Sunday, May 5, 2013

The first Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigades


Not Auckland, but the Port Chalmers Fire Brigade, c.1880s. The equipment would have been similar to that used by Auckland's early brigades. Alexander Turnbull Library,  1/1-002569-G.


The 1974 centenary booklet for the Auckland Fire Brigade records the history of early organised fire fighting in Auckland as being pre-1865 the task of militia and insurance companies, followed by Asher Asher’s Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade in 1865, then Auckland City Council’s Municipal Fire Brigade from 1874. As happens with Auckland’s history, however, things aren’t quite so cut and dried.

The main character of the story has to be Asher Asher, most certainly. Born c.1822, at the age of 21 he arrived in New Zealand aged 21. He was initially involved with the coasting trade on the Hauraki Gulf, according to his obituary, and married Miss Keesing in 1845. Along with Charles Davis, Henry Keesing and David Nathan, he served on the original Auckland Harbour Board. In April 1851 he applied for a licence for the Commercial Inn on Shortland Street. In that endeavour, he was unsuccessful, but by 1853, he operated another business in Shortland Street, as a dealer.

His part of the story of Auckland’s fire-fighting history appears to begin in 1854, when he was advertising “a quantity of portable fire escape ladders and leather buckets” for sale from his store. It may be more than a coincidence then that the “City Council” (early ancestor of the later City Council of 1871) at that point passed a by law in July 1854, instituting a special fire rate on houses in its area, and a “City Fire Brigade”, “formed from such able bodied men who shall enrol themselves as volunteers by causing their names to be entered in a book to be kept for that purpose by the Clerk of the City Council, and such brigade shall be properly and efficiently equipped at the expense of the funds to be collected and received by virtue of this by law. The persons whose names shall be so enrolled shall from time to time as they shall think fit make rules and regulations for the command, training, exercise, discipline and service of such Fire Brigade.” (Southern Cross, 11 July 1854) But, this brigade didn’t form as planned.

There was another attempt in 1855, with a call for subscriptions to buy a fire engine, to form a brigade around that. (Southern Cross 13 March 1855) Later that month, an Auckland Fire Brigade were reportedly practicing running their No. 2 engine along Queen Street. (Southern Cross 23 March 1855) This early and first volunteer fire brigade seems to have continued, at least in terms of membership and meetings, intermittently during the next two years.

By 1857, a fire brigade existed in Auckland as at March 1857, somewhat along the lines of a branch of the local militia. A writer to the newspapers at the time referred to three engines, one private, two military. Most of the available men in the brigade were also on the militia call-up lists, and could be called to militia duty at any time, which didn’t do a lot for maintaining enough manpower to fight the fires if worst came to worst. (Southern Cross 10 March 1857) At this point, the Volunteer Fire Brigade was chaired by Jerome Cadman (who was also a member of the Provincial Council).

Our readers will perceive by the accompanying, letters, that this enterprising body is to be recognised by the General Government, as a" Fire Detachment" of the New Zealand Militia. It will be seen by referring to our advertising columns that a meeting is to be held on Thursday next, at the Odd Fellows' Hall, for the purpose of enrolling an additional number of members. The Brigade, as we are informed, will consist of one hundred members, and we sincerely hope that our fellow townsmen will heartily respond to the call which is now made on them.

Auckland, 25th August, 1857. Sir, I am instructed by the officers of the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade to inform you that it is their intention to reorganise the brigade, which in future will consist of one hundred members. I have the honour therefore to enquire whether, in the event of the Militia being called out for active service, it will seem desirable to you to make arrangements that those members of the brigade, who may be enrolled in the Militia, should be reserved for City duty only as otherwise, in the event of any disturbances, the whole town would be left without any protection from fire. I have the honour to remain, Sir, yours obediently, Sydney H. Cornish, Hon. Secretary.

H. C. Belneavis, Esq., Adjutant, New Zealand Militia. 

 (Southern Cross 11 September 1857)

Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade. A GENERAL MEETING will be held at the ODD FELLOWS' HALL, on Tuesday evening, the 14th instant, at eight o'clock, where the members and all persons interested in the proceedings of the Brigade are earnestly requested to attend. All members not attending will be considered as no longer belonging to the Brigade. Sidney H. Cornish, Hon. Sec. 

(Southern Cross 7 April 1857)

It is at this point that Asher Asher steps in, if only for a while. The minutes of the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, from 1857 (held at Sir George Grey Special Collections) record that at a meeting held on 23 October 1857 the Auckland Provincial Council delivered the following to Asher for the Fire Brigade:

“The Engine with 1 pair shafts, 1 manhandle, 1 pole & 1 pair swingletrees, drag ropes & cistern, 1 hose truck & dray, ropes and handles with 10 lengths of hose … 2 suction pipes … 1 long & 1 short brand pipe spreader, 1 crowbar, 1 pickaxe, 1 spade … 1 fire hook, 7 lengths of hose, 13 buckets, 1 screw wrench, 5 hose wrenches, 2 brushes, 11 length spare hose, 1 spare force pipe.” 

Asher was appointed as Superintendent of this volunteer brigade on 13 October 1857, given charge over Engine # 2 (Capt. James Derrom) and Engine # 3 (Capt. Keesing jnr.). Engine #1 was still separately captained by Cadman, who answered directly to the Provincial Council rather than to an appointed Superintendent. So Asher’s set-up though was equipped by the Provincial Council, even if it possibly was militia-like in practice.

A fire-bell was in place by at least the following month – Cornish, though, wrote to Bishop Pompallier 14 November asking if the bell at the Catholic Church could be rung “on the alarm of fire” as there had been complaints from Hobson St residents that they couldn’t hear that bell already erected in the vicinity.

In October 1857, the Liverpool & London Fire and Life Insurance Company began setting up their own brigade with their own engine. There are references in the newspapers after this point of four engine crews operating in early Auckland at any one time, and this is probably why.

The Fire Brigade.— The Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade, under the direction of Mr Asher, turned out on Tuesday morning, at 5 o'clock, with the view of ascertaining by experiment how far water could be conveyed with effect for the purpose of extinguishing any fire that might occur in the vicinity of the Customhouse tank. The practice was very good, and served to show that the greater part of Shortland Crescent could be effectively served by the engines, as well as High Street as far back as the Mechanics' Institute. 

(Southern Cross 20 November 1857)

In January 1858, the brigade sought permission from the Colonial Secretary to erect an engine shed “beside Market House” in Shortland Street. Shortland Street and adjacent Fort Street became the centre of the volunteer fire brigade’s story, and the first fire stations were likely there. A fire bell belonging to the Imperial Insurance Company was erected “near Market house” in November 1858, while an older one was shifted to a point near St Matthews Church.

The volunteer fire brigades in Auckland were heavily reliant on support from local authorities in terms of tools, equipment, uniforms, buildings and some disbursements. The Provincial Council contributed £50 towards the cost of the new engine shed. Asher’s brigade asked the Council for £200 per annum to operate, which was agreed to in July 1858. When uniforms were badly damaged during the course of a fire in that month, the brigade voted to asked the insurance companies to fund replacement clothing. Earlier, the brigade passed a resolution in February 1858 that the insurance companies should fund the salary of an “Engine Keeper”, as well as fund uniforms. But on the other side of the coin they did not appreciate the bureaucratic and political calls for accountability for such payments and donations. Also, as Auckland went through boom and bust cycles in the 1850s and 1860s, when support dried up, so did the brigades. In December 1858, the brigade voted to disband, citing “the discouragements which the members of the Brigade consider have been thrown in the way of the Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade by the Provincial Government…” (Southern Cross 3 December 1858) This wouldn’t be the first time, in the patchy career of the early volunteer brigades, that there would be dissatisfaction with local government.

An attempt was made to reform the brigade, still under Asher, in March 1859. Grandly, at a meeting held on 9 March that year, plans were discussed to form a brigade of 145 men, Engine #1 to have 45, Engine #2 to have 30, Engine # 3 to have 25 and Engine #4 to have 45 (was this the insurance company engine?) An Inspector was to be appointed by the Provincial Council, but the Superintendent (Asher), Secretary, Captains, Foremen and assistant-Foremen were to be elected by the Brigade. This plan came to grief, it seems, when James Derrom broke away to form a “Northern Volunteer Fire Brigade” in May that year, and wrote a letter to the Inspector of Police just before 10 May refusing to acknowledge Asher’s new rules for the brigade or even to acknowledge Asher “as connected to the Northern Company”. Derrom’s brigade doesn’t appear to have gone any further either. According to Asher’s obituary, at that point he decided to join the volunteer militia.

Efforts were made to start a new brigade in May 1859. However, it wasn’t until a meeting was organised in October 1860 to decide how to dispose of the subscribed funds gathered for a brigade that there were positive movements toward revival. William C Daldy was supervisor of another prospective fire brigade by November 1860. This was a brigade with Engine No. 3, based in Shortland Street by the following year. Jerome Cadman appears again as captain of the No. 1 brigade using the Provincial Engine by May 1861, and for while the volunteer brigade struggled on, receiving a small sum from the Provincial Council for operating Engine #1, with the insurance companies sharing in the expenses of the other engines (“small pittances”, according to Keesing at the brigade’s November meeting). In October 1862, Cadman resigned and the Commissioner of Police placed Engine #1 with the volunteer brigade, so the brigade continued to receive Provincial Council funding. But the numbers of those in the brigade were small. Daldy described the brigade as at November 1862 as “not fit to turn out – they could not muster men to man the engines in case of fire. It might be sad there were plenty willing hands when a fire occurs, but they want men with knowledge to get the engines into action … He [Daldy] did not like the thing to be a sham …” (Southern Cross, 14 November 1862) But, the brigade by then was in debt, owing wages in arrears to the engine-keeper.


Fort Street, Auckland, c1865. To the right of the image, just behind the right-hand cart, the firebell can be seen -- and possibly the Engine House for No. 1 engine for the brigade at that time. Ref  4-401, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.


The first real step toward municipal government in Auckland City was the formation of the City Board from July 1862 under the Town Boards Act. The new Board couldn’t assist the ailing fire brigade with funding in December 1862 though, unable to do so under the existing Act. By January, only one insurance company, New Zealand Insurance, made any offer of support (100 guineas). Daldy also came under sharp criticism from the New Zealander newspaper for “snubbing his men”, relaxing “discipline below the proper mark”, and that he “suddenly pulls offenders up with a stretch of authority verging on petty tyranny.” The newspaper therefore blamed any lack of morale or volunteer manpower firmly on Daldy’s shoulders (via Southern Cross, 27 January 1863). The brigade folded. By May 1863, only one engine, No. 1, was still in operation, manned then by the Liverpool & London and New Zealand Insurance Companies, so yet again an effective volunteer fire brigade no longer existed in the city.

There was some movement the following month towards resolving the situation when the City Board resolved to erect fire bells at the corner of Wakefield and Symonds Streets, and the junction of Hobson and Pitt Streets. In July, the Board to “organise a fire brigade, to consist of fifty men, to work the fire engines,” hopefully to have these men relieved from militia duty.  In August 1863 the Board referred matters regarding membership of a brigade to their Fire Brigade Committee. There was still no brigade as such. 13 August 1863, the City Board met to settle a resolution toward forming a brigade. The brigade was to be formed from a list of those exempted from militia service. It was decided to liaise with the insurance companies with the view to forming a brigade. There was a hold-up, though, in obtaining a list of names of those seeking for exemption from militia service from the War Minister.

James Gilberd was appointed as Superintendent of the Fire Brigade on 17 December 1863, and by early 1864 the City Board were certainly paying for a brigade out of their budget. However, in early February the Government decided that those serving on the brigade could not be exempt from militia duty; the City Board reacted by resigning from any responsibility for fire emergencies. However, Gilberd, in August 1864, wrote to the Board to report that, come what may, he and twenty-five other men had endeavoured to maintain a volunteer fire brigade. The City Board agreed to pay them what they requested. By September, the Southern Cross reported on one of their usual monthly practices. No. 1 Engine, controlled by the City Board, was stationed at the Customhouse yard (Shortland Street). The London & Liverpool Insurance Company called for tenders in October 1864 for the supply of uniforms for the brigade.

On 16 December 1864, however, Gilberd died from pleurisy, aged only 37. On 21 December, Robert Bartley was elected as Superintendent by the brigade. Then, history repeated itself. At the Shortland Street engine house, the brigade members resigned on 15 February 1865, citing "That in consequence, of the repeated interference of certain members of the City Board, and also the constant abuse to which the men of the brigade are subjected at fires, the members of the brigade hereby resign as a body at the same time expressing their sense of the courteous treatment they have always received from the different insurance agents." They voted to maintain a service until other arrangements were made. Bartley resigned the next day. A member of the City Board, Mr. Macready (who had been critical of the Gilberd-Bartley brigade during the latest fire at Shortland Street) suggested at a Board meeting afterward that the Board request Asher to take charge of the engines.

A letter was also read from Mr A. Asher, submitting conditions with respect to a fire brigade, of which the following is a copy
1. I undertake to furnish the city with a competent fire brigade, consisting of not less than 50 men
2. That the firemen shall be paid 3s 6d per hour at practice, and at fires men of the brigade shall be paid 2s 3d per hour for the first three hours and afterwards 2s per hour .
3.That a suitable uniform shall be provided for the brigade.
4 That a fit and proper person must be kept at the enginehouse to keep and clean all connected with the engine, &c.
5 I deem it requisite to have not less than three men (firemen) stationed each night at the engine house 6 That all engines and appliances pertaining to them shall be under the control of the of the brigade
7 That no member of the City Board or agents of the insurance companies shall interfere or obstruct in any way the men belonging to the Brigade.
8. That any member of the City Board, or agents of the insurance companies, who should wish to make a suggestion during the progress of a fire, such suggestion shall be made to the Superintendent and to no other person in the Brigade unless under unavoidable circumstances.
9 That the Superintendent shall be empowered to employ at the expense of the authorities all labour requisite at a fire.
10 That the Brigade must turn out twice a month for practice.
Mr Asher Asher also called attention to the present state of the engine house, in Shortland street, which he stated was much out of order. 

(Southern Cross 1 March 1865)

The insurance companies immediately expressed their support. The new brigade held their first practice later that month. The minutes book held at Auckland Library takes up again after the break from May 1859, recording the matters at a meeting on 1 May 1865 at the Shortland Street engine house where Asher, as Superintendent, was the chairman. It was noted that practices had been held, Asher was in communication with the City Board, and he had undertaken to reorganise the Brigade: 14 men for Engine No. 1 (Captain William Hart), 7 at #2 (Edward Lewis), 7 at #3 (John Butler), and the Northern Insurance engine, 12 men under John Williams. As at July 1865, there was still uncertainty, however. Now, the proposal for a volunteer brigade was raised again, with a reduction in men, all referred by the Board back to committee. Only one insurer offered to back Asher’s new brigade. As at February 1866, there was still no active fire brigade. The insurance companies advised the City Board they weren’t interested in any proposals re setting up a brigade. 

But on 15 March 1866, at Henry Isaac’s store on Fort Street (now part of the Imperial Hotel buildings), a meeting of the brigade was held. It was reported that Major Michael Tighe of the Auckland Rifle Volunteers had communicated with Asher regarding the formation of the brigade, saying a volunteer fire brigade was important, especially in light of recent fires in the city, and would be exempt from militia duty. Asher reported that 40 had already signed up as volunteers, and those at the meeting formally voted him as the brigade’s Superintendent. New rules were drawn up by 3 May, and the City Board transferred Engine #1 to the brigade, but retained overall responsibility for it. By 16 May that year, an engine house had been set up in Queen Street. (Southern Cross, advertisement)

In that year, an engine-house at Fort Street is referred to, housing the largest of the engines, No. 1. Perhaps the Shortland Street engine house was shifted to Fort Street at some point. By April 1870, there was still another engine house, this one in High Street. (Auckland Star, 21 April) There was another in Albert Street, but this was up for let in April 1874. (NZ Herald, 16 April 1874)

In 1871, the Auckland City Council replaced the City Board. Negotiations between the new City Council and the insurance companies over upkeep and expenses for the brigade broke down, as much over division of authority as over money. The insurance companies then created their own brigade from February 1872, paying Seering Matthew an the new brigade 3/- per week, all vested in two trustees. Members of the Artillery Volunteer Corps joined the new brigade. Asher and his volunteer brigade, no longer receiving insurance company contribution, was disbanded. 

A petition was circulated in the city asking for Asher to be retained. But, according to the Southern Cross of 13 March 1872, “By a careful computation of the sums paid to the members of the Brigade for several years past, it has been found that each member has … received, on average, over £3 per annum; and then they were paid so much per hour, so that there was really an inducement not to exert themselves in extinguishing a fire.” The use of the term “volunteer” related to Auckland’s early brigades appears to have been rather loose. On 8 May, Asher was formally requested to hand over his control of the brigade to Matthews. 

Asher, however, became a fire inspector – then on 13 May offered to start another volunteer fire brigade, alongside the one run by Matthews. This was agreed to by the City Council. – so from mid-May 1872 Auckland had two fire brigades, and two superintendents. The insurance brigade, according to GWA Bush in Decently and In Order (1971) didn’t do all that well. “The brigade took half-an-hour and connect its hoses during an 1873 Queen St fire which destroyed 54 houses and left 80 families homeless.”

The insurance brigade disbanded in April 1874, and the City Council formed their own municipal fire brigade, under J Hughes. Asher was thus replaced, and his part in Auckland’s fire-fighting history was over. The Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade was finally wound up, after 20 years, on 2 September 1874.

Asher Asher died February 16, 1899, in Tauranga, an honorary fire inspector in that city. 


Sources:
Auckland Fire Brigade Centenary 1874-1974, Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board
Decently and In Order, The Centennial History of the Auckland City Council, GWA Bush, 1971, pp.125-126
Auckland Volunteer Fire Brigade Minute Book (shown above), NZMS 233, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library (my thanks to Keith Giles of Special Collections for pointing this out to me)
Southern Cross and New Zealand Herald, online at Papers Past.

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