Welcome to the first post in our new Curator’s Blog series! As a curator I oversee the display and care of the Museum’s collections, including the library and archive as well as the objects. Each day is different, but my role (usually) involves researching and processing donations, improving collection documentation, and producing information for display. Today I will be introducing a recent donation that piqued my interest, the USA-made Western Electric wall telephone from Her Majesty’s Theatre.
The Western Electric Wall Phone from Her Majesty’s Theatre
Owing to its central location in Quay Street, Her Majesty’s Theatre (formerly named “Empire” when it opened in the late 1920s) had a direct phone line to the New South Wales Fire Brigade (NSWFB) Watchroom at Headquarters Fire Station.
The wooden Western Electric wall telephone with transmitter and receiver was used frequently by the Theatre to make routine contact with the Brigade and notify them of potential fires. At the beginning and end of each service, Her Majesty’s Theatre staff would phone Headquarters to report the name of the performance and number of attendees. This information would then be recorded by Brigade personnel on watchroom duty.
The Museum’s current display of the Headquarters switchboard demonstrates the link between the Theatre and Fire Brigade, as under one of the shutter boards you can view the name of the Theatre, along with other prominent buildings in central Sydney.
The Headquarters Switchboard at the Museum shows the link to Her Majesty's Theatre.
Her Majesty’s Fire, 31 July 1970
Ironically it was around three weeks after this telephone system was removed (and replaced by a 1970s sprinkler system) that Her Majesty’s Theatre was consumed by fire.
In the early hours of 31 July 1970, Headquarters and 9 inner-city stations were alerted to the fire at the Theatre. Although their response was rapid, and they were equipped with three motor appliances and one set of ladders, the flames gripped the structure. There was a brief opportunity to enter the building, but a firestorm and explosion in the auditorium forced the firefighters to retreat. Soon after, the auditorium roof collapsed which further fuelled the fire. The mixture of oxygen, dust and unburnt gases provided the perfect condition for a bomb-like explosion, and in an instant, Her Majesty’s Theatre was razed to the ground. Surprisingly though the stage area survived virtually unscathed. It was this area, and this area only, that had been fitted with the automatic sprinkler system which had replaced the direct phone to NSWFB Headquarters.
Thank you for reading! If you have any further information about our collection items, or requests for what you would like to hear about next, please send through an email or give us a call. Alternatively, you can also log in and leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you!
-Laura Anderson, Museum of Fire Curator