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

The Napier, New Plymouth and Hawera brigades

The Napier, New Plymouth and Hawera brigades

In the light of this dismal picture of apathetic public support for the brigades, how was it that the city fathers of Napier, New Plymouth and Hawera had had effective brigades available for dispatch to the aid of their neighbouring bush settlements in the 1885–86 crises? To explain this we will need to look at both local circumstances and recent happenings. Napier was a comparatively affluent town as a result of the province's wealth from wool. As the colony's third largest wool exporting port, with about a sixth of the annual clip passing over its wharves, Napier's wool stores must have been a major insurance concern. It is not surprising therefore to find that there page 247 were volunteer fire brigades at both Napier and Port Ahuriri and that they had been receiving a reasonable level of support from both the insurance companies and the borough council.29

In New Plymouth the brigade had had a much less happy history. From the late 1870s, when the Napier brigades were getting onto a firm footing, the New Plymouth brigade was repeatedly disbanding in disillusionment at the lack of public support, or just simply fading away, and then being reformed again, but still without its basic needs being met. To take just one episode in a sorry story, in December 1883 the brigade's captain waited on the council to inform them that he and his men had firmly decided to resign since their repeated applications to the council for uniforms had not been met. They had had the brigade in working order for over nine months, and all it would cost to equip the 30 men with uniforms was £130. All this approach got from the council was an evasive resolution about sending a circular to local agents of the insurance companies. Clearly the only thing which could have wrung worthwhile support from this community was a real fire. This they got on the night of 19 May 1885. A fire fanned by a strong wind gained a grip on the business centre, and the brigade only won control after 18 buildings had been destroyed. Mayor Paul had a brigade to offer to his Stratford neighbours some months later because the city fathers had been so recently shocked into some forthright action.30

As we saw in Chapter 13, Hawera was a town largely of recent mushroom growth, compact in its settlement pattern and progressive in its outlook. The compactness would have favoured brigade development, by increasing the general fire risk while at the same time assisting brigade operations. In a compact town men assembled more easily for training, rallied to the fire bell more surely and quickly, and got onto the fire scene more promptly. Due to Hawera's mushroom growth, however, the brigade which responded to the Stratford emergency had had a short and struggling history. After a number of fires, in March 1882 the borough council took the minimal step of appointing fire inspectors under the Municipal Corporations Act 1876, this having the advantage that such inspectors could have buildings demolished to contain a fire, and insurers had to pay out on such demolitions as if the building had been destroyed by fire. Finally, in response to public pressure, the mayor chaired a meeting on 25 June 1882 that led to the forming of a volunteer brigade. Without uniforms, equipment, or even a public water supply, the brigade had great difficulty maintaining morale and membership, yet it did not, like the New Plymouth one, ever fade away completely. Much of the credit for this belongs to its founding secretary, B.C. Robbins, then a 28-year-old partner in an ironmongering firm in the town. In January 1883 when the lack of a fire bell was causing difficulty in rallying brigadesmen to fires, he arranged for church bells to be utilised for the purpose, and when page 248 that proved unsatisfactory he had one supplied by his own firm. By the end of 1885 the brigade also had an engine, uniforms (partly financed by a fundraising Ball), and was holding fortnightly training musters. Robbins served as the brigade's secretary for 26 years, and went on to become mayor of Hawera and president of the United Fire Brigades' Association of New Zealand.31