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

9 — Fire in the City

page 98

Fire in the City

As smoke and disaster reports flowed in to the colony's main cities their business centres were being baked as tinder dry as the fire-plagued countryside. In the event they escaped major fires, but Wellington's Lambton Quay had a significant blaze on 29 December 1885. It struck a citizenry basking in a false sense of security due to various improvements in their city's fire precautions, firefighting arrangements, and water supply. Since 1877 all new buildings in the central commercial area had had to be sheathed in incombustible materials.1

The one major fire since then had been in Manners Street in March 1879, sweeping across three large city blocks, destroying 30 buildings. In 1880, following a political tussle between the city's fire underwriters, its two volunteer fire brigades and the city council, the brigades were reformed into a single municipal fire brigade, firmly under council control.2 In the early 1880s Wellington firefighting was transformed by a reliable supply of high pressure water, reticulated through the city from the new Wainuiomata waterworks. A few months before the Lambton Quay blaze the firemen showed what their hoses could now do by sending great jets of water over the rooftop of the three-storey Athenaeum.3

Following the 1885 fire, citizens were intrigued to notice that it had covered exactly the same stretch of the Quay as a fire of 17 May 1868—on the west side, from Woodward Street south for about 100 metres—and that despite their city's striking growth between these dates,4 the buildings and businesses affected in each case were remarkably similar. In 1868 these had been a straggle of unpretentious wooden buildings of one or two storeys. They housed the South Sea Hotel, James's furniture factory, a dentist, and shops providing the very basic services of grocer, butcher, draper and saddler.5 They still looked across to the waters of the harbour, for although two years of reclamation work had created Panama, Brandon, Johnston and Waring Taylor Streets, in the hard times of the late sixties the new sections remained vacant. The hard times had also seen the burnt out buildings replaced with a similar straggle of unpretentious wooden buildings. In 1885 they still housed a hotel, a furniture warehouse, and a variety of small shops. The basics of butcher, fruiterer and dressmaker were still there, but now page 99

Lambton Quay, Wellington, 1885. The site of the fire was a little beyond the corner in the distance. The straggle of unpretentious wooden buildings on the right is similar to those burnt out

there was also a music shop, a picture frame shop, and an oyster saloon. Subdivision had given about half as many businesses again as in 1868. It seems tenants were putting up with cramped quarters to get into a strategic location. These shops now looked across to a stretch of solid, pretentious buildings, which had rapidly covered the reclaimed land in the boom of the seventies.6
In December 1885 the Woodward Street corner was occupied by the Branch Hotel. Though not on the same site, it probably continued the traditions of the earlier South Sea Hotel. Its landlord was Thomas Urwin, an old man-o’-warsman of the British navy who held the Baltic medal for service there on a frigate during the Crimean War, and a New Zealand war medal for service in Taranaki in the 1860s.7 As one of the province's most rienced hotelkeepers he had taken over the Branch Hotel n April 1885, and immediately moved to meet a resolution of the Lambton Licensing Committee in mid 1884 that it must be rebuilt.8 The licensing committee's annual meeting on 3 June 1885 gave close attention to the Branch, for it had not been rebuilt but only thoroughly renovated.9 At the hearing it may have helped Urwin that one of the five committeemen was his neighbour a little further along the Quay, plumber John Edward Hayes, and that the police page 100
Figure 9.1 Lambton Quay, Wellington, fire of 29 December 1885

Figure 9.1 Lambton Quay, Wellington, fire of 29 December 1885

page 101 evidence was given by Inspector Goodall, with whom he apparently had good relations. Both these men were to be involved along with Urwin in the 29 December blaze. Hayes, like Urwin, had moved in the rough and tumble of life, having come from Victoria as a youth to the Otago and Westland gold fields, and like Urwin his mind turned often to the harbour as he was greatly interested in rowing.10 Urwin produced favourable testimonials and handed in his boarders' register which showed a marked increase in lodgers since he had taken over. Goodall reported the police perfectly satisfied with the way the house was run. Considerable improvements had been made, and Urwin and his family lived in a cottage behind the hotel to leave more room for boarders.

Next door to the south, with its stables behind, was the Wellington Meat Co's shop, probably on the same site as, and continuing the tradition of, the butcher's shop of 1868. Next was Alexander Farmer's furniture workshop, a business apparently taken over from William James, whose furniture factory had been destroyed in the 1868 fire, and who still owned several cottages at the back of the workshop. Farmer's home and headquarters were in Cuba Street. Branching onto the Quay would have given him better access to the business of fashionable Thorndon. Several other of these businesses had had Te Aro origins and had later gained a foothold in one of these small shops near Woodward Street. George Smart's Oyster Saloon had earlier been in Manners Street.11 The Saloon had been expensively furnished, and apparently served seafood to the accompaniment of music, as a piano was lost in the fire, and a violin was the only thing saved. Thomas Myers, picture dealer and picture frame maker, had moved quite recently from Willis Street, though he had earlier been in Lambton Quay.12 William Spiller also seems to have moved north onto the Quay. His music shop was probably a development from the Academy of Music he conducted in his Boulcott Street home.13 Others in the fire were Mrs Nelson's fruit shop, Fred Radford, photographer, with rooms above Myers's shop, and George Aldous, hairdresser and tobacconist. Like Hayes, Aldous had gold rush experience, having been on the Victorian and West Coast fields.14

On the afternoon of 28 December Thomas Myers had been melting glue in the grate of the room behind his shop. He expected this little fire to have burnt itself out by 6 p.m. At 4.30 p.m. he went to tea at his house not far away on The Terrace, returning by 5 p.m. to let his son go home. He was upstairs where he kept his accounts, keeping an eye on the shop through a hole in the floor, but no customers came. At 8 p.m. he closed up, turning off gaslights in the front shop, the only ones in the building. He left the front shop without blinds, so that if there had been any fire it could have been page 102

Thomas Myers's advertisement, Wellington Almanack 1886. The ‘Special Patronage’ is a new feature of this issue, though once or twice in earlier years he had advertised ‘By Appointment’ to His Excellency

seen. At George Smart's Oyster Saloon next door the evening was the busiest part of the day. At 11.15 p.m. Smart was upstairs reading when he noticed a strong smell of burning paper. He went down and asked his shopman, William Duffy, if he had been burning paper. He had not, but a customer had recently asked him the same question. Smart looked around the premises but found no trace of fire or smoke. He went back upstairs, but on coming down for supper at 12.15 a.m. again smelt smoke. He and Duffy searched the whole place thoroughly and also peered in as many of Myers's windows as they could, but found no trace of fire. They closed shop at 12.30 a.m. and both went to bed upstairs.

On the 29th Thomas Myers got up at 6.30 a.m. and called at his shop about 7.15 a.m. As the sun was shining brightly he got the sun blinds from under the counter and put them up. He then took the newspaper from under the front door, stepped along a by now busy street to the Wellington Meat Co to buy some meat, and went home to breakfast. At about 8.10 a.m. he heard a fire alarm, and looking down from The Terrace saw flames coming through the roof covering his own shop and Smart's. He rushed down to try to save a box of picture frame materials from the room behind his front shop. He was forced back by fire in the upper part of a cupboard made of packing cases which reached from floor to ceiling on the side adjacent to Smart's. This cupboard was full of prints and picture frame ornaments. All he was able to save were pictures from the front shop.

George Aldous, Myers's neighbour to the north, lived with his wife and children above his shop. He had been out early on the 29th and returned about 7.30 a.m., noticing no indications of fire. Just after 8 a.m. he went out to call a friend who had slept at the Queen's Hotel to come to breakfast. page 103 Before he got there his man came running after him calling ‘Come back; there's a fire in the picture shop’. His evidence at the inquest continued:

We ran back, and saw smoke issuing from the building occupied by Mr Myers and Mr Smart. I could scarcely tell where the fire came from, as the span of the two shops was only about 20 feet. I ran through my house to the back yard, which used to serve for the three shops. I saw the smoke coming from Mr Myers' premises. There was no doubt about that. I tried the back door, and finding it locked I burst it in with my foot. The flames were rolling around the centre of the middle roont, which was used as a workshop, and I hought if I had a bucket or two of water I could put it out. I think I could easily have put it out with a small hose. If I had some of those hand-grenades I think I could have put it out. That was my idea at the time. I told my man to fetch some water, but by the time he arrived the flames were rolling round, and the fire was spreading very rapidly. I then saw that it was no use trying to put it out, and went out and closed the door to prevent a draught. When I got back to my house I found the place full of smoke, and my wife and family at the top of the stairs. I despatched them away in their night-dresses, and tried to save some of my clothes. I only managed to save a few trinkets.15

We have already seen (in Chapter 1) how George Smart and William Duffy, slumbering late after their long hours in the Oyster Saloon, made their last-minute escapes through the upstairs windows.

The first to notice the smoke was probably John Henry Davis, barman at the Occidental Hotel, across the Quay, almost immediately opposite to Myers's. He saw it from the bar about 7.45 a.m. and on going to the door could see that it was coming from the window above Myers's shop. He immediately rang the Manners Street fire brigade. Firemen were soon on the scene from both Manners Street and the Brandon Street station, just around the corner from the blaze. The brigade was commanded by Captain Archibald Whiteford, a builder whose home was strategically situated on Flagstaff Hill, overlooking the main business district, so that he was able to scramble down quickly on hearing the alarm. About 50 at the time, Whiteford was Edinburgh born, and had worked at building in Glasgow before emigrating to New Zealand as a young man. In the 1870s Whiteford had commanded one of the city's two volunteer brigades, and he was chosen to command the municipal brigade when it was formed in 1880.16 On 29 December 1885 he was on the scene about ten minutes after the outbreak was noticed, preceded by only two or three of his men. It should from then have been a smooth operation, with the fire confined to a much smaller area than had been possible in the May 1868 outbreak. That fire had occurred in the small hours of a Sunday morning, and with high pressure water from Wainuiomata still in the future, the brigade had had to depend on its pumping engines to page 104 get water onto the blaze. The 1885 fire had broken out at a convenient time, in daylight, and had been promptly reported. An experienced superintendent was quickly on the spot, and his men assembled rapidly. But after that nothing seemed to go right, and in any kind of comparison the honours would have to go to the defence of 1868.

Two hoses brought from the Brandon Street station were quickly attached to the hydrant in front of the Occidental Hotel, but they were carelessly run out across the street with kinks that caused them to burst as soon as the water was turned on, rendering them useless. This may well have been a result of inexperienced members of the public being allowed to help with the work. Whiteford knew that his force was under strength, and throughout the fire allowed helpers to join his team. The more useful of these were members of the old volunteer brigades who had not been taken on when the municipal brigade was formed. The 1880 reorganisation had reduced numbers from 64 to 33; a year or two later the council had made a further reduction to 26, six of whom were then allocated to the new Newtown station and not available for fires in the central city. As hoses brought from the Manners Street station were attached to replace those that had burst, Whiteford assessed the situation. A strong wind was blowing from the north-west, so there was obvious danger of fire being carried to the other side of Lambton Quay. The fire in Myers's premises was rapidly spreading to the neighbouring shops—there were five of them under the one roof, and with no subdivisions immediately under the roof, it served as a flue to carry the fire northwards. Less than fifteen minutes after Whiteford's arrival the fire skipped over Aldous's tobacconist's shop and Spiller's music depot and gained a grip on the next building to the north, Farmer's furniture warehouse. Deciding none of these buildings could be saved, Whiteford concentrated on preventing the spread of the fire up and down the Quay or across to the other side. He sent Foreman Wilson with a small contingent to restrict the spread of the fire through the back of the premises towards The Terrace, but shortly recalled them to reinforce the defence of the Quay, where things were not going well.

As Whiteford's team built up to its full, but still inadequate, strength he was able to get nine streams of water onto the blaze. But, surprisingly, they flowed at a pitifully low pressure, even though the Council's engineers, on hearing the alarm, had promptly cut off water to other parts of the city to increase pressure in the central business district. What had happened was that the alarm had set occupiers as far away as Courtenay Place on a precautionary hosing down of their tinder dry buildings. Whiteford was expecting pressure from the Lambton Quay hydrants to increase from its usual 140 pounds to 150 pounds. Instead the gauge in the municipal buildings registered only 60, and it was probably less on the Quay. With this feeble page 105 pressure jets directed into the stiff north-west breeze were reduced to spray before reaching the fire. The onlookers, lacking any understanding of Whiteford's strategy or his problems, were very free with shouted criticism and advice, and some intervened in unhelpful ways.

Earlier in the year the volunteer fire police and salvage corps would have controlled such a crowd. Businessman George Vance Shannon JP fostered and commanded this force for a number of years. When it was reformed in March 1883 he had 54 men under him. They undertook military style training in scarlet tunics and white helmets. At a fire they roped off the area to protect the firefighters from interference, and did the salvaging to prevent it falling into the hands of looters. But through lack of support the corps had disbanded shortly after the Te Aro House fire of 18 April 1885.17 Some of its former members did help with salvaging on 29 December.

With feeble resistance the fire continued to gain ground. Numerous volunteers salvaged what they could from the threatened shops, while the police under Inspector Goodall did their best to maintain order. All Spiller's pianos and organs were got out, to be drenched with the water that was blowing about. One valuable piano suffered from use as a grandstand to view the flames. Much of Farmer's stock was lost, though some furniture was got away from the front shop. Most of the Wellington Meat Co's shop contents were rescued, although the enterprising individual with the cash register apparently took off with it. At the Branch Hotel also, overzealous helpers were a problem. The bar was rushed by men who tore down bottles and decanters from the shelves and helped themselves freely to the contents. Furniture was thrown out the windows in a very reckless manner. Even with the help of Detective Inspector Browne and a couple of constables, Urwin had great difficulty in clearing and closing his bar.

Meanwhile the fire met little resistance in burning back towards The Terrace. Onlookers loudly expressed their views on the bungling activities of the small party of brigadesmen sent to this area. One of their hoses got so twisted as to be useless, they ducked from one burning building to another, failing to get enough water onto any of them to do any good. Finally they just went away. They had, of course, been recalled by their hard-pressed superintendent. Thus the storerooms behind Farmer's, the Meat Co's stables and James's four cottages were allowed to ignite and quietly burn away. Women and children scrambled from the cottages, leaving most of their household effects to the flames. Among those looking down on this havoc from The Terrace was Mrs James Tyeth Hart, wife of a senior Customs Department officer.18 As she watched, a spark ignited her dress and, fanned by the strong wind, her clothing was soon a mass of flames. Some men standing by her quickly extinguished the flames, but her dress was destroyed and she suffered slight burns. Her interest in the fire was more than mere page 106 curiosity, for she was an active philanthropist, and currently President of the es' Christian Society.

Across the Quay all the premises from the New Zealand Times office, on the corner of Waring Taylor Street, to the Central Club, on the corner of Grey Street, were closed and their occupants stood guard as the wind showered them with sparks. Several buildings were briefly on fire, including the Occidental Hotel and Dr Henry's residence beyond it, G. Thomas's store on Panama Street, and the Central Club away down on Grey Street. Wilson & Richardson's drapery, on Brandon Street, next to Kirkcaldie and Stains, probably had a shingled roof, as it was draped with wet blankets. Here a fire in packing cases in the back yard was promptly discovered and extinguished. The fire also threatened to leapfrog south, along the west side of the Quay, to Gardner and Co's ironmonger's establishment. At Gardner's, cases in the back yard ignited, and employees put out the flames with Harden's hand fire grenades, for which the firm was an agent. A lion forming a conspicuous sign above these premises also caught fire, but was extinguished before much damage was done.

The brigade finally halted the spread of the fire along the frontage of the Quay when it came up against the Branch Hotel's corrugated iron walls to the north and Hayes's Plumbing Works to the south. Hayes's place probably owed its survival to a fortunate coincidence. Two days earlier a special service pipe had been laid on to his premises so he could try out a new water engine he had built. Playing a hose attached to this pipe, employee Thomas Grey stood his ground as flames destroying Mrs Paul's shop next door licked around him. He came out of the ordeal badly scorched and with face and hands badly swollen. By 10.30 a.m. the danger was over. The fire left a stretch of smouldering ruins, punctuated here and there with tall gaunt-looking chimney stacks.

Of course this city fire caused nothing like the deprivation suffered by burnt out bush settlers. Insurance covered most losses. The claims totalled nearly £9,000.19 (To get this in perspective, most of these small shop buildings were valued at under £500.) Within a few days the Equitable Insurance Association was advertising letters from William James and Thomas Myers, both dated 7 January, expressing thanks for the prompt arrival of their cheques. Most of the burnt out shopkeepers were quickly back into business. Aldous advertised that ‘After Cremation’ old friends could see him across the road in Moeller's sample rooms, next to the Occidental Hotel, and try his cremated cigarettes and devilled cigars and tobacco. At a special meeting on 4 January the City Council declined Aldous's request for permission to erect a temporary building of wood and iron on his burnt out site. He promised to remove it in ten or twelve weeks for a brick shop to be built, but the council no longer trusted such promises. Others who page 107 advertised salvage sales were Mrs Paul, the dressmaker, who had also found premises across the Quay, and C. Ludwig & Son, whose jeweller's shop adjoining Hayes to the south had survived unscathed, but whose stock had probably suffered through being emptied onto the street. William Spiller advertised that until he found suitable premises he was operating from his Boulcott Street Academy of Music. Alexander Farmer was operating from St George's Hall, on the corner of Lambton Quay and Stout Street. No doubt kin and charity coped reasonably adequately with the needs of those who lost their homes, There must have been over twenty of these made up of those living in James's cottages and those living above their shops.

While Wellington's press and public had no concern about relief they had much to say about the fire brigade's performance. The Evening Post's initial report on the fire commented on the brigade's lack of direction and discipline. Brigadesmen were ‘running about spurting water in all directions’ and there was ‘manifest bungling’. The initial editorial comment noted the insufficient strength of the brigade, the poor condition of its hoses, and the water pressure problems. But even so, the fire could have been confined to a much smaller area had there not been ‘great want of judgment’ in directing the brigade's efforts. The following day in ‘Additional Particulars’ on the fire the Post had a further point of criticism of Whiteford:

It is still a matter of very general surprise that the water supply should have been so ineffective but when it is mentioned as a fact that the whole of the water used for extinguishing the flames was taken from a 6-inch and an 8-inch pipe on Lambton Quay, instead of the 21-inch main in Featherston Street, wonder will cease. The mistake made by Captain Whiteford was in supposing that as the water all came from the main source, it was a matter of indifference what main it was taken from. How he could labour under such a delusion it is difficult to imagine … We are informed that there was plenty of spare hose, and that there would not have been the slightest difficulty in putting in several lengths to the 21-inch main.20

In a longer and more considered editorial the Post commented that it was ‘scarcely possible to rightly estimate the magnitude of the danger which the city so narrowly escaped’. Most of the city's business centre might well have been swept away. The city council must have the brigade at sufficient strength to meet such emergencies, since the insurance companies had opted out of any responsibility in the matter. But the main criticism was directed at Whiteford.

Superintendent Whiteford is full of courage and of energy, but he is not a good general. He lacks the coolness, the judgment and the tactical skill necessary to enable him to direct his force how best to cope with the page 108 powerful and wily elemental foe…. Yesterday Superintendent Whiteford and his men were out-flanked and out-manoeuvered on all sides …21

The Evening Press reported on the fire in much the same terms. Its editorial comment, however, showed rather more sympathy for the brigade's predicament. The Press considered it ‘simply disgraceful’ that the whole of central Wellington had to be defended with a brigade of 16 men and 3 officers. It judged that the firemen ‘worked perseveringly—and in many cases courageously’, though some were ‘certainly neither efficient nor steady’. It commended Whiteford for concentrating his meagre forces on the street front of the Quay despite the loud and angry comments about the back premises being left to burn undefended. But overall it considered that his leadership had been deficient:

… we must admit there seemed a great want of ability to grasp the situation displayed at the first outbreak. There did not seem to be any plan of operations at all, but men ran hither and thither instead of being at once posted where they could do the most good.22

Onlookers wrote to the papers making further specific suggestions and were very free with their complaints. ‘Joe Absolon’ (Evening Post, 31 December) averred that ‘greater mismanagement by the Fire Brigade I never witnessed…. It was very conspicuous that Captain Whiteford had no control whatever over his men …’ He had heard one bystander remark that the brigade men were paid two shillings per hour and so were in no hurry to finish the job. Both ‘Joe Absolon’ and ‘Argus No. I’ wanted to know why hand grenades had not been used. Hand grenades, which worked on the same principles as the modern fire extinguisher, were an innovation which had recently been impressively demonstrated on the reclamation. ‘Pro Bono Publico’ got his letter into the Evening Press on the day of the fire. He had been ‘very much amused but not altogether surprised at the playful antics of our local firemen this morning’:

… three of them kept themselves engaged in watering the front boards of a building for fully half an hour, the back premises enjoying a quiet ‘burn’ meanwhile. While watching these individuals, someone brought along a ladder, and having placed it against a house went quietly away. Bye and bye another made his appearance with a ladder and imitated his predecessor. Last but not least amusing came some others with a hose and standing at the foot of the ladder played away merrily. This was one phase of the fire. Another was that a ladder was left till the ends were burnt off.23

When reasonable suggestions were made to some of these men they replied ‘in terms more forcible than polite’.

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Fortunately for the brigadesmen they had some defenders. ‘Old Shell’ (Evening Post, 12 January) expressed himself as grieved by the intemperance of ‘Joe Absolon's' comments about the 2s an hour.

… from my own past experience, I know that there is not one man in the brigade that would not just as soon be a volunteer fireman as a paid one, as with volunteers there is no bind, and you can often forget to hear the bell; but with a paid brigade every man is fined 45 per hour for every hour that the fire burns when he is absent, and he is also fined £1 125 if he misses a practice. … what little there is to be made out of the brigade every member would gladly sacrifice for the purpose of being a volunteer fireman, and trust to the generosity of the good, kind public for donations, which, in volunteer times, came in very freely.

As for the firemen's reputed rebuffs and insolence, ‘Old Shell’ wanted the fire police and salvage corps reactivated to protect the firefighters ‘from the appeals and interference of a half-mad, greatly excited, multitude of people’. ‘Old Shell’ proceeded to give an example of one of the many cases of insult and interference that the brigade were subjected to.

The flood of public criticism led the mayor to write to Whiteford on 5 January for a report on the fire, asking him to respond in particular to the newspaper charges of incompetence, to an assertion that he had refused the use of Messrs J.E. Nathan and Co's chemical fire engine, and to allegations that some brigade members had behaved rudely to some of the public assisting at the fire. Whiteford's reply, dated 11 January, was read at the council meeting of 15 January, and printed in full in the Evening Post of 16 January. He gave a lucid account of the problems his brigade had faced, and explained with careful factual information that much of the criticism was based on ignorance or misinformation. He described how the lack of any fireproof party walls made the whole block of buildings into a fire trap. He explained how the public themselves had thwarted his men by robbing them of water pressure. He carefully explained that the size of the main from which the water was drawn made no difference to its pressure. Had he drawn water through hoses from the 21-inch main in Featherston Street, the greater friction of the water passing through the canvas hoses would in fact have given him less pressure than he had got in drawing on the same water through the existing underground pipes. Regarding Nathan's chemical fire engine, Whiteford reported that this had been left with Nathan's by a travelling agent. Whiteford had had a connection made so that it could be connected to the brigade's fire hose, and was awaiting permission from the agent's principals to test their maching. When offered the machine at the fire scene he had refused it, considering it unwise to bring in untried equipment of which his brigade had had no experience. He was unaware of any rudeness offered page 110 to the public, and in any case considered that in such an occasion of excitement and confusion some latitude should be allowed on both sides. His letter also made the obvious case for more men and better equipment, especially hoses.

Whiteford's restrained and reasoned reply failed to save his captaincy. Early in May three prominent citizens, J.E. Evans, A. McDonald and Alexander McLeod, waited on the council with a memorial asking that Whiteford be retained. The memorial pointed out that even in London fires occasionally baffled the firefighters, and reminded the council of the many Wellington fires that had been nipped in the bud by Whiteford's skill, energy and promptitude. The memorialists' chief spokesman was Evans, a former brigade member. He pointed out that for 15 out of 19 years Whiteford had been an unpaid volunteer, and latterly had only had a small salary. It seemed hard that an old servant should be thrown aside and an increased salary offered to a new one.24

Whiteford's fate was doubtless decided by the Public Works Committee's advocacy of a very well-qualified younger man with prestigious backers. He was R.A. Page, an engineer with the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Co. Page had had wide fire brigade experience in London before coming to Wellington as a tramway engineer. He brought a special recommendationa from the celebrated Captain Shaw of London, addressed to Governor Fergusson. During the 1870 siege of Paris Page had been selected by Shaw to take charge of all fire engines in the French capital. Page took up duties as Wellington's new fire brigade captain on 1 June 1886.25

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