Early on the morning of August 7, 1866, a devastating fire swept through what was then McGee’s Hotel on the corner of Collingwood and Bridge Streets and spread to more than a dozen residences.
But, at the time, Nelson had no fire brigade to fight the blaze.
As a result, the Nelson Volunteer Fire Brigade was established, and this weekend the Brigade is celebrating an impressive 150 years – which has seen four different stations, 22 chiefs, and countless hours of service from dedicated fire fighters.
From small beginnings, the Brigade was first housed in a tiny station in Harley Street, with equipment consisting of just hook and ladders and hose reels that had to be manually drawn. This has progressed over the years to horse-drawn reels, to a vast range of motor-driven vehicles.
In 1868 there was a move to a bigger station in Harley St, next to the police station, which served the Brigade for more than 60 years. A replica of this station can now be found at Founders Heritage Park.
In 1933 the Nelson Fire Board was formed – meaning the word “volunteer” was dropped, and it was shortly after this, in 1935, that the Brigade moved to a significantly larger station on Halifax Street.
This station served the Brigade for 58 years, until it shifted to its current St Vincent Street location in 1993 – which at the time, was the most modern and up-to-date station in the country.
Local retired fire-fighter, Bob Finlayson, spent 22 years in the Nelson Fire Brigade, starting out in 1965. His son Rick is now a senior fire-fighter at the St Vincent St station, and Bob says they are just one of many families who have served in the Brigade.
Bob, who still proudly fits into his old jacket, says the Halifax St station holds many memories for him, which housed around 12 staff when he first started out there.
“There are a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories, of course” says Bob, who recalls the old ‘Dennis’ engines like it was just yesterday. I remember going up Queens Drive in one of the old engines to attend a fire and being passed by a kid on a push bike – then the engine would backfire, so we didn’t even need to put the sirens on,” he jokes.
Other ‘famous fires’ during Bob’s time in the service include the Russell Manufacturing Co fire in May 1975, the Hira fire in February 1981, which destroyed 850 hectares or bush and raged for three days, and the Redwood College fire in May 1983.
As part of the 150 year celebrations this weekend, there will be a reunion dinner, as well as an open day for the public on Saturday 24 September from 10am – 1pm, at the St Vincent Street station, which will include displays of old fire engines and the duty crew in action.
Entry is by gold coin donation with proceeds going to the Rescue Helicopter Trust.