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

The local bodies and fire control

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 that

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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.