Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Helpful Arsonists

There had been at least two earlier small blazes that September in 1922 – but the one which might have claimed the old 1880s original wooden Primary School building was a shock and cause for great alarm to the residents of Avondale. The blaze began in the basement of the building, started in a pile of flammable material placed under the flooring, but fortunately spotted by passers-by around 8 pm. “It was only the prompt turn-out by the recently formed Avondale Fire Brigade,” the Auckland Star declared, “that saved the building from being enveloped in flames… the save by the volunteer firemen was a creditable one indeed.”

How red the faces must have been then, when the truth came out just six months later. Three men appeared before the Auckland Police Court on 29 March 1923, charged with setting three fires in central Avondale, including the one at the primary school. Leslie Watson aged 18, Livingstone McNair aged 23 and William Braithwaite aged 21 were all members of the Avondale Volunteer Fire Brigade.

The Brigade had been formed in July 1922 soon after the Avondale Borough Council came into being. Right from the start, however, some of the residents felt that the brigade was unnecessary, possibly an extra municipal extravagance. Watson, McNair and Braithwaite decided to prove the doubters wrong – by lighting fires to show that there was indeed a need for the brigade.

On 4 September 1922, the young men set fire to a patch of gorse at the corner of Elm Street and Rosebank Road, then dutifully rang the firebell, and got the reel out to extinguish the fire. Encouraged by how well this worked, they moved on a few days later to the decision to start a fire in a shed at the Methodist Church in Rosebank Road (today the site of the Nafanua Hall). This wasn’t so successful – some papers were set alight, but the flames apparently went out. The three men waited some time, but no fire alarm call was given.

Then, after brigade practice on September 20, they decided to set fire to the school. A paint tin and wood were obtained from Watson’s house, along with some paper from Braithwaite’s. Watson went under the school through a manhole, built the fire, and applied the match. Then, all three went home. Watson, the Herald reported, “was at his home getting undressed when he heard the alarm, and he immediately ran back and helped other members of the brigade to put out the fire.”

Watson was the one held to be the ringleader of the three. The charges against Braithwaite were later dropped due to lack of evidence beyond the word of Watson and McNair. McNair was put on probation for two years and ordered to find a £100 surety for his good behaviour, after testimonies from Avondale residents as to his good character were presented to the court. Watson was already serving time at Mt Eden Prison for another offence, and pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing £8 9s 6d collected on a bus while he was a conductor. For the arsons he received three years detention for “reformative treatment”.

Hardly an auspicious time for the brigade.

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