A legacy of service lasting fifteen decades

by Andy Bryenton

In the year 1867 the world was a very different place. New Zealand was still the most isolated outpost of the British Empire, barely thirty years old as a nation. When it came to civic services such as firefighting, there was no set pattern amid the ‘wild west’ chaos of the frontier. While independent brigades drawn from colonial volunteers existed here and there, there was no constitution for a Fire Service, or indeed any laws to help equip, train or empower one.

From 1854, when the Auckland volunteer ‘bucket brigade’ came into being, the larger centres began to form their own separate ideas of what a fire service should be. These varied from place to place, with equipment and even uniforms sometimes coming from private donations or corporate endowments. Those early pioneers showed bravery and determination in an age when fire was a real threat to towns lit by oil lamps and built of timber — and New Zealand may have fared better than many nations at the time. A great number of our European population were acquainted with sailing and the seafaring life. On board a wooden ship — especially a man o’ war armed with gunpowder — firefighting is a huge priority. Drills and firefighting discipline from the tall ships made their way ashore.

Close to home, Christchurch had seen the establishment of a volunteer brigade in 1860. Like many of the early fire brigades in New Zealand, it was completely different to all others, with equipment donated by the Liverpool, London & Globe Insurance Co, that gift took the form of manual pumps, operated by hand to keep up water pressure. As in the other main centres, the brigade was made up of men from all walks of life who performed what amounted to miracles with the primitive materials available to them. 

Smaller towns, however, were left to their own devices. Some brigades relied on citizens keeping buckets of water handy, while others were augmented by fencible soldiers, church parishioners or policemen. Firefighters were hampered by a lack of real authority — they were sometimes stopped short by being unable to demolish burning structures, source water from private tanks or impose rules to stop fire hazards before they caused tragedy. The success of the disparate volunteer brigades — and the need to codify the rules around fire safety and firefighting across the country — was a call to action. Brave volunteers were putting themselves in danger to save lives, without the authority to really tackle the job and often without adequate financial support.

At last, in 1867, parliament convened to set up a plan for all of New Zealand. 

When the Municipal Corporation Act was signed it contained a chapter all about firefighting in the small towns of rural New Zealand. As it was reported at the time: ‘The act empowers the council to deal with fires, to lay on any works necessary for this purpose, to appoint fire inspectors and to remunerate any association for the extinguishment of fires. A fire inspector may take command of any fire brigade and enter on any premises, or order any building pulled down with a view to extinguish a fire’. 

It was a turning point for firefighting.

Local councils could at last appoint an empowered representative to combat fire hazards. The core principles of this act formed what became the Fire Service constitution right through until 1900, the founding document of many fire brigades. Even when that constitution was updated, the key ideas it contained remained the bedrock of fire safety practice in New Zealand, all the way through until the mid 1970s when the many district and regional brigades were merged into a single cohesive force.

         Firefighters from those early brigades would have marvelled at the 
                         power and versatility of today’s fire appliances

With every borough and civic council pulling in the same direction, things like standardised equipment, doctrine, tactics and training were made possible. It was the birth of the fire service as we know it.

Christchurch led the nation here, as well. Just one year later, in 1868, the first live-in firehouse with a fully paid staff of firefighters was up and running. 

Volunteers continued to be — and remain today — the backbone of the firefighting strength in New Zealand, but this development shows just how seriously the city authorities took battling blazes. Today, a massive array of firefighting exhibits, from vehicles to uniforms and more can be seen at the Hall of Flame Fire Museum in Ferrymead, Christchurch, tracking the development of firefighting from hand-powered pumps to steam-powered horse-drawn appliances and on to the age of internal combustion.

Fifteen decades on from those ‘official’ constitutional beginnings, we salute the generations of firefighters who have served their communities selflessly and with valour, often risking their own lives to protect their fellow citizens.

It’s a proud history, and one which deserves to be celebrated in this 150th year since the act of government which set our modern fire brigades on their path.