Saturday night at the Barker's house in Upper Barry Road, Waihi had been busy and noisy with the comings and goings of family life. It was May, 1920 and Thomas Barker had gone to town with his two eldest children leaving his wife, Beatrice, to settle the four youngest. But then came a call to help a sick neighbour some distance away. After some hesitation and indecision Beatrice set off through the night to aid her friend, leaving 12 year old James in charge of his siblings - Jack, 8, Clarence, 6, and little Iris two years and 10 months.
A little before 10pm James, who slept in the same room as his two little brothers at the back of the house, was woken by smoke and heat. He heard Iris crying out. On opening the passage door he was forced back by flames. In a half-suffocated state he succeeded in getting his brothers out through a window to safety.
He then made frantic efforts to reach his sister who was in the front room by herself but he was beaten back by intense heat and flames. A desperate James climbed out the window and ran down the road to raise the alarm at the nearest fire box. A gale was blowing and the fire brigade were taking a terribly long time to arrive; the house was meanwhile an inferno.
The brigade had turned out promptly but collided with a straying cow on the way. The engine was damaged to such an extent that it was impossible to proceed in it to the fire.
After a considerable delay the brigade arrived at the fire in a private motor car but it was too late.
Iris was discovered in the smoking ruins. She had got out of bed and attempted to escape, but had collapsed in a corner of the room.
The Barker's residence and contents were completely destroyed by the fire. They were also under-insured. Worse though was the loss of Iris - the second of their children to die within a year. Arthur Eric Barker, known as Doughy, the fourth son of Beatrice and Thomas, had died of spinal meningitis at the age of eleven. Much sympathy was expressed to the bereaved family now suffering a second loss.
Newspaper headlines reported "Baby trapped in flames" and "Little boy saves brothers."
The coroner, Mr Wallnutt, made some very pointed remarks about cattle wandering in the streets at night. It was a public danger and must be stopped, the Ohinemuri Gazette growled. "We have the same to put up with here (Paeroa)."
At the inquest the coroner praised young James Barker for acting heroically and urged some recognition be made of the bravery he had shown. Touching on the accident to the fire engine the coroner said it had in no way attributed to the death of the child. It was clear little Iris had died even before the alarm had been given.
Iris is buried at Waihi cemetery in a grave I couldn't locate. Probably the marker afforded by the large family with little money for insurance was wooden and is long gone.
A firebox was a box on a lamp post which, in a fire emergency, had its glass smashed by a member of the public. A signal was sent to a switchboard operator who directed a fire engine to the address indicated by the location of the signal. This new system of street fire alarms was invented by a member of the Dunedin City Brigade in 1913 and was used in New Zealand for the next 50 years. In the late 1970s some towns still relied on it.
Source: Papers Past, NZ Fire Service, Sir George Grey Collections AWNS 1905076-16-2
© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2015