New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s
16 — Fire
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.
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.
The local bodies and fire control
With the abolition of the provinces the main public responsibility for fire control was passed in 1876 to the newly constituted local bodies. But it was a permissive responsibility; they could, but were not compelled to, take initiatives and spend rates on fire control, and they could appoint fire inspectors to take control of fires. In the 1880s the general picture was one of their doing little or nothing. To provide further materials for discussing why this was so we will add two further examples to our Palmerston North one. We turn first to the neighbouring town of Feilding, where on 9 January 1886 the inaction of the city fathers drew a firm editorial from the Feilding Star. With ‘disastrous fires … not only in every part of the colony, but at our very doors' the editor had hoped to see the first borough council meeting of the year take some positive action. Instead the council merely feebly resolved to pay half the expense of a nightwatchman provided the insurance companies paid the other half. The Star of 12 January described a worsening situation. Nearly every tank in the town was empty and the wells in the higher parts of the town had run dry. Fortunately there was still water in the nearby rivers. There had been a large increase in the business of the local insurance agents. And the city fathers had apparently taken one very inexpensive precautionary initiative, for the Star reported thatpage 240
We have been requested to intimate that in the event of a fire taking place an alarm will be given by the bugler of the Manchester Rifles who will sound the ‘Assembly’. Persons desirous of assisting will proceed to Manchester Square from where they will be marched to the spot where their services are required.11
The Star's editorial call of 9 January for the businessmen of the town to take matters in their own hands and organise a fire brigade and a salvage corps went unheeded. The town came through the drought with no serious fire to stir it into action.
It would be unfair to take our examples only from recently founded bush frontier townships. We will therefore turn next to Blenheim, nearly three times as old as Palmerston North and some 500 larger in population. From its spell as Marlborough's provincial capital and its enjoyment of a share of the region's wool wealth it had developed into a much more solidly established place than our two previous examples. In 1885 the city fathers drew on this comparative affluence to acquire a fine new steam fire engine. Its arrival was celebrated on 6 November with a procession to the Market Square, where His Worship the Mayor made a speech and the Mayoress broke a bottle of champagne over the machine and christened it ‘Fire Queen’. This was followed by a public demonstration of the engine's potential in a nearby paddock and a dinner for the brigade and its friends at the Masonic Hotel, chaired by the mayor.12 At 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, 31 January 1886 the brigade had their first chance to show their Fire Queen's potential in an emergency. The alarm was sounded that Foster and Gosling's Rabbit Factory, being used as a wool store, was on fire. Fire brigadesmen began an endeavour to manhandle Fire Queen to the scene, some distance out of town. There were too few of them, so after half an hour they went on to the scene without the engine. Meanwhile police, neighbours and onlookers had pitched in and salvaged some meat preserving plant and other materials. Fortunately there was no wind and so no danger of the fire spreading. Eventually the brigade was able to reach agreement with a settler to hire a pair of horses, and Fire Queen arrived on the scene an hour and a half after the alarm in time to see the fire dying down. The brigade of course came in for strong criticism. One of the firemen wrote to the press to put a different complexion on the episode. The council may have provided them with Fire Queen but it had given the brigade itself no money for two years, and the insurance companies had done little better. The small attendance of firemen was due to their not hearing the inadequate bell. They worked for nothing and paid for their own uniforms. They had no hose reel. They had eventually got the machine to the scene and it had put 20,000 gallons of water on the fire. But now Fire Queen had only 56 pounds of coal left and there was page 241 no money to buy any more.13
A perusal of contemporary newspaper files and of the handful of published fire brigade histories shows that these examples of parsimonious treatment of brigades by councils are indeed typical. In accounting for this we must remember how raw the colony was at this time and how many clamouring demands competed for limited local body funds. New Zealand had doubled its population in the gold rush decade of the 1860s, and doubled it again in the ‘Vogel’ development decade of the 1870s. In the mid 1880s the many newly founded townships were still battling for basic necessities and older established centres were still coming to terms with years of rapid growth. Streets and footpaths that degenerated into quagmires, nightcartmen and inspectors of nuisances who were not up to the mark, widespread lacks in street lighting and water supplies, were among many matters that irked the citizenry day by day. The limited funds went to where the calls were constant and vociferous, rather then to the occasional passing pleas for fire protection. How useful were fire brigades and engines without a public water supply and streets that were passable in all seasons? What real difference would scraping together a little fire brigade grant make in emergencies in places like Feilding or Palmerston North? As late as 1893 Feilding was described as ‘so scattered that it is rather a collection of small farms than a village’.14 A reporter visiting Palmerston North in 1887 found its size and opinion of itself something of a joke. Instead of scattering themselves all around a huge square, why hadn't they put all the buildings in the square, and put the square outside?15 In either town, how often would a brigade muster and get its equipment to a fire scene in time to make any difference? In large part the problem facing these small towns was one of economy of scale. An effective plant consisted of at least a large well mounted warning bell, a fire pump, hoses and ladders, all securely stored, and a transport vehicle. Setting up costs for all this came to several hundred pounds. For a population of more than a thousand or two, effective firefighting called for a steam fire engine and horses to draw it. It appears that neither horses nor an engineer to handle the machine were commonly available on a voluntary basis, so even with volunteer brigadesmen such an outfit entailed considerable annual running costs. A larger town of say six to eight thousand needed a little more equipment, but the extra expense was minimal. But so many colonial towns of the 1880s were small, pioneer ones, where the argument must have always seemed loaded towards concentrating on such basic matters as street formation and water supply, and dispensing with a fire brigade: in other words, taking the gamble that there would be no major fire disaster in the meantime, in order to get more quickly to an affluent future when luxuries like fire brigades could be comfortably put on the budget. If pressure arose for a brigade in the meantime, such enthusiasm as existed could page 242 be channelled into a volunteer force financed by whatever funds it could elicit from the public and the insurance companies.
The fire insurance companies
Simple-minded firefighting enthusiasts found the insurance companies at least as shifty and enigmatic as they did the borough councillors. Many of these councillors shared with the volunteer firemen in looking on local firefighting efforts as a favour to the insurers. The colony's politicians had a better grasp of the shrewdness and ambiguity underlying successful fire insurance management. In a debate on fire brigades in the House in 1882 Henry Fish gave his view of the insurance companies' position by putting these words into their mouths:
We do not want you to interfere with us, or to put out fires. We would rather have a fire or two, so as to induce people to insure. We object to you meddling with us in what is purely a matter of contract. If people want to insure, we will do it for them; but we do not want you to force us to pay money in order to save people who are not provident.16
And Henry Levestam explained to the House that the proper place to expect consideration from insurance companies was in reduced premiums when local initiatives had reduced fire risks.17 Writing on 27 January 1886 following the summer's main disasters, the Australasian Insurance and Banking Record's New Zealand correspondent gave a good indication of current fire insurance policy in the colony:
Fires have been very numerous throughout the country, partly accounted for by the unprecedented drought, and partly by dull times. The bush fire involving destruction of the little town of Stratford in Taranaki, has been the sensation of the month, but the insurance offices are interested only to a very small extent. They have wisely been very shy of pushing business in these little towns, where there is no means of extinguishing a fire when it breaks out. On the whole, however, the offices are still having a very bad time of it.
From these and other sources it is clear that the colony was no easy field for the fire offices. It was prone to fires and poor at fighting them. Self-interested arson was too common (the Record's fires arising from ‘dull times’). There were too many offices competing for the limited amount of good business. These were not times for philanthropy if profits were to be made. The Banks Peninsula grass seed growers might be unhappy that they could insure in last year's damp season and not in this year's drought one,18 but the shareholders understood the strategy. They expected their company to be least in evidence where its funds were likely to be most needed.page 243
The ambiguous behaviour of the fire offices confused many of the public. In Christchurch they were meeting a quarter of the fire brigade budget, in Auckland half, and in Invercargill they ‘contributed largely’, but in Wellington ‘they declined deliberately and with set purpose to contribute one single penny to the support of one of the most efficient fire brigades in the country’. Indeed, in Wellington they were not even competing with each other but ‘had all clubbed together and agreed on a uniform tariff to which they all adhered’.19 These differences reflect the differing fire histories of the various towns. Where the fire record had been good and the profits handsome a little generosity might be good for business, but where the accounts had a habit of coming out in the red a stern regime had to be put in place. Primitive, high fire risk, frontier towns were a constant embarrassment, with their continuous soliciting for funds. But the fire offices could hardly reply in terms that suggested indifference to firefighting. So they tended to fob off such mendicants with vague promises. Sometimes they were goaded to give a more honest answer. When in January 1883 agents for the Mutual Fire and Life Insurance Company wrote to the Gisborne Borough Council refusing to contribute to its fire brigade they commented
… may we be permitted to say that the competition existing in Fire Insurance does not warrant such expenditure as that asked for by you and the argument that it pays to support brigades is well answered by comparison with the policy of life offices which do not keep doctors in attendance on their risks to prevent them from dying but they load the bad lives.20
The fire brigades
As in many other 19th-century frontier communities the typical New Zealand fire brigade story was one of progress from an all-volunteer force, to part-volunteet and part-professional, and finally to an all-professional force. Let us first consider the motivation and organisation of the all-volunteer forces so common in New Zealand of the 1880s.
There was doubtless some altruism, but men were drawn into the brigades by a variety of other motives. A search for sport and adventure was certainly one of them. In training there was strong competition both within brigades and between them. At fires the men competed both with each other and with the flames, usually before a crowd of excited onlookers. There was honour to be gained through displays of skill and courage. The occasion was also a diversion from the humdrum of daily life, appealing to the spirit of playfulness. Grace Hirst of New Plymouth, whose son James's house at Midhirst was in great danger in the January 1886 fires, commented in a family letter that for the volunteers sent up by train from New Plymouth ‘it page 244 was quite a gala time21. The reporter sent up with the Napier brigade to the Makotuku blaze of 29 December 1885 found that ‘humour was to the fore’. At 2 a.m. on the 30th, with the danger past, the men fell back to the railway station for some rest. There, the reporter records, some
[took] up their quarters in the railway carriages, while others picked out the softest corners about the railway station verandah. I got into one of the carriages but did not get any sleep. The place was crowded with men, under the seats and upon them, and outside there was quite a small crowd of would-be lodgers who did not get into the carriage for the sole reason that there was no more room. The outsiders—to use a recent Police Court phrase—good humoredly played the part of the jocular dog-in-the-manger, and because they could not get an inside seat would not allow those who had been more fortunate to get some sleep. At intervals, or when it was thought the insiders had reached the prime end of ‘forty winks’ the outsiders would run the carriage along the metals till it reached another one, when the resultant collision effectively shook up every would-be-sleeper in the carriage.22
This incident illustrates how easily the play element could degenerate into tomfoolery. Fires and high pressure hoses are best not treated as playthings so an important purpose of brigade training was to discipline and channel this playfulness.
Brigade discipline was much aided by the contemporary popularity of military style disciplinary codes. It was the age of the emergence of police forces, the Salvation Army, uniformed brass bands, Boys' Brigades and Boy Scouts. Esprit de corps was promoted by uniforms and parades. Military patterns of rank and drill were well suited to brigade purposes. But the brigades also valued their voluntary nature, their right to manage their own affairs and to elect their own officers. They were not conscripts or bought men, but free agents inspired by an altruistic concern for their communities. So while a successful brigade might look to the military for models of style, polish and precision, its real aim was to be an honoured fraternal association. Lacking the funds to give proper material support, councils and communities looked for other means of encouraging the spirit of altruism and fraternity that held their brigades together. Honour could be frugally shown through annual dinners, parades, speeches and medals. Proper equipment, quarters and salaries came much less cheaply.
There were several factors working to undermine the fully voluntary approach. One was the legal position which vested control of fire situations in the hands of council-appointed fire inspectors. If the council accepted the elected officers of the brigade as their fire inspectors all was well. But some councils were not prepared to do this, and some insurance companies gave page 245 donations only if consulted on appointments. Such attitudes undermined the volunteer spirit. Once a fire engine came into the picture another difficulty arose. Handling engines was specialist work requiring professional skills that were rarely made available on a voluntary basis. But with a salaried engineer the brigade was no longer a fully volunteer force. Most basic of all was the sheer unfairness of the volunteer's position vis-a-vis a parsimonious council. He had to find from his own resources the clothes he risked at every fire, he had to pay his fine if he missed a parade, he was giving his time and energy mainly in the interests of those much better off than himself. In December 1882 the Gisborne press put the situation succinctly, in explaining why the town's brigade had dwindled to twelve members.
They give their time and destroy their clothing, whilst property owners and insurance agents quietly look on and chuckle as men, week after week, assemble to practice. It is not fair; it's not just that the men should be expected weekly to lose time and to be put to personal expense, and in the event of fire, to run bodily risk without some slight assistance from the general public…. It is unjust, because without a properly organised brigade the few who have stuck it out are helpless …23
Fine words and public acclamation rang very hollow when year after year a deaf ear was turned to brigade calls for such elementary provisions as uniforms, basic firefighting equipment, and reimbursement of personal expenses. To assist each other in the struggle, in 1878 the brigades began to collaborate in the United Fire Brigades' Association of New Zealand.
The United Fire Brigades' Association
In the last week of January 1886 delegates of the association gathered in Napier for their seventh annual session. Year by year they had seen their membership grow, and this meeting must have been one of their movement's high points, with public interest high as a result of the summer's fires, and with reports flowing in of new brigades being formed.24 One of the three new brigades received at this meeting was Hastings, founded only weeks before, in the face of the prevailing drought. Associated with the annual meeting was a three day Intercolonial Fire Brigades' Competition between twenty teams drawn from all parts of New Zealand and two from Ballarat. Special trains with reduced fares were run throughout the week to bring spectators to the events, which were reported at length in the local press. One evening there was a torchlight procession made up of ‘probably the largest number of firemen that ever marched together in any town in New Zealand’ together with the local volunteer companies and a brass band from Waipawa, the town to whose aid the Napier Brigade had so recently page 246 been rushed. Through streets ‘packed with people’ the ‘largest and most showy’ procession ever seen in Napier marched to the accompaniment of a brilliant fireworks display.25 At the end of the competition the visiting firemen joined the mayor and ‘a large number of prominent citizens’ at a banquet at which their prizes were presented.26
The association made its own contribution to this ‘encouragement by honours' regime, with such measures as certificates and medals for long service. But its main energies had been directed towards procuring effective financial support for the brigades. In 1880 it began a campaign to get an act of parliament making support for fire brigades mandatory. This approach, of countering rebuffs at local or regional level by appeal to central government, was a not uncommon tactic in the colony. For example, the school teachers founded their New Zealand Educational Institute in 1883 after their local associations had met with little but frustration in their approaches to the education boards. The first proposal made by the fire brigades' association was that legislation should be passed to have them funded as of right from the rates plus a levy on the fire insurance offices. After two years without success along these lines the association changed its tactics, apparently deciding that it had been unnecessary to provoke the bitter opposition of the insurers. Possibly in consultation with the insurance companies, it had a bill sponsored which required local bodies to shoulder the burden alone. Each year the association's attempts to get the government to take up its proposed bills had failed, and in the final attempt of 1882 the bill had had to be widely hawked around before it found a sponsor.27 So by January 1886 the leaders of the association were well aware that the public adulation covered a depressing political reality. The one ray of light was that they had met a little sympathy from the new premier, Robert Stout, through whom a grant of £250 for the association had been included in the 1885 estimates. Their immediate parliamentary ambitions were now limited to establishing this as an annual grant.28
The Napier, New Plymouth and Hawera brigades
In the light of this dismal picture of apathetic public support for the brigades, how was it that the city fathers of Napier, New Plymouth and Hawera had had effective brigades available for dispatch to the aid of their neighbouring bush settlements in the 1885–86 crises? To explain this we will need to look at both local circumstances and recent happenings. Napier was a comparatively affluent town as a result of the province's wealth from wool. As the colony's third largest wool exporting port, with about a sixth of the annual clip passing over its wharves, Napier's wool stores must have been a major insurance concern. It is not surprising therefore to find that there page 247 were volunteer fire brigades at both Napier and Port Ahuriri and that they had been receiving a reasonable level of support from both the insurance companies and the borough council.29
In New Plymouth the brigade had had a much less happy history. From the late 1870s, when the Napier brigades were getting onto a firm footing, the New Plymouth brigade was repeatedly disbanding in disillusionment at the lack of public support, or just simply fading away, and then being reformed again, but still without its basic needs being met. To take just one episode in a sorry story, in December 1883 the brigade's captain waited on the council to inform them that he and his men had firmly decided to resign since their repeated applications to the council for uniforms had not been met. They had had the brigade in working order for over nine months, and all it would cost to equip the 30 men with uniforms was £130. All this approach got from the council was an evasive resolution about sending a circular to local agents of the insurance companies. Clearly the only thing which could have wrung worthwhile support from this community was a real fire. This they got on the night of 19 May 1885. A fire fanned by a strong wind gained a grip on the business centre, and the brigade only won control after 18 buildings had been destroyed. Mayor Paul had a brigade to offer to his Stratford neighbours some months later because the city fathers had been so recently shocked into some forthright action.30
As we saw in Chapter 13, Hawera was a town largely of recent mushroom growth, compact in its settlement pattern and progressive in its outlook. The compactness would have favoured brigade development, by increasing the general fire risk while at the same time assisting brigade operations. In a compact town men assembled more easily for training, rallied to the fire bell more surely and quickly, and got onto the fire scene more promptly. Due to Hawera's mushroom growth, however, the brigade which responded to the Stratford emergency had had a short and struggling history. After a number of fires, in March 1882 the borough council took the minimal step of appointing fire inspectors under the Municipal Corporations Act 1876, this having the advantage that such inspectors could have buildings demolished to contain a fire, and insurers had to pay out on such demolitions as if the building had been destroyed by fire. Finally, in response to public pressure, the mayor chaired a meeting on 25 June 1882 that led to the forming of a volunteer brigade. Without uniforms, equipment, or even a public water supply, the brigade had great difficulty maintaining morale and membership, yet it did not, like the New Plymouth one, ever fade away completely. Much of the credit for this belongs to its founding secretary, B.C. Robbins, then a 28-year-old partner in an ironmongering firm in the town. In January 1883 when the lack of a fire bell was causing difficulty in rallying brigadesmen to fires, he arranged for church bells to be utilised for the purpose, and when page 248 that proved unsatisfactory he had one supplied by his own firm. By the end of 1885 the brigade also had an engine, uniforms (partly financed by a fundraising Ball), and was holding fortnightly training musters. Robbins served as the brigade's secretary for 26 years, and went on to become mayor of Hawera and president of the United Fire Brigades' Association of New Zealand.31
The individual householder
By the mid 1880s the main centres had reasonably efficient part-volunteer and part-professional brigades, and most medium sized towns had reasonably efficient volunteer forces. But over the rest of the country the individual householder had to depend mainly on his own efforts to defend his home against fire. As we have seen in our account of the summer's fires, he certainly did not go in awe of fire. He handled it with the familiarity of long acquaintance, and his natural instinct was to face it and fight it rather than to flee. By doing so he sometimes achieved what seemed to be miraculous saves, as we have seen particularly in the Stratford crisis. In a world of mainly small single-storey buildings surprisingly few lives were lost by fire. Despite the widespread loss of buildings and livestock there was no loss of human life in the 1885–86 fires. The Australian experience up to this time had been similar. In the holocaust of Victoria's Black Thursday of 6 February 1851, when perhaps a quarter of Victoria was swept by fire, and wool exports were cut in half by the immense loss of stock and pasture, only ten human lives were lost.32 Delving back into the English past of small homes and businesses we find it was the same. Even in the Great Fire of London of 1666, which destroyed most of the city's civic buildings and about 30,000 homes, the only loss of life seems to have arisen from looting.
The endemic danger of fire together with its widespread domestic and commercial use meant that sensible fire precautions, and effective firefighting tactics, were part of the settler tradition of colonial New Zealand. The newspapers helped in the spread of this knowledge. Most settlers had long since taken on board the lesson pointed to by the Taranaki News's Inglewood ‘Our Own’ after the Stratford blaze:
Another lesson to be learned from the disaster is the value of planting shrubs and trees around the homesteads, i.e. trees not pines or gums; probably the poplar, willow and alder are among the surest preventives of fire.33
Settlers knew too the effectiveness of wet blankets draped over shingle roofs and wooden walls, if fire should break through a cordon of gardens and evergreens around their homesteads. Typical of other advice offered to settlers was a letter in Masterton's Wairarapa Daily of 13 January 1886:page 249
It may be useful in these dry times to those who do not already know it, that a very effectual fire beater can be made with a strip of stout hide, about two feet by one foot, fastened securely on a handle with wire. A bough becomes useless in a very short time whereas this is as good after a day's work as when you start.
We will conclude our chapter with an account of a bush settler family's defence of their homestead as observed by the Auckland Weekly News's travelling correspondent, J.D. Wickham, near Feilding in the 1886–87 summer. ‘How delightful to view the pleasant landscape’, he wrote in the lead-in to his account, apparently with some simpering urban romantic in mind. ‘Yes, decidedly so, when you view it through miles of hot smoke, your eyes welling, the boiling water coursing rills adown your murky cheeks'. He went on to write of ‘the choking sensation of having a rasp sticking somewhere in your thorax’, of having to run the gauntlet of blinding smoke and fiery flakes when caught in a cul de sac of fire, of weeks of breathing air ‘heated and thickened to a degree sufficient to crack the leathern lungs of a blacksmith's bellows', of families having to be ‘for nights together awake and watchful of the approaching flames'. Once he had ridden past at the hour of crisis:
I remember seeing a little homestead defending itself against the fiery foe— the fire fiend, you must know, is the settler's best servant in this block of country, but he breaks out in rebellion occasionally; then there's trouble, and the state of things is sultry—the disposition of the defending force, as near as I could make out, through the murky clouds of smoke that kept on rolling by, was thus-wise:— To the housewife was entrusted the care of the homestead and haystack, where she took up position, supplied with buckets of water, and armed with a dipper. Across the road, which ran in front of the homestead and constituted the last line of defence, on a clearing between it and the timber wherein the enemy swished and crackled and roared, the head of the household and his boys were thrown forward in extended order to beat out the enemy as he approached their first line. Well out on the flanks were posted the junior members of the family, to see that the enemy did not steal round the main body; one little dot of a girl, planted on a blackened stump, looked the picture of earnest watchfulness, alert to give the alarm should the foe come creeping through the grass in her direction; whilst the older girl kept open the communications between the different posts. And so the little garrison defended their hearth and home amidst drifting volumes of smoke and dust and fire, besmutted and begrimed beyond recognition, till Heaven sent a shower of rain to the rescue and they breathed the pure air, and obtained a good night's rest once more.34