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Special Edition History Week Blog! From the Ground Up - Sydney's Earliest Fire Protection

The 1820s in Sydney

Before we begin an exploration of Sydney’s fire protection in the 1820s, let’s set the scene.

The year was 1821, 200 years ago, when the first steps were made to ensure Sydney’s protection against fire. Two appliances were purchased by the authorities and by the end of 1821, they had arrived in the colony.

The year, like most before it, brought great change to the colony. Amongst other things, the Australian Magazine made its debut, Australia’s greatest export was wool, and the female factory at Parramatta was created. Indeed, we cannot forget that Sydney was still a penal colony.

The Governor was Lachlan Macquarie, and we all know just how influential he was on the future and establishment of the Sydney colony. His tenure ended on 1 December 1821 when he was replaced by Thomas Brisbane. This is when the story of the military brigade really begins.

It was on 15 January 1822 that one of the new appliances was first put to the test when a minor fire occurred at the military barracks. Luckily this was just a small chimney fire, but it is the first recorded instance of an appliance being used in the Sydney colony.

Sydney Convict Barracks, c. 1819 by G.W. Evans (State Library NSW)

Despite being the best appliances in the colony, they had to be pulled by hand and were considered inadequate for the needs of Sydney. Luckily there were few instances that the appliances had to be used by the military.

We know that the water supply in Sydney caused major problems and though Sydney is girt by sea, accessing water in the centre of town in the case of a fire was not easy. In fact, in 1827 there is no mention of the appliances or the military turning out to assist in a fire. Rather, the police were noted as having to descend on the scene to hold off looters.

This may well be the reason why a decade later, in the early 1830s, a building was erected at the Police Station to house the fire appliances. This was considered to be a more central location than the military barracks and coincided with major progress in making water more accessible across the city.

The 1830s in Sydney

During the 1830s, Insurance Companies began to establish businesses in Sydney. There was a lot of talk about these companies creating fire brigades like they had overseas in places such as England and America. For this reason, there was public pressure for the companies to take the lead and for the fire appliances of Sydney to be transferred to their custody.

During this time, fire brigades in London were prided on being able to be at the scene within 5 minutes of the bell being sounded however, in Sydney, it took the military brigade approximately 30 minutes to arrive at a fire, at which time it usually had taken hold of most of the building.

View of Sydney from Bunkers Hill, c1820 by Richard Read Snr (National Library of Australia)

1833 Ship Fire - The first major incident of fire reported

The first real incident we know of that involved the fire engines being used was on 30 November 1833 and this was to aid in a ship fire. Even though the brigade were delayed in responding, their efforts were admirable.

The Captain Alexander was docked at King’s Wharf and whilst offloading her cargo suddenly exploded. The force of the explosion caused the entire ship to become engulfed in flames. News reports state that the fire engines arrived shortly on the scene with a military guard and a number of police officers to preserve law and order whilst the soldiers battled the growing blaze.

Despite the efforts of the soldiers, they were unable to save the brig and within minutes fragments of the brunt wreckage were floating all over the harbour, causing massive issues to the safety of shipping in the area.

The fire spread to a nearby schooner, the Ann Jameson, whose crew members were injured in the initial explosion. On the wharf, two premises caught fire, and the staff of the customs house rushed to assist the soldiers. Thanks to their efforts, the fire was contained, and no further damage on land was seen.

Two hours after the brig caught fire, it filled with water and sank. The explosion was attributed to gun powder that was stored on the vessel. At least seven lost their lives on the brig, including the chief mate, carpenter, cook and four seamen. On the Ann, one seaman succumbed to the injuries he received in the initial explosion.

Recreation of historic firefighting to c. 1840 with the Tily appliance (Museum of Fire Collection)

1837 King Street Fire

The next major fire to make the news reports occurred a few years later, in December 1837. In this instance, at about 12:30 am on Saturday 2 December 1837, fire was discovered behind George and York Streets, between King Street and the Barrack Lane. The origin of the fire was Mr. Hosking’s surgery, and it soon spread to two nearby properties. There was great fear that the fire would spread to all of the buildings within the vicinity and so all residents were quick to remove their possessions from the path of the fire.

The military brigade was on the scene within thirty minutes, however, given the location one would assume they should have been there a bit quicker. Despite this, they were noted as working well, and it was highlighted that they had a new fire engine.

The soldiers managed to stop the spread of the fire, but they received criticism across all news reports. Some of the main grievances were their response times but also that if the conditions were not favourable, such as strong wind or low water supply, the soldiers were very ineffective. For this reason, the desire to have Insurance Fire Brigades in Sydney, like those in London, were highly sought after by the public.

The 1840s in Sydney

By the start of the 1840s, it was unclear who was officially responsible for Sydney’s public fire protection as it was the now numerous Insurance Brigades who were the first on the scene attending fires. In the latter years of the 30s, and especially in the start of the 40s, the number of Insurance Brigades grew exponentially, as did the number of volunteer fire brigades. These volunteer brigades were established largely in response to the fact that most insurance companies would not insure theatres, breweries, or printing presses as they were considered too great a fire risk.

Though Sydney was now home to an increasing number of fire brigades - who was officially responsible for Sydney’s fire protection, and where was the military brigade?

1840 Royal Hotel Fire

On 18 March 1840, the colony faced its largest fire ever, and it was all hands to the pumps. This included the insurance brigades, local citizens and military brigade. The behaviour of the military was not commendable, and this only helped seal the deal that the military were not the best option for the colony’s fire protection.

The fire began in a building adjacent to the Royal Hotel in George Street and was caused when a man fell asleep with a light by the highly flammable straw. About 1 am he awoke to find fire all around him, and despite efforts to extinguish the flames, it spread. The military response was immense, with 150 soldiers on the scene, but most turned up in various states of dress, and it was reported that many looted from the burning buildings instead of battling the blaze.

Both the military fire engines were at the scene, as were at least three others from the Insurance Brigades. The fire continued to spread, and soon the police were on the scene to assist, as were 300 convicts brought down from the barracks.

No effort could save the Royal Hotel and the theatre which was contained within.

King Street in Sydney, c. 1843 by Frederick Garling (State Library NSW)

The main outcome of this fire was that locals had little faith in the Insurance Company, as it seemed should fire occur again, they would be up for a big bill. At this stage the Insurance Company didn’t blink too hard as, to be fair, they were just known as the “Life Assurance Company”.

The following year the insurance company bounced back and adopted a new name, “Fire and Life Assurance Company”. Expenditure towards establishing a fire brigade and obtaining better appliances was undertaken to the cost of £91, 17, 6 for the engine and £54, 2 for the new brigade. By July, the appliance had arrived and was to be stationed at the extremity of the colony on the wharves. Meanwhile, a second as to be purchased to be placed at the other extremity. At this time, buckets were in this place.

The End of the Military Brigade

In 1844, the question of who was in charge of managing Sydney’s fire protection was put to bed when the City established its own brigade with Thomas Bown as the first fulltime and qualified firefighter to be employed in Sydney.

Though it can be argued that the military brigade was not very effective, they were Sydney’s first coordinated attempt for fire protection. Everything has a starting point, and this “brigade” (I use that term loosely as they were simply soldiers tasked with fire protection in the case of an emergency) literally began Sydney’s fire protection from the ground up. What they established and were part of cemented the foundation for where Sydney’s fire protection would develop into the future.

The first horse drawn appliance to be built in Australia, 1867 (Museum of Fire Collection)

As a unit, the military brigade existed for less than twenty years as they were replaced by new brigades who were more efficient and better trained in the task of firefighting. Despite this, the military has a long association with the NSW Fire Brigades that would continue even after the military brigade ceased to exist.

The future of Sydney’s fire protection changed from this point onwards, with it becoming increasingly more professional. In 1884, the management of Sydney’s fire brigades would shift from the city to the state with the introduction of the Fire Brigades Act and the creation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Today this brigade is known as Fire and Rescue NSW.

-This blog has been compiled to accompany the History Week keynote presentation by Museum of Fire CEO Belinda McMartin. To view this presentation please click here.


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