top of page

The First Chief Firefighter - Superintendent William Douglas Bear

Portrait of Superintendent William Douglas Bear [Museum of Fire Collection]
Portrait of Superintendent William Douglas Bear [Museum of Fire Collection]

This year marks 140 years of continual service to the community by Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW). In highlighting this milestone, let’s go back in time to one of its first leaders. In 1884 FRNSW was known as the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and whilst it was governed by a board, the chief firefighter in charge was known as the Superintendent and the first Superintendent was William Bear (1884-1898). Let’s take a look back at his history and his pivotal leadership which has shaped the fire brigade into what it is today.  

William Douglas Bear was born April 1849 in Woolwich, England. At 14 years of age, he joined the Royal Navy, serving for 5 years. At the age of 23, Bear was accepted into the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and from here his long lasting and impactful career truly began. As a Fourth Class Fireman he commenced service at Wattling Street Fire Station in London. During his first year he would be assigned to oversee the wheeled fire escape during a particularly dangerous fire, which resulted in a commendation for his life-saving actions and bravery, ultimately receiving the Life-Saving’s Society medal.

Bear held various roles and titles through his 15-year-long career in the London Fire Brigade. He rose to the rank of Third Officer and Engineer, eventually being recommended by Eyre Shaw Massey (London Chief of the Fire Brigade) to become the Superintendent (later known as Chief Officer) of the Sydney Metropolitan Fire Brigade (later known as NSW Fire Brigades, NSWFB and then today known as FRNSW).

Arriving in Sydney in June of 1884 the first and most difficult task Bear faced as the Superintendent was addressing the tension between the Insurance and Volunteer Brigades which already existed. Historically the two branches disagreed, despite their commonalities, but Bear brought them together to form a united functional brigade under the umbrella of the MFB. Bear’s goal was to bring the cohesive structure and experience demonstrated by the London Fire Brigade at the time into the MFB In Sydney, overall improving their ability to save lives.

Glebe Fire Station, an example of a Fire Brigade from the late 1800s under the command of Superintendent Bear, c. 1892 [Museum of Fire Collection]
Glebe Fire Station, an example of a Fire Brigade from the late 1800s under the command of Superintendent Bear, c. 1892 [Museum of Fire Collection]

During his career Bear was outspoken and passionate in promoting fire prevention and safety measures, being a strong advocate for policy and legal reform around building codes and the powers vested in firefighters to aptly protect the community. Bear was suitably appointed as Kerosene Inspector in 1886, gaining the authority to inspect properties on the storage and usage of kerosene, as well as the kerosene itself, recommending improvements and prosecutions according to the Kerosene Act.

In addition to this, Bear was also focused not only on prevention, but also on the education and training of members of the Brigade, as well as their own protective equipment. An example of this is Superintendent Bear being the first Australian to test the recently patented smoke protector helmet in April of 1898, standing in a room filled with sulphur, cayenne pepper and straw smoke to determine its abilities and uses for the Sydney MFB.

Superintendent Bear was also known for being very against the trams and telephone wires that ran through the streets of Sydney due to their tendency to obstruct the use of wheeled fire escapes. Additionally, these also proved a risk to firefighters for the fear of being electrocuted which Bear was passionate about avoiding and mitigating. Disseminating this information, as well as facts regarding the difficulty to operate one and the appropriate crews being costly, caused wheeled escape ladders to be less widely adopted in Sydney. Usage did start to pick up, however, when the issue with overhead telephone wires was eliminated upon them being installed underground.

Building fire with escape ladders in use, c. late 1800s [Museum of Fire Collection]
Building fire with escape ladders in use, c. late 1800s [Museum of Fire Collection]

Famously within the mythology of Bear’s level of efficiency he brought to the brigade is a tale which was written in the Sunday Times Newspaper from 1920, a tale which recounts the growth and development of the brigade under his command. The tale goes that one night in a public place he voiced the opinion that the MFB in Sydney was equal to any brigade in the world, including the firefighters in New York which were considered to be the best of the best. A few Americans overheard Bear’s boast and laughed at him, considering him a fool. Bear would insist that they follow him to the closest street alarm which was just outside the building and called on one of the men to set off the alarm. In fear of being gaoled for wrongfully pulling a fire alarm they hesitated but Bear assured them they would be fine as he was the Superintendent. They pulled the alarm and almost instantly fire engines, steamers, salvage wagons and hook and ladder carriages swamped the place with lines of hose out and ready to go. Naturally a crowd of spectators formed creating a rather large demonstration of the prowess of the MFB. The Americans were astonished, claiming to have never seen anything like it and insisted that the fire station must be only around the corner for them to be so quick. Bear, quick on his feet called a cab and directed him to the fire station proving just how far it truly was from where they were demonstrating just how effective the MFB was.

Upon the resignation of Superintendent William D. Bear in September of 1898, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade said goodbye to the man that got them up and running in an efficient and cohesive manner. Bear served his 14 years as Superintendent with passion for fire prevention and a high regard for the safety of all firefighters, bringing about legal reforms and improvements in technology and equipment.

-Story by the Museum of Fire Heritage Team


bottom of page