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

The individual householder

The individual householder

By the mid 1880s the main centres had reasonably efficient part-volunteer and part-professional brigades, and most medium sized towns had reasonably efficient volunteer forces. But over the rest of the country the individual householder had to depend mainly on his own efforts to defend his home against fire. As we have seen in our account of the summer's fires, he certainly did not go in awe of fire. He handled it with the familiarity of long acquaintance, and his natural instinct was to face it and fight it rather than to flee. By doing so he sometimes achieved what seemed to be miraculous saves, as we have seen particularly in the Stratford crisis. In a world of mainly small single-storey buildings surprisingly few lives were lost by fire. Despite the widespread loss of buildings and livestock there was no loss of human life in the 1885–86 fires. The Australian experience up to this time had been similar. In the holocaust of Victoria's Black Thursday of 6 February 1851, when perhaps a quarter of Victoria was swept by fire, and wool exports were cut in half by the immense loss of stock and pasture, only ten human lives were lost.32 Delving back into the English past of small homes and businesses we find it was the same. Even in the Great Fire of London of 1666, which destroyed most of the city's civic buildings and about 30,000 homes, the only loss of life seems to have arisen from looting.

The endemic danger of fire together with its widespread domestic and commercial use meant that sensible fire precautions, and effective firefighting tactics, were part of the settler tradition of colonial New Zealand. The newspapers helped in the spread of this knowledge. Most settlers had long since taken on board the lesson pointed to by the Taranaki News's Inglewood ‘Our Own’ after the Stratford blaze:

Another lesson to be learned from the disaster is the value of planting shrubs and trees around the homesteads, i.e. trees not pines or gums; probably the poplar, willow and alder are among the surest preventives of fire.33

Settlers knew too the effectiveness of wet blankets draped over shingle roofs and wooden walls, if fire should break through a cordon of gardens and evergreens around their homesteads. Typical of other advice offered to settlers was a letter in Masterton's Wairarapa Daily of 13 January 1886:

page 249

It may be useful in these dry times to those who do not already know it, that a very effectual fire beater can be made with a strip of stout hide, about two feet by one foot, fastened securely on a handle with wire. A bough becomes useless in a very short time whereas this is as good after a day's work as when you start.

We will conclude our chapter with an account of a bush settler family's defence of their homestead as observed by the Auckland Weekly News's travelling correspondent, J.D. Wickham, near Feilding in the 1886–87 summer. ‘How delightful to view the pleasant landscape’, he wrote in the lead-in to his account, apparently with some simpering urban romantic in mind. ‘Yes, decidedly so, when you view it through miles of hot smoke, your eyes welling, the boiling water coursing rills adown your murky cheeks'. He went on to write of ‘the choking sensation of having a rasp sticking somewhere in your thorax’, of having to run the gauntlet of blinding smoke and fiery flakes when caught in a cul de sac of fire, of weeks of breathing air ‘heated and thickened to a degree sufficient to crack the leathern lungs of a blacksmith's bellows', of families having to be ‘for nights together awake and watchful of the approaching flames'. Once he had ridden past at the hour of crisis:

I remember seeing a little homestead defending itself against the fiery foe— the fire fiend, you must know, is the settler's best servant in this block of country, but he breaks out in rebellion occasionally; then there's trouble, and the state of things is sultry—the disposition of the defending force, as near as I could make out, through the murky clouds of smoke that kept on rolling by, was thus-wise:— To the housewife was entrusted the care of the homestead and haystack, where she took up position, supplied with buckets of water, and armed with a dipper. Across the road, which ran in front of the homestead and constituted the last line of defence, on a clearing between it and the timber wherein the enemy swished and crackled and roared, the head of the household and his boys were thrown forward in extended order to beat out the enemy as he approached their first line. Well out on the flanks were posted the junior members of the family, to see that the enemy did not steal round the main body; one little dot of a girl, planted on a blackened stump, looked the picture of earnest watchfulness, alert to give the alarm should the foe come creeping through the grass in her direction; whilst the older girl kept open the communications between the different posts. And so the little garrison defended their hearth and home amidst drifting volumes of smoke and dust and fire, besmutted and begrimed beyond recognition, till Heaven sent a shower of rain to the rescue and they breathed the pure air, and obtained a good night's rest once more.34