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

4 — Taranaki and the Stratford Fire Storm

page 48

Taranaki and the Stratford Fire Storm

As they followed the news of the Hawke's Bay fires, it would have seemed incredible to the Stratford settlers that they were shortly to experience a blaze whose fury would outdo all that had gone before. Their district had a reputation for drenching rain and mud, and even in these days of drought there was everywhere the sound of rushing water from the rocky, boulder-strewn beds of the upper reaches of the Patea and Waingongoro Rivers and their tributaries, fed by the melting snows of Egmont's white cone towering above them. Early in the New Year the mayor of New Plymouth, probably inspired by the reports from Napier, offered Charles Curtis, Chairman of the Stratford Town Board, the loan of a fire engine. Curtis wrote back on 5 January, declining the offer. He reported that the previous day, even though the wind had been moderately high and there had been some danger to four houses, the situation had been kept under control. The wind having since abated he judged that there would be comparatively little danger of fire.1

Wednesday, 6 January 1886, dawned over Stratford as just another hot smoky summer's day. The settlers set about their day's work unaware that its details would be etched on their memories for life. Up the Waingongoro Road, under the mountain, 21-year-old Zillah Betsy Watkin was planning a boiling of raspberry jam. Her parents with their five children had emigrated in 1880 from rural Shropshire and moved promptly to their bush section, being among Cardiff's first settlers. Their early experiences were typical of the district.2 Walters, the district's first builder, helped them put up their first home, of pongas with a tramped earth floor. They furnished it with the aid of a versatile neighbour, Pilcher Frederick Ralfe. Born in Kent and educated at King William College on the Isle of Man, his experience included seven years seafaring and over 30 years farming in Canterbury and Taranaki.3 He showed the Watkinses how to pitsaw timber and shape it into furniture. Within a year or two they were a very self-sufficient household, page 49

Figure 4.1 Stratford rural settlers in the fire of 6 January 1886 (Sources: Map of original Crown Land Grants, Dept. of Survey and Land Information, New Plymouth; Geo. Marchant's report)

page 50 baking their own bread in a camp oven and living well from their garden, orchard, dairy, pigs and fowls, supplemented with sugar-bags of native pigeons brought from the bush by one of the boys. By the 1885–86 summer the small fruits—blackcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries—were bearing heavily in the sheltered virgin soil of the forest clearing and it was Zillah's job to help preserve the harvest.

A short distance away in Cardiff Road, George Albert Marchant (1849– 943) was up early with a big day ahead of him. London born, of Devonshire stock, and educated at King's College School, he had been on a Continental tour when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and was held for a short time by the French on suspicion of being a German spy. In 1872 he left a commercial career to emigrate to New Zealand. After varied experience in the Patea district, including work on road and railway construction, he took up 300 acres of bush at Cardiff in 1881, and soon emerged as a local political leader.4 On 6 January 1886 he hurried through his morning chores, then set off with a young son to ride into Stratford to join the morning train for New Plymouth to attend a meeting of the New Plymouth Harbour Board.5 As they rode down by way of Opunake Road, Marchant noted the ripening acres of grass seed in his neighbours' clearings, and smoke rising from bush burns in various directions. He was not as sanguine as his neighbours about the fires, and year by year had warned them about the dangers. He asked his ‘good friend J.’ to keep an eye on his own place for the day. This was probably his next-door neighbour on Cardiff Road, William Johnson. The Johnsons with their seven children and a nurse had emigrated cabin class in 1879, and joined their kinsman Pilcher Ralfe in Canterbury.6 Together Johnson and Ralfe had journeyed to Patea where, with George Marchant's help, they obtained their Cardiff sections. The three men remained life-long friends. Near Stratford the Marchants passed Sydney James's home, which he had almost lost by fire on New Year's Day. Leaving their horses tied up near the station, the Marchants joined the train departing for New Plymouth at 8.50 a.m. The daily passage of a train in each direction on each weekday morning and afternoon was an important element in Stratford's rhythm of life. Halfway to Inglewood the Marchants' train crossed with the train which had left New Plymouth at 7.25 a.m. Among its passengers was surveyor Thomas Kingswell Skinner (1849–1925), proceeding to Stratford for a day's work in the bush down East Road.7 George Marchant and Thomas Skinner were soon to be closely associated through their involvement in the aftermath of the day's happenings in Stratford.

In and around Stratford the day's activities unfolded along their accustomed paths.8 Some settlers, like Pitt of Stratford township, were busy fencing. Others were probably logging up their clearings, making good piles of firewood near their homes in readiness for the cold Stratford winter. On one page 51
George Marchant 1849–1943

George Marchant 1849–1943

Stratford's first store: Curtis Bros

Stratford's first store: Curtis Bros

page 52 township property, perhaps owned by a businessman, the grass seed crop was already ripe, and four itinerant labourers, Bicknell, Petersen and two Christiansens, were at work harvesting it. Down on Brookes Road, south of the township, Frank Standing and George Turner, carpenters of Inglewood, were working on a bridge contract for the Ngaere Road Board. Helping them was labourer J.H. Howell of New Plymouth, who had brought with him a horse borrowed from Mr Gilbert of New Plymouth. The three of them had set up a bush camp near the contract. For many of the women folk it was a busy day. The fine weather had taken many husbands away from home on various jobs and contracts. For Jane Capper, living with her four young children on Pembroke Road at the northern edge of the township, this was a common experience. Her husband George had taken road ontracts around the Stratford district ever since they had married eight years earlier. It was school holidays, so the township's children were either enlisted to help with chores, or abroad with their friends on various holiday pastimes. Perhaps the school committee were reminding each other about meeting their new headmaster from Auckland, Edward Evans, due by the 6.20 p.m. train from New Plymouth. Scotsman William Harre and his wife Margaret, nee MacFarlane, of Pembroke Road, had their three sons home, including John, on holiday from his job as headmaster of Normanby School. John must certainly have spent some time at the Woodruffe home, a short walk down Pembroke Road, seeing his sister and his new nephew Edmund.9

Going about his storekeeping tasks that morning, Town Board Chairman Charles Curtis may have been moved to review his refusal of the New Plymouth fire engine. Looking towards the mountain he could not have failed to see that many settlers, frustrated by years of bad burns, were following last summer's innovators, and burning early. He would have been pleased that the dense smoke from their clearings was rising in vertical columns in the still morning air. Curtis Brothers' store was in the township's little business section, straggling along Broadway, which paralleled the railway. The town clearing covered about a square mile, the greater part of which was still littered with stumps, dead trees and logs. From a scatter of houses and cottages among this debris the clearing was being ‘farmed’, with gardens, orchards, hen runs, pigsties, and patches shut up for grass seed. Curtis would have gained some reassurance from the solid stands of green bush that gave the great clearing a forest wall on all sides. With prevailing winds from the west, it was good that the wall was particularly extensive on that side, due to the unoccupied Education Reserve on Opunake Road. But the strategic thinking behind the Stratford settlement had put the main thrust of forest clearing up the slopes to the west of the township, and no one could be quite sure what would happen if a high wind should sweep in on this scatter of bush burns. At Curtis Brothers' store there was a particular page 53 reason for concern about these clearings. Only the previous year Charles's partner, his brother Oswald, had married Catherine, daughter of Pilcher Ralfe of Waingongoro Road.10

At 3.05 p.m. the afternoon train north, whose journey had begun in Wanganui at 9.10 a.m., pulled out of Stratford. It carried to New Plymouth the comforting news that all was well in Stratford. Its travellers did not know that a fiery scourge was already gathering momentum on the mountain slopes to the west, to burst in blazing fury on the township only minutes after their departure. The wind had begun to freshen about 2 p.m. building up steadily to a south-easterly gale. Though there are several traditions as to where the fire started, the question is pointless. There were bush burns or their embers at various points on the Waingongoro, Cardiff, Opunake, Brookes and Pembroke Roads. The rising wind first merged fires from many points, creating great updrafts which then hastened their spread by wafting great showers of sparks about over the mountain slopes. From the huge unfelled dead ratas dominating the clearings came great flakes of fire as sunbaked pieces of twigs and bark were whirled skyward to fall like hail over the broad countryside. Many clearings were struck without warning as airborne sparks ignited ripening patches of grass sced or tinder dry bush burn debris, which the wind quickly fanned into new conflagrations. The district's trees were draped with an abundance of moss, usually damp or sodden, but now tinder dry from the long drought. Some settlers were taken completely by surprise by fire bursting from green standing bush, never before known to carry flames. Others had brief warning as the day was suddenly turned to darkness by the dense smoke of burning green bush. An Auckland visitor to a clearing just west of the township described the strange sensations accompanying the approach of the flames. At 3 p.m. they heard a peculiar wind-like noise coming through the bush. Soon the sun was entirely obscured. Then the fire burst upon the clearing, sweeping it clear of everything—fences, stacks of posts, grass, sheep, cattle. Struggling in the darkness, in danger from maddened horses and cattle rushing wildly to and fro, the family managed to fetch water and save their home. The fire meanwhile swept into the standing bush on the other side of the clearing and on into Stratford township.11

The fires seem to have coalesced into two main conflagrations, one associated with the clearings along Opunake Road, and the other with those along Pembroke Road. These united their forces on the western boundary of Stratford and fell upon the town with appalling rapidity. The wind and the draught from the blaze were now so strong that a great shower of sparks and flakes of fire deluged down right across the township clearing and into the bush on the opposite side. Not only was the place completely enveloped in flames as stumps, logs, dead trees, crops, fences and buildings flared alight, page 54 but the whole was surrounded by burning green bush which sent its peculiar black smoke eddying in to add a strange darkness to the inferno. So intense was the burning and so dense the smoke that the inhabitants felt as much in danger of suffocation as of burning. In fact, in the four or five hours that they battled for their town they seem to have divided their time between defending their homes and fleeing down into the Patea River's little ravine, where they lay on their faces gasping to get some real air back into their lungs. Meanwhile the fire gradually petered out in the bush to the east of the town, where after some distance it found no clearings to sustain its force. But at the furthest house on Bird Road, running eastward to the south of the town, Mrs Meyenberg had to light candles at 4 p.m. on this midsummer afternoon, although the nearest edge of the fire was several kilometres away. Having completed its eastward sweep, the fire began to eat its way more slowly north. Before following it there we must retrace its earlier path to see how the settlers fared in its flames and how they reacted in these hours of crisis.

Zillah Watkin carried vivid memories of that day right down to her closing years in Hawera in the 1950s. Her boiling of raspberry jam was never bottled. The fire swept the Watkins clearing, taking all the farm buildings and outhouses, the fences and most of the pasture. Though their well was dry they won the battle for their home, but John Watkin was left blind for several days. Their neighbour Clement Saunders was less fortunate. Thinking his house safe he went to help a neighbour. Thick smoke near his own home sent him hurrying back, only to find everything going. He seized a change of clothes from the house and made for the green bush. The fire outsped him, catching the clothes he was carrying, forcing him to discard them one by one. The suffocating smoke brought him to the ground twice, but he managed to drag himself into the safety of a creek bed before losing consciousness. Behind him everything on his clearing was swept away, including his neat four-roomed iron-roofed house. Across on the south side of the Waingongoro Road Edward Gilshnan also went to the aid of a neighbour, Joseph Belcher. Joseph's reminiscences of that day were published 65 years later, and a private letter dated 9 January 1886 and published anonymously by the Wellington Evening Post seems to be an almost immediate report by Edward. If this identification is correct, the most detailed, vivid and personalised reporting we have of the Stratford rural battles is from these two neighbouring outlying clearings. Writing to ‘Dear Harry’, Edward told him

One of our neighbours happened to be in Stratford, and got your wire, or I should not know you had sent it. I wrote the reply on the back of the message and sent it, which I hope you got all right. I say that I wrote the page 55 reply, but I mean that I got it written for me, for when your wire came I was lying on my bed totally blind … But, thank God, my eyesight has returned, although everything I look at now is very blurred and hazy. For two days I was blind, and did not think I should ever get right again. Dear old boy, I have had just about the roughest time of it that ever I had in my life, and Alice had it just as bad. When I first noticed the fire it was just behind my house, in the green bush, and it was coming on in a broad sheet of flame, which seemed to me about ten chains wide, but the way the wind was blowing, it seemed as if it would miss my place; so I ran round to my next neighbour to see if I could be of any assistance, and I sent his wife and children round to our house, and I helped him a bit, and while I was doing that the fire came right through our clearing, and when I tried to get home, I found I couldn't. My neighbour and I had cut a trench round his house to keep the fire off, and we laid down in that until we could stand it no more, so we both made a rush for it, to get on the road, and although we started for my place, I never thought to reach it alive, for the fire and smoke that I had to run through was something fearful; and when at last I reached home, I sank down exhausted, although the fire was burning right up to the very house. Alice had a double duty—to draw water for keeping the fire back and to look after a lot of helpless children and a more helpless woman. After a bit I recovered, and did what I could; but with our exertions we saved the house and dairy, although the whole of the out-buildings are gone, besides some tools. The stock-yard and cow-shed went first. I began to get alarmed then. Then the fire came along to the pigstye, so I rushed in and smashed in the end of the stye, so as to let out the two pigs that I had in there to fatten. The pigs, as soon as they got liberty, madly rushed into the fire and got burnt to death. Then came the fire up to the dairy, and it took both mine and Alice's level best to save the place, for if the dairy had been burnt we could not have saved the house, and if the house had been burnt there would not have been a soul alive to tell the tale; for it was only by getting to leeward of the house that we could live at all….

There were sixteen hands, all told, in the house, so you can form an idea of what would have happened in case the house caught fire, for if such a thing had happened, the only thing to do would be for me to have collared a child under each arm, and Alice the same, and, in trying to get away, would either have been burnt to death in the fire or suffocated in the smoke…. My neighbour had a mare tied up to his fence, in case he should have to ride away, but the mare got roasted to death.12

Joseph's reminiscences are understandably deficient about the wider context, but more vivid than Edward's in describing the battle for his own home. He tells how the two men banked earth around the house to stop the fire page 56 getting underneath it. With water from the well they wet the walls and outbuildings. With the smoke almost blinding them, Edward suggested taking refuge in the well, but Joseph pointed out how inflammable the windlass and rope were and kept them at the fight for his home. They ran around the house with eyes shut to keep out the smoke, feeling the walls. Twice they found them on fire and managed to beat out the flames with wet blankets. Between these forays they took refuge in a hollow scooped in the ground, lying covered with the wet blankets. There were similar battles with similar losses at Walters's and Ralfe's places further up the road, but here also the houses survived.

On Cardiff Road no houses were lost, although James Belcher's had a very narrow escape. But right along the road seed grass, pasture and fencing were consumed and a number of cattle burnt to death. On Opunake Road the toughest battle was probably on Joseph Richardson's clearing. When the fire swept down, the whole family except the ten-year-old son were cut off from the house. On his own he successfully defended the house, putting wet blankets on it, pulling down fencing leading to it and taking other precautions. Meanwhile Mrs Richardson protected her own children and some others with them by putting them into a tunnel hollowed in the creek bank as a store for meat and butter.13 The fire took the Richardson's pasture, grass seed crop, garden and orchard. Their neighbour towards Stratford, John Kirkpatrick, lost his shed and yard, dairy, outhouse, fencing and three cattle. Neighbouring Richardson's to the west was Malone Brothers, the largest property on the road. They lost no buildings, but a large area in pasture, crop and orchard was razed.

On Brookes Road, south of the township, two homes and the bridge contractors' whare were lost. Frank Standing, George Turner and their workman Howell barely escaped being overwhelmed by the flames. Their whare, swags and all their timber were completely consumed. Howell's borrowed horse broke away, taking refuge on the railway line, only to be killed there a little later by the train. The fire swept over T. McMillan's clearing taking his whare and all its contents and his pasture. He escaped towards the township, passing August Lehmann's where he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the family to join him in his flight. There was great concern for the Lehmanns until into the following day. Their house was known to have been razed, but there was no sign of them. When Standing and Turner went back next morning to inspect the site of their contract, they found tracks leaving the place for a short distance, and it was hoped that they had found shelter in the bush. Eventually they were found at Albert Pioch's abandoned home on Monmouth Road, and the amazing story of their escape became known. Having lost the battle for their home they scrambled to their potato patch as their one hope of survival. There they covered themselves with the green page 57 potato tops. Their pigs followed them to this one likely place of safety. The family survived, though one little girl was badly burnt. The pigs, being unable to cover themselves with the potato tops, were roasted to death within a few yards of their owners. The family lost everything but the scorched clothing in which they fled.

We have already described the ordeal of Laurence and Janet Woodruffe and baby Edmund on their Pembroke Road clearing. A kilometre away up the road Janet's father William Harre and her three brothers fought a tremendous battle to save their house and farm buildings. All four received serious injuries requiring medical treatment and the Normanby School did not see John Harre until some weeks after it reopened. As it was William Harre lost a shed, sty, pigs, five cattle, hay pasture and seed grass. After the fire those who viewed the ornamental trees and shrubs scorched and killed right up to the house were amazed that the building had been saved. Across the road the Moore clan were not so fortunate. Matthew Moore, between the Harres and Woodruffes, lost his four-roomed house, cowshed, dairy, sty, pasture and two cattle. John and W.A. Moore, opposite the Harres, lost their new, nearly finished house, with its contents, their cow, pigs, pasture and fencing. Having lost their own battle these two went to the aid of a woman in another house. This must have been widow Mary Hall whose property was at the junction of Pembroke and Cardiff Roads. She had lost her husband, Edward, in tragic circumstances. They had been married 18 months and had an infant son when in August 1882 Edward went searching in the bush for a lost cow. An experienced bushman, he took his compass, revolver, bill-hook and a dog with him. When the dog returned alone a search was mounted. The settlers scoured the bush for a week but found nothing. Two years later his body was found near Ngaere. The Moores and Mary Hall, no doubt with her young son George, were driven from the defence of her house by the flames and took refuge among potatoes and broad beans in her garden. Miraculously the house survived although a hole had been burnt through its shingle roof. Somewhere along Pembroke Road Mrs Kenny, probably another widow, lost her whare on leasehold land, together with its contents and a good garden. Several other settlers along this road had lesser losses.

Before we turn to experiences of the holocaust in the township itself the special experiences of a small straggle of settlers along its northern edge need our attention. Isolated by flames from the rest of the population, they were driven into the bush east of the town. Believing Stratford completely destroyed, and that the fire was pursuing them through the bush, they fled down East Road. Furthest in this flight in the late afternoon of 6 January were Jane Capper and her four children, the eldest aged seven, the youngest a baby a few months old. Leaving their home in flames and their four cattle page 58 dead or dying, the terror of the fire drove them for some five kilometres before they began to wilt with exhaustion. Not quite so far out in the straggle down East Road were the Pitt family. When the fire fell upon the Stratford clearing, Pitt left his fencing and rushed home. There he found that his wife had already dragged the furniture out into the green bush in the hope of saving it. Fetching buckets of water from the stream he did his best to save the house, but beside his place was Mehaffy's 100-acre paddock of grass, through which the flames came rushing like a whirlwind. The Pitts were forced to flee for their lives, both their house and furniture being destroyed. With one child on his back, one in each arm, and his bare-headed and barefooted wife and other child beside him, he led them before the flames and down East Road. Others fleeing down East Road were labourer Murty Collins and an unnamed settler's wife with five of her own children and three of her brother's. All these refugees were eventually gathered together by Thomas Skinner as he made his way back towards Stratford from his day's work surveying. Skinner was quite unaware of the drama that had developed in the countryside to his west. At about 7 p.m. as he made his way along the narrow bush roadway he noticed something peculiar in the smoky shadows ahead of him. It looked like ‘fragments of burnt garments’. Coming closer he found that it was a woman and four children sitting on the roadway exhausted and in great distress. He soon learnt her story and her belief that Stratford had all been burnt down. As they spoke another person (probably Murty Collins) came along, half suffocated with the smoke, and shortly afterwards the Pitt family joined them. All were convinced that Stratford was completely burnt down. At first Skinner hardly knew what to do. The refugees were exhausted, hungry and lightly clad. He therefore told them to stay where they were while he sought assistance. Proceeding towards Stratford he met someone who agreed to go with him. They soon came upon burning bush and were forced to turn back and detour a time or two. Getting at last into the township they found what Skinner called ‘an indescribable scene’. Through the smoke in the dim light they could see that Curtis's and Mulree's stores and Tutty's Hotel were still standing but that the town hall had been burnt to the ground. Reaching Tutty's Hotel they saw a man lying flat on his face. Skinner at first thought he was drunk but soon discovered that he was simply stupefied with smoke. Round the back of the hotel he found six men sitting on the ground in a semi-conscious condition, unable to rise, because of what they had suffered in the intense heat and blinding smoke. He found Tutty, also much distressed. From Tutty he procured a lantern. Next he found the postmaster and with his aid got biscuits from Curtis's store and some milk for the children. Skinner then led his rescue party back into the bush. They had great difficulty as the fire was still spreading among the trees, which they heard falling in all directions. The burning page 59 green bush gave a strange white light like limelight. A sudden wind change dissipated the smoke, enabling the party to get through the fire. When they reached their refugees they found them very cold, sitting round a small fire they had lit. After giving them refreshments they took them back to Stratford to join the other settlers taking shelter in the railway station.

When, a little after 3 p.m., the deluge of fire flakes descended on their great tinder dry clearing, turning it almost instantaneously into an inferno, the residents of Stratford responded in much the same way as their country neighbours. Most, whether from necessity or inclination, stood and fought. A few were hounded by the flames to flight into the surrounding forest. In the business centre the defence of Curtis's store is probably typical. The fire quickly took the uninhabited, and therefore undefended, Town Hall nearby. From there it spread towards the bakehouse and kerosene store at the rear of the shop. If these had caught, the whole would have gone, so all hands rushed to their defence, only to be driven back shortly by the dense, suffocating smoke. Charles Curtis took refuge in his cellar but, feeling suffocated there, fled down to the bed of the Patea River. From here he and the other defenders of the town centre made forays to check their properties, damp down fires creeping towards them by way of logs, stumps and fences, and extinguish sparks before they could gain a hold. Each time they were greeted by the raging wind, the roaring of the fire, the cries of horses and the bellowing of cattle, and were soon driven back by the suffocating effects of smoke and heat and by sheer exhaustion, to prostrate themselves again by the cool rushing waters of the Patea in its sheltered ravine. Somehow, apart from the town hall and a few outbuildings, the town centre came through scorched but intact. Over the rest of the big clearing many settlers were not so fortunate. At his work somewhere in the town, labourer Robert Stanley nearly lost his life, while back at his house his wife only just managed to get her children out, and was unable to recover the family's little nest egg, in the form of a sum of money, four watches and some jewellry. Bootmaker William Northcott was only able to retrieve a mattress and blankets before his house went up in flames. Besides these and those who fled down East Road, the Sharrocks, Boormans, Hunters, Taylors and several single men also lost their homes. The gang of itinerant grass seed harvesters, Bicknell, Petersen and the two Christiansens, lost their swags. The miscellany of other losses included beehives, cowsheds, dairies, pigsties, fowl houses, hay, gardens, crops, as well as horses, cattle, pigs and poultry. To a greater extent than on the rural clearings, families were scattered in Stratford, with men at work, and children away with their friends, and there was much distress when they were unable to find each other in the turmoil.

A little after 6 p.m. the regular evening train from New Plymouth to Patea crawled into Stratford station. George Marchant, returning from his page 60 Harbour Board meeting, described how it entered dense smoke as it approached Midhirst, and edged on gingerly as the smoke got denser until it was almost as dark as night, the fires blazing in all directions being barely able to illuminate the gloom. Maintenance men loomed up through the smoke at Kahouri bridge to assure them that it was safe, though it had earlier been on fire. In the Stratford clearing every log and stump was on fire, and through the smoke it was apparent that many buildings were in ashes and others in danger as the high wind continued whipping the fires. Reaching the station they found the inhabitants nearly exhausted, many almost blind, and all in confusion. About two dozen burnt out women and children sheltering at the station were bundled into the carriages to be taken to Hawera. Marchant's friends in vain urged him not to attempt to reach his home, as Opunake Road was one mass of fire. Putting his protesting son into the care of some friends on the train, Marchant borrowed a horse from another good friend (both his own having disappeared) and set out on his five mile ride. He found that indeed everything along the way was burning—logs, stumps, fences, standing trees, green scrub and grass. Two wayfarers warned him to turn back but duty and affection called him on. He was brought to a halt at a deep cutting obstructed by a fallen rata, with another fiercely blazing tree above threatening to fall at any moment. He tried a detour by an old track, but fire and logs barred the way. It was back to the cutting, where he forced a way through the rata top, keeping an apprehensive eye on the tottering, blazing tree overhead. With difficulty, because the whole country was ‘still in a blaze and belching forth smoke unutterable’, he established that all the houses along Opunake Road had survived. On Cardiff Road he found that Saville and Stanford had been burnt out, the former for a second time; Smith and Richards were removing their furniture, expecting the worst; Saunder's house and Belcher's grass seed were among things of the past. He was relieved to find that kind hands had guarded his own property and that all was well. While doing sentry-go about his house and outbuildings over the midnight hours he wrote his description of his journey through the fire. He pictured the scene as he watched as like ‘Martins awful pictures of the infernal regions’, and described the thunder of the ratas as they fell every few minutes, and the crash of pine limbs, sending up myriads of sparks as they hit the ground.14

Meanwhile the train was making a slow journey south, hindered by smoke and the livestock sheltering on the line. It reached Hawera half an hour late, at about 8 p.m. In Hawera there had been apprehension throughout the day at the great volumes of smoke visible to the north, but no news of what was happening had got through. A rumour that Stratford had been burnt down circulated towards evening, but there was no definite information until the train arrived. The fugitives gave conflicting reports, some being convinced page 61 that their town was already virtually wiped out, others that it had been not quite that bad when they left, but that there seemed little hope that much would be saved. A crowd gathered at the Hawera station, and while arrangements were made to care for the refugees, plans were begun for a relief train to take help to Stratford and bring back the homeless to Hawera. On the train's arrival from Stratford, Hill, the stationmaster, had wired his superior in Wanganui for instructions, and nothing could be done until permission was received. Meanwhile the Stratford folk seem to have expected their help to come from New Plymouth. In Inglewood there was much uneasiness at the evidence of a great conflagration to the south and several settlers tried to ride to Stratford. All were driven back by fire investing the road, though Thomas Giles got within two miles of Stratford. Eventually effective help was dispatched from Hawera when permission for the special came through at about 10 p.m. The evening train from Wanganui, whose scheduled journey terminated in Hawera at 8.25 p.m., had been kept at the ready.

The train carried firemen from the Hawera brigade, other volunteers and a Hawera Star reporter. Fire first came into view near Te Roti and from there on smoke and flames increased as they proceeded. At Eltham it was found that Southey and Co's Mangawhero sawmill had been in great danger during the day, but had been saved by a wind change. At Ngaere also the wind change had brought relief from a very ‘warm’ situation. Lights burning in every house along the route showed that the settlers were all on guard. Here and there through the murky darkness great forest trees could be seen aflame. Stratford was approached warily on account of the numerous cattle and horses taking refuge on the line, and the need to inspect the track and bridges for damage. At about 11.30 p.m. the special pulled into Stratford station, to find about twenty refugees, mainly those brought in by Skinner, sheltering in the waiting room. Through the dense smoke the newcomers were relieved to make out the outlines of the main buildings in the business centre. The blaze in the township had now died down, and a drop and shift in the wind was also giving relief. In the darkness, with the main danger past, there was little for the relief party to do. The train's engine went out to the Kahouri bridge just north of the town, and a rumour that it had been burnt was dispelled. At 12.30 a.m. the special left for Hawera with the relief party and further refugees.

The Star obtained a preliminary account of what had happened from a volunteer on the special but its reporter stayed behind to build up a clearer picture and follow developments. After a few hours rest he was up at daybreak. Even then the place was almost completely obscured by smoke. From his enquiries he built up a picture of the fire descending suddenly on the township, and blazing furiously for four or five hours.

There was not a log or stump on the square mile clearing that was not page 62 alight and only the constant pouring of water on them kept the fire from renewing its destruction. The defenders believed that it was only the drop and shift in the wind that had saved the place. Worn down and almost suffocated, they could not have continued their effort much longer. As he went about his enquiries among an almost blinded population, the reporter found his own eyes badly inflamed even though he had not come through the thick of it. He described the sad spectacle of fugitives coming in from the bush clearings, strong men being led by those a little more fortunate than themselves, many of them so dazed by smoke and excitement that they reeled like drunken men. He told of the new teacher Edward Evans arriving by the 6.10 p.m. train to find both his house and school in great jeopardy. He succeeded in saving both, but was now nearly blind, with one eye particularly badly injured by a spark. His wife, who was ill, went on to Hawera on the special train. Evans was not to be fit to take up his duties until the end of March. Among his catalogue of injuries and losses the reporter had some better news. Mrs McCook and her children had been forced from their home by the fire and believing it burnt down had gone to Hawera. Returning to Stratford in the morning they found it still standing. Mrs Hassell, whose husband was away, had got all their furniture out and down to a stream before being forced to abandon her home. She had been most anxious about one of her children who was absent at the township, until she met a neighbour who assured her that the boy was safe at his place. It transpired later that this was not correct. In the morning Mrs Hassell began her search for her missing boy by returning to her section, expecting to find only the chimney standing. The house was still there and inside was the boy, who had made his way home and was asleep in bed. Charred timber showed that the house had caught fire inside, but the fire had gone out. The furniture down in the stream bed had all gone up in flames.

As Thursday, 7 January, unfolded Stratford's weary settlers could not understand why no help came from New Plymouth. Their clearing was still blanketed in smoke, a multitude of logs and stumps were still burning, and a freshening of the wind might yet stir up a fresh assault which they would be too weary to resist. Some help, it seems, did come from Inglewood. New Plymouth was hamstrung in awaiting a reply to a request to Wanganui for a special train. This was so long delayed as to become irrelevant. The New Plymouth Fire Brigade, 23 strong, eventually left by the regular train, and did not reach Stratford till 6.10 p.m. With their fire engine they soon dowsed all the fires around the business centre and railway station, and throughout the night moved steadily outwards rendering more and more of the clearing safe. By the same train the Taranaki Herald got a reporter into the township. Nearly every person he met had a cold water bandage on his eyes or carried a wet handkerchief in his hands. At Curtis's store he found several men who page 63 had just received their newspaper by the train but were too blinded to read it. He therefore perched himself on a high stool and read it out to them. This reporter described the sight when later in the evening the appalling cloud of smoke rose. All over the clearing were innumerable small fires, reminiscent of the camp fires of thousands of soldiers. The bush on all sides could be seen still blazing, and every few minutes a gigantic tree would crash sending up an illumination of sparks.15

As the battle for Stratford slowly subsided, the battle for Midhirst got under way. On the Wednesday evening, while the Stratford crisis was at its height, James Hirst had a fight on his hands in Radnor Road, Midhirst. From bush blazing on the other side of the road the wind blew blinding smoke and a blazing mass of sparks right over his large house, and even with the help of about twenty of his neighbours, he believed he would have lost it but for a wind change. The following night Hirst led the defence of the small house of a Radnor Road neighbour, and this time the battle was lost. By now local fires and fires advancing from Stratford were combining to invest Midhirst, and when on the Friday morning the wind freshened and again changed to the south-east a crisis rapidly developed. Fortunately for Midhirst, New Plymouth was by now well aroused, stirred by harrowing stories from the burning countryside and the arrival of burnt out refugees being transferred from makeshift arrangements at Hawera to the Government Immigration Barracks in New Plymouth. The Fire Brigade, which had caught the morning train home from Stratford, broke its journey to accede to Midhirst's request that it join in their defence.

Meanwhile in New Plymouth the Mayor, James Paul, had called a meeting in the town hall at Friday noon, to arrange aid for the sufferers of the Stratford fire. When at 10 a.m. he received telegrams about the danger at Midhirst, he began negotiations for the dispatch of a special train. Business in New Plymouth had come to a halt as the whole town caught the excitement, and waited eagerly at the newspaper offices for the telegrams as they came in. They were soon also briefly enthralled by a local battle. Paul, the Mayor, went to Bass, the stationmaster, to arrange the special train. Bass said he would telegraph at once for permission. Paul said that they had waited five hours the previous day for a reply, and in the present emergency they must have an engine at once. Bass was sorry, but he could do nothing without instructions. Paul offered to pay for the train from his own pocket and take full responsibility. He would have an engine if he had to come with a body of men and seize it. Fortunately things did not come to this pass. The local member of parliament, Oliver Samuel, had already telegraphed to the Minister of Public Works in Wellington, outlining the situation, and a reply came through that Hankey, the District Manager in Wanganui, had been instructed ‘to give special train, or whatever is necessary’.16

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A bellman was sent around the town asking all prepared to join the relief party to be at the town hall at noon. There a party was put together and told to assemble at the station by 1 p.m. The train left punctually at 1 pm. with a party of 58 under the leadership of surveyor Thomas Skinner, already a veteran of the fight at Stratford. W. Guerin, Taranaki News reporter with the party, described the expedition. From Sentry Hill onwards the journey was through immense volumes of dense stifling smoke. Past Inglewood ashes were showering the country like a snow storm. It was evident that the wind had risen. Guerin's description of the smoke is supported by other evidence. A half day's tramp into the bush to the east of Inglewood Thomas Skinner's brother, surveyor William Henry Skinner, was getting his gang settled into work from a new bush camp he had established just after New Year. His diary entry for this day, 8 January 1886, records ‘Atmosphere heavy with smoke. All hands complaining of soreness of eyes owing to smoke.’17 He would have been about twenty kilometres away through the bush from the fires his brother was leading the relief party towards. Soon the first fires were seen from the train, and at Tariki Road a party of five was set down to go to the aid of its bush settlers. With fire running along both sides of the line, the train edged onwards, the driver peering through the murk to make out the herds of cattle sheltering on the line. A party was left at Waipuku to give a helping hand there. About a mile out from Midhirst, the watchers in the train saw spires of flame shooting into the air from the bush all around the Manganui sawmill and were convinced that it was ablaze. Arriving at Midhirst station at 2.30 p.m. the party were met by settlers who told them that the fire was just upon the town. Skinner coolly deployed his men, sending a party back to the mill, others up the side roads, and then himself leading the largest party south to meet the main threat to the township. He requested that the train go on the four miles to Stratford taking a party to render assistance along the Mountain Road, but the guard had his iron orders not to go beyond Midhirst. With the wind continually rising in force, the local defenders showing the effects of three days of watching and battling, and the New Plymouth Fire Brigade exhausted after 24 hours of continuous exertion, Skinner was soon convinced that further manpower was needed. He asked reporter Guerin to force his way through to Stratford to see if any help could be had from that quarter, and himself telegraphed Oliver Samuel in New Plymouth for a further relief party.

Guerin managed to borrow a horse from a settler. He made his way south through parties of the fire brigade manfully battling for the township. His first mile was through livid fire, which made him doubt that Midhirst could be saved. Stratford he found in no position to send help, for the freshened wind had revived its fires and smoke was again streaming across the place. In New Plymouth Samuel, on receiving Skinner's telegram, fired off page 65 another of his own to the Public Works Minister in Wellington. This stressed that Crown Lands Ranger G.F. Robinson would be in overall charge of operations, and should have an engine with a couple of trucks at his absolute disposal for the next day or two. Robinson had missed the special, but arrived in Midhirst at about 5.45 p.m. on the regular afternoon train, bringing with him the party which had been sent up Waipuku Road, and the welcome news that the bellman was again to go round New Plymouth to find volunteers for a further special to leave at 6 p.m. Through delays it did not reach Midhirst till 10 p.m., by which time the main battle was over.

The great struggle for the Manganui sawmill was vividly described by the Taranaki News reporter who had set off in the opposite direction to his Herald rival. The mill hands had been battling for 36 hours but were still in good spirits. The mill's situation on the Manganui River and the arrival of the relief reinforcements saved the day. The mill was kept soaking wet. After an hour or two it had clearly been saved, and the relief party were moved to meet other threats. The fire had been fought to a halt along Mountain Road, but was outflanking the defenders to the east, threatening to sweep into Salisbury Road, where about twenty settlers were scattered over a large extent of inflammable clearings. When it seemed impossible to contain this fire the wind providentially dropped, and about 8 p.m. the situation suddenly came under control.

The second special arriving at 10 p.m. brought welcome refreshments, and reinforcements to take over the main burden of keeping watch overnight. The special went on to Stratford, dropping patrol parties at the roads along the way. At Stratford it awaited another special from Hawera, bringing Hankey, Railway District Manager from Wanganui, and then returned north picking up most of the fire brigade and the first relief party, getting them into New Plymouth about 1.30 a.m. William Cottier of the Criterion Hotel had a supper waiting for these tired, hungry toilers.

The worst was now over, but there were a few further local crises. These were responded to efficiently, now that appropriate arrangements were in place. There was a clear command structure with the resources of the railway at its disposal, adequate surveillance, and an organised flow of volunteer workers. The Manganui mill was again in danger overnight, but sufficient watchers were on hand to save it. On Saturday morning, 9 January, Robinson and Skinner with their relief party patrolled the line right through to Te Roti, finding the fires under control. In the afternoon parties were taken out to Midhirst and Stratford to relieve those on duty there and keep watch overnight. The train was kept at Inglewood with steam up, over Saturday night. The engine drivers and about twenty volunteers slept on the train to be ready to respond to any alarm. Similar measures were continued through Sunday and Monday. On Monday night Southey and Willey's page 66 sawmill between Eltham and Ngaere was in danger. The special train quickly had Robinson and a party of volunteers on the spot, together with the fire engine picked up from Midhirst. They found the surrounding bush on fire. Sawdust heaps and piles of slabs and timber repeatedly caught alight, but the wind was low and the situation was kept under control. Next morning, Tuesday, 12 January, rain began falling steadily throughout central Taranaki and all danger was soon over.