Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Great Fire of Brisbane, 1864

Four years before Prince Alfred’s visit, much of the business area of Brisbane town was in ruins following the disastrous fire in December 1864.

Queen Street before the Great Fire

Earlier in the year following a previous fire, a correspondent to the Brisbane Courier bemoaned the lack of fire fighting facilities in the town.[1]

Sir, - What would the nations of the earth think if they knew that in the chief city of the colony of Queensland there is not a properly organised Fire Brigade, neither paid nor voluntary. There is a fire engine certainly, such as it is, but it is a miserable affair, compared with those made in America, though I have no doubt it has cost as much money.

19th Century Fire Cart

The great fire this morning tells a tale which should not be disregarded; some fine buildings have been thoroughly burnt down, to say nothing of the contents, most likely of far more value. Will not the government and the city council bestir themselves, so that this city shall be placed in comparative safety from fire?
Most respectfully,

It seems that scant notice was taken of this resident, for a much larger fire broke out on the night of the 2nd of December, for which the residents were ill prepared to offer much resistance despite a volunteer fire brigade being established.. 

The Brisbane Courier reported:[2]



Last evening will be long remembered in the annals of Queensland, as the date on which occurred one of the most disastrous and crushing conflagrations that ever brought ruin and desolation on a town. Indeed, it would be almost impossible to convey with the pen anything like an adequate idea of the exciting and appalling scene, which certainly beggared description. 

Sketch of the Great Fire

At all events, the whole of the business premises and private residences which occupied what may fairly be considered the most valuable site in Brisbane, were, in a couple of hours, reduced to a heap of ruins, in spite of all that could be done by hundreds of willing and courageous men to stay the fearful progress of the devastating element.

Blame was quickly levelled at those in power.

It is to be hoped that our civic functionaries will for once see the necessity of merging their petty differences into a determination to take such immediate steps, no matter at what cost, as will for the future prevent the recurrence of a calamity which, although greatly to be deplored is little less than might have been anticipated from the shameful apathy and neglect which has been manifested by persons in authority on the subject of the prevention of fire. A disgrace has fallen upon our city which will not be wiped out for many years.

The events of the night were described in detail.

About twenty minutes to eight a blaze was observed in the cellar underneath Stewart and Hemmant's store. The name of the individual who was first to perceive it we were unable to ascertain, but the news was quickly conveyed to the police station, and the fire bell pealed forth loud notes of alarm. The whole of the available force at the station was quickly on the spot, and the doors of the doomed building were broken in when it was found that the whole interior was one vast sheet of flame, and that any attempt to save more than the merest trifle out of the valuable property which was being destroyed would be labour in vain.

Milton Volunteer Fire Brigade

William Hemmant, partner in the drapery business of Stewart & Hemmant, takes up the story. [3]

On the evening of the fire I left business a little after 6 o'clock, and rode home to the other side of Spring Hill; after tea I rode into town, and after talking to you (the coroner) for some minutes we heard the sound of the fire-bell, which I imagined was calling the brigade to exercise; however, as it continued ringing, I got on the horse and rode into Queen-street, and asked a constable where the fire was; he said, "At the corner," and continued to run up the street.

On reaching the corner I saw a light in the back part, and some men in the act of breaking the back door of the cellar open; as soon as it was opened I saw there was no chance of saving anything in that direction; I then went round to the front, and found the shutters just burst in; I then said to some of the men who were inside, "Let us try to save the books," and went into the office for that purpose; the office was so full of smoke that it was impossible to remain there more than a few seconds at a time ; and, not having the key of the safe, I was obliged to give up hopes of saving the books.

I then endeavoured to save a small drawer in the office-table, containing papers, but was unable to do so; a man in the crowd said," Show me where it is, Mr. Hemmant, mid I will try and get it;" he succeeded in doing so, and handed it to me; I took it into the street, and then took it to Mr. Bernays' house; on my return I found there was no chance of getting anything else out; I could do nothing else; but I produce a plan of the building, if that would be of any use to the jury.

The Courier Mail correspondent was on the scene.

A number of men got up on the roof of the two small shops occupied and kept as an oyster saloon by Mr Williams, with the intention of pulling them down; and could they have succeeded in doing so in a very short space of time it is probable that the further progress of the flames might have been avoided. 

As might be expected, the excitement became intense, crowds of people, men, women, and children were arriving rapidly from each quarter of the town and the wild   shouts of the men, the frightened aspect of the women, and the cries of children, together with the ruin-strewn streets, and the fearful havoc-making flames created a tout ensemble[4] which it is indeed difficult at all faithfully to portray.

Desperate attempts at limiting the spread of the fire continued into the night, but to little avail.

The flames continued to spread onward, apparently gaining strength in contempt of the puny resistance offered to their might, until at half past eight o'clock advantage was taken of a temporary lull caused by the non-inflammable character of the roofing of some of the shops, to make one more vigorous effort to save the more valuable properties further up the street by pulling down the premises occupied by Mr. Lenneberg, and known as the Cafe de Paris. It was too late, however, as before the men could more than partially demolish the structure the fire was upon them.

Queen Street after the Great Fire

The scene that met the citizens of Brisbane as the sun rose was devastating.

YESTERDAY morning, at dawn of day, the scene of the late fire presented a desolate appearance. The site on the previous day occupied by a long line of shops, which, if not particularly handsome or imposing, still were the centre of the retail traffic of Brisbane, was nought but a smoking heap of ruins. Occasionally, when a burnt through beam gave way, a dull hollow sound of falling bricks might be heard, raising a cloud of dust, and inducing wonder on the part of the listener as to whose premises had received the coup de grace.

Those left to guard the remains of the many businesses which had been levelled were less than diligent.  In fact they made themselves as comfortable amidst the ruins and helped themselves to restoratives kindly spared by the conflagration.

Judging from the appearance and demeanour of the guardians of this heterogeneous mass of goods, the responsibility conferred upon them had induced thirst, in their natural desire to quench which as speedily as possible the absence of water had overcome their repugnance to fermented and spirituous liquors, and the consequence was, that neither they or their firearms were for any length of time in a position that would excite much admiration in the mind of a martinet.

To say they were drunk would be a base libel, but they might be described as suffering from weakness in their knees caused by their excessive exertions during the night, and also a bronchial affection, which rendered their articulation somewhat obscure-a misfortune doubtless to be assigned to a similar cause.

The amalgamation of sufferers was also something remarkable. Here a grimy fireman might be seen sitting on an old barrel, with his feet on a quantity of haberdashery, fraternising with a clean policeman, whilst some distance away several dirty-looking guardians of the night mingled with anything but cleanly red-coats, whose rifles held at all sorts of angles, looked very much like going off-too much so, indeed to render their vicinity pleasant.

There was only one vigilant watchman who decline offers of the freely available refreshments.

A solitary volunteer kept watch and ward opposite Messrs. Morey and Forbes' drapery establishment. The individual referred to was deaf to all the blandishments which were temptingly placed before him, in the shape of illicitly obtained beer, porter, or champagne, as to partake of them would have necessitated his departure from his post. He marched on his beat with as much circumspection as if he were on parade, and many attempts to get him to disobey orders were made in vain. 

There is little reason to doubt that any of the property confided to his care has been injured or in any way interfered with. If the circumstances were not of such a depressing character, some mirth might have been extracted from the strange manner in which the goods of the various sufferers had been thrown together. Kid gloves, oysters, lavender water and polonies[5], were the absurdly miscellaneous contents of one basket whilst salt beef, champagne, and crinolines filled a large barrel.

Thanks Notices in the Brisbane Courier
As dawn broke, the business proprietors arrived to claim what was left of their goods. It seems that a gallows’ humour prevailed amongst the hardy colonists.

Shortly after six o'clock, drays began to arrive and the owners of the property commenced the difficult task of searching among the various heaps for their furniture. By this means the whole of the damaged stock-in-trade and furniture was removed from the street before sunset yesterday; and we understand that many of the persons who were burnt out have already secured premises in which, without any extra ordinary delay, they will be able to commence business once more. 

Others are less fortunate, and, although treating their trouble lightly during the day, towards evening it was easy to notice that some slight amount of despondency prevailed in spite of the effort to vest it under a somewhat transparent screen of jocularity.
That such should be the case is scarcely to be wondered at, indeed, the equanimity with which some of the greatest losers appeal to regard their losses is somewhat remarkable.


A week later the police reported that suspicions for the source of the fire fell upon a known gang of idle youths.[6]

We have been informed that the police have succeeded in obtaining a clue to the origin of the late disastrous fire, which, it appears, was occasioned by the carelessness-to use no stronger term-of a number of young blackguards, who were in the habit of assembling at Stewart and Hemmant's corner every evening. Some few minutes before the fire was observed, about half-a-dozen boys, whoso ages ranged from eleven to seventeen years of age, were lighting pipes and cigars at the back of Stewart and Hemmant's cellar, and the lighted matches were thrown about in the most indiscriminate manner. 

The whole of the party then adjourned to the yard at the back of Mr. Mayne's shop, and shortly afterwards the fire was seen to break out. It was evidently regarded as a bit of fun, several of the youngsters remarking what a good job it would be if the whole row of wooden shops was burnt down. The police have vainly endeavoured to obtain sufficient evidence to warrant them in initiating a prosecution, although the whole of the parties are known.

Then again it could have been the mice:

A Suggested Cause of the Great Fire

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2011.

[1] The Brisbane Courier 12.4.1864
[2] The Brisbane Courier 2.12.1864
[3] The Brisbane Courier 2.12.1864, testimony to the Coronial Inquest.
[4] all together (French)
[5] Bologna sausages.
[6] The Brisbane Courier 17.12.1864

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