Thursday, September 10, 2009

The loud crackling of the fern -- fire in Auckland, early 1840s

George Thomson Chapman, from 1875-1876, sent a series of letters of remembrances to the editor of the Southern Cross under the heading "Old Identities". Chapman died in 1881, a noted early bookseller in Auckland, publisher of the original "Colonist" newspaper, and also founder of the Mechanic's Institute in Dunedin. This is an excerpt from one of his letters, published 10 July 1875.
About the earliest recollection is a little incident that happened while the surveyors ware laying off the Queen-street town sections. They were chaining and pegging what was then a dirty swamp behind the old Supreme Court site, and as they were very much impeded by the raupo in the swamp and the high fern on the banks of the creek, they took the opportunity of the wind blowing from the north, to set fire to it and thus more expeditiously clear the way before them. But scarcely had the fire fairly caught when the wind came round to the southwest, or right down the creek towards the infant city. It spread rapidly along both sides of the creek, and widened right and left, causing consternation in the little community. All hands (there might have been about 50 or 60) were out at once on the alarm being given by the suffocating clouds of smoke; and spades, picks, oars, and poles— the first thing that offered handy was snatched up, and off they went to fight the flames.

The dense cloud of smoke from the damp stuff on the margin of the creek, the loud crackling of the fern, and the pistol-shot-like sound of the raupo as it swelled with the heat and burst, was followed by a report that there was a large quantity of gunpowder in the wooden building on the beach (this was used as a Government store at this time) when the greater part of the inhabitants took to their heels and did not stop till they were well round Smale's Point. A few good and true men stuck to it, got to windward just in time to save Terry's tent (the large one under the tree) by dashing the fire out with long poles, and while engaged doing this discovered that the flames had caught some spouting that was lying alongside the stores just landed a few days from the 'Platina.'

The spouting was saved, and the store escaped with a good scorching, as some of the Government stores inside were found very much damaged by the fire. One man, a young man, then distinguished himself so much during this first scare, that Governor Hobson took the first opportunity to thank him for his bravery, and to tell him that he was proud that there was an Englishman in the settlement who could do his duty so manfully. The brave Englishman is now mine host of the Queen's Ferry Hotel, Vulcan-lane, and, as is often the case when some great work or some brave action has been done by an Englishman, it turns out that he was, as in the present case, only a Scotchman [John Robertson].

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