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100 Years Ago: Kirribilli Point Woolstore Fire, 14 December 1921

This week we’re winding the clock back 100 years to the great wool store fire at Kirribilli Point, 1921. Wool stores were extremely vulnerable due to the bales of wool they housed as well as wooden floors that were saturated in lanolin. They were so flammable that the Goldsborough Mort wool store fire of 1935 was suspected to have been started by a single cigarette butt.

The Pastoral Financial Association wool store sat at Kirribilli Point, nearly opposite Circular Quay, and was recognisable on the harbour front by its lofty electrical advertising sign on the outside of the building. The eastern neighbouring building was Admiralty House, the Sydney residence of the Governor-General, and the northern neighbour was a residential block of apartments. The wool store was seven stories high, with a basement on the harbour side and a warehouse storing 30,000 bales of wool.

Photograph of the Pastoral Finance Association building, next to Admiralty House on Kirribilli Point. Taken by Milton Kent prior to December 1921. [State Library of New South Wales]

At 6am on Tuesday morning 14 December, 1921, residents of flats near the Pastoral Financial Association noticed the smell of burning wool. By 7am the smell had become overwhelming and just a few minutes later the flames broke through the first-floor windows of the wool store. The fire was burning strong when the fire brigade arrived, and soon after the whole building was an inferno. Fortunately, there was little wind at the time which caused the flames to shoot straight into the air and created a spectacle of billowing smoke. The event attracted thousand of onlookers. Fire brigades from around the city came to take on the flames and fire floats ‘Pluvius’ and ‘Hydra’ approached the flames from the waterfront. However, the pressure and volume of water that could be pumped onto the fire was lacking. It quickly became evident that there was little that could be done to save the building.

This if the Fire Float 'Pluvius' that was on site. Photograph taken 1908 [Museum of Fire Collection]

Soon after 8am, the walls of the wool store began to collapse. When the first section of the southern wall crashed down, the brigades on the fire floats had a narrow escape as bricks and ironwork fell into the water nearby. The northern wall followed and the debris obstructed Campbell Street. Large sections of the side walls collapsed too. A light westerly breeze started up at 9am which increased the danger for adjacent buildings. Groups of men from the Navy fleet, representing each warship in the harbour, quickly arrived at the scene of the fire to give invaluable assistance.

The neighouring buildings were at danger from the fire so bystanders, alongside the navy, helped the residents to move their furniture and to smother small fires that were starting from the embers. Two large residences on Campbell Street caught fire numerous times but were eventually overcome and put out. The most threatened home belonged to Mr. Robinson, the engineer of the Pastoral Finance Association.

A demolition party was also standing by but their service was not needed in the end. The fire burnt until the evening with dense clouds of brownish-grey smoke erupting from the building. There was little that could be done to put out the fire in the wool store.

The disastrous fire resulted in about £600,000 (approximately $49 million today) of damage, with £400,000 (approximately $32.8 million today) covered by insurance. The refrigerating and electric lighting plants were destroyed, cutting off service to many residents in the Milson’s Point area. Mr. Chilton Young, the general manager of the Pastoral Finance Association, lamented that 7000 of the bales of wool housed in the wool store were listed to be sold on the following Thursday, just two days later. They were all destroyed and the company was left with no wool to sell in the near future.

-Story by Museum of Fire Engagement Team


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