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November — December 2017

The Avondale
Historical Journal
Official Publication of the Avondale-Waterview Historical
Society Incorporated

Avondale’s First Firemen:
the Volunteer Fire Brigade 1922-1928 by Lisa J Truttman

(Above) A composite from two photos of the same image, In August 2017, I was at a regional gathering of Auck-
from the Avondale History Group collection (as used in land historical societies held at the former Papatoetoe
Challenge of the Whau) — this is likely the souvenir 1925 volunteer fire brigade station. During a talk that was
image done by the brigade as a thank you to the Avondale given on the history of that district’s brigade, one thing
Borough Council. Originally from Grey family.
got my attention more than anything else– that their first
fire engine was a Guy motor originally from Avondale’s
first brigade.
Next meeting of the
Avondale-Waterview Historical Society Intrigued, I asked for more information, and took note of
will be Saturday 2 December 2017 references to the vehicle in the Papatoetoe brigade’s an-
at 2pm, St Ninians Hall, St Georges Road, niversary history. It led to me looking into the story of
Avondale our own short-lived brigade, out here on the edge of the
isthmus, and the origins of that fire vehicle.
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Page 2
Avondale has always had catastrophic fires, especially fire fighting easier. The board members noted that,
in the days of candles and kerosene lamps, coupled once such plugs were installed, perhaps they should
with little to no water reticulation. In 1905, this was a look to forming their own brigade – but nothing fur-
largely rural settlement, with only 500 people living in ther was done at that stage.
the total road board area of Avondale Central,
Roberton, Waterview, Rosebank, New Windsor and In April 1922, Avondale was appointed a borough, in
Blockhouse Bay. Next door to us, though, the first a period when the population was on the rise in a dis-
signs of an answer to the problem came from Mt trict that now had almost complete water reticulation.
Albert, when the Road Board there set up its first fire In June that year, the first Council under Mayor James
brigade in 1906, equipping them at a cost of £265 Watkin Kinniburgh agreed to form a volunteer fire
11/9. brigade, and on 7 July held a well-attended public
meeting in the Town Hall. They had already acquired
Here in Avondale, the Road Board fairly well decided a tower, a second-hand fire bell and a manual hose
to just make do. In June 1914, around the time of their reel. This latter piece of equipment required fit young
pending amalgamation with Auckland City, the Grey men capable of running and pulling the reel to the fire.
Lynn Borough Council wrote to Avondale’s Board
offering to sell its own fire brigade reel, appliances The first members of the volunteer fire brigade were:
and hose. But the Board replied that it had no use for
them at that time. Captain: Louis Watson (c.1880-1959). He was a
gardener from Elm Street and Rosebank Road.
In November that same year, the Mt Albert brigade Lieutenant: J Her on
was called out to the fire which consumed the Cadman First foreman: G Gibson
house at Waterview. This was of course over the Mt Second foreman: N Bowater
Albert Borough Council boundary, and when they re- First hydrant man: Livingstone For syth McNair
ceived the bill from the brigade, they resolved “to con- (1899-1985). His family lived for a time on Maioro
sult the Avondale Road Board with a view to a mutual Street, New Windsor. His father, also Livingstone
understanding upon such incidents.” For the next 11 Forsyth McNair (1859-1939) was a veteran of the
years, the “mutual understanding” assured that Mt Egyptian campaign of 1882-1884 (decorated with the
Albert’s fire brigade covered Avondale’s needs where Egyptian medal and Khedive Star), and reached the
they could. rank of sergeant. On discharge from the army, McNair

The first real notion to establish our own fire brigade
came four years later, in 1918, when the Mt Albert (Below) A s an example of a manual hose reel from the
Council wrote to the Road Board regarding the estab- time, this is one used by the Hillside Railway fire team at a
lishment of fire plugs on the Avondale district to make demonstration in Dunedin in 1923. From Masterton
Library, Wairarapa Archive, ref 08-60/69.
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Page 3

(Right) Site of the first fire station in A vondale,
between the railway line and Trent Street off
Blockhouse Bay Road. My photo from 2008
shows the Pigeon Club building which re-
placed the old fire station after the latter’s
demolition in the late 1950s.

If anyone has photos of the old station there —
please do get in touch!

snr came to New Zealand, where he engaged in mining unnecessary, possibly an extra municipal extrava-
on the West Coast. In 1903, he enlisted with the NZ gance. Some even jeered, so it was said, at the men.
Army, and served as a quartermaster sergeant with the Three of the brigade’s young members, Leslie Watson
Royal New Zealand Artillery in Wellington. He was (18) Livingstone McNair (23) and William Braithwaite
overage for any active service during the First World (21), decided to prove the critics wrong, and in
War, but still served as a drill instructor in Napier. In September 1922 began a campaign to do just that.
1915, as sergeant-major, he was detailed to Trentham
as ordnance officer. By 1917 he had reached the rank On 4 September 1922, the young men set fire to a
of lieutenant, and by February 1918 he was made patch of gorse at the corner of Elm Street and
captain, as assistant director of ordnance stores in Rosebank Road, then dutifully rang the firebell, and
Auckland. He retired with the rank of captain in 1921. got the reel out to extinguish the fire. Encouraged by
how well this worked, they moved on a few days later
Second hydrant man: G Walter s (Hydr ant men to the decision to start a fire in a shed at the Methodist
were possibly the ones tasked to open up the hydrants Church in Rosebank Road (today the site of the
or fire plugs). Nafanua Hall). This wasn’t so successful – some pa-
First branchman: S G O’Brien (A branchman was pers were set alight, but the flames apparently went
the first man into the fire. The name came from that out. The three men waited some time, but no fire alarm
for the nozzle of the hose). call was given.
Second branchman: William Fr eder ick Br aithwaite
(1901-1963) Then, after brigade practice on September 20, they
Secretary: Ar thur Nunns (who was also the Town decided to set fire to the school. A paint tin and wood
Clerk. He and his family lived on Blockhouse Bay were obtained from Watson’s house, along with some
Road.) paper from Braithwaite’s. Watson went under the
Other volunteers: R M Hooker , W Thompson, W school through a manhole, built the fire, and applied
Jamieson, Leslie Cyril Watson (Louis Watson’s son), the match. Then, all three went home. Watson, the
D Knight, George Thomas Chandler (1895-1945. The Herald reported, “was at his home getting undressed
Council’s ranger and later Borough traffic officer, and when he heard the alarm, and he immediately ran back
City Council traffic officer), and a member of the and helped other members of the brigade to put out the
Swatton family. fire.” This incident, though, aroused suspicions, and an
investigation began. That fire might have claimed the
A bell tower was erected somewhere in the district, old 1880s original wooden Primary School building; it
possibly next to the Town Hall (until the fire brigade was a shock and cause for great alarm to the residents
station was built on Blockhouse Bay Road the follow- of Avondale. The blaze was fortunately spotted by
ing year). Soon after the brigade’s formation, Captain passers-by around 8 pm. “It was only the prompt turn-
Watson asked that a sign be attached to the tower say out by the recently formed Avondale Fire Brigade,”
“Trespassers will be prosecuted.” the A uckland Star declared, “that saved the building
from being enveloped in flames … the save by the vol-
The main benefit of having a volunteer fire brigade in unteer firemen was a creditable one indeed.”
the district at first seemed to be that fire insurance pre-
miums were reduced. Right from the start, however, How red the faces must have been then, when the truth
some of the residents felt that the brigade was came out just six months later. First Hydrantman
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Page 4
Livingston Forsyth McNair, 2nd Branch-
man William Frederick Braithwaite and
volunteer Leslie Cyril Watson were
charged with committing three acts of
arson in March 1923. 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 charac-
ter were presented to the court. Watson
was already serving time at Mt Eden
Prison for another offence, and pleaded
guilty to another charge, that 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”. His father mainly gave up on
him, describing him in court as “beyond
parental control, and suggested that he
had out-grown himself. He was a big
youth for 18 years.”

Hardly an auspicious time for the new

The only incident of note that took place
during the first two years of the brigade’s
existence that wasn’t the result of arson,
also wasn’t a fire at all. When opponents
of the MP for Eden, Christopher James
Parr, tried to sabotage an election public
meeting he held in November 1922 at the
Avondale Town Hall by turning off the
gas at the meter, plunging the interior of
the hall into darkness, some members of
the fire brigade, returning from a practice,
found a couple of ladders and quickly
turned the gas on again. (Above) Guy Motors of W olverhampton produced vehicles
for around 68 years from 1914, and exported chassis to com-
panies like Hughes and Cossar in Auckland to build trucks
In November 1922, the district engineer for NZ and charabancs during the 1920s. The Guy motor used by
Railways offered an area of railway land between the the Avondale Volunteer Fire Brigade, and later sold to
rail lines and Trent Street for the volunteer fire brigade Papatoetoe, was probably an adapted version of a vehicle
headquarters, fronting onto Blockhouse Bay Road near similar to the one shown here, second from the bottom.
the rail bridge. On 9 February 1923, a formal lease was
signed (starting from 1 December 1922, for “one pep- The year 1924 was when the deficiencies of the fire
percorn per annum, if demanded” between the brigade’s equipment came into sharp focus. Hauling
Avondale Borough Council and the Railways Depart- their hose reel from Blockhouse Bay Road to Highbury
ment. The council called for tenders on 10 July 1923 Street soon after 1.20 am on 22 January that year, even
for the building of the two-storey fire station, after with the back up of the Mt Albert brigade, didn’t save
Captain Watson and Fireman Rout approached them to a house there from burning completely to the ground.
express the brigade’s impatience that nothing had been The NZ Herald at the time referred to them as the
done up to that point. Three tenders were duly re- “Avondale Volunteer Hand-Brigade”. In February, the
ceived, the lowest being that of S Miller, for £216. The brigade asked the borough council that a telephone be
fire bell tower was re-erected beside the new station. installed at the station. The council agreed in March to
do so, and also provide a phone at Capt Watson’s
The Avondale brigade was represented at least at the house. Even with this, though, the brigade had had
March 1923 national conference of the United Fire enough. In June 1924, Capt Watson and Hydrantman
Brigades Association, by Arthur Nunns. Walter pointed out that “the two hand reels now in use
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Page 5
were obsolete and too cumbersome for such a large the room”. Part of the front wall of the building was
district as Avondale.” The council agreed – and pro- “shattered to fragments, leaving an aperture several
ceeded to plan to include costs for a motor vehicle in square yards in extent,” according to an A uckland Star
with a pending loan proposal to the ratepayers. reporter. Despite all the rumours and speculation rife in
Avondale in the following days, the official insurance
The Borough Council, though, was occupied in 1924 investigation found that the cause was due to the es-
with the completion of their Town Hall. Captain cape of “coal gas”.
Watson suggested to them in June that the new build-
ing should include a 2 inch water main with stopcock, The volunteer fire brigade didn’t need someone to
and 50 feet of 2 inch hose left on permanently, as a phone in a call – they all heard the explosion. As per
precaution. their training, Watson and nine of his men headed
down to the racecourse with their two hose reels – but
Then, on 22 September 1924, Avondale residents and one was put out of action through the breaking of a
those in surrounding districts for several miles around hydrant. Even so, they kept a steady stream of water on
were enjoying a peaceful evening, when at around 8.45 the building until all were certain that the fire was out,
pm a thunderous roaring boom filled the air, coming with Capt. Watson and one of his team staying to keep
from the Avondale Jockey Club. It was immediately watch until morning.
feared that the grandstand was on fire.
On 14 November 1924, a large motor garage owned by
Houses shook, neighbours and volunteer fire brigade Charles T Pooley on Great North Road burned down,
members came running, as sheets of flame tore through along with an adjacent house, the fire so intense that it
the centre of the roof of the totalisator building on the disrupted, for a time, the telegraph service to the north
course. Pieces of galvanised roofing iron were parted by burning the line. “Last night the garage contained
from their fittings, strewn about the paddocks around, seven vehicles, and of these a 40-seater Guy motor
one even found a hundred metres away on the race-
track itself. An old roller-type of totalisator machine
owned by a Mr S Yates and used by the Jockey Club
was completely wrecked. All but one of the windows
were blown out, purlins measuring 3 x 2 lifted from the (Below) The Avondale Volunteer Fire Brigade as at 1925.
cross beams throughout the structure, inside toilets The only name here we know for certain would be Capt.
wrecked with “lumps of porcelain … scattered about Louis Watson, in the centre. Via Avondale History Group
collection, and Grey family.
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Page 6
char-a-banc, valued at ₤700, and a 20-seater Ford char- bert counterparts that all calls from Avondale had to
a-banc, valued at ₤600, were completely destroyed. come from the fire inspector, Superintendent Watson,
The Ford motor bus and to ignore any others.
was insured, but not The Mt Albert Borough
so the Guy. These Council responded by
were the property of thanking the Avondale Fire
the General Omnibus Brigade for the kind offer,
Company. Other vehi- and “offered to assist the
cles destroyed were local brigade in similar cir-
two motor-lorries cumstances.”
owned by Mr WRT
Leighton, contractor, On 10 March, Town Clerk
of Henderson, and Mr Arthur Nunns advertised for
C T Pooley, also a six- tenders for a “motor fire
cylinder Cleveland engine.” Eight were re-
car, owned by Consta- ceived, with the one chosen
ble Douglas, of Avon- being that from Hughes and
dale, valued at ₤550, Cossar of Newmarket. For
and a two-seater Ford most of the 20th century, the
owned by the General name Hughes and Cossar
Omnibus Company. was more familiarly known
Two wooden motor as the wholesalers of wines
bus tops, the property and spirits, but in the 1920s,
of Mr McCarthy and Mr B Mason, were also burned. they were more general wholesalers and importers, and
one of their departments was as the North Island agents
“About 12ft away from the garage was a six-roomed for Karrier and Guy motor chassis imports, to which
house occupied by Mr L Tierney, hairdresser, and they added bodies for trucks and charabancs. The firm
owned by Mr Pooley. When it became evident that the thanked the Borough Council for the order for a Guy
garage was doomed the Avondale volunteer fire bri- Motor Fire Reel (£524 8s 9d), and said “that they
gade arrived, all efforts were concentrated in an en- would do all that was humanly possible to make the
deavour to save the house, as it was apparent that noth- motor a credit to the council not only in appearance but
ing could be done to save the garage or contents. A in efficiency.”
high wind,
however, frus- It was then
trated the ef- realised that
forts of the the fire station
brigade, and needed to be
the house was enlarged to fit
soon a mass of the new vehi-
flames. Then cle – Hughes
the Mt Albert and Cossar
brigade ar- said in May
rived, and, that they
combining with the Avondale men, attention was di- would hold onto the vehicle until all was ready. S Mil-
verted to a cottage next to Mr Pooley’s house. Beyond ler returned to do the job for £125. The official hand-
being scorched the cottage suffered no damage.” ing over of the new vehicle to the fire brigade was set
for 3pm on 20 June 1925. At a large gathering that day,
In October, just before the Pooley fire, the ratepayers the Mayor William John Tait accepted the vehicle
agreed with the loan proposal which included the fi- from Hughes and Cossar’s representative, and formally
nance for the fire engine, and in November the loan called upon Capt Watson on behalf of the brigade to
was authorised by the Governor-in-Council. In Decem- take charge of it. The vehicle was built to carry 18
ber. Captain Watson became Superintendent Watson, men, and came equipped with ladders that, like the
the Fire Inspector for the borough. motor body, had been made in Auckland. The Mayor
and councillors present then went on board for a trial
Early in January 1925, the Mt Albert Borough Council run. Just as that was coming to a conclusion, smoke
asked Avondale Borough for payment of £5 3/- per was spotted at Pt Chevalier, so after a quick dash back
man per hour for their fire brigade to attend calls in to the station for hoses, the brigade set off – the politi-
Avondale. The Avondale Council replied that “as we cians along for the ride. The fire, though, was simply
will shortly be purchasing a motor we hope to be in the some gorse burning in a paddock, which was quickly
position to give similar assistance at our end of Mt Al- extinguished.
bert without payment.” They also advised their Mt Al-
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Page 7

(Above) The Guy fire engine in Papatoetoe V olunteer Fire Brigade livery. From Papatoetoe Fire Brigade 50th Jubilee booklet.

Not all of Avondale had water reticulation – and in Avondale attending and successfully putting out a fire
September 1925, the homestead used by Thomas Aick- there in a bus owned by the General Omnibus
in and his family from 1859 on Avondale Road burned Company.
down through lack of water, despite the firemen’s best
efforts. There was also a fire in H C Hemus’ chemist In August 1926, the brigade asked that they be given
shop on Great North Road in mod December, but this permission to plug into the city telephone system when
was put out before the brigade even arrived. That the local bureau closed down at night, for another 500
month, grateful for donations made to them by the feet of hose, and a map of the district showing streets
borough council, the brigade presented the mayor and and fire plugs. The council agreed to all these requests.
councillors with a framed photograph of their new fire
motor, with the men on it. The photo was hung in pride 1927 started out like a normal year. In May, the
of place in the council chambers. A copy of this is pos- borough council expressed their appreciation of the
sibly the image we have today, via the Grey family and brigade’s work, while Supt Watson asked for the free
the Avondale History Group, from Challenge of the use of the old public hall once a year, and Deputy
Whau (1994). Superintendent Vincent urged the Waterworks and Fire
Brigade Committee to employ a permanent hand at the
Even with the motorised transport, the brigade still had station. In July, Watson, Vincent (possibly Leonard
too great a distance to travel when it came to some Charles Vincent, the borough’s turncock) and Bashford
fires, such as those in Blockhouse Bay. A 22-seater from the brigade also urged that another site for the
motor bus there that caught fire was completely burnt station be obtained, as the one by the railway, given
out in late January 1926 before they could reach it. In that line duplication could take place, really didn’t
response to this situation, the borough council moved have secure tenure. The committee agreed.
in April 1926 to set up one of the redundant hose reels
in a donated shed in that part of the district, along with On 18 August, the volunteer brigade turned out when
a sub-brigade of four men. Stuart’s service garage in central Avondale, on Great
North Road in Avondale, caught fire accompanied by
Also in April that year, the brigade requested that fire an explosion caused by the bursting of a tin of ben-
alarms be set up on power poles outside their homes. zene. Six cars inside were badly damaged, and dense
By July 1926 the Avondale Brigade, once helped out smoke including fumes from burning rubber made
by Mt Albert, now in turn assisted New Lynn with work hazardous, enough though the men were able to
their fire fighting needs, with the brigade from use two strong leads of water. The firemen were able
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Page 8
to enter and push two cars out into the street, but one were some in Papatoetoe who felt that the purchase
was described as being “a mass of wreckage”. Fortu- was questionable. All changed when during a lively
nately, the main benzene supplies were underground, meeting in Papatoetoe in September 1928 to discuss it,
and a drum of oil inside withstood the heat, otherwise “the door of the hall was opened and a woman raised
the incident could have been much worse. the alarm that an outbreak of fire had occurred in the
outskirts of the district. There was a quick response by
But … 1927 was not a normal year. The population the volunteer fire brigade, who were quietly enjoying
was now 5000 in Avondale, and ratepayers were rest- the debate from the rear of the building.” The Guy
less for real results and progress. Moves in the commu- engine would go on to serve Papatoetoe’s Volunteer
nity were underway to arrange a petition for Avondale Fire Brigade until around 1949, when all documented
to amalgamate with Auckland City, and the local vote record of it ceased and its ultimate fate unknown.
in August came out solidly in favour of this to take
place. Suddenly the days of the borough, and its volun- In 1929, a new brick and concrete fire station was built
teer fire brigade, were numbered. further along Blockhouse Bay Road, beside the Avon-
dale Baptist Church. The old station by the railway line
The transition from service by volunteers to that of a was leased to a number of small businesses over the
brigade under the Auckland Fire Board was somewhat years, but finally demolished at the end of 1958, the
more gradual than the abrupt shift in territorial authori- last reminder of the early volunteer fire brigade in
ty from 1 September 1927. The Auckland City Council Avondale removed from the landscape.
agreed to retain control of the volunteer brigade until
the Board could complete its arrangements, then the Sources
Board agreed to temporarily lease the plant and station Trevor Pollard, for help with fire brigade terminology
building from the Council for £1 per week from Papers Past
November. The brigade turned out in mid-September Auckland Council Archives
to a house fire in Miro Street, New Lynn, but were un- Online sites such as Births, Deaths & Marriages and
able to help due to inadequate water mains and the
nearest fire plug being 300 yards away. In late Novem-
ber, a house in Liverpool Street, New Lynn, similarly
couldn’t be saved as there was no available water.

In May 1928, the Papatoetoe Town Board offered to
pay the City Council £200 for the Guy Fire Engine,
then raised their offer to £250, which was accepted,
with hose, hydrants and unions going for £25. As in
Avondale (when our brigade was first set up), there

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The Society and AHJ editorial staff thank Avondale Business Association
for their continued support and sponsorship of this publication.

The Avondale Historical Journal
Published by:
the Avondale-Waterview Historical Society Inc. (since September 2001)

Editor: Lisa J. Truttman
Society contact:
19 Methuen Road, Avondale, Auckland 0600
Phone: (09) 828-8494, 027 4040 804
Society information:
Subscriptions: $15 individual
$20 couple/family
$30 corporate

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