top of page

"At the beck and call of the Fire God" - A look at Chief Officer Frank Jackson

Frank Jackson’s early life:

Frank Jackson was born in 1864 in England, roughly two hours outside of London. Jackson had an adventurous spirit, one that could not be tamed, and at the age of 11 he left home to make his way to Liverpool where he found employment as a ship’s boy. This escapade, however, was short lived and six months later Jackson returned home. Nevertheless, the sea still called to him, and it wasn’t long before he attempted the sea fairing life again- this time as a proper sailor. Jackson would spend the next eight years at sea roaming the world until the day that he pulled into Circular Quay where he finally found the land that he called home.

Settling in 1883, Jackson worked as a driver for a few years before applying to become a firefighter at the behest of an old friend. Jackson was accepted into the Metropolitan Fire Brigade as a probationary firefighter on 7 February 1889. Soon after joining the brigade, he gained the nickname ‘Peter’ in reference to Peter Jackson, an Australian heavy weight boxer. Peter Jackson was described as ‘the best fighter who never got a shot at the world title’. Due to his infamy, the nickname of ‘Peter’ stayed with Frank Jackson for the remainder of his career.

 Portrait photograph of Frank Jackson. Sitting at a table wearing his fire brigade uniform, with a brass helmet on the table next to him
Portrait photograph of Frank Jackson. Sitting at a table wearing his fire brigade uniform, with a brass helmet on the table next to him, Museum of Fire collection

Early Career, Before Chief Officer:

Thanks to Jackson’s time as a sailor, he had learnt the discipline and skills necessary to work as a team, helping him fit in perfectly as a firefighter. As a result, it didn’t take long for Jackson to begin climbing up the ladder. Only a year later, in 1890, Jackson was put in charge of the establishment of the first 12 fire alarms in Sydney along with his colleague at the time, Mr Ford. The pair had their own workshop at Headquarters where they experimented and studied fire alarms before they installed them around the city. From there Jackson continued to steadily move along the promotional chain as he became an Assistant Officer in 1896. In 1898 he was promoted to Officer in charge at Woollahra Station and then only 10 months later in 1899 he was elevated once again and became the District Officer for Central.

Sketch of Chief Officer Frank Jackson, Museum of Fire collection
Sketch of Chief Officer Frank Jackson, Museum of Fire collection

During this time The Sun reports that he was heavily

involved with the Ville de Ciotat fire, a steamer that caught ablaze in Circular Quay on the 29 July 1908. According to the reports, Jackson, with only a respirator and a hose, went into the storeroom of the steamer which was the cause of the inferno. The stairwell leading down lost all integrity and Jackson fell into the centre of the flames. Covered in fire and nearly suffocating on the smoke, Jackson, with all his strength, leapt to grab hold of a fallen beam, but it was just out of reach, and he fell back down into the heat. He managed to gather enough strength for a second attempt where he was successful, grabbing hold of the beam which pulled him out of the direct flames. His fellow firefighters came and helped rescue him out of the steamer. Jackson was always considered a leader who led by example with the Sunday Times quoted as saying, “many of them [firefighters] often went through the thickest fire merely because he officially said the word as he led the dash through the flames.”

As the action orientated leader that he was, his career only continued to develop. In 1910 he became the right-hand man of the Second Officer as the Divisional Officer. Three years later, after the sudden passing of the Chief Officer Alfred Webb, a shuffling of those in command lead to Frank Jackson becoming the new Second Officer on the 1 April 1913. A month later, in May of 1913, the title of Second Officer changed to Deputy Chief Officer.

During his time in office as Deputy Chief Officer, Jackson was involved in the Industrial Workers of the World organisation (IWW) trial in 1916. Twelve members of the IWW were charged with treason, which was linked to 18 fires. Jackson was asked to provide his expert opinion on the legal case. In 1919, Jackson and his superior Chief Officer Sparks were awarded the Kings Police medal (later revised to be the Kings Police and Fire Service medal in the 1940’s). From late 1918 to early 1919 the Spanish Flu epidemic was taking the world by storm with Sydney not under any exception.

a general view of “Pluvius” Fire Float, 1908. Ken Magor Collection No. 135
A general view of “Pluvius” Fire Float, 1908. Ken Magor Collection No. 135

The Quarantine Station built on North Head was constructed to handle incoming overseas passengers to minimise the spread of the Spanish flu. The effects of a quarantine process would soon be felt by our Deputy Chief Officer, as in late 1919, a vessel caught alight at the Quarantine Station. Nine firefighters, including the Deputy Chief Officer himself, responded to the blaze via the fireboat Pluvius. After four hours the flames were finally contained, however, it would not be for several hours after that that the blaze would be extinguished. As a result of coming in contact with the crew onboard the ship, all the fire crew were forced to quarantine for seven days under direction of health authorities. Jackson was not so pleased as he is quoted saying, “if the matter [the Spanish flu epidemic] had been handled sensibly in Sydney, there would have been more firemen available during the past week to deal with recent city fires.”

Leading the Charge as Chief Officer:

On the 1 January 1922, Frank Jackson became the first Chief Officer who began as a probationary firefighter in the NSW Fire Brigade. Interestingly, all previous Chief Officers were brought across the pond from the London Metropolitan Brigade. Jackson would hold the position for the next six years until 31 December 1928, when he retired from service after being a part of the Brigade for 39 years. Within his first year as Chief Officer, Jackson improved the efficiency of the uniform factory and introduced boot manufacturing in house. By 1924 Jackson had replaced all horse-drawn vehicles within the Sydney Metropolitan area with motorised fire engines. At various stages the names and system of rankings were altered with ‘officer in charge’ abolished and replaced by ‘sub-station officer’.

One of the biggest changes was the introduction of the Senior Firefighter rank in 1925. A humorous account by The Guardian shared, “Senior firemen are appointed from the men of at least 10 years' service who possess two good service badges. The trouble is that they are all becoming so proficient through study that the board is worried they may resign and become university professors.” Following on from this in 1926, an educational syllabus with accompanying classes and an instruction manual were produced to help further train and professionalise the Brigade. In 1928 one of the most substantial changes that occurred was the implementation of the ‘2 platoon 84-hour week’ work system, which was a major improvement to the quality of life of firefighters. This change meant they were now able to spend more time with their families and no longer needed to live in close proximity to their fire station as they were free to live wherever in the district. In his final year as Chief Officer, the Fire Brigade was now larger than ever with over 92 officers and 506 firemen in the Sydney District alone.

- Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team


bottom of page