Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 6, 2008
Collingwood Fires, 1857 to 2004
The 2005 bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in Collingwood, like other commemorative events, stimulated interest in and generated questions about the past. Information on the Collingwood fires, sometimes identified as the defining feature of its post-European settlement history, was scattered across various publications, often with partial or even conflicting details, and lacking references to primary sources. And for what is frequently cited as the earliest fire (1859), no detailed information seemed available. These factors encouraged compilation of a more complete record of the Collingwood fires, with verified sources.1
This note presents, in summary form, information on nine fires affecting the business area of the village of Collingwood, known in its earliest days as Aorere and then Gibbstown.2 The fires caused varying amounts of damage, but the 1904 fire which destroyed twenty-one buildings was clearly the most devastating. At the other extreme, two fires (the earliest and the most recent) each affected a single building. It was irresistible to include these two smaller fires to complete the record, especially as both started in a hotel kitchen, both could have had far worse consequences if they had occurred later in the night, and if patrons had not taken immediate action.
Obviously these fires have had a dramatic effect on the built heritage of Collingwood but there are also other ongoing effects, including the loss of important historical records, which limits research in certain areas or for certain periods. Collectively the fires are a reminder of how our heritage, including the natural environment, has been irreversibly affected by fire.
Newspapers of the day are the source of the facts presented in this listing, which is not intended as a full account or an analysis of the after-effects of the fires. For example, details such as Christian names have not been checked, and longer term consequences such as rebuilding are not referred to, though some associated information is included where it seemed particularly relevant. Source information also includes references to frequently-used secondary works, listed in full in the bibliography at the end.
A discussion of the lack of evidence of an 1859 fire is appended.
1 1857: September 20 (Sunday)
Fire in the Aorere Hotel (opened April 1857, owner N. T. Lockhart), 'totally consumed' its kitchen, at an unspecified time of "night'. Worse damage was avoided by 'a large number of men … overturning a building which had been used as a store', which stopped the fire spreading. The heaviest sufferers were two diggers who lost their clothes as well as two watches.
Nelson Examiner , 26 Sept 1857, p. 2 ('Fire at Collingwood'). The article does not mention the name of the hotel, but describes it as 'premises belonging to Mr Lockhart'. An advertisement in the Nelson Examiner, 22 Apr 1857, p. 1, establishes the link between Lockhart and the Aorere Hotel.
2 1883: February 18 (Sunday)
Fire which began in M. Ellis's store at 4.30 am on a windy (westerly) night 'swept all the houses from there to Stallard's bakery'. 'Only the most strenuous efforts of the miners and others' saved other buildings. The fire was regarded as suspicious and an 'inquest' was to be held.
Five buildings were destroyed, with damage estimated at £4,000: M. Ellis's store; T. James's house; Prussing's Miners' Arms Hotel; Brace's store; F. Stallard's bakery. It also threatened the government buildings and Cottier's Temperance Boarding House opposite, and the Post Office was 'very much scorched'.
Nelson Evening Mail , 19 Feb 1883, p. 2 ('Serious fire at Collingwood').
3 1897: November 19 (Friday)
Fire which began in the Institute building (William St) was noticed at 3 am by a guest named Bird staying at the Collingwood Hotel opposite. In half an hour both the Institute and the Library buildings were destroyed. The Druids Lodge had held a meeting in the evening and its Secretary H. B. Riley had stayed till midnight, working by candle, which he extinguished before leaving. Neighbouring buildings were saved by a bucket brigade of local residents in 'every variety of garment'. The cause was 'a mystery'.
The Institute, an old building (opened 1862), was a 'dumping ground' for 'nearly everything and everybody in the district'; the Library was a new building (1–2 years old) with a valuable collection. Specific materials destroyed included: Aorere Works Committee (of Collingwood County Council) records for 30 years (including the valuation roll and plan of work); Good Templars Lodge regalia and records; Foresters Lodge regalia and records for 25 years; Druids Lodge records (a new lodge); Collingwood Choral and Dramatic Society property; Collingwood Athletic Association records; brass band instruments (of the defunct Collingwood Brass Band); Sunday School Girls page 34Sewing Class materials and fundraising articles made over recent months; historical artefacts and mineral specimens in the 'Museum' (a glass cabinet).
Golden Bay Argus , 25 Nov 1897, p. 2–3 ('Disastrous Fire')†; Nelson Evening Mail , 19 Nov 1897, p. 2 ('Destructive Fire at Collingwood'). Newport Collingwood, p. 171; Newport Golden Bay , p. 59 (dated as 25 November), † it refers to an 'Extra' issue of the paper on 19 Nov 1897, covering the fire, but this has not been located.
4 1904: November 7 (Monday)
Fire started in a loft above Stallard's bakery while the bakers were having supper next door after putting bread in the oven; the alarm was raised at 12.45 am. In very windy (westerly) conditions the fire spread rapidly; buildings were evacuated and people ('for the most part half clad') ran into the street, but the fire spread across the road. Cold lashing rain followed but it was calm and fine by 6 am. The fire was so bright it could be seen from Bainham, and it was claimed a newspaper could be read at Kaituna. No evidence was found to prove how the fire originated but the 'carelessness' of Collingwood residents was referred to, 'as there seems no doubt that a small and regular supply of water would have put the fire out when it first originated'.
All 21 buildings on both sides of Tasman St were destroyed, together with hens. Everything in fire-proof safes was turned to cinders, and gold melted into blobs [see, for example, the postmaster's watch now in the Collingwood Museum]. The piano from the Public Hall was saved, plus some stock. Because the Post Office was destroyed, news initially had to be sent from Parapara, but by early afternoon a temporary telegraph office had been set up at the Courthouse. The Golden Bay Argus printery was destroyed but the Takaka newspaper office was used (the first issue being delayed by only 12 hours) until the printery was rebuilt and in operation again for the issue of 8 December. John McKinna (73) [spelt as 'McKenna' in Nelson papers] died from a heart attack in the afternoon after helping to fight the fire.
Golden Bay Argus : 10 Nov 1904, p. 2–4 ('Great Fire at Collingwood', includes full details of buildings and items lost and saved, reprinted in Brereton); 17 Nov 1904, p. 3–4 (details of inquiry). Nelson Evening Mail : 7, 8, 9, 11 Nov 1904; Colonist , 9, 11, 14 Nov 1904. Ault, Nelson Narrative , p. 257 (dated as 1905), 349; Brereton, Vanguard of the South , p. 192–194; Dawber, Collingwood , p. 71 (& other refs); Newport, Collingwood , p 171–2; Newport, Golden Bay , p. 140.
5 1923: March 12 (Monday)
Fire began at 1 am, apparently in Warnes' draper's shop, on a calm night. The lack of brick dividing walls in the block meant the fire couldn't be contained and other premises destroyed were: draper & bootmaker (Miles); draper & grocer (estate of E. T. Riley). Efficiency of the fire brigade and the availability of a water supply [opened 1908] saved the Post Office, the Post Office Hotel and adjacent buildings.
Nelson Evening Mail , 12 Mar 1923, p. 4 ('Big fire at Collingwood'). Ault, Nelson Narrative , p. 361 (dated as 11 March).
6 1930: April 23 (Wednesday)
Fire began about 12.30 am in the kitchen at the rear of Stallard's boarding house and, fanned by 'a steady breeze', destroyed seven buildings: Stallard's boarding house and baker's shop; Presbyterian Church and manse; Doyle's butcher shop and residence; Brame's Collingwood Hotel; the Institute building, including the Library (William St); Wigzell's store (William St). Miss Cottier's billiard saloon was gutted but the neighbouring Post Office was saved, though 'badly scorched and charred, and windows broken'. Losses were estimated at £15,000.
'Splendid team work' by the brigade had the fire under control in about two hours, and the water supply was described as 'excellent'. However, other casualties included Mr Coyle, manager of Wigzell's, badly cut after breaking through a glass door to rescue the business records. St Cuthbert's Church Minute book (1910–1930) and other Church records were destroyed as B. M. Stallard was Parish Secretary.
Nelson Evening Mail , 23 Apr 1930, p. 5 ('Collingwood conflagration'). Ault, Nelson Narrative , p. 257, 366; Newport, Golden Bay , p. 180; Dawber, Collingwood , p. 132-134.
7 1938: January 30 (Sunday)
Fire was noticed at approx 4 am in the Public Hall, which had been used for 'talkies' the previous evening. It and N. A. Allan's general store and dwelling were destroyed, and the neighbouring Post Office Hotel was badly damaged on one wall. The fire was under control by 6 am, but damage could have been much worse if the water supply (a dam near the school) had not been turned on in time to protect other buildings.
Nelson Evening Mail , 31 Jan 1938, p. 4 ('Fire at Collingwood'). Ault, Nelson Narrative , p. 370 (refers to it as the 5th fire).
8 1967: December 9 (Saturday)
Fire began in the recently renovated Post Office Hotel and the alarm was raised at 2.45 am. The Takaka brigade arrived at 3.30 am, and the fire was brought under control by 5.30 am. A 'raging' south-westerly wind and rain fanned the fire across the street and three buildings were destroyed: the Post Office Hotel (a 2-storey building rebuilt after 1904 fire); the Memorial Hall (which included the 'Star' movie theatre and the Library); Golden Hills general store (opposite side of street, owned by the Collingwood Cooperative Dairy Co.). Several organisations lost material kept in the hall: Indoor bowling club, Druids Lodge; RSA, Plunket. (The movie shown the night before the fire was, perhaps prophetically, 'Flaming Star', starring Elvis Presley).
Nelson Evening Mail , 9 Dec 1967, p. 1, 5 ('Disastrous fire sweeps Collingwood'); 11 Dec, p. 1; 12 Dec, p. 1, 6,; 13 Dec (Motueka News) p. 8-9; 14 Dec, p. 1; 15 Dec p. 3. Newport Golden Bay , p. 228
9 2004: June 8 (Tuesday)
Fire broke out about 9.30 pm at Collingwood Tavern (built to replace the hotel burnt down in 1967), gutting a kitchen and causing significant associated damage. Collingwood and Takaka fire brigades were assisted by patrons and the fire was just stopped from spreading to upstairs accommodation.
Nelson Mail , 9 Jun 2004, p. 1 ('Collingwood pub patrons help fight blaze').
APPENDIX: A fire in 1859? No evidence so far
Collingwood has been fortunate in the high level of interest in and documentation of its history, particularly that of the post-1841 (New Zealand Company Nelson Settlement) period. This is probably partly because of the high-profile reason (the 1857 gold rush) for its development as a significant early centre of European population, partly because it had its own newspaper for a long period, and partly because the economic base of the surrounding area has adapted, survived and strengthened in various directions.
The first port of call for information relating to pre-1913 Collingwood is J. N. W. Newport's Collingwood (1971) which states (p. 41):
In 1859 the first town (actually Gibbstown) was practically wiped out by a disastrous fire, the first in a series which the town has experienced. On this occasion all the stores and hotels were burned. […] One store was soon rebuilt and two hotels were soon back in business.
Not surprisingly this statement, lacking details of a specific date, has been repeated as fact in many subsequent historical publications and was the starting point for my own search for its evidential basis.
The earliest published mention I have found is twelve years earlier, in the school centennial publication compiled by headmaster K. S. Haycock, Collingwood School and District High School … 1859–1959 (p. 13):
In the same year  came the first of the series of disastrous fires that have been a feature of Collingwood's history. In this fire all the page 38stores and hotels were burned, but two hotels and Riley and Co.'s store were rebuilt.
A clue to the origins of the statements in these two works is found in the foreword to the school centennial history (p. ): 'We are especially indebted to Mr W. Munro, Headmaster in 1952, for the research he carried out in recording facts and figures'. The research is assumed to be that recorded in an 18-page typescript attributed to Munro, The Story of Collingwood'.3 Page  of that text (which has no references or source citations) states:
In the following year  came the first of the series of disastrous fires that were to be a feature of Collingwood's history. In this case all the stores and hotels were burned, two hotels and Riley and Co.'s store being rebuilt.
My hypothesis is that this 1952 material—the earliest reference found—fed into the school centennial booklet (1959), and from that publication (an acknowledged source) into Newport's Collingwood (1971). The perceived authoritative status of Newport's work means that information it contains is accepted as infallible, and the story of the 1859 fire has continued to be promulgated without questioning the lack of a specific date or other details.
No evidence for this fire has so far surfaced, though I have searched many likely sources over the past eighteen months: the Nelson Examiner (for 1857–1860), the Colonist (for 1859), almanacs, Nelson Provincial Council papers, contemporary and other manuscripts at Nelson Provincial Museum and the Alexander Tumbull Library, theses, books, and newspaper articles. Perhaps most persuasively, there is also no reference to such an event in otherwise highly probable archival primary sources, the December 1859 reports from two government officials based in Collingwood, David Johnston (Sub-collector of Customs) and James Mackay (Resident Magistrate).4
It is, of course, difficult to prove categorically that something has not occurred. However, there is a very substantial accumulation of pre-1952 evidence, primary and secondary, none of which refers to a fire in Collingwood in 1859. In contrast, Munro's is a sole voice, without substantiating references, that has been absorbed into our recent (i.e. since 1959) published history.
My research-based conclusion is that there is no evidence at all to support statements that a disastrous (or even significant) fire occurred in Collingwood in 1859. I firmly believe that future writers should explain it as unsubstantiated, in an effort to correct misinformation which has circulated for the last fifty years.
Ault, H. F. , The Nelson Narrative: The Story of the Church of England in the Diocese of Nelson, New Zealand, 1858 to 1958 (Nelson: Standing Committee of the Diocese of Nelson, 1958)
Brereton, Cyprian Bridge, Vanguard of the South: Nelson, New Zealand (Wellington: Reed, 1952)
Dawber, Carol, Collingwood to the Heaphy Track: A Journey up the Aorere Valley (Picton: River Press for the Bainham Reunion Committee, 2000)
Golden Bay Argus (Collingwood: 1883?—1915?)
Haycock, K. S., Collingwood School and District High School: Souvenir Brochure of Schools' History, 1859–1959, Centennial Celebrations, April 4, 5 and 6, 1959 (Collingwood: Collingwood District High School Centennial Committee, 1959)
Nelson Evening Mail (Nelson: 5 Mar 1866—)
Nelson Examiner (Nelson: 12 Mar 1842–15 Jan 1874)
Newport, J. N. W. , Collingwood: A History of the Area from Earliest Days to 1912 (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1971)
Newport, J. N. W. , Golden Bay: One Hundred Years of Local Government (Takaka: Golden Bay County Council, 1975)
Newport, J. N. W. , and P. J. Taylor , St Cuthbert's Church, Collingwood, 1873–1973: Centenary 10-11th March 1973 (Collingwood: St Cuthbert's Church, 1973)
1 The brief but most complete listing (up to 1967) in Newport & Taylor's centennial pamphlet St Cuthbert's Church, Collingwood, 1873–1973 (p. 35) must be acknowledged. The list is prefaced by a note that mentions an 1859 fire, but only two fires (1897 and 1930) of those listed are included in the chronology (p. 38–39).
2 The tragic fire of 21 June 1997 at the Joan Whiting Rest Home, which resulted in the deaths of three residents, is therefore not included. The rest home is sited separately, about 1 km from Collingwood village.
3 Munro, William Alexander, The Story of Collingwood', . Typescript. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, QMS-1404.
4 Respectively: C-CWD 1/1, Outwards Letterbooks, July 1858-June 1865: Customs, Sub-Collector, Collingwood, Report for 1859, item 6/60; and NP7, Box 4 part a, Nelson Provincial Council, Superintendent's General Inwards Correspondence, 2 July-30 Dec 1859, Enclosure to letter No. 59/1018 (9 December 1859), Archives New Zealand, Wellington.