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

Gisborne Fire Board

Gisborne Fire Board

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).


When a fire broke out in Teat and Friar's building in 1908 the water supply from Te Arai (which was being tested) registered a pressure of 140lbs. at the fire station, but, before the brigade reached the scene of the blaze, the water had been turned off. In the absence of male helpers some women operated the levers of the manual to draw water from a tank until the Te Arai supply was turned on again.

The steam plant was used for the last time on the occasion of a fire in Hallam's shop in Hall's Block in March, 1910. A heavy flood had broken the Te Arai main. On account of the rose of the suction pipe which fed the well being partly choked with debris the two street hydrants could be used only alternately.

For many years His Majesty's Theatre, which stood in Customhouse Street, was Gisborne's principal place of entertainment. It replaced the Academy of Music, and was built, in 1900, at a cost of £5,000, by the trustees in the estate of Peter McFarlane. There was a dress circle, and the building had seating for 1,000.

The Garrison Hall (built in 1909 at a cost of £4,000) stood in Fitzherbert Street on the site now occupied by the Army Hall. The site was bought by the trustees of the old Volunteer Hall property in Customhouse Street in 1907 for £1,200, and the Government assisted to finance the cost of the new hall by buying the old hall and site for £1,100 and making a grant of £2,900. The trustees raised a private mortgage of £1,500. The roof was supported by wooden arches and there was a clear floor space, at the outset, of 144 feet by 132 feet. The Army Hall, which cost £13,000, was opened on 1 October, 1942.

Among the large number of country and Coast hotels which were destroyed by fire the largest was the Te Karaka Hotel, of 55 rooms (1913). Two of the three hotels at Tolaga Bay which preceded the Inn comprised over 40 rooms. Both the Native church at Manutuke and the first St. Luke's at Waerenga-a-Hika were burned down in 1910. The Tokomaru Bay freezing works had a narrow escape in August, 1913, and, during that year, the Tolaga Bay Town Hall was destroyed. Whilst moving pictures were being shown at His Majesty's Theatre at Te Karaka on 6 July, 1918, a destructive fire broke out and the 250 patrons left in haste. The Waiapu Farmers' Company's extensive premises at Tikitiki were burnt in May, 1918.

The Gisborne Fire Board held its first meeting on 13 July, 1908. J. Townley was the first chairman. The present up-to-date fire station was built in 1938, replacing one that had been erected on the same site in 1915. In 1948 B. S. Bree was chosen as chairman for his twenty-first term.

The Gisborne Fire Brigade (1949) is composed of a superintendent, two foremen and 23 firemen (including two permanent hands), and its equipment includes four mobile engines, three mobile pumps, and two stationary pumps.

Stars for 25 years' service have been won as under: J. Townley, 1883–1913; T. Morrison, 1883–1933; W. Fraser, 1886–1916; G. T. Wildish, 1886–1916; A. Thomson, 1889–1939; J. J. McLachlan, 1897–1922; W. Wildish, 1905–1938; S. Ledger, 1906–1931; T. J. Donovan, 1906–1941; J. W. Kane,* 1908–; D. L. Ferguson,* 1908–; J. P. Weston,* 1909–; S. Wildish, 1914–1941; W. H. Griffin,* 1914–; A. E. Drummond,* 1916–; E. McKenzie, 1914–47.

Superintendents: W. F. Crawford, 1877-April, 1878; Bedford Sherriff, April, 1878-December, 1878; G. J. Winter, 1878–85; J. Townley, 1885–1913; J. Thomson, 1913–19; J. W. Kane, 1919– (in April, 1949, Mr. Kane was appointed full-time superintendent). Secretaries: T. Faram, W. Fraser, C. Nield, G. Lapidge, D. Ferguson (39 years), P. McMahon and D. Brown.

Thirty-one brigades attended the United Fire Brigades' demonstrations held at Gisborne in February, 1946, and 299 teams competed for prize money aggregating £250.

* Still serving in 1948.