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In Commemoration – Looking Back 100 years Ago to William Brown


Turning back the clock, we begin in the 19th century with William Hamilton Brown born in Darlinghurst in 1897. Living most of his life in Wentworthville, which at this point in time, considered the westernmost fringe of the Sydney area. In 1914, Brown joined the 10th Australian Service Corps (ASC), which was a militia unit. Shortly after in 1916 at the bright young age of 18 and 2 months, Brown enlisted into the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) as a part of the ASC attached to the 33rd infantry battalion.

Picture of William Brown, Museum of Fire Collection 
Picture of William Brown, Museum of Fire Collection 

The Trials of WWI

Brown began his first lot of training out at Liverpool in southwest Sydney. A few months later on 4 May 1916, his unit sailed to the United Kingdom. During further training at Larkhill Salisbury Plain, Brown was exposed to simulated conditions of the trenches of France and Belgium. The training consisted of physical trials, route marches and ambulance work, which took place over 3 months at Larkhill Salisbury Plain.

In November 1916, Brown was sent to France to join the war effort where he served in the 9th Field Ambulance of the 9th Brigade, 3rd Division. By 1917, he was promoted to the rank of Driver within the Field Ambulance unit. Brown went on to witness many infamous battles such as the Battle of Messines in Belgium, the Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux and the Battle of Hamel. Brown served until 12 August 1918 at which time he was admitted into the casualty clearance station due to appendicitis. As a result, he was sent back to England to recover, and this is where he spent the remainder of the war. In honour of his tremendous efforts to the war, he received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. In 1919, Brown boarded a ship, working on it as a member of the nursing staff, which took him back home to Sydney, Australia.

The British War Medal (left) and Victory Medal (right), Image from Ian Grimwood
The British War Medal (left) and Victory Medal (right), Image from Ian Grimwood

His Time as a Firefighter

Brown joined the New South Wales Fire Brigades in 1921 and served as a third-class firefighter. On 27 August 1922, at 3:38pm, Sydney headquarters received a fire call to Adams Café on George Street. By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, the flames were roaring from the rooftop and licking from the windows of the 6-storey building. Brown climbed up the ladder of the fire engine along with his colleagues Leonard Chapple and Charles Dwyer. Ascending the ladder in that order, Brown was on the nozzle of the hose whilst his fellow comrades supported him. The ladder was extended to around 20 metres in the air (60 feet). Brown, needing both his hands to hold onto the hose, strapped himself to the ladder by his belt, his other colleagues doing the same. Firing around 500 kPa (70 psi) of water pressure from the hose they began the effort to extinguish the fire. From this, the ladder started to give, swaying 60 centimetres (2 feet) to the left and then rebounding back to the right. This was not unusual of wooden ladders as they had a springy quality to them. The ladder began to sway again, however, this time it did not rebound, and the ladder snapped cleanly in half. The three firefighters fell, with Brown landing on the rooftop of a nearby building, Chapple landing on a nearby veranda and Dwyer grabbing hold of a wire which slowed down his descent to the ground. Brown and Chapple were admitted to Sydney Hospital for their injuries, although, sadly, Brown was unable to survive from the injuries he sustained and passed away shortly after arrival.

Chapple made a full recovery, with himself and Dwyer returning to service as soon as they were able to. All three of these men were true representatives of selflessness, putting others before themselves and determined to assist those in need regardless of the hardships they had endured. The firefighters shared a strong sense of camaraderie, with Brown and Chapple both players in the firefighter's soccer team. William Brown, especially, will be remembered as a hero who risked his life for lives of others. We remember and pay our respects to William Brown, and other brave firefighters alike, who have lost their lives on duty.

- Story by the Museum of Fire Heritage Team, In Collaboration with Ian Grimwood


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