palenski & N.A.C. McMillan, Hodder/Moa/Becket, 1998.

Evening Post”, newspaper cuttings, Wellington Library

Eye of the Eagle – The Luftwaffe Aerial Photographs of Swansea”, Nigel A. Robins.

“Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service, 1800–1978”, Shane Ewen, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

Fighting Flames. A Century of Firefighting in Hastings 1886-1986” Russell W. Kirby, Hastings Fire Brigade, 1986

“Fire Danger Ratings Associated with New Zealand’s Major Pine Plantation Wildfires”, paper, H.G. Pearce and M.E. Alexander, 1993

“Fire Engineers Journal- T.A.Varley”, article by CFO A.B.C. Hogg, March 1967, Institution of Fire Engineers

“Fire Engineers Journal – Obituary”, September 1996, Institution of Fire Engineers

The Fireman” Journal of the Civil Protective Forces of the United Kingdom, 1931-52

The Fire Service Today” Frank Eyre and E.C.R. Hadfield, 1953

Fire Services Act 1949 Statutes of New Zealand

“Fire Services in Dorset 1947 to 1951” Geoffrey Pritchard,1992. Unpublished

Ford Ahead A History of The Colonial Motor Company Limited” Roger Gardner, The Colonial Motor Company in association with Fraser Books, December, 2004    

“The Fourth Arm – a survey of firefighting past, present and future” James W. Kenyon, George G. Harrap and Company, London, 1948

“From Bells to Blazes – The Story of the Wellington Fire Brigade 1865 – 1965” Edited by Rex Monigatti, A.B.D. Clark Ltd, c1965

“The Health Consequences of the ICI Fire”, Sian Elias QC, Dr D. R. Bandaranayake, Assoc. Professor I.R. Edwards and Assoc. Professor W.I. Glass, New Zealand Department of Health, 1990

“Heritage – Golden Years of All Blacks”, Paul Verdon, Hill-Verdon Publishing Ltd, 2002

“History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1919-1959”, Colonel J.C. Kemp MC, Robert Maclehose, the University of Glasgow, The Royal Scots Fusiliers

“The Illustrated History of Dennis Buses and Trucks”, Nick Baldwin, Haynes Publishing Group, 1987

Images of Fire – 150 Years of Firefighting”, Neil Wallington, David and Charles, 1989

“The Importance of the Institution of Fire Engineers in a Career”, T.A.Varley, QSO, OBE, KPFSM, FIFireE(Life)”, Fire Engineers’ Journal, Institution of Fire Engineers, September 1996

“London Gazette” 8th October 1920. HMPO.

London Gazette” Second Supplement, 24th March 1942. HMPO.

“London Gazette” 4th Supplement, 4th June 1943. HMPO.

“London Gazette” Supplement, 1st January 1945. HMPO.

“More Water On” A history of the United Fire Brigades’ Association of New Zealand Incorporated from its formation in 1878 to 2003, Graeme D. Booth and Sandy G. Lawson, published by the Association.

Newsletter No.19 Probus Club of Waikanae. “Guest Speaker – Profile of Thomas Varley”, article, May 1992

New Zealand Fire Service Council, Minutes 1949-1974, volumes presented by the Insurance Council of New Zealand to the Alexander Turnbull Library.

New Zealand Fire Service – Annual Report of the Chief Fire Service Officer 1952–1962, volumes held in the Library, New Zealand Fire Service Commission, Wellington

“New Zealand Herald”, Wilson and Horton Limited, daily issues 12 January – 9 February, 1959

New Zealand Tragedies Fires and Firefighting” by Gavin McLean, Grantham House, 1992

 “Origins and Development of Forensic Medicine and Forensic Science in England, 1823-1946” The Open University PhD thesis by Jennifer Ward,1993.

“Pharmaceutical Journal, Vol. 269” December 2002, “Best for Me, Best for You – a History of Beecham’s Pills 1842 -1998”, article by Stuart Anderson and Peter Homan 

Poster, Emergency Reserve Corps, Dominion of New Zealand, E.V. Paul, Government Printer, 1941

Profile” by A.B.C. Hogg, Fire Engineers’ Journal, Institution of Fire Engineers, March, 1987

Public Service Act 1912 Statutes of New Zealand

“Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire Into… …the Fire at the Premises of J. Ballantyne and Company, Limited, Christchurch…” New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 1948 (Hansard)

“Rugby Legends” T.P. McLean, 1987

Theo Heighway’s personal papers, unpublished, researched by Forbes Neil, 2016

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

War Office Records, United Kingdom 1917-18 “Varley, Arthur, 15342”

Water On! A Century’s History of the United Fire Brigades’ Association of New Zealand”, B. C. Cathcart, published by the Association, 1978

Website, British Broadcasting Corporation “WW2, People’s War”

Website, Blackpool City – media releases

Website, Cabinet Office, HM Government, “Chapter 17 National Asset Register – Civil Service College”, Ascot, Berkshire, undated

Website, memories of Coalgate Mines

Website, Department of Internal Affairs, New Zealand Government, “Briefings to the Incoming Minister of Internal Affairs December 2011”

Website, Department of Internal Affairs, New Zealand Government, “Briefings to the Incoming Minister of Internal Affairs April 2012”

Website, Department of Internal Affairs, New Zealand Government, “Briefing to Incoming Ministers December 2011”

Website, Department of Internal Affairs, New Zealand Government, “Briefing to Incoming Ministers April 2012”

Website, Hub Pages “Churchill’s Private War, British Intervention in Southern Russia, 1919, Perrya

Website, International Rugby Board, Rugby World Cup

Website, “Leodis, a photographic archive of Leeds”, Leeds City Council

Website, National Museum, Wales, Distinguished Service – campaign & gallantry medals

Website, New Zealand Rugby Union, NZrugby.co, allblacks.com/history

Website, nzshipmarine.recollect.co.nz

Website, Pembroke Dock Community Web Project, “The History of Pembroke Dock”

Website, Pembrokeshire Record Office,”The Second World War in Pembrokeshire – Topic List” 

Website, Royal Netherlands Navy Warships of World War 2 “History of the ‘Jacob van Heermskerck’”

Website, Swansea History Web 2001

Website, Wellington Volunteer Coastguard Incorporated

Website, Whitewebbs Museum, Enfield

Website, Wikipedia “Doveton Sturdee”

Website, Wikipedia “HMS Benbow (1913)

Website, “Winston Churchill”, The Winston Churchill Centre and Museum

“Winston Churchill, A Biographical Companion”, Chris Wrigley, ABC-CLIO, 2002