New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s
Customs and traditions of fire use
Customs and traditions of fire use
It is obvious that some colonials wanted to get fire defence onto a firmer footing, but that they were fighting against widespread public and official apathy. Before we discuss the positions of the various players in this emerging colonial debate it will pay us to put it into a broader context by examining the attitudes to fire that had been inherited from the Old World past, and how they were being shaped both by colonial life and by the wider contemporary world. Fire as a tool of rural husbandry was not something new to New Zealand's rural immigrants. It ran back deep into the Old World past. In 18th-century Hampshire Gilbert White fumed over the folk burning tradition of his Selborne villagers:
… about March and April, according to the dryness of the season, such vast heath-fires are lighted up, that they often get to a masterless head, and, catching the hedges, have sometimes been communicated to the underwoods, woods, and coppices, where great damage has ensued. The plea for these burnings is, that, when the old coat of heath, etc., is consumed, young will sprout up, and afford more tender browse for cattle; but where there is large furze, the fire, following the roots, consumes the very ground; so that for hundreds of acres nothing is to be seen but smother and desolation, the whole circuit round looking like the cinders of a volcano … These page 238 conflagrations … much annoy this village with their smoke, and often alarm the country…4
In 18th-century rural Britain fire was given a new impetus by the agricultural revolution. Throughout England it was a major instrument in transforming large areas of heath, moor, peat and forest into new stretches of farmland. In the Scottish Highlands the notorious Clearances that made way for the English sheep were years of burning, not only of the crofters' homes, but also of the surrounding landscape:
Fires filled the dead heathlands vacated by retreating snows, and acquired new dimensions; patch burning gave way to broadcast burning on a colossal scale. As sheep multiplied across the landscape, more waste was burned and more woodlands felled and fired to support them. Under the impress of fire and grazing, woods became heath and heather became grass.5
It was to fire that many English villagers turned when they found that the reshaping of the rural world was bringing them servitude and starvation. In simmering discontent they began to torch ricks and barns, to prove to themselves and others that they were not utterly servile and helpless6 In the ‘Captain Swing’ riots of 1830 this type of protest broke out into widespread rebellion across a broad swathe of south and east England.7 Edward Gibbon Wakefield saw something of these burnings in East Anglia and drew pointed lessons from them for his emigration propaganda.8 Many of the New Zealand Wakefield immigrants must also have seen these fires. Most, too, would have seen the benign use of fire in the regular burning of rank growth in spring and autumn bonfires, and in the reviving custom of the field burning of straw after harvest. Many of the 1870s ‘Vogel’ immigrants would have brought memories of the devastating summer drought of 1868 when the moors and commons of England were ablaze from one end of England to another.9
Fire was also a major feature of the two new agricultural worlds with which New Zealand had the closest contacts, those of North America and Australia. In his Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia Stephen Pyne has shown how integral fire has been in the making of both Aboriginal and settler Australia. Of North America he writes that ‘burning was integral to American agriculture, pastoralism, land clearing, and other frontier economies; it was regarded as a folk right’.10 So in all the rural traditions of which New Zealanders had knowledge or experience fire was an endemic element. And in all these communities naked flame was an element of everyday home life. Whatever heating and cooking the cottage homes of Britain enjoyed was the product of fires, mainly of peat or coal, and if their darkness was lit it was by candle or kerosene flames. Among the many attractions which the page 239 new colonial worlds had to offer were an abundance of fuel and of lighting materials. One left the smouldering peat for the blazing log fire. As the new technology of the Industrial Revolution spread abroad it brought the further flames of the steam engine. One of the terrors of England's 1868 drought had been the sparks of the steam locomotives of this new age. Many colonial communities lived from time to time in the same fear.
We must, then, see settler New Zealand as part of a world in which naked flame was a part of everyday life from one's earliest consciousness. It was a world also in which fire risk was constant and widespread. It was a world of wooden walls and shingled roofs, of unkempt gardens, streets, hedges and farms, of hay lofts and thatched wheat stacks. Fire spread by means of sparks from chimneys and funnels, from open fires by sparks and falling coals, from misplaced candles and overturned lamps and lanterns, from furnaces, forges and ovens, from bonfires (both festival and utilitarian), from unswept chimneys, from the play and meddling of children. Every adult citizen had a wealth of familiarity with fire and at least some experience of extinguishing unwanted fire. As a result most tackled emergencies forthrightly, confidently and efficiently. It was Everyman's (and woman's) responsibility, and this was one reason why the fire brigades found it difficult to establish a special claim or mystique.