top of page

From Fire Station to Café

During History Week earlier this month we shared our first " digital day". With a lot of people unable to travel and limits on the amount of people we can have on site at the moment we had to look at new ways to engage with everyone. One of the things we did during our digital day was to share some history about NSW's oldest fire stations. If you missed out don't worry as we will share some of these pieces that were put together by our heritage team over the coming months.

No. 1 Volunteer Fire Station, Haymarket
No. 1 Volunteer Fire Station, Haymarket is a café today

Today though we are going to share the history of NSW's oldest, still-standing (albeit no longer active) fire station.

Centrally located on Pitt Street in Haymarket, Sydney, many locals walk past this building unaware of its historical significance. Today, the building has been adapted for re-use as a café and is aptly named the ‘Fire Station Café’. Separate stables were originally positioned behind the station, but they have since been demolished.

The Story of the Australian Volunteer Fire Brigade Company No. 1

No. 1 Volunteer Fire Company, c. 1854
No. 1 Volunteer Fire Company, c. 1854

While the Haymarket fire station is the oldest surviving building, the history of its Brigade dates back to 1854. It was this year that actor Andrew Torning took up the lease of the Victoria Theatre in Pitt Street, Sydney, and established a formal Volunteer Firefighting Brigade to protect the building (an act which was common practice at the time as the insurance companies refused to insurance theatres, breweries and printing presses). Without a centralised Fire Brigade in Sydney many businesses that were considered a major fire risk had their own brigades and appliances, more commonly known as fire engines. There had been an appliance at the Theatre as early as 1844 however Torning purchased a new one after he took over the theatre, with the intention of forming the first “professional” Volunteer Fire Company in Sydney. This brigade was known as the Victoria Theatre Company.

This was made possible in 1857 when the Brigade relocated to the specialised Haymarket fire station and was renamed the Australian Volunteer Fire Brigade Company No. 1. These changes were brought about due to public support of the Brigade. In March 1868, the Brigade was officially renamed the Royal Alfred Australian Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 in recognition of its new patron, Prince Alfred. The Brigade operated out of the Haymarket location for almost thirty years, before it was disbanded in 1886.

Though the brigade was registered with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) in 1884, the new governing body for fire brigades in Sydney, like many other volunteer companies the brigade was unable to maintain the requirements put in place by the MFB for active fire brigades. This was why Torning’s brigade folded and the station ceased to be used.

Changing with the Times: The Afterlife of the Fire Station

In 1901 (fifteen years after the disbandment of its Brigade), the Haymarket fire station was purchased by the Australian Gas Light Company (AGL). The use of the building was irregular. Records show that up until about 1920 it was let out to the produce store which occupied the neighbouring premises. In 1975 the Commonwealth Government purchased the building as part of their redevelopment scheme and restored the building, adapting it for its current use as a café. It was during these renovations that the belltower was reconstructed, and the building was returned to its former glory.

Like many Australian businesses the current owners of the café have struggled during this pandemic. We thank them for allowing us access into the old station for our research and if you are in Sydney we recommend popping into this historic building for a coffee.

Sydney's Haymarket area today v. the 1870s.
Sydney's Haymarket area today v. the 1870s.

Andrew Torning (1814-1900)

Before we conclude this first instalment of our digital day for History Week 2020 we thought we should talk a little bit about Andrew Torning as his name often comes up in relation to early NSW firefighting history.

Andrew Torning, c. 1880
Andrew Torning, c. 1880

Andrew Torning was a central figure in Sydney’s early firefighting history and was an advocate for Volunteer Fire Brigades. He took an active role in the development of additional Volunteer Brigades throughout the City, including the Hook & Ladder Company (formed 1877) which he commanded by trumpet (Torning’s trumpet is located at the Museum). This brigade is notable as it is one of the first references to a brigade existing with the sole purpose of being a rescue organisation. While other fire brigades set about putting out a fire this Hook and Ladder Company would rescue those trapped within. Torning had spent time in San Francisco, USA and this was where he witnessed this type of brigade in action. In Sydney the Hook and Ladder Company only lasted until 1884, disbanding after the formation of the MFB.

Torning became the first volunteers’ representative on the Fire Brigades Board in 1884 but failed to be re-elected in 1886 at which point most of the brigades he was associated with also disbanded.

Andrew Torning played a major role in “professionalising” volunteer firefighting. Though his brigades were manned by volunteers he implemented practices by which they trained and operated like their counterpart professional bodies. In many ways this paved the way for the duel permanent-retained ranks of Fire and Rescue NSW that we see today.

Torning's Trumpet at the Museum
Torning's Trumpet at the Museum

​We hope you enjoyed this snapshot into some of Sydney’s early firefighting history. It is through the physical buildings such as the Haymarket fire station that we remember these stories.

For the complete story please visit:

-This history has been compiled by the Museum of Fire's Heritage Team

1 Comment

Interesting article thank you. Andrew Torning was also an artist. He painted the famous Skinners Arms Hotel, still there opposite Wynyard Station at the corner of George and Hunter Streets, Sydney. The watercolour is in the Dixson Library at the State Library of NSW, Sydney.

Dr. Keith Vincent Smith, Emeritus Curator, Library Council of NSW.

bottom of page