Hastings had the unenviable nickname of the "town of blazes" around New Zealand due to fires which used to break out with regularity in the central business district (CBD).

On one occasion in May 1907, a large blaze occurred in the Heretaunga St West 100 block – just over the railway line at Williams and Kettle's buildings.

The water supply in the tank near the railway line ran out, so the firemen connected a fire hose to a sewer manhole over the railway line in Heretaunga St East.

Just as the firemen had the blaze under control pumping by sewage onto the blaze, a train was due to leave the station.


Railway officials refused to hold the train up, and threatened to go over the hoses unless they were removed. The hoses were removed, and the train and 35 trucks passed by.

The process of disconnecting the hoses, letting the train pass and reconnecting the hoses took 15 minutes – in which time the fire flared again and destroyed the neighbouring Bank of New Zealand (same position as today) and other buildings nearby.

It would take a further 21 hours to bring the blaze under control.

Not surprisingly, the Hastings Borough Council didn't want to see headlines such as "Another fire in Hastings", so they had enacted in 1899 a brick by-law, which meant all new CBD buildings had to have external and dividing walls of brick and mortar, but not wood.

So, as buildings burned down – and most of them did, such as in 1907 – they were replaced with brick and mortar.

Ferro-concrete, or reinforced concrete, which is concrete reinforced with steel, made an appearance in the Hastings central business district in 1907.

The Hastings Standard was quite excited about ferro-concrete, and exclaimed that its arrival in Hastings was "another epoch in the history of its progress".

It also said that ferro-concrete might become such a popular method of building that the term "brick area" might be replaced with "ferro-concrete area".

During the course of 1907, two ferro concrete buildings were being built – shops and upstairs showrooms in the Heretaunga St West 200 block to be known as the ferro-concrete buildings, and a set of offices in Queen St East to be called the Dominion Buildings.

The shops were being constructed for James Nelson Williams, who before his Frimley Estate was cut up, owned about half of the Hastings CBD.

An Australian company, called the Ferro-Concrete Company of Australasia, was undertaking the construction for James.

The building would have steel rods buried in the cement, and would "as nearly as possible be earthquake-proof and fire-proof".

There would be no bolts, with the steel parts all being "firmly bound together" and "the roofs, floors, and staircases are of the same formation".

What was unique about the construction of James Nelson William's building was that it was reportedly the first ferro-concrete building to be erected in New Zealand (the Port of Napier had a wharf constructed previously by this company).

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This did cause some confusion about how to sign-off the plans at the Hastings Borough Council's engineering department, as they weren't acquainted with the strength of ferro-concrete buildings.

At the same time as the shops in Heretaunga St West and Dominion Building were being built, others building had decided against ferro-concrete and built in brick – all of these would fall down during the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake.

The ferro-concrete method disappeared in Hastings during the 1910s – including for the Municipal Theatre (which was badly damaged) – with the Municipal Buildings being one exception.

In the mid-1920s, ferro-concrete buildings became popular again throughout New Zealand and about a dozen were built in Hastings.

The ferro-concrete buildings in Heretaunga St West easily survived the 1931 quake, with even the large decorative façade remaining intact.

One of the rooms upstairs caught fire, but as it was supposed to do – confined the fire to this room only. The facade was later removed. These buildings remain today, as do the Dominion Buildings in Queen St East.

• I am taking pre-orders for Historic Hawke's Bay due out in late November, which is a collection of my best HB Today articles from 2016-2018, with additional photos. The book has 160 pages, with 32 in colour. Cheque of $59.90 to PO Box 8947, Havelock North. Free delivery until November 1, 2018.

• Michael Fowler FCA (mfhistory@gmail.com) is a chartered accountant and contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.