Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mt Eden Burning Man - "ze Germans" (or bored kids) invade Auckland

In May 1919, the Peace Celebrations Committee built a huge wooden tower at the top of Mt Eden, one of a series of huge bonfires that were set up in towns and cities around the country.  The plan was to set the tower alight to celebrate the German signing of the peace treaty at Versailles.

Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-1515C

The 100ft high tower was built of eight pine saplings, within which was tightly stacked pine, gorse, fern and wood along with twenty barrels of tar and large quantities of kauri gum.  The plan was to hang effigies "of the Kaiser and others" at the top.

Unfortunately the lighting didn't go as planned.  On the evening of 22nd June, a bunch of "larrikins" snuck to the top of Mt Eden and lit the tower on fire, which quickly burned the whole structure down after the wind changed.  Crowds rushed up to the site to see the blaze, yelling and cheering as each support fell to the ground.

The peace treaty with Germany wasn't signed till the 28th June.

C Hudson, The Mayor of Mt Eden, claimed the burning was "pro-German" elements in Auckland looking to destroy the celebrations on the basis that the average "larrikin" wouldn't be out when it was raining, but others just claimed it was kids.  "Mr H D Heather 'The question is are we going to let the pro-German beat us?' (laughter)".

Anyway, the organisers weren't taking any chances.  The tower was built again, accompanied by day and night patrols, of returned soldiers, a barbed-wire entanglement and even a temporary guard-house (which you can see in the picture above).  They topped this all off with a searchlight that they could use to target anyone planning to sneak up at night-time with a flame.  Over the next few weeks the defences were breached and a few people caught, but as the guards found they didn't have any legal authority they had to let the suspects go.  This upped the stakes.  The guards were sworn in as special constables, given rifles and ammunition and given the power to arrest on sight.

The gossip and letters to the editor ran hot with comments for the next few weeks, with many people suggesting the money should probably be given to war orphans or returned services causes.

The "official" bonfire itself happened at the official Victory Day celebrations on the 19th of July (official programme) - going without a hitch in front of a crowd of thousands...

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