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

The fire 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.

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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