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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

From Bucket-chain to Mobile Engines

From Bucket-chain to Mobile Engines

Success in quelling a fire in Gisborne in the early days depended solely upon its discovery in its incipient stages and upon a supply of tank or well water proving handy. Ladders, buckets, axes and crowbars were then the only firefighting appliances. A by-law passed in 1877 required a tank to be installed at every shop and home in the business area.

The first serious conflagration occurred on 2 November, 1877, when sparks from a burning cottage at the corner of Read's Quay and Lowe Street were carried by a gale on to the shingle roof of the Masonic Hotel. The building might have been saved if an old man named “Tinker” Dawson had not lost his nerve when he was half-way up the only long ladder on the spot. Not until he had been assisted to descend could buckets of water be taken up, and, by then, the fire had got out of hand. Several other premises, including the Standard office, were also destroyed.

Steps were at once taken to improve the fire-fighting appliances. A number of large tanks (filled with river water) were placed in the business area. Two manuals and 1,000 feet of hose came to hand in March, 1878. A volunteer brigade, with the mayor (W. F. Crawford) at its head, was formed during the following month. Tests showed that the plant was capable of throwing water from the river on to the roof of the Albion Hotel.

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A conflagration in the Albion Hotel block on 11 February, 1879, caused damage estimated at between £20,000 and £25,000. It destroyed the premises of: M. G. Nasmith (jeweller), W. T. Best (draper), W. Good (jeweller), T. Adams (stationer), Bank of New Zealand, W. Adair (merchant), Bradley's Stables, the Albion Hotel and a cottage. Captain Winter was then in charge of the brigade, but, with its inadequate equipment, the chances of coping with the outbreak were hopeless from the outset.

Whilst the residents were at church on 5 February, 1882, Early Gisborne's most spectacular outbreak occurred among heavy consignments of merchandise, spirits, etc., stored in the basement of J. W. Carr's bondstore near the corner of Gladstone Road and Customhouse Street. Quickly, Graham, Pitt and Bennett's premises were also enveloped, and the fire then swept along the block, destroying, in turn, the Union Bank and the Argyll (Coronation) Hotel. The reflection could be seen 16 miles out to sea. Ignited spirits found their way from the bondstore through a drain into the Turanganui River. For three days the ruins continued to smoulder.

In March, 1882, a steam pumping engine (which had been an exhibit at the Sydney Exhibition) was purchased by public subscription, the cost (£750) being raised in a single day. The borough took over all the equipment from the brigade trustees in February, 1883, and a new brigade—the Gisborne Volunteer Fire Brigade—was formed in August. When a fire broke out next door to the British Empire Hotel in September, 1886, the manuals were hurried to the scene, and it was considered smart work on the part of the brigade (which was then under J. Townley) that it was able, with the aid of the steam pump, to play additional water on the fire within ten minutes.

During a very serious outbreak of fire in the Albion Hotel block on 7 March, 1887, the steam pump was taken to the riverbank near the site of the rotunda. This fire, which started in the Albion Stables, also destroyed the new Albion Hotel and the premises of M. G. Nasmith (jeweller), R. Thelwall (butcher), N.Z. Loan and Mercantile Co. Ltd., and W. Good (jeweller). The damage was estimated at £30,000. In the evening there was an outbreak on the eastern side of Lowe Street, between Gladstone Road and Childers Road. Stevenson's Stables were destroyed, and also the premises of A. Cooper (bootmaker). Several small buildings were dragged away to form a fire-break.

An underground main from the fire station, via Peel Street, to Gladstone Road, was laid in 1890. One branch was taken to the Customhouse Street corner and another nearly to Grey Street. It was supplied by the steam pumping plant, which stood above a well close to the Taruheru River.

There was an extensive fire in the block opposite the Herald Office on 24 May, 1894, the sufferers being: G. How Chow (restaurant), J. Erskine (baker), Garrett (boot shop), Mrs. Menzies (boardinghouse), and Mrs. Ledger (draper). On 16 May, 1897, a big blaze at the corner of Gladstone Road and Customhouse Street gutted Williams and Kettle's premises, the Bank of New South Wales (which stood on the corner) and Pettie's drapery shop. The Herald premises suffered by fire in 1900, and the main section of the Gisborne Central School was destroyed in 1904.

Destructive fires in Gisborne in more recent years have been as follows: Gisborne Club, Lowe Street (15 October, 1910); Common, Shelton and Co.'s offices, Peel Street (27 November, 1913); T. Adams, Gladstone Road (24 January, 1915); Grundy and Shennan's premises, Gladstone Road (17 December, 1915); Dominion Private Hotel, Wainui Road (25 January, 1918); Skeet's timber mill, Gladstone Road (24 March, 1918); His page 422 Majesty's Theatre, Customhouse Street (25 July, 1921); Arcadia boarding-house, Ormond Road (19 June, 1924); H.B. Motor Co., Lowe Street (23 February, 1927); Cave's timber yard, Gladstone Road (22 January, 1928); Garrison Hall, Fitzherbert Street (20 January, 1931); and eastern section of Coronation Buildings, Gladstone Road (30 July, 1932).