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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 6, 2008

APPENDIX: A fire in 1859? No evidence so far

APPENDIX: A fire in 1859? No evidence so far

Collingwood has been fortunate in the high level of interest in and documentation of its history, particularly that of the post-1841 (New Zealand Company Nelson Settlement) period. This is probably partly because of the high-profile reason (the 1857 gold rush) for its development as a significant early centre of European population, partly because it had its own newspaper for a long period, and partly because the economic base of the surrounding area has adapted, survived and strengthened in various directions.

The first port of call for information relating to pre-1913 Collingwood is J. N. W. Newport's Collingwood (1971) which states (p. 41):

In 1859 the first town (actually Gibbstown) was practically wiped out by a disastrous fire, the first in a series which the town has experienced. On this occasion all the stores and hotels were burned. […] One store was soon rebuilt and two hotels were soon back in business.

Not surprisingly this statement, lacking details of a specific date, has been repeated as fact in many subsequent historical publications and was the starting point for my own search for its evidential basis.

The earliest published mention I have found is twelve years earlier, in the school centennial publication compiled by headmaster K. S. Haycock, Collingwood School and District High School … 1859–1959 (p. 13):

In the same year [1859] came the first of the series of disastrous fires that have been a feature of Collingwood's history. In this fire all the page 38stores and hotels were burned, but two hotels and Riley and Co.'s store were rebuilt.

A clue to the origins of the statements in these two works is found in the foreword to the school centennial history (p. [1]): 'We are especially indebted to Mr W. Munro, Headmaster in 1952, for the research he carried out in recording facts and figures'. The research is assumed to be that recorded in an 18-page typescript attributed to Munro, The Story of Collingwood'.3 Page [3] of that text (which has no references or source citations) states:

In the following year [1859] came the first of the series of disastrous fires that were to be a feature of Collingwood's history. In this case all the stores and hotels were burned, two hotels and Riley and Co.'s store being rebuilt.

My hypothesis is that this 1952 material—the earliest reference found—fed into the school centennial booklet (1959), and from that publication (an acknowledged source) into Newport's Collingwood (1971). The perceived authoritative status of Newport's work means that information it contains is accepted as infallible, and the story of the 1859 fire has continued to be promulgated without questioning the lack of a specific date or other details.

No evidence for this fire has so far surfaced, though I have searched many likely sources over the past eighteen months: the Nelson Examiner (for 1857–1860), the Colonist (for 1859), almanacs, Nelson Provincial Council papers, contemporary and other manuscripts at Nelson Provincial Museum and the Alexander Tumbull Library, theses, books, and newspaper articles. Perhaps most persuasively, there is also no reference to such an event in otherwise highly probable archival primary sources, the December 1859 reports from two government officials based in Collingwood, David Johnston (Sub-collector of Customs) and James Mackay (Resident Magistrate).4

It is, of course, difficult to prove categorically that something has not occurred. However, there is a very substantial accumulation of pre-1952 evidence, primary and secondary, none of which refers to a fire in Collingwood in 1859. In contrast, Munro's is a sole voice, without substantiating references, that has been absorbed into our recent (i.e. since 1959) published history.

My research-based conclusion is that there is no evidence at all to support statements that a disastrous (or even significant) fire occurred in Collingwood in 1859. I firmly believe that future writers should explain it as unsubstantiated, in an effort to correct misinformation which has circulated for the last fifty years.