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Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 16, June 1972

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

BY J.F. CARBUTT

The Waihi Volunteer Fire Brigade celebrated its 75th Jubilee on 18:9:71 and the following is a resumé of its "life time".

An early history of the Brigade, though now sketchy because numerous records were lost in the fire which gutted the old Haszard Street station on June 4, 1963, would seem a similar story to an account of the brigade in later years, a tale of steady progress. This history must depend also on facts supplied out of memory of some of the brigade's oldtime members.

According to men who were in the brigade before the 1963 fire, there used to be a paper which covered what is thought to have been the first meeting to form an organised service in Waihi. Though the exact wording of this document has been forgotten, Mr. J.F. Carbutt, the Deputy Chief Fire Officer of the brigade, recalls one statement: "In 1896 at a meeting to form a fire fighting unit for Roy Hotel (then also known as Flett's Hotel), Mr. J. Flett, the proprietor, said he was prepared to stand as guarantor to the sum of £23 to help form a fire fighting unit for the town".

No premise is recorded for this group's first equipment which consisted of one wheelbarrow, one hydrant, two lengths of hose and two nozzles. At that time Waihi was under the control of the Ohinemuri County Council the borough council not yet having been formed. In 1897 residents appointed the Waihi Improvement Committee which is reported to have effected considerable improvements for the town, including the establishment of the local fire service into the Waihi Volunteer Fire Brigade on February 28th 1899, under the Unclassified Societies Act.

Mr. C. Brown, battery manager of the Silverton mine, was the brigade's first captain along with Mr. T. Wells, a builder, as foreman and Mr. T. McCarthy a businessman, as Secretary. The earliest record of the brigade to light so far is a minute book beginning with a meeting on October 11th 1899, in the Rob Roy Hotel with foreman Wells in the Chair. This meeting was primarily concerned with filling vacancies in the brigade with Messrs Page, Cluse, W. Brown, E. Lakey and Grice. Then a public meeting was proposed to seek more support for the organisation and one motion instructed the secretary to ask for assistance from the clerk of the county council to fully equip the Waihi Brigade as done in Paeroa.

Meetings were held in McCarthy and Sutton's shop, Phillips store, Brown's shop, Pilling's Hotel (now the Sterling Hotel) and Slevin's baths. In its infant months as well as fire fighting the brigade worked mainly towards keeping its membership full, building a shed on a donated site across the street from the Sterling Hotel, organising uniforms for its members and procuring its first big piece of equipment, a hose reel with six foot wheels. After preliminary correspondence with the United Fire Board Association from February 1899, the Waihi secretary was instructed to wire for the reel on January 25th 1900. (Cost: £24.)

Development was gradual until a Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1902 stated:-

"There are sixteen effective members in the brigade........ The station is in Main Street, opposite the Sterling Hotel, and the plant consists of a reel with 850 feet of two-inch and a half canvas hose, two hydrants, four branches, and a union. The site measures 20 by 16 feet and was presented to the brigade by Mr. J.I. Stevens (who was once a proprietor of the Sterling Hotel)."

In 1902 Waihi became a Borough and on 26:1:1903 the Council passed a resolution "That delegates be empowered to recommend the section at the back of the National Bank for the Brigade site". This presumably concerned negotiations for the site of the old Haszard Street fire station which was built soon after. This new station served the town well and the Borough Council used it for meetings until the Council Offices were built later further down in Haszard Street.

It is believed that a second hose reel was purchased around this period. Under the control of the Waihi Borough Council (until 1917) the Brigade bought its first fire engine in 1914, a second hand Darracq machine brought from Napier. On July 26th 1917, the brigade was put under the control of Waihi Fire Board, The Board's first members were: C.E. Palmer, H.H. McCollough, F.H. Pope, D. Donaldson, W.J. Brown, and W.J. Cornes. Fire risks had been increasing in the borough due to the use of kerosene and candles for heat and light by the expanding population of the town.

With the Board in control the Brigade's upkeep came 45 per cent from the Borough Council, 45 p.c. from Insurance Companies and 10 p.c. from Government.

In the early 1920's the board replaced the Brigade's Darracq engine with a Model T Ford. Then in the early 1930's the Model T was replaced by a Model A - the same engine used by the Brigade today. So far the Waihi Fire fighters' area of protection involved only the Borough. But in 1949 the fire services in New Zealand were nationalised and the Brigade protected roughly a 10 mile diameter circle centred around Waihi (this included Waihi Beach, Bowentown, Athenree, Waikino and Waitawheta).

With risks of fire further increased by the enlarged area, more contributing bodies supported the Brigade, including the Tauranga and Ohinemuri County Councils, and the Board reformed into the Waihi United Urban Fire Board. In 1957 a new machine with a V 8 engine was introduced. But in 1963 a fire which destroyed the Haszard Street Station also destroyed valuable equipment and the firemen had to move their operations into the Waihi Drill Hall until the present modern facilities were erected on Kenny Street. The last engine purchased for the Brigade was a Bedford bought brand new in 1963. Currently the Board is preparing to call tenders to sell the Model A and buy another new engine which will cost $18,000.

HOW TO SELL THE MODEL A

When the Waihi United Fire Board attempts to sell its Model A fire engine, consideration has been given to advertising for tender abroad. The Board might notify parties in Australia and the Ford Company in the United States. It is understood too, that an American antique fire engine club requires its members to purchase such an engine to join the club.

Generally speaking Fire Brigades can do no better than their equipment allows. Getting to a blaze as quickly as possible is of paramount importance in fighting fires. It would seem that with just the equipment begun with in 1896, a wheelbarrow, hose, hydrant and nozzle, the Brigade could have done little more than effectively control fires close to where its gear was stored. The first hose reel obtained in early 1900 must have made all the difference in the world. Outfitted with 500 feet of hose, three branches, two hydrants and maybe a lamp, this gem was hustled to the scene of the fire with two or three men pushing in the rear and others pulling on the tongue and ropes slung from the front. Can you imagine the thing hurtling over the metal in the dead of night, the men running and the lamplight bouncing over the potholes on the road.

There was plenty of excitement. If the reel got away before all the volunteers could make the station they simply ran or bicycled after it. Mr. E.R. (Royce) Morgan, a past Chief Fire Officer and Gold Star Member who joined in 1924 and served 45 years, can remember a cyclist who hurrying after the reel, ran square into another person in the dark, crashed to the metal and was up peddling as if nothing had happened. When the Darracq fire engine came the then two reels owned by the Brigade took second place. One of them was kept outfitted as a standby to help the engine while the other was used mainly for competition practice.

Though second-hand the Darracq was thought to be one of the best engines of its time. She weighed three tons in the chassis and motor alone, and was capable of speeds up to 60 miles per hour in high gear. She had a double block engine with four cylinders and a leather-lined conical clutch which, according to Mr E.D. (Pat) McLeay who was in the Brigade as her second driver from 1920 to 1927, jarred your leg every time you had to use the grinding gate-change shift lever. But Mr. Les Morgan, a 1920 – 1923 member said the engine was fussy to start. Frequently the Brigade used the slope of Haszard Street to jump start her. It had to be flat out from then on, Mr. McLeay said. If he wanted to make the top of the Seddon Ave. hill without changing gears again he knew he had to be in top gear by the time they passed the Commercial Hotel. However her failure to start easily led to a recommendation by the New Zealand Inspector of Fire Brigades that she should be replaced.

Compared to the Darracq the Brigade's next engine, a Ford Model T, moved at a snail's pace. The volunteers had a standing joke that if you missed the T pulling out of the station you could always cycle after her and catch up on the first hill she came to. With fire engines the Brigade now could get from the fire station to the fire fairly quickly, but still a problem was getting the members to the station fast enough. Many still had to cycle or run when the fire bell rang. Mr. Royce Morgan said that the men would be so out of breath with the excitement and running to catch the engine that they never got their breathing back before they were at the fire. Then it was a case of gasping in smoke as they tried to fight the blaze, and it was also hard to locate the fires in those days.

Mr. Morgan had spotted one towards Bulltown once, but because of inefficient telephone systems and other problems it was so long before its true location was determined that the house had burned to the ground when the men arrived. Any telephone in the Brigade's protection area now can reach an exchange operator who quickly records the details of the fire, triggers the fire siren and notifies the station where the trouble is.

Today Waihi's number one machine, the big Bedford, equipped with a 600 gallon per minute pump, over 2600 feet of hose, modern fog nozzle jets and breathing apparatus, is rolling out onto Kenny Street a minute or so after the siren starts. The present Chief Fire Officer Des Robertson can site several recent incidents in which small fires broke out in Waihi's commercial area but were quickly extinguished after a prompt arrival of his men. Had any of these been allowed just 15 more minutes to grow, it could have been serious.

HIGH HONOURS ACCORDED WAIHI'S "MR. FIRE BRIGADE'

"Thanks, Mr. Fire Brigade', for a lifetime of service 24/10/26 - 45 years, 6 months 2 days - 26/4/70". So read a huge placard above the stage at the Memorial Hall, 1970, and all present to honour the retirement of Chief Officer E.R. (Royce) Morgan echoed the sentiment.

The Waihi and Waihi Beach Fire Brigadesmen had joined together to organise their first combined function, an enjoyable cabaret evening with Mr. and Mrs. Morgan as the guests-of-honour. When the official party assembled on the stage, the mayoress presented a sheaf of flowers to Mrs. Morgan, and the mayor, Mr. A.A. Thomas, in presenting Mr. Morgan with an illuminated address on behalf of citizens, paid tribute to the great voluntary service given in the best community spirit over so many years.

Mr. Thomas referred to the manner in which Mr. Morgan had always kept his fire-fighting knowledge up-to-date. It was a different proposition now from the old idea of putting the greatest possible amount of water on. He recalled, too, the very active help Mrs. Morgan had given in the setting on and turning off of alarms, and in many other ways, perhaps small in themselves, but of great help to the Brigade.

Mr. Blanchard Fisher, chairman of the Waihi United Urban Fire Board, presented Mr. Morgan with an attractive gold watch, suitably inscribed, and Mrs. Morgan with a transistor radio. An ex-fireman who had proposed Mr. Morgan into the Brigade over 45 years ago, Mr. Pat McLeay, presented Mr. and Mrs. Morgan with a substantial cheque as a tribute from the business people of Waihi. Many humorous incidents of their earlier years in the Brigade were recalled.

Chief Fire Officer, Des Robertson added his appreciation of "Mr. Fire Brigade's" service, which had included various offices such as: Secretary, Treasurer, Foreman and alarms attendant, among others. His 65th birthday in 1970 meant the end of a great service for "the chief" and a record of tremendous achievement. There were few Volunteer Fire Brigades who could claim 32 members and the Chief had always kept them active and happy. He left them with a new Fire Station, a modern engine, a keen interest in competition work, and all this had meant a great deal of work and effort, apart from his many other activities and organizing. On behalf of Brigade members he presented Mr. and Mrs. Morgan with an electric blanket each, a fine painting to Mrs. Morgan, and an inscribed transistor-powered wall clock to Mr. Morgan.

HIGHEST HONOUR

Mr. Jack Butland (representing the United Fire Brigades Assn. of N.Z.) called up to present a life honorary member's medal and ribbon to the retiring chief officer, said it was the highest honour any Brigade could confer, and the only way in which it could show the recipient the very highest esteem.

Replying to all speakers and thanking them sincerely Mr. Morgan said as far as the service rendered was concerned, it would not have been possible without Mrs. Morgan's help and interest not only in the home, but in the work of the Fire Brigade. "A fire brigade is not just the men that are in it - there are the fire women as well as the firemen, and we owe them a lot. They carry on despite many inconveniences, absences and irregular meals, among many things". Others to whom much was owed were those serving on Fire Boards, borough and county councillors, and employers who allowed men to leave their work and attend fires when the alarm sounded.

He was happy to be associated again on this occasion with Mr. McLeay, who had talked him into joining the Waihi Brigade. Reminiscences of those days were recalled by Mr. Morgan to the amusement of his listeners. He paid sincere tribute to the members of the Brigade for their excellent turn-outs "If you don't get a good alarm you can't do much to save a building" he added.

TWENTY VOLUNTEERS WHO ARE ALWAYS READY

At present these are the 20 men of varying ages and occupations who if possible at any given time and circumstance will drop what they are doing to gather with their equipment at the scene of a fire within a few minutes. Officers, with their years of services and occupation are: Chief Fire Officer Des Robertson, 23 years, baker; Deputy Chief Fire Officer Fred Carbutt, 37 years, salesman, (Mr. Carbutt will retire from Brigade service next March with a 37 years and three months record of service); Third Officer Jack Pattillo, 18 years, electrician; Fourth Officer Murray Pennell., 13 years, bus driver; Sub-Officer Gordon Cummings, 18 years, bus driver.

The firemen for the Brigade are: Jim Jesney, 22 years, electrician; Dave Seath, 22 years, furniture manufacture; Reg Bennie, 20 years, supervisor at Akrad Radio Corporation Ltd; Trevor Burton, 17 years, clerk at Akrad; Noel McKenzie, 15 years, butcher; Jim Measures, 11 years, carpenter; Howard Christensen, 10 years, contractor; Eric Christensen, 5 years, bus driver; Reece Ashby, 5 years, carpenter; Ross Robertson, 5 years, baker; Fergus Cummings, 3 years, panel beater, Peter McKenzie, 2 years, auto electrician, Jim Gurney, 18 months, radio technician, Rex Thomas, 18 months, butcher, Tony Savage, 2 months, cabinet maker and resident at the fire station.