Historic Significance or Value
Whanganui’s Fire Watchtower (Former) has historic significance as a rare example of a late nineteenth century fire protection system that characterises the heyday of this form of fire protection scheme. Fire was a significant risk in early New Zealand towns and cities and Fire Watchtower (Former) is representative of the investment that many towns made to prevent loss from fire. Within thirty years of its construction the Watchtower’s alarm facilities were replaced with an electronic alarm system - a fate that eventually befell all nineteenth century bell towers and watchtowers in New Zealand. Whanganui’s Fire Watchtower has historic importance because is likely to be the sole remaining survivor in the country of this type of once common and essential civic structure.
The Wanganui Volunteer Fire Brigade, who fundraised for and operated the Watchtower, were an important late nineteenth century Whanganui organisation. Fire Watchtower (Former) has historic significance because it is a remnant of the last days of volunteer firefighting in Whanganui, the latter few years of its use seeing a change to paid firefighters in the town, a common occurrence in the early twentieth century in larger towns and cities. The Watchtower has importance because of its connection with this group who had members notable within the local community, such as the Watchtower’s builder Thomas Battle.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
Whanganui’s Fire Watchtower (Former) has aesthetic significance because it has been distinctive local landmark since it was built in 1891. Its prominence on York Hill strikes the viewer and engages interest when approaching Cooks’ Gardens. While it is a utilitarian structure, Fire Watchtower (Former) also has aesthetic value because its late Victorian design features are visually appealing.
Architectural Significance or Value
Fire Watchtower (Former) is a rare example of a once characteristic late nineteenth New Zealand structure. This substantial structure was built from materials typical of the time and retains a significant degree of authenticity, including its bell and watch-room, along with a high proportion of original fabric. Designed by prominent local architect Alfred Atkins and constructed by well-known local builder and designer, Thomas Battle, Fire Watchtower (Former) has architectural significance as an example of the work of construction professionals who had a significant influence on the built landscape of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Whanganui. The addition of the Post Office’s former bells, and the Watchtower’s transformation as part of a civic time-keeping structure, also has architectural value because it is symptomatic of the widespread removal of post office clock towers all over New Zealand after the destructive 1931 Hawke’s Bay Earthquake.
Technological significance or value
Fire Watchtower (Former) has technical significance as a rare surviving example of evolving fire detection and warning technologies. Technological developments included the connection of the Watchtower to Whanganui’s telecommunications system and the installation of an electric motor to aid bell tolling. This place also reflects how new technology brings obsolescence in its wake after implementation of the innovative Duplex alarm system in Whanganui led to the closure of the Watchtower for fire alarm purposes in 1922.
Social Significance or Value
The social significance of Fire Watchtower (Former) is demonstrated by the creation of a local trust to raise funds for its upkeep. While the structure is no longer used for its original fire protection purpose, the music of the bells is valued by the Whanganui community and the upkeep of this component has been a focus of fundraising and restoration.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
Fire prevention in nineteenth century New Zealand was a critical part of ensuring safety of life and property in towns across the country. Whanganui’s Fire Watchtower (Former) is an outstanding representative of an approach to fire prevention that was used throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. It is associated with the volunteer firefighting era in Whanganui and represents the end of nineteenth century approaches to fire prevention and related technology. Its later use in housing the former clock chimes from the Whanganui Post Office clock tower, connects with the nationwide response to building safety post-1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake, where numerous buildings, especially post offices, were modified to reduce risk to life in similar events. This change in use also links the structure with public timekeeping in Whanganui.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places
Fire Watchtower (Former) is a rare, and thought to be the only, surviving example of a fire alarm and prevention structure that was once common in towns throughout New Zealand. It retains a high degree of authenticity, retaining original fabric and remaining on its original site. This authenticity and integrity mean the Watchtower is an outstanding representative of this aspect of fire protection technology from the late nineteenth century.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area
Located within Whanganui’s Cooks Garden, the Fire Watchtower (Former) is a significant feature in this highly important civic and commemorative area. Many layers and aspects of Whanganui’s culture and history are represented in Cooks Gardens including recorded archaeological sites documenting a pā and early colonial usage, as well as buildings and spaces representing the park’s civic and social importance, the latter being specifically relevant to the Fire Watchtower (Former).
Summary of Significance or Values
Fire Watchtower (Former) has outstanding significance as a rare surviving example of a fire protection structure once found in many New Zealand urban centres in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fire was an ever-present danger in built-up places and firefighting infrastructure, such as watchtowers, were ubiquitous, critical and much-valued components of the civic landscape. Fire Watchtower (Former) has high authenticity and intactness values, making it particularly able to represent this facet of New Zealand history. It reflects evolving fire detection and warning technology and conversely, the impact of technological developments that rendered prior forms obsolete. It has garnered community esteem in its current incarnation as a bell tower, to the extent that a group has been formed to ensure its maintenance and restoration. Its landmark values have endured since it was built in 1891.
This historic place was listed under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014. Information in square brackets below indicates modifications made after the List entry report was considered by the Heritage New Zealand Board in December 2019.
The Whanganui region, dominated by the river of the same name, has a long history of Māori occupation. Te Awa o Whanganui (Whanganui River) has great cultural importance and was a major food resource and transport route. Its catchment area is recognised as the rohe of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, named after the ancestor Haunui-a-Pāpārangi. His descendants intermarried with Ngā Paerangi, the original inhabitants of the lower Whanganui River area. The three siblings Hinengākau, Tamaūpoko and Tūpoho are the guardian tūpuna (ancestors) of the river; Tūpoho is often associated with its lower reaches. Where Whanganui town now lies is the ancestral home of Ngāti Tūpoho, Ngāti Tūmango and Ngā Paerangi hapū, and was the site of a number of pā and kainga, including Pakaitore, Pukenamu and Patupūhou; the latter two of which were hills utilised strategically as fortified positions. Battles are recorded as having taken place at Patupūhou - now the location of Cooks Gardens - the last being a fierce conflict between taua (war parties) from Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Te Ātiawa.
Pūtiki fishing pā was established centuries ago on the lower river’s southern bank, near the future site of the Cobham (State Highway 3) bridge. By the 1830s Pūtiki-wharanui was ‘the developing window for Whanganui iwi on the wider world … a point of contact with visiting Europeans’. The first Pākehā that Whanganui Māori met were traders, in 1831 and then 1834. In the late 1830s further European contact took place with missionaries from Anglican Church Missionary Society.
The area also came under scrutiny by the New Zealand Company when they were planning settlements beyond Wellington. The initial purchase of the Whanganui block progressed in 1839 between the Company and a small group of chiefs from outside of the large tract of agreed land. Because it was a pre-Treaty of Waitangi purchase, the Government was obligated to later investigate the transaction. This process began in 1843 and the New Zealand Company’s purchase was largely considered invalid. However, the sale of the land near the mouth of the river, which eventually became Whanganui, was deemed legal, despite opposition from local Māori that led to a series of skirmishes, and the installation of stockades in the settlement.
The development of the town was closely linked to its port, which was established only a few years after the New Zealand Company ventured into the area. In 1855 Whanganui became a Port of Entry and a significant trading centre. By this time, the town and farming district’s population had consolidated, numbering nearly 700 people.
Prior to the installation of the Fire Watchtower (Former), its site had been a military stockade, constructed to house the 65th (Yorkshire) Regiment in 1846-47. The military were in the area to support British settlers in their disputes with local Māori over land purchases. York Stockade was the second stockade in Whanganui (after Rutland Stockade), and it was completed by mid-May 1847. A plan of the stockade noted the place as being formerly called Patūpuhou fortified pā. York Stockade was used mainly as married quarters after the 1840s, and briefly used again to house regiments in the early 1860s. The site of the stockade was a government reserve [named ‘Cook’s Gardens’ since at least 1842, when it was recorded on a New Zealand Company map. It was most likely named for British navigator James Cook]. In 1866 the government decided to put its stockades and land up for sale. The York Stockade buildings were removed after 1871 when they were sold at auction.
Early firefighting and fire protection
The story of fire prevention and suppression in Whanganui is a tale of struggle, perseverance and innovation, especially in the town’s early period. As with all nineteenth century settlements in New Zealand, the threat of fire in Whanganui was a constant concern. Buildings at the time were predominantly made from timber, with an absence of town planning and building regulations meaning that streets were often narrow, and buildings crowded together. Cooking was typically over open fires or sometimes in an oven and lighting was provided by candles, or oil or kerosene lamps. Construction could be often rudimentary, and makeshift. The situation was one where any fire could pose swift and serious risk to life and property. It is not surprising that fire brigades, often voluntary groups, were some of the earliest civic institutions that were established in nineteenth century towns in New Zealand.
Whanganui had the earliest organised firefighting system in New Zealand, dating from late 1846. Troops stationed at the stockades were organised to respond to the alarm of fire, albeit with buckets and ladders. However, in 1858 they became the proud owners of a manual fire engine, imported directly from England. The fire picket (soldiers on duty mustered for firefighting) and fire engine was not only deployed on military property - much of their firefighting effort was expended in Whanganui itself.
By the mid-1860s Whanganui still had no formal volunteer fire brigade, despite it being a flourishing town with a population of around 2000. By 1866, seven other towns had established volunteer fire brigades, including the comparatively young Westland goldfields centre of Hokitika. The situation in Whanganui changed in June 1866, when a meeting of householders decided to formally establish a brigade and procure a fire engine. As with most fire brigades at the time, the Wanganui Volunteer Fire Brigade (WVFB) was a voluntary organisation and heavily dependent on donations to cover equipment and other running expenses.
After managing to muster a group of willing volunteers, the brigade entered a period of hardship, struggling to respond to fire calls efficiently through lack of equipment and difficulties staying financially solvent. The lack of support from insurance companies and the town council led to the WVFB threatening to disband on several occasions. After promised donations came to nothing, in early 1869 the WVFB was in such straits that it made a public plea in the press for financial support. The inevitability of the military leaving Whanganui made the WVFB even more important. These efforts bore fruit - in the middle of 1869 two fire engines were on their way to Whanganui and fire response was also boosted that year through a fire police auxiliary unit being set up. There was even talk of garnering subscriptions for a new fire bell, to supplement the small one on Rutland Stockade. However, in early 1870 there were again threats in the newspapers of the WVFB disbanding and the fire engines being put up for sale.
Despite these financial woes, a new fire bell arrived in mid-1870 and was promptly erected in front of their engine-house. In 1874 the WVFB decided that a night-watchman was also necessary and subscriptions were sought to fund the position. Insurance companies and the town council all supported the role and one was appointed. The duties of the night-watchman included patrolling the streets and helping to collect subscriptions from townsfolk to support the brigade.
As was often the case in New Zealand at the time, the eventual occurrence of a significant fire motivated Whanganui’s town burghers to provide proper support to the brigade. The large blaze on Victoria Street, on the 25 March 1875, saw six premises destroyed. The utility of the fire bells was questioned, as was the effectiveness of the brigade. After the fire, a meeting was called between the WVFB and insurance company representatives to put ‘…the Fire Brigade in a more satisfactory position for effective service’. An outcome of the meeting was a promise to petition the town council for support to purchase a new fire bell.
By the end of April 1875, Whanganui’s mayor had ordered a new bell from Melbourne, Australia. A few months later reports noted the rapid construction of a bell tower at Rutland Stockade (aka Rutland Hill). While the new bell was in transit, the brigade’s existing bell was positioned in the new Rutland Hill bell tower. The new bell was duly installed by year end, just in time to ring in 1876, observers noting: ‘…the new fire bell rang out its notes “wild and clear” which floated far away o'er hill and dale’. The first time the fire bell was rung in alarm was on 7 March 1876, resulting in a chimney fire being swiftly extinguished.
The bell and tower were just one fire protection measure the town council embarked on at this time, the other significant one being reticulated water, which had been planned for some time, and the addition of standpipes and hydrants in the streets for firefighting. The WVFB settled into a period of usual business, responding to fire calls, collecting donations, and improving plant and equipment. In 1878 there was talk of stationing the nightwatchman at the Rutland Hill bell tower, but the brigade was not in favour of the idea.
At the end of the 1870s the brigade instigated an improved system for communicating to firefighters where fires were. This new approach saw Whanganui divided up into wards with different patterns of bell tolls being code for which ward a fire was in. Along with this system of conflagration location, the WVFB developed plans to connect the Rutland Hill bell tower by ‘electric communication’, using telephone wires, and a system where the alarm bell could be rung from the foot of the hill on Ridgway Street.
In 1882 plans were also progressing to build a new fire station, which was completed in 1883. In this period the brigade also enjoyed sustained support from the town council and could afford improvements to their gear. They also planned a night-watchman’s room for the top of the Rutland Hill bell tower. While the whole town could not be seen from this vantage, the WVFB determined that most fires had occurred in the belltower’s proximity, so this location was best. These plans were realised by July 1883. The new watch-room was connected to the WVFB’s existing telecommunication system. The press of the day reported very favourably about the improvements, deeming them a great credit to the town and the brigade. Within a few years of the watch room being added to the watchtower the brigade was reporting the decaying state of the tower, but they had no funds to repair it.
The Fire Watchtower and fire protection from the 1890s
By 1889 it was feared that a strong wind would topple the Rutland Hill watchtower over. Therefore, the WVFB set to canvassing the town for donations for a new tower, a task that extended over the next year and a half.
The cause was helped when plans for the Fire Watchtower were drawn-up, free of charge, by prominent local architect Alfred Atkins (1850-1919). Between May and June 1891 there was a surge of public support to the fundraising campaign, meaning a call for tenders could be made. Initially the plan for the new tower was to erect it near the existing one, on Rutland Hill. By the end of the tender period however, another site had been chosen on a nearby prominence, York Hill. This had also been the site of a military stockade and provided a better vista across the town.
The tender for the erection of the Fire Watchtower was awarded to builder (and later architect) Thomas H. Battle (1860?-1930). Battle was also a long-standing member of the WVFB. Construction began in mid-July 1891, timber being supplied by the Sash and Door Factory, and carted to site by a horse team. By the start of August the Watchtower was completed, albeit in a slightly modified form from Atkins’ original design, to fit the budget of £150. The main fire bell (1875) from the old Rutland Hill watchtower was installed on site, and the new Watchtower was connected into the existing telecommunications system.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were relatively uneventful for the WVFB, the regular routine of maintaining readiness in plant and personnel, and gear improvements predominating Brigade business. In 1897 the telephone system between the Watchtower, two stations and the Captain’s house was upgraded, with the new German equipment requiring improvements in ventilation of the watch-house.
The Watchtower soon became a landmark in the town, prominent in images of Whanganui. The bell was used to mark all manner of civic occasions, such as the beginning of the commemoration cortege for the funeral of the well-respected premier John Ballance (1839-1893) in 1893, the memorial service for King Edward VII in 1910, and commemorative events associated with the cessation of First World War hostilities. It was also tolled in May 1915, as part of diversionary tactics in an attempt to break up a jingoistic anti-German riot in Whanganui, sparked by news of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, which saw shops destroyed, property looted and violence.
Of note for the WVFB in later years was the purchase of Australasia’s first self-propelled steam fire engine in 1903. More sub-stations were added to the brigade’s property, consisting of a shed, hose reel and associated attachments, and a bell. In 1914 an auxiliary brigade to the WVFB was formed at Wanganui East.
The decade from 1914 would see major change for the WVFB as a group, and for fire protection in Whanganui. The main catalyst for change was a major blaze on 21 February 1918, the Foster’s Hotel fire. The hotel and the premises of the printing firm of A. D. Willis were destroyed, with significant damage to adjacent buildings. While it seems the fire had a good hold of the building by the time the WVFB arrived, a lack of water pressure, several burst hoses, a kinked hose, a split hydrant, and almost losing the steam fire engine to fire as well, led some of the loss to be put down to brigade ineptitude. The WVFB came under much criticism, and after a report from a special Mayoral committee highlighted lack of finances and equipment, and poor firefighting techniques, as contributing to the property loss the town council decided to establish a Fire Board under the Fire Brigades Act 1907. This decision would replace the volunteer firefighters with permanent staff and the WVFB ceased to exist in late July 1918.
Under the guidance of the new Wanganui Fire Board (WFB), several improvements occurred. One of the first was to install an electric motor at the Watchtower, to assist the night watchman in tolling the bell. Further improvements also ensued: the WFB appointing a unit of paid firefighters, renovating the Hill Street Fire Station, planning and tendering the construction of a new fire station, ordering a new fire engine, bringing equipment up to date, and ordering a new fire alarm system.
This programme of modernisation had a direct impact on how the firefighters were alerted to fire. A new Duplex alarm system, developed in New Zealand by a firefighter in Dunedin, was introduced for use via 30 street level call boxes to raise the alarm directly at the station and all the information about the call boxes’ location was transmitted too. This alarm system was installed in many major towns around New Zealand in the early twentieth century, making many bell and watchtowers redundant. This was also the case in Whanganui; with the installation of the new system the Watchtower, bell, and night watchman were last used for fire protection on 3 April 1922.
The later years
The location of the Watchtower on a reserve no doubt led to its retention, as well as a change of use. In 1933 it had a new lease of life. As part of a nationwide risk reduction strategy after the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake, post office clock towers were being dismantled across New Zealand, including Whanganui’s one. The loss of the civic timepiece was sorely felt, and a replacement service was devised. The bells from the clock were hung under the Cooks Garden’s former Watchtower, with the electric chiming mechanism housed in a small shed, also under the tower. The chiming mechanism was connected to clock faces in the town.
The Watchtower has been maintained in recent years through the efforts of the ‘Friends of the Bell Tower Trust’ with work on the restoration of the chiming mechanism during 2009. The bells and structure continue to be maintained by the Whanganui District Council. Fire Watchtower (Former) remains a prominent landmark in central Whanganui.
Whanganui’s Fire Watchtower (Former) is located in Cooks Gardens. This is a well-recorded archaeological area and is the home of a number of important civic facilities and sports grounds. Many sites in Cooks Gardens have been identified as having heritage values, including the Boer Memorial (List No. 972), Golden Gates (List No. 984), Ward Observatory (including Telescope and Mounting) (List No. 160), Whanganui Opera House (List No. 169), as well as it being site of Peter Snell’s world record sub-four minute mile in 1962, the Ladies Rest Building, York Stockade and Patupuhou Pā.
The Watchtower is situated on a flattened platform on top of York Hill - a position that once commanded a wide view of Whanganui. The vista from the Watchtower is somewhat obscured by trees around the hill’s eastern side. Beyond its utility as a watchtower, its prominent location meant that it is a distinctive and enduring landmark, able to be seen from the town and surrounding areas. This part of York Hill is the last surviving section of the York Stockade and the earlier pā.
At the time of construction, the Watchtower was described as:
…composed of picked totara timbers fitted into solid concrete blocks. It is 45 feet high, the watchman's tower being about 30 foot, while the tower itself is octagonal in plan, 20 feet across the base, 9 feet at the apex, and 15 feet across the balcony. The watch-house is 8 feet octagonal, and 8 feet high, its door opening on the balcony, and every side having about 8 feet square of glass, thus giving an uninterrupted view of the whole circle of the most populous part of the town. Thorough ventilation is provided, the arrangements for lighting and heating are by gas, and the roof is a hollow cone, to be finished with a finial and vane. [The painting is to be in white picked out with flesh or pink colour]. The bell hangs pitched under the centre of the watch house, its mouth being about 25 feet above the ground, and arrangements have been made for the watchman to give the alarm without leaving the tower.
The Watchtower is a timber-framed structure with cross-braced legs, approximately six metres high with eight sides. As described above, they support an octagonal balcony and watch room. The former watchroom has a concave corrugated iron roof, which is topped with a finial and weather vane. The Watchtower’s windows have been boarded over in timber. A flue for ventilation from the gas heating or the telephone system that once projected from the roof has also been removed.
Two offset ladders provide means of access to the tower. The lower one does not reach the ground, presumably for health and safety and security reasons. This lower ladder replaced a set of stairs that originally went up the centre of the structure to a small balustraded landing. The ladder extends to a partial platform directly under the fire bell, from where the upper ladder was used to access the balcony and watch room. Potentially the stairs were removed in the 1930s to accommodate the installation of the clock chimes and control mechanism. It is likely that the upper ladder is original.
The 1875 fire alarm bell hangs directly underneath the watch room. A set of four bells from the former Post Office tower are hung under the fire bell in 1933, and at the ground level the electric chiming mechanism is housed in a small shed in the centre of the Watchtower structure. A modern security camera has also been installed on the exterior of the watch room.
Comparison of historic images with the current structure reveal that the physical integrity of the Fire Watchtower (Former) is high, with minimal modifications. It still houses the original fire bell, and later addition or removals have not significantly impacted the original fabric.
Fire bell- and watchtowers in New Zealand
Fire watchtowers and bell towers were very common structures in nineteenth and early twentieth century townscapes, purpose-built to assist with the task of fire protection in urban settings. Almost without exception, if a town had a fire brigade there would have been a fire bell tower somewhere near to the fire station. The fire bell alarm was often supplemented by other privately-owned bells at hotels, churches or other civic institutions such as schools or police stations.
Bell towers and watchtowers had much in common, the watchtower often serving as both bell tower and watchtower. They had two slightly different roles, the bell tower alerted firefighters to muster so they could fight a fire and warned residents of the fire. Watchtowers were not as common as bell tower and usually only occurred where a town employed a night-watchman. A watchtower was a place of work, a room for the night-watchman to reside in to keep his nocturnal vigil over the town.
There are very few original bell towers or watchtowers left in situ in New Zealand. Most bell towers and watchtowers were part of fire stations or built adjacent to fire stations, and when stations were upgraded, the towers were often removed. Bells also became redundant, as technology improved with use of telephone alerting and with the advent of electric sirens that were able to be triggered remotely. There is at least one example of a watchtower built into a fire station in the country, namely the Pitt Street Fire Station in Auckland (built in 1912, later St John Ambulance National Office, List No. 117). There are several replica bell towers housing original bells, but few original fire bell towers remain. Of all the early fire alarm infrastructure, it is often fire bells only that survive, such as at Rangiora Fire Station and Ikamatua Fire Station. The Whanganui Fire Watchtower stands out as probably the only example in New Zealand of this once ubiquitous type of urban fire protection structure.
Fire Watchtower completed
Electronic bell mechanism installed
Alarm and night-watchman replaced by Duplex street fire alarm system
Chimes from Post Office clocktower installed
Timber; iron fixings; corrugated iron
Public NZAA Number
8th November 2019
Report Written By
Barkla, Bryan, Wanganui Fire Brigade – 150 Years of Service, Wanganui, Wanganui Fire Brigade, 2016
Kirk, Athol L. and Bryan H. Barkla, Wanganui’s Finest – 125 years of Firefighting in Wanganui, Whanganui, Wanganui Fire Brigade Jubilee Committee, 1991
McLean, Gavin, New Zealand Tragedies – Fires and Firefighting, Wellington, Grantham House, 1992
A fully referenced proposal summary report is available from the Central Region office of NZHPT.