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

8 — The South Island

page 89

The South Island

If Northland was burning, so was Southland. The drought had hit Southland hard by mid December and the worst fires of the season were just before Christmas. Drought and periods of high winds continued into mid January, raising fears of further outbreaks. Meanwhile crops suffered in parched fields and at the Round Hill diggings there was water for only two hours work a day.1

The season's first serious fire raged in Seaward Bush, south of Invercargill. It interrupted work at McCallum and Co's sawmill by destroying part of its tramway, and some woodcutters lost stacks of firewood. On the evening of 21 December a strong reflection from the fire lit Invercargill, leading to rumours of serious damage. Fires on the edge of town during the day would have heightened the anxiety. To the east a fire smouldering in a bush clearing spread to sweep through settler Ballantyne's 70-acre grass seed crop and destroy his residence. To the south a bush fire near the suburb of Georgetown was threatening settlers' houses. News had yet to reach town of a far more serious conflagration which had that morning struck McPherson, Filmer and Co's sawmill at Mabel Bush, away to the north-east. About 7 a.m. part of the mill's tramway was discovered to be on fire. Fanned by a gale, the flames spread rapidly, and the mill hands lost the battle for their homes. The flames took the cottages one by one and about 10 a.m. a rising gale swept them through the defenders to the mill, and then onwards to the store. Both were reduced to ashes. Within a few hours these workmen had lost both their homes and their jobs.

In the early hours of the next morning a fire broke out in Lumsden. Fanned by a strong north-west wind it totally destroyed Bradmore's general store and residence, the Colonial Bank, Maley's boot shop, Stanford's store and residence, and Fraser's blacksmith shop. Lacking a water supply the handful of settlers could do little even to save the buildings' contents, though they did get out Bradmore's household furniture and a few articles of Stanford's. These blows were softened by £2,365 in insurance, but neither the blacksmith's shop nor its contents carried any cover.2

Otago seems to have come through the drought with no serious fires, but Canterbury was less fortunate. There were significant bush fires in the main page 90
Glenmark Station

Glenmark Station

sawmilling districts, about Oxford and on Banks Peninsula, but the most common fires were in the grass of the wide open plains. Some areas had recurrent outbreaks from late November until early March. We will begin with one such district, the area around and north of Amberley, and then work south covering the other districts affected.
In late November fire was noticed in a gorse hedge beside the railway a little north of Amberley, shortly after a train had passed. The fire spread to the peat bank the hedge was growing on, and was still smouldering a fortnight later despite many attempts to extinguish it. Passing trains continued starting fires almost daily.3 All were contained until on the morning of 27 February one beside the line near Hawarden got away before a strong nor’- wester and swept across six miles of country, burning off some 5,000 acres of native grass. Land belonging to G.H. Moore of Glenmark station was completely swept with the loss of 4,000 sheep. The English grasses of D. and A. McFarlane's neighbouring property halted the fire but it destroyed all their boundary fence. To the north it swept F. Perriot's property of all the feed remaining from the drought, and took some lines of fencing and a stack of grass seed. Settler Johnstone saved his grass seed stacks by ploughing round them. A mile of railway fence and three miles of telegraph poles were also destroyed.4 On 8 March a much more extensive fire on Glenmark station swept over at least 50,000 acres of tussock land, spreading to the page 91
Figure 8.1 Canterbury, main grass and bush fires, summer 1885–86

Figure 8.1 Canterbury, main grass and bush fires, summer 1885–86

page 92 neighbouring Mount Herat, Teviotdale, Stonyhurst and Glendhu stations. Glenmark lost about 10,000 sheep.5 A Lyttelton Times reporter went by train to view the scene. He described passing over ‘a bare blackened expanse dotted with charred stumps of burned tussocks' stretching as far as the eye could see. Settlers told him how on Wednesday night, 10 March, enormous sheets of flame raged through the valleys beyond the plain, moving faster than a galloping horse. Others described spending an anxious night in the path of the blinding, suffocating smoke.6

About noon on 22 December a fire broke out in the bush at Oxford, and a strong nor'wester soon had it threatening Sharplin's sawmill. Bushmen and mill hands saved the mill after a stiff fight. The fire moved on, destroying tramway and bridges as it went, to threaten Petrie's mill. A strong band of defenders held it at bay until the danger passed with a drop in the wind about midnight and a shower about 3 a.m. But the embers smouldered on, to be fanned into flames when the nor'wester resumed on Thursday the 24th. Spreading past Booth's mill, destroying tramway in its path, it reached the edge of the bush early on Christmas Day. Here it consumed the six-roomed house of Joseph Haughie, one of Booth's millhands, who was away for a Christmas holiday. Unusually for a mill worker's residence, it was insured. Again a wind drop gave a couple of days of respite, but it sprang up again on Sunday the 27th, and by the 28th was driving the fire into Oxford itself. All day the wind showered sparks on the town, starting fires that took six houses, three shops, a stable, a carpenter's workshop with all his tools, and various outbuildings.7

The same recurrent nor'wester caused anxious days much nearer to Christchurch and Lyttelton. On 27 December a grass fire burned fiercely on the hills above Lyttelton, extending from the Bridle Path towards Corsair Bay. Fortunately it did not come down to threaten the town. By the night of the 30th it had worked on a broad front across to the Heathcote side, creating a considerable glare in the sky for Christchurch residents. More damaging was a fire which approached Christchurch from the west. Beginning as a sheep run grass fire it worked its way down the Waimakariri riverbed and swept inland near Harewood, destroying a good deal of fencing and two houses.8

At Little River on Banks Peninsula a much more persistent fire harried the settlers from early December until early March. Beginning on Harry White's bush clearing, it spread to his neighbours James Watkins and P. Sorensen, greatly damaging their grass seed crops. Seeming to have burnt itself out, it unaccountably broke out again in calm weather on 6 January, covering the same ground and taking what was left of Sorensen's grass seed crop as well as an unoccupied house and shed. Then it swept into James Reynold's grass seed crop, consuming some 80 acres of it, and also threatened page 93
A Little River scene in the 1880s. On the left is the Maori Church built by Noah Walters (see p. 140)

A Little River scene in the 1880s. On the left is the Maori Church built by Noah Walters (see p. 140)

the church. With the weather calm the fire was kept away from the church, and in the meantime from further extensive grass seed crops. But it was not out, and in the deepening drought the winds from time to time carried it further up the valley, destroying large quantities of feed and fencing, and inflicting on settler J. Foley the heavy loss of 130 bags of harvested grass seed. Then on the night of 9–10 March it travelled towards the hill top and totally destroyed Thomas Brook's uninsured sawmill and a quantity of sawn timber. Rain came at last on 11 March. There were other reported destructive fires (and doubtless some unreported) on the Peninsula over these months. In one fire in February Barnett of Le Bons Bay lost 300 sheep.9

Early in January there were several large grass fires to the south and south-west of Christchurch, between the Waimakariri and Selwyn Rivers. In the mid afternoon of 6 January a fire starting near the bed of the upper reaches of the Heathcote River was swept by a fresh east wind towatds Prebbleton. After travelling about two miles it had spread to cover a front of about a mile and a half. As great volumes of smoke streamed through Prebbleton about 50 men and women armed with wet sacks and branches set about defending their town and preventing the flames getting loose into the broad countryside. Gotse hedges and fences were consumed and several houses and other buildings were only narrowly saved. When they had fought the fire to a halt and could survey the scene, the settlers decided that Mr Carson's potato paddock had kept the fire from going through Prebbleton, and the stout defence of his farm by John Campion and his assistants had kept it from getting loose onto the plains.10

page 94

The following afternoon 40 settlers in and around West Melton fought a similar battle. Their early exertions were in defence of the Wesleyan Chapel. They then realised that a small weatherboard house occupied by an old man was in the path of the flames. They broke open his door to find him asleep, unaware of his danger. With difficulty the house was saved, and after a hard three hour battle the fire was subdued. The main losses were in gates, fences and feed.11

That same afternoon there was another battle a few miles to the south, between Rolleston and Burnham. A south-west wind was blowing, and following the passing of the midday train from Christchurch a fire started in tussock about two chains west of the line a little south of Rolleston. The boys and staff of the Industrial School were an important part of the defending force. Helped by their fire engine drawing on a water race they prevented the fire crossing the Burnham-Courtenay road into the main plantation. Settlers in and around Burnham prevented the fire working down the line to the railway buildings. Other settlers and railway men worked to contain the fire in other directions. Before it was brought under control it had consumed 800 acres of tussock and grass, an avenue of blue gum trees and various fences.12

There were also great blazes on both sides of the Rakaia River. We have already told of the one south of the river on 7 January, and of William Harrison's innovative use of his traction engine.13 The one on the north side got away in tussock between Dunsandel and Bankside on 24 December and showed what could happen if an outbreak was not quickly contained. Apparently men working with a traction engine had emptied its cinder pan and then taken it away to a water race for water. When they returned the fire, fanned by a strong nor'wester, was away among the tussocks, and they were quite unable to contain it. Rapidly extending its front, it swept south-east as fast as a horse could gallop, swallowing up a platelayer's cottage, and then the house, sheds and implements of Stewart's farm, Highbank, near Bankside. It razed Richards' small homestead out on the plains, and in a very short time was sweeping across Heslerton run. Fortunately the Heslerton sheep had been mustered to the homestead the previous day for dipping, or many of them would have been lost. Both the homestead and most of the flock were saved, though forty sheep were smothered while the flames were being fought back from the sheep yards. The run's iron woolshed about five miles from the homestead was burnt down. Moving on, the fire demolished the home and all the buildings and yards on Washbourne's farm. Now burning on a three mile front it quickly covered another mile or two to take the cottage and buildings on Kendal's farm. Next in its path was Charles Hurst's Oakleigh run with a substantial recently built homestead and extensive farm buildings. Fortunately the settlers were by now well alerted. Hurst's page 95 neighbour, Southbridge farmer George Baxter, did some firebreak work with his plough, and other willing helpers rallied to Hurst's assistance. The house was saved, though badly scorched. The fine garden was lost, and also a large stable, chaff house, granary, a large number of sheep, farm implements and produce. Towards evening a slight wind shift towards the north-east brought the fire towards plantations along the banks of the Rakaia. From Southbridge large flames could be seen leaping into the sky. Part of a plantation of gums was destroyed but the now well-reinforced defenders (including a constable and a clergyman) finally brought the fire under control.14

Pastoral Marlborough had its fires, as it also shared in the deep drought. Blenheims studious medically trained resident magistrate, Dr Stephen Muller, had kept rainfall records for years. These gave an average August to December monthly fall of 2.27 inches for the 20 years 1866–85; for 1885 it was only .86 inches.15 On 24 and 25 December a fire swept 6,000 acres of hill pasture inland from the railhead near Dashwood, south of Blenheim. It apparently originated from a brick kiln, doubtless a temporary feature of the railway contract. It destroyed several of the brickmakers' tents and the main railway construction camp had a narrow escape. It then swept the hill pastures with serious loss to the runholder.16

It is not easy to build up a picture of the fires in the scattered bush settlements of the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson Province. In a region dominated by rugged mountain ranges, it had been difficult for the settlers to penetrate inland from their footholds on the bays and sounds of the north and east and die banks of the swift flowing rivers of the west. The magnet of gold had helped to open up the interior, but settlement beyond the limited plains and river valleys on Tasman and Golden Bays and the few flats on the Marlborough Sounds was a haphazard and straggling business. Nelson's unattractive bush lands were practically there for the taking, by selection before survey, without residence or improvement requirements. The Land Board fixed the price once the settler had made his selection, and he paid ten per cent for 14 years to get his freehold. The region had no extensive well-organised bush settlements as in the southern North Island, and its two short railways had not opened up extensive bush districts. The bush frontiers were too scattered to have newspaper correspondents covering their affairs. Only such itinerants as the redoubtable Newman brothers kept first-hand news flowing into the little capitals.

Around Christmas bush fires were burning in the Para and Koromiko Valleys between Blenheim and Picton. Arthur Lacey lost his house on Christmas Eve, and over the following weeks flames spreading from the hills to the flats repeatedly put settlers' homes at risk. S. Nicolls's house was lost and others had narrow escapes, including that of former provincial superintendent William Baillie, which probably owed its survival to its iron roof. For page 96 weeks these settlers endured days of intense heat and stifling smoke, and looked out each night on the ‘terrible grandeur’ of blazing hillsides.17 Around New Year a busy flow of travellers on Marlborough's overland route to Nelson had to run a fiery gauntlet. Large bush fires beginning in December continued to spread in the Pelorus, Whangamoa and Rai Valleys. The Rai Valley road was repeatedly blocked by fallen trees.18 On New Year's day Pelorus Valley was almost deserted for the celebrations at nearby Havelock, as the whole district enjoyed a highly successful day of sports, enlivened by the Nelson Bijou Band who came in on the morning coach. When the homes of neighbouring Pelorus Valley settlers Daniel Wilson and Henry Bennett came under threat Mrs Wilson was the only person at home to defend them. She first put out a fire at Bennetts house and then rushed back to defend her own. She saved this ‘with great trouble’, but meanwhile the fire had regained a hold at Bennett's and burnt it to the ground. Next day two horsemen caught surrounded by fire in the Pelorus Valley ‘had to lay their heads on their horses' sides, and let them take their course’. Their steeds brought them safely through. The fires burnt telegraph poles in the valley and broke the line, keeping linesmen busy for days.19 In mid January Onamalutu had its days of testing when an extensive bush fire on Crown land threatened to sweep the valley. Settler Rickerson saved his home by hastily ploughing a fire break.20 Among Marlborough's scatter of small settements there were probably other battles and losses that went unreported.

As an important major node in the colony's coastal shipping network, Nelson city seemed more aware of the ports of neighbouring provinces than of its own hinterland. Yet, reported or not, there were fires. From early in the new year the town was plagued with smoke. To the west Tasman Bay was lost in the haze. Each evening the setting sun was a blood red ball in the murky air. By mid January fire itself had come close to the city, raging in the bush up the Maitai Valley. On the 14th it took the home of a recently widowed man with 13 children, the youngest just able to walk, and a newspaper appeal was made for their relief. The Maitai fire and those in other nearby districts kept smoke billowing over Nelson and its surrounding hills until the drought broke late in the month.21

Early in January the Newmans' coaches began bringing in news of great fires raging beyond Spooner's Range in the valleys of the Clark, Hope and Motupiko Rivers. On Wednesday, 6 January, after a pause at John Ribet's accommodation house at the Hope, Thomas Newman resumed his journey towards Nelson. He had not gone far when the wind drove fire across his path. Several times he was compelled to stop. At one point the fire was blown right upon his coach, singeing his whiskers, badly burning his hand, and blistering the coach wheels. Pressing on he was again caught by fire and his horses considerably singed. The smoke was so dense that he kept his page 97 team on the track with difficulty, and the heat was suffocating. The settlers at Wakefield, apprehensive at the glare in their southern sky each night, were much relieved when the coach at last came down from the hills four hours late. Next morning George Newman was unable to take Thursday's coach from Nelson ‘beyond the settled districts’, but when the coach from the south came through next day, he set off for Reefton, and had the race for life described in Chapter 1. And what of the settlers on whose lands these fires were raging? The coachmen picked up news that in the Motupiko Valley the Newports' grass had been burnt off and that their homestead had been in danger. In the Clark Valley Charles Thompson had saved his house with difficulty, but lost his outbuildings, a horse, some implements and the wool clip from 400 sheep. Up at the Hope Junction John Ribet's stables, across the road from his accommodation house, had been saved after two days and nights of sticiiuous exertions. In the Tadmor Valley a great stretch of standing bush had been swept by fire and Fawcett, Anglesey and other settlers had lost heavily in grass and fencing. If these districts had had local newspaper correspondents or visits from reporters there might well have been exciting stories to tell.22

At Greymouth the Grey River Argus of 11 January told of fires on that coast, where none had been seen before, far from any settlement. The masters of coasters reported the smoke of bush fires all along the coast between Nelson and Greymouth. Reefton, the West Coast terminus of the Newmans' coach route, suffered severely in the drought. In early January there were bush fires in all directions. By mid January households were suffering from a severe water shortage. Rainwater tanks were empty and most wells were dry. Lack of water had brought all but one of the batteries to a stop, throwing many miners out of work. The one working battery made the little water left in the river unfit for domestic use. Right down the West Coast most of the mines were idle and crops were withering away.23 By the time the drought broke Reefton looked a different place. Much of the bush around it had been burnt, ‘baring the rugged surface of the country, and showing the hills in all their unattractiveness'.24