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

The United Fire Brigades' Association

The United Fire Brigades' Association

In the last week of January 1886 delegates of the association gathered in Napier for their seventh annual session. Year by year they had seen their membership grow, and this meeting must have been one of their movement's high points, with public interest high as a result of the summer's fires, and with reports flowing in of new brigades being formed.24 One of the three new brigades received at this meeting was Hastings, founded only weeks before, in the face of the prevailing drought. Associated with the annual meeting was a three day Intercolonial Fire Brigades' Competition between twenty teams drawn from all parts of New Zealand and two from Ballarat. Special trains with reduced fares were run throughout the week to bring spectators to the events, which were reported at length in the local press. One evening there was a torchlight procession made up of ‘probably the largest number of firemen that ever marched together in any town in New Zealand’ together with the local volunteer companies and a brass band from Waipawa, the town to whose aid the Napier Brigade had so recently page 246 been rushed. Through streets ‘packed with people’ the ‘largest and most showy’ procession ever seen in Napier marched to the accompaniment of a brilliant fireworks display.25 At the end of the competition the visiting firemen joined the mayor and ‘a large number of prominent citizens’ at a banquet at which their prizes were presented.26

The association made its own contribution to this ‘encouragement by honours' regime, with such measures as certificates and medals for long service. But its main energies had been directed towards procuring effective financial support for the brigades. In 1880 it began a campaign to get an act of parliament making support for fire brigades mandatory. This approach, of countering rebuffs at local or regional level by appeal to central government, was a not uncommon tactic in the colony. For example, the school teachers founded their New Zealand Educational Institute in 1883 after their local associations had met with little but frustration in their approaches to the education boards. The first proposal made by the fire brigades' association was that legislation should be passed to have them funded as of right from the rates plus a levy on the fire insurance offices. After two years without success along these lines the association changed its tactics, apparently deciding that it had been unnecessary to provoke the bitter opposition of the insurers. Possibly in consultation with the insurance companies, it had a bill sponsored which required local bodies to shoulder the burden alone. Each year the association's attempts to get the government to take up its proposed bills had failed, and in the final attempt of 1882 the bill had had to be widely hawked around before it found a sponsor.27 So by January 1886 the leaders of the association were well aware that the public adulation covered a depressing political reality. The one ray of light was that they had met a little sympathy from the new premier, Robert Stout, through whom a grant of £250 for the association had been included in the 1885 estimates. Their immediate parliamentary ambitions were now limited to establishing this as an annual grant.28