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

The fire brigades

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.