John Guilford was woken in the middle of the night. A volunteer firefighter, he could be called out at all hours.
He dressed and hurried out leaving his wife and three young children for a fire that had broken out on the barque The City of Newcastle on Wellington’s wharf in the early hours of August 22, 1872.
There were more than the obvious dangers. If the fire spread to the wharf or nearby ships it might be impossible to stop.
Guilford was part of the Central Volunteer Fire Brigade. They reached the ship first.
With his mate James Craig he hurried on to the ship. If they could stop the fire, the ship would not need to be sent out into Wellington harbour to burn.
The fire had broken out at the fore of the ship and was burning merrily by the time the two men reached the deck.
They hurried on, and in the dark, with smoke billowing, Guilford fell through an open hatch into the belly of the ship, breaking his back and dying.
He was the first fireman to die on duty in New Zealand.
At an inquest his death was ruled accidental but there was a great deal of criticism of the practice of having hatches open.
Only three months later The City of Newcastle ran aground on rocks of Wellington head.
Along with that was the arrest of John Ranie, sometimes Rannie or Rennie of suspicion of arson after two kerosene cans were found with holes made by a knife in them.
Guilford’s death shocked Wellington which put on a large funeral for him. As a mark of respect, shops and businesses closed for the day. Despite heavy rain, there was a procession of police, military, bands and parliamentary members.
Many officials, including the mayor, attended and money was raised to support John’s widow.
John Sydney Guilford was born on January 30, 1849 in Glebe, Australia to James and Rebecca Guilford. Both had been born in England and come to Australia in 1841.
He had married Frances McCafferty and had three children, John, William and Rosanna. He worked as a gardener when not fighting fires.
John was buried in the Bolton St cemetery, but now the site of his grave is not known. It may be he was one of those moved when graves were disinterred to make way for the motorway or that the plot was not recorded.
(We note that there is a John Sydney Guilford in the Karori Cemetery. He is the eldest son).
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