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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 4, 2012

The Great Fire of Nelson, 1868: Another Family Cautionary Tale

page 26

The Great Fire of Nelson, 1868: Another Family Cautionary Tale

Fire station, Albion Square c.1860s. Photo supplied by author.

Fire station, Albion Square c.1860s. Photo supplied by author.

page 27

Nelson’s fine Founders’ Heritage Park has a Fire Station displaying old machines and fire-fighting paraphernalia. A notice gives the story of a major fire in 1866 which destroyed some 18 buildings in Collingwood and Bridge Streets. The equipment used was from the city’s fire engine shed which still stands in Albion Square, near the Courthouse.

”but for the waterworks the probability is that six or eight houses, if not more, would have fallen a prey to the fire.”

This fire prompted the formation of a Volunteer Fire Brigade, the building of a new fire station in Harley Street and construction of a reticulated city water supply.

This contribution records the sheer human drama of a fire two years later in which the Volunteer Fire Brigade performed a principal role, and faced a major test in operating the city’s newly installed hydrant system. One of the principals in this drama, which I have called The Great Fire of Nelson, was my great uncle Henry.

Henry Freer Rawson (1839-1879) had thankfully been released from his father’s dread provisional instruction to murder my grandfather in 1860, as recorded in the

2011 issue of the Journal. While briefly serving as a sergeant in the Taranaki Volunteers with the British colonial forces, he had mastered the trade of tooth- pulling. He then moved to Nelson, and from 1862 advertised his ability to ‘adjust artificial teeth from one to a complete set at Mr Lockhart’s, Hardy St, just page 28 opposite the Institute’. He later used many other Nelson city addresses, as well as others at Richmond and Motueka.

The other principal, John Greenwood, junior, was learning new skills as a dentist after a disastrous sawmilling venture at Brooklyn. His distinguished father Dr John Danforth Greenwood, for a time editor of the Nelson Examiner, had earlier written:

‘John as he grows up gives me great satisfaction. His mind expands, his disposition is amiable and his abilities are very considerable’.1

The spectacular pyrotechnics of this event, on April 30, 1868, were the talk of the town, providing entertainment for the populace and extensive copy for the no less than three competing newspapers in those pre mass-electronic-media days.

That introduction over, we now read in the Colonist, in a morning “extra” printed on May 5, 1868:


“Last night, about ten o’clock, the fire bells sounded the alarum and it was quickly perceived that one of two semi-detached houses of two storeys in Hardy-street, nearly opposite the Institute, was on fire, the flames blazing through the roof before the bell had sounded. Very quickly the hose-reel and hydrant which are deposited behind the Institute were on the spot,...and the hydrant was attached to the fire-plug at the corner of Collingwood-street crossing.”

The recently installed fire-plug was at what is now Price’s Pharmacy corner. A hose and hydrant from the Government buildings were connected to another plug in Collingwood Street and played water on the rear of the buildings. It was a first test for the new water supply.

Using exactly the same headline the Nelson Evening Mail recorded:

“...just as the audience was leaving the Harmonic Society’s Concert at the Provincial Hall the fire bells pealed out the alarm, and a general rush was made to Hardy-street, the upper part of which, near the Institute, proved to be the scene of the conflagration.”2

The Nelson Examiner, also under a similar headline, gave yet more detail:
“It is satisfactory to be able to say in this case how the fire originated. Mr Rawson and Mr J. Greenwood were at work in the front room of Mr Darby’s house, and the latter gentleman, in pouring spirits of wine out of a two- gallon tin, suffered the spirit to come in contact with the flame of a lamp, page 29
‘Price’s Corner’ — corner of Hardy and Collingwood Streets looking west along Hardy Street. The houses destroyed by the 1868 fire are indicated on the left; Panama House which was threatened by the fire, is indicated on the right. Nelson Provincial Museum, Miscellaneous Collection, date unknown.

‘Price’s Corner’ — corner of Hardy and Collingwood Streets looking west along Hardy Street. The houses destroyed by the 1868 fire are indicated on the left; Panama House which was threatened by the fire, is indicated on the right. Nelson Provincial Museum, Miscellaneous Collection, date unknown.

and the whole body of spirits ignited instantaneously, which accounts for the rapidity with which the fire spread.”3
The Mail also recorded that:

“Mr Rawson escaped by breaking through the window, and jumping into the street, whilst Mr Greenwood was much burnt about the legs in getting into the passage. Mrs Darby was alarmed, and had happily just sufficient time to rescue her children, who were sleeping in the bedroom overhead, and who, finding the passage below already in flames, were forced to make their escape through the window at the back of the house.”

In a detail from the Colonist:

“One of her daughters, who was partially undressed, took up the youngest child and ran through the flames with but little injury.”4

The fire brigade received praise for confining the destruction to two houses only. The Colonist stated: “but for the waterworks the probability is that six or eight houses, if not more, would have fallen a prey to the fire.”

page 30

And from the Mail : “the second hose prevented the extension of the flames at their rear, by playing on the outbuildings in the direction of Panama House, the inmates of which were in no slight state of alarm.”

The Colonist did, however, criticise the management of the fire and particularly unkind was its comment that: “The Nelson Waterworks... does not seem gifted with that promptitude of judicious action which ought to be “created” by the emergency.”

We can sense the development of media rivalry in the Mail’s response:

“We regret to be compelled to refer to some very ungracious and certainly unmerited strictures on the management of the Fire Brigade, which appeared in an ‘extra’ published by the Colonist this morning. It must be obvious to any dispassionate person that in the excitement which ever prevails on such occasions, some shortcomings must often occur, however desirous each individual member of the Brigade may be to do his utmost to meet the emergency. In fact the most serious difficulty with which the Captain of a Fire Brigade has to contend, is the over anxiety of his subordinates to exercise, so to speak, their own private judgment, and the responsibility of directing and controlling their operations judiciously and inofficiously is confessedly very great.

“It must also be remembered that our Fire Brigade is entirely composed of individuals who volunteer their services, and who receive no gratuity whatever for the fatigue and the injury to their clothing to which they are inevitably exposed on such occasions. We would also remind the Colonist that, thanks to the niggardly treatment which the Brigade has received, especially at the hands of the Insurance Agents, that body, to whom the community has been so largely indebted on so many previous occasions, is now in a state of positive impecuniosity, and, in fact, but for the kindness of the Provincial Solicitor, would have been unprovided with even the slightest refreshment at the termination of their arduous labors last night.

“The Colonist complains that the hose-pipe was not directed occasionally to the roof of Mr Wagg’s house, which is situated at some distance from Mrs Donkin’s, an open space intervening. We are assured that this house was never in danger ; in fact was not even blistered, and what slight wind prevailed at the time was blowing in the contrary direction. Besides, any unnecessary expenditure of the water in that quarter would have seriously endangered the preservation of Mr Haines’s house, which was in immeasurably greater page 31 jeopardy. It should also be remembered how frequently a large amount of property is thus unnecessarily destroyed, and we may add that Mr Stanger Leathes, on his late visit to Nelson, gave an apt illustration of this statement, in the fact that on a recent occasion in Sydney, where the damage done by fire was only £700, £10,000 worth of property was destroyed by water.

“We have been requested by Captain Knight to state that the Provincial Solicitor gives the most positive denial to the assertion made by the Colonist this morning, to the effect that he, as Captain of the Brigade, had refused for some time to attend his representations with regard to the direction of the hose on Mr Haines’s house in preference to the burning house adjoining, and that, on the contrary, he immediately gave directions to that effect. Captain Knight also states that the Editor of the Colonist had no authority whatever from Mr Adams to make such an assertion.”

The Mail also reported on the coroner’s inquest into the origin of the fire:

“Messrs Rawson and Greenwood were the only witnesses examined and the jury returned the following verdict: the origin of the fire was accidental caused by Mr J. Greenwood pouring spirits of wine from a two gallon can into a brass saucer of flaming spirits which we consider an act of gross carelessness on his part...”5

Sad Postscript: My great uncle Henry departed this life suddenly at age 40, together with others at Wanganui, from drinking from a contaminated water supply. His widow never remarried. Henry left a number of fine landscape paintings, some now in heritage collections at Te Papa, Wellington, the Hocken Library in Dunedin and Puke Ariki in New Plymouth. His sole known Nelson area painting is titled ‘Rainbow Valley’ (1876).

John Greenwood practised dentistry in Greymouth, Wanganui and Feilding, before returning to Nelson, where he died in 1909.

1 Greenwood family papers. AG133. Nelson Provincial Museum Library.

2 Fire in Hardy Street. (May 1, 1868) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2.

3 Fire in Hardy Street. (May 2, 1868) Nelson Examiner, p.3.

4 Fire in Hardy Street, Nelson. (May 5, 1868) Colonist, p.6.

5 An inquest. (May 5, 1868) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2.