The Nelson Volunteer Fire Brigade


The early years from 1858-1868

The history of Nelson's early Volunteer Fire Brigade is difficult to trace. The earliest reference to it is September 18581, when a meeting was planned to organise a Fire Brigade. Like most Colonial New Zealand towns, the majority of Nelson's buildings were made from wood, and the threat of fire was a great concern to residents and business owners. The Liverpool and London Insurance Company's local agent, N. Edwards & Co, installed two ladders for use in the city as fire escapes2 and later the company purchased a hand pumped fire engine that was delivered on November 1858.3 In early May 1859, the Liverpool and London Insurance Company paid for a shed to house the new engine. This was next to Alfred Bett's store on Bridge Street4

FiremenFiremen: Tyree Studio Collection;182158 Nelson Provincial Museum
Click to enlarge

It was apparent that the Fire Brigade needed more practice or that the engine needed better maintenance as the fire engine broke down during one of the training sessions prompting one journalist to comment: "This incident should show the necessity of more frequent practice if the brigade hope to be of any service when danger arrives."5 The captain of the Brigade at this time, and possibly the first, was Charles John Bartlett, a draper with a shop in Trafalgar House on Trafalgar Street.6 He died in a cart accident on the 22 March 1860. 7

Bartlett was replaced in May 1860 by Edward Everett, who owned the Masonic Wine and Spirit Store.8  Everett was later to hold the position of mayor from 1876-77 and again in 1881-1882.9

Edward Everett proved his worth as captain when his crew of volunteers saved the ship Arden-Craig from destruction in June 1862. The ship had a fire in its lower hold, and it was believed that only scuttling (sinking) the ship would be able to extinguish the fire. Cleverly the fire engine was towed out on a barge to the ship and the fire was brought under control by the volunteer firemen. For this they received hearty thanks from the ship's captain and the ship's local agents Nathan Edwards and Company. Even more thankful were the owners of the Arden-Craig who gave the grand sum of £50 to share between those men who helped save the ship.10

The initial fervour wore off, however, and by October 1862, the Nelson Board of Works received a letter from Alfred Betts, claiming that the engine was repaired but that the fire brigade no longer existed. He also asked that they restart the fire brigade.11 He may have been partially successful as by October 1863 the fire brigade was struggling on and having issues with the old engine.12 The captain at this time was either Alfred Betts or Edwin Snow.13

Fire BrigadeFire Brigade FG Gibbs Collection; 1117/2 Nelson Provincial Museum
Click to enlarge

While the town was being serviced with an older fire engine, there were plans for a new engine to be purchased. This would be to protect the new Provincial Government Buildings (1859-1960) and also the city. The agent who brokered the deal in London was John Morrison, who sought the advice of Captain Shaw of the London Fire Brigade.

The Shand and Mason engine selected was an "Improved London Brigade Fire Engine No.3".14 This engine was capable of discharging 609 litres (134 gallons) of water up to almost 40 metres (130 feet) when pumped at 60 strokes per minute. It was designed to be pumped by 28 people. A similar, smaller "Improved London Brigade Fire Engine No.1"15 is on display at Founders Heritage Park.

The new engine arrived in August 1863 on the ship Bard of Avon16 with little fanfare, and basically sat unused and unattended for 10 months.17

This new engine eventually became known as "No.1 Government Engine"18 and was stored either in a shed by the Provincial Buildings or with the other Fire Engine in the Liverpool and London shed. In early 1866 a new building was built to house the fire engine that looked after the Provincial Government buildings.19 The building was designed by architect Robert McDonald and built by Henry Handyside, the assistant Engineer for the Nelson Province. It was to fit in with architect Maxwell Bury's design of the Provincial Government Building. This building still remains on its original site in the Albion Square Historic Area20 and is best known for serving as a morgue for the Maungutapu murder victims in 1866. It was only used to house the fire engines until 1867.

The four years between 1862 and 1866 were full of debate about setting up a better fire service in Nelson. While there were 25 volunteers to man the fire engine from the Nelson City Rifle Volunteers,21 the administration of the Fire Brigade was lacking. No one from the Nelson Provincial Government's Board of Works even knew that there were men available to work the fire engine.22

During 1864 numerous committees met and debates were held to develop an efficient fire brigade for Nelson. However, no one wanted to pay the ongoing costs of £250 (just over $18,000) a year, to run the fire brigade.23 By 15th February 1865, desperation led private citizens to appeal to Edward Everett to take up the captaincy of the fire brigade once more. Everett declined.24 The wheels of the Provincial Government continued to roll slowly. By the 11th of July 1865 a ‘Fire Brigade Bill' was published in the ‘Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle'.

In the early morning of Tuesday the 7th of August 1866, Police Constables William Fitzgerald and William Davis 25 were returning from patrolling the Wood. As they neared the intersections of Collingwood and Bridge Street flames burst from an upstairs window in the Lord Nelson Hotel owned by Charles McGee. This hotel was on the south-west corner of the intersection. Constable Fitzgerald ran to rouse the Town and Constable Davis rushed to assist those people trapped in the burning Hotel.

The Lord Nelson Hotel had only recently been built and was completely destroyed in the blaze; Charles McGee and one of his children were almost trapped, when McGee returned to the building to save the child.

The city's two fire engines were kept in an engine house (The Old Engine House still standing in Albion Square) within 500 metres of the intersection. They were delayed for almost 30 minutes as the rope on the Bell tower had broken and someone had to climb the bell tower to ring the bell! When the fire engines arrived it took a long time to get them working and to get access to water. The larger engine siphoned water from a nearby pond (known as the Eel Pond) and pumped it to the smaller engine which would douse the flames. Sadly only six fire brigade volunteers were present to help direct the fire fighting.

A strong southerly wind 26 and the difficulties in getting the fire engines working allowed the fire to spread to all four corners of the intersection. It was a lull in the wind that gave the fire fighters the opportunity to put the fire out. The fire destroyed over 18 wooden buildings and the damage was valued to around £15,000 ($1,354,068). Luckily there was no loss of life.

Disappointingly, it was noted in the paper that some bystanders, rather than helping the community to extinguish the fire, had refused to help and verbally abused those who did.

People risked certain death by rushing into the burning buildings to save whatever they could carry, especially those too poor to afford fire insurance for their belongings. Mr. Barraclough was one of many unfortunates; he escaped the fire with only a small amount of bedding and lost everything else. Most of the salvaged belongings and the now homeless ended up in the paddocks of Mr. Harley.

Mr. Tatton the Chemist managed to stop the fire as it neared his shop on Bridge Street by using wet blankets and various chemicals from his shop. Mr. Luke Nattrass' house stopped the fire spreading towards Harley Street by virtue of having zinc sheets on its walls and being dowsed by the smaller fire engine.

The events of the Great Fire were well reported by The Nelson Evening Mail and The Colonist.27 These newspapers are available online at:

Positions of Houses Destroyed in the Great Fire28

1. Mr. McGee, Nelson Hotel,

2. Mr. Porthouse, Royal Hotel,

3. Mr. Laney, baker,

4. Mr. MacArtney, tinsmith,

5. Mrs. MacArtney, dwelling-house,

6. Mr. Condell, storekeeper,

7. Mrs. Townsend, boarding-house,

8. Mr. Barnes, china shop,

9. Temperance Hall,

10. Young Men's Christian Association,

11. Mr. Beattie, dwelling house,

12. Mr. Barraclough, dwelling house,

13. Mr. Owens, Mitre Hotel,

14. Mr. MacArtney, dwelling house,

15. Mr. Pratt, butcher's shop,

16. Mr. Leach, wheelwright,

17. Mr. Fish, draper's establishment,

18. Mr. Avery, boot shop.

After the Great Fire of 1866, the people of Nelson realised that it was in their best interests to actively support the formation of a well funded and trained Volunteer Fire Brigade. The fire also highlighted the poor quality of Nelson's water supply.29 The water supply was an ever present problem for the early fire service. One observer noted that the cost of the damage from the Great Fire would have been enough to sort out a decent water supply in Nelson.30 The fire engines they would use had to take water up from a water source, such as the Maitai/Mahitahi river or local drainage ditches. In 1860 the fire brigade requested the board of works "to cause the mill stream to flow into the Trafalgar Street ditch every evening."31 After another serious fire in August 1862, 174 people petitioned the Superintendent of the Provincial Government to do something about the inadequate supply of water to the town.32 Nothing was done and many houses were lost to fire over the next few years especially in the Great Fire of 1866. It was a welcome day when the Nelson Water works open on the 16th of April in 1868.

On the night of Wednesday 15th of August 1866, it was resolved at a committee meeting that Nelson was to have a Fire Brigade of dedicated and trained Volunteers. The men at the meeting were proclaimed to be members of the temporary Fire Brigade. The temporary captain of the group was to be Mr. John Blackett, and former Captain Edward Everett was to be a lieutenant.33

Mr. John Blackett

Mr. John Blackett was the Provincial engineer in Nelson from 1859-1870. He was responsible for the construction and maintenance of the Provincial government assets, such as the roads, bridges, and the wharves. He was also the Warden of the Nelson Southwest Gold Fields in 1864-1866, overseeing the administration of land and gold claims, acting as the magistrate and the head of the police.34 He oversaw the construction of the Nelson's lighthouse, which was New Zealand's second lighthouse. It was made by the engineering firm Stothert and Pitt (1795-1989) of Bath, England.

Blackett was also the designer of the Nelson Waterworks and oversaw its construction. The project was completed under the budget of £20,000 and was formally opened on 16th April 1868.

Blackett owned a house called Rosemount on Trafalgar Street but put the property up for sale in 1871.35 This was bought by the Atkinson Family and became known as Fairfield house, one of Nelson's many visitor attractions.

In 1870, Julius Vogel, the treasurer of the Colonial Government of New Zealand borrowed £10 million to help develop New Zealand's rail and road infrastructure. John Blackett was made acting engineer-in-chief in 1870 to begin these projects. He was relegated to assistant engineer-in-chief and head of marine engineering in 1871.36  He oversaw the construction of 14 additional lighthouses as a marine engineer. From 1884-1889 he became engineer-in-chief of New Zealand.

The Brigade 1866-1886

On 16th September 1866, the first general meeting Nelson Volunteer Fire Brigade took place, with John Thomas Knight as the elected captain of the Brigade.37

John Knight was a plasterer in Nelson and along with J.W. Tatton (a local dentist) made the plaster death masks of the decapitated heads of the Maungutapu murderers38 who were executed on 5th October 1866.  He was the captain of the Fire Brigade for two years. By 1868 he changed trades and became a bar owner of the Lord Nelson Hotel on the corner of Bridge and Collingwood Street. This happened to be the replacement hotel that was built when Charles McGee's original was burnt in the Great Fire. The Lord Nelson was no luckier for Knight, after two years, he filed for bankruptcy.39

Almost one year later, in early September 1867, a notice seeking tenders for the construction of a new Fire Engine House went into the local papers.40 So eager was the Brigade for a new building that they approached the Provincial Government with £73 to put towards its construction.41 The building, a wooden structure with an ornate roof and double doors, was finished sometime before December 1867 and stood on the Hardy Street end of Harley Street. The site is currently the Police Station carpark.42 It cost the Provincial Government £237 10s ($21,561) to build.43 A replica of this Fire Engine House stands at Founders Heritage Park and was built in 1983 with the generous assistance from the Nelson Host Lions Club.

The later years, from 1868

The station move to larger premises in 1868, where the first piece of motorised firefighting apparatus was purchased in 1911. However, it soon outgrew this building and in 1935 it moved to a purpose built station on the corner of Halifax and Rutherford Streets. It was equipped with a fireman's pole and larger firefighting equipment.44

The current building, on Gloucester Street, was opened in 1993. The Nelson Fire Board was replaced with the national New Zealand Fire Service Commission in the 1974/5.

This information was produced for an interpretation at Founders Park, 2010 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Local Intelligence: fire in the town (1858, September 4) Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.2
  2. Local Intelligence (1858, August 25) Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.2
  3. Local Intelligence (1858, November 20) Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.3
  4. Colonist (1859 May 10), p.2
  5. Local Intelligence (1859, November 26) Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.2
  6. Local Intelligence (1858, December 4) Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.2 
  7. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1860, March 24), p.2
  8. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1860, May 12), p.3
  9. Ex-Mayors (1906) The Cyclopedia of New Zealand. Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Districts. The Cyclopedia Co. Ltd. 1906, Christchurch. p.42
  10. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1863, August 8) p.3 
  11. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1862, October 15)  p.2 
  12. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1863, October 15) p.3 
  13. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1863, October 15 ) p.3
  14. Young, C (1866) Fires, fire engines, and fire brigades: with a history of manual and steam fire engines [&c.]. London: Lockwood
  15. Young
  16. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1863, September 12 ) p.3
  17. Local Intelligence (1864 June 11)  Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.6
  18. Hellyer, R. (1993) From Small Beginnings. A history of the Nelson Fire Brigade 1866-1993. Auckland, N.Z. : Percival Publishing p.9
  19. Council Papers (1866, April 10)  Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.3
  20. Former provincial buildings: fire engine house. Retrieved from NZHPT Historic Place. 
  21. Nelson Board of Works (1864, September 22)  Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle p.3
  22. The fire brigade movement (1864, September 16)  Colonist, p.2
  23. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1864 September 22), p.3
  24. Nelson Board of Works (1865, February 18)  Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.3
  25. The late fire (1866 August 9) Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.2
  26. Dreadful fire in Nelson (1866, August 14)  Colonist, p.4
  27. Nelson Evening Mail (1866, August 7), p.2 & Colonist (1866 August 14), p.4
  28. Destructive fire (1866, August 14)  Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.8
  29. Nelson Evening Mail (1866, August 13), p.2
  30. Nelson Evening Mail (1866, August 14), p.2
  31. Local Intelligence (1860 May 12)  Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.
  32. Local Intelligence (1862, August 13)  Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle, p.2
  33. Fire brigade committee meeting (1866, August 16)  Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  34. Orr, K (2010) Blackett, John - Biography.  from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:  
  35. Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle (1871, July 5), p.3
  36. Orr
  37. Nelson Evening Mail (1868, October 17), p.3
  38. Nelson Evening Mail (1868, October 25), p.2
  39. Colonist (1870, January 4), p.1
  40. Correspondence (1867, September 6) Nelson Evening Mail, p.3
  41. Fire in Nelson (1867, September 17)  Colonist, p.2
  42. Colonist (1867,December 13), p.2
  43. Colonist (1868, January 24), p.2
  44. Long, J. (2016, September 21) Nelson fire stations readies for 150 year celebration. Nelson Mail on Stuff: ;
    Firefighters' Nelson home (1995, November 25) Nelson Mail, p.16

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