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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s


We will now examine the precautions, strategies and institutions that the settlers had developed to cope with the persistent threat of fire. Let us first ask ourselves what kind of a sketch a perceptive reader might draw of the likely general state of fire preparedness in New Zealand of the 1880s, in the light of our account of the fires of 1885–86 and our anatomy of settler society up to this point. It would surely be a fairly positive picture. We have seen how these folk had used the combined instruments of central and local government, private enterprise, and voluntary associations to meet a wide range of their social and economic needs. They made widespread use of the modern tools of steam, telegraphy and printing. In each little centre goods were flowing efficiently in and out, letters were being regularly received and dispatched, local, colonial and world news came daily or weekly to the households, the young were all being efficiently schooled, and so on. Surely, in one way or another, the threat of fire will have been similarly effectively provided for. And in the season's two main disaster areas of Stratford and southern Hawke's Bay, have we not seen efficient fire brigades, doing all that could be expected of them in pioneer circumstances? Were not the citizens and local councillors of Hawera, New Plymouth and Napier to be congratulated for the forces that stood ready for rapid dispatch to their bush neighbours in their hour of need? Would not this state of preparedness have been typical of the colony at that time?

This positive picture, based on seemingly convincing circumstantial evidence and selected supporting examples is, in fact, very wide of the truth. If, in Chapter 2, ‘The Setting of the Pyre’, we had included a brief survey of the general state of colonial fire preparedness of the colony in the mid 1880s, the perceptive reader might have expected under the present chapter heading some unravelling of the mystery of how Hawera, New Plymouth and Napier acquitted themselves so well. A brief survey for Chapter 2 might have explained that the colonial government took so little interest in firefighting that the only statistics it collected were an annual listing of fire brigades with the number of officers and men attached to each, which for 31 December 1885 showed 52 brigades with 212 officers and 870 men. From the Australasian Insurance and Banking Record of 15 January 1886 we could have quoted page 236 statistics of uncertain origin for the 1884 firefighting provisions of New Zealand's 17 largest boroughs. The total value of all their firefighting plant was only £11,710, including only four steam fire engines. Caversham had disbanded its brigade leaving its population of 4,311 with no organised protection whatever against fire. The total cost of the fire brigades in 1884 for 14 of these boroughs is shown as £4,870, representing 1.72 per cent of their borough revenues. But so miserly had these boroughs been to their brigades that in fact much of this money had been wrung from other sources. In backgrounding this public apathy we might have quoted Samuel Shrimski, member for Oamaru, speaking to an unsuccessful Fire Brigades Bill in the House on 15 June 1882:

… this Bill came entirely from the fire brigades, and had not come from the Municipalities, or from the public as a whole. It came from a number of people who took upon themselves this sort of business—of extinguishing fires—just as others took to cricket, footballing or volunteering. They did not levy a special rate for people who went in for cricketing or footballing; and why should firemen have a special rate? Some time ago he was on the railway-station platform at Oamaru, when the fire brigades were returning from a meeting held in Canterbury, and he was pointed out by one of the fire brigade men as a member who opposed this Bill in a previous session. He was pounced upon, blackguarded, and most abusive language was used towards him. Moreover, they said they would like to see his property on fire, so that they might serve him out for opposing the Bill.1

Shrimski was by no means alone in viewing firefighting as a matter of private sport. The brigadesmen's frustration that lay behind the scene on the Oamaru railway platform might be illustrated from the experience of the Palmerston North brigade. In early January 1886, with the smoke from nearby bush fires swirling overhead and tales of fire disasters flowing in from all sides, the citizens of this town (with more than twice Hawera's population) awoke to the fact that their fire brigade was defunct, their wooden township tinder dry, and their paths and streets covered with dry grass rapidly becoming ‘as inflammable as gunpowder’2 The history of their brigade shows that it had had good reason to give up in despair.3 When Palmerston North was declared a borough on 12 July 1877 its citizens knew they needed a volunteer fire brigade as there was a serious lack of water in the town. An impetus for action was provided on 27 November 1877 when the premises of the brother of the newly elected first mayor were destroyed by fire. Mayor George Snelson called a meeting for 30 November, at which a volunteer fire brigade was formed, and arrangements made to approach the new borough council and the insurance companies for finance for equipment. A deputation to the insurance company offices in Wellington came back with the promise of a page 237 fire engine, a promise which was never honoured. At the borough council, despite the urgings of the mayor, the brigade's request for a subsidy was deferred. The volunteers battled on as a bucket brigade until 5 June 1878 when they disbanded and handed back the funds they had collected to the subscribers. Thus the town continued with neither a public water supply nor firefighting equipment nor brigadesmen, but not without fires, until December 1881. Then in disgust councillor Alexander Ferguson took the initiative of supplying the public at his own cost with its first fire appliance, a barrel with a hand operated pump, mounted on a wheeled platform for trundling to a fire. Finally in 1883 the borough council offered a £30 a year subsidy for a volunteer brigade and on 18 July a brigade was again formed. It managed to get together some ladders, hooks and buckets, and a prize piece, a four-wheeled contrivance for manhandling equipment to the scene of a fire. All these were stored in a borrowed shed, to which the men rushed on hearing the sound of the fire bell, for which the council magnanimously voted £7 in July 1884. In debt, and utterly failing to gain the funds for any respectable material for training and for fighting fires, the volunteers' enthusiasm ebbed away, and the brigade was in recess by the time of the 1885–86 fire summer.